Sunday saw myself and fellow climbing/hillstomping friend heading off to do two Munros' - Beinn Iutharn Mhor and Carn an Righ from Glen Ey near Inverey. We enjoyed a pleasant cycle along the track that winds its way up the glen and after about an hour, left the mountain bikes at Altanour Lodge and set off across the moorland and up the steep north side of Iutharn Mhor. Spirits were high and although we had not previously met, we felt immediately comfortable in each others company as those who share a passion often do and tales of past mountain epics here and abroad were regaled with great gusto and much demonstration.
Visibility was extremely poor - cloud base approx 2000ft - I took a bearing as we came over the shoulder - then Mike suddenly shouted. I turned just in time to see a golden Eagle bank sharply away from us - maybe eight or ten feet in front and about head height! If you have never seen one up close - the sheer size of these birds is quite literally, awesome. It dropped off over the edge and slid silently in to the gloom below like some great leviathan descending into the abyss.
We continued our tramp, quite excited with our close encounter and reached the summit fifteen minutes or so later after some discussion and varying 'summit finding' tactics. A quick stop for something to drink, phone calls to our respective loved ones and then we headed off towards the col between Iutharn Mhor and Carn an Righ. By this time though, the visibility was getting progressively worse and plans for an Righ were reluctantly called off. Why bother when you can see nowt! It will be there for the next time.
We readjusted our path and headed down a steep gorge, reminiscent of a miniature Lost Valley, traversing our way carefully along the banks of the raging burn. About two thirds of the way down, and out in front, I stopped - seeing a large brown mass some fifty yards in front. Not quite sure what it was, I whispered to my companion to keep quiet and we crouched and waited. Deathly silence, save the tumbling burn next to us and the occasional warble of a grouse. Then 'It' moved. Then more of 'it' moved and within space of a few seconds, 'it' had become 'they' and our large brown mass became immediately distinguishable as a group of young stags. Oh what a sight! Burnished copper tints to their thick coats glinting under the weak sunlight burning through the clouds, the white ruff of their necks highlighting the coarse mane. Holding their heads and antlers proud, they were oblivious to our presence for the five or ten minutes that we sat and watched them. It is not often you get to see Red Deer at such close quarters and we were delighted and held in rapturous awe. Sure you can see them along the side of the road at Glenshee or the Lecht and a myriad of them come down to Linn of Dee and the roads heading into the Cairngorms but they always seem so domesticated, so despondant, (though obviously not, and I won't even begin to start on wildlife 'parks') so at odds with the setting. These were as they should be.
Reluctant to disturb these creatures, but it was interminably cold with the wind only making the damp conditions seem even more miserable and despite (me) having full winter kit on, we were both now shivering. I called loudly several times - intent on scarpering the stags but the wind was towards us and it did not work so we hesitantly, and most carefully, picked our way downstream towards them - keeping one eye open for any way up the side of the gorge so as not to disturb. At about twenty feet distance, one of the largest raised his head from his drinking and slowly turned his head towards us. Immediately obvious was the size difference between it and we and we stopped in our tracks. This was neither lion nor beast of the night and we felt a little foolish with our submissive actions but I have seen one of these big stags go for an unsuspecting hillwalker before and it is not something I wished to re-enact!
He regarded us with an (admittedly anthropological) disparaging stare us for a few seconds then with a snort, picked his way carefully across the burn and trotted up the side of the gorge with his compadres following closely behind him. We took the first opportunity to scramble quickly onto higher ground and turned to see them now high up on the mountainside with an additional group of females silhouetted in the mist on the summit skyline. Sir Edwin Landseer would have been hard pressed to create a more charismatic impression of the Highlands!
We continued to watch them for a few minutes until the last trotted off into the swirling cloud and then began our long walk out of the glen to rejoin the main before reaching the bothy. The ground was sodden from the past few days rain but progress was sure and merry, with only the occasional plunge up to the shins, as we hopped between tussocks heather and grass and picked our way carefully over peat bogs. The heady scent of wet, warming earth serving only to raise our spirits even further. The walkout conversation was punctured by the occasional deep, rumbling bellow from another stag high upon the glen side, lost amongst the scree and the occasional eerie bubbling of Black grouse.
A day to gladden even the weariest heart.