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Drop, distance and decision day: some thoughts on Marhofn 280.16

RHB - a significant and activity-stimulating list of hills RHB - a significant and activity-stimulating list of hills
Stac Lee, Stac an Armin & Boreray, St Kilda                                                                                                                                                                                                      Stac Lee, Stac an Armin & Boreray, St Kilda

A few words of explanation for starters, given that some of those who read this will be wondering what in heaven’s name is Marhofn. Well, what it’s not is Mayrhofen – that’s a popular hill-sports resort in the Austrian Tyrol. Marhofn, by contrast, is an abbreviation for Marilyn Hall of Fame News – an annual newsletter (from 1999 to 2010) or magazine (2011 to date, not that there appears to be any great difference between the two incarnations) catering for the hardcore end of the UK hillbagging scene.

It’s the in-house journal for enthusiasts of Marilyns: British hills with 150 metres of all-round separation. These were detailed in a 1992 book by Alan Dawson, The Relative Hills of Britain, surely the most significant and activity-stimulating hill list to emerge from these shores in the past quarter-century.

Marhofn – in A4 printed and online versions – comes out once per year, soon after the daffodils, and has a curious numbering system. The most recent issue is Marhofn 280.16, which decodes as the 16th edition and includes a list of 280 people in the Hall of Fame who have climbed at least 600 of the 1550-odd Marilyns. The first edition was Marhofn 38.01, the second Marhofn 49.02 and so on. Not everyone who has historically been in the Hall of Fame – and hence in the numbering system – appears in the present version, but discussion of that can wait for another time.

The magazine consists, in large part, of fairly short write-ups of hill-bagging activities by keen Marilyners: 72 appear in the 40 pages of the current issue. These pieces, along the lines of “How I spent my hillwalking holidays”, inevitably vary in quality: often interesting and informative but also, at times, having the feel of those Christmas-circular letters telling of successful children, ailing parents, deceased pets and new bathroom fittings. (All the pieces, however, benefit from a nice light editorial touch which ensures they avoid the semi-literate feel of the main hill-forum websites, and there is a blissful absence of the emoticon and LOL-type babble that blights the online environment.)

Marhofn also includes a few discussion pieces on hill-related topics – more technical and number-filled than the current trend for worthy concern about eco-this and wilderness-that. There are usually one or two formal trip reports, often as not featuring awkward-to-access islands and most notably the quest for the Marilyn equivalent of the Holy Grail – ascent of two St Kildan sea stacks which have, thus far at least, proved to be stoppers to anyone reaching every summit in the list.

All of which – along with some detailed stats for the number-fiends, and a scattering of jokes – ought to mean that each issue of Marhofn is reviewed in various publications across the wider hillgoing world – TGO and Trail, say, and even the that august Wisden of the Scottish hills, the SMC Journal. They all, however, seem to steadfastly ignore it – which is a shame, as Marhofn has grown into a significant and established publication and its contributors’ research into hill heights, summit locations and access problems, while appearing utterly esoteric a lot of the time, has found its way surprisingly frequently – and often unacknowledged – into the more mainstream publications and hill media.

Having said that, what follows isn’t intended as a proper review of this year’s issue either – just some notes and jottings rather than an attempt at broader analysis. Marhofn, as with many journals and magazines, tends to spark a few thoughts – so here are one lapsed Marilynbagger’s observations on how things appear to be going at the pointy end of the British hill-list world.

Tactics for the stacks

That the Marilyns remain – as far as is known – uncompleted by anyone is remarkable, given that the list has been in the public domain for 22 years. Contrast that with the ten years taken from publication of the Munros list to the first completion, while considering how much easier many things now are in terms of access, transport, available free time etc compared with the tail-end of the Victorian period. The reason for the two decades and counting comes, of course, in the form of that awkward Atlantic archipelago and its guano-encrusted sea stacks in particular.

With none of the current top-end Marilynbagging community having thus far managed to climb either Stac Lee or Stac an Armin, this has led to the concept of “The Wall” – not the Pink Floyd album or the retired Indian batsman, but the imaginary meeting-point at which people congregate when they’ve climbed everything in the list bar the two pesky stacks. At present – well, as of the 31 December 2013 Hall of Fame – five people stand at the Wall. There could well be more by now, and there could also be a few refuseniks who decline to put their names forward.

It’s not uncommon to hear keen Marilynbaggers say that they’ll be happy to do them all bar the two stacks – which is akin to the Munrobagging thing of retiring on M-minus-one, where the one is the In Pinn. But the difference here is that the stacks are several notches harder than the Pinn in terms of access, technical climbing, seas and so on – plus there isn’t (yet) a niche industry of qualified guides available nearby to take aspiring but timid baggers up and down the tricky bits and so allow rounds to be completed.

It’s interesting to read the occasional accounts, in Marhofn and elsewhere, of concerted efforts on St Kilda by the people who lose sleep over the absence of the stacks from their bagging CVs – there’s a particularly good piece by arch stack-enthusiast Rob Woodall in the current issue. It’s hard for me to really offer a valid opinion, as although I’ve seen St Kilda from afar a time or two (most notably from Beinn Edra on Skye on a wonderfully clear day in October 1999), I’m unlikely to ever visit and am certainly nowhere near competent enough to set foot or lay hand on the stacks.

But I take an interest, because I know various of the people involved and am keen to see the damn things climbed – and the Marilyns completed – in my lifetime and ideally before I reach pensionable age. So from the safety of the mainland my main observation is this: the Kilda-bagging expeditions appear rather people-heavy and logistically complex, which perhaps reduces rather than enhances the chance of success.

Spreading the not inconsiderable cost is, presumably, a large part of the thinking behind the hefty boatloads such as those detailed in the recent Marhofn, but a fair few of those on board are never going to climb the stacks and the real candidates for completion – Rob Woodall and two or three others – might be better served by forming themselves into a tight, fast and efficient little team, ditching the ballast of enthusiastic but middling-standard climber-baggers and biting the bullet with regard to cost.

A competent and opportunistic snatch squad of no more than four climbers, plus boatmen, stands a decent chance of getting the job done, whereas the current approach has the feel of siege tactics, with vital weather windows and rare slack seas at risk of being missed. It’s worth remembering that quite a high proportion of the ascents of the stacks, at least since the archipelago was evacuated in 1930, have been made by military teams – so it could be that chances of success would increase were the capable summiteers to head out there more in the style of the Special Boat Service than the MV Marilynbagger.

Humps, Tumps and umpteen other lists

One striking aspect of recent editions of Marhofn is that it now seems to devote a lot of space to hill lists other than the Marilyns. There are plenty of such lists – some would say a bewildering array – with names including Humps, Tumps and Sims, and unsurprisingly the clientele for these is both fairly small and overlapping. The Tump Hall of Fame, for instance, which requires ascent of 2,000 hills, featured only 22 names as of the end of last year, and the lowest Marilyn total for any of these people was Douglas Law’s 806, with Rick Salter’s 878 being the only other below the 1,000-Marilyn mark.

There is discussion to be had about the overall merits of these new categories, and some interesting pieces of analysis can be found in Mark Jackson’s Hump and Tump updates in Marhofn, along with Chris Crocker’s Hills Database thoughts elsewhere in the same magazine and his overview at the Database of British and Irish Hills website. (The site is astonishingly diligent and detailed, while possibly not equating with most people’s idea of fun. The comment that “The Tumps comprise over 16,000 hills and have been greeted by a mixture of enthusiastic bagging and the feeling that this is all a bit much” provides a nice wry take on things amid the categorise-everything madness.)

So there are heaps of lists out there, enough to keep the eager bagger occupied with new territory for several decades if not a lifetime. And while the overall merits and demerits can be discussed another time, one aspect worthy of mention just now is that all these lists are of the same fundamental type: each defines separation between hills solely in terms of drop – or prominence, to use the term which has crept into UK usage from the US.

Drop-only lists are fine to an extent, as there is no doubt that drop is a major factor in what defines Hill A as being distinct from Hill B. There are other factors in play, however, most notably distance, but this is oddly off the modern list-compilers’ radar – indeed I’m not sure there has been any attempt to include distance in a hill list since the late Fiona Graham’s interesting but unsatisfactory hotchpotch in 1992.

Some factors are clearly too subjective to be applied in any general hill-separation context – the weather on the day, for example, or the terrain underfoot. Two hills with sheep-cropped grass or walkable slabs on the stretch between them are likely to feel less separate than an otherwise similar pair with squelchy bog or a band of limestone clints. Angle of slope can also make a significant difference.

Another apparently subjective factor is the pace at which a walker covers the ground – but it’s here where the importance of distance as well as drop starts to make itself felt. For all that different walkers can and do take considerably different lengths of time to get from A to B, there is an old and well-known equation which attempts to standardise things: Naismith’s Rule. This exists in various forms – imperial and metric, tweaked and adjusted – but the original version is still as good as any: the walker covers three miles in each hour and climbs 1000ft each half-hour, with no account being taken for descents, no matter how awkward, nor for stops apart from brief pauses.

Naismith’s Rule has worn well since William of that ilk devised it in 1892, and remains a reasonable basis on which to calculate an overall target time, with each walker fine-tuning the numbers on the basis of their own abilities. (In my case I’m habitually faster than Naismith on steady uphill stretches, but much closer to the average on downhills.) So if the overall time taken can be reduced to a combination of ascent plus distance, why is it that all modern hill lists employ just the first part and disregard the second?

It’s a curious omission which creates a considerable skewing of lists in favour of jaggy western summits as against plateauxy eastern ones. Although the time taken to walk between a pair of the latter could well be greater than that for a pair of the former, the jaggy hills are far more likely to both make it into lists such as Marilyns or Humps which take no account of distance.

I began to be aware of this over a decade ago while publishing the series of TACit Tables compiled by Alan Dawson and (for the Irish booklet) the late Clem Clements. These were drop-only lists, and undoubtedly useful (I would say that, having published them), but the lack of any consideration of distance began to nag at me. This was especially the case with the New Donalds (Scottish non-Highland hills of 2,000ft/610m in height with 30m of drop), as I’ve long been a fan of Percy Donald’s 1930s list covering the same general category of hill.

Donald’s original list – Old Donalds, as they’ve become known in some quarters – divides candidate hills into main summits and subsidiary tops, similar to the Munros but with a much more formal definition courtesy of a calculation which involves fractions of units. Drop and distance factors combine to determine whether something is a main summit, a subsidiary top or not in the list at all.

This I like – it’s pleasingly complex without being unintelligible, and I reckon it’s as easy to grasp as, say, Duckworth-Lewis calculations in cricket or incremental time controls in chess, both of which are generally reckoned to be useful and progressive things. By contrast, the drop-only definition of New Donalds (and other lists like it) can feel very one-dimensional, with perfectly good candidate hills missing out through no fault of their own.

There is a good example of this in my local stomping ground of the Ochils – a range which in terms of Old Donalds has five main summits and four subsidiaries, while the New Donald definition serves up eight single-category summits. The hill which misses out in the modern version is The Law, rising above Tillicoultry Glen and tapering to a ridge which connects with the local highpoint of Ben Cleuch.

What stops the Law being a New Donald is that the section beyond its 638m summit only dips to 618m, a full 10m short of the required drop. However, a standard circuit is to continue over Ben Cleuch (721m) to the 622m summit of Ben Ever, from where a pleasant flattish ridge known as Millar Hill takes you southward to the steep end-slope and so back to Tillicoultry.

Both the Law and Ben Ever are Old Donald tops, and the round has a nice balanced feel: subsidiary top, main summit, subsidiary top. So for Ben Ever to be a listed as a New Donald (courtesy of its 38m of drop) but for the Law to be omitted seems unsatisfactory – all the more so given that the summits are pretty much equidistant from Ben Cleuch in terms of the drop-plus-distance factor of time.

In good summer conditions I find that both the Cleuch–Ever and Cleuch–Law stretches take me 15 minutes, 16 at the outside. Checking this against the rigours of Naismith – using the hi-tech toolkit of a tatty 1:25k map and a plastic ruler – gives Cleuch–Ever as 1.4km with 38m of reascent (17+4=21 minutes), while Cleuch–Law is just over 1.5km with 20m of reascent (18+2=20 minutes). So Ben Ever is slightly further in those terms, but the difference is minimal and never seems enough to outweigh the balanced feel of the circuit, especially as the Law is arguably the more characterful of the pair (an admittedly subjective factor, but these things do matter in marginal cases).

There are plenty of other examples around. From the world of Munros, for instance, is the non-Marilyn of Cairn of Claise really less separate from Glas Maol than are the Marilyns of Stob Coire Raineach and Stob Dubh on the Wee Buachaille, when the former pair is likely to take most people quite a bit longer to link? Naismith has the Glenshee pair at around 56 minutes apart for the higher-to-lower version of the Glenshee link (3.5km with 120m reascent), whereas the Wee Buachaille pair (2km with 210m reascent) requires 45 minutes.

I’m not suggesting there should be distance-only lists to offset the drop-only ones – that would be silly, as you could end up including two slight undulations ten miles apart across an almost-flat plateau. But the other extreme risks absurdity, too, as any drop-only list has the potential to include a nave-to-chaps cleft in a pinnacle where one could step between two qualifying summits in a couple of seconds. Indeed, it’s by no means impossible that such a situation exists somewhere in the craggy recesses of Bidean nam Bian, An Teallach or Lochnagar, where a pinnacle split by a 30m-deep cleft and with bigger drops on the outside faces would make the adjacent halves separate Sims, or 600m summits with 30m drop.

It remains to be seen whether the drop-only fixation will continue to hold sway, or whether anyone will revive the spirit of Percy Donald and put together a list that includes both drop and distance. As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing pending from any of the modern wave of list-compilers – but it would be nice to see it happen and there is, as they say, a gap in the market.

Geopolitics, grids and a general muddle

And finally, talking of separation, there is the question of the status of the Marilyns list itself. Formally, Marilyns are the relative hills of Britain – and a decision about the current makeup of the political entity known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be made on 18 September. If the referendum results in a win for the Yes camp – and Scotland thus decides to become an independent country – where does it leave a list of hills which has “Britain” as part of its definition?

On the face of it, the 1217 Scottish Marilyns would cease to be British Marilyns and there would be a great rending of the list, with more than three-quarters of the current total of 1556 hills no longer being eligible. Or would they? Geopolitical matters can be tortuously and intractably complicated, and there is more than one way of interpreting the word “British”. If viewed politically, then yes (and indeed Yes), there would seem to be an irrevocable spilt in the list. But Britain and British can be defined in geographical terms, as Great Britain is the name of the big island on which most of the Marilyns stand, and that name is going to stay the same whatever the outcome of the September shenanigans.

This is the kind of impossible-to-resolve national terminology stuff that generates screeds of Talk pages on Wikipedia, where people with set-in-stone views on both sides of the debate refuse to budge from trenchant positions. So it’s hard to predict where a Yes vote might lead in hill terms – as although nothing much might change, it seems pretty likely that a fair few nationalists would object to Suilven, Slioch, Tinto etc henceforth being labelled British hills in any way, even though they would still be located on the island of Great Britain. (There would also be the question of where a Yes vote would leave the Three Peaks Challenge charity events, given that Ben Nevis would unequivocally be in a different country from Scafell Pike and Snowdon. Perhaps it would help the beleaguered residents of Wasdale and Borrowdale in terms of quieter and traffic-free nights each June and July.)

Another factor to consider is that Britain, Great or otherwise, is not the same as the UK, given that Northern Ireland is part of the latter but not of the former. There are 65 Northern Irish Marilyns, but these are not in the main list, instead forming part of an all-Ireland offshoot detailed in the Clem Clements booklet mentioned above. So the Marilyns aren’t and never have been a UK-wide list – although it’s worth noting that the Database of British and Irish Hills defines Marilyns as “British and Irish hills”, whereas the total given at the Marilyn News Centre makes it clear that while the Irish hills might be equivalent they are not part of the main list.

And it’s even more complex and quirky than that, as the Marilyns include five hills on the Isle of Man: a Crown Dependency and not part of the UK (nor part of the EU, either). So the list as it stands excludes somewhere which is part of the current political state while including somewhere which isn’t. It’s all a bit of a muddle, and quite how an independent Scotland would or wouldn’t fit in is far from clear.

Underpinning it all, however, is the Ordnance Survey grid – which excludes Northern Ireland, includes the Isle of Man and forms the basis of the Marilyns list. The grid also includes the Isles of Scilly – where, presumably, there could be Marilyns were any of the hills high enough; as it is, the islands only rise to 49m, so there appears to be nothing more than a Tump.

So might it all come down to what happens to an independent Scotland in cartographic terms? Well, almost certainly in the event of a Yes victory, there would be no immediate change and the 85 Landranger maps which cover Scotland would remain part of the familiar set of 204 sheets. But over time, it’s quite possible that a separate Scottish Ordnance Survey would be established – at which point the maps would be renumbered and possibly redrawn, with the list of Marilyns having to be either redefined or adjusted.

The Irish situation could be seen as a useful precedent and possible template for what might happen, as not only are the Marilyns there – like the rugby – pan-Irish, but the list manages to accommodate two different mapping agencies. So a similar twin-state solution on the island of Great Britain might be feasible, but as with many things in the referendum debate there is a lot of uncertainty and obscurity as to what would actually happen if September 18 produces a poll-busting, game-changing result.

There are a lot of ifs in all this, and one more is worth noting in conclusion. If – in however long all this takes, assuming a Yes victory – none of the Marilyn Wall people manages to get to the top of the St Kilda stacks, would we suddenly then have a situation whereby a whole bunch of baggers, at the stroke of a governmental pen, found themselves Marilyn completers courtesy of the list shrinking to a mere 340 or so summits and featuring nothing more tricky than Bardsey Island or Stiperstones?

Were that to happen, then the rump Scottish Marilyns would become the list lacking any completers – with a similar state of affairs befalling the list that might, for a while at least, acquire the unfortunate name of rump Humps.

This is all in the realm of speculation and uncertainty, of course – but since when has that been absent through the months and years of Yes/No indyref bickering? Never mind currency union, EU membership and even the question of who gets the oil reserves. Surely the future status of hill lists is a matter of such great import that Messrs Salmond and Darling should be pressed to outline their policies when they meet again in the BBC debate at the end of August. You never know, it might help to increase the turnout – which has to be a good thing, whatever one’s political views – and even swing a few undecideds one way or the other.

Dave Hewitt

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