The record-breaking solo walker, wild camper, packrafter and Ramblers member has successfully summited Scotland’s 282 Munros (hills over 914m/ 3,000ft) an astonishing 10 times – and an eleventh attempt is well under way.
By Rebecca Swirsky
Hazel in Glencoe after her tenth round of Munros
You completed your first Munro in 1980. How did it all begin?
My twin sister and I were looking for more habitats to search for wildflowers. Armed with a map from the local post office, we climbed up Habbie’s Howe in the Pentland Hills. We grew up on a farm, so roaming was natural. Hamish Brown’s book, Hamish’s Mountain Walk, was widely available [an account of the first continuous journey over all the Munros] as well as the coffee-table book, The Big Walks, compiled by Ken Wilson and Richard Gilbert. The latter inspired me because of the photographs of mountains. There’s a photo of an ice sheet on Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair on Beinn Eighe. The dark indigo spring colours were beautiful. I was intrigued that bodies of water remained frozen well into spring and I wanted to visit these wild places.
Hazel's bivvy on Beinn Eighe
Are you hoping to break Steve Fallon’s record of 15 rounds of Munros?
My first target will be to push the women’s record [which was held for two decades by the late Geraldine Guestsmith, but broken in 2015 with Hazel’s seventh round], then I’ll see if I can break Steve’s record. I’ve only 30 Munros left on an eleventh round and I’m definitely going to do a twelfth round. Last summer, following a viral infection in my knee, I couldn’t walk. Scarily, it crossed my mind I may never go up a hill again. I’ve recovered, yet I’m mindful that one day, regardless of injury, I won’t be able to climb hills. But it’s given me fresh energy to expand my list of what I want to achieve. There’s still a lot I want to achieve and places I want to revisit under different weather conditions. I also made the mistake of Googling wild rivers in Yukon territory, Canada. I’m in love with combining a remote river float with climbing the surrounding mountains! I’d be dropped off by float plane, paddle down the Wind River and three weeks later be picked up again by float plane on a remote shingle bar.
What draws you to packrafting?
Navigating land and water require equal attention. Combining the two, enjoying the dynamism of water, offers texture to any trip. The water kit I use is light – the paddle weighs 2lb (910g) and the life jacket 3lb (1.4kg), while the inflatable boat weighs 6lb (3.7kg). One of my favourite trips involves paddling for 3-4 hours from the western end of Loch Tay to an old ruin at Lawers. Farm tracks lead me up to the village of Lawers and then there is a footpath up onto Meall Greigh, the first Munro of the day. The walk finishes by Lochan na Lairige. The day is 13½ hours, but is just long enough to feel I have achieved a great adventure, before being collected by my incredibly supportive husband.
Beside Loch Earn
How do you plan your walks?
I’m constantly looking at weather forecasts and re-evaluating plans. Most trips are decided on a Thursday night when I have the latest weather information. Usually when considering a forecast, a plan will jump out at me. The ‘itch’ to set off usually kicks in on a Tuesday afternoon when I start to look at weekend forecasts. I’ll check several and look to see where the best weather is, followed by visibility and wind speed, which are equally as important up the Munros.
Do you want to encourage others to try walking?
I honestly hope that I inspire women to have the confidence to go out by themselves. – that’s my aim. I’ve certainly had women message me saying thanks for inspiring them. My own confidence developed gradually, but going out solo has totally transformed my life. I started out quite unsure of where I was going or what I was doing, but walking solo has given me the gifts of self-reliance and self-accountability, as well as a joy in the natural landscape. We are far more capable than we realise. My ‘hill head’ is my survival head; it’s good at planning, decision-making and risk assessments. Up the hills, I know what I need to be doing. I’m super! But when it comes to ordinary life, I’m a bit airy-fairy and all over the place.
You’ve raised thousands of pounds for charity through walking.
I’m delighted with the support I’ve received. I’ve completed three challenges – 14 Munros in 24 hours in September 2015, 100 Munros in June 2017, both to raise funds for Scottish Mountain Rescue and 21 nights bivvying in my lockdown garden to raise funds for SARDA Scotland (Search and Rescue Dog Association Scotland) which has raised over £4,500.
What was the experience of bivvying in your garden like?
Admittedly, I’m happier in the mountains where it’s remote. But, poignantly, I saw the streetlights reflected off the underside of ducks while they flew overhead. The traffic noise was amazing. True, rare silence is a luxury.
What’s your most challenging bivvy memory?
One winter I’d made myself a nice ledge out of the snow, while up the summit of a hill in Torridon named Sgorr Ruadh. Suddenly, the wind changed, bringing snow that hadn’t been forecast. I spent the night kicking snow off my bivvy – otherwise, I would eventually have been buried. But I had enough clothes, a torch, food, and if I really felt it was too much, I could have walked off the mountain. So, really, it was a new, rather than bad, experience. In that respect, it was probably my best-ever bivvy. And quite exciting.
A memorable bivvy on Sgorr Ruadh
What’s your favourite
An ascent of Ladhar Bheinn, my favourite Munro. I’ve always saved it for a good day as it’s worth it, particularly as the season’s colours change.
In Edinburgh from Lauriston Place to the Botanic Garden in Inverleith. As art college post-grads, our studios were at Inverleith. We’d walk with canvases balanced on our shoulders – 10ft
of wood. An early form of social distancing!
An Tealleach, a mountain near Dundonnell. It’s incredibly steep and the ridge is sharp, while you can see the coastline and other mountains.
My walking poles. Every round of Munros, I go through a set of walking pole ends. I can cross boulderfields by using them as balancing aids, I
can climb hills, and I can investigate the depth of bogs by poking them in.
Any expensive gin with any good mixer.