Hamish – and the beauty of Heaton Cooper: diary of a week off, part 2

<em>Picture: Tessa Carroll</em>
Picture: Tessa Carroll
After the Cairngorms raid and a day of rest … another day of gardening and general pottering. Hamish Brown dropped by for a chat, and to pass on a copy of John G Wallace’s privately published History in the Hills – Walks in the Corbetts and Donalds.

Good to see Hamish – he tends to pop in a couple of times a year, often en route to elsewhere (this time to the Lagangarbh hut at the entrance to Glen Coe for a Scottish Mountaineering Club meet).

A couple of years ago a chronic hip problem saw him hirpling even on the walk up our garden path, and I feared for him. But an operation in the spring of last year appears to have gone near-perfectly, to the extent that Lagangarbh was to be used as a base camp for some of the awkward Ardgour Grahams. He only has 48 of the 224 Scottish 2,000–2,499ft hills still to climb, and hopes to get the job done over the next few years. This was something that looked inconceivable 18 months ago.

He will turn 77 in August, and is less in the limelight than was once the case. The new generation of eager Munrobaggers owes him a considerable debt, but often seems to have only a vague awareness of his achievements. For 15 years or more, however, Hamish’s name was the one that most readily came to mind in any Munro-related context – the first person to do a continuous round (when he set the mark – not that he was racing – for modern-day speedsters such as Charlie Campbell and Stephen Pyke), and the first to complete seven rounds.

He was also heavily involved in the controversial 1981 revision of Munro’s Tables – the one that saw various Feshie bumps chopped and the second summits of An Teallach and Liathach added – and he wrote what is still, for my money, the best and most evocative British hill book of the past 40 years. Hamish’s Mountain Walk is happily once again in print, courtesy of Sandstone Press, who have also reissued his Groats End book with Climbing the Corbetts to follow next year.

Before he heads for Lagangarbh, Hamish gives a good illustration of how there is rarely anything new in terms of hills and the climbing of them. Conversation turns to lightweight footwear, and I mention that for several years I have worn Walshes – rubber-studded hillrunning shoes – for walking on not just my local Ochils but for all summer hill outings. Hamish nods in agreement with the idea that such things are ideal for steep, sheep-cropped grass. “When I was at school at Dollar,” he says, “we soon realised that the most suitable footwear for the Ochils was our spiked cricket shoes.”

To Ben Lomond with my pal Mike Adam for a leg-stretch round the standard paths: up the Ptarmigan ridge, down the tourist path. There were a few people on the hill – including a group of Germans on the summit – but not many, mainly because thunder and lightning was drifting around. We heard a couple of rumbles, but didn’t see any flashes – although a couple met at the foot of the final ascent told of having seen some over Cowal way.

The storms never felt close enough to cause us to stop or divert, but we kept eyes and ears open and consciously sat just below the crest for the summit snack (the Germans, standing beside the trig, would surely draw any fire).

The biggest rumble came close by the Trossachs side of the summit just as we reached the mid-height moor on descent, so we pushed on across the exposed stretch and only properly relaxed when skies brightened as we neared the trees. We were certainly on the right side of the country: it wasn’t a day to be at the Scottish Open golf in Inverness, or in certain parts of Edinburgh.

Just inside the new forestry gate – a fancy high wooden affair – Mike, who is an aficionado of such things, found the best blaeberry bush he had seen in years. Cue a ten-minute pause for purple-fingered snacking.

Even with this interruption, we reached Rowardennan in under an hour-and-a-half from the summit, a respectable rate of progress. Humbling, then, to recall that the record time in the annual Ben Lomond race – up and down the main path – is under 66 minutes, and that the 2010 race, a particularly speedy affair, saw 61 of the 195 finishers break 90 minutes.

Speaking of flashes – well, flashers…

My across-the-street neighbour Jimmy tells of having been on Dumyat, in warm weather just a few days ago, when “coming the other way I could see a man with no shirt on and wearing shorts that appeared to match his tan. It was only when he came down and up a dip and walked by that I realised he didn’t have any shorts on at all – just boots, a hat and a rucksack. I just said hello and we each carried on our way.”

It doesn’t appear to have been the Naked Rambler – he’s still in jail – but it was someone bold enough to walk around on a very popular Central Belt hill without a central belt of his own. Blimey.

This was always going to feel a curious day, given that it was when I turned 50. No point getting angsty or hung up about it, though – these things come and these things go. The main feeling is of contentedness at having got this far – various good friends haven’t been so lucky – and enthusiasm for the years to come.

To carve myself a bit of space – there are days when one needs to stare at the sky a little – and to avoid getting under my better half’s feet as she hoovered the entire house and garden ahead of the evening barbecue, I took myself off to the aforementioned Ochils, in the aforementioned Walshes. A wander round one of the basic loops did the job nicely: the Law, Ben Cleuch, Andrew Gannel Hill and King’s Seat Hill. It was a fine day at lower levels, but raining up top for two of the three hours. Can’t have everything, I guess.

While out, a calculation started gnawing at the part of my head that insists on retaining esoteric numerical stuff. Earlier in the week I had worked out that Ben Lomond would be the 602nd and last Munro of my 40s – Sgor Gaoith on Tuesday, mentioned in the earlier piece, having been no.600, not that I knew this at the time.

Now I realised that the total of Ben Cleuch ascents during that same now-ended decade must have been very similar, given that I treat it as an uphill constitutional and had climbed it at a rate of slightly more than once a week throughout the decade with no significant injury or going-away interruptions. By the time I trotted back down to Tillicoultry, I was confident that the total was within five either way of the Munros figure – were I a betting man rather than a good Methodist boy, I would have put money on it.

So it proved – once back home, a few minutes of rummaging through what a friend refers to as my “battered old ledger” produced the figure of 605 Ben Cleuchs in my 40s. Not sure quite what to make of this in conjunction with the Munros tally. Perhaps I’m mad – but, if so, I’m happy with it.

And so to the evening bash, when the sun shines, the barbecue sizzles, drink is drunk and an eclectic bunch of friends shows up with a embarrassingly generous array of presents. Reading material is the predominant theme, and even though I’d have been content with just this year’s Wisden, the 1961 SMC Journal or the copy of The Victor which I must have first read on my tenth birthday (“Look out lads – Japs!”), the most to-be-treasured gift is a 1938 first edition of W Heaton Cooper’s The Hills of Lakeland. This is a thing of considerable beauty, courtesy of friends with pretty damn good taste.

A fine end to a fine decade. Now to get tore into the new one…

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