The Angry Corrie 72: Nov 2007-Jan 2008

The Saddle and so on: the editor offers some thoughts on completion

MUNRO ROUNDS seem so thick on the ground these days, so relentlessly routine, that the main argument against writing about my own completion isn't risk of vanity so much as risk of boring the reader due to the humdrum subject matter. There are currently close on 4000 names on the list of Munroists (I've bagged the 3907 slot), and while no one will ever know precisely how many refusniks have completed clad in cagoules of anonymity, it's quite possibly 500-plus. So something like 4500 rounds have been racked up, as well as numerous repeat efforts.

Just as every round has its predictable features, so each is unique and personal - that, ultimately, is central to the appeal of this most curious of games. The most mundane aspect of my own round was surely the time it took: one month short of 25 years, a traditional, leisurely span. While there are ultra-fast rounds (Charlie Campbell's 48-day effort, Steven Fallon's metronomic 13 rounds in 14 years between 1992 and 2006), and while there are still a few "lifelong learning" completions that take 50 or more years, the modern bent is for something closer to ten years, perhaps even a little shorter. So 25 years, all but a few days, isn't the trendy, slap-it-on-the-CV way to do the thing - and for that I am glad.

But the ordinary and the unusual are often just inches apart, and this quarter-century timescale is linked with the most distinctive aspect of the completion: that the 284th and final Munro of my round was also the 1000th Munro of my life. Goodness knows how many people have climbed 1000 Munros: probably more than might be at first guessed. Clearly anyone with four full rounds qualifies, and most with three rounds will have hit four figures overall, too, given that they would need only around 150 "spares". There will also be people who have chugged away for decades at 40 or 50 Munros per year, quite possibly not keeping count (at least not once their actual round had been completed). Then there are the Douglas brothers, Alan and Ian, who were with me on the Saddle. Respectively, they had climbed 3634 and 6444 Munros at that stage. It'll be more by now.

So my own round wasn't unduly unusual in that regard. What was quirky, however, was that the numbers coincided: I completed on exactly my 1000th Munro. Some would see this as numerological neatness being taken at least one step too far, and they might well be right. But once the idea cropped up, it grew to amuse me enough to treat it as a target, as an offbeat kind of game. If I was finally going to bother finishing a round, then I wanted to give it a stamp of its own. Lord, protect me from the herd mentality.

When is a Munro not a Munro?

But with all this theory, conjecture and analysis, I'm getting ahead of myself. Time for some specific detail. The round ended on 22 July this year with two final-day Munros: no.283 was Sgurr na Sgine and no.284 was the Saddle. My first Munro had been Lochnagar, on a scorcher in August 1982 - an outing for which I have photographs (that student hair! those comedy clothes!) but no precise date. For 998 of the 1000 Munros I know exactly when I climbed them, but for that Lochnagar ascent and a misty Carn an t-Sagairt Mor day in October 1982, I just have the month and the year. Annoying, that - but hey, you can't have everything, and this slight vagueness came to influence my decision to complete in July rather than August 2007. Delaying until the latter month could have seen me creep, unawares, beyond the 25-year mark, and I fancied dipping under that.

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The 1982 start (just past my 21st birthday - no school-trip Munros for me) meant using a lukewarm-off-the-press copy of the 1981 edition of Munro's Tables. Hence the Feshie purge pre-dated me, as did the first modern wave of expansion - An Teallach and Liathach have been double-Munro massifs throughout my hillgoing career. The first change came with the elevation of Beinn Teallach, shortly before I made my (as yet only) ascent of it in June 1985. Much later came the 1997 adjustments: one out, eight in. The deletion hill - Sgor an Iubhair - had seen me a couple of times, and of the newbies, all bar Sgreamhach and Spidean Coire nan Clach had already been climbed, so five ticks (six minus one) were gained from the comfort of my armchair. There was, however, a complication in this regard - one of my own making, due to the eventual bolting of the 1000-overall idea on to the basic round.

Few things in life are straightforward, and hills have a habit of throwing up more clumps of complexity than most pastimes. Here, for instance, is a statement that would seem decidedly curious to any non-hillgoer: there are at least two ways of counting how many Munros someone has climbed. Method one - which, as far as I can tell, seems to be the more popular among those who worry about such things - is to adjust the overall total each time the list is amended. Hence had someone climbed An Stuc seven times prior to the 1997 revision, their cumulative tally would increase by seven. Similarly, had they climbed Sgor an Iubhair six times pre-1997 (but also post-1981 - it was only a Munro in that 16-year window), they would suddenly lose six ticks. And so on, such that a fair degree of double-entry bookkeeping is needed whenever the SMC gets twitchy.

This method, however, seems a little too open to the whims of the list-editor. Do it this way and you're never fully in control of your own total; significant leaps and drops are possible without any warning should you have a particular fondness for repeat ascents of a marginal Munro or a subsidiary Top with a hefty drop. Your overall total, as the small print on the financial adverts has it, can go down as well as up.

There is another way, however: simply count something only if it was a Munro at the time you stood on it. I say "simply", but again there is a quirk: doing it like this means that the same summit, climbed at different times, sometimes qualifies in career-Munro terms and sometimes doesn't. Take Sgor an Lochain Uaine, for instance. Having done a fair bit of Cairngorming in my early 20s, I'd been on this twice before it was upgraded in 1997. (It had also been a Munro 1891-1921, but I didn't climb it then.) I had no problem with counting one of these pre-1997 ascents for my actual round - I didn't feel any need to revisit it post-1997 to qualify as a complete Munroist. But not to return would have created an anomaly between the 284 and 1000 totals, as Sgor an Lochain Uaine would have featured in the shorter list but not in the longer one. The same applied to several other 1997 promotions, so this effectively bumped up the number of specific hills (and reduced the number of random repeats) that I needed to climb in the latter stages of the 1000. Nurse!

1 in 6 road ahead

I can't precisely recall when the idea of finishing on 1000 first came to mind, but it was soon after passing the 800 mark on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich in May 2005. That was no.253 in my actual round, so one new Munro was needed for every half-dozen repeats, roughly speaking. 1 in 6 seemed a reasonable rate: it fitted with my overall approach to climbing hills (I tend to regard the first time up anything as a recce for later visits), and by and large it was maintained with no alarms. Occasionally the rate would steepen to 1 in 5, and when this happened I would trundle north to tick off a new one. In general, however, the wanted Munros just came, every few months, while the repeats kept on stacking up much as ever.

Ten wanted Munros were climbed during 2005 (along with 67 repeats), 13 during 2006 (78 repeats) and the final 11, along with 53 repeats, in just under seven months of 2007. This might seem a slow rate of new-hill progress: it's sometimes said that 200 sees the start of the home straight and the Munrobagger is likely to finish within a couple of years. There's an analogy with the marathon runner's mantra about the 20-mile mark: the remaining chunk equates to a 10K race, and should seem manageable given that most marathoners run loads of 10Ks. My world doesn't work in such ways, though. I passed the 200-Munro mark in 1987, so getting from 250ish to 284 in under three years marked a definite quickening, so much so that anything faster would have felt too hasty. I wanted to savour the end-times rather than rush them.

The 1 in 6-ish rate was maintained until the end, even though, ideally, I'd wanted to need just the final Sgine/Saddle pair while still having around 20 repeats to play with. That would have been comfortable, but when I started sending out fixed-date invitations to the Saddle - following an early June trip to a very wet Conival (repeat) and Ben More Assynt (new), followed next day by a fantastic wander over An Teallach (Bidein repeat, Fiona new) - I still needed A'Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mor for the round, Sgor an Lochain Uaine too, sort of, plus another 18 repeats. Friends worried that I was cutting it fine, especially when ten days ahead of completion I was still short of the Fisherfield pair plus three repeats. But there's an edgy thrill to deadlines, and everything was duly tidied up with a week to spare.

National breakdown

As to what 1000 Munros including a full round looks like, the extremes would be 283 hills climbed once plus one climbed 717 times, as against all 284 climbed three or four times each. As might be expected, my own figures fall somewhere between, the only surprise being that the highest individual tally is a mere 24, for Ben Lomond. TAC's esteemed Perkin Warbeck, only halfway to a round (and "not bothered"), has been up Glasgow's local Munro at least twice as many times as that - while I've climbed what the PC brigade call the Rich-in-Years Person of Coniston 27 times, despite never having lived within 150 miles' drive of it.

Twenty Munros are in double figures - all in Sections 1 or 2 apart from Lochnagar, a consequence of six years living in Furryboots City followed by longer spells in Glasgow and Stirling. The 1000 were spread over 572 days, an average of 1.75 Munros per outing, and the most climbed in a day was seven, on four occasions (South Cluanie, Mamores, Glas Maol etc and Grey Corries-Nevis). There were 311 single-Munro days, and 167 doublers. 167 is also, coincidentally, the number of May Munros, ahead of 156 for June and 139 for July. Lowest monthly tally is 31 for January. The 53 in December suggests an eagerness to avoid Christmas shopping.

Exactly 250 were in Section 1. This wasn't intentional: once the total reached 950 or so it was clear that around one-quarter would be in my local patch, but I expected to nudge slightly beyond that mark by the time 1000 arrived. That it didn't says something about how smoothly the final months went: there was no sneaking off for a sly Vorlich/Stuc circuit, or for an extra evening Chonzie, just to boost the repeat numbers.

Of the 284 different Munros, 98 have been climbed only once, raising the question of whether I need just these 98, or the whole 284 again, to claim a second round. In practical terms I'll probably look to do both - any excuse for an extra celebratory session in the pub. (For more on this repeat-round quandary, see the journal of the Munro Society.)

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I would readily admit (well, more or less) to a lack of quality control in all this. Whereas various so-called "dull" Munros have seen plenty of ascents, eg Ben Chonzie 17 times, several celebrated stonkers have been climbed just the once, most notably the two Munros on Liathach. Shame on me, I know. In my defence, I would make two points (well, three, the third being the axiomatic one that any hillwalker can do what he or she damn well likes, so long as it doesn't cause grief for others). First: I just like being out, and (most of the time at least) can't see the point of driving substantial distances past Hill A, B or C to reach Hill X, simply because ABC have been climbed before and X hasn't. Non-local hills come into the frame when I'm based further north, but by and large I've become Mr Daytrip, rarely straying beyond a rough arc defined by Ballachulish, Drumochter, and the Shee watershed. Occasionally I'll venture to Glen Nevis or the Laggan hills, but that is pretty much my limit. It might not be the most rounded, aesthetic, exploratory approach, but it keeps me happy.

The second point is this: maybe I'm unusual (or downright odd), but in some ways I'm more interested in weather conditions than in any specific hill. I like calm, crystal-clear days every bit as much as the next person, but I also have a fondness for downpours and blizzards, or ferocious gales, and occasionally seek these out with the same elemental glee that sees me climb hills at night from time to time. I only tend to do this on familiar hills, admittedly - Ochils for dark stuff, southern/central Highlands and the Ponds for wild-weather efforts - but that's one of the by-products of getting to know certain hills reasonably well. As the navigational, know-the-terrain side of any particular hill gradually becomes a given, you can start playing around the edges in terms of crazy conditions, aware that if things do turn utterly unmanageable then the bale-out options are there without having to fumble for maps. I relish this kind of thing so much that climbing standard close-to-home hills on good days often feels like revision for future wild-weather revisits. I can even think of occasions when I've had the choice of going out one day in good weather to a new hill, or the next day in poor weather to a known hill, and I've chosen the latter. Mad, I know, but since when have the deeper motivations behind hillgoing been sensible?

Friends and crocodiles

To return to completion day itself, there is the question of who (if anyone) to invite, and how to arrange things. The various different ways of constructing a guest list seem inextricably entangled with the choice of hill, or at least the type of hill. Choose an awkward-as-anything back-of-beyond Munro - eg round the north side of Affric - and you're effectively saying that even on completion day you're more keen on the "wilderness experience" (whatever that is) than on human company. This sometimes goes by the name of misanthropy.

Then there is the opposite approach: invite family and chums, various of whom will have scarcely seen a hill before, never mind climbed one. This pretty much locks you into leaving one of the low-ascent Munros until last: Cairn Gorm, something at Glen Shee or Drumochter, or Beinn na Lap courtesy of ScotRail or whatever the hell it's currently called. This, in my book at least, is more laudable than the wilderness-git approach, plus I'm a fan of the Shee and Drumochter hills and routinely take issue with anyone who starts dissing them. But at such completions, civilised and easy-going though they may be, there is often an undeniable sense of it all being slightly disappointing. The peak/party balance is askew. If you're going to have the troops along, perhaps you do want a hill that makes them work for their summit-cairn cake and bevvy. Modesty is fine, but it's surely no bad thing to leave people feeling impressed that you've climbed 284 of these Munros, that it's a significant day in your life. And Carn Aosda, for all its undoubted virtues, isn't best suited to that kind of mood music.

I'm a mix of solitary and gregarious (take a Middle England upbringing and dump it in Glasgow for a dozen years), so the Saddle served well as a compromise. The highest hill in its group (important that - on the last day it was always going to be Sgine first, Saddle second); handy from a road despite being a big brute; and - crucially - with a whole variety of routes up and down.

This last point was, for me, the deal-clincher. One consequence of having attended lots of completions was gradually working out what I didn't like as much as what I did. And one thing that has never appealed is the idea that an unusually large party - anywhere between 20 and 70 people, say - should all crocodile up the hill together. Such events seem very unlike normal hillwalking. For a start, there is the sheer size of the party. I climb maybe 70% of my hills alone, and most of the rest are with one or at most two friends. Hardly any are en masse efforts, and this surely applies to many other walkers. So why rewrite the rulebook on the last day? On a mass ascent nobody seems to go at their natural pace, the conversation is stilted and sporadic, the pauses and snack-stops come at the wrong times, and all the wildlife gets scared off minutes in advance. All in all, it risks being a dutiful drudge rather than a good day out.

Not fancying that, I opted for a method test-driven five years earlier on a watershed anniversary ascent of Stob Ghabhar: give people a summit time (for the Saddle it was 3pm-ish) and tell them to come up by whatever route, in whatever company and at whatever pace they fancy. See you all on top. This has the feel of a game: people chance upon each other, and whether they know each other well or haven't the slightest connection apart from both knowing the imminent completionist, it seems to work. At risk of ending up in Pseud's Corner, my favourite chapter in James Joyce's Ulysses is the Wandering Rocks episode in the middle of the book. There, any number of characters take a stroll in the Dublin lunchtime air, and Joyce records this in a long series of short sections in which they bump into each other, see each other from a distance, or simply pass unawares. It works as a move-the-story-on device in the book, and it works as a method of getting a lot of people up a hill, too. Recommended.

The future's bright, the future's a range

Two post-completion questions keep being asked: what's your favourite Munro, and what are you going to do now that you've "finished"? The favourite-hill thing is impossibly subjective: so much comes down to the weather (especially given that wild/foul can be a positive), company, mood and so on. Fifteen years ago I'd have nominated the Cairngorms, but like many before me I've become a creature of the west. If pressed, the answer now includes mention of the Mamores and the Five Sisters: classically chunky west-coast ridges, narrow without being too fiddly in scrambling terms.

As to what happens next, the short answer is that I don't know and I'm not bothered - for now at least. People seem to assume that Corbetts follow Munros like Brown follows Blair, but although I'm beyond the 150 mark with Corbetts, Grahams too, I can't see me completing either list this side of the first Miliband administration. Munro Tops maybe - I'm of the school that prefers Hugh Munro's mange-tout approach to Archie Robertson's main-summits nibbling. But I'm not even sure how many Tops I still have to do - 40-odd I think, including most of the awkward Skye ones - so again this isn't likely to happen in a hurry. Family connections in the Ponds put the enjoyably idiosyncratic Wainwrights in the frame, but again I haven't worked out a total and again it's a long-term plan, if it's a plan at all.

For now, I'm happy to be pottering about rather aimlessly. It was fun being locked into the 284/1000 Munro agenda for a couple of years, and it led me to climb certain hills in certain ways (eg ultra-basic sleepingbagless dossing trips to Fisherfield and Knoydart) that I wouldn't have otherwise attempted. But I'm glad to be clear of the schedules and the self-imposed pressure. There are two short-term schemes: the Saddle being Munro no.64 for 2007 made 100 in the year a possibility - not something I'm ever likely to do, or want to do, again. Although puny in comparison with the annual tallies achieved by others, hitting three figures on (a hopefully snowy) Schiehallion sometime just before New Year holds a certain appeal. And I've contrived to climb at least one Munro in each of the 17 sections at some stage this year, bar Section 15: Wyvis awaits. A few days in the Borders - neglected amid all the Munrocentricity - are also overdue.

Then there are the perennial quirky ideas: an ambition (dunno quite why) to stand on top of both Starav and Cruachan in the one day; climbing all seven Crianlarich Munros in one outing - originally planned with the much-missed Alan Matheson and still not done, five years after his death; various local-Ochil ploys, eg working towards a calendar round for Ben Cleuch (current state of play: 330 of the 366 dates chalked off in 683 ascents total, "completion" vaguely scheduled for 2010, fair winds and good health permitting).

The main thing for the foreseeable future, however, is to help a few friends with their own rounds and targets. Considerable thanks are due to some key people who offered encouragement in the early years, in the 1990s when the Munro side of things became becalmed, and in the recent run-up to completion. These people know who they are, and several of them are chipping away at ambitions of their own. I've been a lucky boy in my own dealings with the hills - walked the watershed, started a magazine that seems to provide entertainment in certain quarters, and now climbed all the Munros. Only one real hill-related ambition remains (you'll need to guess what), and it isn't likely to happen in a hurry. So for the time being I'll be helping my mates, spreading it around a bit, and continuing to climb a whole heap of hills as the mood and the madness takes me.

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