Labour of love: what it takes to be a mountain path repairer

Posted by Carey Davies on 14/05/2019
Glen Coe: The Scottish Highlands can look idyllic, but what's it like to work on their paths? Photo: EyesTravelling

Commuting with crampons, hard outdoor labour, and spending 120 hours a week with your colleagues - we speak to a mountain path repairer to find out more about the highs and lows involved in this vital job.

Just three years ago, Ryan Hamilton was bored and working in a call centre in Glasgow. But a training course run by the Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland’s ‘Mountains and The People’ project took him on to a new life – repairing paths and protecting habitats in the hills and mountains.

After taking the bold step of founding his own environmental management company a year ago, Ryan Hamilton has gone on to work all over the Scottish Highlands. Now he’s about to take on the huge task of repairing the path up Ben Vane, a Munro in the Arrochar Alps, which recently hit its £40,000 fundraising target through the Mend Our Mountains: Make One Million appeal, led by the BMC and Mountaineering Scotland. 

READ: Mend Our Mountains hits its target in Scotland

As his team gets to work, we talk to him about the hard labour – and huge reward – involved in his work.

I’d always wanted to do a job in the outdoors. I was into hill walking when I was younger, we had family holidays on Skye and Torridon. But I had fallen out of that and just ended being a city boy in Glasgow for five or six years or so.

I was working in a call centre and desperately looking for something else. I appreciate that’s what a lot of people do but it was mind-numbing. Then I saw an advert for a six month trainee placement through the Mountains and People project learning about habitat management, including path construction. Doing it opened up a whole wee world.

I took a shine to go it from the word go. At first I got a lot of self-employed work with other contractors and learned the trade on the job. Then after a year of that I decided to go out on my own. It was a big leap of faith, especially as my wife was seven months pregnant at the time. But I haven’t had a day out of work since. We’ve just celebrated our first year anniversary as a team.

We’ve had a hard day before we even get to work. Our ‘commute’ can involve climbing the height of a Munro. It takes a certain type of person to walk up a mountain, do a full day of hard physical labour, go back down again, and then repeat it the next day.

Ryan at work in Scotland. Photo: Ryan Hamilton

We worked on the Pony Track near the top of Ben Nevis in the depths of winter. We had to gather rocks and materials when the temperature was approaching -10C. We had to walk up in the dark and walk down in the dark. And just before the end, with a bit of work still to do, we had over a foot and a half of snow – we needed crampons just to get on site.

You don’t get an awful lot of old path builders. I always say to people wanting to get in to it, “I know you like walking up hills and this seems like a good job, but you won’t find a harder good job. It’s robust, unforgiving and it takes its toll physically.

Some days I’m like “wow this is where I get to work”. But other days there are hailstones and 60 mile an hour winds!

I became a father in the last year. I took my boy up to Ben Vane, it was his first Munro. I knew I was going to be working on it so I thought it was a nice way of tying it in with my family. This work is going to be something that will outlast me.

We’re building the path on Ben Vane all the way up from the bottom to the summit. It’s the best part of 984 metres and famously steep, it just goes straight up from the road on a 35 degree inclination. We’re building up to the sky.

Ben Vane has never had any path work done on it before, which is rare for a Munro.  It’s more of a trodden sheep line than an established path.

The hill is a mess in places. You’ve got big peat hags, places where the vegetation and soil has been eroded right down to the bedrock, sections of scree with grainy sand bits over it like marbles. We’re pretty much doing a complete build, starting from scratch. There are going to be a lot of challenges.

A lot of planning and thought gone into the route the path will take. People aren’t robots. If the route isn’t the way people want to walk they will just cut corners, creating ‘desire lines’, which can make the erosion problem worse. You have to try and anticipate people’s psychology by thinking about things like where the stunning views are, so you can make the path go to them. I work very closely with Gordon White, the head planner for OATS.

There are golden eagles nesting just over a mile away from the work site. There are also SSSIs dotted about. We have to be very mindful of lots of different environmental factors.

We are a team of four, and we’re incredibly tight-knit. It’s not an industry where you get away with not pulling your weight because it’s very obvious if you’re not. But my team are great.

As a team we can spend 120 hours together a week. We work a four day week but during that time we sleep in hostels as a group, eat together, commute together, and then work closely together through the day on the paths.  It sounds intense but the camaraderie is hard to describe. It helps that everyone’s there for similar reasons. We’re all pulling in same direction for the better good.

Ben Vane in winter. Photo: Dale Kelly / Shutterstock

If we didn’t do path repair work in the hills, erosion would eventually just ruin it for everyone. Everyone’s seen the impact it has had in the past. If we want to keep enjoying the hills we have to do our bit to give back whether we’re walking, biking, climbing or anything. We’ve had the use of it, previous generations had the use of it, but if we don’t do something now a lot of what we’ve enjoyed won’t be there for other people.

Recently I think there has been a massive uptake in the number of young people doing hill walking. I don’t think it’s properly understood how many people are doing it now. You go anywhere in Arrochar or around the Trossachs, there’s never a hill you’ll be on your own.

The outdoor community in general is hugely supportive. People thank us and shake our hands. We have even had people try to give us money on the hill!

At the same time a lot of people seem to take it for granted. A lot of people think that the hills will always be accessible and the paths will always be there. They don’t realise the effort and cost that goes into maintaining them. It’s about trying to get to people to realise that ‘if you like mountains, you have to give something back’.

 


Mend Our Mountains: Make One Million

Mend Our Mountains: Make One Million is a BMC campaign to raise £1 million to repair paths across the UK's 15 National Parks.

If you love the outdoors, we're asking you to support your favourite mountain by donating to Mend Our Mountains. You can donate online here.

 

WATCH: Mend Our Mountains: Make One Million 


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