Setting off on a backpacking adventure from your home holds a certain convenience and satisfaction. There’s no need to book tickets, meet others timetables, or cadge lifts. Simply step across your doorstep when you feel ready, place one foot after another, and measure your progress against how far away home is. If you decide to take your canine companion along with you, it suddenly begins to look like a seriously extended dog walk! And so, what seems so very many years ago now, on 3rd May 2008, after a lie in, a relaxed breakfast and final rucksack checking, I grabbed a dog lead, hoisted on my rucksack, and set off to walk the Munros with Skye, my six-year-old German Shepherd Dog (GSD).
The idea for the walk came to me towards the end of a two-week Scottish coast-to-coast backpacking trip, twelve months prior in Spring 2007. As Skye and I neared the end of the walk, emerging successfully from Fetteresso Forest near Stonehaven, I asked myself, ‘what if I could continue exploring Scotland; what would it be like if we simply kept on walking?’ Subsequent reading of epic accounts of continuous Munro journeys such as Hamish Brown’s ‘Hamish’s Mountain Walk’ and Chris Townsend’s ‘Munros and Tops’ started to crystalise my thoughts that a continuous round of the Munros was the solution I was looking for.
Although I had reasonable experience of hill-walking it was centred almost entirely on the Lake District fells. My familiarity with Scotland’s mountains was limited to only a handful of Munro summits and a coast-to-coast crossing.
Reading the dramatic description of routes on the Skye Cuillin, Aonach Eagach, Liathach and An Teallach in the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s Hillwalkers’ Guide fixated my future-plans with a mix of excitement and total fear! It became clear that if this walk was to succeed, it would need a great deal of planning. And so, twelve months later, after spending far too many evenings scrutinising maps, pondering guidebooks, plotting routes and amassing more outdoor gear than is financially healthy, I had negotiated six months unpaid leave from work, and had a detailed plan setting out my route statistics, rest days, food and equipment requirements and re-supply locations that resembled a logistical military exercise.
Our route required us to walk entirely on feet and paws steadily northwards from Kendal in Cumbria to Cape Wrath, right at the north-western tip of Scotland via the top of all the (then) 284 Munros. We headed north through the central Lakes, then through Carlisle, Moffat and Ayr into Ardrossan. Various ferries transported us onto Arran, past Islay and Jura to eventually reach Mull, where a relatively short walk had us standing on Ben More, our first Munro, on 15th May. Resembling a knotted ball of string, our mapped route bounced us east then back west, zigzagging across Scotland’s great mountain ranges such as Ben Lawers, Glen Coe and Nevis, Glen Affric and Kintail, Torridon and the Fannichs. As we walked through the spring, summer and autumn, the sense of exploration and adventure was often overwhelming as we discovered Scotland’s mountainous areas, many for the first time. On 1st October, 155 days after setting off from Kendal, Skye and I arrived at the summit cairn of Ben Hope in Sutherland, having walked over 2,140 miles, and covered 579,379 feet of ascent. Camping on 119 nights, staying in bothies on nineteen with only a handful of B&Bs used to ‘freshen up’, Skye and I became not only attached to our little tent but were a well-oiled backpacking team having overcome many challenges along the way.
Anyone backpacking with their canine friend will recognise immediately that dogs bring many interesting new dimensions to a walk. The sheer joy of observing Skye simply ‘being a dog’ became extremely entertaining and rewarding. Watching her locate the scent of far off deer herds, or other walkers, well before they were visible to me, searching out rivers and lochans for swimming during heat filled days and the relaxing quality of watching her simply dozing outside the tent after a long day was priceless. Skye was an excellent pathfinder, always several metres in front of me, searching out and following well-worn and not so well-worn paths, she was always showing me the way. Being ahead also importantly enabled her to be the one who started and finished our Munro walk first!
Skye was the best companion ever to walk with, always calm and unreactive, even when a brood a red grouse chicks decided to step out in front of her on a narrow heathery path in the Cairngorms. Contrary to expectation of avian disaster, Skye’s amazing reaction was to show great respect and sensitivity by hopping over all seven balls of feathery fluff and carry on with her walk; after all, her pathfinding leadership was much more important to the team than getting distracted by a few birds!
Walking the Munros day after day was not only physically challenging but mentally demanding; confidence and morale are constantly tested by weather extremes, ‘exciting’ terrain and the isolation felt from not seeing another living soul for days in a row. My diary records it raining during 47% of the trip with clear summits encountered on only 44% of days. When mood and enthusiasm were low, having Skye at my side never failed to provide company, confidence and a real boost to morale. After a long day in Fisherfield Forest, having Skye fast asleep alongside me in the inner tent completely oblivious to the fact that my tent was being tested to its limits by a severe storm, was a surprisingly calming influence, I wasn’t alone facing this frightening experience, I was with my best friend.
Walking the Munros with Skye also brought many responsibilities, each holding additional challenges. Healthwise, great attention was required to ensure Skye had access to enough water during summer droughts, rivers in spate were crossed safely, her paws were inspected daily for wear and cuts and I always looked out for those subtle canine communication signs indicating a need for rest. Ticks and midges were another worrisome factor. If you have never experienced a dog entering your inner tent covered head to paw in midges and then spending the next half hour trying to squish them all, then I would advise keeping it this way! When Skye was bitten by an adder on her paw descending the hills near Killin, a call to the local vets resulted in antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and several days rest. Additionally, all our food was measured and boxed into six days supply and dropped at 25 various locations across Scotland before setting off. However, a GSD can eat quite a lot of food in six days, food that is both bulky and heavy. Rising to this challenge, Skye was gracious enough to carry some of her food in bright red panniers, always ensuring she was never overloaded it nevertheless contributed towards helping keep my backpack below 13kg.
Skye came into my life through the charity Second Chances GSD Rescue when she was just 5 months old; she was a reported tearaway, too boisterous for her first owners who wanted an ‘understanding home’ for her. With many hours of patience, training and love, Skye eventually became my well-rounded inseparable mountain companion, and we shared many wonderful moments together. When Skye eventually left us, my grief was tempered greatly by the fact that I had given her the best life a dog could ever hope for, a unique extended dog-walk from Kendal to Cape Wrath across the Munros.