Classic Cars and Mountain Roads: Munro Hiking, with a Little Added Fun.
It was in the bleakest days of exam preparation, when all rational thought has departed and your wardrobe seemingly consists of nothing more than a variation (albeit not a particularly varied variation) of sweatpants and ill-fitting T-shirts, that a photograph entitled “Munro Challenge” interrupted my aimless gaze at the computer screen. I was in a cycle of self-disgust at my own way of life and that was all it took. I was sold with very little consideration beyond the aesthetics of the photo. Because, it is of course widely acknowledged that water proof trousers and a wind resistant jacket are infinitely more flattering than sweatpants.
As is probably easily deductible, this would be the first time, in rather a long while, that I had donned such apparel. Growing up near the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, hiking was a given most weekends, undertaken with a somewhat heavy heart for one so young and quickly abandoned once old enough to “forge my own path”, which if Timehop can be used as a reliable archive, consisted largely of moaning about the perils of year 9 maths and the occasional cryptic song lyric. Perhaps subliminally it was this daily reminder of hours frittered away in such pursuits which spurred me to reconnect with the passion my parents had so arduously tried to cultivate in me. Or perhaps it was simply another means of procrastination. Either way, circumstances aligned and there I was pledging myself to be back in a sturdy pair of Mammut boots in little under three weeks’ time.
” I don’t think it is possible to find yourself looking at something like that from below, and not wishing you were up there looking down.”
Thus preparations began. As afore mentioned I wasn’t really new to mountain walking, I have several under my belt and though it was a long time since I’d been in the highlands specifically, I had a good idea of what to expect. It was not actually the walk which was praying on my mind. Perhaps I should now mention that the actual hike was only half of the adventure, and was readily forgotten until we actually found ourselves at the base of our chosen munros; Stob Coire Raineach and Stob Dubh. Perhaps the real marvel of this whole story is not the fact that after a long spell of abstinence I had, for want of a better term, successfully “reconnected with nature”, but the fact that our mode of transport, the vessel which was to carry us and all our kit, was a 1968 MGB GT. I say us, I had carefully appointed an experienced team leader, in the form of my old flat mate and accomplice to all my whims; a man of expert reconnaissance, outdoor pursuits and classic cars. He seemed confident it could make the trip. Knowing nothing of cars apart from the fact that I’d never seen one of these at the base of a mountain, (aside from in James Bond, as he was keen to point out) I was somewhat more reserved. Alas, how could I rob him of this opportunity to use the car “for what it was built for”? I have to admit, he was not wrong. About two hours into the journey all conversation ceased as we found ourselves the only vehicle on the road which was suddenly winding through a valley with peaks lining each side. There is certainly something distinctive about this approach that separates it from anything else I’d ever experienced. Perhaps it was, to indulge my companion, indeed the car, but I’d be more inclined to say it was the effect of the peaks as they came in to view. They are somehow beautiful without being pretty, imposing, shrouded in cloud and patched with snow, without seeming bleak. I don’t think it is possible to find yourself looking at something like that from below, and not wishing you were up there looking down. And so we set out to get ourselves there.
I have to admit the initial ascent came as a bit of a shock. I started to doubt as I began to struggle to simultaneously walk and talk whether I had overestimated my own capabilities. I was honestly quite appalled. I know I confess quite freely that I had not actually pushed myself to much real outdoor exertion for a while, but I still considered myself a (fairly) avid gym user and not what I would have deemed particularly unfit. I think it’s just a completely different physical experience, having to consciously choose where to put each foot next, assessing our own movement. It seems so strange to actually consider what in the realm of the everyday, becomes second nature. But it’s an experience which can’t really be compensated for, and in many ways, needn’t be compensated for. Once we started to fall into some kind of rhythm, we managed to maintain a steady pace, completing both peaks in around two and a half hours. I’d argue it’s the initial getting to the Bealach which is most difficult. Once actually at the base of the peaks, the whole thing seems so much more achievable. After a brief regaining of breath before the cold forces you to move on, and a take in of the views of Glen Etive, a new determination sets in. It seemed quite unbelievable that we were stood at a point which just a couple of hours before had seemed so formidable. The summits did not only serve to provide us with a dramatic panorama of the surrounding peaks, but also proved a good vantage point for checking in on the old MG, much to its owner’s admiration. Whichever you chose to look at, we were instilled with a sense of pride.
We took the trip as a weekend with an overnight stay. But this initial experience, a two and a half hour drive which could hardly be considered a chore given the view, culminating in something a little more rewarding than the treadmill, made me wonder why we hadn’t actually been doing something similar every other weekend. We had all the requisites, kit, transport, time, but I think it is easy to fall into a tendency, as I had, towards viewing these things as an insurmountable task, requiring months of preparation. I cannot stress how accessible, in reality, the whole thing was. By the time we were showered and having a celebratory drink, all doubt and struggle experienced had melted into the lasting impression that we’d had a pretty remarkable day.
“I can’t recommend getting back into or introducing yourself to this kind of hiking enough.”
Saturday, we can surmise had run smoothly. Day two, though no difficult hike would be taking place, presented an entirely different kind of exertion. As I say, we were feeling a little proud. We’d achieved both peaks, and much faster than had been estimated by the guide books. Perhaps what became most alarmingly apparent to me out of this whole weekend is how quickly we became dependent upon the ease of urban life. Up until university I, and my friend included, had always lived in a village with none of the conveniences of shops or take aways, and we existed in this state for nineteen years with perfect ease. Why then, after just several months of Glasgow life, had we carelessly discarded our roots, and set out on our trip with no means of breakfast for the following day, which would be a Sunday, in a place somewhat less commercialised than Sauchiehall Street? On awaking, we walked straight passed the hostel kitchen, where others were preparing their morning sustenance. Of course we weren’t intending to start the day with no breakfast, that’s the golden rule of such physical exertions as we had been undertaking. We just also had some naïve idea that “fending for oneself” could also translate into finding a local eatery. Our first point of contact was naturally our host. On asking whether he could recommend a spot for breakfast, we exchanged glances at his response, “do you mean…breakfast which…has been prepared for you?” He didn’t have much advice to offer. I think we drew the conclusion that perhaps he simply didn’t get out so much. We were soon to find that we were probably the subject of the hostel office joke since despite any clear direction or encouragement, we set off in pursuit of somewhere to dine. I must notify you that this exercise entailed an unanticipated half hour drive from Glencoe to Fort William, ending in what I recall to be a rather extortionately priced breakfast, (it was a niche market after all) and probably some knowing looks from the staff who had seen the rather flustered likes of us several times before.
Despite ending the trip a little shown up, betraying ourselves as somewhat dusty in our solo survival skills, I can’t recommend getting back into or introducing yourself to this kind of hiking enough. It was a relatively easy starting point for breaking down the misconceptions of my youth and building my ability up again. I do however feel it my obligation to prepare you for what lies ahead if you so choose to undertake a similar pursuit. You will need plenty of water, you will need breakfast materials. You must have experience or be accompanied by someone you trust has plenty. You will need base layers, you will need waterproofs, and you will regret not having a camera. But of tantamount importance, if you do choose to go into the highlands, in a classic car and dining in cosy country pubs, the people you encounter whilst on your trip will bond with you by discussing your respective marital lives.