The Angry Corrie 71: Jul-Sep 2007

Foinaven 911 - more questions than answers?

ON 8 JUNE, in what turned out to be a remarkably well hyped reported story, with pieces appearing in several mainstream newspapers and on various broadcast outlets, Foinaven retained its status as one of the highest Corbetts rather than achieving promotion to the lower ranks of the Munros. The basic sequence of events was as follows. The Munro Society (founded in 2001, current membership around 220) had approached Larbert-based surveying firm CMCR in January to see if they would be interested in undertaking a precise-as-possible survey of both Foinaven and Beinn Dearg (the Torridon one), given that both hills were mapped as 914m, just below the 3000ft threshold.

The original MunSoc/CMCR plan was for Beinn Dearg to be visited first, and a surveying party attempted to climb it on the weekend of 21-22 April, but "high winds and generally unpleasant weather" meant they never got above 700m. Beinn Dearg was rescheduled for 25 August, so Foinaven moved to the head of the queue - which probably helped boost the media coverage as it's the better-known of the two hills.

An ascent was duly made, in good weather, on 12 May, and a press conference was arranged for 8 June, in the rather incongruous surroundings of Falkirk golf club, "to announce the true height of Foinaven". Seemingly the plan had always been to hold a press conference, whatever the result, but a sense of anticipation built over the intervening period, the expectation being that it was merely a question of how much above 3000ft Foinaven would turn out to be. Heights of 918m or even 919m were rumoured.

image from source document

The press conference was chaired by Iain Robertson, president of the MunSoc and Munroist no.55 on the list (he completed the first of his two rounds on Beinn Eighe in August 1963). Also present were Graham Little, head of field production at the Ordnance Survey (and an SMC member, although attending only in his professional OS capacity), and two staff from CMCR: director David Corfield and project surveyor Jim Melville. When the height of 911m was announced, an audible gasp-cum-laugh went round the room: few if any present expected this (including, it must be said, TAC's editor, whose almost-complete piece for next day's Times had to be rewritten from scratch in 90 minutes flat). In its own small way, the moment was similar to the famous announcement of Roger Bannister's four-minute mile in 1954: then the result was drowned out by cheers the instant the first word "three" was spoken; here, as soon as Corfield very deliberately said "Nine. One. One...", the rest was lost in a clatter of mobile-phonecalls.

The precise figure obtained by CMCR turned out to be 911.046m, or 911m 4cm 60mm, which converts to just under 2989ft. The grid ref was 231519.451 E, 950698.611 N. This appears to be the same point credited with 914m in Munro's Tables and the TACit Press Corbett Tops booklet, both of which give NC315507 as the grid ref. The 914m spot height on OS Explorer 445 is on the other bump, 160 metres to the east, but this is said to be a "typographical error". CMCR are "confident" that they surveyed the highest natural ground: this proved to be under the cairn, which they dismantled then rebuilt. They also surveyed the eastern bump, obtaining a height of 908.576m. This was to the north of the cairn, and they note that "there could be a slightly higher point within the cairn". Clearly from these figures they regard the western bump as the higher by around 2.5m.

All of this was rather exciting for the cognoscenti, and although in hill-list terms the result was "no change", the hefty margin of drop merely stoked interest in the forthcoming Beinn Dearg survey. Should this also drop markedly, by two metres or more, then it could be open season in terms of UK hill-heights, particularly those just above certain thresholds. As Corfield pointed out at the press conference, there are 12 Munros within four metres of the demotion point, and the status of several of these could well be up for debate fairly soon. This is particularly the case with Beinn Teallach, Ben Vane and Sgurr nan Ceannaichean, none of which acquired their current 915m heights from ground surveys (the confidence-interval of which is markedly tighter than for surveys based on aerial photographs).

Graham Little readily acknowledged that the old 914m height for Foinaven should now be regarded as "an anomaly". But were lightning to strike again on Beinn Dearg, then the OS methodology could be called into question. Interestingly, the drop from 914m to 911m would appear to fall just within the standard accuracy of +/-3.3m for OS air heights, but Little clearly felt the difference was too great to defend comfortably. (He was also asked about the OS spread-height of 913.8m-915.2m given to Bill Brooker of the SMC in 1990 at the time of the last Foinaven/Munro kerfuffle, but he wasn't able to recall this. It was this height - claimed by the OS at the time to be reliable to the nearest metre - that led to the 914m figure appearing on OS maps. Prior to this they had gone with 908m.)

As to the reliability of the CMCR measurements, they used "highly accurate electronic laser Total Stations and Global Positioning Systems", grounded on tripods, and claimed an accuracy of +/-30mm. Is such precision feasible? Probably only peer assessment could confirm it - and the OS duly ratified the Foinaven figure after having studied CMCR's methods and equipment.

Assuming the accuracy is credible, is there scope for more hills to be surveyed in this way? In theory yes, but the Foinaven and Beinn Dearg surveys have been costed at around 1000 per day, well beyond the means of the MunSoc. CMCR did it off their own bat, for publicity (which they certainly got), but they are unlikely to undertake further voluntary surveys unless Beinn Dearg comes in so low that a visit to one of the 915m Munros is itself deemed worthwhile in publicity terms. Demotion of an existing Munro could be as big a story as promotion of a high Corbett.

It could be argued that the process thus far hasn't been ideal, as the integrity of any survey risks being compromised if the surveyors are self-funding. Much better that money comes from elsewhere, freeing CMCR to get on with the job without any worries about the newsworthiness of the result. Would the OS be willing to underwrite a series of CMCR surveys of low Munros? Unlikely, one feels.

Also from the point of view of good science, Foinaven and Ben Vane would have been a better pairing than Foinaven and Beinn Dearg, with the low Munro serving as a kind of control on the Foinaven experiment. The chosen pairing wasn't CMCR's fault - they merely did the MunSoc's bidding - but the MunSoc probably need to have a rethink here. Should a Corbett be promoted without any counterbalancing survey, they might look like an organisation pushing for new Munros rather than one attempting to study the Volume objectively. Indeed, this risk would appear to be supported by a comment on the CMCR website: "CMCR [...] was contacted by [...] The Munro Society to see if we could assist them in their challenge to obtain Munro Status for two mountains which currently do not have Munro status."

Then there is the "new politics" aspect to all this. The traditional route for "objective" Munro changes (where the height crosses the 3000ft threshold, as opposed to "subjective" changes where it's about drop/distance separation) is this: the OS produces a new map, someone notices a significant height-change, reports it to the SMC, which in due course checks with the OS then publishes a revision to the list. This was how it happened, for instance, with the Beinn Teallach promotion in the mid-1980s: Richard Webb (a non-SMCer) spotted the 915m height on a new map, then "within hours" bumped into Hamish Brown of the SMC at Fersit-of-fond-memory, and the thing progressed from there. With this new pair of surveys, however, the SMC have been barely involved at all: by his own admission, Iain Robertson's first contact with Derek Bearhop, editor of Munro's Tables, came only a couple of days before the press conference. And the OS has only been involved to ratify the CMCR survey.

In theory, none of this need be a problem, as the SMC habitually go with what the OS says. But August could yet bring a curious limbo where the MunSoc/CMCR claim Beinn Dearg as a new Munro but the SMC doesn't immediately rubber-stamp it. Whatever one thinks of the SMC, Munro status remains in their gift and is not something that the MunSoc or any other agency can bestow. Even if a hill the height of K2 were discovered just outside Crianlarich, it wouldn't become a Munro until the SMC said so.

Any MunSoc/SMC awkwardness would hardly be a case of tanks being parked on lawns, but it would have the faint whiff of turf-war. The Munros have become a brand these past few years, and while the SMC don't and couldn't have any objection to the wider Munro-guidebook industry that has evolved, they would surely want to retain control over composition of the actual list. Indeed, as noted in TAC70, the SMC has registered Munro's Tables as a trademark - although quite what that means in practical terms isn't clear.

Finally, there is also the thought - common among the more old-fashioned cartographic pedants - that the OS should ideally return to their once-traditional core business of mapping heights and contours rather than the current trend for commercially driven amendments of rapid-change aspects - cycleways, picnic sites and the like. Put another way, the height of Foinaven should land on the OS's desk, not on CMCR's. There's nothing wrong with revisions of OS maps aimed at drivers and road-level strollers, but it's worrying to see the basics of landform-mapping being put to one side. A new upland survey every 30 years or so would keep a lot of hillgoers happy - and would sell a lot of maps.

But so long as this doesn't happen, it's inevitable that independent companies such as CMCR will occasionally strike out on their own - and who can blame them? Both they and the MunSoc have grabbed a piece of the limelight with aplomb. Of course, come August, Beinn Dearg might prove to be still 914m, whereupon nothing much will happen. But should the survey produce a small rise or a big drop, then we might well be in for some interesting times.

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