The Last Munro Oct 1st 2019
I began climbing Munros in the summer of 1987, not because of any great plan, but because I was recovering from a debilitating illness and my brother persuaded me that it would be a good way to get fit again. Accompanied by my then girlfriend Jane, my sister and my brother, I climbed An Teallach, one of Scotlands most iconic mountains.
This set me on a path that changed my life; I did not “do my Munros” the Munros did me and those around me: I was an absent parent, an absent husband, sometimes when the sun shone and I knew my presence in the office was not required I was an absent employee. I can clearly remember talking to one of the main board directors of B&Q on my mobile as I laboured my way up the side of one of the Drumochter hills on a sunny afternoon when I should have been in the office.
I never started them with any grand vision, but they led me on a life changing path; they took me into rock climbing (in order to do the Skye ridge), which in turn took me mountaineering in the Alps and the Greater Ranges; they defined my friends, my life style and ultimately my career. The process made me what I am today and gave me an insight to a Scotland and what is left of our wilderness that only those who have trod a similar path can really understand.
I have a book with most of the hills dated, my companions logged, the weather conditions noted. What is not annotated is the previous night’s anxiety: would I get up the thing, would I get lost, fall off some god forsaken icy slope, get avalanched, be another statistic condemned by the press as one more selfish individual who put others’ lives at risk as they dragged my beaten corpse off the hill.
As the list went by my ability progressed, I no longer relied on others for moral and technical support, I started going out on my own, in all weather and in all seasons, I started to appreciate my own company and the utter selfishness involved. To hell with having to wait, hurry up, apologise for wanting to stop and take a picture, I did not want to be with others, my misanthropic existence whilst in the hills had been justified and confirmed.
At the same time I started to appreciate the wilderness (or what we have left of it), when I did my first few hills the paths were not particularly evident, but, being part of the explosion in “bagging,” within a decade I noticed the difference: erosion, litter, and the numbers competing for car parking spaces became evident. I in turn became elitist, somewhat despising those who took to the hills in groups, those that followed the guide book path defined in the book. I would start very early or very late to avoid meeting others and choose my own route to the summit, my wilderness experience protected as far as possible.
My last few dozen hills were the most remote, the hardest to get to. The north west became my regular destination, winter my preferred time. No midges! No people! The Letterewe and Knoydart where it was rare to meet anyone else. I became utterly spoilt in my misanthropic pursuits.
Then, all of a sudden, I only had one left to do. Really! It just happened: I had been enjoying myself so much I didn’t really realise that I was approaching the end of the list
It was a real conflict of emotions that I set out to climb the Ben, which was my last Why was it my last? Most think it was some grand plan but the truth is that it was not; the Ben never appealed to me. It is the pinnacle (no pun intended) of winter climbing, but I would rather pour a bucket of water over my head and sit in the fridge than spend hours shivering on a cold belay ledge dreaming of shorts, bolts and chalk bag whilst my leader goes up and down and up and down and says: “It will go!!!” It’s the biggest therefore the best? No: it’s over managed, generally covered by the great unwashed, dirty and as far as can be removed from any form of wilderness.
I even considered not doing the Big Ben. Why should I, just to complete a somewhat arbitrary list? To join a club I had no desire to be a member of? I was not even going to get a shiny badge so why should I?
I was also rather scared, it was an end to my purpose. Half way through the list I had been coerced into going to live in England, under the lure of big bucks and a career in prosperity. The list had kept me making an effort to drive north, to watch the weather forecast, to absent myself for days at a time from family life and my business. What would happen when I no longer had the purpose; would it be an end, a downhill slide into old age and infirmity.
The forecast was a bit undecided. Scotland had not had a great summer. Autumn now had its grip on the land, the north face car park was quiet. I set off as dawn broke, no way was I going up the tourist path, I had decided to take in Carn Mor Dearg and the arête to the summit, my hope to avoid as many folk as possible. I felt really strong and in no time at all had climbed to 1100m to the ridge on CMD. It was great, the cloud was coming and going, obscuring the top of the Ben (and any trace of Fort William below). It was really atmospheric: the stags were in full rut in the glens below, an eagle circled on high; I felt at one with the mountains, in my element, at home – not another human soul in sight…
I dropped down to the lowest point between CMD and the Ben, the cloud cleared and gave me a fantastic view: the ring of steel to the south sat above the Steal waterfall, every other hill below me. I was after all on the UK’s highest – glorious, Scotland at its best! I laboured up the steep slope to the summit and the reality of theme park Scotland. There were at least 20 folk there and with more arriving by the minute I neither waited nor touched the cairn – I fled.
I followed the trail of cairns every 20m, almost as regular as the discarded toilet paper, down to the point at which I could turn north and head back to my route up, leaving the hordes behind.
By the time I was back in the glen, the afternoon sun was warm. The frosts had killed the midge, so I sat in comfort at the side of the river and just let my mind wander. Two wrens played in the undergrowth almost beside me, they were oblivious to my presence: humans do not sit still do they? I suddenly felt a great release, not just because I had done it: completed the list, joined the club (no shiny badge given) – but because the pressure had gone. No longer would my next trip to Scotland be set out with a clear cut destination, a tick to be achieved, another bit of the list. I could in effect go anywhere I liked, revisit the places I had loved being, give time to enjoy again the hills I had climbed in perhaps not such ideal conditions. Awesome.
I went down to Nevisport and bought the book on the Corbetts to celebrate.