"It Is Not The Mountain We Conquer..."
Earlier this year Simon Young completed his long held objective of climbing all 529 mountains in England, Scotland and Wales over 3000 feet in height. In the process, he raised considerable sums for the John Muir Trust and Mind Over Mountains. I caught up with Simon to find out more about the many Munros, Munro Tops and Furths he climbed along the way.
Thanks Simon for talking to me! Can you tell us a little about your background and where the inspiration for this incredible undertaking came from?
I grew up in Glasgow, but have been based in England for the last 40 odd years. I work in Surrey at Cranleigh School; an independent boarding school, (a long way from any significant mountains!) where I teach Biology and Geology and am the Head of Outdoor Education. I have always been interested in walking and climbing and had rather randomly ticked off several mountains over the years – on school trips, ML courses bagging QMDs (Quality Mountain Days) or just with mates or family. I had also done a bit in the Alps as well as a few trips to Ladakh and Greenland. In 2014 we were up in the Loch Lomond NP and one of my children was keen to bimble up Ben Lomond. From the top I looked out over the Arrochar Alps and the Crianlarich hills and thought “Why not?”. I was about to turn 50 and it seemed like a good project and preferable to the more usual midlife crises!
Can you describe the “nuts and bolts” of your journey? Was it set out with military precision or more flexible and improvised around the demands of a busy life?
I do like a plan and I spent many happy hours plotting routes on maps, reading guides and working out the most efficient way of doing things. Most of the English and Welsh hill were in the bag already, and just needed a bit of topping up on shorter trips. I had determined to do all the Munro Tops as well as the main summits and this made things a bit more complicated as numerous side ridges and spurs had to be factored in and meant that what might otherwise have been done in one day had to be spread over a couple. In hindsight I am sure I could have planned the broad plan more efficiently, but the best laid plans were always at the mercy of the weather and I often ended up on a totally different side of the country to the one I thought I was headed to.
I was fortunate in being able to get away most half terms and school holidays, usually on my own but sometimes with friends or family. For the more technical routes in winter and on Skye I often went out with my friend Adele Pennington (an MIC based in Fort William). I also managed to take a few trips up to the Lochaber area for some covert bagging with pupils from school.
Inevitably things were never entirely simple, and though my wife very tolerantly encouraged me to go off on my trips, we had various family set backs centred on the serious, long-term illness of my youngest son, which also meant that a sabbatical school had offered me had to go by the board. Additionally COVID drove coach and horses through things, as with most folks’ lives.
Gritted teeth on a dreich day above Achnashellach
Can you recall a “perfect day” in the mountains?
The Desert Island Discs problem! How to narrow things down to just one day? Winter-wise, I will never forget the solo day I had picking my way along the CMD arête and round the head of Corie Leis to the top of the Ben (my first time up there). It was a classic, still, but a bitingly cold February day with clear blue skies, iron hard neve and views forever. Not only was it a great day out, but I learnt faith in my fairly recently acquired winter skills.
By way of contrast, I would go for my traverse of An Teallach last August – again solo. A physically demanding warm day, taking in all the subsidiary tops with some gorgeous scrambling and a perfect cloud inversion filling the glens below. The cherry on the icing being a beautiful brocken spectre as I made my weary way down to little Loch Broom.
What did you find most challenging?
Technically, the Cuillin Ridge was definitely the most demanding, especially as we decided to make our way up onto it via the Dubh slabs from Loch Coruisk. We had planned to take our time and bivvy out, so had large packs and plenty of water, making padding up the slabs slow going.
In terms of endurance and distance the Fisherfield Round was hard work – beautiful conditions, but hot and remarkably little water to be found up on the main ridge. Two long, tough days.
Abseil fun on the Forcan Ridge leading up to The Saddle
Were there days that were downright dirty and simply needed to be done? Did these turn out to be amongst the most satisfying?
Oh yes! Dreich weather, poor visibility, goggles on and compass out. As you say though, incredibly satisfying to nav across the Cairngorm plateau or wade through soft snow along the crest of Beinn a Ghlo. Often these would come under the category of “Type II Fun”, but great to look back on and reflect about self-reliance.
These challenges often take you to places you wouldn’t normally go. Were there any pleasant surprises?
The great thing about bagging a list, is that it does encourage one out of familiar tracks. I would never have discovered the Fannichs or bothered with the Angus Hills and would consequently have missed out on some great hill days. Even boring grassy hills were made fun by saving them for winter or claggy days when they became more of a challenge. But without exception there were no hills that didn’t have some aspect of scenery, mountain architecture, natural history, geology or archaeology to give them interest.
Does it encourage you to do more?
You’ve written that this journey provided “vital support to my mental health”. Would you be able to talk about your mindset going into this journey and the impact the mountains have had?
At the start of the things when I consciously started to tick off hills, I was just using my hill-time as fairly normal “air and exercise” and a way to recover from a fairly full-on job. However, more recently with the stress of my son’s illness and the pressure caused by trying to teach as normally as possible during the pandemic, hill-time has become an increasingly important escape and safety valve.
Looking south along the Cuillin Ridge to Rum
We’re learning about the importance of “Green Care” and the role of the outdoors in maintaining good health. What aspects of a day in the mountains do you think help you?
So many aspects seem to be of benefit. Simple fitness (both as a direct result of the hill-time, but also as an incentive to keep fit between trips); trust in ones’ self and partner; having something to look forward to and plan for during stressful periods; decompression from work – concentrating on the here-and-now magic of the hills; the meditative aspect of steadily plodding along a track, having an opportunity to think things through at leisure; the serendipitous meetings with like-minded souls out on the hill or in a remote bothy. I could go on…
In Paul Pritchard’s new book “The Mountain Path” he writes, “When we spend time in the mountains we do not escape from our woes. We come home and learn how to accept them.” Does that ring true for you?
Certainly. Time spent in mountains puts our own human problems into a more helpful perspective. To counter-quote from Ed Hillary, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”.
If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.
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