I wonder whether readers have heard the splendid news that my old alma mater, Lancaster University, has decided to appoint Britain's most famous climbing brand, Chris Bonington, as its titular head? Sir Bonus is to take a break from writing autobiographies and opening supermarkets to become chancellor from 2005. His predecessor was Princess Alexandra, leading to speculation that Sir Christian might have been chosen because of his increasing resemblance to the late King George VI.
Princess Alexandra was chiefly famous amongst us alumnae for bringing a maid and a personal toilet seat when visiting the university to confer degrees. She also wore white gloves in case she touched "commoners". It would be nice to think that Sir Chris might continue with this protocol.
The appointment of Sir Chris is obviously a far-sighted decision by university senate, given modern students' current-day preoccupations. A friend who shared a train journey with Bonners back to Cumbria from London after an Alpine Club committee meeting or some such nonsense revealed that the first thing he did on boarding the first-class compartment was to get out his laptop, plug in his earphones and start playing a fiendishly tricky game concerned with building empires. At a later date, when visiting the Boningtons at their home, he found Sir Bonus and Lady Wendy mind-melding on the settee, plugged into their respective machines, battling against each other on the same game.
It therefore occurred to me that Lancaster has chosen wisely. At future degree ceremonies perhaps students could challenge Bonington in a computer-game shootout. If they beat him, they would win the star prize of a luxurious degree of their choice. If they lose, they would have to pay double tuition fees and go back to the start. Surely this is the way to go for all forward-thinking universities - a lottery-style awards ceremony involving a celebrity, rather than all that tiresome studying and answering annoying questions. Young people have moved on and we should recognise this.
I look forward to more initiatives of this kind. What next? Cameron McNeish for chancellor of Stirling University? Honorary degrees in Plagiarism Studies all round...? (That's a terrible aspersion to cast - Ed.)
Yours dumbing downedly,
Dr C E Wells, BSc (Hons) Lancaster, PhD (Fluke) Sheffield
We have been asked by a number of people what the background was to recent upheavals in the Schiehallion Group, the local group set up for "consultation" by the John Muir Trust, so here goes.
These problems are reflected in the wider malaise that afflicts the JMT. There is no real consultation nor any effective mechanism for JMT members to influence decision making. The Council of the Wise dictates what will happen and seems more concerned with not rocking any boats at the top table (gravy boats, presumably) than with setting an example. The JMT is no longer a radical conservation organisation; it seems more concerned with maintaining the status quo on its properties.
Basically, the Schiehallion Group has no effective input and no serious prospect of making a difference. That is why we stuck to our resolve to stand down as secretary and minutes secretary respectively. It is all very disheartening.
Come on, JMT, stand by Muir's vision and do something more for wildness, and make the mountain glad.
John Allen, Killin
Roderick Manson, Blairgowrie
Robin Campbell's delightfully eccentric piece of complete cobblers about the Mountaineering Council of Scotland in TAC61 (p9) conjures up a vision of a latter-day John Knox metaphorically pissing on the mountaineering equivalent of Papal Bulls and Plenary Indulgences. Unfortunately, whereas most of us move forwards into the 21st century, Robin steadfastly remains retrograde within the 19th. One suspects Robin's admittedly charming and simplistic vision of the MCofS is of a group of misty-eyed visionaries, staring at virgin peaks whilst stuffing best shag into pipes clenched firmly in teeth.
In the real nastily political and sectarian world, the MCofS, and indeed our southern counterparts (the iconic Flatlanders aka the BMC), work harder than most on a very limited budget to ensure that Scottish and furth-of-the-border mountaineers and walkers can continue to stravaig the hills in freedom. A cosy little coterie of amateurs would hardly be able to deal with the confrontations and dilemmas that the MCofS have had to deal with, often unsung and unpraised, relying on but three full-time members of staff plus one secretary and a bunch of volunteers who put in an inordinate amount of time ensuring that the whole show stays on the road.
As a group example, here are a few of the recent dainty little morsels we have had to deal with and are dealing with. The access legislation, (we have a member on the Access Forum); the Health and Safety Executive's forthcoming "Working at Heights" legislation; renewable energy (we were one of the most active NGOs involved in the successful rejection of the Shieldaig hydro scheme); footpath repair; car parking charges; a watchdog on hill tracks and other clandestine developments; training of young mountaineers; winter skills lectures and hands-on courses; increasing involvement with Glenmore Lodge and its courses; the British Upland Footpath Trust; the Mountaineering Coordination Group; the Access and Conservation Trust; designing and printing thousands of leaflets on a variety of topics, and so the list goes on. At the same time we have a good working relationship with other NGOs, the Scottish Executive, SNH and Sportscotland.
Actually, it's amazing we can do what we have done with so little. So rather than castigate, reflect carefully how times have changed and how mountaineering, so long a forgotten backwater, now approaches centre stage, fulfilling the Scottish Executive's desires for health and social inclusion. Climbing and walking on our Scottish hills brings in more money than any other business in the Highlands, a point worth noting and one which needs positive direction by the MCofS on behalf of our members.
With a new IT system shortly to be instigated, the problems of multiple club membership and fees should become a thing of the past, and what the MCofS has to offer is indeed good value considering what we have to do, plus of course a fine magazine which keeps members up to date with what's really going on. If members have a point to make or feel left out, then write to the Scottish Mountaineer or attend the AGM, and if you think things could be improved then perhaps you could stand for election and join one of the committees, where you can help put something back into our unique and wonderful country.
Ed. - The page 3 editorial in the June issue of The Scottish Mountaineer, the MCofS mag, also picks up on Robin Campbell's piece, with MCofS vice-pres Beryl Leatherland writing that "Campbellesque rants are not for us, we make our points via reasoned debate and persuasion". Neither Leatherland nor her editor can bear to mention TAC, however, so in-the-dark readers might guess that the Campbellesque rant refers to Alastair, not Robin. More on this next time, no doubt, and more on the claim, also made in Leatherland's piece, that the MCofS is "the National Governing Body of our sport". Really?
Robin Campbell lets himself down by making an issue of "Flatlanders" holding staff positions at the MCofS. It is a bigoted swipe at English people living and working in Scotland.
Whatever one thinks of the existence of such MCofS staff jobs, I for one have no problem with English people filling the appointments. I spent 17 years as a Scot in London and at no time did anyone say to me that I should leave and give my job to an English person.
Thinking of taking up hillwalking? Being put off by the thought of trudging up those hundreds of Munros, Corbetts and Grahams? Why not be elitist and only go for the prime selection? A prime mountain is one whose height in metres is a prime number.
There are 37 prime Munros, from Gairich at 919m to Cairn Toul at 1291m. There are none on Skye, thus avoiding those awkward Cuillins, and there is no need to climb Ben Nevis which eliminates the risk of taking the "Trail route" off the summit and ending up in Gardyloo Gully.
There are 33 prime Corbetts, from Meallach Mhor and Cul Beag at 769m to the Fara at 911m. Curiously, there are also 33 prime Grahams, from Meall an Fheur Loch at 613m up to the 761m trio of Beinn Talaidh, Sgurr a'Chaorainn and Cnoc Connich. Thus the unwieldy and offputting total of 727 Munros, Corbetts and Grahams is brought down to a much more manageable 103. I would welcome the comments of an expert such as Murdo Munro on this proposed new round.
Yours as ever,
Murdo Munro writes: An excellent idea, especially as 103 is also prime.
Oh dear, I've just discovered from TAC61 (pp18-19) that I shouldn't use walking poles, as the noise - the older walker's death rattle - might offend other hill-users. I use the poles because after 20 years of rugby my cruciate ligaments are mere happy memories, but I still want to climb hills. Slowly (and noisily) traversing the final summit ridge of my 50-plus years I had thought myself unshockable, but the occasional random prejudices of TAC contributors can still cause one of my eyebrows to tremble in a feeble attempt to rise.
And what's wrong with my orange cagoule? (TAC60, p13.) I suspect the baggers are behind this - there is probably a list of approved clothing and equipment somewhere, and I'm not a completer. This fixation with lists of the admissible is theological, anal, or both. After all, the reason for excommunication of a hill from the Munro tables could be a percentage variation from an arbitrary height which has no significant figure before the third place of decimals - but out is out. It's a dull view of things.
Why not dynamic lists? I suggest "Riemanns" (after the 19th-century German mathematician Bernhard Riemann - Ed.), a Riemann being defined as a hill at the top of which the number of walkers hanging around when you arrive is a prime. (Exercise: If your own party is included, what is the lowest practical size for your party which maximises the likelihood of a hill being a Riemann?) Or how about a "TAC": a hill at the top of which no one is wearing an orange cagoule or carrying walking poles? If I climb alone at midnight, many hills will be Riemanns, but alas, I can never climb a TAC, even though (intriguingly) some TACs are occasionally also Riemanns.
If hill lists were dynamically defined then it would not be possible to be a completer, and that would put an end to the whole silly list thing once and for all. Anyway, lists are slippery, as Bertrand Russell discovered. How about "Russells" - hills which do not appear on any other list? But this is itself a list, and therefore no hill can appear on it: I herewith apply to be recorded as the first Russellist.
Ed. - Two prime letters in the one issue, oh joy. And rugby, too.
Accessing wild places by car (TAC61, pp6-7) does involve costs in terms of damage to the environment. The increased foot (and mountain bike) traffic resulting from the improved access also has cost implications in the provision of paths and also the impact on the environment. The car parks, footpaths and other facilities have to be such that sustainable use of the areas concerned is possible, ie the level of use does not mean that there is continued degradation of the environment we are so keen to enjoy.
Car parks and paths do not come cheap - a stone-pitched path such as on the tourist path on Ben Nevis or on Arthur's Seat can cost up to £150 per metre. Maintenance of the paths is in addition to this. If every walker or group of walkers was to take just a few minutes to clear the small stones from one cross drain or water bar on each path they visit, then maintenance costs would be reduced and the £2 car park charge could at least go to towards the capital cost of the path.
The council of the National Trust of Scotland is elected by the membership and so all members do have a say in influencing policy. Fees so obtained also help support the work of the NTS in the wild areas of the many properties round the country. Individuals can further support this work by joining the conservation volunteers of NTS or one of the many other voluntary bodies such as the JMT or the RSPB. I have worked on footpaths in Kintail, Mar Lodge, Dollar Glen and Grey Mare's Tail. Such work is generally appreciated by the walkers who pass; it is very satisfying to do something constructive and affords people the opportunity "to give something back".
A charge of £2 for a nursery nurse on her own or for somebody taking a 15-minute break from the A9 may seem a lot; on the other hand a carload of four adults having a day on the hills for 50p each is ridiculously cheap. It should be possible to have a sliding scale that takes account of the length of stay and the number in the car. The charge is voluntary, but if significant numbers refuse to pay their share, surely it is reasonable to attempt to "persuade" them to contribute.
Yours sincerely, Peter Coutts, Penicuik
PS - I have also just spent a weekend at Glencoe for the annual litter-pick - over 240 man hours in one place to pick up lager cans, crisp bags and pizza wrappers discarded by people who, presumably, enjoy visiting the area but can't be bothered to take their rubbish home!
Ed. - Re litter, I too am vexed by this. On the Ochils I now routinely shove a spare carrier bag in the rucksack to bring down any cans, crisp packets, chocolate wrappers and (flavour of the decade, these) plastic drinks bottles. This hasn't reached epidemic proportions, but it is prevalent and persistent, especially in the summer months and at weekends. Most vexing of all is broken glass, a consequence of lazy selfishishness and stupidity. The bottle has been carried uphill full by someone who can't be bothered carrying it down empty. Maybe there is some visceral pleasure to be had from the process of breaking, but whatever: it's unsightly, and dangerous both to animals and to humans, as it occurs around cairns where walkers sit. It's mainly an affliction of popular hills (Tinto with its megacairn being a prime example), but even when cleared it soon recurs. At least once every summer - on a fine evening with low sunlight ideal for shard-spotting - I try and completely clear the area around the cairn on Ben Cleuch. Yet very soon it starts to reappear. No one is ever seen or heard breaking bottles - it's evidently a private pleasure - but my guess is it's as likely some regular hillgoer as an up-for-a-lark ned. Has anyone seen or heard a bottle smashed in this way? And, if so, were they brave (or rash) enough to challenge the person or people concerned?
In TAC61 (pp4-5), David Summers states that public transport "is generally sustainable where a reasonable number of people want to make broadly similar journeys at about the same time". Unfortunately "reasonable numbers" are defined by political priorities, and these determine long-term funding - that is, sustainability. Summers himself remarks that much more funding "would be needed to rival the flexibility of the car" (this is inherently impossible, I fear).
Political priorities reflect a general attitude to public infrastructure, and in Britain the dominant view appears to be that the private sector can take care of it all. On 1 April, the Guardian carried an article on attempts to modernise the London-Glasgow railway line, with firms from the US - a country renowned for its public transport - as the main contractors. A real April joke. Paris to Avignon, roughly the same distance as London-Glasgow, takes 31/2 hours by SNCF train. But you wouldn't want to travel on something state owned.
Given the political obstacles and the very real problems of remoteness and dispersed boarding points, I find the efforts of Highland Council to develop bus services quite impressive. I have over the years covered almost 1000 miles on foot in the Highlands, and with a bit of planning and patience have been able to get buses to the start and from the end of most walks, including some of those mentioned by Summers. The one thing I regret is the disappearance of the old gents at Inverness bus station after the renovation; for a long time this was no.5 in my World League of Sanitary Challenges, after the Tver Chamber of Commerce facilities (in Russia) but ahead of Tripoli airport.
I hope that some of the proposals made by Summers will be realised (and that the Assynt service is still in place when I get around to bagging that area). Two points:
With regard to parking fees, it is odd that of the four European countries where I regularly walk - Austria, Norway, the Netherlands, Scotland - charging for parking seems to be an issue only in Scotland. Very heavily visited areas in the other countries excluded, you just park your car in a place where it's not in the way, and off you go. While lack of public transport of course increases the number of cars parked, it can't be the only reason why pocketing parking fees is so popular. The Ed makes a point about "double taxation" - but is this really something people have already paid for, or is it another case of compensating for tax cuts by introducing new user fees? Of course these hit the lower incomes hardest (a cynic might say "that's the whole point"); still, I'm not sure that a £2 parking fee, as the Ed seems to believe, will discourage those in the lower income brackets. It can't make that much of a difference in the total cost of a day out, as the car costs money as well. The main obstacles to hillwalking are psychological.
Andrew Coleman (TAC61, p6) writes, "Data from the traffic counter installed in Glen Muick prior to charging [...] and then post-charging [...] show no reduction in use as a result of the policy". This conclusion is dubious because he has done an experiment without a control. If usage had increased year by year before charging and then showed no reduction after charging, one could suggest that charging reduced the rate of increase. To decide reliably requires analysis of data from before charging versus after charging. If Mr Coleman sends the data to me (awat@ceh. ac.uk), I offer to do an impartial statistical analysis and make it available to him and you.
Simon Blackett writes that boulders placed on the line of former parking near the Keiloch "are not an eyesore compared with the cars that littered the roadside previously!" It is not that simple. We now have a new eyesore of shelter, toilet, meter, electric lights, litter bin, car park and cars littering a formerly less cluttered and better viewpoint! Also, on many days and most nights at all seasons, there were previously no cars littering roadsides, whereas the conspicuous unsightly boulders are there throughout the year.
He omits to mention that the estate placed some boulders along the main road on the tarmac edge where they formed a hazard, and moved them back only after complaint to the council.
As you note, Editor, he doesn't answer my question why the estate placed boulders on the south side of the main road. Every car I have ever seen parked there involved folk walking down to the river to see the view, and the wee footpath is a sign of this use. Tourists rightly complain about the shortage of places for leaving cars safely off Highland roads to view scenery and wildlife and to take photographs. As a committee member of the local Braemar tourist association, Mr Blackett should be encouraging far more safe stopping places off public roads, not fewer.
On a different tack, John Allen (TAC61, pp17-18) asks whether Ben Humble's attempts to make a garden beside the chairlift station were successful or were defeated by bad weather. They were successful. Many thousands of people will have seen Ben's garden on the short slope below the bottom chairlift station and beside the steps leading up to it, enclosed by a metal fence and with a tiny burn running down it. The plants grew well for decades, and by 1997 some shrubs had grown up to a yard high and a couple of yards across. Most of Ben's garden was destroyed during the works for the funicular railway. A new garden has been formed, but its designers knew a lot less about soils and plants than Ben.
My contribution to the great smoking debate (TAC60, p13; TAC61, pp12-14) is to wonder if, as was evidently the case, so many people smoked during the 1950s and 1960s, why did the nation not suffer widespread premature deaths? Surely there would have been a marked change in rate of the national average lifespan around the time that awareness of the "dangers" of smoking became evident? I don't see from the statistics much evidence for a marked change in average lifespan.
The anti-smokers generally confuse statistical association with cause. Many sufferers of lung cancer have smoked. But it doesn't follow that smoking necessarily causes lung cancer, as an association is not in itself a cause (as David Hume proved over 200 years ago, for anyone who can be bothered to read Scotland's greatest thinker). The sun has risen every day in history, but the odds on it rising tomorrow are still only 50:50 (special exceptions for Torridon). In fact, smokers who acquire lung cancer, and other supposedly "smoking-related" illnesses, may well have other significant contributory factors: generic inheritance; proximity to industrial effluent; poor diet etc. Anyone who ascribes "smoking-related" illnesses to being caused by smoking is being simplistic. If you think major diseases can be directly ascribed to a single "cause", you are not living in any kind of realistic adult world. Every age needs its disease on to which it offloads all its bile against the painful awareness of our physical and mental imperfections. Smoking has got the job, pro tem. But in another few decades our collective unconscious will shift the responsibility elsewhere.
My only point is that smoking is not the direct and simple cause of the illnesses ascribed to it. Object to it, but please don't demonise it, and please find ways to tolerate its existence.
All power to your organ,
Ath na h-Oir, Surrey
Robin Campbell replies to the comment in TAC61:
My short piece in TAC60 justifying my habit of smoking provoked a spate of reactions, some much longer than the original, and mostly adverse. So far, so predictable. I did not urge the habit of smoking on anyone else, nor did I seek to justify it on behalf of anyone else. I sought only to explain why I kept on doing it. I also sought to entertain, which is why I kept clear of discussions of the merits of meta-analysis, of epidemiology in general, of the substitution of authoritative opinion for evidence, and so forth.
I know all these games, and despise most of them roundly. If I thought there was a whiff of proof that passive smoking increased the risk of cancer or other serious diseases, I would give up tomorrow. But there isn't, and so I don't. Meta-analysis is a useful technique for discovering properties of phenomena not readily discernible from examination of individual experiments: it is absolutely not a license to bundle a lot of non-significant experiments together to manufacture a significant one! If an assemblage of the great and the good come together to deliver a proclamation on some topic, my immediate reaction (honed to a fine cynical edge by 60 years' observation of sustained government humbuggery) is to adopt the opposite point of view. Even if there were a health risk or benefit associated with passive smoking, it would be a tiny one too minute to be measurable with the blunt instruments of epidemiology, and infinitesimal compared to the risk of death incurred every weekend by addicted climbers, or indeed the health benefit of giving up climbing - yet they worry about passive smoking!
Let us be in no doubt about what is going on in the world so far as smoking is concerned: the cappuccino- sipping salad-eating chattering classes have decided that it is no longer socially acceptable to smoke, so smokers be damned.
My friend Peter Ward has for some years harboured the (to me) inexplicable ambition to climb the same Munro several times in one day. On 11 April he achieved this ambition by climbing Carn Aosda six times between 9:30am and 5pm. Another friend and I accompanied him on his third ascent and later, from the Cairnwell, watched his sixth.
Peter thinks that this feat is likely to be the first example of "Warding", which he defines as "three or more full ascents of the same Munro within the same day from a starting point given in the SMC Munro guide". On all six ascents he was accompanied by his Bedlington terrier, (not, it should be noted, a prerequisite). I should be interested in your views and those of your readers. I know I have several.
Ed. - My own views could be summarised as enthusiastic onlookerism. "Each to their own" surely has to be the stance on any harmless activity, so fair play to Peter Ward even though his feat is one which I've no great notion (nor the ability) to try and emulate.
In terms of general observations...
Ward's effort provides a reasonable way of assessing this. The SMC start-point is at around 650m. Carn Aosda is 917m, so each ascent would have involved something like 275m with humps, bumps and tussocks factored in. Six such ascents amount to 1650m: almost exactly the ascent required for the end-to-end Lawers traverse, starting from the Lochan na Lairige and taking in everything from Meall a'Choire Leith to Meall Greigh. The distance is markedly different - the Lawers traverse, even leaving aside any suggestion of walking back at the end, is around twice as far as the Aosda shuttling. But my feeling is that 6xAosda would feel the more tiring of the two, due simply to the repetitive nature of the effort.
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