Marhofn 230.13 - May 2011

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Beyond the Wall

Ken Whyte

Could the Sims (Six Hundred Metre Summits) be a fitting epilogue to the Marilyns?

In 2002 I gained the dubious honour of becoming the first Marilyn bagger to reach the St Kilda wall, and it was soon clear to me that the wall would be a considerable barrier for some time to come. Although the access code has made the bureaucratic NTS/SNH stance a little easier to circumvent, the considerable practical obstacles remain.

Having been, to varying degrees, fully focused on the pursuit of Marilyns for the previous four years or so, the question of what to occupy myself with came to the fore. A new challenge was required until further visits to St Kilda could be planned.

To my mind if one takes on a challenge of any kind it should at least appear achievable at the outset, or what is the point? Arguably the Marilyns are achievable to a very few with the patience, time, skills and luck to stand atop Stac Lee. I may or may not be one of those few, but seem to be an unlikely candidate, as a 57-year old grandfather who instinctively seeks the easiest route to avoid difficulties much less than those likely to be encountered on Stac Lee.

I had been in possession of a copy of Eric Yeaman's 'Handbook of the Scottish Hills', which pre-dated Mark Jackson's now more widely-known and more definitive set of Humps covering all the UK. I had been ticking these off, but I was well aware that (not withstanding the high total number, nearly 3000), I will not be attempting the Old Man of Hoy, Lianamul or Arnamul, and so will never complete that list.

The publication in 1999 of the TACit Press booklet 'Corbett Tops and Corbetteers' interested me, but it was not until 2004 when its sister publication appeared, 'Graham Tops and Grahamists', that the seed was sown in my mind to complete these, together with the Hewitts of England, Wales and Ireland, and thereby all 2640 hills over 2000ft (610m) with 30m prominence in the British Isles. The enormity of the task became apparent when these were highlighted on OS maps; sheet 35 for example was a sea of red circles (for Graham Tops) with others such as sheet 25, 44, 19 and 20 close behind.

I had decided from the outset that the most efficient method would be to not differentiate between Corbett and Graham Tops, but to work through both lists simultaneously, as many of the main parent hills often spawned both Corbett and Graham Tops which could conveniently be combined in one or two outings. To begin with I tended to avoid those high-density areas of high plateau in favour of more 'interesting' hills, before eventually becoming somewhat disenchanted with the whole idea due to an apparent lack of progress, and so my attention turned to the Furths of Scotland, with many motor-home trips made to England, Ireland and Wales between 2005 and 2007. I particularly enjoy the Irish hills and endeavour to cross the Irish Sea at least once a year.

In early 2008 I developed a painful thigh with no apparent cause. Eventually an X-ray revealed a bone cyst at the top of the femur of the opposite leg! I was amazed that a cyst could be the size of a clenched fist. This was removed surgically, with a bone-graft and stainless steel filling the void. I was needless to say relieved to learn that the cyst was benign. This episode was a wake-up call that perhaps these unfulfilled ambitions should be tackled sooner rather than later, as at my age I have no idea how much longer I will be fit for such exertions.

At new year 2009 I could count over 600 tops remaining, so could I turn the clock back ten years when I managed to cram 405 new Marilyns into 12 months? I could but try. Taking the bull by the horns I went straight to those areas I had avoided previously, e.g. the Monadhliath, which proved to be a revelation as they provided some of the most enjoyable outings I have had.

Marg na Craige in the Monadhliath (photo: Alan Dawson)

Marg na Craige in the Monadhliath (photo: Alan Dawson)

First and foremost I am a cyclist and as such have been accessing by bicycle the more remote and also the not-so-remote hills for over 30 years, long before the advent of so-called mountain-biking. What I didn't have then was a state-of-the-art full-suspension bicycle, which I was now able to utilise to great advantage, especially on those high plateau areas where controversial new roads have been made, mostly quite sympathetically, to provide easy access for grouse-shooting and deer-stalking. I am sure these generally well-made roads, that will heal in time, are preferable to the random, muddy Argocat tracks that are appearing everywhere.

It must be said that cycling up the average hill-track incline is, I would suggest, more energy-sapping than walking. My theory was that if I could maintain at least a good walking pace on the way up, this could be repaid ten-fold on the descent, and usually it was. Those areas I had avoided previously were now destinations of choice, providing sometimes 13 or more tops in a round, to the extent that during the summer months of 2009 I was able to average around 20 tops per week at least.

By the end of 2009 I could really see light at the end of the tunnel, so much so that I even had the audacity to plan to combine finishing a second Munro round along with a Corbett and Graham Top completion around the Marhofn meet at Ullapool in June 2010, with Seana Bhraigh and Creag an Duine the relevant summits. But then I hadn't reckoned on the severe and prolonged winter of 2010 which severely restricted activities, to say the least. The June target would be missed but it still provided Seana Bhraigh and Creag an Duine and many more in that wonderful area.

Seana Bhraigh and Creag an Duine from Carn Gorm-loch (Alan Dawson)

Seana Bhraigh and Creag an Duine from Carn Gorm-loch (Alan Dawson)

I was still quite content during the annual dinner, with 20 or so tops remaining - that was until AD announced his proposed new metric versions of various hill lists, crucially dropping the base from 610m to 600m. I was dumbfounded at the prospect of a possible further hundred or more tops.

No more thought was given to the situation until returning home and consulting the relevant tables, to be pleasantly surprised that in fact it entailed relatively few tops - 30 or so - due to the habit I had of including any SubGraham tops that were within reasonable range. This was also the case with the SubHewitts, leaving eight in England and seven in Wales.

In actual fact the Sims had been handed to me on a plate, as here was a new list of 2530 hills without a completion and here I was 98% complete. And I could have two completions to boot (2000ft and 600m). It was still possible to combine a second Munro round with Corbett and Graham Top completions, and this was duly achieved on 29 July 2010, with the relevant hills being Meall Fhuaran (Corbett Top), Meall Daimh (Graham Top) and Slioch (Munro ) from Kinlochewe.

Meall Daimh was my final 2000ft top in the British Isles by default only and appears unremarkable from the map, yet it is in reality a fine little hill in a superb situation. An interesting coincidence is that I only discovered afterwards that it features on the back cover of 'Graham Tops and Grahamists' and also inside on page 10, the only hill so honoured out of 1000 or so.

Much to my delight a good few of the wanted SubGraham Tops, or Sims as they are now, were within cycling distance (50 miles radius) from my home in Fort William. For those further afield, a two-week motor-home trip to the Yorkshire Dales, Dartmoor and Wales saw the Furths completed.

As an island enthusiast there was little difficulty in choosing a final top, as Cruachan Beag on Mull was the only remaining island top in the listing. It was included in a round of Cruachan Dearg, Corra-Bheinn and Cruach Choireadail on a wet and misty 24 September 2010.

Cruachan Dearg, Mull (photo: Alan Dawson)

Cruachan Dearg, Mull (photo: Alan Dawson)

Like Marilyns, Sims are only found in Britain, i.e. Scotland, England and Wales, but my view is that it is more satisfactory to ignore political boundaries and to include the whole of the British Isles. At the time of writing a mere eight SubHewitt Sims remain in Ireland. A spring trip to the emerald isle should, all being well, see a completion of the Irish Sims and therefore those of the British Isles.

To complete the Sims takes you to all corners of these islands and to many seldom-visited tops of hitherto much-visited Munros, Corbetts and Grahams, such as Suilven's Meall Beag, An Teallach's Sgurr Ruadh, Sgurr nan Gillean's Sgurr na h-Uamha and A'Mhaighdean's Beinn Tharsuinn Chaol Far West Top, to name but a few.

These tops have given me many, many memorable hill days and I would commend them to anyone in search of a hill-related challenge without venturing abroad.

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