The Angry Corrie 10: Dec 1992-Jan 1993

The Book and The Walk

by Grant Hutchison

Some months have passed, and I now feel able to commit to paper my knowledge of the strange obsession which gripped my friend and climbing companion, Lachlan McLoughlin.

Lachlan was, perhaps, the unluckiest of schemers. In 1974, he hatched a plot to climb all the Munros in a single journey, and to publish a best-selling account of this adventure, to be entitled Lachlan's Trachlin'. Someone else did it first, and with a much less catchy title. (The fact that he did it accompanied by his dog seemed to be the thing that Lachlan found most irritating.)

Ten years later, The Book was reborn. This time, Lachlan was going to perform the same feat in winter. "No other bugger's daft enough to do that," he declared. Some other bugger was, of course, but at least no dog had agreed to participate.

And so it was that I found myself an unwilling witness to the hatching of Lachlan's third, disastrous plan.

The Yeti Gaiter is a West Highland public house, of the kind which favours trestle tables, wonky chairs and helicopter safety posters in preference to smoked ash banquettes, velour pile stools and trivia machines. On the fateful day, this unimposing hostelry was packed with damp, bearded humanity intent on an afternoon of convivial inebriation, since the weather had turned nasty enough to force all but the most maniacal top-bagger indoors. Outside, sleet was coming down like perspex curtain rods from a roiling cloud base which obscured the roofs of two-storey buildings. On the tops, the wind was turning sheep inside out. Lachlan and I were sitting hunched over one of the trestle tables, surreptitiously munching sandwiches out of our rucksacks when the barman wasn't looking.

Lachlan was riffling the pages of the SMC Munros Guide distractedly. "All I need is something so completely ba-heided that no-one else would do it..." he muttered.

(The Alert Reader might wonder at this point why anyone who can read a map well enough to tell a scree slope from a nature trail might have need of such a publication. It is, after all, easy enough to find one's way to the top of something - one merely continues to go up until there is no more up to go. Lachlan's reasoning is characteristically subtle, however. One uses the guide to select the route not to be followed, thus avoiding ninety percent of the mountain traffic. This method is infallible on every hill except Meall Ghaordie: the SMC directions for this noble eminence include the word "sheepfank", thus ensuring that the entire hill swarms with disorientated bobble hats, plaintively asking each other what the hell a sheepfank is and whether anyone has seen one yet, because they're not allowed to "climb NW" until they have.)

But I digress.

"It's your round," I remarked, since the rain showed no sign of abating.

"Oh God, oh God, oh God!" cried Lachlan, clutching his chest with one hand and his brow with the other.

"Very well," I said, "I'll get them in. But it's definitely you next time."

"No, no," gasped Lachlan weakly. "I'll buy you a drink. In fact..." (some sixth sense made me lunge across the table in an effort to muffle his next words, but I was too slow) "...I'll buy everyone in the bar a drink!" he cried, in triumphant tones.

For an instant, silence descended throughout the room, broken only by the clatter of dominoes tumbling from someone's nerveless fingers. And then a mighty hubbub of voices arose, in which the words "double" and "Macallan's" were easily discerned and oft repeated.

I confess that I may have whimpered a little at this point. "Oh Lachie, Lachie", I moaned, "What have you done?"

"Fear not," declaimed Lachlan, "for I have this minute formulated a plan so cunning as to guarantee me fame, and fortune far beyond your petty dreams of avarice." And he strode boldly towards the bar and the waiting, predatory barman. Halfway there his steps faltered, however, and he sidled back to our table as inconspicuously as is possible for one who is the centre of avid, thirsty attention. (Which is to say, not very inconspicuously.)

"You couldn't just lend me twenty quid until then, could you?" he whispered.

Some time then elapsed before Lachlan was at liberty to share the details of his plan, but he returned eventually to our table bearing my drink and a pint of mauve liquid for himself. This latter I recognized as being a cocktail of his own hellish devising, which he called "Four C's". It consisted of cider, Crabbie's and creme de cassis, and he drank it only on those occasions when he was possessed by an optimism so buoyant that he believed himself immune to hangovers.

"I," he announced, "will perform the first self-propelled, continuous ascent of all the Munros..." (here he paused for dramatic effect) " alphabetical order!"

I whimpered for the second time that day. "But Lachie, that would be thousands of miles. You'd be all over Scotland. It would take years. I mean - how would you keep yourself provisioned?"

"Ah-ha!" cried Lachlan. "You have leapt straight to the most cunning part of my plan." And so saying, he withdrew a battered Access card from his pocket and slapped it on the table.

"Do you see," he said, "that I will have to walk many, many miles along public highways as I pursue my epic quest? I will simply buy provisions as I go, from local shops. And the same goes for equipment. As boots wear out, I'll buy new ones. I'm going to be legging past Nevisport in Fort William with monotonous regularity."

"But you'll run up a colossal debt..."

"And how will they find me, to demand payment? I'll be trekking over high passes one minute, and on the hard shoulder of the A9 the next! I'll be eternally moving, untraceable! I'll be... I'll be... I'll be like the Flying Scotsman!"

"I think you'll find that's Dutchman. And they'll get you when you finish, if not before."

"But by then I will have sponsorship deals worth millions, and the manuscript of a best-seller in my rucksack! I'll be able to pay! 'Oops, sorry,' I'll say, 'Been away for a bit. Here's a cheque for three million to cover the whole thing."'

He was unshakable. He plied me with drink to "cheer me up", and after four or five hours of this, I began to think that maybe it would work after all. And, God forgive me, I started to help him plan.

The hardest part, bizarrely enough, was to decide what order to climb the Munros in. At first, it seemed simple enough to use the order in which they appeared in the index of Lachlan's SMC Guide. A brief inspection of this index, however, showed that it was not in alphabetical order! Bens and Beinns were indiscriminately mixed. Lachlan immediately turned against the SMC's ordering, in part for reasons of purity, but mainly because it would have required him to trek south to climb Beinn Ime and Beinn Iutharn Mhor between Ben Hope and Ben Klibreck.

But a thousand other problems then intruded. What of mountains which had a separate name for the Munro summit? Lachlan came down heavily for keeping the Buachaille Etives together in the alphabet, rather than calling them Stob Dearg and Stob Dubh, and so allowing Stob Diamh (away south on Cruachan) to intervene. Grudgingly, he was forced to spread the separate Munros of Liathach, An Teallach and Beinn a'Ghlo around the alphabet in order of their individual names, but was cheered to find that the Sgorrs Dhearg and Dhonuill of Beinn a'Bheithir stayed together anyway.

Lachlan's manic enthusiasm knew no bounds. At first, he was intent on swimming his ten sea crossings to Skye and Mull. Belatedly realising that some of these crossings would necessarily take place in mid-winter, he decided instead to paddle rafts lashed together from driftwood and discarded fishing floats.

And so The Walk began.

I waved goodbye to him only a week later, as he set off up the quarry road to A'Bhuidheanach Beag ("At least that's one boring bugger out of the way early on"). For the first year and a half I received sporadic postcards: from Kyle of Lochalsh, after his first Skye crossing to Am Basteir; from Shiel Bridge, after the hellish trek of the three An Socachs; and from Garve, in jubilant mood after Ben Wyvis ("the last of the bloody Bens").

I also began to receive visits from the police, keen to interview Lachlan "on a number of topics".

Lachlan, of course, had been sharing details of his epic quest with everyone he met. Letters began to appear in High and Climber and Rambler, at the same time as "Have You Seen This Man?" notices appeared in grocers and sporting goods shops all across the Highlands. He became a sort of Scarlet Pimpernel figure, and many a bothy night was spent in endless speculation as to his whereabouts. A tiny raft with a Gortex-clad figure clinging to it was sighted from the Tobermory ferry in a Force Nine gale. Only days later, he was supposedly spotted high on Nevis, trudging indomitably upwards into the teeth of a thunderstorm. He was reported on both Beinn Deargs on a single day, and (even more bizarrely) on Tom a'Choinich the following morning.

By the time another postcard from Shiel Bridge announced, "Creag nan Damh. Half way! things were becoming desperate. Almost every corner shop in Christendom was on the look-out for Lachlan. He was taking long detours to avoid being spotted and arrested by the traffic police on the A9. And no equipment manufacturer was prepared to sponsor a known felon, on the run from justice. His last hope lay in The Book, and for that he had to finish The Walk.

But the final disaster was yet to strike.

I know that Lachlan had been looking forward to the Geal Charns, four Munros which were nicely clustered and within easy reach of civilization (if you will allow me the liberty of referring to Dalwhinnie as "civilization".) From what the police have been able to reconstruct, it would appear that he had already climbed three of the four summits when he passed through Dalwhinnie early in the morning and purloined a copy of The Scotsman newspaper from the rack outside the newsagent's shop. He then headed due south towards his final Geal Charn, and climbed as high as the large, irritatingly pointless cairns which festoon the ridge of that mountain. He stopped in the lee of one such cairn to eat an orange and read his illicit newspaper. Then, it would appear, he climbed laboriously to the top of the cairn and leaped off, head first into the heather, assisted in his fall by a sixty-pound pack which contained, among other things, two hundred closely-written manuscript pages.

He was found two hours later, quite dead, by a party of school children on a sponsored walk.

The reason for his sudden decision to take his own life was evidently a brief item which appeared on the newspaper page found wadded in his lifeless hand. Under the heading, "A 278th MUNRO?", it began with the words, "A recent resurvey of the Sutherland summit Foinaven has suggested that..." The rest was torn and mangled into illegibility.

TAC 10 Index