It’s a day that will probably be seared into my memory till the day I die, a day which sparked a fire of enthusiasm and passion for adventure; the day I fell in love with mountains, the Highlands, and winter climbing. The moment of Damascene conversion, when I decided that I wanted to spend my life exploring mountains occurred during climbing the last few meters of a steep snowy grade I gully on the north side of Liathach, a sandstone colossus in Torridon.
It was all a new experience, the excitement of climbing the firm neve with walls of back rimed rock towering above on either side, working slowly up, towards a clean, sharp dichotomy, as the white of the gully met a slot of blue sky. Those final few meters were a stunning contrast, emerging from the narrow defile of the gully onto the summit ridge and into an immense feeling of space. The Highlands were spread out before me, under a brilliant blue sky snow capped mountains stretched away to the horizon in all directions, great towering castles of Torridian sandstone steep, and seemingly impregnable, yet here I was standing on a gossamer thin ridge, dancing above the Earth as the south face of Liathach fell away steeply into the valley.
Although now fifteen years ago I remember it vividly, perhaps it’s all the sharper because I have no photographs of the day to dull the ardor for the memory, nothing to suggest that in reality perhaps the sky was not quite so blue, or the snow not quite so brilliantly white. For a first experience of winter climbing I could not have asked for more, yet I was to learn quickly that such days are rare, the Highlands in winter are fickle, and for every perfect day the great engines of ocean and atmosphere that drive our weather deal many Jokers from their pack.
That day in 2002 we did not actually climb either of Liathach’s two Munro summits Mullach an Rathian and Spidean a’Choire Leith, but traversed the ridge to the eastern top of Stuc a’Choire Dhuibh Bhig before retreating back down the gully, the main summit a step too far for a party of novices on their first trip and shattered from fighting through deep snow lower down.
Needless to say Liathach was unfinished business to me, I have visited Torridon a few times since, drawn by the beautiful triptych of Liathach, Beinn Eighe, and Beinn Alligin. The twin munro summits of the latter two peaks fell at intervals over the years, but never under conditions anything like those I remembered from that first love, sometimes I had snow and mist, sometimes it was snow and rain, but never was there a hint of weather that could do justice to that memory I held so close to my heart.
I guess you can sometimes hold your dreams too tightly, to the extent you snuff them out whilst waiting for them to be perfect. Fifteen years of trying to line up weekends, weather, snow, and other commitments can make you begin to ask if the stars will align again, yet still that memory is so strong that you can’t risk sullying it with disappointment. It’s a catch -22 which make it easy to find something not quite right and a reason to postpone the trip.
This month I slew that dragon. Taking a chance on a good but not perfect forecast, excepting the risk of disappointment; and, in traversing Liathach under brilliant blue skies had one of my best days in the hills. The snow may not have been as deep as in 2002 but as I climbed onto the ridge just below Mullach an Rathain the great expanse of Wester Ross, hidden till the last few steps was revealed rolling away towards to the sea. In that instant, something inside me leapt with joy just as it had those 15 years ago.
There are other beautiful moments in time, you just have to go out and find them.