Ticked off: the man who climbed all 1,556 Marilyns

Posted by Hanna Lindon on 27/10/2014

Would you take on a list of 1,556 hills? After already notching up a full set of Munros, Corbetts, Grahams and Wainwrights, Rob Woodall recently became the first to complete the Marilyns. We caught up with him to find out how it feels.

When Alan Dawson first published the Marilyns in his 1992 book, The Relative Hills of Britain, many people assumed that nobody would ever tick off the entire batch. Not only were there 1,542 (subsequently increased to 1,556) hills with a relative height of at least 150 metres scattered across the UK, but the designation also included the famously inaccessible sea stacks of St Kilda, 150 km west of the Scottish mainland.

Now Rob Woodall has proved the doubters wrong. A few days ago he summited both Stac Lee and Stac an Armin, becoming the first person to complete all the Marilyns in the process. We asked Britain’s ultimate peak bagger to open up about the experience.   

When did you start your Marilyn-bagging mission?

The book [Alan Dawson’s The Relative Hills of Britain] came out in 1992, and at first I thought that the list was much too long and wasn’t remotely interested. A lot of the hills on that list are fairly popular ones, though, and by the time I got around to adding them up I’d already done over 700, including all the bigger hills - and completion suddenly seemed like a possibility. Round about 1999, I decided that I might as well try to do the rest.

When did it dawn on you that you might become the first to complete this challenge?

You get to a stage with the list where it’s just the St Kilda ones to do. There was a queue of us building up that just had that five to complete, and then a bit of a change in the way that St Kilda was managed made it more accessible. We staged a trip in April 2009 and got Boreray, a couple of us got across and did Dun, and then another trip in September of that year meant that quite a number of us got four of the six islands and only had the two sea stacks left to do. It took us five years of waiting to get them as well! I ended up co-ordinating the quest which sort of put me in pole position for completion.

What makes the sea stacks so difficult?

They are covered with breeding gannets in summer, meaning they can only be climbed outside the breeding season. We had a sort of standing agreement with the National Trust of Scotland, who own St Kilda, that we could visit Stac Lee and Stac an Armin between mid-October and mid-March without causing disturbance to the birds. The trouble is that it was very hard to find suitable landing conditions during the period of the year when we were allowed over there. It became just a matter of watching the forecasts to find a couple of days of calm weather together, and there were a few false starts before we managed it.

You say ‘we’…

Yes, there’s a close-knit community of Marilyn baggers and we had built up a couple of dozen people who were up for doing the stacks. Basically we ended up with just a single day of suitable conditions, so we travelled up on the Sunday, got the ferry across to Harris, and then 12 of us went out before first light on the Monday and managed to land quite easily on Stac an Armin. Eleven of the 12 got up there before we headed round to Stac Lee. I should mention the boatmen too - Sea Harris took us out there and their skill in landing us on the stacks was crucial.

There wasn’t an element of competition over who would be the first to complete then?

That wasn’t really what it was about. I was kind of leading the whole thing, so myself and [climber] Paul Reeve were the first to land. On Stac Lee we formed into two ropes of three, and I was on the first rope with Paul and Pete Ellis. Eddie [Dealtry, who became the second person to complete the Marilyns just after Rob] went up on the second rope with Richard and Denise Mclellan.

You’re a hill walker yourself rather than a climber. Can we take it that the sea stacks don't pose a major technical challenge?

The climbing isn't hard - it's really all about the landing. Stac an Armin was just a scramble, although not that easy for non-climbers and we had ropes in a few places for security. Stac Lee has a couple of bits that are moderate, plus one 8m climbing pitch at about VDiff / MS  - most people could get up those on a tight rope. The thing that puts people off (apart from the fact that Stac Lee has 170 metres of verticality!) is just that there’s quite a lot of rope work and they aren’t familiar with it.

What did it feel like to reach the top of Stac Lee?

Thrilling! It's such a superb place. The list-finishing aspect didn't really sink in for a week or so.

Your hill CV seems to take in just about every British mountain challenge going. Tell us about the other achievements under your belt…

Well, I’ve done the Munros, Corbetts, Grahams, Wainwrights and several other lists including all the hills in England and Wales over 2,000 feet, which people tend to do first before progressing to Marilyns. I used to run, too, so I’ve completed the 'UK Big Three' sub-24-hour challenges - Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Ramsay Rounds - the Rigby [17 Cairngorm Munros], and the Cuillin Main Ridge, as well as creating and accomplishing the Cuillin Round, which takes in all the Black Cuillin and the Red Hills. More recently I've done the Joss Naylor Challenge, which is a 12-hour east-west crossing of the Lake District mountains for over-50s.

How do the Marilyns compare in terms of the feeling of achievement?

I’d say the feeling I had was similar to what I felt about the Cuillin Round, because nobody had ever done that before and so it was original. Nobody knew if the Marilyns could be done - it was just a matter of hanging on in there!

Are there any days over your years of bagging that really stand out in your memory?

Some of the classic Munros, so Fisherfield, Torridon and An Teallach. The Irish ones as well - Brandon Mountain was one of my top peaks. 

Everybody must be asking you this - but what’s next now you’ve completed the Marilyns?

Well, I effectively ran out of Marilyns a decade ago... I’ve been working on British trig pillars for some years and nearly finished that job now. There are a few of us that should complete the Haswell-Smiths [the highest point of every Scottish island exceeding 40 hectares] next year as well. My main thing right now though is the Ultras, which are all the world’s peaks with a prominence of at least 1,500 metres. I do a lot of trips overseas now, and although I’ll never complete all 1,526 Ultras, I have a couple of hundred bagged, with plenty more on the to-do list !

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