I was on Meall nan Tarmachan the other day enjoying the bonus of starting my climb at a healthy 500 metres above sea level. I mentioned this to a couple of guys I met close to the summit and one of them, with tongue firmly in cheek, suggested we were all ‘cheating.’
The comment reminded me of a minor brouhaha that broke out a few years ago when the Daily Mail ran a story about a member of the Munro Society, the club that exists for all those who have climbed Scotland’s Munros, suggested that the vast majority of the Society’s members were fakes.
Professor Findlay Swinton, a retired chemistry professor from Dundee, claimed that only a minority of hillwalkers had actually climbed all the Munros under their own steam.
“These are people who have led or soloed all the Cuillin tops. Being dragged 80ft up the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye, then lowered off by a professional guide or a friendly rock climber, surely doesn’t count as a genuine ascent,” he said.
I disagreed with the good Professor at the time. Surely we climb hills for fun, for exercise, for simple recreation that exposes us to the natural world and all the goodness that invokes?
My own first ascent of the In Pinn, as a very inexperienced youngster, was on the end of someone else’s rope and no-one could have convinced me then that I was a fake. I was almost overwhelmed by an experience that became a bedrock in my ambitions to climb hills for the rest of my life.
I’ve since taken/guided numerous people up the In Pinn and I wouldn’t for a moment consider their ascent was anything other than genuine. The debate threw up a number of issues at the time, including a claim that a Munro tick for climbing Cairn Gorm from the top of the funicular train or Aonach Mor from the top of the gondola was equally ‘cheating”.
I remember discussing all these thoughts with a pal of mine as we descended onto the great connecting rib between Creise and Meall a’ Bhuridh, the two Munros that form part of the great western wall that fringes the Rannoch Moor. By a curious coincidence we happened to meet a couple of Munro-baggers on the Meall a’ Bhuridh ridge, two guys who said they had just taken the chairlift to the summit of Meall a’ Bhuridh. From there they were heading for Creise to bag the Munro. It was on the tip of my tongue to question their use of the chairlift, but I stopped myself.
The guys were enjoying their day out, they were appreciative of the wonderful surroundings and, as far as they were concerned, the use of the chairlift to Meall a’ Bhuridh was completely legitimate. And who was I, or anyone else, to disagree and suggest their ascents were not bona-fide?
I make frequent use of the Cairn Gorm car park at 2500 feet, or the Ben Lawers high-level car park. Is that cheating? On a bigger scale, mountaineers heading to Everest fly in to Lukla, at a height of 12,000 feet. Does that reduce their claim to have climbed the highest mountain in the world? If that’s the case the only ‘genuine’ ascent of Everest I could think of was Phil and Pauline Sanderson’s journey when they and some friends cycled to Nepal from the lowest point on Earth, beside the Red Sea in Jordan, then climbed the highest mountain in the world. But did the fact that they used bikes to get from Jordan to Nepal negate any claim for a “genuine ascent”? I think not.
Likewise, Swedish mountaineer Goran Kropp once cycled from his home in Malmo all the way to Kathmandu from where he trekked to Everest Base Camp and then climbed the mountain solo. Ah, say the critics, but he used a bike! That’s cheating.
Our conversation made me realise there isn’t really such a thing as a “genuine ascent,” unless you climbed every Munro from sea level. Now that would be a challenge wouldn’t it? Can you imagine climbing the land-locked Cairngorms, one at a time, from somewhere on the Moray coast?
Or take the Ben Alder group, hills that are probably as distant from the sea as any. Where would you start from? Loch Linnhe at Fort William, or a long walk-in from the Moray coast? And of course if you were going for the real and genuine round of the Munros you would attempt them without the assistance of a guidebook or a map and you wouldn’t follow a footpath to any summit.
And while you’re it perhaps you should consider if wearing lightweight boots would be cheating – after all the pioneers wore heavy hobnailed boots! And what about Gore-Tex and Event? No way – it has to be tweed or nothing. In fact, wearing any kind of protective clothing might be construed as cheating so it has to be a naked ascent, with no gear, no guidebook and no map and compass – and all hills must be climbed from sea level, preferably at low tide!
So those are the rules for the Genuine Munros Compleation. Any takers?
Of course not – it was all silly speculation and the important thing about hills and mountains is in the being there, not how many peaks you can “bag”. And here was I, seriously considering all this nonsense, in one of the most spectacular settings in the western highlands. I really need to get out more…