MY recent blog about possible solutions to alleviating traffic and parking problems in our mountain areas struck a chord with a lot of people.
Most agreed that change is inevitable. But it's one thing extolling the virtues of drastically reducing carbon footprint for travel, another thing entirely to do it.
The stand-out response came from one hillwalker who has done exactly that. Pauline has never owned a car and all her mountain outings are undertaken using a combination of public transport, pedal power and overnight camps.
She has made her life choices so she can remain car-free. She chooses to live in a big city where public transport links are good. This also allows her to cycle to work, and it makes it easier for her to jump on a bus or train after work on a Friday and head off for a weekend in the hills. She's even managed to re-structure her working hours to add on a Monday every second week.
Pauline said: “Car pollution reduces quality of life, and road congestion costs businesses billions. Hillwalking is great for your health but when it adds so many vehicles to the roads, it has a negative impact.
“There are significant challenges to get to the hills using public transport. You have to be creative, but it's more rewarding. We saw the pictures this summer of crazy parking at the bottom of hills but using the bus or train means you never have to consider where you'll leave a car and you don't have to plan a route that ends up back where you parked. I love starting and finishing at different places and this is when public transport excels. For instance, I get off the Skye bus at Cluanie Inn and walk over several days, all the way through to Knoydart and then back to Glenfinnan to get the train home.
“The train is so relaxing – you can enjoy the scenery or enjoy a cup of tea. Sometimes you have a wee drink of something stronger so the journey can get a bit more colourful. It's happened a couple of times over the years that guitars and music have accompanied the Sunday evening Fort William train back to Glasgow. You rub shoulders with people from all over the world. When you are with friends, it’s nice to be able to sit and blether.
"The buses are good too. Drivers will often drop you at the start of a walk if it’s closer than the bus stop. Using trains and buses also helps ensure that these services survive for those who really need them. To me, not using a car is the right thing to do, to tread more gently on the planet.”
Pauline is working her way round the Munros, but she's in no hurry to get there. Life without a car is slower anyway. It's rare for her to do a day walk, but when she does it's something local like the Pentlands. There's no racing up and down a few Munros in a day just to get home for supper.
“If I'm spending a few hours travelling and a fair bit on a ticket, I really want to get value for money so my Munros would always be done as part of a weekend away with an overnight wild camp. It forces you to spend longer in the hills and immerse yourself in the experience for longer. The same goes for the long walk in. Normally I would be away to the hills two weekends per month plus all my holidays, but I also use public transport to start cycling trips further afield and to go kayaking. A folding bike is a great ally because it doesn't need to be booked on the train in advance and you can take it on buses.
“When I did the Glen Lyon Munros, I took the bike on the train to Dunkeld, then on the local bus to Aberfeldy, cycled to Invervar and left it in the woods. I also did the Strathfarrar hills that way, cycling in from the station at Beauly. One of the trickier things about travelling by public transport is that you have to decide at home what kit to take. Sometimes that you carry it all in only to find when you get to your destination that you don't need it. With a car, you would just chuck everything in the boot and then make a decision about what to actually carry at your destination.
“I have a vague radius in my head of what's doable by public transport in a weekend – the Great Glen is probably the boundary. Areas beyond I save for holidays. I'd never go to Torridon for a weekend for instance. The train is great but if you get off at Achnashellach, you still have to cross the mountains on the south side of the glen before you can get to those on the north such as Beinn Eighe.”
A typical mountain trip for Pauline involves taking the Friday evening Fort William or Inverness trains for destinations in the West Highlands, or the Perthshire Hills, Cairngorms or Monadhliath. An alternative is getting a bus to the city centre at 05.30 on a Saturday, then a train to reach Corrour or Aviemore by late morning. Two full days out, an overnight wild camp then the Sunday evening train home for 11pm.
But it doesn't always have to be an epic journey. One recent trip saw her undertake a modest traverse of the Lomond Hills, taking the train to Markinch then walking through the housing estates of Glenrothes to the path at Pitcairn that goes up East Lomond. After a wild camp, she ended up coming off Benarty Hill at Loch Leven to pick up a train home from Lochgelly.
Like most who regularly tramp our hills, the question of favourite hills is impossible, although Knoydart and Glen Shiel come high on the list. And there are plenty of days that stick in the memory.
“Beinn Sgritheall was a stunning day and a great example of how using public transport makes you more creative with routes. I got off the bus at Shiel Bridge, walked over the mountain pass below The Saddle, and then past Suardalan Bothy. It's a long pull to Coire Min but this side is so wild and rugged and I never saw another soul.
“My most creative approach was probably for the Loch Lochy Munros and Gulvain. I got off the train at Banavie on the Caledonian Canal and instead of a bike, I used a kick scooter up the canal to just beyond Gairlochy, hid it under a bush and walked up Sron a Coire Ghairbh. I then walked out to do Gulvain and with a couple of nights wild camping. The scooter is more comfortable than a bike when you are carrying a heavy pack as you are more upright. Speed wise, it’s between walking and cycling. Effort wise, harder than both.”
Transport links can be fickle at times, but surprisingly, Pauline hasn't suffered too much disruption to her plans. In fact, she even managed to turn one problem into a positive result. A planned walk in Fisherfield via Loch a' Bhraoin was thrown into doubt when the Inverness train got in four hours late after a breakdown and replacement bus chaos, causing her to miss the bus link to Ullapool.
However, Scotrail laid on a taxi for her and she was able to divert him up the Dundonnell Road to get dropped right at the start of the walk. The remote station at Corrour can also cause problems at times.
“There's always that slightly unnerving moment at Corrour when you wonder if the evening train home will show. One time it couldn't get through heavy snow and I had to phone Scotrail from the platform to get them to phone my flatmate and tell them not to call mountain rescue when I didn't return home that night.”
The bus did save the day once. While camping on the Trotternish ridge in Skye in winter with a friend, the weather deteriorated unexpectedly and storm force winds flattened their tents, meaning they had to beat a fast retreat from their spot at 4am.
“We wandered down to the road which was deserted. We didn't know the nearest bus stop or the bus times but as we walked towards Uig, a bus just stopped where we were and took us into Portree. I don't think he charged us either.”
Pauline reckons she's fortunate – not everyone is able operate in this way. But like most of the respondents, she believes our lifestyle choices have to change.
“We need investment in convenient and affordable public transport, a massive overhaul of our transport system so it’s not biased towards cars. I'd like to see active travel infrastructure all over the country so it's safe to get on to your destination if the bus or train doesn't go all the way. The Angus glens, for instance, are a nightmare to reach without a car.
“Many places don’t have a Sunday bus service – that’s one of the two most likely days in the week when people want to travel for leisure. Education is also important – we need to help people understand the impact of using cars for the average Munro round.”