Addicted to hill bagging
Ramblers volunteer Colin Lees’ full house of summit lists
Ramblers Scotland volunteer Colin Lees summited the graceful ridge of Beinn Fhada on Mull last month to complete a truly remarkable summit-bagging achievement.
By finishing his final Graham, hill-bagging addict Colin joined an elite band of walkers who have ticked all the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC) official lists of hills.
In fact, Colin has done the Munros four times, as well as the Munro Tops, Corbetts, Grahams, Donalds, Donalds Tops and the lesser-known Furths.
We caught up with the extraordinary Dunfermline & West Fife Ramblers member to discuss his decades of ticking hills.
In 1999, Fife man Colin Lees was invited to join colleagues from Rosyth dockyard for a wild adventure on the iconic West Highland Way.
A few days into the walk, Colin was loving the experience and the camaraderie of his first big backpacking trip.
But as they ascended the Devil’s Staircase, a steep trail linking Glen Coe and Kinlochleven, Colin’s eyes were drawn south to the jagged ridges of Buachaille Etive Mor and beyond.
“I remember looking up at those amazing hills and thinking, how the heck do people get up there? While it was brilliant to finish the West Highland Way, by the next weekend I was hyper. I just had to get up a big hill myself. I went away and walked Ben Lawers and it was great.”
A passion ignited
Colin became aware of the Munros, a list of Scottish summits named after pioneering mountaineer Sir Hugh T Munro, who catalogued them in 1891.
“I liked the idea of doing the Munros, but then came across photos of the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye. I’ve actually not got a good head for heights so when I saw the steep rock of the In Pinn, I thought maybe the Munros aren’t for me.
But then I was on Skye in the early 2000s and we managed to hire a mountain guide. I’ve only ever hired a guide for the In Pinn, and that first ascent of it was still the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. Once I got down from the In Pinn I thought well I’ve done the hardest Munro, so I may as well do them all.
The rest is history. It snowballed and I just got the bug.”
Colin, who is now 77 and lives in Dunfermline, worked as an electrical engineer for the Navy for 45 years before retiring aged 60. While he’d been reluctant to take early retirement, it has opened incredible opportunities for him to walk.
While he has no favourite round, he has no shortage of cherished memories. This includes a huge day in 2021, walking the all of the six Fisherfield Munros (now five as one was recently demoted by the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC)).
“I remember the sun coming up just as I reached the first summit. It was my hardest day, walking for 13 hours and starting and finishing in the dark. It was just such a fantastic, wild day out.”
Advice to aspiring hills tickers
Despite his remarkable number of rounds, Colin has some surprising advice for budding baggers.
“I always tell people to just take their time. I have loved my four Munro rounds, but you don’t get the same feeling when you’ve been there before. There is something special about reaching the top of a hill for the first time.”
As perhaps comes with the territory for people who spend as much time alone in remote winter mountains as Colin, there have been a couple of close shaves along the way. That includes a walking off the top of a small crag in Glen Affric during a winter whiteout in 2016.
“It was snowing, very cold and visibility was down to a couple of feet. Everything was all the same colour of white. The sky, the ground, the rocks, everything.
“I took a compass bearing to head for a ridge to descend but drifted off course and before I could check my location, suddenly in front of me was a slightly lighter colour. I put one of my walking poles in front to test the ground, but it was just an open space.
“I must have walked on to a cornice and the next minute I was in mid-air for what felt like ages, but thankfully I landed in about a three-foot drift of snow. There was blood everywhere as I’d bit my tongue but apart from that I was just shaken up. It was a lucky escape and I’ve taken even more care with navigation since then.”
A miscommunication about a long wild camping trip in 2019 led to unnecessary alarm about his whereabouts.
Colin now carries an emergency beacon device - as well as his usual compass, print and digital maps, GPS and spare batteries - so that his children son Ian and daughter Kim can view his location if required. If you’re considering heading into the hills in winter, check out Ramblers Scotland’s advice on safe winter walking.
Giving something back
While he has taken on many of his big walks alone, in recent years he has also enjoyed walking and volunteering with Dunfermline & West Fife Ramblers, leading a wide range of high and low-level walks.
“I joined the Ramblers as I was keen to try different types of walks and meet different people. My first weekend we went down to Moffat and they were such a friendly bunch. We had a great time and I’ve loved walking with them since then.
“In fact, eight of us went up Ben Nevis this summer and that was great, especially as some hadn’t been up it before.”
Armed with a successful recent hip replacement, Colin has no intention of giving up ticking. However, he does plan to devote more time to leading walks with his two walking clubs in future.
“I only got into walking thanks to other experienced people leading me in groups. After everything I’ve got from walking, I feel like I need to give something back.”
The Scottish Mountaineering Club’s tick-lists defined
- Munros: 282 mountains over 3,000 feet with "sufficient separation" from nearby hills, defined by the SMC
- Munro Tops: 226 summits over 3,000 feet that are subsidiary tops of nearby Munros
- Corbetts: 222 hills between 2,500 to 3,000 feet with at least 500 feet of descent on all sides
- Grahams: 219 summits between 2,000 to 2,500 feet with a minimum drop of 150 metres
- Donalds: 89 hills in Lowland Scotland that exceed 2,000 feet with 100 feet prominence
- Donalds Tops: 52 minor summits that are not viewed as separate Donald Hills
- Furths: This lesser-known list recognises six peaks in England, 15 in Wales and 13 in Ireland that would be Munros or Munro Tops if they were in Scotland.