The phrase “bagging a munro” sounds suspiciously like a snipe hunt or wild goose chase, doesn’t it? I confess that it did not strike us as overly impressive the first time we heard it. I mean, we climbed in the Andes at 14,000 feet, remember? We scaled volcanoes and trekked through the jungle. What’s a little munro compared with that?
Bagging a munro: Scaling one or more of Scotland’s 283 mountains of 3000 feet or higher. Extreme “baggers” look to climb all of them, crazy extreme baggers climb them all in a ridiculously short period of time (current record is 39 days 9 hours).
Ahem. Perhaps I should do some backpedaling here.
After bagging two munros in one day with the seriously under-named Hill Walker’s Club, we have a new appreciation for this endeavor. In fact, I would put it up there with any hike we did in the Andes and the toughest day we had on our 4-day trek in Peru.
Munro bagging is not for sissies, and the fact that they do it twice a month – year round – in rapidly changing weather conditions and then go back to work the next day is nothing short of inspiring (and frankly a little intimidating).
These Scots are hardy people, and the proof in that statement is that the munro baggers call themselves “hill walkers” as if they were out on an afternoon stroll.
The thing you notice first about Scotland – after the amazing landscape – is the rapidly changing weather. Even in the summer, a sunny day can turn to rain, hail, wind, cold, or clouds – sometimes all five – in a matter of minutes. Up on a mountain it can be even more extreme, so it is important to be prepared even if the sun is shining when you leave home.
We were invited to the walk by our new friend Ann, and she instructed us to meet the club at 8 a.m. at the Waterloo steps with a sack lunch, money for fuel and a post-walk pint/dinner, as well as rain gear, hiking boots, and warm clothes. There we met up with the others, who range in age from 20s to 60s. A group of 10 of us split up into cars and set out for the west coast of Scotland in the Southern Highlands, 2 hours away.
The weather was dry but cloudy on our way over, and as we approached our destination we drove through a patch of rain. We weren’t sure what we’d find when we got there, but the weather forecast did call for a clear afternoon, at least.
I was a little intimidated when we parked and everyone else strapped on their gators, heavy-duty boots, and geared up with their jackets and walking sticks. I mean, this was just a hill walk, right? We grabbed our backpacks and got at the end of the line for the start of the walk.
The Cruachan Horseshoe
The walk started with an immediate “up” just steps from the car, no gradual climb or warm-up to ease us into this. After 30 minutes of just going up, we made it to a ladder over a fence. Beyond that I could see sheep grazing, a stream, and up ahead a large dam. Ben Cruachan, the hill we were climbing, is the only munro to have a power station installed in its lower reaches to process power from the Cruachan hydroelectric dam.
Once we climbed the ladder up to the roadway, we were rewarded with the site of Coire Cruachan, a beautiful lake, and the horseshoe-shaped string of mountains surrounding it.
I was already huffing and puffing when I realized we would be climbing up and over that to return to the spot we were standing.
This was no time to be afraid (or “feart,” as the Scots would say). We set off down the trail and quickly started up again. This time, the trail disappeared and we were left to climb in the general direction of up over ground that was wet in many places, drenched in some, and a bit rocky.
The weather change was merciful in that the clouds came through to obstruct our view of the first munro. We could see just enough ahead of us to move forward, but not enough to see the peak. At first I was disappointed, but later I was grateful because it made the climb easier.
It took what seemed like ages to get to the first peak, and the walk became rockier as we climbed. There was a suggestion of a trail in some places, but overall it was just a straight slog up over obvious landslides and huge rocks and boulders. There was a lot of scrambling on my part, and memories of my fall in Ecuador on large rocks in the jungle kept coming to my mind, though this time there was much further to fall. Thankfully the swirling clouds obscured everything behind me.
It was a true test of my fear of heights and falling on rocks to scale that last bit, and I was so happy to see the peak with it’s stacked rocks to indicate the true summit. We had a bite to eat and consulted the map and GPS before heading down another bed of large rocks to the ridge that would take us all the way around the lake.
This is where I could tell you that my calves were burning and I was really unsure on my feet because there were so many rocks. But I was really overwhelmed by the sights on the ridge and almost – almost – didn’t notice the pain. The clouds lifted as we reached the ridge, and we could look back and see the massive peak of rocks we had climbed so far. The side of the hill (man, it feels so inadequate to call it a hill!) were strewn with giant rocks that looks like tombstones or tiny skyscrapers from a distance. It was an amazing sight, so rugged and beautiful at the same time.
As we walked along the rocky ridge we saw the clouds from each side get blown up to the top and then ascend when the opposing winds met. The view would come and go throughout the day with this, and it always felt like a glimpse into a secret land when the clouds parted to give us a view.
We eventually reached the second munro on the ridge, Stob Diamh, and then continued up one more slight rise before swiftly descending down to the lake. This was done almost entirely without a trail, and we have the swollen knees to prove it. We crossed streams, mostly dodged the sticky mud, and ran down hillsides to reach the lake.
As we gathered with the rest of the group, we looked back into the sunny, clear blue sky to see the dramatic horseshoe we had just traversed. It is a huge ego lift to see an accomplishment like that. So often in our lives we work on projects that don’t show immediate visual progress, and it is easy to lose steam or wonder if you are making any headway. Physical pursuits are an excellent balance to that style of work because you can see how far you ran/walked/climbed/swam/biked and your muscles will assure you that you did some good work that day. It is a great feeling.
We began our final descent from the dam back to the cars, which took another hour. When we finally arrived – muddy, sweaty, and tired – we were greeted with a magnificent, sunny view of Loch Awe. We changed clothes and shoes and headed down to the local pub to celebrate our victory.
Total time on the walk: 9 hours.
Unfortunately we missed the last call at the kitchen by just a few minutes, so we had drinks and crisps (that’s potato “chips” to most of us) and gratefully sat for an hour chatting.
The drive home was beautiful. Summers in Scotland have daylight until almost 11 p.m., and the darkness only started descending as we arrived at our house. We saw more munros, highland cows, sheep grazing, lakes, and several quaint towns along the way. The talk in the car was lively even if our bodies weren’t, and it was a wonderful way to end a long day.
As we walked to our front door we remarked that almost everyone in the group was getting up for work in just 8 hours, and we again marveled at their stamina and strength.
We, on the other hand, unplugged the phone, turned off the alarm, and slept like babies until 9 a.m.
We may have bagged our first munro, but in the end the mountain sacked us.
Interested in climbing this munro? Check out the details here.
What was your last great physical endeavor, and how did you feel about it afterward?