The Angry Corrie 38: Aug-Sep 98

TAC 38 Index

A lark, reascending

Ed. - Hamish Brown seems to be mentioned in many contexts in this TAC, and here's another. For over a year now, I've been engaged in occasional discussion and correspondence with a number of people on the question of what defines separate ascents of a hill. The starting point (crucial concept, "starting point") was a phrase in Chapter 5 of Hamish's Mountain Walk. Brown was on Beinn a'Ghlo, the three Munros of which he tackled by the standard round of Carn Liath, Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain, Carn nan Gabhar. So far so good. Most of us will have done that. But rather than returning to Loch Moraig, Hamish's Walk demanded a descent to the Tilt. And so comes a niggling phrase: "I came back over BCCB. Always another Munro after all ...". That he means exactly what he says is confirmed by a parenthetical bag-log add-on claiming 344 Munros in 1974, including, presumably, two BCCBs on 5/5/74.

This is a crucial test-piece of repeat ascending, and no-one I've spoken to would regard what Hamish did that day as constituting two separate Munro ascents. Clearly he reached the top of BCCB twice, over a considerable time interval, but somewhere in the linking is an intuitive sense that he didn't fully ascend BCCB the second time. That this feeling runs deep, and that this brief passage of Brown's book has troubled me for years, can be seen from an entry in what Murdo Munro would call my "battered old ledger". On 17/9/84, I made what is still my only ascent of Buachaille Etive Mor. Already with an eye to a full day rather than just a swift bag, the rest of the ridge was taken in too: Stob na Doire, Stob Coire Altruim, and the now-Munro, then-Top, of Stob na Broige. In a situation reminiscent of Hamish, the easiest and most natural return to Altnafeadh comes via a reascent of Stob Coire Altruim and a descent from the dip beyond. In the tent with the ledger that night (it was a passionate affair), I can still recall writing "Stob Coire Altruim" twice in my Munro Tops column, then chewing on my pencil and thinking No, that's not right, before rubbing out the "revisit" entry. The situation arose again next day, when in atrociously wet and murky conditions I climbed Stob an Fhuarain and Sgor na h'Ulaidh before returning over the Stob to slither back down to the Allt na Muidhe. Again I didn't enter the re-Top in the log. This was long before I thought at all coherently about such matters, but it seemed the right thing to do, then and now.

Trouble is, where do you draw the line? Alan Blanco and I spent a happy day wandering over Creag nam Mial last year, discussing this for much of the way and gradually realising that simple definitions simply don't work, at least not decisively. The obvious thing to say is that a walker needs to "come off" the hill, or to "end their day". But what do these things mean? What if you come off at a much higher point than you started? This happens more frequently than might be assumed, especially in two-car situations. What of a walker who climbs Ben Cleuch in the Ochils from the extremely lowlying Hillfoots villages, then traverses west to be met by a friend on the Sheriffmuir road at Lairhill, 314m? And "ending the day" throws up all manner of questions about high camping: many TACers will have watched the sunset from a summit, dossed maybe 100m lower down, then scurried back up again to soak in the first light. As with the re-Tops, these don't (to me at least) feel like properly separate ascents, yet they do have more distinction than single-day revisits - and, anyway, it's arguable that these things should be measured in terms of time rather than in drop or distance. In which case a long, dark (probably uncomfortable) night constitutes considerable "effort" expended between the visits.

There's an additional problem for a repeater who lives near "their" summit. Because Alva is so low, this doesn't really feature with me and Ben Cleuch, but imagine returning to a 700m summit from a house at, say, 250m. This is certainly possible: someone regularly cycling and walking to Tinto from Lanark is in precisely this position. Clearly they will have their tea, sleep in their bed, play their Madonna CDs, etc, in the gaps between Tintonean ascents, and each trip will undoubtedly, and rightly, feel like a separate ascent. But they haven't dropped down all that low, really, not compared to someone from Alva, nor indeed have they travelled anything like the distance of a visitor from Albion's Plain, for whom two ascents of Tinto within a single holiday might feel nothing like as satisfactory or separate. Perhaps the most extreme Scottish example of this comes with Bruar Lodge on the Minigaig in Atholl. This stands at 450m at the foot of 1008m Beinn Dearg. Any walker who came up from Calvine or Old Blair, then climbed the hill, would not count an immediate return to the summit from the Lodge as a separate ascent - not that this can often have been considered. But if the keeper at the Lodge wandered up once every few days, as might well happen, these would clearly be "proper" and separate reascents.

Difficult. Blurred boundaries. Is the conclusion from all this that hillclimbing and ascent-claiming is essentially subjective, that it depends at least as much on the person doing it, and their life-circumstances, than it does on the objective hard-nosed pedantry of maps and tops and drops? Maybe so, although this seems to fit uneasily with the supposed aloofness of the hills.

All manner of associated thoughts and theories can only be thumbnailed here. I've recently spoken with someone who has climbed Ben Lomond on every calendar date bar seven (he intends to complete the full set by the Millennium). At one stage he made a late evening ascent which reached the summit after midnight, and was then teased by his brother in terms of whether this counted as two days off his tick-calendar. He decided no, it was the day on which he "topped-out" that mattered, and rightly so. That a single ascent can't count twice seems clear: the summiting moment is the crucial thing, just as a hill is cartographically defined by the map(s) on which its summit lies. Hence Beinn a'Bhuird is on OS36, even though much of its near-summit area lies on OS43. Seems reasonable.

What of, say, reascents of Everest from high camps or even from Base Camp? Presumably someone has done this: does their name appear twice on Unsworth's list of ascentionists? Base Camp is not much more than 5000m, which leaves well over 3500m to go, and a difficult 3500m at that. My guess is that two ascents on the same expedition are not given the status of two leave-the-country-between ascents. Then there's the fact pointed out by Alun-Peter Fisher: that the summit of Lhotse is little more than a Top of Everest, even though it appears in the list of fourteen 8000ers. The reascent from the col is something like 595m (again very tricky of course), giving it only the same relative height as Moel Siabod. Is climbing Lhotse along with Everest as valid as climbing it alone?

Finally, for now at least, the impossible-to-resolve-ness of all this is well shown in the Broxap Round. This involves taking in heaps of Affric, Kintail, and Cluanie Munros, then getting back to the starting point, all within 24 hours. Currently standing at 29 Munros, this clearly wouldn't be added to, Munrowise, by shuttling between a couple of low-ascent South Cluanie Munros a few times before heading on. But what if, at the end, someone with spare energy was able to claw him/herself back up Aonach Meadhoin for a second time? This would involve much more effort than an extra peak on the main ridges, but purists would presumably discount Aonach re-Meadhoin on the grounds of ground re-covered. Yet surely much of what these massive Munro days represent is sheer effort, and this is not in doubt here; ground is ground is ground, and all ascent fights against the same gravity, no matter where it occurs.

Obviously, as ever, it comes down to "each to their own". There are no real wrongs and rights, and racking up an extra BCCB hardly constitutes a scandal on the scale of BCCI. It will be interesting to see what other readers think about all this, starting, now, with Scotland's leading runner/bagger/writer/churchfather/freethinker,

Ronald Turnbull:

To climb a mountain is to make one's own way to the top of it without benefit of chairlift or off-road vehicle. But what does it take to climb a mountain twice? The question came up when considering the Editor's serial mountainascentristry of Ben Cleuch. On an evening in 1996 I was coming down off Cleuch when I happened to meet a friend at the 400m contour above the Mill Glen. I dropped the sack and went back up Cleuch. "For the second time"? If I'd thought about it, I'd never have embarked on so controversial a project ...

Any definition turns absurd at the edges. To re-ascend is to have slept between? I often sleep on mountaintops, sometimes by day, more often by night. Sleep in bivvybag tends to be intermittent - what's the point of stars overhead if you have to undo two zips and get sworn at by the other guy to see them? If I open my eyes twelve times during a night on Kirk Fell, say, have I therefore performed twelve ascents? More reasonable is the idea that one should descend to the road, or the car park. Here we say only, what of Lowther Hill (second highest point in Dumfriesshire, which must count for something)? The road runs over the summit. Simply by standing on it, does one make an infinite number of ascents in an arbitrarily short time? Or is it necessary actually to arrive, so that one could achieve no more than some thousand ascents per hour, and they by means of a pogo-stick?

Here's a proposition, though, that while absurd has the advantage of being absurd in a completely logical fashion. Reascents are of interest basically to baggers, and bagging requires a list. It's been suggested that to rebag requires a descent according to the list criterion: to rebag the Merrick (as Corbett) you must go down 152m vertical. However, what does it take to rebag the Merrick as Donald? Donalds have a separation definition with a subjective element. As indeed do Munros and Wainwrights.

So take a completely general baggers' list, the "X-File". The hills listed are "X-rated" or, informally, "Pornos". And let the list have the following simple property (the "X-factor"): let E be any closed contour-ring. (All contour rings are closed, but let's be pedantic here.) Then the X-factor: either there is no Porno within E, or the highest point within E is a Porno.

Now: to reascend a Porno, it is necessary to descend to a level from which it would be possible to ascend a different Porno without further descent. Thus to reascend Merrick as Corbett, descend to 585m (the lowest point on the ridge to Shalloch on Minnoch). To reascend it as Donald, descend to 665m (the col to Benyellary). One can extend this in a pleasingly natural way to define the reascent of a "mountain" without the necessity of any particular list of mountains. ("Mountains" are universal, and the Universe has no boundary conditions.) To reascend a mountain, it is necessary to descend to a level from which it would be possible to reach a point higher than that mountain without further descent.

So to reascend Merrick as mountain, descend to 160m-odds (the Tyne Gap near Haltwhistle, the col leading ultimately to Scafell Pike). An ascent of Merrick from Bruce's Stone is, thus, a proper ascent - but only just. And the Ed descending to Alva (15m) between Cleuchs is indeed repeating it as mountain, for the col to the rest of the world is at 125m near Gleneagles Station. My drop to the Mill Glen repeated it as Donald (625m, col to Andrew Gannel Hill), but not as Marilyn (269m, col to Steele's Knowe), nor as "point more than ten miles from anywhere higher", nor as County Top.

To do Ben Nevis properly, though, it must be from sea level: this is the reason it has been placed so conveniently beside a salt-water loch. Thus the mountains that are Munros every time are just those few with 3000ft of absolute relative height discussed in recent TACs.

To reascend Everest as eightthousander merely requires a doddle down to the South Col. But to reascend Everest as Planetary Top is impossible: even a descent to the Centre of the Earth doesn't get you down far enough.

The definition has two consequences:

(i) To reascend a Porno, it is sufficient (but not necessary) to ascend another Porno in between.

(ii) To reascend a Mountain as Mountain is also to reascend it under every baggers' listing to which it belongs.

The consequences are distressingly sensible. Perhaps, after all, we need a sillier definition. Though any hill listing will induce a flush of excitement, it might still fail to be truly pornographic. The X-factor does not in fact apply to all baggable hill listings. In the old Munros, you could reascend 1118m Meall Garbh (Lawers) as mountain by visiting 1118m An Stuc - without reascending it as Munro. I suspect also a retail (ie not X-factory - come on!) Wainwright somewhere. And anyone unwise enough to be rebagging the New Council Tops is entering a logical rats' nest. For the high point of Angus Council - Glas Maol - is dominated by Lochnagar. This is not the highest point of anywhere, the high point of Aberdeenshire being blatantly MacDhui.

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