The Munros

15 Aug 1999 - by Richard Carey

This is a report on a trip to Scotland in August. This text and some pictures appear on my web site:

The Munros are mountains over 3,000 feet (914 meters) in Scotland which are on a list that has been refined and revised by the Scottish Mountaineering Club and now has 284 peaks. This is the oldest peak list first published in 1891 by Sir Hugh T. Munro, a businessman and one of the founders of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. He compiled a list of 538 "tops" of which he believed 283 merited status as separate mountains. The list shrank and grew over the years as new surveys and metrification were applied. Munro sadly died in 1919, aged sixty-three, before he completed climbing the list. The first completion was in 1901 and the number remained small until the 1980's when interest grew and "Munro bagging" became a common and even respected pursuit. Now there are over 1750 "compleatists" as they are called who have made the trek to all the summits. Completing the list entails walking about 1,000 to 1,100 miles with about 412,000 feet of gain depending on the route. The peaks have been done in winter and also as one continuous journey of 66 days doing the 277 peaks listed at that time.

The highest peak in Scotland and all of the British Isles is Ben Nevis at 4409 feet which is just a hill for those of us in the western United States where there are hundreds of peaks over 10,000 feet. Most of the mountains are old, well-rounded and would not seem much of a challenge for the serious mountaineer and are more of interest to the casual hiker or hill walker. So what is the fascination with doing these peaks? I wanted to find out and went on a five week trip to Scotland in July and August with the goal of climbing Ben Nevis and at least about twenty or more other Munros as would fit into the schedule.

I convinced my friend Shelley Rogers to join me and we studied the book "100 Best Routes on Scottish Mountains" for some ideas on what to climb. We selected a few peaks in each of the regions: the Southern Highlands, Central Highlands, the Western and Northern Highlands, the Isle of Skye, and lastly the Cairngorms. This way we thought we would see most of the country while doing the peaks. In between climbs or while waiting out bad weather we would tour castles, museums, and other historic sights we might find. We had no specific plans as to where to stay or the driving route and decided to be flexible and let things develop as we went. Ken Olson who had been walking the Thames Path prior to our arrival in Edinburgh joined us for the first ten days and did eight peaks before heading home.

Even though we were going in the warmest months the peaks are quite far north with all of them above 56 degrees, so foul weather was certain to occur. The first week of August was unusually warm and we were sweating profusely on Ben Lomond our first peak and would continue to do so for the next few days until the weather returned to normal cooler conditions. As we moved north toward Torridon in the Northern Highlands we had steady rain and low clouds that made us bypass several peaks. The dreaded midges showed up too. These are nasty little flies much smaller than a mosquito which bite exposed skin. Repellent didn't seem to work too well, but they are poor fliers and disappear in any wind and were bothersome in only a few places.

Heavy rain and wind with temperatures at about 47 degrees caused us to turn back half way up Lochnagar, a peak in a scenic area south of Balmoral Castle. Scottish peakbaggers didn't seem bothered and we found a small group pushing on in these conditions which were as bad as our worst winter storms in southern California mountains. Maybe we are just a bit spoiled, but it didn't seem much fun or logical to reach a summit in a storm with no views. Possibly they were caught up with "list mania" and just had to "do the peak", which has been known to happen here in the states too! Overall we were fortunate with the weather. May and June might be better months we were told and some years are really dreadful. A B&B host near Torridon, which is admittedly a wetter coastal area, said in 1998 they had 30 days when it didn't rain!

As the trip came to an end we found I had climbed 22 Munros and Shelley did 23, picking up and extra one near Ben Nevis since I was not feeling well that day. We had driven 1672 miles in our rented Fiat Punto and stayed in 19 different Bed & Breakfast houses. The B&B's are a nice way to go, although a bit expensive. There are numerous hostels and one could save money that way. Public transportation is good, but a car is essential if you want to do peaks since some of the starting points are remote. As a diversion from hiking there are lots of old castles and we visited six of them. Even if you don't like whisky a distillery tour is a must see for the process is interesting and quite different from beer brewing. Highland Games are also put on in many towns during the summer and we attended one. It is a unique event like a cross between a fair and a track meet with bag pipes and highland dancing an added attraction. I like bag pipes although some have called them "The missing link between music and noise".

Mountain Highlights: The Glen Coe area is pretty with lots of peaks. We did a fun class 3 ridge there called the Aonach Eagach which links two Munros. Ben Nevis is fine, but is mobbed with hikers like our Mt. Whitney. The Cuillins on the Isle of Skye are the most rugged peaks with many good climbs. Imagine peaks like Sierra peaks, but only a bit over 3,000 feet and overlooking the ocean with the Inner and Outer Hebrides islands in view. There is only one Munro that is a roped climb, The Inaccessible Pinnacle, and it is in this area. We did not try it, but did do two peaks in the Cuillins. The Cairngorms are a series of high plateaus and we did four peaks there in two hikes which were both about 20 miles. The Cairngorms are very scenic and have been protected so there are natural unmanaged forests of old pine trees and hills without sheep. On every peak even in rather remote areas on a weekday we saw other hikers so the Munros are a popular objective.

So is Scotland worth it? We enjoyed our trip greatly. Some peaks may get a bit repetitive after a while, but many areas are different. In a two or three week trip one could do a lot of peaks and see much of the Highlands. If you have an interest in history and Scottish culture there is much to see. The country is neat, clean, and safe with no highway trash and amazingly no billboards. The mountains with bare upper slopes and trees only in the valleys reminded me of parts of Alaska. The country is set up well for tourists with good maps and lots of information centers that can help you find a room or answer questions. Driving on the left side is a challenge not for the faint of heart, but is fine in the rural areas. We picked up our car in central Edinburgh and it is stressful getting in and out of this busy city of 400,000. One could probably take a train or bus and get a car away from the big cities. All of the Munros can be done in dayhikes so backpacking is avoided. Some hikes are long however, and we did two loops of 20 miles in the Cairngorms. Most hikes were about six to ten miles with a gain of from 3,000 to 4,500 feet since one is usually starting near sea level. It is possible to follow a ridge and do two or three Munros or more depending on your endurance. The days are long in the summer with sunset about 9:30 in August.

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