Marhofn 294.17 - May 2015

Previous | Contents | Next

The ethics of armchair bagging

Alan Dawson

Lots of sports have trouble with ethics, in areas where the rules are a little vague or old traditions are not universally accepted. Football has diving, cricket has sledging, cycling has doping, rugby has gouging and maiming, golf has all sorts of arcane rules such as coughing without due care and attention and wearing offensive trousers, while athletics has shooting your girlfriend through a bathroom door and then pleading not guilty because you are a bit upset and have got a bad leg.

Bagging has largely been free of such problems. Surely we all know whether or not we have been to a summit, and no self-respecting bagger would dream of claiming a summit they knew they had not visited. Even in the infamous Cobbler controversy of several years ago, no-one falsely claimed to have reached the top; the ethical questions concerned the holding of a completion party and the temporary appearance of a name in a list of completions. It is all relatively minor stuff, we have moved on since then, and the extreme rarity of such cases surely serves to illustrate the widespread integrity of baggers.

As usual, it is not quite as simple as that, for technology and list-making have also moved on. The website now includes Humps and Tumps as well as lists that have been around a lot longer. It also provides league tables, which introduce a competitive element that barely existed before. Like most hillwalkers, I have never felt competitive when it comes to hills and lists - it is a personal activity and perhaps a personal challenge. I simply climbed hills when I could and recorded basic details in a database. Perhaps I vaguely looked down on those who used to go on about league tables and trying to catch up with a rival bagger or stay ahead. I knew it was good clean fun but the competitive element had crept in and I didn't much like it.

In November 2014 I finally got round to uploading the logs of hills I had climbed from my own database to It was easier than expected, mainly because I had started to use the same unique hill numbering system several months earlier. So that meant I could see my own totals at a glance and my place in the various league tables. This was terrific and it was terrible. It was too easy to get sucked in to the game, so it was not long before I was checking to see what else was in that I might have climbed but not recorded. No doubt many of you will be familiar with this process. I didn't expect to find much I had missed as I had been a fairly diligent keeper of hill names and dates. But here were all these extra categories that I had previously ignored or dismissed. Humps of course, but I thought I had already tracked down those earlier in the year when I was getting close to 2000. Highland Fives? Had I done any of those? Deleted Munro Tops? Subs of various categories. Did I care? Oh yes, I did now - all these tiddly little summits were in there and added one to my total in various categories. So I had a good trawl to see what I could find. I did manage to retain a little self-respect by steadfastly ignoring region 34 as I knew it had been sadly overwhelmed by countless tiddlies and non-hills, including numerous P2s, P1s and P0s.

I haven't even mentioned Tumps yet. Well, I wasn't interested in them unless they were over 600 metres high and therefore qualified as Sims. But even tiny little Tumps were in there, hundreds of them, all over the place, so I had another trawl. It was pathetic and pitiful and addictive and brilliant. If you are a bagger by nature, it is all part of the same irresistible game.

Wastwater and some actual hills amongst all the tiddlies (photo: Douglas Law)

Wastwater and some actual hills amongst all the tiddlies (photo: Douglas Law)

This is where armchair bagging and its ethics become relevant. It is clear enough if it's a relatively high hill - if you are a bagger then of course you make sure you go to the top. But what about the lesser summits that may or may not have been visited on the way. How can you be sure you have been to the top of a hill if you didn't make a note or pay attention at the time? Ethics have traditionally been a personal issue, where you were only cheating yourself if you claimed an iffy bag. But with the advent of league tables, it is natural to many baggers to look at a table and get a minor thrill from overtaking someone, especially a friend. The incentive is definitely there for retrospective bagging. So the ethical issue arises; how much of a purist are you?

I am fairly purist, but not as hardline as some (Lindsay for example). It has always been in my nature to go over a summit rather than round, so it is tempting to assume that is what I've always done. But lots of paths bypass minor summits, so unless I have some memory or record of going to a summit, or can be certain by looking at a map, then I don't count them. West Cairn Hill is one of several examples. It was superseded by East Cairn Hill many years ago, before I had climbed either. I thought I remembered going over them both but I couldn't be sure, my database didn't help and nor did the map. So I left it unbagged as a Hump. Then recently I remembered it was listed in the RHB book, so I had a look and sure enough there was a date I had entered back in 1995. The last place I thought to look was my own entry in my own book. It was so gratifying I almost smiled. So that was a definite armchair bag, as I had made a point of visiting all the superseded summits in RHB such as Pilsdon Pen and Grendon Green (both Tumps). But I have been caught out on other occasions when I have revisited a summit I had assumed I had already climbed, only to find I hadn't been there before or wasn't sure. Here are a few examples I have come across.

Druim Leac a'Shith, 839m, P126. This distinctive hill in Knoydart is on the way between Luinne Bheinn and Meall Buidhe, so I assumed I must have climbed it. But when I went back in 2013 I found that the top is a few hundred metres from the path and about 30m higher. Chances are I just followed the path on the first visit, and I had wrongly claimed it as a Sim and Hump for a few years. Bad practice but a good lesson.

Aonach Eagach East Top (left) and West Top (photo: Alan Dawson)

Aonach Eagach East Top (left) and West Top (photo: Alan Dawson)

Aonach Eagach West Top (904.6m, P32) and Aonach Eagach East Top (906.2m, P33). I assumed I must have climbed these on both my traverses of Aonach Eagach, and when I surveyed them I found I had been right. The ridge is so narrow that if you stick to the crest then you have no choice but to go over both summits.

Beinn nan Eachan East Top, 952m, P30. This summit is along the Tarmachan ridge, which is mostly rather narrow, so I assumed I had climbed it a couple of times. But when I went to survey it in 2014 I was not so sure - the path clearly bypasses the top and I could not be certain I had made the diversion before. If it had been a Munro Top I would definitely have known and bagged it, but it was deleted in 1981, before I started bagging, and I had never been interested in deleted tops, so I might have missed it. Another lesson.

Meall Dearg East Top (922.8m, P27). This is also on the Aonach Eagach ridge, but the path bypasses the summit, so requires a short diversion to bag the top. I had probably not bothered before I surveyed it. It is not a Sim or a Munro Top so it is not that important, but it is on with over 100 logs. It would not surprise me if 90% of those logging it have not been to the summit. In this case the path goes past a cairn that is about two metres lower than the highest point. Does this matter? It would matter to me. It is not as clear a miss as Druim Leac a'Shith or Beinn nan Eachan East Top, but some may think that a miss is as good as a kilometre.

Na Rathanan (864m, P103) and Na Rathanan East Top (858m, P25). These are better known as the Horns of Alligin. I have been over them twice but not since 2005, back in the days of innocence when I was not bagging Sims or Humps or Subs, just bagging Marilyns or going hillwalking for its own sake (how quaint). Surely I must have been to these summits, it would not be in my nature to bypass such obvious peaks and it might not be feasible anyway. Can I be absolutely 100% certain? No. Have I counted them? Yes. Does this bother me? A little.

There are of course other ethical issues aside from armchair ones. Is it ok to hire a guide for the Cuillin? It is fairly common and widely accepted. You still have to climb the hills yourself, even if you do get help from a tight rope. What about a ladder for Great Links Tor? Ladders are used routinely on Everest so why not? A chair lift? Routine in the Alps, not so cool for bagging Aonach Mor. Driving along forest tracks? Lots do, some don't.

Then there are those summits with technical issues: Tryfan, A'Chir, Gurlet North Top, Old Man of Mow etc. Is it ok to reach up and touch the top? How many of those who have climbed the In Pinn since its top fell off have managed to get their head above the new highest point?

But back to armchairs and to Tumps. These have caught on among some big hard-core baggers in the past year or two. The appeal of barbed wire fences, farm dogs and muddy fields has always eluded me (unless there was a Marilyn at stake), so apart from one half-day binge with Iain Brown, I had been content to ignore Tumps if they were under 600m, despite being hugely impressed by the massive effort that went into their listing. But Tumps were added to DoBIH and in 2014, and this undoubtedly helped to legitimise and popularise them. It also generated a huge amount of armchair bagging. Not only is there an overall league table, there are league tables for counties and sections that you can waste a fabulous amount of time studying instead of getting on with tedious jobs around the house.

It is good fun, but the ethics become even more thorny and wiry. Fenced-off compounds... security guards... razor wire... CCTV... private gardens... prisons... this is getting out of hand, it's not hillwalking is it?

Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle? How do you bag them? Do you have to pay? I have strolled round the walls of both but I have not logged them. Will I go back one day just to check and pay more attention? I am not in any hurry but I would not rule it out if I happen to be in the vicinity with a few minutes to spare. I am trying to stay ahead of Iain you see, though I know he will catch me before long as he is engaged in a long-term armchair bagging project that involves scrutinising old logbooks. It is all part of the game. I do not have old logbooks to consult, so in future I will be very careful about my own retrospective armchair bagging. If in doubt it doesn't count, that's my guideline. I plan to revisit Na Rathanan fairly soon anyway. Needs a survey.


A few weeks after writing the above, I had some time to spare in Edinburgh and took a stroll up to the castle. The entrance is about 20 metres below the summit, so I paid £12.80 for the privilege of standing on the highest rock outcrop inside the walls. By then Iain had already overtaken me in the table and has since moved well away into the distance, chasing after Gordon Adshead, a bagger so seriously afflicted by tumpitis that he once drove 570 miles in a day to conquer twelve of the mountains of Cambridgeshire and Essex. Even by mad bagging standards, that stands out as being particularly mad. Well, it beats staying at home with The Only Way Is Ethics.

Arthur's Seat from Edinburgh Castle (photo: Alan Dawson)

Arthur's Seat from Edinburgh Castle (photo: Alan Dawson)

Previous | Contents | Next