18 September 2015 by Helen Todd
On the night of the summer solstice in 1987 I climbed Lochnagar, the 1070m Cairngorm peak close to the village of Ballater in Royal Deeside where I had a summer job in a hotel. Rather than the spectacular sunrise we were hoping for, my memory is of a rather underwhelming experience. The climb was fun, with a large crowd heading up in the summer twilight and it was novel to be on a mountain overnight. However, it was cold and windy on top and the dawn never really materialised – the sun apparently rose behind the clouds as we returned to the hotel chilly, damp and exhausted. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that was my first Munro, the first of 282 Scottish mountains of over 3,000 feet which I have now climbed, culminating in Ben Lomond in July 2015.
Schiehallion, my second Munro, was climbed in 2002 after I came to live in Scotland. I still hadn’t heard of Munros, mind you, and as far as I was concerned it was just a nice walk with a good view. But gradually I started to make my way around the country, momentum growing as I became aware of Munro-bagging opportunities on day trips, weekends away or holidays. Now that I’ve done the full set, I feel hugely privileged to have visited so many amazingly beautiful places around Scotland. From the jagged spires of An Teallach to the rounded hills of Perthshire, there’s such variety – and in each season it’s a whole different experience again.
Munro-bagging is now a well known activity, if still looked down on as fairly obsessive behaviour. Of course there are plenty of other mountains available in Scotland, some of them – like Suilven in Sutherland - far more stunning than any Munro, even if they don’t make the height. But I’d still urge anyone to get the bug.
Why climb Munros?
Firstly, you get to visit parts of Scotland that you just wouldn’t get to otherwise. While some Munros are near a road and others have well-constructed paths part of the way up, plenty aren’t very accessible at all meaning long excursions into pathless, wild countryside, possibly requiring overnight stays in a tent or bothy. Some walks are shortened by long cycle rides on bumpy tracks far into the hinterlands, but these are still long days. As you work your way around, the range of mountains you gaze upon in the distance becomes recognisable as individual hills you’ve climbed. At times you can see both the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, or views stretch from the industrial haze of Glasgow to Ben Nevis. The giant jigsaw puzzle of your knowledge gradually gets filled in, your understanding of Scotland’s geology and history, land ownership and management grows with each trip.
Second, your fitness levels increase from year to year, your muscles getting used to the rhythms of the hill day: the long walk in, the gentle upward climb on a stalkers’ path, the steep pull up to the summit ridge, the scrambling, the knee-crunching descent. Also, you gradually learn skills and knowledge to build your self-reliance. You learn from your walking pals, from courses, from a series of lessons learned after minor errors, and so your ability to look after yourself on a hill improves year by year. Finally, spending time in the natural environment is wonderful for your sense of well-being.
You’re not alone in the hills
You also get to meet some great people! You may be lucky enough to have a Munro buddy, a partner or friend who’s happy to chum you on your trips, or you may need to rely on your walking group for transport and company. But you also get to meet some fantastic fellow baggers, like the three lively women from London I met in a Skye hostel who had done their Munros systematically by travelling up on the sleeper one weekend each month. I met a baby being breastfed on Ben Hope summit, a family group showing me the way on the terrifying Aonach Eagach ridge, thousands of dogs and their owners, and I joined in with the odd last Munro party too.
But the joy of ‘completing’ also soon brings a sense of being bereft, a loss of purpose. Then gradually, an awareness of other opportunities grows. After so many years of holidays based around Munros now I could cycle around Orkney, ferry-hop across the Outer Hebrides – or even go to Wales! Or, just maybe, I could start a second round of Munros. Oh no, I feel another obsession coming on …
Helen’s tips for starter Munros
No Munro is an easy walk, but some are certainly easier than others. Here are some ideas to start your Munro-bagging career off. Note that in winter you need to be properly equipped with an ice axe and crampons and the right skills to cope with the conditions.
Ben Lomond – just 25 miles north of Glasgow this is many people’s first Munro. Sublime views over Loch Lomond and a good path.
Buachaille Etive Beag – often overlooked thanks to its larger, more famous neighbour, Buachaille Etive Mor which guards the entrance to Glencoe, but there’s a good path and great views across Rannoch Moor.
Bynack More – good introduction to the long Cairngorms walk in, through wonderful pinewoods in the pass of Ryvoan until a steady climb takes you to the summit.
Ben Wyvis – just north of Inverness, a good path and expansive views across the north-west highlands and over the Cromarty Firth. Can be particularly windy on top!
Ben More, Mull – Munros by the sea are just a bit more special, with Scotland’s fabulous islands and coastline spread out below you. Make sure you pick good weather for this one.
Munros on Ramblers Routes
Beinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers
Buachaille Etive Mor
Ring of Steall