Unconscious at the summit

Consciousness returned fairly quickly. I became aware of the feeling of the ground underneath me and of the sun on my face. I turned my face from the direct glare and opened my eyes to a vista of rolling hills under blue sky.

It felt great, the sun on my bare arms and warming me through my T-shirt, short-cropped heather under me and my rucksack making a comfortable pillow for my head over the rocks of the low summit cairn.

I stretched and sat up, facing directly across intervening hills to Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak where, only yesterday, I had been slithering across wet snow. Now, on top of lowly Creag Bhalg, above Mar Lodge, it was considerably warmer and drier – and, as I discovered when I looked at my watch, two hours since I had sat down against the cairn.

Best kind of sleep there is, catching a nap on the open hill, and one I’ve only really learned to appreciate in the last few years since middle-age crept up on me.

"View down ridge of Derry Cairngorm"

Looking down Derry Cairngorm from the ‘armchair nap’

There are different kinds of nap. On Creag Bhalg I had been completely out for the count and enjoyed a gentle wakening. A couple of years earlier, on a slightly less pleasant day I’d been coming down Derry Cairngorm and cooried into a niche between boulders, which offered next best thing to an armchair and sheltered me from a rather cool wind. Out like a light there too, but this time I woke more quickly and, on opening my eyes, had a bizarre experience almost like vertigo. Perhaps my body had registered the enclosing space I was in and tipped my eyes off to expect the same when they opened. Instead, the nearest thing to focus on was a mile or more away on the next hill and, as my eyes tried to refocus, I had a feeling almost of looking over a sudden drop. Weird, but memorable.

One nap when ‘dropping off’ was best taken figuratively rather than literally, was a dual affair. Walt and I had just climbed Afterthought Arete, an easy but sensational climb on the Stag Rocks above Loch Avon, directly opposite from the dramatic Shelter Stone Crag.

The plan was to do that, then descend a short way down a gully to another three-star route and tick that off too. However with two men in middle age, a calm and sunny day, and views to kill for unfolded before our eyes, a sit down at the top of the Arete was inevitable, the heather was comfortable and, well, when we woke up it was probably a bit late to be starting a second route even if the urge had still been on us.

Other naps have been more of a pleasant drift: not quite asleep but neither awake, just hovering back and forth on the borderland.

It was a borderland sort of sleep on Ben MacDui. Border because I’m not sure I was ever wholly asleep and because it was almost a bivvy rather than a nap.

George and I had been up MacDui to see the midsummer sunrise and were on the way down towards Loch Etchachan. We still had all the way down Glen Derry to go to the tent so, as soon as the sun seemed warm enough to lift the morning chill, we stopped for a rest, curling up on the gravel and sparse heather.

Had we staggered on a bit until the sun was higher we might have slept better: as it was we slept fitfully, half wakening and turning over every time the chill from the ground worked its way through our clothes.

And that’s why I caught a memorable sight.

I was curling tighter, unwilling to wake up properly but too cold to sleep either, when I heard a soft rattle of stones and opened my eyes.

There, not 10 metres away, was a group of about half a dozen reindeer ambling across the bare hillside. I stayed as still as I could and just watched as they picked their way past us, paying no heed to our apparently lifeless forms. Looking at them from such a low viewpoint they were outlined against blue sky, with the granite they trod on still that vivid morning pink warmed by a touch of yellow. Magical.

When they had passed by I laid my head down again and closed my eyes once more, dozing until we both woke properly and made our way back for a lazy day at Derry.

Could it have been a dream? I don’t think so – it was too vivid, involved too many senses – but if it was, then what better recommendation for having a nap on the hill.

Just don’t try it in winter.

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2 Responses to Unconscious at the summit

  1. Alistair says:

    The art of the midday nap! The reindeer slept round my tent once on Braeriach, after the chief one had come and put his head into the tent to check out the food situation! Love that clicking noise they make.

  2. Hi Alistair,
    That wasn’t my first encounter with reindeer. When I was a kid we went up MacDui to see the midsummer sunrise and found a rather moth-eaten specimen right at the summit cairn. It refused the offer of someone’s sandwich but, when we all moved over to look at the view indicator, we looked back to see its nose in a rucksack, pinching considerably more than just one sandwich. Shouts and even rocks had no effect, and with those antlers no-one was bold enough to go and give it a shove, so we just had to wait until it had finished and ambled off in its own good time. A laugh at the time, and a magical childhood memory.

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