THREE THOUGHTS by way of follow-up to Perkin Warbeck's review (TAC64 p3) of Peter Kemp's Of Big Hills and Wee Men. The first is the extent to which Kemp's book brought to mind two very different earlier works, The Grass Arena (1988) by John Healy, and Memorable Munros (1976) by Richard Gilbert. Healy's memoir doesn't concern hills at all, but is, like Kemp's, a tale of redemption and periodic despair. Healy has a hellish upbringing and takes to living off cheap wine (and worse) in public parks, the "grass arena" of the title. This leads to jail, from where he begins to find some kind of salvation via a series of obsessive interests. First he learns - and becomes seriously good at - chess; then he gets into meditation; then comes writing. Healy is never by any means a happy bunny, but he keeps making the best of a very bad job.
So, in his way, does Kemp. His start in life isn't quite so brutal (it's no picnic, though: his father "smashed down the door and broke in brandishing an axe"). But his sense of having found an interest in which to immerse himself and half-forget the nightmares is similar, as is - particularly - the chapter in which, having become a master yacht-builder, he makes "a serious mistake with some of the dimensions of the deck" of a boat. "For me," he writes, "this was a major disaster and effectively the end of my yacht-building career." Not only that: he "gravitated" to the streets of Southampton, "drunk, dirty, and by now totally out of my mind. I had reached the bottom in a very short space of time." As with Healy, arrest inevitably followed, and it took "a fellow Scot who had troubles of his own" to get him back to Glasgow, to the hills, to stability.
The comparison with Memorable Munros comes from it being perhaps the only other example of a round of Munros described via account and anecdote rather than in guidebook or expedition-based form. Gilbert and Kemp come from vastly different worlds, however: the one a public-school teacher with genteel hill companions, the other a rough-stuff Govanite whose mates get into fights or spew up the night's bevvy. There is thus an it-takes-all-sorts amusement to be found in comparing passages relating to the same hills. Here, for example, is Gilbert after his day on Luinne Bheinn and Meall Buidhe in Knoydart: "Life was at its very best. We finished off the whisky and had a last round of liar dice. Only an easy day lay between us and the car and our pre-booked dinner at the Tomdoun Hotel. It was with a clear conscience that we polished off our last main meal and settled down to sleep." And here is Kemp after a traverse of the same hills (along with "a top marked as Druim Leac A'Shith, or as we named it 'The Drum of Leaking Shit'"): "Have you ever tried to put a drunk to his bed? It's not an easy thing to do. They have an annoying habit of getting back up again. So I eventually put out the lights and tried to settle down but no sooner had I done so when I heard Rab get up again. Fuck it! Just where the bloody hell did the old fool think he was going? I was worried that he might take a header down the steep stairs and break his drunken neck, so I got back up and went after him. He had staggered right across the landing stark bollock naked and into the wee Englishman's bedroom, and there he was sitting on his bed telling him how much he liked him...".
The second thought concerns the extraordinary number of misspelt hill-names in Kemp's book. On p67, he writes that "Jimmy was always getting hill names wrong" - but Jimmy isn't alone. I haven't conducted any kind of formal analysis, but the error-rate could well be upwards of 25% - and there are a lot of hill-names in the book. To adopt Warbeck's TAC64 methodology when citing examples of the Glasgow vernacular, a few random page-openings give Ben Chlabheimh, Meal Cuaich, Gharbh Chioch Mhor, Collies Edge, the Inn Pin on Sgurr Dhearg, and so on.
Kemp's angle on the Gaelic is often to stick in an h where there isn't one, and to take one out where there is. This is a common failing amongst many non-Gaels (me included), but for the serious writer there is always the fallback of turning to the map to check.
However, having said that, and despite this magazine's reputation for height/name pedantry, by the end of the book I found myself thinking that had Kemp (or his editor) corrected these names, then the book would have lost more than it gained. Given the raucousness of the anecdotes and rawness of the Glasgow-punter prose, to have neatly formalised the names would have made them seem stiff and oddly pasted-in. So, whether by authorial accident or editorial design, the manglements worked, for me at least.
And, on occasion, there are misnamings so memorable that they're likely to forever pop into the mind whenever the hill in question is seen. My favourite comes in the chapter entitled "See efter Skye...", in which Kemp refers to "the climbers' route along the ridge [of] An Thearlaich." What he means is Sgurr Thearlaich, but the misnaming ("The Charles") and the way that, seen out of context, most people would think the reference was to An Teallach, is so neat that I'm now likely to forever link these two peaks in a way that had never struck me before.
Third, Kemp's book includes a rare - and very honest - insight into the question of what ardent Munrobaggers regard as the minimum requirement for ticking off a hill. This is a complex subject, meriting far more space than can be given here, but it's extremely unusual to find a clear-cut example of someone not reaching a summit yet still counting it. Indeed, the only other instance I can think of is the Revd A E Robertson's notorious comment concerning his poor-weather retreat on Ben Wyvis in 1892: "...near the top it came on heavy rain and as I did not want to get soaked I turned." (See TAC44 pp12-13.) Wyvis, unrevisited, formed part of Robertson's 1901 claim to be the first Munroist. His comment was a diary entry, however, and not intended for public scrutiny. Kemp describes "languishing" at the cairn on Mullach an Rathain while his friends Rab and Jimmy make an attempt on the Northern Pinnacles: "By the slow progress they were making it was clear that the rock was loose and rotten. We could occasionally observe the figures below throwing off tufts of grass and rocks. Finally they went out as far as they thought to make the top count [my italics] and then slowly began to make their way back to us on the summit."
There is certainly a fair bit of this kind of thing around in the hillgoing world, particularly on tricky terrain and/or in poor weather. Yet surely no such retreat should count as a successful "ascent", as just about the only real requirement with Munrobagging is that the person reaches the grid-referenced point given in the list. Not to do so introduces a level of whim and subjectivity to a pastime that does have at least one nailed-down objective rule: you've got to get to the top.
There aren't any Completion Police (at least not yet), and such nuances are ultimately the domain of the individual conscience. In which respect it's worth noting that Kemp is strict about his own summiting. Late in the book he and Rab Doyle, "two dejected wee men", spend a long wet day on Beinn Mholach only to realise later that their "summit" was no such thing - they had failed to find the trig and the massive cairn. Three weeks later they were back, to do it properly via a "long, hot, dusty slog".
I HESITATE to ask the question in a magazine that's read by so many obsessive loons sticklers for accuracy, but isn't rather too much made of this summit business?
I can see how it can be reasonably argued that you can't claim to have climbed Everest unless you've surmounted the Hillary Step; and I would agree that you shouldn't be sending off an application to the Munro Society if you haven't shinned up the In Pinn: but to go beyond that level of precision seems to me a bit perverse. How does one determine the summit of the Himalayan giant, for example? Is it the highest bit of snow on the day, or the highest bit of putative rock underneath, or wherever your altimeter reads 8850? The In Pinn too presents an interesting question: do you actually have to set foot on the topmost bit of rock, or is it sufficient to touch it manually? If the answer's the former, then it's quite likely that the Clerk of the List will require a big blue pencil.
Himalayan summiteers, I am quite sure, do not waste much time agonising over the relative claims of lumps of snow to be the top. Even back home, absolute precision is a dubious goal, particularly on our less pointy hills: decisions concerning the actual summit can be subject to the vagaries of the human eye, and hence a matter of opinion. Neither does the technological trinity of the GPS, the guidebook and the Ordnance Survey map necessarily provide the answer, as six-figure grid references are accurate only to 100 metres: you could hit the published summit grid ref but still be the length of the Rugby Park pitch away from the "real" top.
Likewise most baggers do not feel the need to imitate Simon Stylites, balancing uneasily on the topmost pebble of the highest pinnacle. I would imagine that most hillwalkers who have the temerity to scramble up the Cuillin shark-fin and manage to stand giddily upright for a second, clinging to the outcrop like exhausted swimmers, think they have done quite enough to claim the top: and they are right.
So would I argue that you don't need to get to the very top of a hill to say you've climbed it? Well, burn me at the stake and call me heresiarch, but yes I would. Let me offer you a couple of case studies. Last August I spent a pleasant day on the Buachaille Etive Mor, climbed Curved Ridge and nibbled my samosa maybe ten metres from the summit cairn: but that's as close as I bothered to get to it. Did I climb the Buachaille? The acropolitically correct would doubtless say no; however I have no doubt that I had done all the serious work, and would be claiming the tick were I bag-minded. Another example is Half Dome: the summit area of this Yosemite monolith is a big, flat 13 acres. After five hours dodging lions, bears and Boy Scout troops, followed by a sphincter-shrinking 45 minutes on the Cable Route, did I spend much time wondering whether the rock I was sitting on was higher than that lump in the far distance? Not really: and anyway, to engage in pettifogging comparison of bits of stone in such a magnificent setting is to miss the point entirely.
I think, then, that most hillwalkers will recognise and understand Peter Kemp's concept of doing enough to "make the top count": I would hazard a guess that most walkers reckon they can claim the hill when: (i) all major difficulties have been overcome; and (ii) there's a (roughly) 360° outlook, or there would be if it weren't pissing down. And here's another two cents: the more effort (or nervous energy) expended on an ascent, the less likely the average walker is to be bothered about the niceties of the summit. Those who spend most of their hours stumbling around glorified peat hags, such as Marilynbaggers or (dear Christ) trig point collectors, have perhaps more leisure to obsess over the issue.
But surely the outdoor world can accommodate the views of both zealots and slackers, although I understand how the former may be uncomfortable with completely unfettered relativism. So in the interests of unity, I propose the concept of Flexibility Uphill, Correlative to Inaccessibility of Top. Each hill would be assigned a FUCIT factor: the higher the factor, the less fastidious one has to be about finding the true summit. Thus the In Pinn or the Cobbler would have a high FUCIT quotient, whereas on the likes of Brown Carrick Hill, no FUCIT would be allowed at all.
My proposal should surely appeal to the aforementioned Marilyn-botherers: the FUCIT factor of Stac Lee would be so great that they probably wouldn't have to get out of the boat to claim the tick.
Of Big Hills and Wee Men, Peter Kemp, Luath Press, ISBN 1 84282 052 4, £7.99
TAC 65 Index