The Angry Corrie 69: Nov 2006-Feb 2007

In the grip of completion fever, 1950s style

The first day of August 2006 saw John Mallinson, accompanied by a contingent from TAC Towers, climb Ben Chonzie and so repeat his Munro-completion ascent from half a century earlier. Believed to be the second-earliest surviving Munroist (after Miles Hutchinson - see TAC66 p10 and TAC67 p11), he recalls the Munros of his youth...

MY ROUND of the Munros started more or less by chance. On the school summer holidays in 1948, aged 16, I was staying at the Rowardennan hotel with my parents. My father was a keen angler, and spent most of each day with my mother in a boat on Loch Lomond, a pastime which I considered to be surpassingly boring.

I had a small backpack and was given some sandwiches and a bottle of lemonade and told to go off and amuse myself for the day. As I was preparing to set off along the lochside, two busloads of lads arrived and I asked one boy what they were going to do. It transpired they were scouts from Glasgow and were going to climb Ben Lomond. I had walked a bit on the Border hills, and this seemed like a good opportunity to climb my first "real" hill, so I tacked on to the end of the party. After sorting out a problem with the party leader at the summit over his headcount, I returned triumphant with my first Munro in the bag - although the name Munro meant nothing to me at the time. I enjoyed the day so much I decided it would be a good thing to climb more of the higher hills, and bought some maps to find out where they were.

After leaving school in April 1950, I was able to devote much more time to hillwalking. At first my only personal transport was a three-speed Raleigh - the ultimate in bikes in those days. I was occasionally able to borrow a small van from my father's business. In winter, trying to sleep in the uninsulated steel van was like being in a freezer.

I set out on the bicycle for Skye after seeing pictures of the Cuillin, and arrived at the youth hostel having survived the awful road from Carbost to Glen Brittle. On the second day, a man approached me and said his companion had to go home: would I like to learn rock climbing? I got my hillwalking boots nailed in Portree, and over the next three-and-a-half weeks did many rock climbs and the Skye Munros, including the In Pinn.

I became very involved in rock climbing for some time, but also went hillwalking on many of the Perthshire and Argyll hills. Although I knew one or two other enthusiasts locally, I preferred to go alone, since I felt I would be more in control and could change my programme without inconveniencing others. I never wrote a route card. I also discovered there was an official list of the Munros, published in 1933, and could now target them more easily, grouping some together. When I had done 100 or so, I became completely obsessed with doing them all.

When I got serious, I decided to backpack where the summits could be combined. These forays usually lasted two to three days, occasionally four days. I purchased a Black's mountain tent, an inflatable "lilo" airbed, a Bergen rucksack (with a metal frame - a real back-breaker), and a brass primus stove. The stove weighed about four pounds and was extremely temperamental. It had a habit of doing nothing no matter how hard you pumped it, then erupting like Vesuvius in a sheet of flame. On one occasion I only escaped a conflagration that would have consumed the whole tent by hurling the stove out of the door. Nearly all food was tinned, and extremely heavy to carry. Outer clothing consisted of an ex-War Department anorak and corduroy trousers. If it rained, I simply got soaked.

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Living in Selkirk, inconveniently placed to reach the Munros, I was extremely lucky to nearly always have personal transport. I had a 1936 500cc New Imperial motorcycle (unsafe and even dangerous); then a new and very powerful 650cc Triumph Thunderbird which my father bought for me because he was convinced I was headed for an early grave on the New Imperial; and finally a 1946 convertible Standard 8 car. The New Imperial almost did me in. Coming down Glen Ogle in darkness and heavy rain at about 60mph, the lights went out on a bend. After mounting the bank and miraculously avoiding the stone wall at the top, I managed to keep control and get back on the road. The car was temperamental, too. In cold weather the petrol pump had a habit of ceasing to function every so often, and could only be persuaded to work by hitting it smartly with a clenched fist. There was no heater - a rug over the driver's knees had to suffice.

The bicycle was still useful, as it could be dismantled and carried in the back of the car and reassembled for long approaches where some sort of surface existed, such as Glen Ey, Glen Tilt and the southern Cairngorms.

Access to the hills was, apart from a good train service from Glasgow to Fort William, generally more difficult than today, mainly due to the narrow width and general state of the roads. If one encountered a few slow-moving lorries it could take a full day from Edinburgh to Inverness on the old A9. Before the Forth road bridge there was always a delay at South Queensferry. At low tide the ferry slip was lethal, especially on a motorcycle. At Ballachulish ferry the rule of thumb was that if there were 15 cars waiting it was quicker to go round by Kinlochleven. Access was also affected by the hydroelectric dam-building undertaken in the Highlands in the 1950s. At one time Glen Lyon was almost impassable due to construction traffic and thick mud on the road. However, before the level of Loch Quoich was raised, access to parts of Knoydart was easier.

Some of the more remote roads were really bad. I was heading west in my car along the north shore of Loch Arkaig on what was basically two tyretracks with a raised section of grass and stones between them. Suddenly I ran over a concealed dip and the car came down hard on something solid. I was dismayed to see oil pouring out. The sump oil drain plug had come down on a pointed rock, which had punched it up into the sump. After a five-hour wait (no mobile phones!), the only vehicle to appear was the post-van ... headed west. I joined the postman on his rounds - we had at least two cups of tea and scones - and he took me back to Fort William. The towing bill alone was £50, a fortune in those days. Then there was a large repair bill and a two-day wait for parts to come from Glasgow. Oh, the joys of Munrobagging in the early 1950s!

I REDUCED my rock climbing activity and was now in the hills every weekend and at any other available time. Fortunately I was not working full-time at this juncture. In mid or late 1955 I decided that sometime in the next year or two I would like to go, possibly to emigrate, to New Zealand, and this gave me an extra sense of urgency to complete the Munros. I had a vague idea to finish on Ben More Mull, since it involved a ferry, but when I had about 25 still to do I found myself in Strontian, so nipped over to Mull and bagged it. When down to the last five or so I decided that the closest to home was probably Ben Chonzie, so that became "the chosen one". My companion was to be a young man from Selkirk whom I didn't really know, but he had heard I was a hillwalker and asked to come out with me on a hill for the experience. It would have been my last and his first Munro, but the evening before the big day he called to say he felt unwell. I thought of deferring it, but was now in the grip of completion fever and nothing could stop me.

And so, on or about 1 August 1956 (the exact date was not recorded, and is uncertain after 50 years), I completed alone, apart from a 50ml sample bottle of the "water of life". It had taken eight-and-a-half years. About 85% were done solo, and some 30% in winter conditions. I completed using the 1953 Tables.

Were there any epics? Tales of fighting through a Cairngorms whiteout to find the bothy? I'm afraid not, although there were a few unplanned experiences. I got lost several times in mist and/or heavy snowfall, especially in the early years. On Carn Bhac I passed the summit in hard frost and thick mist and only realised I had overshot when the ground started to descend steeply into Coire Bhearnaist. I eventually found the summit by retracing my steps and walking in increasing squares. I also got lost in bad weather on Ben Alder and in the Moine Mhor area at the head of Coire Garbhlach above Glen Feshie. There was one river-crossing problem and a mad solo ascent after a heavy snowstorm straight up the nose of Beinn Dorain from Auch. This was much steeper than it looked from below, and in the upper section there was deep powder lying on a base of hard-frozen snow. I used my axe very carefully, trod like Agag, and was very relieved to reach the summit.

There were two benightments, both fortunately in good weather. One when I slipped on steep grass on a descent in the Fannaichs; another when I simply underestimated the time for a long outing in the Sgurr na Lapaich group and ran out of steam and daylight without a torch on the north shore of Loch Mullardoch.

A one-day attempt on the Cuillin ridge was abandoned near An Dorus when my companion was violently ill after eating a surfeit of whale meat the previous night. This had been newly introduced, along with a truly awful tinned fish from South Africa called snoek (pronounced snook), to alleviate a meat shortage.

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There was also one "near epic", more related to mountaineering than to Munro-collecting. Three of us attempted an ascent, in full winter conditions, of a gully in Coire nan Lochan of Bidean nam Bian. All went well until the final pitch where we were confronted with an enormous and partly overhanging cornice. Faced with either ignominious retreat or tunnelling the cornice, we chose the tunnel route. The leader attacked the cornice and after about ten minutes was making good progress when without any warning a huge section broke away, carrying him down with it. I (the second man) had a good axe-belay, but I was badly placed. The combined cornice-and-leader hit me and swept me away, tearing out my axe - which I managed to hold on to - and the whole thing then descended on the last man.

I had a sensation of being in a washing machine, one moment seeing daylight, the next plunging downward, sometimes head-first, encased in snow. My life didn't flash before me, but my self-preservation instinct kicked in. I managed to throw myself on my stomach and dig the point of my axe into hard snow, and was almost stopped when I hit a patch of iced rock and took off again. After what seemed an eternity, all three of us came to a stop. The rope between us had held, and nobody was buried. We had fallen several hundred feet. I thought at first that my eyesight had been damaged, as all I could see was a grey blur. I found that, amazingly, my glasses were still on, and there was snow packed behind the lenses. I was bleeding from quite a bad cut on my forehead, probably made by my axe. The leader was unharmed, but the last man had a badly sprained ankle. We assisted him down to our transport in Glen Coe, arriving just before dark. Although we treated this accident lightly at the time, we later thought how lucky we had been, since one or more fatalities had been a distinct possibility.

With one exception, everybody I met was very friendly and helpful, even if one or two thought I was slightly mad! I never had any access problems, since, where possible, I made myself known to the relevant farmer or estate factor. In fact I was often invited to park my motorbike or car at the farmer or gamekeeper's house. The exception was when I gave a lift in my car to a man hitchhiking north in a blizzard near Tyndrum, and who appeared to be respectable. I put him off at Bridge of Orchy, and set off for Beinn an Dothaidh. On my return I saw that the soft top of my car had been slashed open with a knife and the heavy overcoat left on the back seat was gone. I enquired at the hotel and was told they had not seen him take the coat, but had seen him board the train to Glasgow. At least he wasn't a hillwalker!

IN RETROSPECT, doing the Munros was a wonderful experience, taking me into remote and previously unknown parts of Scotland. In particular, doing it mostly solo gave me a feeling of confidence in my ability on the hills in the days long before mobile phones and GPS receivers. I'm now in my mid-70s and having quite severe problems with my knees and right hip, but I'm hopeful that surgery will eventually correct this.

Optimistic as ever, I started a second round plus the Tops several years ago, but due to a combination of circumstances have so far managed fewer than 50 Munros and associated Tops - but I plan to keep plugging away for as long as I'm able.

TAC 69 Index