I WAS privileged to be with Hazel Strachan the other day as she touched the cairn at the top of Geal-charn to set the female record of seven Munro rounds.
That’s seven full circuits in just ten years, the latest taking just nine months. It’s an amazing achievement but then she is an amazing mountaineer.
All of her rounds have been done solo, some huge days broken by high, wild camps, undertaken in all sorts of weather. It takes a high degree of hill skills and a certain mental toughness but Hazel has that in spades.
Geal-charn is an easy walk but the round is always planned to leave a simpler finish so that hubby Ian can accompany her to the summit.
I’ve been at Hazel’s last three finishes - Glas Maol in 2013, Cairn Gorm in 2014 when she equalled the late Geraldine Guestsmith’s six “compleations”, and now Geal-charn.
Her parents, Ann and Robert, and sister Heather are always there to wave off the ascending party while providing Champagne and cake for the apre-climb celebrations as well as smothering her car with balloons.
Hazel has the advantage of having Ian as a non-walker because he provides a lot of the logistical support from their camper, drop-offs, pick-ups and hot meals which enable her to disappear for days on massive rounds of mountains. But it’s still all down to Hazel.
There are different routes, different seasons, different times of day, always a new adventure. Her knowledge of these mountains has to be encyclopaedic. She must know them like the back of her hand. But as with anyone skilled in their chosen task, she never takes anything for granted.
As we ambled up the easy-angled track towards Geal-charn, I asked her, slightly tongue-in-cheek, if she ever managed to get lost these days. Her answer was that she didn’t. At least, not lost, maybe just slightly off course on occasion.
Being a solo walker, she always takes a reading coming off a summit no matter how well she thinks she knows the hill. That’s the right way to do it.
I have seen, and heard of, so many good mountain walkers going wrong either by not paying attention, being over-confident or just not doing the basics. I have done it myself. I have perfect recall on so many peaks, while on others I still have areas of doubt. I reckon on getting confused at least once a year.
It’s usually something simple, something that makes you feel foolish. But it’s always a wake-up call, a reminder that you are an interloper in this often unforgiving terrain so you should treat it with respect at all times.
I remember seeing the legendary Skye guide, Gerry Ackroyd, stopping as we headed up the bouldered chaos of Sgurr nan Eag and examining one rock. “Hmmm, that wasn’t there last week,” he said, much to our amusement. He wasn’t joking though. He was genuinely puzzled to see that rock in that place.
I suppose when you have scaled these peaks, day in, day out, for 30 or so years you may well know each and every rock and where it should be. That’s the beauty of hiring a guide in the navigator’s nightmare of Skye - they know every hand and foot placement.
Anyway, record or not, there’s no stopping Hazel. She’s already started round eight and hopes to get a few more rounds under her belt. Who knows what the tally will be by the time she decides to call it a day?
It will take someone very special to topple her now. Respect, Hazel.