Monday, 2 June 2014

Dha-Ochd-Dha (Two-Eight-Two)

If you've been following me on Facebook, you may have noticed some renewed activity!  I'd briefly mentioned it on my blog last summer, but hadn't said much more about it while things ticked along in the background.

However, two weeks tomorrow (16th June), BBC Alba will be transmitting a programme about my 98-day Round of the Munros! Understandably, I'm very excited...

When walking, I always kept a camera on me and recorded as I went. Along the way I was joined by Neil Allan, Liam Dickson and my dad, who filmed many of the crucial stages. When I finished the Round on Ben Hope in August, I then got stuck into editing the result. With my bit done, MacTV picked it up and the result is a one-hour documentary telling the highs and lows of my summer walk, interspersed with contributions from many hill-folk, not least the legendary Hamish Brown. He wrote the book Hamish's Mountain Walk, a cornerstone in the development of Munro bagging as a past-time, and one of my major inspirations (I've only worn out several copies of it!).
For me, this documentary is the culmination of three years from conception to reality and the creative opportunity to have put this together with MacTV for BBC Alba has just been fantastic.
Trusadh - Dha-Ochd-Dha (Two-Eight-Two) will be transmitted on BBC Alba on the 16th June at 6pm. Sky 143, Virgin 161 or Freeview 8 (Scotland)

Tune in and enjoy!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A retrospective

Time flies when you're not up hills. It's been a long time! I wrote bits of this a while ago, others more recently:


It's crazy to think a full *year* has elapsed since the start of my summer. I've not been short of stuff going on, but nothing thankfully as frantic as the summer of 2013. Following Ben Hope, the first thing I did was to get up the next day, and climb Ben Klibreck with Uncle Steve.

It was nice to climb a mountain instead of just going home immediately, but it struck me that things weren't quite the same. Without the ambition forcing me on, would it matter if I just stopped and turned around? I was climbing a mountain without so much purpose. A unique concept.

But following Klibreck, I did indeed jump in the car, and go home. There was plenty to go home to, but the future was also a bit of a blank canvas (filled now!) The Scottish mountains really had become a bit like 'home', but that's not surprising.

Arriving at Bonar Bridge was a culture shock, emerging back to civilisation and the associated busyness. Just a few days home, my good pal Dave suggested I was sounding a bit of a recluse; hmmm! I never felt the isolation was the reason, though. My summer on the Munros was hectic and rammed with things happening, but I think I tapped into a peace of those mountains. In the final days, I was sad to realise that the Highlands would no longer be normality. Trips would be justified by whether I could afford the petrol, and the north-west, which I'd come to know so well, would once again be a far-off land. Many months later; and that is indeed the case!

But when Lurg Mhor and A' Mhaighdean, two of the most remote Munros, become just a nice walk away, I think I've done pretty well for myself.

Time spent in the Highlands bred familiarity, and familiarity brought me to really feel at home in the places I was in. Enough time has now passed since Ben Hope that I've forgotten the struggles, stress, endless fatigue, worry, etc. You name it. It's the pleasure you remember, the hard stuff is mostly forgotten.

Other cool bits - Running down from the Inverlael/Ullapool hills in the sun, some 20 miles into my day and only a week from the end. Discovering the real Cairngorms (only took a few years). Being on the Cuillin crest in perfect weather. Crashing out at James' in Fort William and getting pizza, before rising to yet-another bleary-eyed, feeling-wasted morning. Soaking up the endless blue skies and seeing ranges come and go as one week melted into another.

And what for future ideas? Last summer I put myself up against things I've never had to before. And out of nowhere I'd find the solution, break a mental barrier and the subsequent days would flow by with an increased fluidity. The Munro Round forced the breaking of those barriers; the subsequent lightness is the reward. Three summers ago, I chucked the Southern Upland Way five days in, and at half-way, because the hard work and tedium was too much for an objective that I quickly realised didn't get me fired up. Surely it's worth finding that thing that really fires off the inspiration like no other, because that'll provide the stimulus to take things to the next level?


Everyone who I did hills with, in no other order than chronological: Dougie Blyth, Liam Dickson, Neil Allan, Lucas, Andy Brown, Uncle Steve, Peter Dorrington, Struan Mills, Andy Gray, Steve bro, my mum and dad who helped so much, Karl Markham, James Steele, Ian Rooney, Colin Lamont, Michael Kerrigan, James Seaman, Ailsa Macnab, Jo-lynne, Gerald (at Strathfarrar), Craig Pounder, Pete Swales, Sam Munro and David.

Everyone who joined me up Ben Hope: Struan, George, Ali, Michael K, Kev, Hazel, Rory, Liam, Neil, Abi, Barry, Julija, Andrei, Dougie, Karl, Alan, Steve (brother), Steve (Uncle), James S, Ian.

Loads of places kept food stashes for me too: The Rumblie in Laggan, the Kinlochewe campsite, Gerry's Hostel at Craig, Kintail Lodge Hotel, Cluanie Inn, Kinlochhourn tearoom + B&B, Bridge of Orchy Hotel.

Graeme Willgress for first showing me that the long journey and chill-out were compatible.
Keith Melton at Glencoe Independent Hostel for putting me up at the start, and just generally being brilliant.
Jen (and Steve) for that Kingshouse pizza double whammy
Ron, Pauline and Mark for that nice Killin meal. It made my day!
Anne Butler for the howff info
Jac Johnson for putting me up while I did the Angus glens
Fiona and George for Balblair
James for being allowing me to stay over; and
Ailsa for the note-on-the-car + sweets
Jenny at Corran for the waffles and tea on that stormy night. I must have looked knackered.
Lorraine McColl for meal, map and much inspiration. And the cup of tea on the way home after Ben Hope.
Neil Allan and Liam Dickson assisting so much in filming the action.
Barry Reid for "Off Up North"
Mum, dad and Steve for everything.


It took ages to work these out, but I finally got there. My total distance was 1948.8km, an estimated 120kms of those were on bike. Total ascent was 141,025m.

I spent 98 days all in all - 9 of those were rest days, and two days I went out and was turned back by weather/ground conditions (Bidean nam Bian and Seana Bhraigh). One day I did the walk into Barrisdale from Kinlochhourn but didn't climb anything. Thus 86 days were spent on the summits.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Day 98 - Ben Hope: Journey's end

7 August

My apologies for holding back on this one.

I've been thinking about this day for a long, long time. As you can imagine, it sometimes seemed unbelievably out of reach, the idea of Ben Hope a distant dream. In the last few weeks of the Munro Round, I suddenly realised it was close and I was going to make it. In the last few days, it was of course, just around the corner. Talk about stuff creeping up...

The hills were desolate the morning of Ben Hope, the air drizzly, still, midgy. It was surreal to arrive at the bottom of Ben Hope and find the car park rammed with cars - whoa. It turned out that a fair few folk had turned out despite the fact my chosen last Munro was right at the top of Scotland! Everyone who came, expected and unexpected; I appreciate it much.

It was a sizable crowd who started off up Ben Hope. Rain at first; the midges were everywhere; but it eased and the skies lightened. Exactly what I wanted for my final Munro. We got up the first steep bit, and on the long gradual climb to the top.

Ben Hope was to be one of the easier Munros of my trip and this seemed fitting for my last one. As much as anything it was Munro everyone could do.The experience was a little surreal: I was well aware that I'd thought about this day pretty much every day for the last two years. Now that I was here, that huge passage of time didn't register in my head beyond rational understanding.

Even in the last days of the Round, I didn't have a sense of the aftermath, it just felt like I'd keep walking and walking. I didn't have a sense of disappointment that the end had come, I only felt that things had run their course, the goal had been achieved and it would be good to focus on something else for a while.

The mist came down and a bit of rain started, but it was all harmless stuff. There almost wasn't a breath of wind. Then, the trig point came into view not far ahead; 100m or so. I stood and waited as folk gathered at the top, waiting for those who were behind. I wouldn't want them to miss the moment, having come so far. When everyone was up, I walked over, then jogged up to the trig and gave it a very satisfying smack on top.

282 Munros in 98 days - finally done.
Top of Ben Hope. Me with the silly hat! (See blog post #1)

Champagne was opened, the mountaineering club guys presented me with freshly cooked margherita - how did they know I like pizza? ;-) Photos were taken, "like a wedding". Its not every day you stand on top of your last Munro of a summer Round.

So the time came to head off, I bounded off down my last hill, wondering where things will go next for me, thinking about how this really is the end of my trip. Then what...? It's a question I'm still mulling over several days later.

We all got back to Altnaharra - I stopped by the B&B then headed off to the Inn to see everyone. Thanks everyone who came up. It was great to see so many folk at the very north of Scotland for a summit which means so much to me.

In the beginning, this trip was naturally a gamble: I had no experience of something this big. I knew I wanted to do it, but didn't know if I really wanted the baggage that went along with that. With everything now complete, I can honestly say I've enjoyed it enough to think about doing something in a similar vein in the future. That isn't just in retrospect, I've had it in my head for a while. This trip was a taste of the long haul, the big push, and I enjoyed it a lot. Without a doubt it was seriously challenging, but I learned to deal with pressing issues, gained control over stray emotion through self-awareness and positive introspection. I greatly enjoyed the focus, which I now realise made mountain climbing easier than it'd otherwise be by taking away the temptation to take the easier option (thus fail). My estimations would say it was a 10% physical, 90% mental challenge by the end.

Naturally, I'm left thinking; "where next?". I've learnt so much about myself that I can place myself doing things that weren't on the radar before; but I couldn't say too much about that now. I have thoughts!

In the next post; some thanks (probably quite a lot), some meaty stats no doubt, and more Munros...

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Day 97 - Ben Klibreck

6 August

My day began in Lochinver, and I took my time about getting up and getting ready. I felt the pressure was off: it wasn't an intense day, I'd simply head up the hill when it suited me. So I had an easy breakfast, drank cups of tea, set about some necessary business at the harbour, got stuff from the shop, etc. My body took a long time to really wake up, and it really was sore now. I'd given it a good beating in Monar!

Ben Klibreck is one of a few Munros in the real far north of Scotland. It's all the way up beside Ben Hope, and it was the second-last Munro I hadn't yet done. On the road north of Lairg, the weirdest thing happened... I passed a cyclist and as I drove past, it completely unexpectedly turned out to be Dougie. He'd managed a few days of work! Mental. We threw the bike in the back of the car and headed off to meet Liam and Neil just north of the Crask Inn. The four of us set off for this, my penultimate Munro.

Klibreck's actually a better hill than I remember. When I last did it, nearly four years ago to the day, we went up the huge heathery slope to the west of the summit. This time we followed the actual path, which gives a really nice ascent and aspect on the whole mountain. Being here was like having walked straight into a Lewis-landscape, with mile upon mile of bog and subtle hills rising from moorland like the swell.

The day was still and calm, and we climbed the mountain at a gentle pace, which was really what I needed after the hard days of the previous week. Ben Hope was clear, and right in view. 280 Munros lay behind me. I thought about that a hell of a lot, but it's actually hard to comprehend.

The other nice thing was to see the Orkney Isles appearing out of the haze. It's a place I haven't seen in a while, I should get back one day. We all stood around on top getting cold and getting footage, then headed back the way we came. I took a moment on the top to think about the significance of where I was. Not a lot came. I might take a while to grasp it!

Before the whole mental adventure started back in April, I'd get random butterflies in my stomach at what I was about to do. Now I seem to get giggly at random points when it hits me in wee bursts what I've just done. It's hard not to get excited. The greatest happiness has been to channel so much effort into something that I've always loved so much.

A wee part of me is sad that it'll be over. I had one moment a couple of days ago where I felt I'd be losing so much. In reality, I have a lot of good stuff to go home to. I've gained so, so much from my summer out on the mountains. I've enjoyed it immensely, even when it had moments of stress and difficulty that were hard to swallow.

When I began, I set out with a plan to do them all completely continuously. That plan evolved over weeks, then months, into a nearly-continuous crazy car-based Munro round. It's surprising that a few folk get their pants in a twist about this point, but I'm actually quite easy concerning it. (Ah, but was it 'continuous'?) The trip evolved as I discovered my own core motivations were different to what I'd expected, regarding the continuous travel.

I've stayed in so many bothies, camped out above 3000 feet, crashed in houses, hostels, in the car (always a bad move). I went to a gig during it and even found myself at a couple of parties. With a car, I probably removed some of the stress and a lot of the isolation, which was probably in no small thanks to Facebook.

My mobility during the round allowed me to play a good tactical game: I could swap days out, move things around and give myself the best shot at any range I went to. I always maintained that I wanted to keep the spirit of the journey by moving around Scotland in the same order as I would have in the original schedule. I maintained this to the end, and I've always enjoyed that sense of journey. It was always a very important element. Maybe some day in years to come I'll go back and do that self-propelled thing... I've enjoyed this one enough! But I'm saying nothing right now. ;-)

The mountains have been (nearly!) always inspiring and I see them so differently now. They're all unified into one great mass in a way I could never see through weekend trips. I've given them all their own due time, seen each and every one. I can't say there's a bad one among them. This is what I wanted to get out of the whole thing. I just love climbing the mountains, whatever way: I don't think I could walk (approx!) 2000km on the flat - it's got to be the mountains. I think I've wanted to do this kind of thing for many, many years, and tomorrow Ben Hope awaits to finish it off. There may be no surprise to discover that tomorrow feels like much more than the conclusion to 100 days; more like six years. It's a fitting end. Ben Hope gazes out over the north coast, the mountain at the end of the mountains. It's the last gasp to end the endless waves of peaks that came before it. I've tread every single last one... above 3000 feet.

I'm in Altnaharra at the moment, up a bit too late for my own good. It's been amazing to see all the folk who have come up this evening to share this with me. It's very heart-warming; I couldn't have picked a further-away Munro! I'm looking forward to a good day tomorrow up and down Ben Hope. Then it'll all be behind me. A bit freaky to think from 12 hours from now I'll be done, time to party.

(note for future: finished Klibreck 8:05pm)

Day 96 - Monar 5

5 August

The day that broke the Munro Round's back.

The Monar bunch were the last big day I'd still had to do, and somehow through circumstance I'd missed them out all the way to the end. They seem to have this effect: I know several people who all didn't do these until the very end of their Munro round because Monar had just slipped unnoticed under the radar.

Well, they are really awkward of access. I don't think any other mountains are quite as awkward as this bunch and mention should be made of the two at the very back, Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich and Lurg Mhor, which are nothing short of bloody hard work. Get out to those ones and back in a day, and you're doing well.

I woke up at Glenuaig Lodge, and looked out a bright sunny morning. I opened the door and soon retreated inside; the midges were absolutely horrendous, and they'd all piled around the door no doubt following my escaping carbon dioxide.

I knew I had a big day; 32km it turned out to be, but when I woke up, I knew it would be a slow one today. The legs were sore, the feet were sore, everything was all over the place, and now I had six mountains to do. Well, this was the last push, so go for it. Don't look back. It wouldn't be ideal, but at least I knew I could mess myself up if needed be, because there would be two easy hills in two days to the end. Just get these done!

So I headed up Maoile Lunndaidh, a big flat hill in the back end of nowhere, a secretive hill, seldom-seen form any road. I really like it. I like the area it occupies and the stark loneliness of the area. It was a long haul and I felt pretty rotten, so I kept munching on the bananas; the cairn arrived in good time, even though it had felt like a hard push.

I was knackered, but when I guess I was also pretty bloody fit.

Sgurr a' Chaorachain was next, and the drop toward it felt enormous - down for miles and back up the long grassy slopes to the top. Nonetheless, it's another mountain I'm really fond of; the centrepiece is the fang of Bidean an Eoin Dheirg; a shapely rocky prominence in summer, and absolutely spectacular in winter.

My first trip into this area was with Struan last November. It was most often wet, cold, dark or snowing. The place had this immense vibe of complete desolation. It was powerful, but harsh. It was nice to see the hills again, but in less threatening clothing.

Over Sgurr Choinnich (#3), then I dropped my sleeping kit at the triple bealach. Here I met Fi for a quick chat. The last two Munros of the day were Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich and Lurg Mhor, those two really inaccessible ones all the way out in the middle of nowhereness. It would be a push to do them, but there was no doubt about it now. My body seemed to have pulled itself into action and now I'd do these hills whatever the cost.

The only thing is, you have to go over an essentially non-optional Corbett (mountain 2500-3000 feet) called Beinn Tharsuinn. But I took this as a nice tick, before getting onto the meat; Bidein. It was good to push hard, get these hills done, over to Lurg Mhor at a pace. I was on top of that one just before 4pm. Just two Munros left and I'll have completed the lot.

The walk out was hard work. To get out from Lurg Mhor, you first have to descend the north slopes of the mountain, down to about 1300 feet. Then you've got to climb back up a trackless glen to the triple bealach at over 2000 feet. I met a guy called Paul up in Monar on a Munros/camping trip. We talked Munros for a bit then I got on my way. Wasted would describe my physical state - I'd never let myself get that bad this summer, but what the heck: this was worth it, and there was only two Munros left. I picked up my camping gear and headed down for the two hour walk-out to the road.

Some hills. Hard work. Despite Slioch being my last Munro of my normal Munros outwith the summer Round, I always felt the gentle pressure of Monar bearing down. Now I'd effectively cleared out Monar, I could relax for the first time in ages. For around 100 days, or more, there's been the upcoming effort to concern myself with. With Monar done, it's all behind me. Ben Klibreck and Ben Hope will be absolutely fine; they're not hard hills. And here for the first time, I'm without pressure. The end is in sight.

I headed back to Lochinver where my parents were staying. The drive was nice, I was cruising it, and arrived just in time to get a curry in before bed. A big day done, it's all cruising form here to the end.

Day 95 - Ben More Assynt + Convial

4 August

The end is definitely in sight. I had breakfast with mum and dad in Lochinver then headed off to Inchnadamph, where there are two Munros; Ben More Assynt and Conival.

The weather was good and I headed off from Inchnadamph alone. It was windy though, which took the edge off the sun. These two feel like a long way in, easven though they really aren't. It's good to feel so near to the end of the Munro Round, yet I carried a discontent feeling all the way across these mountains. When I got down, I'd have to drive two hours to Achnashellach, then walk two hours into Monar. That put a time pressure on my day, thus I was walking, knowing there was still work to be done in the evening. I've felt exactly the same in the past.

After a long walk in, I was glad to get high on Conival, where the wind blew with ferocity and the views were huge over the northern peat moors. Ben Klibreck and Ben Hope were both clearly in sight; right there on the horizon. Sure, I have to go back to Monar and pick up 5 Munros there, but the end really is right there.

Waves of mountain ranges have now receded to the southern horizon, and now I'm standing at the north of Scotland, looking right onto Ben Hope. Wow.

I did the ridge from Conival to Ben More Assynt in brutal winds. It wasn't the most ideal place: the rock is broken into angular blocks that are hard on the feet, and you need to keep good footing. Occasionally gusts pushed me over, sent me onto scree and I'd fall over onto the ground to wait out the gust. All in all, it was quite fun. I've always liked fighting high winds.

Contrary to expectation, the summit of Ben More Assynt was pretty calm. There were some folk about doing the same walk, and I sat on top thinking '7 to go'. Three months ago that thought was a distant dream!

I followed the ridge back to Convial in high winds, then contoured underneath, balancing over boulderfields, where blocks shifted and collapsed under my feet. I'd been here before and this really is one of the more dangerous boulderfields around; it must be the way the rock weathers.

A sunny walk back down the glen brought me to Inchnadamph, where I met mum and dad, to collect the audio recorder which I wanted for my trip into Monar. In the fuss of sorting stuff out, I forgot the audio recorder, and rushed back to mum and dad, who were at Ardvreck Castle.

And so I drove south to Achnashellach, under the most amazing sunset. Sgurr an Fhidhleir was absolutely jaw-dropping. Near Lochluichart, Dink phoned from America, so although I was best  to get going, I sat and had rock climbing chat for 20 minutes. Monar could wait...!

Anyway, I got to Achnashellach, packed a bag and headed off, up the track from Craig, into the gloom of tomorrows mountains. The walk took 1 hour 45 to Glenuaig Lodge where there was a place to sleep. I forced a banana down and got to sleep in the creaky bunkbed, anticipating my last big day of the Munro Round: the five Munros of Monar.

Day 94 - Slioch

3 August

I'd left Slioch for my last Munro of my normal Munro round, and this was finally the day. (I should point out this wasn't the last Munro of my continuous Round, on which there are now 9 left. I've climbed those 9 in the past, thus Slioch became the last one I'd never done.)

The previous day, I made a big push on the Ullapool hills to get those Munros done. Seana Bhraigh was the remote outlier of that group, and there was a hint of relief to have those Munros done so efficiently. I had company coming up for Slioch: Dougie and Craig from the mountaineering club were up, and Pete Swales also joined.

Despite having all my plans in place, the weather didn't play ball and conditions could have been better. As I drove down to Garve from Ullapool, the rain was heavy and horizontal, blasting by with frightening ferocity. I began to feel I'd be glad to just get to the summit of this mountain!

Anyway, I was a bit late to Kinlochewe, so I got my stuff prepared and assumed the guys had gone on ahead of me. So I began walking down the path to Slioch in the wind and (occasional) rain, assuming that the others had gone on ahead. I had strangely never imagined I'd be setting out for my last Munro alone.

After an hour walking in, I caught them up and we all continued together. I met another guy who was up with his dog, climbing Slioch: thanks very much for the donation to my charity! (I've got a JustGiving for anyone so inclined:

Slioch was a windy hill, but not as bad as it might have appeared from the road. It was definitely a surreal experience, climbing my last Munro. It was something I've wanted to do for years and years. But with the final mountains of the continuous Round looming, I was caught between feeling a sense of completion and a sense that work still needed to be done.

A steady plod up the track brought us to the summit area, we passed the trig point and continued to the cairn. My final Munro. The guys congratulated me and pulled out the bubbly. I made a hash of opening it. Amazing. Hard to believe it was my last Munro.

A sense of satisfaction accompanied me down the mountain, a sense that some challenges I'd set were coming to a close. No doubt I'll go and do them all again, in time. We got back to the car park and went for a quick drink. Craig and Dougie went home, Pete stayed in Kinlochewe. Guys, thanks for coming up to share my last Munro.

My original plan had been to walk into Monar the same night, but we were to have one more day of low pressure bringing high winds. Monar would be possible but difficult in those conditions, so I swapped things around a bit. I'd drive to Lochinver, stay with my parents, do Ben More Assynt the next day (and easier day), then do Monar the day aftr when things had calmed down a bit with the weather.

I got to Lochinver and met mum and dad at the Caberfeidh. They bought me a drink, I was pissed and giggly in no time. I was pretty damn over the moon. Just a few more days and I'd have done the Munros non-stop, too.