Words by Kevin Woods
The Winter Munro round ended up being split into two halves. The first half, from the end of December to the beginning of February, was generally characterised by stormy weather but with low total snowfall. This allowed me to make smooth work of everything south of the Great Glen, a geological fault splitting Scotland in two. North-west of this divide were my remaining summits, with a finish on Ben Lomond at the end to give a total of 113 remaining.
Up to this point, the westerly winds had been quite warm, typically bringing transitory but regular snowfall. If I'd considered the weather to be rubbish through that period, then it was going to get a whole lot more demanding. Things changed profoundly when I crossed to the North-west Highlands. Polar maritime air was feeding continual snow showers off the Atlantic, where enormous low pressures were now circulating. These were excellent, deep winter conditions, but they were hard to move around in.
I began to pick away at the North-west Highlands, keen to stay on target in the hope that the weather might settle down. It always does, eventually? To buy some time, I first visited the isolated summits of Ben Wyvis, Assynt and the far north.
The deepest moment of the winter came about on Ben Hope and Ben Klibreck, the desolation of mid-winter Sutherland combined with an illness that drained appetite and energy. Suddenly the winter felt hard, and the round was biting.
2020-03-03 Liathach and Beinn Eighe
Any hopes for maintaining a quick pace faded as February wore on and in the absence of any weather window I was now haemorrhaging time. Thoughts were turning to the Skye Cuillin, that range of summits for which I needed an elusive combination of weather, good snow and partners. The Cuillin are of a scale and technicality like nothing else in the Highlands.
In the meantime, I parked myself at Glen Shiel while the storms continued. The ridges of Shiel are long, continuous chains, often combining many summits. This results in a long time at height. With winds still raging I eventually settled on putting an earplug in the windward ear to drown out the roar. The insanity of the weather came to a zenith on 22 February with incredible heavy hail showers piling in from the west - thunder and lightning, roadside trees blown flat and tornados of spindrift scouring the mountainsides. It was impressive for sure, but I did not go out that day.
On the Cuillin Ridge. Photo by Mike Lates.
A hint of a weather window appeared, and I headed to the Cuillin with Mike Lates for the southern half. We traversed around Coire Lagan, then I went alone to the final southern pair of Munros on a benign, solitary evening.
The end of February was defined by incredibly deep snow, high avalanche hazard and hard conditions. To some extent I felt locked out of the deeper mountain ranges – the places where you really needed a forecast better than terrible. I was biding my time, chipping away at the coal face – but for a time, the gains felt slow to appear. I'd been saying a month previous that a weather window would really help. And still it had not come.
Things began to turn a corner on the first day of March. I completed the Torridon mountains, spotted another weather window and went for the remaining Cuillin summits with Dave MacLeod. This was a superb long day; involved and interesting. The ridge offers constant scrambling and many abseils.
The Cuillins with Dave MacLeod
From my point of view, completing the Cuillin and Torridon gave a sense that the end was beginning to draw into sight. Into the second week of March, I was clearing up summits throughout the North-west. There were weather breaks here and there; most notably a single day of brilliant sun on Knoydart, a remote peninsula on the west coast where access is by boat or a long walk in.
But reality was starting to bite. By mid-March, I had about a week and a half left. The Covid pandemic was well underway with its presence becoming ever-greater with each day. I knew the magnitude of what was happening. It was clear to me we were about to experience an epoch-changing event and I wanted to be done as soon as possible.
2020-03-13 - Meall Buidhe Knoydart
I just continued my routine, as I had all winter. The weather didn't always play kindly: on the slopes of the Strathfarrar Munros I was standing in near white-out, being knocked off my feet by the wind, now desperate because I knew I couldn't afford to come back. Suddenly, time was very short.
The weather then turned more benign, and just in time. I got into some really remote areas in great weather, and I could tune out the world. There was no doubt, Covid was accelerating faster than I could finish this round. When back in sight of a phone mast, the mobile phone would get reception and the stress would come flooding back.
The pressure remained as an unwelcome weight. It would go nowhere until the bind was broken one way or another. For the first time in at least a couple of generations, we saw widespread calls for everyone to stay off the hills. And I had a matter of days to go on the Winter Munros. What to do? Not yet in complete lockdown, I headed into Fisherfield and An Teallach where resides the most remote Munros we have. The weather was finally breaking open and calming down. It could not have been closer to the bone – I needed every moment I could and the finish would not come soon enough.
With lockdown announced I had a tiny handful of summits left. It felt like the plug had been pulled on the world; everything just paused, breath held. And I was suspended between two worlds; the isolation of the mountains and that of an enforced interior isolation. I was terrified I'd have to stop, yet simultaneously I was unable to stop. I've never wanted the Winter Round to be anything other than enjoyment for myself – nor should it be. But by almost being denied finishing, I came to understand that the personal cost of not finishing would not have been good.
I climbed my penultimate Munro, Seana Bhraigh. The winds had finally blown themselves to sleep, the hills had thawed out and the skies were a grey ceiling. Surreal; I was wandering in a silent, empty world, wanting no more than to be done and be at home.
Ben Lomond had always been chosen as the final summit. The most southerly of all the Munros, it was my first one aged 10, growing up in Glasgow. I would not have anticipated that I'd quietly slide out in the pre-dawn gloom and head off up the mountain track alone. For better or worse, it had to be done. When the trig point pulled into view through the mist it was hard to get a sense of where I stood but the relief was incredible.
Ben Lomond, the final summit.
At last the tension was broken; I was grateful to head for home, just down the road - be done, get out on the bike and enjoy the springtime sunshine for what it was.