Alan Haworth, secretary to the Parliamentary Labour Party at Westminster, spent 17 years climbing his first 17 Munros. In 1984, "as the party appeared to be disintegrating", he took up Munrobagging, "to have a serious goal which I could achieve by my own efforts, and something to look forward to on long winter nights". The goal was scored on Mull on 28 September.
23 October 1966 Three mini-buses have been hired by the St Andrews University Mountaineering Club to take a gaggle of first-year students to Glen Dochart for a forced march up one of the most relentless and unforgiving slopes the Scottish hills have to offer. "Freshers", we were called. Some of that seemed to imply an innocence about to be lost on the slopes of Ben More. A lot later I realised that it had been an outing designed to separate the sheep from the goats, the tough from the weak, to reduce the numbers in the club to manageable proportions. Although a borderline case - I was one of the stragglers at the back of this strung-out party as it raced up the hill and into the encircling gloom - I must have passed this test, because that day I went on to Stob Binnein and a fortnight later was with the club on their next meet, in Glen Etive. I was 18 years old, newly away from home and - coming from south of the Border - had never heard of Hugh Munro, never mind AER. Although I didn't know it, a long journey had just begun.
28 September 2001 Thirty-four years and eleven months later - on what had become known as The Day, a large party of my friends mustered on the beach the bottom of another Ben More, this time on Mull, for my completion and to celebrate AER's centenary. The weather was fairly dreadful. We were met by cold winds off Loch na Keal and a dense cloudbase at about 400m. The general grim mood was: this is what we've come to do, so we are going to do it. Above 600m the wind was gale force and it started to rain very heavily. On any other occasion I think we would have turned back. But we persevered and, when we reached the flat summit ridge at about 950m, the wind suddenly dropped. At the cairn it was completely calm. Visibility was no more than 30 metres.
I was a little ahead of the others and reached the cairn alone and in tears. It was awful, very sad, the end. It felt like a death. My wife caught me up as I kissed the cairn, just like Robertson 100 years before, and the others crowded in close after, beaming, offering handshakes, hugs and back-thumping congratulations. I felt disconsolate. But champagne quickly changes the mood and several bottles were produced and toasts drunk.
That evening there was a great dinner at the Tobermory Hotel for everyone who had been on the hill, plus my old friend, the late organiser of the Radical Ramblers Scotland, Professor Alan Alexander. More toasts were drunk and other old friends who combine Labour politics with a love of the hills - Chris Smith and Murray Elder - made speeches. The professor delivered a poem in the style of William McGonagall, specially commissioned for the occasion. I replied, by now much cheered with further quantities of champagne, and said something about the northern Corbetts being very fine hills ... that there were still 23 missing Tops to complete ... and many other summits over 900m, in case things went metric, some not even in the north ... and finished on an optimistic note about even better days ahead. As for the Munros - they are done. It is finished. The obsession is over. An era has passed.
The best is yet to come.
Gordon Jarvie works in Dundee for Learning and Teaching Scotland. He produces support materials for schools and the new national qualifications - "until recently NQs were called Higher Still, which sounds better for hillgoers". He has written books on language and on Scottish topics.
I GUESS I AM of the leisurely Munrobagging persuasion. My first Munro was Ben Lomond in 1954, when I was aged 13, so I've been at it for a while. My partner Steven Fallon is a man in a hurry. He completed his first Munro round in 1992 and his eighth as recently as August 2000 on Schiehallion.
The original completion plan for this year was for the pair of us to finish on my birthday, on Gairich, in early August. Work and holidays got in the way however, as they tend to do. The next plan was to complete together on the Robertson centenary. The completion was now to be on Bruach na Frithe: my first round, Steven's ninth.
We tried to do it - honest. We took the day off work and camped in Kintail for an early start on the big day. But it was a wet and blustery morning and the prospects looked distinctly iffy. Approaching Sligachan on the road around Glamaig we decided what the hell, we'll give it our best shot. After all, the ridge was visible almost in its entirety - for about ten minutes. Then the cloud came right down. The planned route involved Sgurr nan Gillean, Am Basteir and Bruach na Frithe, in that order. We needed all three. Some hope! We got within 50 metres of the summit of Gillean and were almost blown off. Horizontal rain didn't help, either. Long wet faces. Trip abandoned. A day's annual leave wasted.
A lot of October seemed to be spent visiting the CamVista website to check the weather on Skye. During an Indian-summer spell I was in Brittany. Typical. Eventually we pencilled 28 October into the diaries: if we left it much later we'd be into snow. As in September, we took a day's leave and drove up the previous night.
The morning of 28 October wasn't bad, though the wind was to get up a bit - as forecast - during the afternoon. The ridge was actually visible for at least an hour and we reached the summit of Gillean semi-dry. The wind was light at that stage, but by the time we abseiled down Nicholson's Chimney it was raining steadily and the rocks were slippery. The bad step on Am Basteir called for use of the rope again, in both directions. A sip of Laphraoig accompanied by a little war-dance on Bruach na Frithe rounded off a memorable walk. I thought of AER one century plus one month earlier, no doubt clad in damp, heavy, itching tweeds, kissing his final summit cairn and then his wife, in that order.
Moral: don't aim to complete your round of Munros on a specific day such as an anniversary, especially if completing on difficult terrain such as the Cuillin. The weather might have other plans for you that day. When in the Cuillin, you are in the lap of the gods. If you must complete on a specific date you should keep something easy for last - Ben Chonzie or Mount Keen, though I've been almost blown off the latter as well. (You could always emulate Munroist 5 John Dow on 4 May 1933 and leave your completion in the lap of Beinn na Lap - Ed.)
What next? Well, I've been given a number (2647) and a certificate by the SMC's Clerk of the List, and we've both started our next rounds. Steven aims to complete his tenth next summer, thereby surely capping a memorable decade: ten completions in ten years. I don't imagine that's been done before. We'll try and raise some funds for charity for that event. Maybe throw the mandatory al fresco summit party, weather permitting. Black tie, of course. See you there.
Gordon Jarvie's rather good booklet of hill poetry, Climber's Calendar, is published by Harpercroft (81 Comiston Drive, Edinburgh EH10 5QT). Price: £2.50, profits to Steven's tenth completion fund mentioned above - most likely mountain rescue plus a kids' charity.
TAC 52 Index