And 181 more peaks to scale in whatever time he has left over: Peter Gillman reveals a passion he shares with the new Leader of the Opposition

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The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH has the same map on the wall of his office as I have on mine. It shows the 277 peaks known as the Munros, named in honour of Sir Hugh Munro, a Victorian eccentric who was the first person to list all the Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet. At the last count Mr Smith had climbed 96 of them. My total stands at 175. Both of us are thus irrevocably confirmed as Munro-baggers, victims of a penitential affliction which will allow us no rest until we have climbed them all.

The map is the decisive symptom. If Smith is like me - and since I voted for him in the leadership election, I like to think he is - each time he returns to Westminster from his latest peak-bagging trip he will wait until he is alone in his room and then mark his new conquests with coloured pins. For both of us this private ritual denotes another step towards the blessed moment when all 277 Munros have been impaled and we have been released from their thrall.

For those seeking to probe the psyche of Labour's new leader, it may prove illuminating if I relate my story of the obsession we share. Like all addicts, I believed I had my weakness under control. For 20 years I made desultory forays into the Scottish hills and by my mid-forties had climbed some 30 Munros. I thought that I could take or leave them.

The moment I succumbed remains sharp in my memory. In the summer of 1987 we were staying by Loch Duich on the road to Skye. Virtually within sight was the South Cluanie Ridge, containing seven Munros in its 10-mile length. It proved impossible to resist. I set off at 8am and for 11 hours I followed the ridge, sometimes swathed in cloud, sometimes dipping down to survey the wilds of Kintail and Knoydart beyond. That evening, when I stumbled back to the road, weary and parched, I had I had boosted my total to almost 40 in a single day; there was no way back.

Since then the Munros have taken charge of my life. I seek assignments in Scotland without revealing my true motives to my editors; my long-suffering wife unearths the Scottish Mountaineering Club's guidebook of the Munros from under our bed.

Four or five times a year I head up the M1, determined to tick as many more on Munro's list as I can. It should not be thought, however, that we are mere hapless victims of our obsession. The Munros have brought me - and, I presume, Labour's new leader - highs of an intensity to rank with any others we have known.

What can rival the tension and relief of battling to the frozen summit of Buachaille Etive Mor in Glencoe in the teeth of a winter gale? Or the dreamlike languor of climbing Ben Hope, the most northerly Munro, in the extended twilight of mid-summer, with the Orkneys lying like sleeping giants across the Pentland Firth? Or the unbridled ecstasy of emerging through the clouds on to the summit of Blaven on Skye, to see the Cuillin Ridge rising above a billowing white carpet to the west?

Reassuringly, we are far from alone in our addiction. Almost 800 people have 'completed' the Munros. The first was not Munro himself - he died with just one peak to go - but a parish priest from Rannoch in 1901. The longest anyone has taken is 57 years; the shortest, by an English fell- runner, a breathtaking 66 days.

In our own progress to the magic 277, Smith has had several advantages over me. The first is a base at his Monklands East constituency, 400 miles closer to the Highlands than my home in London. The second is an excuse: that since his heart attack in 1988 he is doing it for his health.

But will his new eminence prove a hindrance? Will his entourage try to follow him when he strikes out across the peat bogs for A'Mhaighdean and Ruadh- stac Mor, the most remote Munros on the mainland, requiring him to spend at least one night on the floor of a packed Highland bothy? Will they allow him to tackle the Inaccessible Pinnacle, the Munro on the Cuillin Ridge which requires 40 feet of pure rock-climbing to reach the summit and an abseil above a terrifying drop to get down again?

Concerned citizens must hope the answer is yes. Where else than on a Munro can he obtain a due perspective on the frenetic ant-heap that is Westminster? Where better can he renew himself for the fray? And what damage will be done to the political process if the leader of the Labour party is prevented from placing that 277th pin, and is thus condemned to stalk a psychic wilderness for the rest of his days?

(Photograph omitted)