Climbing the Munros: On top of the world

At 66, Peter Gillman thought his climbing days were over – until his young grandson, Jake, inspired him to complete a challenge he'd set himself more than 20 years before
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The Independent Travel

It was my grandson who started it. Last summer we were on a three-generation family holiday in the Scottish Highlands when Jake, who was six, pointed at a distant mountain top and declared: "I want to climb that." The mountain in question was Meall nan Tarmachan – peak of the ptarmigan – which is part of the Ben Lawers range. It is a sensuous peak, at mid-point on an undulating ridge above Loch Tay, with an alluring miniature corrie hidden below its summit.

I knew all this because I had climbed Meall nan Tarmachan 20 years before. It is one of the 284 Scottish peaks known as Munros: those above 3,000ft and distant enough from neighbouring peaks to be deemed a summit in their own right. I climbed it in 1988 on my way to completing the Munros, the term used for climbing them all – although when I did so there were only 277 peaks on the list, whereby hangs a large part of this tale.

Jake had already shown a precocious talent for scrambling up rocks and boulders. But his demand to climb an entire mountain raised an immediate difficulty. When I climbed my final Munro in 1997, I was convinced it was the end of my hill-walking days. My knees were increasingly stiff and sore, particularly during steep descents, when they felt as if the joints were grinding on glass. It is hard to resist when your six-year-old grandson calls. But at the age of 66 and with dodgy knees, could I still do it?

I started climbing the Munros in the 1960s. After a desultory pursuit over the next 20 years, I finally became hooked on completing the list. Fulfilling my obsession brought me a gamut of priceless experiences. We climbed Beinn Eighe in Torridon in mid-summer when heat radiated from its quartzite blocks and we cooled off by plunging into the river at its foot. We overcame the Inaccessible Pinnacle on the Cuillin Ridge in Skye, the only Munro that requires full rock-climbing techniques, and thrilled at the abseil off the top.

We battled through blizzards and whiteouts to reach our summits during the Scottish winter, when daylight may last no more than eight hours and navigation is a vital skill. On Schiehallion the wind was so intense that I was blown off my feet. We saw golden eagles, snow bunting, a pine martin. These days were all the richer for being shared with family and friends.

And so, in 1997, I finally reached the magic day of the Last Munro. It was to be Cairngorm above Aviemore – an unlikely choice, since the mountain is disfigured by ski-lifts and has a café near the top. But these enabled a number of non-walkers to attend the topping-out ceremony, not least my first three grandchildren, all under five. (These days, the ski-lift has been replaced by a funicular, whose passengers are not allowed up to the summit.) At the summit, memories and tears arrived in a flood. We supped champagne and continued the celebrations back at ground level. I submitted my name to the Scottish Mountaineering Club and duly received a certificate recording that I was the 1,726th person to complete.

A few weeks later came startling news: the Scottish Mountaineering Club had revised the list. Drawn up by an engaging Victorian eccentric, Sir Hugh Munro, it had been first issued in 1891, when the total was set at 283. His list was idiosyncratic and full of inconsistencies, and so was revised several times. In the 1960s the total was finally fixed at 277, or so I thought. Sentiment in the mountaineering world was firmly against further attempts to iron out anomalies, since the pursuit of the Munros was an essentially irrational activity anyway. But then the SMC embarked on a yet another round of revisions, publishing the result shortly after our celebrations on Cairngorm. (The list has just been adjusted once again after the SMC discovered that one supposed Munro actually measured 2,997ft. The total now stands at 283.)

The most shocking revelation was that the total had been recalculated yet again. Eight peaks had been added and one removed, yielding the new tally of 284. The compilers added the disingenuous rider that although no one who had completed the list was officially required to climb the new ones, it was "a matter of conscience" whether they did or not.

Well, I examined my conscience, and found it clear. I had completed the list as it stood, and had climbed four of the eight "new" Munros anyway. I did lay tentative plans to climb the remaining four but never saw them through, deterred by those excrutiating knees. Eventually a consultant told me an overactive parathyroid gland had been pumping excess calcium into my body. An X-ray showed a layer of calcified spikes in my cartilages, which explained the pain. After two botched operations, the renegade parathyroid was finally excised, but I was told that nothing could be done for my knees.

This gloomy verdict confirmed what I suspected: my Munro days were over. I settled for walking at a lower level and became acquainted with the footpaths of Kent and Sussex, which brought rewards of a gentler kind.

Then came that fateful day when Jake spoke out last summer. How do you respond when one of your grandchildren calls, especially when they are as intelligent, beautiful and wonderful in every way as ours? I'm too old? My knees hurt? Besides, Meall nan Tarmachan is one of the easiest Munros, since you can start at 1,500ft and the book time – the estimated schedule for ascent – was less than two hours.

The next day we set off. We were four: myself, Jake, and his parents Seth (my son) and Jan. I was full of trepidation, both for myself and for Jake. I need not have worried about Jake. He bounded along merrily and mounted the steep section below the hidden corrie with aplomb. I, meanwhile, seemed to be faring well enough.

Reaching the corrie brought back memories of a frozen day 20 years before when it had been blanketed in snow that was corrugated by the wind. Now it was a luscious green. Fifteen minutes later we were on the summit. Jake was not even out of breath as stepped up to the cairn. His parents were bathed in pride, as was I: he had just climbed his first Munro at the age of six, which put him some 20 years ahead of my own schedule. He posed shyly for the obligatory summit photos and then announced that he wanted to climb the next peak (not a Munro) along the ridge. This time his request was firmly declined.

My feelings of relief that I had coped with the ascent were giving way to anxiety about the descent. But as we set off, I was astonished that my knees were far less painful than 10 years before. I eased carefully down from the corrie, using ski poles for balance, but there were no shots of pain. In 90 minutes we were back at the road head, buzzing with satisfaction. I had climbed at least 150 of the Munros with one or both of my sons, Danny and Seth; climbing with a grandson was even more special. My triumph with Jake, coupled with the mystery improvement in my knees, revived that faded ambition: to climb the last four Munros.

Last Easter Seth and I returned to Scotland with the aim of climbing the easiest two of the four, both in Glencoe. I had tried to get fit during the winter through swimming and walking but succumbed to a cold on the day we drove up from London, hardly a confidence boost. Our first target was Stob Coire Raineach on Buachaille Etive Beag. It was more of a trial than Meall nan Tarmachan but we climbed it in two and a half hours. There were snow-streaked peaks around us and we were seared by a bitter wind, but the reward far outweighed any discomfort.

The next day we headed for Stob na Broige, the north-west top of Buachaille Etive Mor, the great triangular sentinel at the eastern end of Glencoe. The summit was a desolate place, shrouded in cloud. The round trip took us five hours and my knees once again withstood the descent.

That left two to go. Seth and I went back to Scotland last month, our first target An Stuc in the Ben Lawers range above Loch Tay, 34th in height in the Munros list. The SMC recommends approaching it via the two preceding Munros on the Lawers ridge. Since I had already climbed them, we forged our own route alongside a tumbling burn to another of the Highlands' secret corries with a shimmering loch at its heart. We struck up a pristine slope to the bealach (pass) below An Stuc, then scrambled up an exposed buttress. The final stretch was wreathed in mist which cleared as we reached the summit, yielding breathtaking views of the Cairngorms, the Mamores and Ben Nevis. We hugged each other in delight.

This time the round trip took seven hours. As we assuaged our thirst at the Lawers Hotel, I felt up for the final challenge: Sgorr nan Lochan Uaine in the Cairngorms. It is one of the most-demanding Munros, fifth in height, with a five-hour approach that requires accurate navigation across a bleak plateau devoid of shelter. We felt we needed a clear day but wind and rain swept the Cairngorms and we returned to London empty-handed.

As we await the chance to return, I have been reflecting on the changes in the 10 years I was away from the Munros. There are now more than 4,000 people who have completed the list, the total rising by 250 a year. Hillwalking websites and Munro guidebooks abound (when I started there was not even one published guide to the Munros). Footpath erosion is an increasing problem, though not on the scale of the Lake District or the long-distance paths. Even so it is still possible to savour the Scottish wilderness; on An Stuc we met just one other walker in the day.

Seth and I are considering the timing of our attempt on Sgorr nan Lochan Uaine. We felt Jake was still too young for the three Munros we did this year. If we wait until spring, Jake will be eight and perhaps ready to come with us. By then I will be 68 and prey to even more anxieties about my fitness and health. But with the incentive of climbing the last Munro in the company of Jake, who got me back into the absurd enterprise, what can stop me now? And since I was present for his first Munro, shouldn't he be there for my last?