The sky is dark and wet snow is in the air. It is Sunday the 16th January 2011 and I have just walked into the Drovers Inn on the banks of Loch Lomond, wet through and attracting strange looks from the Sunday afternoon punters who are locked into battle with pints and giant plates of food. Coffee is ordered and I begin to gently steam by the log fire while the punters drift back to their meals, no doubt wondering what on earth has just walked in! But I am not bothered as another Munro has been bagged and the 2011 campaign is under way, despite the fact I was introduced to my Coccyx on the way down. Ouch!
So where did it all begin? Well, back to 1996 and the height of my hazy party days someone challenges me to walk the West Highland way and as I was getting bored with all the socialising I decide to give it a bash. A great week followed and was crowned by an accent of Ben Nevis. Not that I even knew anything about Munros back then, I would probably have thought it was the name of a Scottish barman! Gradually the partying fizzles out and although I would still have an occasional outing down town, walking and mountains become my passion.
Usually joined by a couple of lads from the pub we begin to explore the walks and scrambles in Wales and the Lakes but quickly realised that the big playground was Scotland. A trip was arranged and a few of the classics are climbed, Liathach, Ben Eighe and Slioch.
By 2004 I am keeping records of my hillwalking and I had done over 20 Munros. Work was not very enjoyable at this point and with the summer looming and a few quid in the bank I tell the bad head of a boss I am working for that I have had enough and pack the car for the journey North. Life is too short to waste your time on people who do not appreciate you.
As I drove up the A9 I noticed a sign for a bunkhouse near Dalwhinnie so I booked into Linda’s Pottery Bunkhouse in Laggan as it looked a good location to strike out from. There turned out to be a good group of hill walkers and climbers staying there,and good craic was guaranteed.
One guy who stood out was Jim, a sprightly 75 year old ex shipyard foreman from Glasgow who used to get his mates to make metal pegs for him in exchange for fags. He used to work Saturday mornings, play rugby in the afternoon then head to Fort William on his motorbike in all weathers so he was able to get a days climbing on the Ben the following day.
Soon my tally was nearing fifty and I was hooked, well you have to do something don’t you and it certainly beats staying at home and watching the telly. By talking to other outdoor folk you learn a lot, a sort of handing down of acquired knowledge and a couple of things Jim told me had stuck in my mind. One was the tip off of cheap accommodation in Glen Affric in the form of the wooden building which used to house the Hydro Dam workers in the fifties, just the ticket for a Munro bum watching his pennies. The other was simple. Get on your bike son!
Cut to Mount Keen
A foul January day in 2007 where it has been possible to cycle-push up to nearly 2300 feet. The ride back was epic; thanks Jim
Glen Affric was fabulous and one of the most enjoyable periods I have ever had in the hills. The old wooden bunkhouse had a collection of great characters staying and I am still walking with one of them to this day, my good friend Howard. We hit it off straight away and I have learnt so much from him over the years. Affric poses some interesting logistical challenges to the hill walker being remote and without many metalled roads. We found out that an old guy called Carl who originally hailed from Denmark ran a boat up Loch Mullardoch so along with another 6 walkers we chugged up the Loch to be dropped at the start of our walk. I love novel ways of doing things!
Another guy staying at the bunkhouse was Rab, a Black Cab driver from Glasgow who had completed them all and was bagging Corbetts. How did you get on with the In Pin Rab? I enquired knowing that Rab had expressed a fear of heights. Well Rob, the Guide I went with was also interested to see how I would cope with it so I simply told him that compared to driving a taxi in Glasgow on Saturday night it should be a breeze!
Talking of characters there was Rodger,a milkman from Cheltenham whose hobbies included visiting plane crash sites in the hills. You really do meet all sorts.
Glen Affric was also where the legendary beast of Affric was captured by a local farmer, it turned out to be a Puma and was named Felicity and lived for many years at the wildlife sanctuary in Kingussie. She was stuffed after her death and is now on display in the museum in Inverness. The moral of the story is to always take a tin of cat food with you on the hills.
Shortly afterwards I joined my present employer and negotiated a 2 month period off work every winter without pay, which really opened the door to some serious time in Scotland, but also meant much of the action would take place during the most testing conditions.
With other hobbies such as Skiing and Easier Winter routes to fall back on I was very pleased. Until you experience the worst a Mountain can throw at you I do not think you have seen its true nature, you learn nothing by always picking perfect days to go out on.
After one really bleak week in January I found myself going into the local garage in Ullapool to strike up a conversation with the girl on the till. I had not seen another human for 3 days and it felt a bit weird. It reminded me of Alan Partridge and the Geordie guy who worked at the garage that he befriended but that can be Scotland in January for you.
It was also in Ullapool that I managed to combine a week on the hills with a festival, the fantastic Loopallu with one of my favourite bands,The Stranglers headlining. So I got to see a great band and my objective for the following day at the same time, as the Mountains dominated the background of the festival site.
Crazy Rachel and her mad dog joined me the day after the gig and despite my protests, she unleashed the mad creature onto the hill. An altercation with some stalkers followed which I managed to smooth over but they rightly pointed out that they were perfectly entitled to have shot the dog. I am not sure it was the dog that needed taking care of!
On the subject of stalkers I have generally found them to be fine; they do what they do and we do what we do – you have to make it work. Several times they have given me lifts when I was cold and tired including the time I walked out of Beinn Hesagarnich, the only problem being I was in the back of the truck with two carcases ! Still, beggars can’t be choosers!
Around this time I joined the AMC and quickly found out I was not alone in my passion. New friendships were formed and I was itching to have a bash at rock climbing after completing several courses, as it would open up so many more possibilities in Scotland and elsewhere. I met Dave, Emma and Paul through the AMC and along with Dave we climbed my first Scottish Mountain route on the superb Buachaille Etive Mòr and others followed like Eagle Ridge Lochnagar. Not a bad way to bag a Munro and then there was the Cioch nose; another Tom Patey climb, a hero of mine. Also memorable accents of Squareface and Mitre Ridge, high up on Beinn a’Bhuird where again, the use of a bike was essential.
It was with Dave and Emma that I experienced my only lighning storm to date on Beinn Mhanach (we called it Beinn Maniac afterwards!). Another time I was staying in this area, I befriended a rather sprighly elderly gentleman called Robert Mcdonald and we remain friends. Robert is a remarkable guy who started walking when he was 41 and is now on his 9th round of the Munros at 73. He is incredibly fit and very interesting and although some people question his dedication to to the hills I just respect him. I was very pleased when he joined me on my last one.
Cut to September 2010.
A crack team of AMC took on the Fisherfield hills in 2010 during a glorious period of weather, these are probably the remotest hills in the UK. There were a few sniggers when they saw my supplies for the trip, six snickers bars and a pot noodle. Ask any of them who had the last laugh. ALWAYS have a midge head net, would you agree guys and girls?
Time and again the bike was proving an invaluable tool, not least in the Cairngorms where I managed to turn around potentially long days even in the depths of winter, with the added bonus of the buzz of a fast ride out at the end of the day, as you generally follow Glens uphill to the start of the walking. Sometimes I would doss in my van in the car park behind Aviemores premier ‘nite spot’ to be awoken by rowdy clubbers leaving the establishment. How the tables had turned, poacher turned gamekeeper?
Skye can be the nemesis of the hillwalker with its narrow jagged ridges. Nick and myself went for a week in 2010 but bad weather forced us off after 2 days when we ran away to Ratagan hostel and climbed the excellent Forcan Ridge in Glen Sheil and Ciste Dhubh, the latter having got the better of me in 80 miles per hour winds in february.
Regarding weather I would say the only thing that ever really stopped me was deep snow, or nine times out of ten the wind. I think there were only 4 occasions when I failed to complete my objective but Ciste Dhubh was one of them. Do not try to go out in 80mph wind, it is a brainless action. Although we returned and climbed Am Basteir we had unfinished business……
The following June, Fraser joined me and Nick and an excellent week followed in great weather, the highlights being the Clach Glas Traverse to Blaven and The Dubh ridge via the boat from Elgol, which was a great trip in its own right.The skipper even stopped the boat on the return journey to let me fish, but sadly on this occasion I could not oblige. Jane joined us for a few days and together we climbed the In Pin, scene of many nervous hillwalkers to this day. The following day Dave Q and James joined me on the Coire Laggan round, an excellent day and Dave and me finished with a lock-in at the Old Inn at Carbost where local guy ‘Bam’ helped us sample the local produce. He even had his name tattoed on his knuckles in case he forgot!
The following year I finished my only outstanding hill on Skye with Dave B and Sharon and spent a lot of time studying the place as it was a good day. I love the complexity of Skye. Not a million miles away is the Knoydart, which is very rough remote country and Inverie is a good base to strike out from. There are some great characters here and an eight mile stretch of road which is not subject to UK highway law, so the locals drive up and down it in old junkers with no tax or mot, a bit like deliverance country but with friendlier locals!
I stayed on the beach in my tent and cooked fresh Mussels every day for breakfast. It was June and you could read without light at midnight. One night there was a Ceilidh and they stopped the music at 1 am and everybody went outside to watch a meteor shower. You could hardly do that on Park steeet could you?
Another remote place is Sutherland and I have spent a lot of time here along with my mate Coalsey. There are a few Munros including the most Northerly Ben Hope and Ben More Assynt which is a Geologists wet dream. Fantastic place and every hill here seems to rise from the Sea as they seem more detatched from the mountains in other areas.
I have been up Stac Pollidah many times as well as Suillven and never tire of them. Usually staying at the Inchnadamph Hotel where we befriended the owners, which led to several new year parties including the obligatory new year day loch swim. The hotel has no television and a fantastic atmosphere at the bar and attracts all sorts of randoms!
Well it got to the point where I was very much nearer the end than the beginning and I found that my procrastination had caught up with me, leaving some tricky missions ahead. Starting a walk at 4am is not my cup of tea; anyone who knows me is aware of my dislike of early alarm calls but needs must. The south Kintail ridge was one I had put off for a long time so when I awoke early in the Kintail Lodge Hotel and gazed out at a starlit February sky, it had to be done. The hotel were great with me and it has a fab bunkhouse with private rooms. The girls were very chuffed that Brad Pitt had rolled in there on a Harley the previous year while he was having a break from making a zombie film in Glagow, and ordered a beer.
I got to the Clunaie Inn at 4am and started walking in the eerie stillness. Hundreds of green eyes stared at me as my head torch lit up a herd of deer, very strange. Arriving at the second of 7 Munros at 7.30 am as the sun rose was stranger still, but really stunning, something I will never forget.
I finished the round by hitching a lift from a nurse, up the glen to the starting point. Hitching is always an option and always a good laugh, I have had lifts from all nationalities and I even sat with two dogs in the back of a camper while their dope smoking owners ferried me along the glen.
Another dawn raid was when I went in for the remote hills at the end of Glen Dessary. Again I found myself impersonating Alan Patridge as I befriended the guy in the garage where I bought my supplies and in the light of the forecourt, I assembled my bike. The early start meant I was finished before dark.
Very beautiful remote country Glen Dessary, and earlier in the winter Sgur Mor was cracked with the help of Gavin, JP and Harley who I know through Dave B. These boys are on it and without their help the waist deep snow would have made things impossible. Sharing trail breaking duties is essential in such situations and Dessary is tougher than most Glens.
A few more long weekends and the end game was close. Shona kindly drove up for one weekend and I finished the Mamores and we stayed in a super bothy up the Nevis river, complete with a Golden Eagle bang on cue as we arrived at our home for the night. Shona has completed the Munros but that is no suprise as few could match her energy and enthusiasm.
The most challenging one? Probably Beinn Bhrotain in the snow last year, I had to give it my all. The easiest? Carn Aosda (or Carn Asda if you are Bristolian) the twenty nine minute Munro. It took me and Will 25 minutes to push our bikes up and 4 minutes to get down on what is a red run in winter. And the most fun? Ben Cruachan which was my last and to this day the only one I have had the pleasure of consuming a high quality bottle of malt on the way down. Thanks D.
All in all tt has been a great crack, I have met some great characters and had a lot of fun and also experienced some hard times. What next? Maybe the Corbetts of which I have done a good few. As Magnus Magnusson famously said ‘I have started so I will finish’
Cut to the Drovers Inn January 2011
So if you are sitting in a bar in Scotland one day and a dripping wet figure walks in, maybe you should buy them a coffee or something stronger; after all they may just have a story to tell……