Americans usually think of the British countryside—if they think of it at all—as an agreeable, rolling landscape, the image Britons tend to evoke by quoting William Blake on “England’s green and pleasant land”. But there’s great variety in these little islands: the Yorkshire moors; the Scottish coastal fjords, locally called firths, some of which are closer to Norway than to London; the famous white chalk cliffs in the southeast. And then there are the mountains.
Yes, we have mountains here, but not like the ones in the US. The highest summit in the British Isles, Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands, stands 4409 feet tall—by American standards, not very high. Last month on vacation I, having had the good sense to marry into a family with a California mountain cabin, spent a week at 7500 feet in the Sierras, although I didn’t have to do any climbing apart from climbing out of the passenger seat of the rental (UK: hire car). I could look out my cabin window and see snow-topped Stevens Peak (elevation 10,061 feet) without even getting out of bed. That’s over twice as high as Ben Nevis, but still nowhere near as tall as the highest peak in the Sierra Nevada. That’s Mt Whitney—at 14,505 feet, the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states.
But before American readers smile at the height of the UK’s tallest mountain, they might consider this: expeditions training to climb peaks in the Himalayas (that’s where they keep Mt. Everest) have trained in the UK, where these wee Scottish mountains gave the mountaineers a good workout.
Some British peaks extend up into air that has come straight from the arctic with no significant land mass to moderate it, making temperatures more like those usually found at higher altitudes, and the moisture of the maritime climate here makes it seem even colder. Even in summer the weather patterns are famously unpredictable, tending toward clouds that descend with little warning, blinding climbers with fog. Shorter doesn’t mean easier. And winter climbing here presents all the dangers of winter climbing anywhere, including blizzards and avalanches. These mountains may not be so tall, but they aren’t to be taken lightly, either.
Every year thousands of people set out to climb British peaks, scores of them as Munroists or Munro baggers—that’s bag in the sense of seize or capture, while Munro means a Scottish mountain over 3000 feet high. Munro baggers aim to compleat (the accepted spelling in the sport) the Munros, that is, to climb all 283 of them.
The name comes from Sir Hugh Munro, founding member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club and practitioner of two popular Victorian passtimes: mountain climbing, and classification of the physical world. While other Victorian Britons classified fossils or finches, Munro measured mountains. Nowadays his list of qualifying Scottish peaks—with a few changes from time to time as different methods of measuring come to the fore—provides modern climbers with a standard set of mountains to test their mettle, and the Scottish Mountaineering Club still registers Munroists’ compleations.
Jasmin Cameron, registered Munroist 4244, says that by the time you bag them all, you’ll have learned to negotiate all kinds of terrain in all kinds of weather, and learned all manner of mountaineering techniques, up to and including abseiling (US: rappelling). She loves the “clagged in” (US: fogged in) days when you can’t see where you’re going, so she can test her navigating skills: counting paces to estimate distance, feeling the shape of the mountain with her feet, matching that to the contours on the map. The list of climbing gear, navigation aids, supplies, and safety equipment she takes on British climbs shows that this is a serious undertaking.
But BBC Radio 4 recently reported that more and more people are setting off with no maps or compasses, trusting GPS software to guide them anywhere they want to go, trusting cell phones (UK: mobiles) to call for help as all they need in the way of preparation for emergencies, and some get into big trouble. Jasmin has seen some of these ill-prepared people putting themselves at risk, the worst case being three French tourists who went up Carn More Dearg (4003 ft), in the winter, in ordinary street clothes; she says their worst mistake was not wearing proper footwear. I would have thought their worst error was not having a map. They did have a sketch—of the mountain they thought they were on, but they were in fact on the wrong mountain. But they got down okay, and not everyone does; a few people die every year, it seems, from underestimating Munros.
However you tackle them—and you can go in any order—not all Munros give equal climbing satisfaction. Some are more highly prized because they’re more difficult to climb, or just more difficult to get to in the first place. Sometimes the only way to a Munro is across another Munro, and remember that at the summit of the second mountain you’re still only halfway there; you have to get yourself back down, which in this case involves going up the first Munro a second time. And you may have had to walk into the wilds quite a distance just to get to the bottom of the thing in the first place. This is easier in the summer when days are longer—and in Scotland, this can mean daylight until after 11 p.m. In winter, though, the sun goes down around 3.
If Munros—and Munro tops, which are subsidiary summits, over 3000 feet but not standalone mountains—seem a bit daunting, you can start out on their shorter relations, the Corbetts, Donalds, and Grahams (in order of decreasing elevation). If you’re a stickler for standards, you can bag Murdos, which—in an ecumenical blending of English and metric measurements—are over 3000 ft but also have a relative height of 30 metres. What’s a relative height? That which by any other name would be a prominence, a shoulder drop, or an autonomous height. (I leave you to look it up on Wikipedia, if you like.)
If you’re outside Scotland you can bag Furths, Nuttalls, Hewitts, or Wainwrights. And if you’re into irony, you can try Marilyns. The name is a pun on Munro (Marilyn Monroe, right?), and some of the mountains, or maybe hills is a better name for them, are so low they’re almost in my league (at least one of them is inside a town).
I bag mountains in another sense, as bag can also mean to abandon. I like my mountains as backdrops to good books. The grandmother who provided my in-laws with their mountain getaway eventually got used to hearing most days that while other people were going off hiking or fishing, I planned to read on the cabin porch. She started picking out books for me; I’d find them on my bed when I arrived. The frailty of very great age confined her to the cabin porch, but when younger she knew the Sierra peaks firsthand. We have a letter from her husband to a relative who had asked that he stop her from going on a 2-week hike in the Sierras, alone except for a donkey to carry her gear; her husband asked how on earth they thought he could stop her from doing anything.
So here’s to the unstoppable among us, from grandmother to the Munro baggers starting out this morning for the top of Ben Nevis. I salute you, from my comfortable chair at sea level, in the green and pleasant part of the country.
I’m grateful to Jasmin Cameron, who provided the lion’s share of the particulars above, as well as for help from the staff at the Fort William Tourist Information Centre in Scotland. All photos are mine unless credited otherwise in the captions.