Outdoor straps on the clamp-ons and wields the ice axe to go Munro-bagging in the Scottish Highlands.
“It looks like something out of Psycho,” I say, staring at a dummy dressed like a grandma. It sits beside a crackling fire in the Falls of Dochart pub.
My hiking partner and uncle, Mike, looks around.
“Maybe that’s why this place is empty,” he replies, as a morose-looking waitress plonks his meal on the table. “Have you ever been hunting for one of these?”
Mike pokes a steaming haggis with his fork.
I shake my head.
“These furry fellas can only be found in the Scottish Highlands,” he says, pointing out of the window. “They’ve got one leg shorter than the other so they can balance on steep hills.”
I frown. “So what happens if they turn around?”
“They fall over.”
Scotland is a place of myths and legends. The legend of the Haggis, however, isn’t worthy of any historical tome, especially since haggis is actually suet, oatmeal, spices and sheep’s innards all mixed together and boiled in the woolly bleater’s stomach. “Depending on a person’s gullibility,” says Mike, “you may actually get someone out on the hill hunting for one.”
HOW WET CAN IT GET?
Over the next four days Mike and I won’t be seeing any haggis in the frosted wilderness of the Southern Highlands. And having heard the weather forecast, it doesn’t seem as though we’ll be seeing much of anything. Only last week I’d been in an Australian heatwave sweltering in 40 degrees. Up on the Scottish peaks, it’s going to be 57 degrees cooler with the wind-chill factor.
How wet can it get? screams the headline from the Killin News. It’s accompanied with pictures of a flooded caravan park and washed-out streets a fortnight ago. Mike and I will be walking around the surrounds of the remote Killin township. A river cascades through the wee hamlet, and the Falls of Dochart, a favourite Scottish beauty spot, gush beneath an historical bridge and past a cemetery.
One person long dead (aside from stuffed grandma) is Hugh Munro, an avid climber and surveyor who, in 1891, published a table listing Scottish peaks over 3000 feet (915m). These peaks are called Munros. At last count there were 283. Munro-bagging may sound like the senseless kidnapping of Scottish people, but it’s a term given to hill-walkers that summit any of these peaks. Once hikers have bagged every Munro, they are said to have ‘compleated’ (from the archaic spelling) a round. With God at his side, the Reverend AE Robertson is believed to be the first person to have bagged all Munros back in 1901. Doubts remain whether he climbed the ominous pillar of basalt dubbed the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye. If he didn’t, then the first compleatist was Ronald Burn who bagged a brace in 1923.
TAMING THE TARMACHAN
I’m a Munro virgin, although the Tarmachan Ridge is about to break me in. The ridge is an impressive series of undulating tops presiding over Killin. The highest peak on the walk, Meall nan Tarmachan (1043m) is a Munro.
A blue sky blazes. The temperature hovers just above zero. Snow covers everything. And it’s making the going tough. One minute we’re happily crunching along; the next we’re up to our waist in it. A blustery headwind makes progress up Meall nan Tarmachan (‘round hill’ translated from Gaelic) incredibly slow.
We reach a really steep section just before the summit. Mike withdraws his ice axe. This innocuous-looking stretch is prime suspect for an avalanche. He digs a snow pit to check the stability of the slope. There are several inches of surface snow, which hasn’t compacted; it’s too unstable to risk it. We detour up a rocky crag, affixing our cramp-ons and digging in with our ice axes.
A rasping wind heralds our arrival at the summit. I have to lean strongly to the side to stay upright. Ahead, hills of powdery white roll in every direction. Loch Tay glimmers distantly below, snaking its way to the outskirts of Killin. Underfoot, the wind has sculpted crispy snow patterns. It’s like we’re walking atop a giant meringue.
Despite the sunshine, it’s -17 with the wind chill. Mike’s lips have gone numb. He dons his balaclava and wanders off in front. Spindrift (windswept snow) spirals around him. He looks like an Arctic explorer venturing into an unknown world of peaks that rise like ancient turrets. This is Nature’s castle. We clamber along its ramparts trying to keep our balance against an insistent wind.
After three peaks of the Tarmachan Ridge rollercoaster, the track veers down into an old quarry and back out onto an access road. Our faces are sunburnt and blood flows in our extremities once again as we enjoy a cloudless sunset over Loch Tay.
With its glistening lochs, brooding moors and enigmatic peaks, it’s easy to see how hikers become obsessed with Munro-bagging. You could say Steven Fallon has Munro mania. He’s been hooked ever since his parents bought him a book about these lofty peaks, and has been climbing them for over 20 years. So far, the sturdy-kneed Scot has compleated 15 rounds, during which time he’s climbed the equivalent height of 240 Mount Everests. On average, mere mortals take eight years to complete a round. Steven’s eleventh took under ten months.
Fallon once bagged 15 Munros in a single day. He was on a reconnaissance mission checking out Ramsay’s Round, a mountain marathon route in the Ben Nevis area where the aim is to bag 28 Munros in less than 24 hours. The route is named after Charlie Ramsay who set the benchmark in 1978 when he scrambled over 90km and 3810m in 23 hours 58 minutes.
Peerless postman Charlie Campbell also had rocket boosters strapped to his boots. In 2000 he climbed, cycled and ran his way around all 283 peaks in 48 days and 12 hours. Towards the end of his Herculean feat, which saw him run 1430km, cycle 1220km and swim the offshore sections, Campbell was so exhausted he started hallucinating dancing sheep.
ENTER THE VOID
“Severe wind chills” and “ferocious gusts” are forecast for today’s challenging ascent of Ben Lawers (1214m), although it’s only going to be -13 today.
Ben Lawers isn’t named after a kilt-wearing Haggis hunter, but after the many draining streams trickling down its hillside. Its translation from Gaelic is ‘speaking hill’ because the streams are said to sound like voices.
Early mapmakers in the mid-19th century estimated Ben Lawers to be in excess of 4000 feet (1220m). This figure was eventually discounted; it was six metres shorter. In 1878 a group of disgruntled locals, including two masons, erected a six-metre-high cairn on the summit in order to take Ben Lawers to the “magic height”. The Ordnance Survey ignored the artificial peak, which has long since crumbled.
Our route to summit begins just outside Lawers village. It’s a 16km loop.
We ascend into an increasingly cloudy day. And then, in an instant, the summit of Ben Lawers and the neighbouring Tarmachan Ridge has vanished. Cloud swirls like a phantom. It merges with snow. I can see only one footstep ahead, but eventually stumble to the summit where wind gusts of 120km/per hour force me to cling onto rocks. Standing up is near impossible. The wind yanks off my hood when I try to, and then whips my beanie clean off. It lands three metres away, perched perilously on the edge of a cornice. Within a moment, it’s gone forever.
Mike beckons me off the summit and down a path of icy rock. We reach a plateau. The weather clears slightly (visibility is around ten metres now), and we trail-blaze through shin-high snow. To our right, Ben Lawers rises steeply. Somewhere. One false step to our left and it’s a long, bone-breaking tumble below. Mike’s entire leg disappears into a snow-hole, beneath which is a babbling brook. He’s stuck. It’s funny watching Mike yanking himself free, but it highlights the necessity of walking poles in this environment, and how easy it could be to very quickly break a leg.
DEAD AT ELEVEN
The weather is getting worse. Surly winds are rampaging the whole of Scotland. Off the east coast, a Spanish trawler has run aground on the UK’s highest sea cliffs on Hirta Island. And as we begin our ascent of Cruach Ardrain (1046m), our third Munro, there’s further evidence of the wind’s devastation.
We’re walking through a forestry plantation. An 11-year-old pine tree has been uprooted and lays destitute across the track. After doing the limbo, we tramp over sphagnum moss and boggy ground as drizzle dusts the hills.
Cruach Ardrain (stack of the high region) is a Munro characterised by rocky outcrops and long twisting ridges that run either side of it. We clamber up with the wind at our backs beneath heavy cloud. There are two tops before the summit of Cruach Ardrain, and on reaching the second one, a sliver of sunshine peeks through a sky of navy blue and dark grey. Its presence against such fierce clouds is biblical, like we’re on the verge of eclipse.
We negotiate rocky ridges – very narrow in places – before embarking on a steep ascent to the summit. Sunshine streams through the darkness at irregular intervals. Its rays move across the valley and reflect distant lochans, which glow like golden buttons. A thick band of cloud clobbers us with rain as we summit. Visibility is dangerously low. The temperature dips.
The descent off Cruach Ardrain is tricky at the best of times, not to mention when you can’t see where the track is. Time to affix the cramp-ons, prime our ice axes and extend our snow poles. We weave past icy patches and steep drops. Some sections require us to go down backwards. We’re stretching from rock to rock in other places. The cloud eventually lifts to offer gorgeous views of the valley. Sunshine streaks on yellowy-green slopes and faraway snowy peaks.
We ride the back of a grassy ridge and pass over two peaks before tracking down a steep hill. A dead sheep lies with its horn stuck in a fence. We vanish into a tightly-nit pine forest. Branches poke and scratch our faces. The ground is boggy and squelches with each footstep. Eventually we’re spewed onto the banks of a river, using our walking poles to negotiate slippery rocks before rejoining the plantation road. Our 13km loop has taken the best part of six hours.
LIFTING THE PANTOMIME CURTAIN
It’s our last day of Munro-bagging. The sky is still littered with cloud. We’re tackling Stob Ghabhar (1086m), peak of the goats. Red deer graze on the plains. Gnarly Caledonian pines mark the start, next to a seemingly deserted forest lodge.
A gentle ascent along a stalker’s track takes us into a gigantic bowl. Mountains tower around us. A misty veil impedes a rock scramble up the scree slopes of – pass the phlegm – Aonach Eagach. After losing the path several times, we soldier on to the summit in deteriorating conditions, disappearing into yet another white out. Mike’s orienteering skills get us out, and like a pantomime curtain the cloud parts to reveal a boggy moor and a steep and slippery track skirting a large waterfall.
Even though the mountains have been elusive for Mike and me, it’s easy to see why people like Steven Fallon adore the Munros. It’s not something easily put into words, although some of the mysterious mountain monikers do a good job in conveying the atmosphere. You can almost hear the laments in the distant birdcalls on the slopes of Meall Corranaich(mountain of a mournful cry), over which the dead were transported to burial grounds in neighbouring glens. One thing very much alive is the mystique of these mountains. I can feel the first twitches of Munro mania itching beneath my skin. I’ll be back here. Not in winter perhaps, rather beneath the generous arc of a splendid summer sun.
MORE OUTDOOR ADVENTURES...
- AUSTRALIA'S ALPINE BACKCOUNTRY
- CLIMBING THE ARAPLIES
- MOUNTAIN BIKING AUSTRALIA
- MT RUAPEHU NEW ZEALAND
- GRAVEL BIKING
- SOUTHWEST TASMANIA
The full feature appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Outdoor Magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest outdoor adventure, travel news and inspiration.