Journalist and keen hillwalker Alan Rowan has a passion for climbing Scottish hills at night, a subject he's written about in the book Munro Moonwalker: Adventures of a Midnight Mountaineer. Most of us will occasionally start or finish a walk in the dark, but it's rarer to climb hills at night for its own sake. So what are the attractions of night walking; what are its challenges; and does it ever get spooky? We tracked Alan down to find out.
UKHillwalking: It sounds like you’ve been climbing mountains for decades, with three Munro rounds, a Corbett round and all of the other British Isles 3000-footers. Presumably a lot of that was done more conventionally, in daylight?
Alan: Yes, I walk during 'normal' hours regularly. I'm out on average at least once a week. The night walking was mainly a way to fit in more walking with my job at the time. I used to finish work around midnight, so would set off straight away, arrive around 2am and just get going. I compleated my third round of Munros last October with a 4am walk up Ben More in Mull. Unfortunately the weather was awful, mist, fierce winds and dampness. I stayed at the cairn for an hour hoping sunrise would bring a change. It didn't!
How did you first get into night walking – was it by accident or a deliberate decision?
It was deliberate but it was also an experiment. I was a production journalist on a morning paper so used to work until 11 or midnight. I had clocked up around 50 Munros but a young family and having to work weekends and weird hours meant I found it difficult to get out as much as I wanted. If you work 9-5 you don't go straight to bed when you get home. it was the same for me but at the other end of the day. It seemed like wasted hours. I suggested to my two regular climbing partners we should get going at midnight but they didn't fancy it. I decided to go alone and try it out. Plan was to have a sleep in the car and start walking around first light but when I got up to the start of the walk for the Easains it was stunning so I just set off at 2.30am. I realised then that this was the way to do it and never looked back.
Roughly how many Munros have you now climbed at night?
My first night ascent was in 1994 and I only did two walks that year, but in 1995 I managed 12 and then I did between 10 and 15 walks every year until 2009 when I took early retirement. Since then I haven't done so many but then I don't need to - I can get out anytime I want now, but I still do a few each year and have started doing more again. Between my first two Munro rounds and the Corbetts, I climbed some 250 peaks at night.
"It became about rising up the mountain and the sun rising with me. You are witnessing the day coming alive - there's not a better feeling in the world"
Walking in the dark with no view doesn’t sound like everyone’s cup of tea - what attracts you to it?
First walk I did it was almost light when I started - in summer months darkness can be only an hour or two and if there's a good moon and clear skies then you often get a view. For me, it became about rising up the mountain and the sun rising with me. You are witnessing the day coming alive - there's not a better feeling in the world. Also, you have the summit to yourself. I found it was the perfect antidote to the frenetic madness of a newspaper office. I came back feeling refreshed, even though I went without sleep for 36 hours.
In what ways is the experience of night walking different to daytime?
Everything seems different - the sounds, the smells, the sights. Maybe it's because you are concentrating more on your immediate surroundings that it feels your senses are more highly attuned. For instance, there is always the sound of running water somewhere, you can pick up the sounds of animals and birds scurrying around in the darkness, you can feel the freshness of the wind. Last year, I sat in a car park at Achnashellach for about 20 minutes just listening to the water dripping off the pine trees and pinging on the roof of the car. It was such a soothing sound - perfect preparation for the 12 hour hike I was heading off on. There's a great feeling of solitude, sometimes that you are the only person alive. And, of course, that great moment when the light starts to break through.
Is it ever spooky?
Sometimes, especially in the winter months. Most of it is easily explained away but there have been a few interesting experiences. I once drove four hours after work, nodded off for ten minutes and woke with a start. I reckon I had being having a nightmare but it really spooked me. I had a bad feeling about the hills that day and eventually I decided against going up. Couldn't really explain it, but it didn't feel right. I've never felt like that before and never have since. I had a ghostly experience while alone in a remote bothy one dark February which really spooked me, again probably just a nightmare.
Many of us would struggle not to nod off halfway through the walk: How do you keep sleep at bay?
Shift work and an adrenaline rush job to be honest. I was never a great sleeper and as able to function for 36 hours without sleep. Actually I felt better after a night walk and always got a great sleep the next night. As long as I went straight from work to the hills I was fine. Having said that, the first couple of walks were hard work and I had to have a few breaks on the way back. Like everything else, my body became attuned to it when I was walking regularly, and it was generally fine. Physical tiredness was always the antidote to mental tiredness.
"If you think wandering the hills during a misty day is soul-destroying wait til you try it at night!"
Walkers typically start a hill trip in the early morning, squeeze as much as they can into daylight hours and then head down as darkness approaches. So what do timings tend to look like on your night trips?
It would depend on the time of year. A normal summer outing would be to leave work before midnight, arrive at the destination between 2 and 3am and start walking. Sometimes I've started earlier, in winter possibly later. The winter walks were always determined by road conditions rather than mountains. It wasn't worth taking a chance on some of the minor roads in bad weather, and it seemed a long way to go and then have to turn back.
Is this generally a solitary thing or do you manage to convince others to join you sometimes, despite the anti social hours?
Quite a few friends gave it a try, most of them just the once it has to be said. One friend came out a few times but he always stipulated he wasn't working next day. In the last few years I have noticed more people wanting to give it a try.
What do friends and family think of your nocturnal predilection?
To be honest, my family didn't know I was doing it until a few years ago. I didn't think it would be fair to my wife to say I was heading up a mountain in the middle of the night - wouldn't do much for her beauty sleep, would it? Someone always knew where I was though and when I would check in. I suppose I became a bit blase about it but my friends still think it's madness - and wonderful. It gave them a laugh for so many years.
What are the particular challenges, and would you say it’s more risky in any way than day walking?
Confidence is the biggest factor, confidence in your navigation, in your ability to trust your instincts and get yourself out of any problem. It's not that different to the challenges of day walking, but it's not for everyone. I did try to use a headtorch as sparingly as possible though. If I could manage without, I did. Night vision clicks in quickly if can avoid using a torch. Again, though, I find when I go out now I need the torch more than I used to. Age does take its toll!
Is it something you can do confidently year round?
Yes, although just like walking at any time of day, winter conditions can be more challenging. Most of my winter ascents at night were on Corbetts. By that time, I was an old hand at night walking so it didn't phase me. Worries about road conditions were a bigger deciding factor.
What about the weather: do you tend to wait for a decent forecast, or are you happy to head out even if it’s claggy and wet (on top of dark)?
I've never deliberately set out in rotten weather. I always planned ahead for the best conditions, most times it worked, sometimes it didn't. One particular horror show saw me wandering in the Mamores for eight hours in darkness and mist. The good weather rolled in much later than expected. If you think wandering the hills during a misty day is soul-destroying wait til you try it at night.
Can you recall any particular stand-out moments from night time Munro ascents?
There are so many great memories and moments. Watching the sun rise from behind Ben Nevis, sitting at the top of Seana Bhraigh in a blinding inversion having breakfast with just a few goats for company, watching the cloud rolling over the ridge like a giant waterfall on Spidean Mialach, the early sun glinting off the giant cornices on Creag Meagaidh. One of my particular favourites was seeing Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan being washed in a copper glow at first light and then turning to see the ridge behind me overtaken by golden rays of light. And seeing the sun coming up from Schiehallion on a snowy November morning.
Alan Rowan has been a journalist for nearly 40 years, working in Dundee, Aberdeen and on a variety of national newspapers in Glasgow. He held executive positions for 12 years on the Daily Record, including five years as sports editor. He is now semi-retired and lectures in sports writing at the University of the West of Scotland.
For more on Alan Rowan's hill wanderings see his website here.
Alan's book Moonwalker: Adventures of a Midnight Mountaineer is available on Amazon