In the soggy summer of 2005 Lorraine McCall became the first woman to complete a continuous round of the Munros on foot and by kayak. Here she looks back at a life changing journey.
On my 40th birthday I went for a wee walk across all the 3000-foot mountains in Scotland. I was not in a hurry. I was out for 4 1/2 months, climbed 550,000ft (give or take), walked around 1600 miles, sea kayaked 100km, spent 72 nights in my tent, 14 in bothies, nine bivvied out and the others in random dosses, people's houses, the odd bunkhouse, youth hostel and even a couple of luxurious nights in hotels.
The plan was to carry out the journey with a minimum carbon footprint, thus I walked between the hills and sea kayaked out to Skye and Mull.
I started in the northwest and finished on ??? - in retrospect perhaps not the best plan as I was walking into the prevailing winds and towards civilisation rather than away from it. My thinking was to miss the worst of the midges early in the season and this definitely worked. I only experienced a couple of bad attacks and had no problem with sheep ticks. The weather was pretty wild that season, with seemingly endless days of rain and wind. In general this did not bother me, but made me appreciate the good days when they arrived.
It was not an unsupported journey, a very helpful group of friends did food drops in various areas and I met many people who helped in various ways throughout. Neither was it completely solo; I had company on 30 of the then 284 summits (there are now officially 283) and a friend to join me on four of the six sea kayak journeys. At the end of a day's walk I'd occasionally accept a lift to the nearest pub, provided I could pick up my walk again the next morning at the point at which I'd left it.
"If you ever lose faith in humanity go on a big walk..."
It was not meticulously planned. Before starting this journey I had little experience of backpacking for more than a weekend at a time. At first I carried far too much out of habit and did not appreciate the benefits of going lightweight. As time passed my load decreased steadily, from a 65litre sack weighing about 50lbs at the beginning to 30 litres weighing maybe 5lbs at the end. I had not realised that my food intake would increase the fitter I got. I went from being able to go all day without eating to having to eat every couple of hours. I fantasised continuously about food. When friends came to meet me at the base of Ben Cruachan, to their horror I consumed eight fresh chocolate cream éclairs in minutes.
"...to their horror I consumed eight fresh chocolate cream éclairs in minutes..."
I didn't have to worry about what I ate. Or drank. A group of friends came to meet up with me on a bank holiday weekend at Shenevall bothy - not the time and place to go if you want a quiet weekend in the mountains. We counted 43 people sleeping in the bothy and 30 tents outside. As well as the steak and fresh vegetables they prepared, rather a large amount of whisky and wine were consumed and there was much singing and hilarity in the bothy that evening. I remember one Irish lass who sang beautifully. Not, unfortunately, appreciated by some of those trying to sleep in the bothy.
The mountains were not without incident. Returning to the tent at night after climbing Seana Bhraigh and Eididh nan Clach Geala, my friend Rosie and I lost the tent in the mist and we both had to share my bivvi bag; a very cold night but with a lot of laughter. Another time en route for A' Mhaighdean, I dropped my rucksack in a pile of boulders with a grey waterproof liner on it. It took a good few hours and a lot of swearing before I found it later in the day. The wildest journey was from Achnasheen to Glen Shiel, climbing some of the remotest mountains (like Lurg Mhor and Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich) and some of the most wonderful and highest ridges including the Strathfarrar, Loch Mullardoch, Glen Affric and Glen Shiel hills.
I had some really bad weather, ran out of food and had an emergency bivvy on An Socach above Loch Mullardoch because I knew if I dropped down to the valley I would not have the energy to come back up and carry on before I picked up my next food drop. That night the temperature dropped substantially and in the morning my boots had frozen and I could not heat any water on my stove as the gas would not take. I still had to traverse Mam Sodhail, Carn Eighe, Beinn Fhionnlaidh, Tom a' Choinich and Toll Creagach before hitching out to Cannich to pick up more food and seek refuge in a local hostel. For me this area is the last great wilderness and the Munros are only the tip of the iceberg. I was in this area for 12 days and climbed 33 Munros.
"This area is the last great wilderness and the Munros are only the tip of the iceberg"
My friend Pauline and I got stuck out in a storm on a planned north to south Cuillin Ridge Traverse. When I called the sailing boat I used to work on for a weather forecast they were stormbound in Kyle (force 10 on the richter scale at sea level). We were bivvied out on Sgurr na Banachdich without sleeping bags or a stove as friends had dropped our things for us further along the ridge at the base of the In Pinn the previous day. We managed the next day to force ourselves along to collect our gear but then had to escape the ridge as lashing horizontal rain hampered our progress. It was Whitsun week and not one tent was camped in Glen Brittle. We took refuge at the Youth Hostel but time was against us and Pauline had to leave.
I climbed the In Pinn with a couple of lads from the hostel on the 1st of June in the snow then had to wait another couple of days as the weather came in again before I could get back onto the ridge to finish the traverse on my own. This was not without mishap and I was very relieved to eventually arrive at Camasunary around one a.m. days later after the long descent down Garbh Coire (which actually means the corrie with the large moving boulders the size of houses), followed by tramping through the sea at the bottom as it was a high tide, followed by traversing the Bad Step in the dark. I had 14 rest days on the whole journey; six of these were on Skye because of the weather.
In Glencoe, on the summit of Creise without my pack I had to spend the night on top of my map case with no bivvy gear as the mist came in so thick I could not see my feet. This is the only time in my life I have seen such a thick mist. I experienced some really strong winds but none more so than on the Beinn a' Bheithir horseshoe with my friend Martin. On reaching the first summit we were on our knees with arms wrapped around each other's shoulders, crawling. It was not possible to speak, my mouth felt like a piece of rubber. By the second summit we could stand up in between gusts. I loved Martin's description from his Irish Granny;
"Ye widnae put the fox oot the hen hoose on a day like this!"
Sea kayaking had its moments too. My friend Pauline and I paddled about 50km from Arnisdale in Loch Hourn to Loch Sligachan on Skye in increasingly strong winds going against two spring tides with no skegs (a retractable fin that stops the boat turning into the wind). We were worried about stopping as the weather was due to break the next day. When we eventually stopped at the head of Loch Sligachan at 10pm, Pauline had to help me take off all my wet clothes as my arms refused to work. We just managed to lift the boats above the high water line and then abandoned them till the next day. We could not lift them another inch. The weather came in earlier than expected and that night a storm ripped the fabric then the zip of my tent. We were lucky to have made it. We had been in the boats for 11 ½ hours with a 15 minute break.
The staff at Kilbowie Outdoor Centre allowed me to borrow a sea kayak for my journey to Mull. While at the centre I met Kath Murgatroyd. In 1985 she became the first woman to do a continual round of all the Munros, travelling between the hill groups by bicycle. It was exciting to meet her and I could have stayed there all day swapping tales if I did not have a sea journey to start. Paddling to Mull from Oban my friend Damien and I got caught on a rising spring tide at the start of the Sound with the ferry making its way out of Craignure. It was difficult to ride the waves and get out of the planned route of the ferry and we lost sight of each other on many frightening occasions in the high waves. Damien was more worried than me. I had sailed a lot in this area and knew the point where the ferry had to take a sharp turn away from us. We were trashed by the time we reached Craignure that night and my hatch had been leaking. Everything was soaked - all very kindly dried out by the owner of the pub.
I had planned to kayak across Loch Lomond to climb Ben Lomond and had emailed a local club to see if anyone could loan me a boat. A lad arranged to meet me at Inverarnan. I had imagined a sea kayak but when I arrived there was a little river boat aptly named a Piranha Pirouette - which is what I did on the way across the loch in an increasingly strong southwesterly wind with the rain lashing down. It was even harder work on the way back with the wind behind me. I was exhausted by the time i got back to the Drover's Inn that evening, yet again the kayaking had used up all my energy.
"We lost sight of each other on many frightening occasions in the high waves..."
Strangers featured very highly on this journey. If you ever lose faith in humanity go on a big walk. I arrived at Altnaharra after climbing Ben Hope on my birthday on my first day out. As well as all the locals buying me drinks the hotel insisted on feeding me and putting me up in a small cottage room. Similar hospitality was given to me by Mike and Kai at the Crask Inn the next night after climbing Ben Klibreck. En route from Am Faochagach a stalker and his wife allowed me to camp in their grounds, gave me a bath and fed me whisky. Phyllis and Steve, the (then) stalker and his wife at Barrisdale put me up for the night and took me over to Arnisdale by boat to pick up a package. At Clunes an elderly very sprightly couple, Frank and Flora, took my pack for the afternoon while I went up the Loch Lochy Hills. On returning to collect it they fed me dinner and put me up for the night and I was enthralled with stories of their younger lives. Even in her 80's Flora was a beautiful sparky woman.
At Culra bothy, while changing out of wet clothes, a lad entered the room looking like a drowned rat. It had been a foul day on the hill. I asked him if he would like a cup of tea but he said he could not stop he was dropping off a package for someone before crossing back over the river to his son. That someone was me. This was Dave Robertson, we had a mutual friend in common. This man who I had never met before had just sea kayaked miles and miles down Loch Ericht with his 14 year old son, crossed the moor and then the river (not knowing there was now a bridge further down) to drop a bag of food for someone he had never met. All this on a really wild day.
"A cool Guinness in the sun outside Pean bothy; skinny dipping at midnight in Loch Etchachan..."
I loved meeting people but even more I loved being on my own, particularly in some of the bigger areas I'd not been to before. I thought I knew Scotland well yet I discovered the Fisherfields, Loch Mullardoch and Glen Affric, Knoydart, the real heart of the Cairngorms. It is such a sense of achievement battling the elements and navigating through harsh and new terrain.
I was not brought up in the outdoors and was in my late twenties before discovering the mountains but I had not yet learned to really look around. This was a whole new sensual world. Seeing the early morning dew glistening on the grass, washing in it. The springiness of a dry bog under your feet, the carpet of sphagnum moss, sundew, bog cotton, and my favourite - is there anything more beautiful than bog asphodel in late summer?
The yellow rose root as I scrambled up cool rock, drinking out of a mountain stream. The golden plover's alarm call very early mornings all down the north west. Heading down to Sourlies from the Mam Mhodail with a strong sense these valleys were not always so empty. Wanting to hear the sounds of children and laughter and a sudden sense of the sadness of it all. Eating from a pot on the South Cluanie Ridge outside my tent as the sun set. Working with the daylight hours, getting up when the sun rises at Kinbreck bothy to wade the Kingie and an early morning run up Gairich before turning south to trudge through sludge en route for Glen Pean. A cool Guinness in the sun outside Pean bothy then thunder crashes and the lightning strikes later that night resounding through and illuminating the bothy every few minutes.
The biting wind and driving rain while traversing the Ben Alder range. Skinny dipping at midnight in Loch Etchachan. On Beinn Bhrotain watching a group of fluffy grey ptarmigan chicks waddle across my path before the mother dives at me from nowhere and heads me off with her broken wing. Stepping from behind a rock on Beinn a'Ghlo only to be forced back by hundreds of deer stampeding past, feeling the tremors through the rock. Nothing to worry about except what is on your back and where you shall lay your head. A final night on my own, running out of energy and bivvying in the rain on the Mamores ridge before dropping into Glen Nevis to meet friends.
I finished my walk on Ben Nevis, on the 3rd of September 2005. The next day was one of the saddest of my life.
For more Munro-related madness see this UKH article on Stephen Pyke's 2010 speed record.
Who's Lorraine McCall?
Lorraine's day job is in the hills, running walking holidays for tour company Wilderness Scotland in summer and winter, and doing development training work for the Living Wild project of the Venture Trust. Mainly based in Scotland, she's also guided walks in the Atlas mountains, China, Tibet, Nepal and Kilimanjaro.
"I love journeying by land and sea and worked for five years on board a sail training vessel (an old gaff rigg schooner) mainly off the northwest coast of Scotland which must be one of the world's top sailing grounds. I raised some money for this boat (Spirit of Fairbridge) when doing my walk. I also love sea kayaking and sometimes act as an assistant guide on kayaking trips. I do a bit of climbing - prefer winter to summer, but never get very good because I do not train. One of my best memories was climbing the Orion Face in really wild conditions where the whole mountain seemed to be rushing down as we were moving up; feeling very small but part of something much bigger teetering across the ice fields in the middle of this big face. But my first love is probably disappearing on multi day trips with a backpack."
The Munro walk was sponsored by Berghaus, Terra Nova, Pacerpoles and Summits.