A Week on Dan's Munro Round, 6th - 14th May 2014
I'm sitting in a doctor's surgery waiting for my appointment. I can't walk properly anymore. Most of my toes are battered and bruised, the nails blackened, and my left big toe is horribly swollen and inflamed with infection.
Let me explain.
I've been up in Scotland for a week, helping my friend Dan achieve a life long ambition to complete a continuous Munro round climbing all 282 of them. For the uninitiated, Munros are all the mountains in Scotland over 3000ft, and the idea is that you do it all under your own steam : running and walking in the mountains, cycling or kayaking between them.
The proposition initially sounded quite simple – just come along to keep Dan company, maybe carry some extra gear for him, going nice and slow for a few hours each day, no worries...
The reality was a little different.
Dan Duxbury is a likeable primary school teacher from Kendal, renowned for his good humour and general bonhomie. Unfortunately for all his friends and family, 20 years ago, Dan read “Running High”, by Hugh Symonds. Hugh was an outdoor fitness fanatic who taught at a posh public school in Sedbergh and decided to take time off work for a personal challenge to complete all the Scottish Munros under his own steam. The momentum of his efforts, along with, I guess, a strong desire not to return back to work, made him extend the trip to Wales and then Ireland.
Dan read the book and wanted to follow in his footsteps.
There's nothing like a deadline to get a job done, and I guess Dan turning 40 this year has had the desired effect. A plan was made. A plea was made. The school governors met in secret in the Rifleman's pub in Kendal and after 7 pints agreed to let Dan take some unpaid leave to see if he could emulate Hugh.
It's not as though he'd be needed for an Offsted inspection or anything ...
So Dan set off on 14th April 2014, determined to stick to Stephen Pike, “Spike's” record schedule, mainly because it was easier to follow Spike's than to create a new schedule of his own. Spike completed his continuous Munro round in 2010 in 39 days, and Dan re-worked the schedule to his own requirements, making his own record attempt of 38 days.
Remarkably, Dan kept on Spike's schedule for the first 14 days until an unlucky twisted ankle forced him to take a day off. Instead of just enjoying a few weeks of freedom from work, he got the ankle strapped up, paid a visit to a pharmacy, and got stuck in.
I joined the team a week ago, as a weak excuse to get away from the responsibilities of having a young family and running a business, and to “enjoy” a week in the mountains of Bonnie Scotland with some good friends.
I travelled up to Scotland with Fred – aka Jon Deegan, a specialist optometrist who works three days a week preying on the rich, old and vulnerable who have come to the Lake District to live out their twilight years. The rest of the week he's out running in the hills or cycling on the lanes, skiing in the winter – he only stops for food and drink. Fred is 47 years old, but could outrun someone 20 years younger. His cheekbones stand out like a challenge, as if to say, “come and have a go if you think you're hard enough”.
Time keeping isn't one of Fred's strong points though, and we eventually set off from Kendal 3 or 4 hours later than planned. We called Ben at mission control with our new ETA. After a short detour to one of Fred's favourite Highland pubs for haggis, neeps, tatties, and a pint to quench our thirst, we finally joined Dan and the team an hour later than expected. We pitched the small two man tent in the pouring rain, crawled into our sleeping bags, and got rudely awoken only hours later at 3am by a cacophony of bird song.
We'd been assured by Dan that the first day was an “easy” day, with a late start, so we didn't need to get up until 6am and could have a lie in. By 7am we were on our way in Fred's car to our rendezvous point near Loch Laggan a few miles up the road. Dan would be cycling there – into the wind, into the rain. We'd been loaded up with all the food for the day, Dan's gear, ice axes, poles etc and headed off in good spirits into the heavy grey clouds where the hills must be. It even stopped raining briefly so we could get our bearings and admire the rainbows. Dan quickly caught us up – this time he was on a mountain bike, having exchanged the road bike at the rendezvous point. He rode as far as he could along the rough track, before discarding the bike. It would be picked up later by Ben & Christeen during a romantic walk in the rain.
So the three of us climbed into the clouds, following the compass bearing to the summit of Creag Pitridh, the first of the seven Munros on today's schedule. Most of the Munros have stupid, made up, Scottish names, a jumbled mix of vowels and consonants that no one can pronounce or even remember afterwards. This adds to the charm of the whole enterprise of Munro bagging, as you can only talk about them in sweeping, generalised terms. These next two days would in future be referred to as the Ben Alder Munros – it makes it sound easy, as though you've only been up one mountain, when in fact the real tally is fourteen.
On the penultimate snow capped summit, we were greeted by the distinctive lone figure of Mark Roberts, appearing like a Ghost runner out of the clouds. Mark had cycled more than 10 miles on a mountain bike, with Sam, to our overnight accommodation, both weighed down with more food, extra clothing and camping gear. Now he'd run up today's final two Munros to guide us safely back down the dangerously steep, narrow snow slope – the only way off the mountain.
When we reached the valley floor eight and a half hours after setting off, the bothy was closed, contaminated with asbestos. “Do not enter, serious health risk” said the signs. But it was raining hard, we were wet through and cold, the bothy was understandably empty and we would have it all to ourselves. It also had a wood burner with three damp pieces of wood and five soggy pieces of peat. The main selling point though was the door was unlocked, so we threw caution to the wind and made it our home for the night.
We got a miserable, smouldering fire going eventually. It didn't give off any heat, but the dense smoke masked the asbestos dust. We kidded ourselves that this was better than camping. We huddled around a “pocket rocket” gas stove boiling water to rehydrate dinner. To cook, you simply pour the boiling water into a bag of toxic looking dust, leave for 5 or 6 minutes, until the mess has turned into a sludge, then eat it all up trying to guess what the hell it is. It's survival food really, and Dan has been eating this filth since he started. He even had his favourite brand. Sad but true.
It's worth looking on at the scene inside, from the fly on the wall perspective. Not that there were any flies in this particular bothy anymore - they'd all died long ago from asbestosis. This imaginary fly can see four grown men, grey stubble on the chins of three, and a silver beard on the chin of Dan, their “master”, all sitting close together in semi darkness, in thick smoke, wearing plastic shopping bags on their feet, stinking of stale goat, and steaming gently, telling stories and laughing. They are ENJOYING themselves! Their wives and children are all watching telly back home in the comfort of their warm living rooms, yet this quartet seem to PREFER the bothy after eight and a half hours of running over seven huge mountains in the rain.
We were woken abruptly early the next morning. The hammering rain on the roof of the bothy suddenly stopped, and an eerie silence shattered our slumber, making us all wake with a start, as if still in a dream. It really had stopped raining though, we could quite clearly hear Fred attending to a call of nature outside, against the back wall of the bothy.
Breakfast was more dehydrated filth, this time the sludge had a porridge like consistency, and it was some relief to find all the dried food had been consumed and we could get outside, get moving, and warm up again. The clock was ticking and it would soon be 6.30am. Dan assured us we were in for another easy day and we spent the first hour dreaming about having a good strong coffee in Fort William later that afternoon, after knocking off the seven Munros on today's list. The only one anyone can remember, is also the biggest of the lot, Ben Alder.
We left Mark behind to tidy everything up. There was no point in all four of us being exposed unnecessarily to the dangerous asbestos dust, and Mark was the oldest. He'd had a good life so far, and it would probably end soon anyway on the ten mile mountain bike ride back to his van parked at Dalwhinnie, weighed down by an impossibly heavy rucksac of wet, used running and camping gear, including Fred's four season sleeping bag.
With the weather looking good, the views were truly spectacular. Yet this also made things a shade harder for us, as today we could actually see where we were going. The mountains on our list looked enormous, and the distances between them appeared impossible.
You can tell the Scottish prefer a wee dram inside a warm pub to hill walking, as there are very few signs of the eroded paths we take for granted in the Lake District. This means you're pretty much on your own in the mountains and you have to find your own routes. Underfoot conditions varied from thigh deep peat bog to ankle deep peat bog, with some rock and snow near the summits. This meant you were literally wading through wet, cold, black bog all day long. It was a relief to cross the streams and rivers to briefly wash it all off before starting the process all over again. With no paths to follow, we simply took straight vertical lines up and down the Munros, and straight lines between them.
After seven hours, we were still some way off finishing, and still had three Munros to climb. We had a food amnesty and pooled our remaining meagre resources to divide up the final calories for the day. In an asbestosis fuelled fit of enthusiasm, Mark had suggested catching up with us for the final few Munros. Providing, of course, he'd survived the weighed down mountain bike ride back to his van. We knew he was out there somewhere too, because we'd passed his “spoor” some time ago - footprints of his size 4 ½ Mudclaws heading off in the opposite direction. Despite the good weather and good visibility, he'd not seen us.
We'd been banking on Mark to bring us much needed extra food, and we chatted amongst the three of us about how selfish some of these elite international athlete types can be. Going off on their own on long training runs when they really should be helping Dan.
After ten hours, there were still two Munros left and we were half way up a vertical incline when the silhouette of a stag appeared on the distant horizon behind us. We were hallucinating slightly as the stag was a small one and only had two legs with no antlers and seemed to be shouting. It was Mark. We were saved. There was still a long way of vertical ascent to go before we would meet in the middle of the col, and we guessed what goodies he may have brought for us. Fresh doughnuts with jam inside, dusted with sugar? Three mini pork pies each and a family sized packet of smoky bacon flavoured crisps to share between us? Sandwiches of avocado, bacon and mixed salad leaves with a light balsamic dressing on thick wholemeal bread plastered with REAL butter?
When we finally met with our saviour, we wolfed down the packet of Jaffa cakes on offer, and headed for the summit. Having saved us from starvation, Mark then jogged off on another long training run on his own and left us to get on with the day's final Munro – Stob Coire Sgriodain. That really is what it's called by the way, I'm not just making it up.
By the time cars and vans had been picked up from various rendezvous points, kit sorted, a quick meal wolfed down, it had gone dark, was well after 11pm and it had started raining again. Fred set off on the long drive back to Kendal throughout the night so he could be in time for his daughter's 10th birthday, arriving home around 4.30am.
Another restless night in a wet tent with damp sleeping bag and the improbable 3am dawn chorus, then into yesterday's wet and smelly gear, then off again at 6.30am with Dan and Mark for a long, long day ticking off the 10 Munros of the Grey Corries – Ben Nevis being the only one of the group that can be remembered, and that beast was the final one of the day. I dropped off Aonach Mor to hitch back to get Mark's van, but that's another story. As was the next day, with the 10 Munros of the Mamores.
So that covers the first few days and the week keeps going and going with the days on the hill getting longer and longer culminating in a mammoth 15 ½ hour day and 8 Munros on Knoydart. I could write a whole book about that experience.
The combination of trench foot conditions for 12-15 hours a day, kicking snow steps with Mudclaws, little sleep and poor hygiene finally reduced me to the damaged state I'm now in. Almost everyone coming back from Scotland is in a similar situation – broken and humbled by the sheer scale of this daily challenge.
Yet remarkably, one bearded, determined, strong, young man keeps going relentlessly and shows no signs of stopping. Despite the pain from his ankle, despite the impossible, monumental task he has set for himself, despite the lack of sleep, despite missing his family, Dan continues to make incredible progress, setting off at dawn and finishing at dusk, day after day after day.
It's been an amazing week in so many ways, yet there is an image that stays with me, of Dan rhythmically climbing yet another almost vertical slope, not stopping for a breather until he's reached the summit, then jogging off in search of the next one on his list.
Dan, you are an inspiration – thank you for letting me play a small part in your amazing Munro round. I'm already looking forward to sharing a celebratory pint with you on your successful return.
“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you've got”