Marhofn 84.04 - May 2002

Previous | Contents | Next

Confessions of an unrepentant peakbagger

Alan Castle

It all began in a bookshop in Rotterdam. It was 1993 and my wife and I had already spent a year in exile in the Netherlands, desperately missing the hills. I was already part way through several lists of British hills: 2000-foot tops of England, Wales and Ireland, Wainwright's Lakeland fells, county tops, Munros and Tops, etc etc, but my totals for that year and the two subsequent ones were virtually zero.

The Dutch are admirable linguists (books in several languages are commonly available in the country) and great travellers ('you would be too if you lived permanently in this flat land' was the usual reason given - how I sympathised) and many of them love to walk and climb. So if you are homesick or hillsick in Holland, a good bookshop is the place to go to indulge yourself - and of course end up feeling even worse. Travelling and walking in Britain are popular with the Dutch, and so there is usually a large section on Britain in any of the large bookstores. My eye quickly caught the title - 'The Relative Hills of Britain'. What on earth... Oh no, not another list of blasted hills that I had not a hope in hell of visiting, as I was living in a distant land, several hundred miles away across the North Sea. I returned it to the shelf. 'Bloody silly idea anyway' I thought, 'who the hell is going to climb all those?'.

The next time I returned to the shop the book was still sitting there. 'Huh', I thought, 'no one's going to buy that'. I sneaked another look. Then I went away again, trying to pretend that such a thing wasn't for me. Little did I suspect at the time that I was showing the early symptoms of Marilynitus, a degenerative disease which affects nervous tissue, whose causative agent is a much more virulent strain of the same insidious bug which causes the related and much more well-documented psychosis known as Munroitus. The host in both cases is commonly, but not exclusively, male and middle-aged. On each visit I took another furtive look at this new list of hills. Every time I returned to the shop the tension grew. Beads of perspiration would form on my brow as I approached the relevant shelf. Would the book still be there?

I didn't want to buy it of course, you understand, just to keep an eye on it, and watch the face of any Dutchman who picked it up to scan its pages. A great sigh of relief when I saw it still occupying its usual position. One day I was in a panic when for a few minutes I couldn't find it. My pulse quickened. Where, oh where is it? Surely my book had not been sold. How dare some foreigner buy it (British expats never, of course, see themselves as foreigners - good god, no). I desperately scanned the adjacent shelves: it wasn't alongside 'Canal Walking in Flanders', nor with 'Cycle Paths of the Friesian Islands'. My palms began to sweat. With a great sigh of relief, there it was in the music section, squeezed between a biography of Handel and a comprehensive tome on The Organ. What damned fool had hidden it there? Phew, panic over. But, of course, I didn't want it anyway, did I, just checking to see if some darned idiot had wasted his or her hard-earned cash on such a book. Huh, how ridiculous.

Alan Castle (left) and Alan Dawson on Eildon Mid Hill

Alan Castle (left) and Alan Dawson on Eildon Mid Hill

These symptoms worsened as time progressed. Three months passed. Eventually I could stand it no longer. One wet, miserable afternoon in late November (all November afternoons, and mornings for that matter, are wet and miserable in Rotterdam) I dashed into the shop, wearing not an old grey mac exactly, more an old, over-worn goretex jacket. Willing my brain not to think, I gallantly took hold of the book, and rather like a sad, lonely sex maniac, who has no way of relieving his lust other than by acquiring a dubious pornographic periodical, I approached the counter. Avoiding the eyes of the girl on the till, I pushed over the brightly coloured bank notes (euros have seen an end to this Monopoly-style currency) and fled the shop.

For weeks afterwards, when I thought no-one, particularly the wife, was looking, I would take out the Marilyn list and compare it with my comprehensive notes, diaries and dates of other British hills that I had climbed, ticking off the Marilyns that I had previously bagged.

After many, many hours of effort (in retrospect maybe it would have been easier and quicker to have gone out and bagged them again, rather than meticulously inspect old diaries and hill lists) I had the answer: 305. Only 305 Marilyns already bagged - 1237 still to go - or was it 1254, or 1256? That is another problem and cause for anxiety of course. The darned things keep giving birth to others, or a few are disgraced and discredited, banished from The List.

Rather like Arthur Dent before me I was not convinced that 305 (or 42 for that matter) was the answer to the universe. But maybe 500 was. Yes, that was it. My only realistic goal was to aspire to bagging 500 of these monsters. Yes, maybe one day, before I was too old and decrepit, I might just be able to reach this immense figure. Provided, that is, I could tear myself away from the slough of despond that is Holland (my apologies in advance to any Dutch readers) back to our holy sceptred isle.

Release came in the summer of 1995, when back home we sailed (we flew actually). I celebrated in two ways. Firstly, two days after landing on Albion's fair earth I contracted what I confidently diagnosed as Lyme's disease (I had been invaded by ticks two weeks previously whilst walking in nearby Rhineland). It turned out to be the much more prosaic chicken pox, which I had probably caught off the neighbour's kids - huh, typical, what more can you expect from foreigners - and they were legitimately foreigners now that I was safely back on English soil. Secondly, I put off all further thoughts of xenophobia as I headed to the far north at the earliest opportunity (once the spots had gone down) to bag another couple dozen Munros. Ah, that was so much better. But the Marilyns - oh dear. Other things took hold of my free time, leaving precious little more for adding to my puny list. And my new home was in north Bucks, in the midst of the most sparsely populated Marilyn area of them all; the lonely, desert wilderness of region 39.

Then, in 1996 I think it was, disaster struck. Alan Dawson, the main culprit in all this, the Marilyn man himself, introduced the Hall of Fame. Oh great, I thought, this will give me an incentive to reach my 500. But I forgot at first to read the small print. What was this? 600? Oh no, 600, he can't be serious. He just can't be. It's humanly impossible to live in north Bucks and bag 600 Marilyns in one lifetime. So that's it then. I was doomed to wander aimlessly in the Corridor of Obscurity for the rest of my hillwalking days.

Or so I thought. But what was this? Some show-off living in Peterborough, probably at an even lower altitude than the plains of Olney, had done it, and much more. So why couldn't I? But at an average of less than 20 Marilyns a year, how was it possible?

The key to success came in 2000 when, after fifteen glorious years (excluding those in Holland that is), I became the 2410th known Munroist. What next? The Corbetts and - what were those other, lesser things - the Grahams, yes that's right. So off I started on yet more lists.

The great thing with these eponymous hills is that not only does the ascent of each one gain a tick in the relevant list, but every one, by definition, is a Marilyn. So each time I went on a G or C expedition my Marilyn tally increased, at a rate hitherto unknown. 2000 saw over 60 Marilyns fall, and 2001 claimed even more, so that by early September I stood poised at 597. The gaping tunnel exit of the Corridor stood there before me. Did I have the bottle to take the step through this hallowed portal?

I decided I could not do it alone. I needed moral support, a gentle helping hand to see me safely through, to bask in the glory that is the Hall of Fame, through the peakbaggers' pearly gates, out into the Elysian Fields of the border hills. None other than the deity himself would do. It had to be the one and only, the irreplaceable Alan Dawson, the Marilyn Man.

Alan was wonderful. Not only did he agree to attend my Hall of Fame celebration, but he acted as the most charming St Peter, organising a solemn initiation ceremony on the summit of my chosen 600th, Eildon Mid Hill, above a sunny Melrose. Thankfully the ritual was less painful than the average Masonic initiation (so I am told); bell, book and candle, dead turkey, or whatever, being replaced by a small box of chocolates, the presentation of a special HoF scarf, and a tumbler of best malt. It had all been worth it, as the two Alans, with their partners, Mary and Beryl, trundled down the historic hill to spend the evening in the fleshpots of Melrose, consuming vast quantities of ale and curry.

So on 6 October 2001 I entered the exclusive brotherhood of the Hall of Fame. What next? Well, the postgraduate course, of course. The PhD of the peakbagging world. I aspire to the upper echelons of the Order, even if becoming a member of the 1000+ senior common room seems a bit of a hopeless ambition. But, you never know. One day, just perhaps...

+ + + + + +

With apologies to all Dutchmen, to Alan Dawson, to a well-known hillwalker from Peterborough, and to anyone else who could be possibly offended.

Previous | Contents | Next