The last day of March saw Steve Perry, a 34-year-old steelworker who packed in his job specially, reach the summit of Ben Hope and thus complete the first continuous winter round of Munros without recourse to motorised transport, apart from boats for the islands. TAC caught up with him a few days later back home in Todmorden.
Many congratulations on the winter round - a tremendous feat. How are you feeling now - knackered? Elated? A bit of both?
To be honest I didn't feel tired at the end, though a few friends who came to Ben Hope said I looked it. There was certainly a feeling of elation, more from relief that it was all over, rather than joy from success. Over the last month I really did want it to end. At the end of my summer Munro round in 2003 I was definitely up for more and was almost tempted to walk home. The winter round wasn't like that at all, it was much harder and at times not very enjoyable.
Were there also people at the start on Mull on 1 December, or did you start alone? What was the weather like on the first and last Munros?
On Ben Hope I was joined by John Manning, deputy editor at TGO. He's a good friend who originates from Halifax - we often meet up when he visits home. I also invited Chris Townsend as he gave some good advice on which equipment to use and we had failed to meet in the Cairngorms as originally planned. Graeme Burns, a regular walking partner from Glasgow, also joined me on the summit, as did Lorraine McCall [who completed a summer Munro round in 2005], so between us we had four continuous rounds.
Alan Thompson, the Coe-based cameraman who filmed Martin Moran on his winter round 20 years ago also set off with us, filming for Grampian and Yorkshire TV, but the weather was so bad he turned back at about 450m. There was no champagne on the summit due to a blizzard gusting snow at 50mph, a complete whiteout. The end was celebrated with Mike and Kai Geldard at the Crask Inn - a fantastic night of fine food and drink lasting well into 1 April.
Alan and Lorraine were also at the start on Mull, Alan shrewdly waiting down by the roadside while we bagged Ben More. The weather was atrocious, some of the worst I've ever experienced. We almost crawled to the summit. A nifty gadget made by Silva - an ADC Summit (Atmospheric Data Centre for the anoraks) - measured 86mph wind on the col leading to the top. It took so long that by the time I got back to Alan and did the TV interview I only had 3½ hours left to make the ferry 17 miles away at Craignure. I got there with just minutes to spare.
Was any thought given to "doing a Charlie Campbell" [see TAC47 pp4-5] and swimming the watery bits?
Never in a million years! I have a terrible phobia of killer whales and these ghastly serpents are often spotted in the waters off Scotland. But even without the phobia I wouldn't fancy swimming Mull-Oban in December.
My route to Skye came down to Glenelg from Beinn Sgritheall. Once there, I was picked up by two local lads in a small boat - one a fisherman, the other a policeman - who sailed me to the pier at Kylerhea. The boat trip had been negotiated in advance and cost me two pints - a debt to be paid on my next visit to the Glenelg Inn. I left Skye via the bridge.
When did you first start thinking about a continuous winter round?
On my summer round in 2003, then I began talking about it seriously whilst out walking with Lorraine on her 2005 round. She had similar ideas herself, and at one point I thought she would end up having a go at the same time as me, but she didn't have enough cash after the summer round to finance it. It might have turned into a race! Hopefully she will become the first woman to backpack the Munros in winter at the end of this year.
When planning the thing, did you have much contact with Martin Moran?
I spoke to Martin once. This was mainly to find out if he knew of anyone having attempted the 121-day backpack concept mentioned at the end of his 1986 book, The Munros in Winter. ["A continuous journey without motor assistance in the ninety days was far beyond my own capability or conception, but by allowing a full four months from 1 December to 31 March a non-stop winter walk is feasible."] He was quite certain nobody had attempted this. He also very kindly sent a letter of congratulations, which was passed on to me after Ben Hope.
You appear to be the first person to complete two on-the-hoof rounds of Munros - the nearest equivalent would be Mike Cawthorne, who did a continuous round in 1986 and a winter round of the 1000m Munros in 1997. Your own 2003 summer round formed part of a Land's End-John o'Groats walk, so there would have been a few route differences this time, but how much of the same ground was covered in terms of connecting the various groups of Munros?
The LEJoG walk meant that I came into the Highlands from the south and was therefore logically tied to climbing Ben Lomond first. On the winter round I opted for Hamish Brown's choice of getting Ben More on Mull out of the way first, which makes very good sense. Once I'd reached the 15th Munro, Beinn Chabhair, the two routes were very similar, and by the time I left Glen Coe - around Munro 72 - the routes became identical.
Did you use a bike between hill groups?
I know people have used bikes on continuous Munro rounds in the past, but it never appealed to me at all. Even walking long road sections I find enjoyable, so no, I never did.
What did you do for food supplies, dry clothes, occasional company?
All my food was dropped off prior to the start, at friends' houses, youth hostels, hotels and B&Bs. I learned from reading Mike Cawthorne's book not to bother burying anything as the mice can get to it. For dry clothes, I kept a plastic bag in my pack with one set of dry base layers and one spare pair of dry socks. Friends joined me quite regularly and were always welcome. Unfortunately my girlfriend Sarah started a new job before Christmas and was unable to get up to Scotland and meet me with our daughter Grace. The fact that I hadn't seen them for four months made March so much more difficult.
Did friends/family provide any kind of mobile base camp, say a campervan parked up various glens?
There was nothing like that. I could only just finance myself, never mind anybody else as backup.
How many nights did you spend camping, in bothies and in snow holes?
28 nights in the tent (four above 3000ft), 25 nights in bothies, and no snow holes. The rest were at friends' houses, hostels, bunkhouses, inns, and with people who had kindly volunteered via email to put me up.
How did you dry out clothes, boots etc when a day of wet snow ended with a night in the tent?
If my clothes were damp then I would sleep in my spare dry ones. I would then get back into the damp ones next morning having had them in my sleeping bag through the night. As any backpacker will know, it is crucial to always have one set completely dry for night-time. Boots were never really a problem in the damp conditions though they did freeze solid regularly, even when I put them in the inner tent.
Did you ever get bored?
Never on the hill and to be honest not at any other times. Even with the long nights in the tent, I would enjoy writing my journal each evening or listening to my little radio. Most of all, I loved getting cosy in the down bag and listening to the wind outside, especially in bothies.
You were raising money for Cancer Research. How did that go?
The website [http://www.winter284.co.uk/] has so far raised £3500 and is still doing OK. We also had collection boxes in 98 Cancer Research shops but unfortunately we have no way of knowing how well they all did. If each shop made £1 every day of the challenge then that would total around £12,000.
December and January were relatively snow-free in the Highlands, whereas February and March were full-on winter. Did it feel like a game of two halves?
I felt December was, on the whole, easy. May during my summer round was a much harder month. January was more difficult but only because I injured my ribs: the weather was fine. February was real winter hillwalking and March had the most snow for that month in 50 years.
How did the injury happen?
I'd left Culra in dry conditions but with a strong wind gusting. The tops were snow-covered, but there was nothing below 650m. I climbed Beinn Bheoil, then Ben Alder, the latter a real struggle in wind and mist but I landed perfectly down at Bealach Dubh with plenty of daylight left. I then began climbing the side of Geal-Charn and decided to stop for dinner next to a piece of plane wreckage I'd spotted in a frozen burn. When I'd finished eating, I pulled myself up with my walking poles and simply slipped down unexpectedly on to a very sharp rock which felt like it pierced between my bottom two ribs. I lay on the ground for five minutes in a lot of pain and swearing quite a lot - mainly at my own stupidity.
I knew it was broken ribs because I'd broken quite a few in the past (mainly due to alcohol), but I wasn't sure at the time how many were broken. On checking, I found the skin was unbroken and just a slight graze. After 30 minutes I continued up Geal-Charn in a lot of pain but moving OK. I had just a bumbag with crampons, axe, headtorch, map and GPS. All the clothing I needed was on. The pain was unrelenting but not enough to stop me, and I managed to climb Geal-Charn, Aonach Beag and Beinn Eibhinn. I then reversed the route and continued on to Carn Dearg, reached by headtorch. The descent to Culra was straightforward. The hard part psychologically was pushing on to Aonach Beag and Beinn Eibhinn in what was by that time a whiteout.
I slept little that night, as once the hill adrenaline wore off the pain seeped in and I had no painkillers in my pack. Next day, travelling light, I bagged Beinn a' Chlachair, Geal Charn and Creag Pitridh in more pain than the previous day. I found myself trapped by the Allt Cam and had to cross/swim it to get back to Culra. The pain was eased by the full pack while walking out on the second day after the accident - the hip belt acted like a strap around my lower ribs. At Dalwhinnie, I found I had broken one rib and cracked the other. Up until the injury I had been flying through the hills quite easily, whereas afterwards I really had to work at it.
How many days were you stormbound?
I lost seven days to bad weather and had three rest days where I could have gone out.
What was the most Munros in one day - and was that the hardest day in terms of ascent/distance?
I did all ten of the Mamores in a 15-hour day, the most Munros in a day. I'm not sure about the ascent or distance because they're not something I've ever bothered to log. Glen Oykel to the Crask via Ben More Assynt and Conival was a big day distancewise, but not physically hard. Just getting from Camban bothy up Gleann Gniomhaidh to A'Ghlas-bheinn in thigh-deep snow was much harder than any of the above.
Presumably you had the crampons on a fair bit?
I totally dislike crampons and would only ever put the bloody things on if my life depended on it. Whenever Lorraine came out with me she would constantly tell me off for not wearing them. This was after I got us into a sticky (or slippy?) situation one night in the Cairngorms, having convinced her earlier that she wouldn't need them. I should have worn them a lot more than I did and have the bruises to prove it.
There must have been many great moments, particularly in good weather, but do any stand out?
Inversions in the Cairngorms - these followed me all the way west down the Monadhliath. New snow in Glen Kingie followed by fantastic blue skies: that stayed right through Knoydart. The Cuillin, Glen Shiel, Glen Affric all had occasional days of outstanding weather.
You lost a map deep in the Cairngorms - what happened there? And any other mishaps (or strokes of good fortune)?
I dropped Landranger 43 somewhere en route between the Lairig Ghru and Glen Feshie on 30 January. I never noticed for some time, as it was a lovely sunny day and I didn't really need it. When I finally did notice, I'd walked on to Landranger 35 anyhow. [The map was found on 12 February at NN926955 by Gilmour Strang who was climbing Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain from Glen Feshie. It was in good nick, he reported - "a testament to the Ortlieb map case" - and "marked up with two different routes linking up all the Munros". This prompted him to wonder if it might have been dropped by Steve Perry (he had heard of someone attempting a winter round, but didn't at that stage know his name), so he contacted TAC, which led to a note being sent to Sarah in Todmorden. She phoned Steve, who confirmed the map as his - one of the more unlikely recoveries of an object lost in the Highlands.]
There were plenty of mishaps! Another map incident occurred on the western Drumochter Munros. I was up there in terrible wind, mist and rain with Lorraine, when on Beinn Udlamain we realised neither of us had the map for that area in our packs. We carried on to Sgairneach Mhor, getting lost for two hours along the way, then finally found the trig point as it went dark. We were navigated off by means of my GPS and a phonecall to Lorraine's flatmate in Edinburgh: she had that map.
There was good fortune in abundance. Hotels kindly giving me a room for the night having seen me on Grampian TV. People on the hill giving me sandwiches and cups of tea. I made a lot of friends on the trip.
How was Skye?
Fantastic and at the same time terrifying to a "non-climber" like myself. The weather was perfect but the snow wasn't. It was unconsolidated sugary stuff, which isn't too good for axes or crampons. I was helped once again by Lorraine and also by Neil McAdie, who is in charge of promotions at Equip - the company that owns Rab clothing, my main sponsor. Neil had previously done the winter ridge traverse with Andy Cave and knew I would struggle if conditions weren't good. On hearing of snow on the ridge he dashed up from Derbyshire to kindly help me out for a couple of days.
I was also helped by local guide Mike Lates on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and Sgurr Alasdair, a big help, as by that time Lorraine and Neil had left and Sgurr Mhic Choinnich was - for me anyway - very tricky.
The time I'd gained on the way to Skye was lost tackling the ridge, which in the end took six days. The ridge I had spent so many summer days on in the past was a completely different animal under snow.
And the In Pinn...?
The first thing Neil said when he arrived on Skye was that he would like to lead the In Pinn, and as far as I was concerned he was more than welcome to do so. Unfortunately the difficulties we encountered tackling the northern and central sections meant he never got the chance - time ran out for him and he had to leave for home. This left Lorraine as the experienced winter climber of the pair of us and she had already said she wouldn't lead it unless it looked good. This made for an uneasy night prior to going up and having a look, with me wondering whether I would get up the bloody thing at all. Luckily next day brought good weather, and after a lot of pacing around the base Lorraine pulled out the rope and went up the long side like a rat up a drainpipe - a real sterling effort in mixed conditions. She brought me up and that was that, the In Pinn was in the bag. I'd climbed it on two previous occasions without a rope but in summer, and neither had got my heart pounding like this time on the snow and ice.
You probably won't really know until the snow returns, but how much has your round improved your winter skills - technical stuff, navigation, etc?
Four months is quite a long period to be in the hills and certainly long enough to have improved my winter skills, I'm sure. The main improvement that I could see changing on a daily basis was my confidence. Backpacking out in the mountains far from roads can be daunting, especially in winter and when the weather is bad. As the days ticked by this confidence grew and I began to feel more comfortable with the weather, the terrain and me living out amongst it. I was lucky in the fact that the worst weather came at the end, by which time I was more prepared mentality. I gained a little more climbing skills, mainly on the Skye ridge, and I was certainly more careful with the navigation than on the summer round.
What did you do when you got back to Yorkshire? Have you been back out on the hills?
I took my new border collie pup Jenny for a walk up Stoodley Pike as soon as I got home. It's one of my favourite places and hopefully Jenny's first hill of many. I also took a walk up Boulsworth Hill, having now - thanks to Andy Hyams [a TAC reader Steve met at the Inchbae Lodge Hotel] - been infected with the Marilyns bug. I met Andy when heavy snow hit the far north and I'd taken shelter at the Inchbae Lodge. Andy is renting a cottage there for six months and the weather kept me there for a few days. I lost one day to bad weather, which was when the rescue teams were out looking for the three old boys who'd gone missing on Ben Mor Coigach. Next day I completed the Fannichs in very deep snow and the following day climbed Ben Wyvis in incredibly strong winds. I took the normal route from the car park. On reaching the ridge at An Cabar, I couldn't stand, never mind battle 2km to the summit. I had to descend and contour along the front just above the small plantation. It was then a much shorter battle to the trig point, but still very difficult. (Eat your heart out, Reverend Robertson - Ed.) I had a couple of very enjoyable nights propping up the bar with Andy at Inchbae, which seems the only decent place left for a pint in that area.
I bought Alan Dawson's The Relative Hills of Britain a few weeks ago, and this has opened up lots of fresh avenues. Maybe something could be done with that book one day. For now, I have a few organised challenges to do this spring/summer - Todmorden Boundary Walk, South Pennine Challenge, TGO Challenge - and I still have a Munro round going beside the continuous ones. Plenty to do and still enjoying it very, very much.
TAC 68 Index