I am looking back on the early Munros days what a great way to learn about this wonderful country, the mountains their hidden secrets, friendship on the hills and of course it’s people.
I was on a mission to plan my weekend hills and had the Munro book and my own list with me everywhere I went. Every weekend I would mark them off with a story about the weekend it was so great and what a way to get to know Scotland. The hills were quieter then and there were few paths away from the honey pots of the popular hill. During the week was spent in pouring through maps and planning what a way to learn. There was no quick fix like apps and the books and guides were pretty vague. The hills was a bit of exploration as it should be and all the time you were learning.
My pal Tom MacDonald and I completed our Munros both on separate hills in November 1976. We were both young members of the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team and were so lucky to have done these great hills before they became so popular. It was a great weekend I finished on An Socach 944 metres and the other two Munros for the rest of the party it was a big day in November. Tom finished on I am sure Beinn Bhreac and we were staying at Braemar with the Team. Most of the hills were done with the team and it was a constant chase to get the summits done with some great characters who taught us lots. I had no car could not drive and on the odd weekend off we hitched to the hills. I learned to navigate and worked hard getting to hills on buses, trains and hitching. It was an all-consuming journey and what a day when Pete McGowan the RAF Kinloss Team Leader and the late Ben Humble a pioneer of Scottish Mountain Rescue presented me and Tom with a photo on our completion. This was the after myself and Tom MacDonald had completed out Munro’s 1976. This was about a year before Ben passed away. It was a great privilege to meet Ben Humble, what a character that is his great photo behind me of the Ben and Carn Mor Dearg that used to hang in the RAF Kinloss MRT Briefing room.
Pete McGowan the RAF Kinloss Team Leader at the time what a man and gave us both a picture of our day and on the back he wrote these wonderful words. It was signed by Ben Humble a real mountain character and pioneer of Mountain Rescue.
“On behalf of all the members of RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team may I congratulate you on a really fine achievement in ascending An Sochach 3097 feet in Breamar on 13 November 1976. You completed a unique double with Tom Mc Donald to join a small band of climbers who have ascended all the 280 “Munro Mountains” in Scotland.
Yours Aye Pete Mc Gowan Team Leader RAF Kinloss MRT
(Also signed “Congratulations” by Ben Humble SMC )” I was so proud that Ben Humble
I was so proud that Ben Humble was there he was some man a hero from another era and he always spoke to me no matter who was about.
It meant so much and still does to me to this day that Pete took the time to make our day special. Pete is incredible man and a true leader who sorted the team out and made us a true band of brothers and ready for anything that Scotland could throw at us. We learnt so much in these few years. There were so many great days in that period it was all fresh and new, the old basic inch to the mile maps, poor weather forecasts, no mobile phones, no GPS and few paths and you rarely met people. There were also no wind farms to blight the views. We had so many friends as the keepers in the glens, great names Mr Oswald at Ben Alder, Mr Mc Rae in Skye, Mr Robertson at Loch Muick so many more, we always addressed them as Mr or Sir they were real characters. From Skye to Ballater we knew so many of them and the advice they gave us was incredible. This was well before we have such great access thanks to the work of all parties in the Scottish Parliament.
The SMC Munro book so very basic back then and there was only one about the SMC Munro’s Tables it was our bible and how I enjoyed ticking it after very adventure. Each year I was getting in over 130 hill days getting in so many new hills little else mattered? Nowadays there are so many great books on the Munro’s my favourites are listed below, each have a gem about these mountains.
The Munros SMC , The Munros Tables SMC Guide
The Munros Cameron McNeish and the Munro Almanac.
Some of the epic days are so clear even today my first attempt at the Skye ridge in one go apart from Gillean in 1973 when I nearly abseiled off the rope and Tom saved my life. Huge days of all the classic ridges, The Mamores, Fannichs, Kintail, Fisherfield, Torridon, Glencoe, Tranters Round, light and slow in running gear, the Etive hills with a Vango Tent and so many more adding to them each year and learning so much. In winter it was hard with the simple kit. Big days in the Cairngorms in mid winter on Beinn An Beinn A Bhuird with troops traing for the artic, huge cornices and dead reckoning navigation. The Curly Boots that froze as did the breaches (whatever happened to them) Big rucksack’s were the norm and a rope was always carried along with fairly useless radios. We learnt to navigate with basic maps and limited area knowledge. Learning the hard way from mistakes in the winter traverses of the Cairngorms bothying, camping high, snow – holing and then at the end of the day maybe a call –out. You built up stamina and how often did it happen often coming off a 12 hour day on the hill then out on a night call – out no Health & Safety then. I have hundreds of tales about wild day on the hill, great adventures, near misses that will stay with me forever.
There were a few in the Team in those early days that mocked us Munro baggers they were the so-called climbers. At times they would walk round the summit tops to wind us up. It took a few years in the end for me to understand there was more to life than Munros and I learned whenever I could to mix the climbing and the Munros. After each weekend we would be asked at briefing what Munros, hills we had climbed and had to be able to name them all, a big day like the Kintail/Fannichs/ Beinn Dearg Range would be not easy but you learned the names and the area knowledge built up. My early big Walks across Scotland in the 70’s and early 80’s were a huge influence and we were climbing the Munros by new routes, great knowledge was gained from these walks. We added more and more hills a bit of bravado then and had some incredible days. Many pushed the boat out sometimes nearly to far!
I feel so privileged to have had such an experience in these early days, so many memories of great days and I have been lucky enough to get several Munro round completed over the years. In the end I have slowed down, I take my time and enjoy these great mountains; everyone has several memories for me. It was wonderful taking the new troops out on the big days, get them fit and learn about these hills and climbing so many of the classic days again and again. I had a great dog Teallach a big soft Alsatian who completed a round and I will never forget our two-day traverse of the Skye ridge, one never to forget. We were so lucky that the Munros were a big part of our training in the RAF Mountain Rescue Teams and all the classics big days were done again and again often in wild weather. Navigation and Stamina were the key skills and so many young novice troops learned on these great mountain days.
Looking back what a marvellous journey from that day 40 years ago who would have believed where it would take me? I have climbed all over the World been on some of the world
“I still feel young, although I cannot climb mountains quite so fast as I could years ago.” John Muir, 1910 (aged 72)”
I see so many enjoying the Munros but there are other hills that are not so busy, please take time to enjoy these places. The Munros have been run in incredible times but however you do them just think of these early days before Apps and modern navigation devices, guide books that take you step by step through the route. If you get half the fun out of them and met so many great character’s you will be lucky and have memories for life. Try to savour them climb them by a different route and take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints. Give something back to these great hills.