Edita stood atop a pile of rocks, waving her trekking pole frantically in celebration.
But I was in no position to celebrate. Between us lay about 100m of unspeakable, ankle-twisting boulder field. But it was the summit, and in a few short seconds I would be able to flop down in exhaustion.
But just before I got there, Edita came running back towards me.
‘Quickly, give me your camera so that I can take your photo before this lady arrives?’
I reached the summit and sure enough, another hiker was arriving from the other side. Beside her, on a lead, was the strangest looking dog I had ever seen, with long black whiskers like a handlebar moustache. Decidedly more strangely, it was wearing a pink pyjama top on its fore legs, and grey tracksuit bottoms on its hind ones.
Was I hallucinating? At that moment, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised had the dog said ‘hello, old chap, are you having a nice day?’
The lady told me that it was her 141st Munro, which meant she was exactly halfway to bagging the lot.
‘What, the dog?’ I quipped, trying to align myself with the weirdness.
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘We do them all together.’
The pyjama-clad dog had climbed more Munros than I had! (It was my 132nd). This was too much.
I knew that I was noticeably less mountain fit than I’ve been for long while. This was partly to do with the lockdown, and that I’ve hardly been to the mountains in the last two years. But mostly, it’s because I’ve been carrying two injuries for the last year. The cartilage on my left knee has worn away, a condition that my doctor called patellofemoral syndrome. Meanwhile the chronic achilles tendinitis that I often get in my right ankle for months at a time, has now lasted for over a year. I’ve started cycling more, but in fitness terms, this hasn’t made up for the running I’ve been unable to do.
Even so, I hadn’t expected to be this exhausted hiking up a piddling little 926m Munro.
We had arrived in Scotland at the start of a heatwave. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: ‘A heatwave in Scotland? Right. And Sean Connery used to wear frilly underwear beneath his kilt.’ It was true, but this morning it had been cloudy when we left Achnashellach, and this had allowed us to make rapid progress up the good trail to Coire Lair. Here we were well and truly in thick mist, but hill navigation is much easier in the GPS era, and we were easily able to find the narrow path that headed up the eastern flanks of Beinn Liath Mhor in steep zigzags.
At 500m the mist appeared to be thinning, and at 550m there came one of those wonderful moments when we popped out of the top. Most of us experience this only in an aircraft shortly after take-off. Having boarding on a dull grey morning, we rise through the clouds, and suddenly find it’s a glorious day and we’re looking across a sea of cotton wool.
These moments are rare in the UK hills, but they do happen, and it was one of those mornings for us. All of the surrounding mountains rose like islands across a choppy sea of breaking waves. We were looking south across Glen Carron. A short distance away the summits of Sgurr a Chaorachain and Sgurr Choinnich, where we’d stood the previous day, formed twin peaks on one of those islands. It was a magical feeling.
But there was an unseen enemy. All of a sudden it had become unspeakably hot, an arguably rarer sensation on a Scottish mountain than the marvellous cloud inversion we were witnessing.
To reach the summit of Beinn Liath Mhor’s eastern top, we had to climb through an energy-sapping boulder field that seemed to go on for ever. The heat was relentless. I had to put my buff around my forehead like a bandana, to keep the sweat from dripping into my eyes, and pop my cap on top to stop my shiny pate from getting burned.
As we crossed the top, I realised I was, umm… bonking. I needed to stop for a rest and a snack to get some energy back. We were now looking north to the moonlike Torridon peak of Beinn Eighe, its light grey sandstone untouched by the clouds bubbling below.
Beinn Liath Mhor’s main summit still looked a long way off and we had to cross another peak halfway along the ridge. Even so, under normal circumstances I would expect the food and rest to work their magic, propelling me along with, umm… a second wind.
This time, however, things were different. It was a magnificent ridge, quite the match of Beinn Eighe which we’d traversed a few months earlier. But as Edita moved along quickly, I dropped further behind. Somewhere around the second summit I realised I was totally exhausted. I staggered along in a daze, putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to give up because… well, this was pathetic. It was just a tiny Munro and I know I can climb Munros in my sleep.
But I wasn’t hallucinating. I have a photo to prove that the strange dog in pink pyjamas really existed. Shortly after it had left the summit with its climbing partner, I collapsed on an armchair of rocks to take my eagerly anticipated summit break.
I was breathing rapidly, as though I had finished a run. I had a sandwich and ate some more chocolate. Edita wanted to talk, but talk was exhausting and I needed to get my breath back.
I don’t think I ever did. When we left the summit, after stuffing down a whole sandwich, I was still breathing heavily. Ahead of us, the trail dropped about 300m to a col, over complex terrain. Beyond the col, Sgorr Ruadh, our planned second Munro, rose up like Mount Everest. How on earth was I going to get up that? Yeah, I know. We’ve both climbed Everest, so it should be a piece of piss. I even climbed Everest without drinking because my water had frozen inside the bottle…
Then it dawned on me what was happening. I stopped for a drink and muttered something about dehydration, a word that triggered something in Edita’s mind as well. A short distance later we passed a metre-wide patch of grass, barely a tuft, but it was the only grass we’d seen for quite some time.
‘Mark, lie down here and have a sleep,’ Edita demanded.
I obeyed immediately. Edita has been here before. Twice while cycling the North Coast 500 I had been close to collapse and a sleep by the roadside had sorted me out. A couple of years ago, she’d needed to carry most of the contents of my backpack, when I’d lost all energy during a trek in the Llangantes Mountains in Ecuador.
Both of those sleeps on the NC500 had been down to general tiredness, and my condition in Ecuador had likely been a combination of altitude sickness and viral pneumonia. Dehydration is something different.
As I rested and let my mind wander, I remembered Jonny Brownlee, the world-class triathlete, being helped across the finish line by his brother. Obviously there was nothing world-class about my performance (nor has there ever been), and I had only walked a few miles, but did Jonny and I have something common?
I also remembered being part of a group trek in 2003 when one of the group became dehydrated high up a mountain. It wasn’t easy getting her down, and she literally had to be carried by piggy back part of the way. Strange things have happened on Scottish mountains: heat waves, cloud inversions, dogs in pink pyjamas… but I don’t know how many of you have seen a man being carried down by his wife. I expect some of you would probably find that funny, but I didn’t want to be part of it.
Luckily, neither did Edita. We had a quick discussion and agreed that we could come back here and climb Sgorr Ruadh later in the week, turning one good walk into two. With a weight lifted from my mind, and – perhaps more importantly – no longer needing to nurse my two litres of water over another mountaintop, we descended to the col. From there we were able to complete the easy walk out down Coire Lair, the picturesque valley between the two Munros, my dignity still intact.
I’m not being funny, but it was great day out in a fabulous landscape.
The moral of this story is: stay fit, walk easy – and on hot days, drink lots of water.
You can see more photos here (second half of page).