The Angry Corrie 46: Jul-Aug 2000

TAC 46 Index

Hell, but not on wheels (review)

Hell of a Journey: On foot through the Scottish Highlands in winter

by Mike Cawthorne (Mercat Press, 2000, xii + 164pp, ISBN 1 84183 005 4, #12.99)

Review: Grant Hutchison

THE TITLE summarises things pretty well. Between 6 November 1997 and 28 March 1998, Mike Cawthorne made a continuous round of 135 Munro summits over 1000m, from the Loch Broom Beinn Dearg to Bidean nam Bian. Usually alone, almost completely unsupported, and on foot all the way. Really on foot. No "self-propelled" connecting trips by bike. No hitching off the route and back again for rest days. Not even a pair of cross-country skis to carry him across the Moine Mhor. Just plain old slogging through thigh-deep snow, step-kicking across windslab, front-pointing up ice. He bought food along the way in village shops, and navigated between food caches he had buried months previously at strategic points along his planned route.

Because foul weather always combines the worst aspects of inevitability and unpredictability, Cawthorne deliberately left his plans vague and always cached more food than he thought he would need, just in case he became storm-bound for days on end. Often he ended up huddled somewhere like Culra or the Fords of Avon, whiling away the time with a book and then dashing out into hellish weather to snatch a few summits freestyle. The publicity material from Mercat mentions "months of meticulous planning", but this story is almost the antithesis of planning - what impresses most is his on-the-fly adaptability backed up by mental and physical stamina.

In fact, Cawthorne's antipathy to meticulous planning is evident on the first page of the introduction. He describes how "on a whim in May 1986" he and a friend, Dave Hughes, set out to climb all the Munros in a continuous journey (277 at that time, not the 284 given in the text). On that occasion they started off with "no support or planning", wearing jeans and fishermen's jackets. Ten years on, winter clothing and equipment obviously needed a little more forethought, but there is still an odd gap in the planning. Cawthorne's list of 135 Munros over 1000m comes from the 1990 edition of Munro's Tables - but the 1997 revision was available for some months before he set off. It lists 137 summits matching Cawthorne's criteria. There are four additions, in the form of promoted Tops - An Stuc, Sgurr an Lochain Uaine, Sgurr na Carnach and Stob Coire Sgreamhach; and two deletions - Sgor an Iubhair (relegated to Top status) and Sgurr Breac (dropping from 1000m to 999m). To have used the current Tables would have made a negligible difference to his journey - from the text and the lie of the land, he almost certainly climbed the first three of the four additions anyway, thinking they were Tops. But he finished on Bidean, making a half-day, fine-weather outing up Coire nan Lochan. Only 1500 horizontal metres and 120 metres of ascent separated him from Sgreamhach and 1997-vintage completion, but he didn't make the journey. It seems amazingly unlikely that in the months prior to setting off he contrived to miss the customary fuss over the new Table revisions, and that he then managed to remain ignorant during his 143-day walk, despite regular hostel stays and the occasional rendezvous with friends. But that seems to be what happened - there is not the slightest glimmer of an alternative explanation in the book.

And there is another, similar, lapse. He describes climbing Clach Leathad, but then cuts straight to Meall a'Bhuiridh - no mention of Creise, which took over Leathad's Munro status in 1981. The story, then, is an odd mixture of dogged determination and vagueness. Many times we see him setting off down the wrong ridge, then slogging grittily up again to rejoin his chosen route. And then there is the strange matter of his starting point - Sandwood Bay, six days' walking from Beinn Dearg. He says there is a "whole catalogue of reasons" for this choice, but offers only his memories of pleasant childhood holidays. One of the reasons we read books like this one is to get a glimpse of the author's motivation, and those six days of extraneous bog-slogging just aren't adequately explained.

In fact, I didn't learn much about Cawthorne himself. He is endearingly frank about his anxieties when he finds himself inadvertently embroiled in steep, icy scrambling territory, and he confesses that he is never entirely convinced that he will achieve his day's walking objectives. But what on earth kept him trudging on through the blizzards and miles of soft snow? What drove him to the point of navigating compassless through a whiteout, rather than abandoning his journey? Cawthorne reveals too little of himself for us to make a judgment. There is no doubt that he is self-sufficient, and (despite his protestations) massively confident in his own abilities. Above Strathfarrar, he and his friends condemn a "tall sinewy gentleman of advanced years" because he chooses to continue his planned route despite bad weather and encroaching night. But then on Nevis Cawthorne dismissively ignores the counsel of another "elderly gentleman" who advises against continuing in foul weather.

"Perceptions of folly will always differ," Cawthorne writes. Quite. Read this book, then, for an engrossing story of fortitude and resilience in the face of foul weather and exhaustion. But be prepared for the occasional urge to take the author aside and shake him.

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