Fiona Russell discusses favourite hills, caramel wafers and walking with dogs, with accomplished peak bagger Anne Butler, President of the Munro Society.
Anne Butler has completed five rounds of Munros to date and, last year, became the 53rd person to tick off the Scottish Mountaineering Club "Full House", including all the Munros, Munro Tops, Corbetts, Grahams, Donalds and Furths. She is now three-quarters of her way through the 1124 hills of her second Full House.
The first hint of Anne's list ticking tendencies appears to have come while working in Devon. After school, Anne trained as a nurse and moved to Devon where she enjoyed endurance horse riding and walking when off-duty.
She says: "When I wasn't riding my horse, Yorkie, I walked a lot on Dartmoor and I ended up climbing all the named tors in that area. This is probably where my list ticking tendencies started to emerge although it might date back further to my childhood. My dad used to take my brother and I train spotting (don't tell anyone!) so I suppose that list ticking has always been part of my psyche."
I climbed my first hill 21 years ago and it has changed my life...
It was during a holiday with her husband Bill in 1998 that she walked her first Munro, Ben Lomond. Anne says: "It was tough and the descent seemed to go on forever. We didn't even get a view. But then I bought a book on the Munros and that was it. Several times a year, we travelled up from Devon, walking in whatever the weather threw at us and learning as we went along."
"My Munro completion, seven years later, on Sgurr Eilde Mor marked the end of my ever increasingly frantic list ticking."
In 2008, Anne and Bill, a submariner in the Royal Navy, moved to Scotland. Bill was posted to Faslane Naval Base on the Clyde and Anne took early retirement.
She says: "My back had given in after many years lifting heavy patients and my GP advised me that exercise would be good for me so I took him at his word. l started climbing the Corbetts and a second round of Munros. I completed both these rounds on the same day in 2010, climbing Am Bathach above the Cluanie Inn in Kintail and then on to Ciste Dhubh.
"On the way down, one of my friends asked 'same time next year then Anne?' and the seed was planted. Round three was completed on Slioch 364 days later. Round four followed on Ben Challum in 2012 and round five on Ben Hope in 2014. I now have less than 50 Munros left in my sixth round and I am more than half way through round seven."
However, Anne admits that after five Munro rounds, she found the endless chase around the same hills was starting to wane. Looking for a new challenge, she decided to aim for the Full House.
She says: "Planning walks in areas or on hills I had never visited was invigorating. The Grahams proved to be a physical challenge, of lower height but extremely rough and challenging terrain. The Donalds were more of a mental challenge than a physical one and finishing the Munro Tops took me on routes that I had bypassed for many years. I dug out the maps again and thoroughly enjoyed planning walks to new areas, climbing up new hills and I relished the peace and freedom on the less popular and unfrequented Tops, Grahams and Donalds."
The Furths, mountains over 3000ft in the UK but outside Scotland, proved to be more of a logistical challenge. Anne says: "The Furths involved travelling to the Lake District, Snowdonia and Ireland, which are all a long way from Aviemore, where we now live."
In September 2018, Anne walked Fiarach, near Tyndrum, accompanied by 55 friends to complete her round of Grahams and also record the SMC Full House.
She shows no signs of stopping. Anne says: "The Full House was a challenge that gave me a huge amount of satisfaction and enjoyment, so much so, that I almost three-quarters of the way my second one."
Anne's dogs have always been an important part of her hill walking. Meg accompanied her on trips up from Devon and she was there on Anne's first completion. Then came Molly, who, in 2012, became the first dog (known at the time) to have climbed all the Corbetts, including threading the needle on the Cobbler and traversing the A' Chir ridge on Arran.
Anne now has Ralph who she describes as "possibly the most exuberant hill dog ever".
When Anne completed the Munros in 2005, she joined The Munro Society. She has served on the committee since 2012 and became president in 2019.
She says: "To be honest, I still have absolutely no idea how I have ended up where I am today. I didn't come from a family with an outdoor pedigree and I am hardly a natural athlete, but I hope that I might inspire other people just to get out and enjoy the hills. If a short, podgy middle-aged woman with no hillwalking experience can do it anyone can. I climbed my first hill 21 years ago and it has changed my life, being in the hills has helped me physically and mentally, developing stamina, determination and self-confidence.
"The hills are a great leveller, on the hill everyone is equal, whatever our background, sex or job we are looking at the same view and being rained on by the same rain."
What is your first memory of walking in the hills?
As a child, I was dragged very reluctantly around Exmoor by my parents. I didn't enjoy it and would far rather have stayed on the beach. When Bill and I climbed Ben Lomond in 1998, I wasn't fit for hillwalking as all my muscles were used to horse riding. The descent was painfully endless but I gained a perverse satisfaction from it and carried on from there.
Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?
I really discovered the joys of an outdoor life alongside my animals. When we got Meg our first dog, we started exploring Dartmoor in greater detail and training my horse for endurance competitions meant spending many hours on the moors. I became aware of the sounds, sights and smells, the changing seasons and the vagaries of the weather. I realised how much being outdoors provided an antidote to the stressful world inside the NHS.
Bill has always encouraged me to do what I do as he realises how important hill walking is to my health.
When did you realise you would be a keen life-long hillwalker?
I find the structure of a list and having a goal to work towards is important to me. Just after I climbed my 100th Munro, I realised that hillwalking was something that was becoming increasingly addictive. I was either on trips to the hills or planning trips to the hills.
I met Andy Ravenhill, of Alba Mountaineering, in 2002 and he agreed in a moment of weakness to guide me over the Skye Munros. We did it – and that was the turning point. Since then we have climbed all the Cuillin Munros together seven times and as a result Andy has gone grey!
I couldn't imagine life without hill walking and it was that first Cuillin trip that led me to where I am today.
Do you prefer coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?
Anything except the coast. A hill with coastal views is stunning but costal walking leaves me cold. I enjoy a ridge walk but I do have a soft spot for the Cairngorm plateau.
Are you a fair weather or any weather walker?
I prefer walking in good weather. As I always walk with my dogs their safety is my most important consideration when looking at a weather forecast and planning a walk. Deep snow, rock hard neve, blizzards, swollen rivers and heatwaves are a no-no as it would put them at too great a risk. I am a summer person, I come alive again in the spring and tend to hibernate quite a lot over the winter unless it is a spectacular blue sky day.
What are your three all-time mountain walks and why?
Over the years I have climbed Beinn Alligin on numerous occasions with friends. The views are superlative and I had a once in a lifetime ascent on an autumn day with the colours changing and the stags roaring. Memories of these ascents will live with me forever and it is very much my "happy place".
Ben Avon is a challenge whatever direction you approach it from. The sense of achievement on reaching the Munro summit after wandering across the endless plateau to visit the tors and all the Munro Tops adds to the sense of peace, freedom and space.
Suilven is an Assynt Graham that has given me some of the best views-to-effort rewards in Scotland. It was also one of the last hill walks Bill, Molly and I did together before our dog became ill.
I struggle to name only three. My Corbett round had so many special moments. I climbed the majority of them after we moved to Scotland and it formed the basis of the bond Molly and I formed. It was also the time that I met most of my hillwalking friends.
Is the night time a good time to go hillwalking?
The colours of a sunset or sunrise provide some of the most uplifting sights I have ever witnessed. I am very much an early bird and enjoy setting off at sunrise and walking through the day. I do not enjoy camping but have witnessed some amazing sunsets from bothies.
Have you ever been lucky to avoid/escape a difficult situation in the mountains?
During a traverse along the Liathach ridge with Molly and my friend Stewart, we noticed smoke wafting around the far end of the ridge above Torridon village. We did not know that the hill was on fire and during our descent off Mullach an Rathain we were buzzed by the coastguard helicopter. Thankfully we were never in any danger but we were not allowed to continue our descent as they wanted to firebomb the flames and we were under the flightpath of the helicopter. We were all winched on board the coastguard helicopter and whisked back to sea level after they picked up another four walkers from the ridge. Molly took it all in her stride and my knees were extremely grateful to avoid 600m of jarring descent.
There has been the odd occasion that I have been navigationally challenged and realised that I was descending from the summit in the wrong direction. Luckily, I have a good sense of direction and notice if something doesn't "feel right" and it's always a bit of a wake-up call to pay more attention next time.
I have also climbed up slopes that I wouldn't attempt to climb down. There are no paths to follow on Grahams and route choice is often done very much on the hoof.
Everyone I walk with knows I carry a sweetie shop and a chemist around with me!
Your perfect walking partner?
Over the years my dogs, Molly, Meg and Ralph have been my perfect companions. They are always keen and willing to go on whatever the weather and however long the walk out is. Sitting at the summit with your arm around them having a cuddle is simply the best feeling imaginable.
However, they aren't really great conversationalists and they don't carry their own gear. Those who know me know I love to chat and I have a pretty extreme sense of humour. My regular walking companions are much the same. I always say, don't walk with us if you enjoy peace and quiet.
Are you happy to go solo?
Without a doubt, although I never feel that I am walking solo when I am with the dogs. Solo walking allows me to immerse myself in the mountain. I wasn't anxious about solo walking when I started doing it but over the years I have become more cautious as I have become more aware of what could go wrong. I carry a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) and I always ensure that Bill knows my route. Even though I love walking on my own, I miss having someone to share the memories with.
Boots, trail shoes, wellies or barefoot?
Always boots. My knees are trashed. I have had surgery on one of them and as a result one leg is shorter than the other. I have an obliterated disc in my spine so boots provide the support I need. They also minimise the jarring to my back and accommodate my special footbed. The best feeling at the end of the walk is a clean pair of socks and my comfy trainers.
How do you navigate?
I am a traditionalist at heart and use a map and compass. I always carry a GPS and put grid references in for the start of walks (often finding the start is the hardest part of the walk on some of the more obscure hills) and the summit feature. I never navigate by phone. Map and GPS has worked well for me for years.
What three items are always in your rucksack?
It's more than three but these items are always with me: Clothes/waterproofs, dog food, my food and drink, map, compass, GPS, phone.
What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?
No guilty secrets. Everyone I walk with knows I carry a sweetie shop and a chemist around with me.
However, during a summer walk on Marsco, on Skye, a few years ago a friend asked me for a plaster. I emptied my rucksack out to find the first aid kit and found the buff, microspikes and thick winter gloves I had been carrying about unused since the snow disappeared four months earlier.
Your favourite walking foods?
Mini Mars bars, Tunnock's dark chocolate caramel wafers (has to be dark chocolate as the milk ones are vile), Tangtastic sweets and a ham and pickle sandwich, which I always end up sharing with the dogs.
If you could pick only one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?
The north-west highlands are unbeatable and offer a huge variety of hills to climb. The hills are unique and they would be perfect if the midges would go away.
What is your ultimate walking heaven?
Sitting at the summit of Suilven watching the sun set. Bill pouring a glass of champagne while I cuddle Ralph under one arm and Molly under the other with Meg snuggled at my feet.
I am very content and happy with what I do now. I have never had a wanderlust and really do not wish to travel to mountains abroad.
Will you be walking until you are 103?
I very much doubt it as there would have to be some major advances in orthopaedic surgery to enable it.
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