Anne Butler, president of the Munro Society, offers a personal alphabet of hillwalking experiences, from the amazing to the zany...
If you want to reach the top of a hill then some form of ascent is inevitable. Hills all seem to go upwards, but the amount of up often bears no relation to the subsequent amount of effort involved. Don't be fooled, 1350m of ascent up Ben Nevis on a pleasant path is a walk in the park compared to the 640m of tortuous ascent through thigh deep heather required to reach the summit of Carn Salachaidh.
A bagger needs a list; it gives extra incentive and enjoyment to their hill walk. Bagging provides us with endless possibilities but requires a lot of determination and dedication. A bagger will have to take the good along with the bad and visit a lot of summits that most people wouldn't be interested in, with a tick or date on a list acting as a visible reminder of a memorable day in the hills.
Although they have many advantages bikes and I simply don't get on. I am quite short and have a dodgy back, so finding a comfortable bike has always been a challenge and by the time I get off the bike at the bottom of the hill I have usually seized up. I would rather walk, and these days I usually do.
Bothies are simple shelters that provide a civilised and sociable way to spend a night in the wilds with none of the faffing that always seems to be involved with camping. I have spent many enjoyable nights in a bothy in the company of Austrian opera singers, professional cricketers, actors, clergymen and quite a lot of weirdos.
Many people take healthy snacks onto the hill to give them a boost of energy. Sod that, chocolate hits the spot every time.
Anybody who thinks Corbetts are 'lesser hills' clearly hasn't climbed many of them! They are rough, tough and perfectly formed. They take you to parts of Scotland that the Munros don't. Most of them don't have paths and most of them don't have people. I certainly found the Corbetts more challenging and ultimately more rewarding than a round of Munros.
I spent over half my adult life living in South Devon, and Dartmoor was my playground. I walked and rode my horse over the moors for over 20 years. Alternating bleak moorland studded with weirdly sculptured tors and deeply wooded valleys with rolling farmland, the walking is challenging. The weather is unpredictable, there are ankle breaking tussocks and bogs that could swallow a tractor. There are free ranging ponies and tales of ghostly hauntings to unsettle those of a nervous disposition but away from the tourist honeypots it is empty and there aren't any midges.
I do love an epic. I enjoy walking from sunrise to sunset and taking 18 hours to climb one Corbett. Trips involving 14 days of non-stop hillwalking or travelling to Mull as a day trip from Aviemore to climb one hill. Frankly it is all worth it if I don't have to camp!
People go to the hills for a variety of different reasons. Sometimes the last thing we want to do is to have to chat with other people, but honestly how hard is it to be civil? Passing a lone walker on a remote Graham is a novel experience so etiquette dictates that you could at least manage to wave or say 'hello' as you pass by.
Comprising the 3000-foot summits of England, Wales and Ireland, the Furths are a fantastic group of hills. There are only 34 of them, so the list is totally manageable for the average hillwalker. Wherever you live, climbing them all will involve a lot of travelling and a lot of planning. The Furths in the Lake District and Snowdon are heaving with people so don't climb them if you want peace or solitude. Having to queue to get to the trig point on Snowdon was certainly an unusual experience!
Are you a Golfer or a Banker? The first Munro round is simple (other hill lists are available); you just climb all the hills on the list. A Golfer doesn't start the next round until they have finished the last, they start from scratch just like playing a round of golf. A Banker adds their repeat ascents into the 'bank' for subsequent rounds. There is no right or wrong way to count your hills, there are no rules!
I have to admit that some of the Grahams are actually rather good! That's it, I have said it out loud. In fact, not just good, they gave me some of my most enjoyable and taxing days on the hill. Many hillwalkers view the Grahams as a poor relation to the Munros, their lower height obviously equating to something inferior (I know I did). How wrong I was, they are a massive challenge.
I have only met people on a handful of Grahams so they are ideal for the anti-social hill walker. If you are planning on completing the Grahams you will grow to love the luxury of a path when you find one, you will delight in the novelty of meeting another person on the hill and walking through bog filled tussocks will become commonplace.
Hostels have certainly improved over the years. Many of them now offer levels of comfort and facilities previously found in hotels but with a lot more freedom and all at a price that doesn't make your eyes water. The downside is sometimes having to share a room with somebody with dubious personal hygiene or even worse, a snorer.
Climbers will walk up it with their hands in their pockets and Danny MacAskill has summited it with a mountain bike, but for the average hillwalker the Inaccessible Pinnacle is quite a long way out of their comfort zone. The guidebook description of 'a knife edge ridge with an overhanging and infinite drop on one side and an even bigger drop on the other' doesn't exactly do much to quell the nerves. On my first trip to Skye to climb the Cuillin Munros, Andy, my climbing pal told me that the Inaccessible Pinnacle wasn't the hardest thing that we would be doing that week. And he was right, it wasn't!
Midges, clegs and ticks (yes, I know ticks aren't technically an insect) are the bane of a hillwalker's life. Midges are universally loathed; the hideous bloodsucking little blighters will turn a perfectly good day on the hill into a battle for survival. Clegs (or horseflies, south of the border) creep up on you unnoticed and then sink their razor sharp fangs into your delicate flesh and leave you itching all day. Ticks manage to crawl into those most inaccessible places, places that often require the services of a very close friend to remove. Spending the evening picking ticks off of the dog is a strangely satisfying way to pass the time.
Is it possible to have too many jackets? Waterproof, windproof, wicking, breathable, down, insulated, fleece, softshell, hardshell, the list is endless. Years ago, we had a coat for hill walking. If it was cold or wet, we put it on and if it wasn't, we took it off. Nowadays we are encouraged to have a different jacket for every weather related eventuality. Many of my old jackets are still going strong and still fit for purpose; but I keep on buying more!
A trip to Jura is like visiting the land that time forgot. Getting to it in the first place is quite an adventure with the Paps luring you in from afar. As you drive off the ferry and travel up the island's only road your watch and your brain quickly adjust to Jura time. There are miles of rugged coastline and wherever you go on the island the Paps are still watching over you, taunting you to come and have a go if you think you are hard enough.
As a person who walks up and down hills (a lot) it was inevitable that my knees were going to give out at some time. Keeping my knees going involves a lot of effort; I always use poles on the hill, there are regular osteopathy visits, occasional steroid injections from the GP, time on the turbo trainer in the garage to maintain flexibility and lots of ibuprofen. Every now and then I need little bit more drastic treatment from a friendly orthopaedic surgeon.
There are some places that take a lot of effort to get to. Knoydart is one of them and however you get there, it is always worth the effort. The hills are committing and unique, the views are superlative, the midges are awful and it is home to the most expensive and overrated pub in the UK.
When Sir Hugh Munro wrote his list I am sure he had no idea of what he had started. The Munros were the first list and led to a plethora of eponymous and prominence based lists. In fact, there are so many lists that even the most list obsessive bagger would grow old and die before they had a chance to climb them all.
We have all been positionally challenged at one time or another and there is nothing wrong with admitting you have been lost, just make sure you know what to do to become un-lost again. These days the vast majority of bigger hills have paths up them so becoming lost in the first place would be quite an achievement! However, when we started hillwalking my husband Bill and I managed, on more than one occasion, to walk quite a considerable distance up the wrong hill before we realised our mistake.
The Munros were where it all started for me. When I climbed Ben Lomond (my first Munro), I knew there would be many, many more to follow. The Munros are an exceptional group of hills, they introduced me to hill walking and I became thoroughly obsessed. Many of my most outstanding days have been on the Munros, but the day I took my Munro blinkers off was a revelation, there are also amazing and challenging hills below the 3000ft contour. Who'd have thought it!
We are the sum total of our experiences and those experiences shape the person we are. So why is it, despite never having had a bad experience, that every time I get onto an exposed ridge the more nervous I become? And yet I still go back for more!
It was dark. There were two people, two bikes, one headtorch and endless miles of forest tracks between us and the car. What could possibly go wrong? Well, I spent a lot of time falling off and Andy spent a lot of time helping me out of ditches! Note to self, always carry a spare headtorch.
Whilst I was nursing, I subjected my back to many years of heavy lifting and it is repaying me by slowly falling to bits. Hill walking actually helps keep me going but without a regular pummelling from Anne, our local osteopath, I wouldn't be able to climb up the stairs to bed, never mind a Munro!
Maps can provide hours of endless entertainment. You can spend whole evenings counting trig points, colour coding hills, planning trips and tracing routes. Some maps are far more exciting than others. Sheet 33 (Loch Alsh & Glen Shiel) contains the magical mountain areas of Knoydart, Morar and Kintail, whereas Sheet 46 (Coll & Tiree) is 90% sea and probably only of interest to people living on Coll or Tiree.
I am sure there is an unwritten law that Paramo clothing is not allowed to be sold to anybody under the age of 40. Twenty somethings stride across the hillsides decked out in Rab, Arcteryx and Mountain Equipment, but as soon as a person has blown out the candles on their 40th birthday cake they are off to the Paramo shop to buy a jacket that will no doubt outlive them.
In an ideal world all the hills would have a well placed carpark conveniently sited at the start of the walk. We can but dream as we try to wedge our cars onto a narrow grass verge between the road and a tyre eating bog. For a lot of the less popular hills Google Earth can be your friend. A quick scan will reveal strategically placed laybys or forest tracks that aren't shown on the map and if you are really lucky, they won't have a mobile home parked in them.
Quantity vs quality
One of the disadvantages of being a hill bagger is that there is a never ending number of hills to climb but a massive variation in their quality. This is the quantity vs quality conundrum. What makes a 'quality' hill is often down to our personal tastes, most people will expect a good view and very little man-made intrusion. Wildlife, vegetation and an absence of people and litter is also a bonus. A good day on the hill will give you a full mind and body workout, but for the dedicated bagger not all days are like this. Some hills serve no useful purpose other than providing a tick in the book and another one off the list.
But baggers know this, we take the rough with the smooth and know that for every Beinn Alligin, Suilven or An Teallach we have to climb Hill of Wirren, Windy Standard and Carn Aosda.
Ralph, my canine hill walking companion, is a lovable, neurotic Border Collie with a severe stick obsession and a very limited range of facial expressions.
Being a southern softy I have never been a great lover of snow. I admit it looks great and many people thrive in the winter environment but it wouldn't do for us to all be the same now would it? Blue-sky days on lovely crisp snow are few and far between. Reality is somewhat different; postholing, breakable crust, avalanches, dodgy roads, paths that turn to sheet ice after a couple of days footfall and yellow snow. I have no problem with snow where it belongs, on the hills, just not in my garden.
Apparently, I am quite good on scree, 'for a girl'! There are some great scree slopes on Skye and quite a few good ones in Torridon. Whoever falls over the most during the descent loses and has to buy the beers.
Type two fun
Some days are better than others and some stick in the memory for all the wrong reasons. Those legendary days of suffering, questioning your own sanity and wondering if staying at home and taking up knitting would've been more sensible. These are Type two fun days, retrospective fun, miserable at the time but on reflection you realise you actually quite enjoyed it. My most memorable Type two fun day was on the Glenfinnan Corbetts. I was still recovering from a virulent stomach bug and it rained biblically for eight hours. The paths turned into rivers and Andy had to carry dogs and rucksacks across swollen burns. Thankfully we can laugh about it now.
Agility, flexibility, dexterity and co-ordination are all useful traits to possess if you want to climb or scramble on the hills. Unfortunately I do not possess any of these qualities. Sometimes I am so uncoordinated I struggle to tell my left from my right and I put my arms where my legs should be and my legs where my arms should be. I like to use my knees and my bum as a 5th point of contact, it's not pretty but I get there in the end.
We generally rely on our cars to get us to the hills and sometimes the most unlikely cars prove to be perfect for the job. Take a 2007 Renault Clio with 136,500 miles on the clock, the interior had a permanent aroma of damp dog, it never broke down and was thrashed on some of the worst roads and tracks imaginable. Its end was sudden and its replacement is a poor substitute.
The summit is optional but surely a summit view should be mandatory? How many times have we stood at the summit looking at the inside of a cloud? There's always hope, we hope it will clear but usually it doesn't, well not until we get back to the car! When we do get a view, it makes up for all those dreich days, views are magnificent reward for the effort involved in getting to the top.
It is always hard to know what type of clothing to pack for a walking trip in the British hills. Never mind four seasons in one day, the weather has its own ideas and we get four seasons in an hour. It does rain occasionally in Scotland and Wales (you may have noticed), sometimes it's just a quick shower and other days you end up with sopping wet pants. On Skye a summer trip is preferable as the rain is warmer.
Wet feet are unpleasant and we go to extreme and often expensive lengths to avoid them. Boots, Gore-Tex linings, waterproof sock and gaiters. But however many of these we employ, sooner or later we will get wet feet. The only way to offset the physical and psychological trauma of wet feet is the knowledge that once back at the car, dry socks and shoes are waiting for us.
Xmas (and a Calendar round)
Christmas is a good time to be a hillwalker. Friends and family will want to buy you presents so it is an ideal time to let them spoil you with lots of lovely new gear which will keep you going until the following Christmas when they will ask you all over again.
Christmas Day and Boxing Day are still gaping holes in my aim to complete a Calendar Round (summitting a Munro or Corbett on each day of the year). So far I have 363 days, (364 if you include 29th February) but December 25th and 26th are still frustratingly hill free. For some strange reason my husband insists that there are better things to do on these days than walk up hills.
People poo in the hills; that's OK, when you have to go, you have to go. But when you are too lazy to bury it, your jobbie is like nectar from the Gods to a passing dog. Some prefer to eat it but I have always been blessed with dogs who like to roll in it and liberally anoint themselves in foul smelling faecal matter. Yuck.
If I was given the choice of walking for 16 hours and then coming home to my lovely comfy bed rather than having to face the hideous reality of a sleepless night in a tent, the long walk would win every time! When you consider the amount extra kit you have to carry, the midges, the miserable food and all that faffing when you need to get up in the night for a pee, walking until your feet are throbbing really doesn't seem like a bad idea at all.
- Desert Island Peaks: Anne Butler 1 Feb, 2021