The Angry Corrie 64: March-May 2005


Hill Eddington: One more for the road

A COUPLE OF SUMMERS AGO, just before he jetted off to some faraway hot place, TAC regular Grant Hutchison sent the following to the editorial email address:

Here's something you might like. The physicist Arthur Eddington was something of a numerologist in later life, as well as a keen cyclist. He kept a note of something he called his Eddington Number (E), where E = the highest number of days in your life on which you have cycled more than E miles.

When he died, his E was 87. I thought with your record-keeping tendencies you'd be able to come up with various hill variants of this, if not an actual E number.

It took a while for this to sink in, never mind allow itself to be converted to the hill idiom. Part of the attractiveness of Eddington's idea is the difficult-to-get-your-head-round way it combines two not necessarily amenable forces (physical effort and number of attempts) into one variable. Put another way, it would have been by no means easy for the Kendal-born, Cambridge-based scientist to have nudged his E up from 87 to 88, as a single 88-mile cycle trip would almost certainly not have been enough. Chances are that at least one of the existing trips had been almost bang on 87 miles and irrelevant to an E of 88 or more, so a minimum of two additional outings would have been necessary - far from trivial, especially as was getting on a bit. (He was aged only 61 when he died in 1944, mind you. It would be interesting to know at what stage he achieved his terminal E, and whether he reckoned it was beatable.)

A month passed before the idea clicked - unexpectedly, while striding over Steele's Knowe one fine evening with megabagger Eddie Dealtry. It's odd how back-of-the-brain things suddenly come to the fore, but Eddie's presence seemed to help in giving Eddington's idea a coherent hill context. A Hill Eddington Number (H) thus became defined as where H or more ascents have been made of a hill H miles away.

image from The Angry Corrie

This is really quite simple and straightforward, but requires a bit of explanation along with at least one qualifying clause. It links with something dear to my own heart, namely climbing a hill a considerable number of times rather than the linear move-on-to-the-next-Munro/Wainwright/Marilyn approach common to so many hillgoers. Perhaps the reason why it came up during an outing with Eddie Dealtry is that he has made a large number of ascents of Dumgoyne (1100 at present, a mere 890 at the time), plus he has racked up more than 1200 discrete Marilyns, all mightily impressive. But bulking up on ascents doesn't necessarily boost one's H. By way of example, consider Eddie's Dumgoyne efforts. He lived in Killearn at that time (but has since emigrated to Balfron), Dumgoyne was four miles from his door, and so his H for Dumgoyne was only 4. He's likely to have a higher H for some other slightly less local hill - Conic Hill or Ben Lomond perhaps - even though he'll have been on it far fewer times than he has Dumgoyne.

Then there's Tom Bell in Grangemouth, who at the last count (June 2004) had climbed Ben Cleuch almost 1600 times. His H for this is 12, the number of miles from Grangemouth to the top of Ben Cleuch - and of course his twelfth ascent was made a whole herd of donkeys' years ago. Similarly H=14 for Alan Douglas, who, as mentioned in TAC63, had been up Ben Lomond 1400 times as of October 2004, as the distance from his home (also in Killearn - there must be something in the water there) to Ben Lomond is 14 miles.

In each of these examples the number of ascents is massively overcooked in terms of what's required, so although a few ascents are needed - and more than a few for longer distances - it doesn't have to get to the extreme-repeat stage. However, because so few hillgoers repeat hills more than a handful of times, it's likely that for a great many people H has stayed resolutely in single figures, presuming they even have an H at all. Plenty of Aberdonians have made 20 ascents of Lochnagar, for instance, but that doesn't generate an H as the summit is 45 miles from the west end of Union St.

One of the reasons all this appeals, to me at least, is that even before Eddington pedalled into view I had an interest in the idea of climbing a hill a considerable number of times even though it's a long way from home. Family connections have prompted regular trips to Coniston in recent years, and on a fair proportion of these the eponymous Old Man has received a visit. The current tally stands at a mere 19, but given effort and persistence, not to mention good luck on the health front, it's possible that 100+ ascents could be notched up over a couple of decades. If eventually achieved, and presuming that TAC Towers remained no nearer than Cambuskenneth throughout, this could create an H of 125, the direct-line mileage to the top of COM. (Cambuskenneth to Coniston by road is between 160 and 170 miles, depending on whether the short-but-slow Ullswater/Kirkstone route, the Grasmere mainline or the hairy Red Bank bypass is taken.)

A few more examples, briefly. It's possible - even likely - that someone's H hasn't occurred on the hill they think it has. Back to Tom Bell: as well as his Ochiling, he's also the proud owner of 100 ascents of Ben Lomond, 150 of Stuc a'Chroin and 100 traverses of the Aggy Ridge. The last named is the furthest from Grangemouth, and the westernmost of the ridge's two Munros, Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, is 69 miles direct, so Tom's career H would appear to be 69. Were the distance 101 miles then it wouldn't count and the Ben Lomond figure - 38 miles - would kick in instead. (Grangemouth to Stuc a'Chroin is just 30 miles.) Either way, Tom's H doesn't relate to Ben Cleuch.

An H of 69 is substantial, and offhand I can think of only a couple of higher figures. Before a dodgy knee slowed progress, Gerry Knight had made 150 Snowdon ascents while living in Leicester, a whopping H=125 - although see below for a cautionary clause. And a Birmingham-based Fell-and-Rocker named Derek Monnox has similarly made over 200 ascents of Cadair Idris, an H of around 87. Tom Weir (king of the anoraks, so they say) and Bill Murray both made 100+ ascents of the Buachaille, but their home villages of Gartocharn and Lochgoilhead are markedly nearer to the Coe than is Grangemouth, so these Hs would be lower (44 and 33 respectively) than Tom Bell's. The late Ken Andrew lived in Prestwick and made over 100 ascents of Merrick (H=25), while TAC stalwart Dewi Jones been up Snowdon 139 times from a Porthmadog base: H=10. He's also been up the wonderful Cnicht 152 times, but that's closer to home: H=7. (Chances are he'll have a higher H for some hill further east, and he'll no doubt clarify this come TAC65.)

Now, those clauses and qualifications. It's tempting to impose an ascent criterion, thus ruling out mere pimples, but that would be hard - and perhaps harsh - to do, plus it's a small factor in the overall scheme of things, easily outweighed by the travelling. So even if someone has repeatedly travelled 200 miles to make 200 ascents of Mynydd y Betws, the most ultra-easy of Welsh roadside Marilyns, then that's OK: their H is a fantastic 200. Also potentially problematic is how to measure the distance. Rather than just a straight-line distance, the driving (or driving+ferrying) route would be another way to do it. But that's messy and open to skewing in those parts where roads are few and big sweeping approach-routes common. So a flying crow it is. (You'll just have to excuse the imperial rather than SI units, incidentally: editor's prerogative.)

One factor that undoubtedly requires consideration however is this: summits stay where they are (well, more or less), but places of residence do not. What happens when a person moves from house A to house B and thus changes the distance to the hill in question? What's their H then?

The example of me and Ben Cleuch (519 ascents and counting) is fragmentary in a way that might be typical. Since the first ascent on 13/3/86, base camp has moved from the south side of Glasgow to Alva (a mere three miles from the summit) to Riverside and then to Cambuskenneth, two mutually adjacent bits of Stirling. It would be illogical and unmathematical to bundle all these together, not least because the Alva years made Cleuching almost trivial: it became my regular constitutional. So a series of partial Hs needs to be generated, eg H=3 for the 178-ascent Alva period and H=7 for the ongoing 309-ascent Stirling spell. The pre-1997 period in Glasgow was itself subdivided, the first six ascents starting from East Pollokshields (31 miles to Ben Cleuch), after which 26 ascents were made from the one-mile-nearer Gorbals. Neither of these locations generated an H in its own right (had I not been so busy running with the razor gangs, I'd have surely crammed in the necessary extra four Gorbals ascents before leaving), but combining the two, and taking the shorter distance, produces a composite H of 30. This might seem at first glance to be a fudge, but is legitimate: H is defined by the distance travelled, so a composite is OK so long as a minimum distance H has been travelled a minimum H times, no matter the starting point.

An extreme hypothetical example ought to make this clear: if a person has made 300 ascents of Suilven from a base in Bognor Regis (a case of Bagger Bognor), and then makes a further 300 ascents having moved to the marginally nearer Chichester, they've earned an H of 533 (the Chichester-Suilven distance in miles) due to their having repeatedly travelled a minimum 533 miles to climb the hill a minimum 533 times. You'd have thought they'd have got round to moving a bit nearer, though.

And what when more than one ascent is made during the same overall visit? Of his serial Snowdoning, Gerry Knight writes: "All ascents were done while I lived in Leicester, although sometimes I would do it twice in one visit." Similarly, on a smaller scale, I once climbed Coniston Old Man twice during the same trip (on 26 and 28 May 2003). It's easy to correct for this kind of skewing, however: same-trip repeating should be discounted - eg my current Old Man tally would effectively drop from 19 to 18 - and any value of H should be calculated using the number of visits on which at least one ascent was made.

Right, that's enough examples and nuances. If you haven't got the hang of it by now then you're never likely to. (Either that or you've dozed off.) So who has the highest known H? Anything over 50 would be worthy of mention, and if you think it's you, or someone known to you, then get measuring and counting and write in with details.

Dave Hewitt


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