THE HILLS are not really places for striking up conversations. As a rule, I'm happy with "How're you doin'?" If the day is fantastic, then it's OK to stop and say so. And if you've just overtaken someone, you don't talk, you want to quickly open a lead before it turns into one of those full-afternoon "we're not really competitive" races. But somehow, over the years, conversation has occasionally escaped these parameters and I've heard or uttered words that ricochet between stupid, unaccountable and plain surreal.
What's triggered this thought is bagger talk. More and more people are bent on telling you their totals, especially when you meet them on harder-to-get ones like Sgurr Mor. You thought you'd get a bit of peace, not "This is my fifth-last." Fifth-last what, for godsake? Or have they just had premonitions of mortality? Then someone tells you, at the end of the South Glen Shiel ridge, "Well, that's another seven out of the way."
But it tends to get made up for by encounters that go from odd to idiotic. Badly hungover on a winter circuit of Loch Turret, we encountered an Austrian party in the mist after Ben Chonzie. Three of them were arguing and one appealed to us: How far to the top? We said maybe 400 metres distance, less than 20 ascent. He nodded sadly and pointed to his mates: "They have had their summit snack. They will not go on." When we lost them in the mist they were still arguing, but I thought he was on a loser.
Sometimes the exchange is pure rudeness. We were strolling off the summit of Stob Ghabhar in spring when, totally unprovoked, a passer-by said: "Look at the pair of you, hands in your pockets. Are you advertising male leisure wear?" I was lost in admiration and only shocked at my inability to provide a snappy comeback.
I've been rude myself and not always effectively. One winter evening we passed a large, slow party coming down from Carn an Righ. At Dalmunzie in the gloaming a minibus was waiting. Ronnie gave the driver an estimate, then got chatting. Which university were they from? Edinburgh, he replied. "Shouldn't have bothered asking," I interrupted. "Where else would an Englishman go?" Politely, he replied: "Actually, I'm Swedish."
Another friend, Gordon, takes any helpful comment as an insult. We were sitting in the mist on one of the hummocks on Ben Donich when a passer-by said: "This isn't the summit, you know." Gordon glared at him. "So the map's right, then."
You say hello on the hills but not when it's a walk in the park. Doing a circuit of Dun Rig from Peebles, it's a socially tricky skill working out the changeover. Generally, if they're walking their dogs, you've crossed the line. Much of England and Wales can safely be regarded as public park. In the Brecon Beacons my cheery greeting was ignored by about 100 people until one shoved a camera in my hand and said: "Take our photograph." I did, and that was that, no please or thanks. My only conversation was with a guy who wanted to take my picture on the rudely named Fan y Big. He went each day to the grid reference of the date, in this case 030204, and photographed the first person he met. I posed, then ran.
Most exchanges are cheery, even if this spring on my tenth consecutive no-visibility summit the humour got fairly black. The inevitable exceptions are from Yorkshire. There was one Tyke encountered on a perfect day on Stob na Doire. "How're you doin'? Fantastic day," I said, fairly uncontroversially I thought. "Bloody BBC! Can't get the weather reet. If they said it'd be like this, Ah'd be oop the fookin' Anock Eegack." It took me a moment to work out this wasn't a variant of the Forcan Ridge.
It can be that you're just a bystander. I was once on top of a very crowded Ben Lomond, watching a mendicant sheep hustling people for a share of their sandwiches. Suddenly a rottweiler made a dart for it. Everyone waited for disaster but the owner - big, red-faced and wearing a Rangers strip - shouted: "Tyson, here!" Like a lamb, Tyson returned. Incidentally, we were up from Comer, via the unsuspected joys of the back corrie - a great route and not one you often see mentioned.
On Sgor Gaibhre we once bumped into a party from a Lennoxtown walking club. We got into a Where have you been? conversation with one of them. There was no overt competition, but we were all trying to be very precise in our Gaelic naming. The Lennoxtonian's mates didn't seem to notice. I think of them as villagers in a Samurai movie who can't understand the complexities of the slow-mo martial arts being performed in front of them. Anyway, he trounced us, his Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and Mullach na Dheiragain being just poetry, and we went on our way. As soon as we were out of earshot I asked my companion, "What about that?" He paused. "I've still got a stiffie."
Maybe we're all better staying with "How're you doin'?"
Ed. - Re Davie's TAC71 letter on the subject of Munro-boasting, see Charles Murray's response on page 16.
TAC 72 Index