Published 10th March 2024, 20:39

    THERE was a time when I was able to tackle big mountain rounds with just a few minutes sleep during a 36-hour period.

    Those excursions meant a midnight finish at work, a drive to the hills and then a circuit of multiple Munros before driving back to start my next shift. Unsurprisingly, sleep would come easily the night after that.

    That's simply not an option any more. It's only taken some 30 years, but I have now come to accept that a good night's rest is an important factor for maintaining mountain fitness.

    The pendulum has swung so much in fact that life recently has begun to mirror that of the yellow-bellied marmot, a rodent which sleeps for eight months of the year and spends the rest of the time eating.

    Maybe it's a result of all those former days of exhaustion, or even just the memory of them. Perhaps it's a malaise brought on by constant rubbish weather, or simply the inevitable toll taken by the march of time.

    Whatever the reason, every time I have a less than comfortable day on the hill I tend to analyse the experience in microscopic detail. It only happens once or twice a year and there's no discernible pattern other than lack of sleep and then pushing too hard. Some days you are just not at the races.

    But often the solution to feeling of running on empty is the same as it was during those big nights out – a short power nap. Lying down and closing the eyes, even just for a few minutes, usually does the trick. It seems to reset the body clock and get you back on track.

    Jamie Aarons employed this technique for her record-breaking Munros round last year when she did all 282 peaks in an astonishing 31 days, 10 hours and 27 minutes, around 12 hours faster than the previous time. She averaged just four hours sleep per day, which included micro naps lasting a few minutes, one for a mere 60 seconds.

    And Pawel Cymbalista, who smashed his way to a new record of 86 hours, 49 minutes and 19 seconds for running the 230 miles of the Cape Wrath Trail, slept for just 95 minutes, made up of four naps of 20 minutes and one of 15.

    These are extreme examples but I've generally found the same principle applies across all levels. On several occasions when I've felt the going getting too tough I've just stopped, taken off my pack and shut my eyes for a few minutes.

    During one 24-hour round of the Mullardoch and Affric summits, I had to call a halt near the top of Mullach na Dheiragain, barely managing to crawl into my bivvy bag. Within an hour, I was back out, refreshed and able to blast round the rest of the circuit. A five-minute lie down was the solution to problems on the Strathfarrar round, the fatigue from a long night drive, no sleep and then straight up heavy ground on to the ridge finally catching up on the final ascent of Sgurr a' Choire Ghlais. 

    It was a similar story on a stormy day in Cowal, a bit of shuteye on the hillside negating the crippling effects of a drop in core temperature due to being subjected to regular downpours.

    Sometimes it simply doesn't work and the choice becomes one of struggling on or calling it a day. On these rare occasions there have usually been other factors in play, my recent struggle on a Corbetts outing above Tyndrum being a good example. I suspect no amount of hillside napping would have helped then.

    It's fascinating to see just how far the body can keep going without sleep, and it was interesting to hear that one of the side effects of Pawel's efforts was that he was starting to have hallucinations. This was a common theme during my long night expeditions, especially so during one spell in 1999 when I was trying to finish a Munros round before the end of the century. I failed, mainly due to three extreme trips one after another which wiped me out for weeks.

    These nocturnal outings after a stressful day in the office and a few hours' drive were more akin to sleepwalking and even now I'm not 100 per cent sure exactly what I saw or didn't see at certain points during these climbs.

    I encountered talking trees in the corrie below Ladhar Bheinn and giant otters in football colours at the summit, while on Seana Bhraigh I ate breakfast at the cairn at 4am in the company of goats. On a later visit I was also surprised to discover that I had to have made a major river crossing of which there was zero memory.

    It all seemed real at the time but that was when I really was running on empty. Maybe a couple of power naps would have helped.