Alan Rowan climbs mountains by night. This year he’s setting himself a new challenge: to climb an iconic Scottish peak on every full moon throughout 2018
You may have seen his pictures from snowy Scottish hills on Facebook or Twitter, or maybe you’ve read one of his books. Alan Rowan is known as the man who ‘compleated’ his first round of Munros partially by climbing them at night – and came to enjoy it so much he still often climbs mountains in darkness to this day.
This year, he’s beginning an exciting new project – provisionally called Mountains of the Moon – which will result in a third book being written live throughout 2018. Intrigued, we got in touch with the Munro Moonwalker to find out more.
Please introduce yourself. Who are you, and why do they call you the ‘Midnight Mountaineer’?
My name is Alan Rowan. I am a mountaineer, writer and author of two books: Moonwalker: Adventures of a Midnight Mountaineer and A Mountain before Breakfast. I became known as the midnight mountaineer because I would do much of my hillwalking after finishing work around midnight. For 15 years, from 1994 to 2009, I regularly climbed Scotland’s mountains in the middle of the night, getting through the best part of two rounds of Munros and one round of Corbetts.
When I left my job on a national newspaper in 2009 I no longer had the need to do hills in this manner, but after a few months of ‘normal’ hillwalking hours I discovered I missed my nights out and started going for it again. The big difference now is that I plan my walks around the best of the weather and often walk from dusk until dawn. Recent big rounds include the Fisherfield Munros circuit and a round of the Lairig Ghru peaks.
Tell us about your Mountains of the Moon project. What does it involve, and why has it captured your imagination? Why have you chosen to do it in 2018?
I am now working on a new book, Mountains of the Moon. I wanted to keep the moon theme going, the walking in the night hours, but this book is a slight departure. Where the other two were historic, this one is being written ‘live’ throughout 2018.
The aim is to ascend an iconic Scottish mountain or mountain range on the night of every full moon over the next 12 months. This is the ideal year to tackle this project as there are 13 full moons this year, and rather more unusually, there are two blue moons, with no full moon in February. It gives the whole idea a more distinct focus.
I plan to finish on Ben Hope for the Cold Moon on December 22 as the year has to finish on hope. I’m sure it will be conveniently cold as well!
Each moon has a different name: Harvest Moon, Hunter’s Moon, Pink Moon etc. I love the romance and mythology of these names, and I am trying to choose a mountain area that resonates with each moon. For instance, the first full moon was on January 2, the Wolf Moon, so I went to Being Alligin in Torridon for a walk around the corrie Toll a’ Mhadaidh Mor, the big hollow of the wolf. This is said to be where one of the last wolves was hunted down and killed along with its cubs.
The next one is the Blue Moon (had it risen a day later it would have been the Snow Moon) and I’m hoping to circuit Cairn Gorm, the blue hill, and in particular Coire an t-Sneachda, the corrie of the snows, so combining the blue and snow elements.
Some of the correlations are more obvious than others, and I want to leave myself some leeway to avoid the worst of the weather, although in Scotland that doesn’t mean much! Some of the mountains are a must, An Teallach, for example, Creag Meagaidh, Ladhar Bheinn, whereas Glen Affric and Strawberry Cottage seem perfect for the night of the Strawberry Moon, and I plan to finish on Ben Hope for the Cold Moon on December 22 as the year has to finish on hope. I’m sure it will be conveniently cold as well!
Your first mountain on the list was Beinn Alligin for the Wolf Moon on the 2nd of January. Tell us about how the climb went.
Being Alligin was the first on the list, but reaching the summits was not the main objective. The important thing was to go into the big corrie, hopefully beautifully lit by the Wolf Moon. However, despite the moon shining through all the way up the A9, by the time I got to Achnasheen and down into Torridon the cloud had obscured the best of the light so I sat it out for a couple of hours until I got a break in the cloud cover around 3am.
The first part of the walk was illuminated perfectly, but by the time I had reached the entrance to Coir nan Laogh, it was snowing, the cloud had moved in again and the moon was blocked out by the buttresses. Suddenly the night became a lot darker and colder.
I had taken advice on avalanche conditions from the Torridon Mountain Rescue Team, and I didn’t like the look of the heavy white walls of the bowl ahead soaring up into the darkness so I decided to go drop into the corrie instead. But not before I threw my head back and howled for a few minutes at the moon. I was the wolf on the mountain that night. I apologise to anyone who may have been in the vicinity. I’m sure it must have given the deer a start.
The traverse across the corrie needed care but I made it without incident. The black slash of the Eag Dubh looking stark against the smooth whites on either side as the light began to rise. The sunrise was equally disappointing, a muted light failing to provide any great photo opportunity.
It was a disappointing start in many ways but I had achieved my goal. I’m sure there will be a few more disappointments along the way, but that’s another part of adventure. The chances of landing 13 perfect nights of Scottish weather are rather remote but it’s all about the varying degrees of success during the journey. I feel I will learn a lot along the way, and I have a few people lined up to join me for certain walks.
Extract from Moonwalker: Adventures of a Midnight Mountaineer
Why climb at night? To see the sunrise from the summit is one very good reason. This short extract from Alan’s first book, Moonwalker: Adventures of a Midnight Mountaineer, demonstrates the attraction.
“It could have been a scene from the dawn of time. Two tiny figures standing like statues high on a mountain ridge, watching in awe as the sun rises. Fingers of gold were shooting out, creating a light show of spokes in a wheel while the centre of the attraction was still hidden behind the bulky, dark monolith of Ben Nevis. How many times have humans stood transfixed by this sight over the years?
“There is something so simple and yet so profoundly stunning about a sunrise. But you can enjoy the dawning of a new day if you are there. You cannot rely on video replays.
“The spectacular light show was just the tonic after a punishing climb to the ridge of Mullach nan Coirean. I had persuaded a reluctant friend to join me – I could only hope that the beauty of the dawn and the colours of the mountains at this time of the day would reel him in.
“So far, though, all we had experienced was the sweat and pain of a constant struggle through a dark forest and then a seemingly vertical grass slope with muddy steps.
“The rising sun changed all that. It appeared almost right on cue, just as my friend was starting to have thoughts of violence against whoever had persuaded him to miss a good night’s sleep to climb a mountain.
“It changed the mood, and it changed the pace, like a direct shot of adrenaline to the heart. Suddenly there was no tiredness, no complaints. There was sunshine and there was joy.”
Which mountain are you most looking forward to – and which do you think might present the most challenge?
Much as I enjoy the winter, I am looking forward to the long summer and autumn nights on the big ridges, extending the walks and bivvying along the way, catching the sunsets, full moons and then the sunrises as often as possible. I am particularly looking forward to the last one, Ben Hope, being so far north on the shortest night with the weather coming towards me. I think the biggest challenge is likely to be found in the next two walks, on January 31 and March 2, simply because of the unpredictability of winter, but I’m sure there are lots of surprises in store. That’s one of the reasons I hope to keep a couple of options open on each moon walk, maybe an east and a west hill, to try to make the most of the best conditions.
Where can readers find out more about the project, and when is the book due out?
Anyone wishing to keep track of my progress will find pictures and reports regularly on the Munro Moonwalker Facebook and Twitter feeds as well as in the blogs at munromoonwalker.com. There will also be reports in The Great Outdoors and The Scots Magazine. All going well, the book should be finished by the end of the year, and we are looking at a publication date of spring/summer 2019.