Repeats, a one-off, and Mountain revisited

by Val Hamilton

IN TAC73 THE ED ASKED, “Is same-hill repeating even more male-dominated than hill-bagging generally?” It certainly requires a mindset which is perhaps more usually associated with men. It also requires both the time to climb the hills and to record ascents systematically, and it may be that, despite nominal equality, women do have less time available for both indulgences. Recording is a key issue; while any listbagger has to keep track of his or her climbs, pre-computers you could simply use the relevant book and, for a one-off bag, add a single unobtrusive pencil tick and perhaps a date. Once you start adding multiple-ascent information you soon run out of space, so you then have to find another method of recording repeats. If you are focused on a single hill, I can see that Keri James’ “mark on the kitchen calendar” method will work fine, with annual totals added to next year’s calendar. But what about those folk who can tell you they’ve been up the Corbett Beinn a’Choin three times, with whom and when? This requires a system of organisation which for many would seem a chore, especially when there’s so much in life which we have no choice but to organise.

Another problem with counting multiple ascents is that you have to go to the summit each time. My most-climbed hills last century were those ascended on ski, with Sgairneach Mhor at Drumochter ranking highest because every time I was there the snow ran right up to the trig point. There are other hills where I’ve skied nearly to the top but haven’t bothered removing skis to walk the final snow-free section. This can apply to walks, too. Once the Munrobagger resident in our house had completed his round in 1995, there was a release from the tyranny of summiting: no need to make a detour to a highpoint which doesn’t provide the best view, and freedom to choose a route based on natural aesthetics rather than obligatory waypoints.

And although I try not to be heightist, surely there has to be a minimum vertical gain for inclusion in the hill-repeaters list? If not, then the late John Peel is a strong contender. In Margrave of the Marshes he describes the Suffolk hill (all things are relative) near his home which he climbed every evening, a total of “128 footsteps high”, although sometimes he stretched himself to reduce this number. His record was a mere 85 steps.

A more serious omission from the list of serial summiters is Tom Weir, who, according to popular folklore, climbed the Dumpling, the fine wee hill near his Gartocharn home, every day. If his diaries record this, it could amount to a good tally, but given that he was never a bagger I doubt if he kept a running total. It’s an aspect of mountain-going that probably would not interest his widow, Rhona, either. Recently I was fortunate enough to hear “Rhona’s Reminiscences”, when she talked about her life as a schoolteacher, climber and Tom’s partner.

“I’m a talker, not a speaker”, she began, raising a roar of recognition from the expectant listeners in her local village hall. Her next line, “I haven’t prepared anything”, was greeted more hesitantly, especially by those of us who would not stand up to address a group without a full PowerPoint presentation, detailed notes and three hours of rehearsal. We need not have worried: we were being addressed by a former primary school heidie who had not lost the knack of keeping her audience attentive. The next statement, “I was born in 1920”, had me rehearsing my mental arithmetic — she can’t possibly be 88. But she is, and she has more energy and verve than many 18-year-olds.

For the next 45 minutes she skipped through an eventful life: born Rhona Dickson in Glasgow, the daughter of a sea captain, a childhood in Devon then a return to Glasgow at 15 to keep an aunt company (very Cranford, that). Her English teacher, a Miss MacFarlane, spotted some restlessness in Rhona and invited her out on Ladies Scottish Climbing Club meets. She has not stopped visiting the hills since.

She spent world war two working at Barr and Stroud — her 21st birthday coincided with the Clydebank Blitz — and she also became involved in the Red Cross. After the war, she trained as a teacher and soon started work in Glasgow. In her spare time, she cycled throughout Scotland ticking off youth hostels and continuing to climb, often on joint trips with the Scottish Mountaineering Club where the Ladies were invited to share the petrol money if there was space on the bus. On one such outing she had forgotten to take a “dry change” and an SMC stalwart offered her his spare trousers. This was Tom Weir, and when she went to return them, “laundered, of course”, he asked her out.

In time, they married at Aberfoyle and honeymooned on Foula, a strange choice given Tom’s dislike of sea crossings. Rhona was offered a job teaching at Gartocharn and this proved to be an ideal location with both the Dumpling and Wards Ponds on the shore of Loch Lomond for Tom’s daily outings. She’s been there nearly 50 years now and remains a very active member of the community, recently having joined the protest march to save the Vale of Leven hospital.

Not wishing to bore her audience, she ended far too quickly for us all. She has a great deal to tell and her life story would make a wonderful book. Perhaps what is needed is a Mrs Weir’s Way TV series and the book would then follow, as happened of course with Griff Rhys Jones’ Mountain. I picked up this book from a library while on the Christmas parental visit. Flicking through, I found it much more appealing than the TV programmes (see TAC72 pp4–5 for review) and a subsequent closer look confirms that view. It is attractively produced with some great photos, though perhaps too many of these feature GRJ himself. It has a serviceable index, although you would be wary of using it as a reference book without checking every fact. There are annoying aspects and some serious sloppiness — eg Glen Coe referred to in both text and photos as “the Great Glen” — but it seemed more personal and honest than the programmes.

This could be a contrivance. For instance, there’s an obvious line intended to appeal to the ladies, when GRJ running up Ben Nevis is entreated by his three female companions to slow down. “So I slowed,” he writes, “like men slow: with a little extra spring to demonstrate my reserves”. He regularly debunks the Emperor’s New Clothes myth of TV production, sharing his frustration at having to repeat the mundane process of getting off the train at Sheffield until the shot is just right, explaining that the bus to Honister was a TV special with bus-company officials acting as passengers, commenting on the selection of the best bits for the osprey sequence, although this was one experience GRJ appreciated in its entirety.

I enjoyed the self-deprecation and his disquiet at the enforced role of unwilling victim and trying-not-to-fall guy. His grumpiness is evident at some of the stunts he faced: the noise of the sled-dogs was “so utterly overwhelming that […] I longed to get away from the place as much as any of the dogs did”. He sees no romance stay-ing in the freezing bothy below Suilven or the grim, overheated Aviemore hotel. He shares some of my own prejudices. I relished his dismay at the unnatural flagstones spattered across Cross Fell. “I couldn’t walk on them,” he comments. “They were lethally slippery.” At Boat of Garten, he describes the osprey visitor centre in terms unlikely to be uttered by Kevin McCloud: “architect-designed, and thus completely intrusive.” Like the rest of us, he can’t see the point of the VW campervan used for the Yorkshire trip, and was almost as unhappy astride the intransigent packhorse on the moors above Rochdale as he was rock climbing.

It must have become clear to the production crew early on that GRJ was not going to become a climber. His miserable experience scrabbling on “half-peanut” size holds during his first attempt at bouldering left little room for optimism. His failure to climb Napes Needle is glossed over in the book as it was on TV, but he describes the day as his lowest point: “Instead of feeling elated at my conquest, I felt humiliated and slightly depressed.” He never hides his fear and discomfort. On Suilven, he contemplates the effect of falling and then accidentally drops a biscuit which gives him an instant picture of what it would be like. While climbing at Stanage, the slope “became vertical as I clambered.”

He does however grow to an understanding of the pleasure of walking. Despite his original intentions of avoiding the concepts of conquering and assault, he experiences the sense of achievement of getting to the top. This is of course misplaced in the case of Ben Nevis — an unnecessary deception. It would be interesting to know who chose the caption for the sunlit scene: “The summit of Ben Nevis as I never experienced it”.

The book closes, as did the series, with an ascent of Tryfan in the company of Everest veteran and Kangchenjunga pioneer George Band, a day which both of them clearly enjoyed, and the memory of which leaves GRJ hankering for more. A grand day on a fine mountain with good company — perhaps too simple a formula for a whole TV series and its accompanying book.

Graham Benny, by contrast, was somewhat less enamoured with Mountain:

At Christmas I was given presents of Mountain in both book and DVD form. Aware of the controversy over the author’s claim to have climbed Ben Nevis despite visual evidence to the contrary, I was intrigued to discover how the written version described the event. As reported in TAC72, GRJ claimed “I had gone as high as I could in the country of Great Britain”, allowing the tiniest bit of ambiguity to creep in — perhaps he had been too tired to reach the true summit. However, by the time I had reached that passage, I had tut-tutted and shook my head through over 100 pages of errors. Not just trivial inaccuracies, but downright glaring things. Recounting and explaining all these would probably fill a book the size of the original work, so here are some of the more obvious ones.

From personal experience I recognised “the smooth cone of the first of the Red Cuillins” (p55) as Glamaig. The book mentions the modern-day annual race — “the record was an hour” — and its historical foundation, “first recorded run … Sepoy servant … in an hour and twenty”. A reasonable stab at the facts, but the record has stood at 44 minutes 41 seconds since Mark Rigby’s victory in 1997 (the descent occupied 13 minutes of this), while the earlier run, in 1899, by Harkabir Thapa acting as a porter/guide to Major Charles Bruce, took a total of 55 minutes. (Harkabir’s initial disbelieved run had been 75 minutes, so he tried again, with witnesses, and carved 20 minutes off his personal best.)

Ben Nevis has several questionable passages, aside from the summit claim, eg: “a legend that, when the snows no longer shone from the peak, the Campbells would no longer own the land” (p72). Perhaps an easy mistake to confuse Campbell with Cameron, but centuries of clan warfare have been founded on similar slips of the tongue or pen. We can probably excuse GRJ’s reference to No.4 Gully as an “ice wall” on the grounds of complete inexperience of winter climbing and possibly an attempt to make it sound more exciting than just a standard descent route.

His confusion between the Great Glen and Glen Coe is less excusable. “The pass through the Great Glen is justly famous” (p77), accompanied by the photo captioned “The top of the Great Glen. The remains of Wade’s road can be seen to the right.” Would that be the narrow defile over the watershed at Laggan Locks? No. Even the most raw tourist should be able to work out that the pass in question is actually Glen Coe, while a bit of research would have revealed that General Wade’s road-building spanned 1725–1737, whereas the first attempt to push a road through the Coe was not until 1785. While in the area, GRJ also “motored down the Kyle of Leven” (p79), which presumably refers to the Ballachulish Narrows rather than the other narrows on Loch Leven at Caolasnacon.

Perhaps some of this confusion arises from his not knowing which country he was in. After mentioning the anti-Scots verse in the national anthem (p79), he mistakes us for our “Hibernian” cousins and later (p91), in his discussion of George IV’s visit to Caledonia, states that “his entire notion of Hibernia seemed to derive from Walter Scott’s thrilling novels”.

When the book moved south of the Border I was on less familiar territory, although even I know that “the second highest peak in Wales, Cadair Idris, about forty miles away” (p212) is nonsense, and that the famous Pennine gritstone edges are not “limestone” (p170). Another curiosity arises after his visit to the Tan Hill Inn which almost straddles the northern border of Yorkshire, but still “next morning I had travelled further north into the Yorkshire hills” (p180). I double-checked my maps and concluded that this was possible provided he visited both Poles en route.

Long before this stage in the book I had ceased to believe any of his facts which I did not already know, but I also had to re-read several passages to extract the meaning. Contrast this with Michael Palin’s New Europe, which has a very readable style and a good balance of real facts and trivia, despite his TV commentary style being similarly flippant to GRJ’s.

All in all, Mountain is a disappointing read — although both it, and the TV series (which won a Scottish BAFTA for Best Factual Entertainment), start off encouragingly. It is evidently extremely poorly researched and I hope it never evolves into any kind of reference work where these mistakes become accepted as truth.

Ed. — Tom Weir might not have been an out-and-out bagger, but he did appear to have known which Munros he had/hadn’t climbed, and to have done an extended version of the thing that quite a lot of people do, namely climbing them all bar one or a few, the idea being that this prevents them from being labelled a Munroist and hence a bagger. Somewhere — almost certainly in one of Weir’s many Scots Magazine pieces, but I can’t recall which one — he mentioned that he was n Munros short of a round and had no intention of climbing the missing ones. I don’t seem to have made a note, but my memory is that n was either ten or 20. In other words, assuming it was 20, he climbed over 90% of the Munros in his time — baggerish behaviour of sorts. Is anyone able to provide a reference for the article in question? I’ve got a feeling it also mentioned his having been up the Buachaille over 100 times. For more on (mainly male) repeat-ascending, see page 15.