INTERVIEW: Nine Times Munroist Hazel Strachan

by Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com 25/Oct/2017
This article has been read 6,181 times

For many walkers a round of Scotland's 282 Munros is a lifetime achievement. But not so Hazel Strachan of Bathgate, West Lothian. Having recently finished her ninth round, and already heading a good way towards her tenth, Hazel, 49, is one of the country's most prolific Munro baggers. Record holder for the most female Munro rounds - very few men have done more - she has completed one round per year, every year since 2012, and in summer 2017 managed to knock off 100 ticks in a month (see this article). So what keeps drawing her back to the 3000-footers? We tracked her down in a rare moment between walks to find out.

Hazel's 9th 'compleation' party, Ben Challum, September 2017, 108 kb
Hazel's 9th 'compleation' party, Ben Challum, September 2017
© Hazel Strachan

"A round of Munros takes on average 112 hill days over a timescale of 12 to 13 months. Climbing hills is all I've wanted to do."

UKH: Have you always been into hillwalking?

Hazel: I was brought up on a farm and I've always had a connection with land. I started hillwalking to find new species of wild flowers back at the start of High School.

I've had a love affair with rock climbing and lead at E1. I've cycled from my front door to the Outer Hebrides and the north of Scotland on as much single track as I could find. Munros and Corbetts were climbed on these journeys. The only original parts left of one of my mountain bikes are the seat post and handle bars, I broke or wore out the rest of the bike. Hillwalking took over from my cycling when pelvic pain started to became a problem in 2009.

When did you complete your first Munro round?

I 'compleated' my first round in 2005, almost 25 years after my first Munro. I was brought up on the family farm and work took precedence. Hill days had to be fitted in with the few free days I had. When my father, Robert Holmes, retired I got my ticket to fulfil my dreams.

What attracts you to the Munros in particular - the scale, the variety, the challenge?

All of the above! I get to indulge myself with long days on the hill and the scenery is spectacular. Winter provides the greatest rewards. I've never felt a compelling desire to climb a round of Corbetts (2500-2999ft) or Grahams (2000-2500ft). I have, however, walked three rounds of Donalds (Scottish lowland hills over 2000ft). I underwent a lot of physio to sort out a pelvis problem. My goals completely took a back seat as my physio, Jane Kerr, started work on me. I suddenly found I couldn't walk uphill for more than 20 minutes. When the tears flow buy another set of maps and work within your capabilities however small.

Winter above Crianlarich - she loves the challenge of this time of year, 137 kb
Winter above Crianlarich - she loves the challenge of this time of year
© Hazel Strachan

What is the feeling, on completing a round?

Fantastic! A lovely feeling of a special project coming to a close - bit like graduating from uni!

A lot of walkers would be content with a single round, or might then move onto other targets such as the Corbetts - so what motivated you to make multiple Munro rounds, almost back to back?

I always knew I would walk more than just one round of Munros. Back in the 1980s one of the coffee table guidebooks was 'The Big Walks', edited by Ken Wilson and Richard Gilbert. The routes and photos were so inspiring that I wanted to experience being in the wonderful mountain landscapes in the book. I was also amazed at Gereldine Guestsmith's six and Hamish Brown's tally of seven Munro rounds - I though just imagine what it must be like to have a life in the mountains and have the skills to plan, achieve and be safe. When I completed my first round on Stob Dearg on Buachaille Etive Mor I just wanted more hills to climb and more beautiful days out. I hadn't been out much in winter and I wanted to build on my existing experience. It would have felt like an anticlimax just to finish on one round.

In 2015 you finished your 7th round, thus breaking Gereldine Guestsmith's 20 year female record for the most rounds. Was the record a consideration for you, or are you motivated purely for personal satisfaction?

I never thought about achieving the female record. I was on a roll achieving a round in a year, year after year. I just wanted to climb, climb, climb and the record happened.

Above Glen Shiel, Jan 2017, 220 kb
Above Glen Shiel, Jan 2017
© Hazel Strachan

Have you made a particular effort over the rounds to climb the hills from different angles and in different combinations?

Yes, I also like to change the seasons in which the mountains are climbed. Bivvying and wild camping on summits or tucked away down glens allows me to get to know the mountains better and walk longer routes. For example, I've been poring over maps this week planning a long weekend high level traverse from Drumochter to Cairngorm in the coming month. In my 9th round I had twenty bivvies which took the place of a lot of wild camps.

You've done almost one Munro round per year for several years in a row now - how on earth do you fit that much hillwalking around a full time job as an agricultural scientist?

All my Munro rounds have been achieved when I've been working full time for the Scottish Government. I've completed rounds in 2005, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. A round of Munros takes on average 112 hill days over a timescale of 12 to 13 months. Where possible all my weekends, annual leave and extra days built up from working overtime are spent on the hills. Most of my free time during the week is spent drying kit, repacking and looking at weather forecasts ready for the next adventure. Climbing hills is all I've wanted to do.

Do you have a preferred, or most productive time of year for bagging?

Spring and summer is my most productive time on the hills just because the weather is better and the daylight lengths are longer. However I love winter. I didn't get much winter experience on my first round but this increased as I found a love for winter. I was confident in my skills once I started continuous rounds.

"It's got to be fun and meaningful. I love how walking makes me feel. There is no point simply counting numbers for the hell of it."

Are you more of a fair weather walker (like most of us) or do you have to get out in foul conditions too in order to get that many hills done?

It's a myth that to do multiple rounds means that there will be a lot of horrible days spent on the hills. There are some simple rules I follow - if the weather is good in the west head west. If it's raining in the west head east - try and find the furthest westerly dryish hill to climb. Don't have a day in the east if the west is good as there are so many hills to be climbed in the west of Scotland. I've been successful with these rules. I'll do mist, fog, white-out but don't expect me out if it's pouring with rain with a major front that is spread out across the country. I felt like I had a lifetime's worth of rain while working on the family farm - life is different now and so are the choices I'm able to make. On my 8th round I only had five dampish days and one of these I deliberately went out in poor conditions because I wanted to remember how miserable conditions could be.

Bivvy in the Mullardoch hills, October 2016, 168 kb
Bivvy in the Mullardoch hills, October 2016
© Hazel Strachan

You must now know the Munros as well as almost anyone, ever, but it doesn't remotely seem as if you're finished with them yet. Do you ever find enthusiasm waning in a round, and if so how do you maintain the momentum and focus?

I've never had a problem with my enthusiasm waning during a round. I'm not focused on my count total to get disheartened at the total number of hills still to be climbed. There are a lot of numbers between 1 and 282! I have a rough idea of the total number of days which I find more of a morale boost. A round is all about having a good time. I have no idea where and what mountains I'll end up on from one weekend to the next – sun kissed Gabbro on the Cuillin one weekend and map and compass work in Glen Lyon the next. I'm making as good use of the weather as I can. It's got to be fun and meaningful. I love how walking makes me feel. There is no point simply counting numbers for the hell of it.

Surely there can't be many easy single-summit days in a year-long round: What size of day is typical for you?

My days vary between three hours and 15 hours. I have done 15 hour days in winter but these days are very few (Corrie Hallie across Fisherfield with a bivvy near Larachantrivore in Feb 2017). My longest days are done in summer because of day length. I've learnt that sometimes it's best to just keep walking. The 12 Munros around Loch Mullardoch feel easier to walk over two days than splitting it up into four days. The same goes for the Mamores and Grey Corries.

Single Munros play a valuable role in poor weather and quick night ascents - after all they take about three hours to climb. A month of eight single hills in a winter of poor weather is a good achievement and still contributes to the total.

Hazel on the summit of Aonach Beag (nr Ben Alder), 215 kb
On Aonach Beag (nr Ben Alder) during her 100-munro month. Photo: Hazel Strachan

This summer you upped the ante considerably by climbing 100 Munros in one month, for Scottish Mountain Rescue – how did you find that?

A full on fun month! The weather didn't play ball and I rearranged my plans frequently to make the best use of the weather. I was surprised that I was more tired rather than sore from tight muscles - most of my tiredness came from not sleeping very well because I found the motor home too warm. Maybe it was actually the excitement of getting off the hill in the dry and driving through torrential rain to meet Ian! He was surprised just how little he saw of me during the month. The month had a completely different feel. I'm usually laid back with my plans but there was a lot more emphasis on counting mountains and making sure that I reached my total. I'm proud of my achievement.

Do you prefer walking alone or in company?

I'm a solo walker. I walked my first 100ish Munros with my twin sister Heather Holmes. Unfortunately a knee injury called an end to her hill days. I was left to make the decision if I wanted to carry on. The desire to be in the hills won. My first trips by myself were backpacking trips from Achnashellach to Kintail picking off Munros as I went. Walking solo has built my confidence and I love being self-reliant. On my ninth round I was accompanied on only four Munros.

As a non-hillwalker, what sort of support does your hubby Ian give you?

The greatest support Ian gives is his permission to go away up hills by myself – he could easily say you're not going away again. When Ian retired we bought an old motorhome to see if we liked motor homing. It's brilliant fun! We can go away together and I don't feel guilty leaving him at home (Ian dislikes camping – something to do with the small size of tents). When I'm up a hill, Ian is sitting in comfort reading or making bacon butties for brunch. Ian can also drop me off and pick me up from ends of ridges.

Ian organises all the logistics for going away. 'CATS' is Ian's job title – Catering, Accommodation, Transport and Secretary. This frees up time for me to get my hill kit together. We couldn't do this if both of us were working.

A Christmassy An Teallach, 207 kb
A Christmassy An Teallach
© Hazel Strachan

Do you have any particular favourite Munros?

I'm glad you didn't want me to narrow my list down to one Munro! I love Ladhar Bheinn for its location and the ever changing nature of its ridges: Beinn Eighe for its dramatic corries; Ben Hope for the stunning views out to sea; Ben Lomond for the amazing view down Loch Lomond; Beinn Bhrotain because I love walking up its boulder strewn slopes without making a noise and sun kissed days on the Cuillin (it happens and is truly wonderful!)

How about least favourite?

None. The Munros all fit together into a huge landcape jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces are important.

Have you started a 10th round yet, or will you wait until January and try to fit it all into 2018?

I have started my 10th round and I'm already over 128 Munros climbed (I only know that because I've been asked so many times in the last couple of weeks) I usually do a round from 1-282 without repeating summits. Because of poor weather and undertaking my 100 Munros in June I've had a large number of Munros climbed before my 9th round completion party - just feels so strange to have climbed some Munros twice over the period of a year! I'm not expecting to complete a 10th round in 2018 as in late summer I'm away in Alaska walking and packrafting in a very remote corner of the Brooks Range in the Gates of the Arctic National Park. I'm excited to be going back to Alaska. I spent a wonderful summer there 24 years ago and it's time to return to the wilderness.

Have you ever been tempted by the idea of doing all 282 as a single uninterrupted journey?

Yes, but it's a project which remains in my dreams and probably will be for the rest of my life. It's difficult getting four month's leave from work. By the time I retire I hate to think about the state my body will be in.

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