Kevin Woods | The Munros in Winter Part 1: Preparation
Words by Kevin Woods
The Scottish Highlands occupy an exposed position on the north-western fringe of Europe. While the summits are not especially high in altitude, they are exposed to damp and changeable weather from the ocean, creating a turbulent and capricious environment. The Highlands have a continuity: they rise west of Glasgow and continue to the north coast some 300 kilometres in unbroken chains spanning from west to east.
In the summer, they generally give good hillwalking; the ridges and plateaux generally broader, with less in the way of technical difficulty. In the winter season, the environment changes dramatically. With the freezing level low on the flanks, the mountains experience months of snow and frost with many of the associated hazards: wind, avalanche or blizzard.
The North Atlantic Current brings relatively temperate conditions for such a northerly latitude, but it also sends spiralling low pressures across the ocean, with the Scottish hills first in line. The stormy, wet conditions of these uplands bring frequent precipitation, fluctuating freezing levels and an ever-changing snowpack. If there is a single way to sum it up, it is that conditions are variable.
In the 19th century, efforts were made to understand the Highland topography and to categorise the summits. The 'Munros' came from this period, a list of the summits over 3,000 feet. While the list has been chopped and changed across the decades, it stands today at a total of 282 individual summits. The pursuit of Munros is a popular and often lifetime goal that can take a hillwalker to many corners of the country. With the majority of Munros within a day's access of a road, the list can be worked at in bits and pieces - strung together over time as the landscape is learned. On the other hand, many mountain ranges lie adjacent to one another in chains of summits that span the Highland land mass. These can be combined into massive days, that take in many summits and rack up many thousands of metres of ascent.
The goal of the Winter Munros in a single season has been around for a while. It was Martin Moran who set out in the mid 1980's with his wife Joy to complete the first round. About twenty years later, Steve Perry completed a single-season backpack on foot. My own route to the Winter Munro round began somewhat indirectly having completed a round in the summer of 2013. That trip was an enormous learning experience, perhaps more-so than the resultant winter trip. And although I'd learned a lot from spending that summer on the hills, I found myself gravitating toward the possibility of winter.
A single-season Munro round takes a fair bit of effort. The statistics are around 2,000km in distance and around 140,000 metres of ascent. The key is to break this into daily amounts and see if the figures stack up against personal experience.
If one is aiming to climb every 3,000-foot summit on back-to-back days, these conditions have to be intimately understood along with their effect on land. It is worth asking the questions: What are conditions doing? How will those conditions affect travel? The challenges are broad, whether navigational difficulty, the physical stamina, bad weather or a high avalanche hazard. Complete self-reliance is also important: Scottish mountains don't typically have much of an infrastructure of huts, paths or waymarks.
In the end, it boils down to aiming for the highest miles you can do on a given day. But a majority of the Munros lie in long chains or on plateaux, so you don't want to retreat before the day's logical completion. It makes sense to complete a range in one go. It can suck huge amounts of time if days are cut short, meaning a return to the same area as before. It is important to keep momentum up and to keep moving forward.
Two areas presented a slightly greater challenge than elsewhere: the Cairngorms in the Eastern Highlands and the Cuillin on the Isle of Skye. The Cairngorms are a sub-Arctic plateau with an infamous reputation for wind in the winter. Although small groups of summits can be easily reached from the roads, their bulk and isolation mean that they are best traversed in a single through-route. This gives a commitment not often seen elsewhere in Scotland and to clear the entire range asks for more.
On the Isle of Skye off the west coast, the Cuillin are a chain of 11 mountains; a serrated ridge of technical terrain, requiring proficiency in winter climbing, good route finding and ropework.
This all makes the Winter Munros a multi-faceted, complex and enormous challenge. So many moving parts have to come together to maintain linear progress through ever-shifting circumstances. At the same time, I wouldn't go with a defined plan of any sort: I'd only act in response to the prevailing conditions using knowledge of the hills cultivated across years. The challenge also asks for a brutal honesty in decision making: ambition can't get in the way of good decisions.
I was sensing across the years that something that began as a far-off concept was getting closer. I'd spent entire winters taking down forecasts and weather station readings, backing the numbers up by on-the-ground experience.
Then in the end, if I didn't just go for it, it would become that thing I could have done but didn't. I had no illusions about the difficulty of the idea. It takes time to process, but there came a point when the preparation seemed sufficient. So what the heck - just go for it. Make the choice and feel the fear as the drive burrows and swims in the stomach. The moment of engagement was energised and exciting. And to some degree, relieving as well.
Throughout 2018 I was quite convinced I knew how to do it. I delayed for a year to allow the concept to mature. In 2019 I worked toward it for most of the year and set a start date; the solstice, 22 December. Beyond that, no hard plans existed: all was to the mercy of the weather. The only goal was to go as often and as far as possible.