UKH

My Best Summit Sleep

© Dan Bailey

Hilltops can be windy and weather-beaten, but play it right with the forecast and there's no finer place to spend a night. Camping on a summit gives you a bed with an unbeatable view, making the best of sunset and sunrise, and offering a unique sense of elevation and detachment from the world below.

Here we've asked some regular UKHillwalking contributors to recount a memorable night spent on a high. It's only fair that I start with one (or two) of my own:  

Midway on the Mamores

Some peak pitches are so good they seem to have become part of my repertoire, places to be revisited over the years. Stob Coire a' Chairn has not yet disappointed. 

Hard to beat a summit camp, on the right evening  © Dan Bailey
Hard to beat a summit camp, on the right evening
© Dan Bailey

In many ways one of the less remarkable of the ten Munros of the Mamores range, this unassuming hill has advantages for a high altitude sleepover, being a comfortably grassy plot at a strategic halfway point on a traverse of the ridge. With a prime angle on The Ben, the Grey Corries, and the nearby ragged tooth of An Garbhanach, it's quite the view to wake up to, too. But it's a long way to carry your drinking water.

Fair weather is of course key to a summit camp you can enjoy, and not just endure. With an early spring high dug in over Scotland, and more than a cosmetic remnant of winter on the hills, I headed for the Mamores. These airy crests are always a joy to walk, but this time a porridgey blanket of sun-warmed March snow slowed my stride over the eastern peaks, and as shadows began to stretch thoughts turned to accommodation.

Late light on the Glen Coe peaks  © Dan Bailey
Late light on the Glen Coe peaks
© Dan Bailey

A startling snow-free green amid a landscape still streaked winter-white, the flat little summit of Stob Coire a' Chairn had obvious appeal. I couldn't have chosen better. Under a pale blue sky shading to pastel I lounged serene in my tent doorway, sipping soup and watching as the evening glow lapped gradually up the slopes, picking out the last high tops before twilight seeped in. Later there were stars by the thousand, a cold breeze, and a hint of aurora.

It's just as good second time around  © Dan Bailey
It's just as good second time around
© Dan Bailey

An autumn heatwave saw me reunited with this old favourite, just at the right time to consider a leisurely early finish to the day. Hoping for a midge-beating breeze, I unrolled a bivvy bag on my reliable summit plot, and commenced to just sitting quietly with a warm beer as the west slowly went gold and stags boomed in the evening glens. Will my next visit match the first two?  

Keri Wallace - the Wee Buachaille

Camping near the summit of Stob Coire Raineach, Glen Coe with husband Ben and our two young children. It was one of those late spring days where despite feeling cool up high the sun was flexing its muscles and hinting at summer. Pink-cheeked, we welcomed refreshing snow-patches en route to the summit; skidding and rolling and making crunchy snowballs, which stung little hands. My eldest daughter (aged 5) had talked non-stop up the final steepening, not pausing for breath, while the other (just 3) had done all she could before napping on my back.

An idyllic spot on the Wee Buachaille  © Keri Wallace
An idyllic spot on the Wee Buachaille
© Keri Wallace

It was great to find a scenic spot overlooking Glencoe where we could cook-up together, relishing the local freedom that came with the end of lockdown 2020. Once the tent was up, the inside was like a mini-greenhouse in the late sun, and so with sticky skin and tired legs the children fell asleep quickly under the gently flapping canvas.  

In the peace that (always) follows the bedtime routine, the day drew to a close. The view was familiar but the sunset was something else – a burning sky which seemed to grow and improve with every passing second. Together we sat as parents, silently reflecting on our first Munro as a family and felt excited about the new kind of adventures that might be opening up to us in the years to come – a kind of revaluation of what our life might look like.

Introducing a new generation to the outdoors makes it doubly rewarding  © Keri Wallace
Introducing a new generation to the outdoors makes it doubly rewarding
© Keri Wallace

I probably didn't sleep at all – checking and rearranging and fussing over the sleeping children (who were fine) as the temperature dropped. But it was worth it.

However tired you are it's always exciting to wake up on the summit of a mountain and eagerly open the tent to see what the new day brings. But this morning was next-level excitement. The children's literal squeals of delight at the view reignited my own, more suppressed sentiments as we crawled out into the dew. It was uplifting to witness their euphoria as they chased the daddy longlegs which sprang up everywhere they ran. Together we fetched water, then touched the inside of fleeting clouds as we ate porridge and shared hot-chocolatey smiles.   

That morning I saw the mountain with fresh eyes, as if for the first time, and I marvelled at the inherent appreciation our children had for this special place – and hoped it would last.

A frequent contributor to UKHillwalking, Glencoe-based Keri Wallace co-runs Girls on Hills, Scotland's only guided trail/fell running company designed specifically for women.

Dan Aspel - Rotstock

My greatest summit sleep came in July 2013, and I'm still not finished talking about it. But first, some apologies. Not only is this summit not in the UK… it's not even accessible by hillwalking. So, before the site editor of the astutely labelled ukhillwalking.com realises their mistake and severs your link to my illicit ramblings, heed my words because - as alluded to earlier - it was bloody brilliant.

It's hard to argue with a bivvy spot like that  © Dan Aspel
It's hard to argue with a bivvy spot like that
© Dan Aspel

Assuming we're still online, grab your proof of vaccinations and negative PCR tests. We're off to Switzerland. The summit we're heading for is named Rotstock. It's a 2,663m peak with a mercurial little via ferrata route which runs up its sides. It's accessed via the cog-driven Jungfrau railway and once you've made your way to its summit you're going to be treated to exceptional views of the aforementioned Jungfrau, the Monch and its parent peak of the Eiger.

What's notable about this summit sleep is how physically (though perhaps not financially) accessible it is, despite the absolute seriousness of the terrain all around it. On the one hand you'll have the hotels, hot coffees and artificial lights of Kleine Scheidegg, the temperature-controlled comforts of the Jungfrau railway, and the futurist spectacle of the five-story Top of Europe building bestriding the Jungfraujoch at 3,454m; on the other you have the brutish beauty of the Eiger, the slenderly peaked Monch and the jagged Jungfrau. All of these elements have the potential to change your life, but it's the latter three that have greater potential to take it. Tread carefully.

Dan on the summit of Rotstock  © Dan Aspel collection
Dan on the summit of Rotstock
© Dan Aspel collection

Consequently you'll want to immerse yourself in them as best - but as safely - as you can. This is why you'll step off the train at Eigergletscher. It's also why you'll walk the moderate hour to the base of Rotstock. It's why you'll clip into the via ferrata route and make your way upwards via fixed ladders, following strung wires and making short crossings of snowy patches and melt water. If you're fortunate the setting sun will paint this alpine nirvana in a golden light as you ascend. You'll bed down as close to the centre of the peak's flat(ish), broad(ish) summit as possible - possibly even roping yourself to the decorative cross if you want to be extra careful - and you'll drift to sleep. All going well you'll awake in a cold hour of the night to see the moon illuminating the Jungfrau's northwestern face, its structure rocky and tall, rising like a sail into the sky. You'll be surrounded by smooth snow slopes, silver drifting clouds, a silken mountain silence, and an awareness that this may be one of the defining memories of your life.

A parting thought: when I visited it was not entirely under my own steam. It was as the guest of a popular Swiss outdoor brand named for a betusked species of hairy elephantid that is now extinct. More than this I shall not say, although it was Mammut. Regardless, I've since grown into the kind of moderately confident boob that could do this kind of adventure myself. If you too can say the same then I wish you good fortune and abiding joy.

You can find outdoor journalist and ML Dan Aspel interviewing interesting outdoor people every month-or-so at mountainairpodcast.uk

Of course, camping and bivvying is not all sunshine and views. Here's the other side of the picture:

Paul Allen - Pen yr Ole Wen

I knew I didn't have much time to make it to the summit of Pen yr Ole Wen to catch the sunset. I'd left work too late and got stuck in too many traffic jams on the A55 as everyone wanted to get to the seaside.

Sunset over the Irish Sea and the distant Mournes from the summit  © Paul Allen
Sunset over the Irish Sea and the distant Mournes from the summit
© Paul Allen

After reaching the halfway point of my climb, Llyn Ffynnon Lloer, I spotted my final hill companion for the day as someone had taken up residence by its sheltered shores. As I passed by, I thought little of seeking shelter by the llyn but on reaching the summit plateau I was soon hit by a stiff breeze that was racing over the tops. But I was feeling somewhat elated that I had just topped out in time to see the sun dipping below a distant coastline.

At the time I had assumed that I was watching the sun drop down below the western coast of the Isle of Anglesey. Sometime later when I was back at home reviewing my images, I realised that there was a big gap between the last chunk of land (Anglesey) and the mountains behind which the sun was setting. This gap had to be the Irish Sea. By looking at a sunset position and panoramic calculator I realised that the mountain just in front of the sun had to be Slieve Donard in the Mournes, Northern Ireland, over 100 miles away.

After a hasty pitch I clambered into the tent feeling content that I had made it to the summit and was looking forward to what tomorrow might bring.

Early light on the Glyderau  © Paul Allen
Early light on the Glyderau
© Paul Allen

It wasn't a bad night as such, just a tad on the windy side, and I could have sworn that the wind had shifted round by the early hours, so my little tent was being broadsided rather than taking it more end-on. So after a bit of deliberation to see if I could be bothered to extract myself from my sleeping bag, I clambered out to rotate the tent in an attempt to get a bit more peace. It was worth it just to remind myself of the view that lay spread out at my feet which in the half dark of an approaching summer solstice night probably offered more light than on many a grey winter day. Now I just needed to get some sleep before my hideously early alarm call was due to go off in a few hours.

The alarm bleeped its cheery tune just before 5am. I had probably slept for only four hours, it was rather cold and windy but I already had a big smile on my face. Despite the downsides, I was in position on the summit of the Pen with the best seat in the house and the show was about to start. What is more, I had it all to myself, strangely adding to the satisfaction. The glorious golden light of the sun was just starting to catch the slopes opposite, lighting up the very top layer of rocks that make the Glyderau so special; from Tryfan's mighty summit, Bristly and Gribyn ridges, to the upper section of Glyder Fach's formidable fortress-like top, leaving the equally enticing Crib Goch and the pyramidal peak of Snowdon still in shade.

Paul Allen is the author of self-published book Summit Wild Camps: On the trail of photographic adventures in Snowdonia 

Covering eight summits and 20 different adventures, the book describes a collection of his favourite summit wild camps in Snowdonia, and the stories behind each. It illustrates the planning and exploratory trips that led to each summit camp on each hill, the people and wildlife met on the way, the range of emotions he went through on his journeys and a selection of stunning views.

Sarah Jane Douglas - Breabag

Despite a reasonably long career in hillwalking I still managed a few (though not altogether delightful) firsts when summit camping on Breabag the other week.

A magic evening in the far north  © Sarah Jane Douglas
A magic evening in the far north
© Sarah Jane Douglas

As I ascended to the Bone Caves I realised I'd forgotten my compass; flaming nora. Then deer ked (we're talking Assynt's entire contingent here) descended upon me in never experienced before masses. These sticky little fucks were landing on my legs, my arms, my face, and later in the sanctuary of my tent I combed a multitude out of my hair. Once these parasites find their target they shed their wings and start burrowing through their host's fur. Allegedly they do not get confused between humans and deer, but I'm sure I found wings in my shorts... sweet mother of God.

Distant car headlights only deepen the sense of solitude  © Sarah Jane Douglas
Distant car headlights only deepen the sense of solitude
© Sarah Jane Douglas

I emerged from the tent as the sun began to set. Views were sensational as golden light filtered across the mountains. Movement caught my peripheral vision. There was a hare; a very fine fellow, and on the flat grassy ridge just below him a huge number of deer who, on spotting me spotting them, disappeared off out of sight. And even further below, down where there was road, were tiny beads of light from car headlamps. I marvelled at how I could see bright beams heading north from Ullapool while fifteen miles or so away, travelling from the opposite direction, was another car. Neither driver knew they would pass each other, and neither knew they were being watched by me high up here. So cool. I did a bit of yoga then enjoyed my disco for one while waiting for the night show to begin. I had my first go at astrophotography – let's say I've much to learn, but I did capture the Milky Way and then a big fat strawberry moon as it rose in the east.

Quite a morning to wake up to...  © Sarah Jane Douglas
Quite a morning to wake up to...
© Sarah Jane Douglas

In the morning I woke to cloud inversion. The tips of Assynt's gems poked up through the swathes of white and, looking southwest, An Teallach and the Fisherfield Munros. It felt like being in the lap of the gods or something, so magical. Really, the only issue I had with descending into the sea of cloud was finding my way without my compass – mind you what's worse, getting lost or being shot at? Of course neither happened, but after I came off Breabag's ridge, made my way down through a ravine and yomped over undulating pathless ground I suddenly got the feeling I was being watched. In the near distance were two men dressed in plus fours with a pair of binos trained on me – thankfully not their gun. As I finally reached the lower part of Inchnadamph estate I noticed a notice asking walkers to stick to main ridges and paths on the mountains between 24th – 29th August as deer were being stalked. Oops.

Sarah Jane Douglas is the author of Just Another Mountain, 'a story of love and loss and of the redemptive power of mountains, in particular the incomparable mountains of Scotland' (Stephen Venables).

If you're inspired to give summit camping a go yourself, but need to get kitted out first, then check out our recent group test of one-man tents and bivvys:

Murray Wilkie - A Perfect Way to Say Goodbye

Three months had gone by since she passed, and not a day goes by when I don't think of her. A letter had been written to myself and my siblings before mum succumbed to the disease that had turned our lives upside down in a short period of time. I kept that letter and vowed to open it in a special place at a special time.

A peaceful solo summit camp  © Murray Wilkie
Photo: Murray Wilkie

The summer of 2018 will go down as one of the best in recent years and when another balmy summer evening was forecast, I headed to The Coe - a special place at any time or in any circumstance.

I had a summit camp in mind on one of the many spectacular mountain tops in Glen Coe. The camp was perfect. The weather was superb and just enough breeze to stop any midges ruining the ambiance. I watched some of the best light I have ever seen illuminate the mountains as it faded to the north west and later, layers upon layers of mountains presented themselves in these fine conditions. Dusk settled and I pulled the letter out, the first time I had read it - and the last.

I woke the next morning to a spectacular sunrise with what can only be described as a huge heart in the sky.

The perfect way to say goodbye  © Murray Wilkie
Photo: Murray Wilkie

Murray Wilkie may have a day job in sales, but come the weekend he transforms into a mountain film maker. Murray has built a substantial body of work, releasing films under the name Steaming Boots via his Youtube channel Scotland's Mountains, and on Facebook.

Ronald Turnbull - my best summit sleep? one I've not had yet

Best summit sleep? That's like top Beatles track, or tastiest Ambleside teacake. It can't be done. And even more not seeing as I just celebrated my hundredth summit sleepout.

Ronald's 100th summit in a bivvy bag, Walla Crag above fogbound Keswick  © Ronald Turnbull
Ronald's 100th summit in a bivvy bag, Walla Crag above fogbound Keswick
© Ronald Turnbull

Among the hundred, over most of a lifetime, even the 13-hour winter one elbow deep in damp peat somewhere on nondescript Lancashire was good in a grimly bad sort of way. That aside, perhaps the best one was the one that didn't actually involve any sleep. The ascent of Beinn Alligin under the full moon, with the Northern Lights smouldering behind the scenery rather as if distant cities of Sheffield and Manchester were just over the skyline. The crossing of that high ridgeline, with the sea gleaming alongside and the Hebrides floating like dead whales along the horizon. The unrolling of several worn out and inadequate sleeping bags and no bivvybags as they hadn't been invented then. And the long, shivering appreciation of a grey-green sunrise reflected in the fairy-haunted lochans around Loch Maree…

Then again, there's the night in soft grasses on Kinder Scout, when the Northern-Lights-like skyline really was the cities of Sheffield and Manchester, aeroplanes descending into the flaming glow like so many phoenixes, and orange lorries at the valley floor beeping backwards like wounded dragons. Or how about little Walla Crag, with soft hail pattering through the summit larch trees, white-topped Grasmoor like a flattened version of somewhere in the Rockies, and a sea of mist where Derwentwater oughter be.

Looking forward to a night on Criffel  © Ronald Turnbull
Looking forward to a night on Criffel
© Ronald Turnbull

But among all the hundred nights, the best of all has to be the one that hasn't happened yet. Bivvy night one hundred and one, on the generous grasslands of Criffel above Dumfries, during the inaugural walking of my new-minted Nithsdale way (it runs from the sea to Wanlockhead, Scotland's highest village). The long view of Lakeland across the Solway. A touch of sea breeze to keep the green membrane breathing and the midges away. The peaty, hay-scented squishiness of the August moorgrass. That nicely, newly built path down to Devorgilla's abbey for a fried egg breakfast. And three long days of riverside and hillside and green moorland stretching away ahead.

Ronald Turnbull is a prolific contributor to outdoor media, and the author of many books. The new edition of Ronald's Book of the Bivvy was published in August by Cicerone.

 

Adrian Trendall - A Cuillin cave

My favourite spot to sleep out is high in the Cuillin a few hours from our house in Glen Brittle. It's not even a summit but the views and location are fantastic. It offers a magical view of the Black Cuillin

I'm referring to the Sgurr Sgumain bivi cave, a small shelter formed by erosion below an intruded basalt dyke. In summer it can be a bit of a 'mare with dripping water even in the hottest heatwave and being out of the breeze means it's a midge magnet.

It's actually more comfy in winter  © Adrian Trendall
It's actually more comfy in winter
© Adrian Trendall

Roll on winter and it's perfect. Irritating drips form magical icicles, drifted snow levels the rocky floor and, obviously, the midges are absent. Stunning views down into Coire a Ghrunnda, along to Gars-bheinn, the start of the Cuillin ridge and amazing vistas out to sea and the western isles. A few metre away is the bealach between Sgurr Sgumain and Sgùrr Alasdair with airy views across Coire Lagan to An Stac and the Inaccessible Pinnacle.

It's the perfect winter bivi spot providing a comfortable sleep yet allowing easy access to nearby summits for sunrise/set photography. I love staying there and Bridgette, my wife, half jokingly refers to it as "our spare room." Winter nights might be long but I'm happy ensconced in my pit with a book to read, maybe a wee dram and hope for a stunning sunrise to come.

Adrian Trendall is a mountain guide, photographer and guidebook writer based in Glen Brittle below the Black Cuillin.

He is the author of Cicerone guide Skye's Cuillin Ridge Traverse.

See allthingscuillin.co.uk  

    Alex Roddie - Stockhorn

    Back in 2007, my brother James and I climbed a relatively undistinguished peak in the Zermatt region of the Swiss Alps called Stockhorn. At 3,532m, it won't win any altitude awards in an area crammed with peaks exceeding 4,000m, but it makes a pretty good acclimatisation day out. That was our logic as we began the long rocky ridge from the top station at Gornergrat. What we actually found was a most enjoyable mountain with stupendous views of the great wall extending from the Matterhorn all the way across to Monte Rosa.

    Frost forms on the bivvy bag  © Alex Roddie
    Frost forms on the bivvy bag
    © Alex Roddie

    Our day out on Stockhorn stayed in my memory, and a decade later, when I was back in the Zermatt region revisiting old haunts, I decided to climb the peak a second time to see how it held up to my memory of the place. This time I packed a sleeping bag, bivvy bag and down jacket, and aimed to spend the night on the summit. It had been a long time since I'd done much bivvying – and even longer since my last high-altitude Alpine bivvy – but I had a hunch that this might be the best way to enjoy this modest peak.

    A fine night for star gazing  © Alex Roddie
    A fine night for star gazing
    © Alex Roddie

    I was right! Conditions for photography were superb that evening, with an inversion layer swirling in the valley several hundred metres beneath me and a wonderful sunset light show over the Matterhorn – plus a Brocken spectre for good measure. I felt very lucky to be there, but my gratitude turned to apprehension as the temperature dropped, and dropped hard, after sunset. My bivouac was a lumpy affair thanks to the surface of smashed rocks near the summit cairn. Frost formed on the outside of my bag pretty quickly and I ended up putting on all available layers to see me through the night. Strange noises, too, woke me from time to time: the creaking of glaciers and the distant rumble of thunder, adding to my apprehension. I didn't fancy a retreat back along that ridge in the dark should a thunderstorm sail over towards me.

    Atmospheric conditions on the Stockhorn  © Alex Roddie https://www.instagram.com/alex_roddie/
    Atmospheric conditions on the Stockhorn

    Luckily no thunderstorm appeared. I made it through until dawn, which was just as spectacular as the sunset had been. A brisk jog on the spot at the summit sorted out the chattering teeth, and I felt fortunate indeed to have witnessed what must be one of the best views in the Zermatt area, surrounded by glaciated 4000m peaks, in the best conditions imaginable.

    Alex Roddie is an outdoor writer, author, and editor of Sidetracked magazine.

    His most recent book, The Farthest Shore, tells the story of his 2019 winter Cape Wrath Trail and is out now with Vertebrate Publishing.

    Find Alex online at alexroddie.com or on Twitter @alex_roddie or Instagram @alex_roddie

    Mark Reeves - Snowdon was someone's worst ever summit sleep

    So I have never really been one for sleeping on summits, as some of my work involves camping on the mountains for Mountain Leader Training and Assessment courses. As such I try to keep camping strictly professional, and after the cautionary tale I am about to tell you perhaps you'll think twice about summit bivvys too.

    Moonlite Snowdon  © Shaun Walby https://www.instagram.com/shaunwalby/
    Moonlite Snowdon
    Shaun Walby, Feb 2018

    For many years I used to try to climb the gully of Central Trinity on Snowdon at night, in winter condition. With global warming I figured the extra cold temps at night might help it be 'in condition'. The good thing about the middle of winter is that we set off at about 5.30pm already in the depth of darkness, and made our way to the base of the route, stopping for a congratulatory drink and snack before donning our crampons and tooling up with a couple of ice axes. 

    Twenty minutes later we were at the summit, lit after a fashion by the 6ft glow of an old Petzl Zoom headtorch, which if you have never had the pleasure would barely produce enough light to read a book, let alone navigate through the mountains. Under this dim excuse for a light I needed to relieve myself, and seeing as the route finishes just by the exposed, freezing and silent summit I simply unzipped and started to go. 

    Within moments I hear something of a kerfuffle below me and shine the light downwards to see a man in a bivi bag having what I could only imagine as a really poor night's sleep ruined even further by having me pee all over him. Apologising, I made a hasty retreat, getting down in time for last orders at the Vaynol Arms. 

    And that, my friends, is why I don't bivi on the summits of mountains.

    North-Wales based Mark Reeves is a Mountaineering Instructor and Winter Mountain Leader who runs coaching, skills courses and guided days of hillwalking, scrambling and climbing through his business Snowdonia Mountain Guides.

    He is the author of Rockfax guidebook Snowdonia: Mountain Walks and Scrambles



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