The night was rough. Already, before it'd really begun, when we were still lying around in waterproofs, a shift in the wind had forced us to run out and re-pitch. Even then, even with the low end facing the action and catching much of the driven rain, the wind had had free passage under the roof. With two under the Grace a full-on bivvy bag doesn't fall under the category "unnecessary luxury". Fortunately we'd both packed one. My event cocoon kept me nice and dry but I'd still been surprisingly cold. I appeared to have found the lower comfort level of my lightest bag again and had spent half the night in half sleep deliberating whether or not to do something about my too cold legs. Only when forced to make my first morning call had I found the motivation to reach for my little down shirt and shove it into my bag around my legs. In comparative warmth I'd then been able to find some real sleep.
The plan had been to rise early and get onto the tops before the first of the day folk but we'd lain long, peering through the triangle at our feet, watching subtle variations of shimmering grey. The shade of grey that doesn't inspire action. Now having packed up and returned to breakfast in the shelter of our betabled bluff, sitting with a strong cup of via, we nod an unwashed acknowledgement to a fast moving hillwalker on his way up to take our prize.
Tea we may be missing but coffee we most definitely aren't and our hill day starts in earnest at around eleven with a caffeinefuelleded, steep assent onto Stob Coire Claurigh. The MWIS had promised clear skies and good views in the afternoon. Right now I'm thinking that might turn out to be another of their habitual lies. The climb is interesting, first over grass, then over bands of quartzite boulders, big lumps of geometric perfection, and then a little rock hopping over smaller debris. My soggy shoe of the day before is, to my surprise, dry. I realise I feel good under a light pack with light footwear.
Without a single false horizon we find ourselves suddenly at the summit and take a break at the cairn. As we sit we're rewarded with the view east but the centre point of our chosen route, the Grey Corrries ridge appears to terminate abruptly at a wall of cloud just fifty or so meters to the West.
A muesli bar fatter I swing my pack onto to my back and as I do so witness a real life, 21st century miracle. Something, the sun, the wind, my fiercely determined look as I sight off to confirm the direction we need to head off on, has given the cloud cause to run off in fright. In the time it takes to draw three breaths almost the whole length of the ridge comes into focus. Well, it has now gone twelve and the MWIS had said afternoon after all.
What follows is pure joy. Seven kilometres of ridge, virtually all of it above a thousand meters, nowhere frighteningly exposed, nowhere calling for teeth and nails, almost everywhere walkable and where every step provides a new perspective on the sublime highland landscape. To our North the big scoops of the Scree filled corries from which the range gets it's name and further on the broad inhabited Glen Spean forms a mid ground to bands of hills, stacked one on top of the other, in long succession. It feels strangely good to be reminded of my insignificance again. To our South and West run Coire Rath and Glen Nevis, each dissected by a thin, shimmering silver ribbons, the latter defining the Northern edge of the Mamores. Big, spectacular looking hills concealing a ridge walk which would give this one more than a run for it's money. It seems I could reach out and touch them from where I stand. Trace the line of alternative routes mulled over these last weeks but locked away for safe keeping. I already know I`ll be back. To our West, beyond the dog-legged line of the Corries, first the massive wall of the Aonachs, the smaller big one and the in fact bigger little one, and then the Ben. The highest point of ground in Scotland, in the whole of the British isles, and a goal of sorts of this route.
The plan would have us on other side of the Aonachs by nightfall but all that lies somewhere in the future. We may have started late but schedules are for another day. Now we take our time, stopping to look, stopping to snack, stopping to lunch and between the breaks reeling in the peaks; Stob a' Choire Leith, Stob Coire Cath na Sine, Caisteal, Stob Coire and Laoigh and Stob Coire Easain glide by under our boots. Then comes the steepest and deepest descent of the day so far, at times with hands and feet,that puts us momentarily under the 1000m line and then back up. Somewhere we cross a transition, grey becomes green, and we're climbing on steep wet grass up to the top of the bigger Sgurr Choinnich.
As we drop to the saddle we appear to be flagging and the future snaps back into focus. Once we're over the next top we'll have reached the end of the ridge and be forced to loose a lot of height only to have regain those metres, and more on top, to get onto the Aonachs. The days goal is starting to look like a big ask. The first contingency, a bivvy at the next saddle, the bealach under Sgurr Choinich Beagis not a preferred option; it'll leave too much over for tomorroww andalthoughh we may not have the whole pitch in our legs we have more than this. We think, confer and decide to save some of the climb still in us by contouring around the peak, going straight from bealach to bealach. Neither of us baggers the decision is painless.
The traverse starts easy, just follow the sheep-blazed trail around the Northern side, but later, on the North West slope, gets steep and requires care. Still, we make the bealach and, perhaps, with greater reserves. Iain follows me in and as he crosses the level ground towards me it seems his head's down. It's time to break. Break properly, fuel up! Out comes the stove for soup. Soup gets followed up by a helping of apple and apricot compote, the the latter freeze died happiness, both guaranteed to suppress negative thoughts and put the smile back on your face.
Another fifteen minutes of backing down and I'm standing with Iain scanning the hillside again. This time further over towards Sgurr a Bhuic. There are two gulleys above us. One looks nasty the other, to me at least, looks doable. I again set off ahead of Ian to have first go. It's steep and underfoot is a mix of wet muddy scree, wet grass and wet moss, but I find enough purchase and climb. Comfortably enough, first in the open and then under an impressive overhang. The last few meters are a bit airy but there are good holds and, popping my head over the crest for the second time I get an eye full of the wide Southern slope of Stob Choire Bhealaich. A moment later I'm sat on the edge looking back down, king of the apes.
As Iain approaches I can see he's not happy. The climb demands effort and back slipping on tiered legs is sapping nerve. There's an exchange of words centred for the most part on my route finding ability but also on the disadvantage of short legs. It's time for another break already. This time curry is called for. We sit on our high perch. Long views illuminated by the rich light of early evening accompanied first with the raw of burning gas then with the burn of chilli. Little gets said. Little needs to be said.
Curry wolfed and drink drunk thoughts turn to what now. We won't make the planned camp, that's a given but what to do? Bivvy here? Drop down or carry on up? Our luck with the weather looks set to hold. Down looks to present lots of bivvy potential but possibly with insects thrown in and certainly with a stretch of back up to start the next day. Up is the right way but how far before we find a lie? Either way we need water so I drop down to find a source. Looking around, regardless of the promise, I see no dry flats. Up it is.
We continue Northwards until we hit the path coming down of Aonach Beag. Passing a small cairn, presumably marking the drop off for the normal descent to the Corries, and presumably sited a few meters away from where I popped my head up on the first aborted attempt to get here, we turn West and are once again heading in the general direction of our end goal. A few steps further I spy a small shelf, well sheltered and a comfortable lie for one. I offer Iain first dibs and head on further to find a second one. I end up walking a half kilometre or so further and all the time the only suitable place to stretch out appears to be in the trough of the deeply eroded path. The thought of being woken by an early birds boot doesn't appeal so I bite down and persevere. Not for long though. A few strides further and there it is. Sometimes, rarely but it does happen, you cast your eye over something and you just know its right. Right there, just a few metres shy of the top of Stob Coire Bhealaich, is the bivvy of the gods. Right there, with a shear drop to the North and an endless view South is a flat patch of cushion soft grass, plenty big enough for two, complete with shelves and bedside tables. On another night with weather coming in from the North or South this would be a bad idea but tonight it's perfect. It might not be where we'd planned to be but right here is where I want to be. Dumping my stuff I head back down and tell Iain the good news: that he's got another half a kilometre to cover before bedtime.