Words by Kevin Woods
I started my single-season Winter Munros on the Isle of Mull on 22 December. This island is a logical outlier, harbouring the only mountain on the far side of a ferry crossing. It also gave a relaxed initiation; a Hebridean start on the shortest day of year. This low-key beginning gave just a snow cap in the mist, a rimed cairn on top and traces of golden light on the southern horizon. This was number one of 282 – the first to be completed of a long winter ahead.
On the summit of Ben More Mull - the first summit of many
I began in the Southern Highlands because the commitment is generally less. In December, the nights are 16 hours long. But I was off at a pace: four Munros of Ben Cruachan, five at Bridge of Orchy. The van had a couple of problems from the outset which were soon cured. And the winter got off to a stormy start. Low pressure systems would rattle through bringing torrential rain and high winds. Often I was going out in horrendous weather. Sometimes, you could work around the conditions and find more settled weather between the storms.
As I worked my way around the Southern Highlands, it became logical to walk when the weather was better, which was not always when the sun was up. Going into the first week of January I began to organise myself to avoid the worst of the conditions. When these amounted to 100mph gusts, torrential rain and snow, it was a choice rooted in logic. Then when the Moon appeared at night, it was only logical to take advantage of its light.
2020-01-06 - Loch Sloy - Arrochar - night walking
At Glen Lyon, I was on the brink of completing the Southern Highland summits, where, in a dash to get in before the weather broke down, I walked through a night-time, got a few hours sleep, walked during the day, slept another couple of hours then walked through the following night and into the morning dawn. That morning, I finished those Southern Highland summits on Meall nan Tarmachan at Killin – 72 down. The light was dirty and purple, heavy with the weight of another low pressure setting in. I'd finished the last summit just in time, sleeping obliviously while the storms raged outside: I didn't need to worry about wind speeds up to 100mph and 'sustained blizzards' - for the moment, at least.
It was a good time to move on. The weather had changed, the freezing level dropping to produce typical winter conditions of wind-driven snow. I headed to the Eastern Highlands. Here, the mountains form broad plateaux of 3,000 foot summits, demanding on navigation and a stunningly bleak place in mid-winter. While lacking some of the drama of the great west coast peaks, they make up for it in atmosphere. While blizzards hammered on, I stayed close to the road by Glen Shee. But on my horizon things were shaping up for a traverse of the Cairngorms, a major through-trip and one of the most committing points of the winter.
2020-01-19 - Beinn a' Chaorainn, Cairngorms and Helen Rennard on Ben Avon, eastern Cairngorms
The Cairngorms are infamous for the brutality of their weather. But on this occasion I got away lightly. The first two days on the plateau gave a light covering of snow and good visibility. The following two days switched to relentless, cold drizzle and low cloud. The snow disappeared, again, but drizzle that's driven by the wind is incredibly hard to keep warm in. On the final day I dropped to Glen Feshie on the western end of the range.
For a few days, the conditions swayed in gentle limbo, then the hard conditions returned. The area around the Tarf Water, north of Blair Atholl, is a region with few parallels in remoteness in this country. Here, the hills rise as bald domes. They are many miles from the road, lost in a misted hinterland well out of sight. On these, my final eastern summits, rivers were icing over, the ground thick with snow. I was on a high to be there, way out from civilisation. On conclusion of these hills, the door was fully open toward the west.
It was turning into a strange winter. Typically, the airmass often changes direction to give varying conditions. But up to this point the winter had been an unending procession of westerlies. I felt I was doing well to circumvent them so far. And in the back of my mind I was thinking that they must break soon - the airmass always changes eventually. The commitment of the mountains generally rises toward the North-west Highlands, so while the storms blew over, it was logical to stay put. There would be no great advantage in going for the north-west ranges so soon.
I had enough to deal with anyway. The centre of the Highlands is a phenomenal region called Lochaber. It encompasses our highest peak, Ben Nevis at an internationally modest 1,345m. It borders Glen Coe to the south, and holds a great array of big mountain ranges. The Mamores, for example, hold a tightly-packed chain of ten Munros. Ben Nevis lies at the conclusion of a chain of eight. In spite of some bad weather I had the good support of friends and typically rattled off whole mountain ranges in a day.
2019-12-31a - Buachaille Etive Mor
As January turned to February, each range fell in turn. The body felt resilient and the weather was just kind enough to let me through. The Mamores felt heavy; after eleven hours of walking through wind and drizzle I was getting seriously cold. Like many days, I made up for the calorie expenditure afterward with vast quantities of food.
As though to bring the progress of the preceding week to a head, I completed the Lochaber peaks on a two-day round of the Ben Alder hills; around 70km of travel. Two adjacent days of perfect weather at last, the first time I'd had that in six weeks. On the other hand, the mid-range weather forecast wasn't looking good. We were about to be hit by some deep winter storms and a big change was on the way.
By 7 February, I had completed everything south of the Great Glen: 48 days for 169 summits. I was keen to keep the momentum up but the weather had other ideas. For all the volatility of a typical Scottish winter, I'd never anticipated that we would hardly have a significant break in the storms for three months. At the end of February's first week, the storms intensified in a way I have rarely seen in the Highlands. Indeed, west coast locals I knew said they could hardly remember a winter like it. It was a humble reminder that conditions are king, to the point that you cannot walk through the barriers it presents, you can only work around them. Crossing to the North-west Highlands became a logical half-way point of the round – I was right in the middle of it; the beginning long gone and the end nowhere in sight.