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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee