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My first Munro

Head In The Clouds 

Lungs full of iced needles, long-dormant leg muscles screaming in complaint while feet shuffle upwards in mincing little grandma paces, I try to recall the last time I hiked above a mountain snowline. Finally I track down the memory. Hokkaido, Japan, 1983. On a May afternoon so clear that it hurt, I scrambled up the snow-wrapped Daisetsuzan until it steepened to the point where a fool wearing running shoes could progress no more. Then it was time to turn perfectly-good rainjacket into sacrificial luge for one long deliriously hazardous rock-dodging bumslide to the youth hostel and a much anticipated tryst with a tall dark vending machine full of Sapporo beer.

Daft? Of course it was daft, but so is this. My first real alpine encounter in 17 years, and I’m half-way up a Cairngorm Munro in January; the temperature is below zero and falling, the weather forecast warns of snowstorms and winds gusting to 60 mph — and did I mention that I’m just coming off a three-day Speyside binge of game, single malt and shortbread? Well-prepared? Perhaps not.

Call me an accident waiting to happen, but at least I’m in the right company, for two paces behind me, watching my every step, is Alan Crichton. A fifteen-year veteran of Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team and since 1995 a full-time professional mountaineer and climbing and first aid instructor, Alan is a man who lives and breathes mountains. Next week he’s going off on holiday — to climb Mt. Kenya, of course. So for my first-ever assault on a Munro I’m in good hands. If only I could do something about the lungs. And the legs.

‘Munros’, as if you’ve never heard of them, are Scottish mountains named after Sir Hugh Munro, whose 1891 ‘Tables Of Heights Over 3000 Feet’ presented climbers and hikers with a ready-made target list of 277 mountains to ‘bag’. Successive surveys have seen some Munros de-classified and yet more created, so that today, the dedicated Munro-bagger has 284 target ‘tops’ to aim for.

Enter ‘Munro + bagging’ into any internet search engine, and stand back for an avalanche of sites dedicated to a pastime of almost religious significance. Literally tens of thousands engage in the quest for a complete round of the Munros, yet so huge is the task list that in 120 years, only two thousand determined souls are registered with the Scottish Mountaineering Club. Sir Hugh, alas, was never one of them. When he died in 1919, he had reached the summits of all but two of the peaks on his list.

While I can look at mountains all day long, I seldom entertain any urge to climb the damn things. Mountains, to me, are best-enjoyed, if not from skis, then at least from a comfortable distance. From a well-heated car parked in B-road lay-bys is good; from reclined aircraft seat with cocktail in hand, even better.

So what am I doing, on 3504-foot Glas Maol in the middle of the Cairngorms, my first-ever Munro? It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

When I asked Alan to help me bag my first Munro, we agreed on Lochnagar near Balmoral, but this morning, on the drive in from Deeside, Alan scratched that notion. He was up there yesterday with a client, and Lochnagar was one big sheet of ice. And only last week two climbers fell, one to his death, from an icy Lochnagar gully. Instead we opt for Glas Maol in Glenshee, an ‘easier’ Munro involving a much shorter walk in. He won’t hear me complaining about that, even if, after barely ten yards’ walking from the car park, we are already negotiating crusty snow, and I’m learning my first lesson, how to ‘kick’ the edges of my boot soles into the slope, to create grip out of nothing.

Another few hundred yards of scaring grouse from the slopes, and already we’re using our ice axes. Apart from the cardinal sin of leaving it at home, moans Alan, the most common error a climber makes is not using his ice axe until it is too late. Struggling for traction on an icy slope half-way up a mountain, he reckons, is not the ideal time to try and dig the ice axe out of the rucksack. It’s a small point, but typical of Alan’s teachings: prevention and preparation, the development of mountaincraft and survival skills above all. Better to be able to navigate yourself away from difficulty and off the mountain than to have to face a night in the wild. He points out two key navigational features, a ‘ring contour’ and a ‘re-entrant’, either of which any competent map-reader could use to identify their exact location in even the foulest of conditions.

Next I get to watch an avalanche assessment, the digging out of a block of snow to see how easily it sheers when forced. This simple test, along with awareness of the fact that ninety-five percent of ALL avalanches are caused by humans, could save a lot of lives. A large fat hare, its grey-blue winter colours melting into the landscape, bobs by, seemingly unimpressed.

Another hour of patient slogging gets us to the edge of the ice-field that is Glas Maol’s summit. In the same hour, clouds that had lurked in the North-west have crept all around us, sharply reducing visibility, washing the landscape with monochrome tones and playing tricks with perspective. Far in the distance, I spot three tall pylons, perhaps remnants of a defunct ski-tow? Two minutes later the distant pylons suddenly reveal themselves, bent and buckled fence posts, all of three feet high.

Alan pulls out his ‘group shelter’, a large square of ripstop nylon with elastic around the edges, and we sit inside this essential makeshift tent, protected from the bitter wind, and eat sandwiches and drink hot ribena from a flask. Aside from the wind, the total silence is broken only by what sounds just like a frog croaking. The call of the ptarmigan, Alan tells me. I give him the benefit of the doubt, because of course I didn’t really think it was a frog.

When we emerge from the shelter, conditions have changed yet again. The wind is still fiercely cold, but it has swept away all cloud, revealing a stunning 360-degree panorama of the highest upland area in Britain. While we don crampons, Alan points out some of over thirty Munros in the area: Lochnagar, Ben Avon (pronounced ‘Ann’), Beinn A’Bhuird and Ben Macdui, at 4296′, the second tallest mountain in Britain. Pausing to appreciate this topographic tableau illustrates the real attraction of climbing these mountains; no other vantage point, certainly no lay-by or aircraft seat, lays out the landscape so beautifully as this.

My first experience of walking with crampons is a revelation. The treacherous ice field becomes a crunchy walk in the park, and, beyond it, the forty-five degree downhill slope an irrelevance that we stroll, straight down. Without crampons, we would be in very real danger of slides or falls that could take forever to stop.

Falls like these are when the ice axe really pays its way, and we dip into a corrie, a steep, bowl-like depression in the hillside full of deep snow, for a quick run-down on ice axe techniques. On his mountain skills courses, Alan and students will spend the better part of an afternoon in a corrie such as this, hammering home ice axe arrest techniques until they become almost instinctive. He throws himself down the steep slope half-a-dozen different ways, each time fashioning a controlled stop with his axe. My attempts to replicate this are notable for a more gingerly, reserved approach to the initial launch, but I get the idea, and even manage not to stab myself in the process. Notch one up to me.

Alan proposes leaving the corrie by climbing the cornice that rims its edge. From here, it looks like the size of a block of flats, but I feign enthusiasm as we rope up. In close-up, the cornice reveals itself to be only six or eight feet high, but below it is where the real danger lies, a l-o-n-g fifty-degree downslope that would test even an expert in ice axe arrests. As Alan cuts steps and shows me how he will use his axe to make secure handholds, I jokingly remark that this must mean I’m not going to lead the pitch. Alan smiles, eyes twinkling with mischief. Me and my big mouth.