“The mountains… were just black silhouettes on the skyline ahead, with the sky a deep shade of purple with pink and yellow patches swirling through. The little lochan was like a miniature version of the sky, the reflection from above providing the only light in a seemingly endless plateau of darkness.”
There are currently just over 5,500 people who have climbed all the Munros, and their names are registered with the Scottish Mountaineering Club, which allocates each climber their own unique number. Of these, Alan Rowan is no. 2,422 – but what sets his record apart is that he has climbed many of these mountains at night.
I have been following Alan on Twitter for a while, admiring his magnificent photos of sunlight gleaming on silvery tarns, or ragged peaks jutting like skyscrapers above a fluffy blanket of cloud. I was intrigued to understand just why he had set himself this rather risky night-time challenge, so for the last couple of weeks I have been reading his new book, ‘Moonwalker – Adventures of a Midnight Mountaineer’.
Climbing the Munros at night is an incredible achievement, but it is also fraught with danger. The first question that everyone asks is: why?
Alan had always enjoyed the exhilaration and freedom of being in the hills, but it was while he was working late evenings as the sports editor of a newspaper that his plan took shape. The pressure of his job left him buzzing with adrenalin and he found it impossible to sleep.
It therefore seemed a fairly natural progression to get in his car and drive for three or four hours through the night, arriving at the foot of some bleak mountain path in the early hours of the morning. He would usually be at the summit before daybreak, just in time to catch the first gold and pink rays of sunlight while the rest of the world was still asleep. He was aching with exhaustion, but the experience was mesmerising – and addictive.
“I had not realised how long I had sat up there. When I came into work later that day, I was asked how I had managed to obtain a suntan from a night’s sleep and a rotten, overcast day.”
His first outings concentrated on the peaks closest to his office in Glasgow, but gradually he ventured further afield – to Knoydart, Skye, Wester Ross, Mull and the mighty Cairngorms. Some of the climbs took days, especially a string of peaks that involved a good few hours’ walk from the nearest road just to reach the foot of them. He has walked in all weather, and all temperatures; he has been blown upwards by the wind towards the summit, he has looked down on the other-worldly sea of a cloud inversion, and trudged through unremitting soup-like fog. He has also witnessed the startling natural phenomenon of a Brocken spectre, caused when slanting sunlight casts the climber’s shadow onto mist.
Given the nature of the book, it could easily have lapsed into a catalogue of ascents which no one but a mountaineering die-hard would find appealing; but Alan is a good writer, and he has chosen his most memorable escapades which he recounts with matter-of-fact honesty and gritty humour. Add to this a few colourful characters in the shape of his occasional climbing companions, an energetic but selectively deaf sheepdog, an assortment of weird and eccentric walkers whom he encountered en route, and the phantom residents of a deserted bothy, and you have an entertaining and very readable story.
Alan is currently working on another book on the subject of mountains.
Photos – Top: Rainbow skies, Beinn a’Chochuill, on an early December morning. Centre: Mullach na Dhearagain at 4 am. Bottom: Ben Nevis above inversion from Gleouraich. All photos copyright © Alan Rowan