Published 26th August 2021, 22:04

    DAY TWO of heatwave walking in the North-west Highlands and I'm wearing waterproof trousers. It also feels like my socks are doing the front crawl in my boots.

    It's not cold, far from it. An hour after leaving the car park at the head of Loch Arkaig and already the heat is rising, just like the mist that had been clinging stubbornly to the lower ground.

    I had arrived late evening, the setting sun turning the loch into a long sheet of crinkled silver foil, glistening with every twist and turn along that never-ending road, the mountains distant silhouettes. 

    The first disappointment was the fire in the sky failing to follow through on its promise, the initial glories of colour tamped down then extinguished. The second was the brief reign of the waning gibbous moon, a potent spotlight illuminating the water at first before being blurred by the creeping mist.

    I opened my eyes a couple of hours later to find that even the loch had been swallowed. The only sign of movement was another early riser, dancing around and slapping his head in that Scottish form of St Vitus' dance which only the dreaded midge can inspire. 

    We set off together, fast, heading for the Feith a' Chicheanais, the pass which provides the easiest access to lonely Glen Kingie and the hills beyond. The surrounding peaks were already starting to push through the gauze but the saturated long grass made waterproof trousers a must. We parted company about halfway up: I was leaving the path and swinging round to the left to take the longer route along the stalkers' path on to Sgurr Mor, he was going more direct, tackling the steep slopes to the col head on then walking west to Sgurr na Ciche.

    He vanished into the grey along with the limited visibility we had enjoyed so far. Now I was walking blind through sodden ground on a compass line, the only other clue the gathering sound of the rushing River Kingie somewhere below a dubious horizon. It was a relief to reach the water and locate the path. Like all the best stalkers' paths, this is beautifully engineered, a series of long ramps which often seem to be lazily heading away from your destination but which turn out to the most economical way there.

    It led me up through the mists, the overhead blue growing stronger minute by minute, until I was standing above a white sea corralled by dark jagged islands. The rise in temperature was immediate, the midge threat neutralised. It was time to empty my boots.

    Three hours in and with dry socks and waterproofs stripped off, it felt like a different day. The path continued its easy passage over Sgurr Beag and on to the main objective, Sgurr Mor, where I met my earlier walking partner coming the opposite way. He was now having some doubts about doing all four Munros in the oppressive heat. Sometimes what looks a good idea on paper doesn't transfer to reality. 

    Another walker I met at the col on my way to Sgurr an Fhuarain had already had enough. The brutal push directly up from the river had taken its toll, and Sgurr Mor was now his only ambition. His ascent became my descent, and the rough terrain confirmed that the longer approach had been the better bet due to the ease of the path. Even then, by the time I reached the river again, the stifling heat was slowing my progress.

    If you feel the Kingie is running low, then I should perhaps take my share of the blame – I must have drank half of it on the way out. The final re-climb felt like a punishment, but this time all the water was sloshing around inside me rather my boots. I wondered how my early morning companion was getting on. The Arkaig Munros are always a strenuous undertaking, but with temperatures in the mid-20s and the sting in the tail of that long, long walk out, his day would be a specially demanding one.

    Unlike the day before, there wasn't even the hint of a welcoming breeze. That had made the difference during the wander up A' Ghlas-bheinn, that mountain of many false summits above the Bealach an Sgairne.

    I had gone later to try to avoid any crowd, but despite the overflowing car parks at all the Munro hotspots in Glen Shiel it was quiet round at Morvich. I never met anyone else on the mountain, and the few people that were around in the lower reaches were either heading for, or coming back from, the Falls of Glomach.

    It was also interesting to note that the continuing surge in visitors seems to have sparked a new form of gentrification in Glen Shiel: there is a newly-built bakehouse across from the Cluanie Inn in the old parking area formerly used by walkers, the Wee Bunkhouse at the Shiel Bridge Hotel has dropped the 'k' to sell coffee and cakes, and the former petrol station back along the road near the camp site is being transformed into an artisan chocolate shop.

    Pies, pastries, cakes and posh chocolates – I suspect there won't be too many ascents after the consumption of that lot.