Interview: Steve Perry's Winter Munro Roundby Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com Feb/2012
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Over the 2005-2006 season Yorkshireman Steve Perry completed the first, and to date the only, continuous winter Munro round on foot - one of the hardest mountain journeys ever undertaken in Britain. We asked him to relive the experience.
Steve's 121-day Winter284 challenge covered around 1500 miles and 450,000 feet of ascent over all 284 Munros (there are now officially 283). This was undertaken a few years after another epic journey, a 7.5-month walk from Lands End to John o' Groats (LEJOG) via every 3000-footer in England, Wales and Scotland. He's clearly a glutton for punishment.
Was LEJOG too easy or something – what made you think to do Winter284 in the first place?
I didn't invent the idea of a continuous winter round; Martin Moran had already completed a very fast vehicle-supported winter round in the 80's and Mike Cawthorne had hiked a continuous winter round of all 135 thousand metre peaks in the 90's. In the end a continuous walking round of the whole lot was just hanging there waiting to be picked and after my LEJOG hike it felt like the right thing to do, a natural progression perhaps.
Looking back at both challenges now, I feel the Winter284 round topped the LEJOG in difficulty and hardship but I suppose that was the aim.
How did you train and generally prepare for it?
Physically I did nothing extra outside my normal routine of weekends spent out in the hills. I did however prepare myself mentally by regularly running the route through my mind to envisage how different and more diffcult it would be opposed to my LEJOG round. On top of that I basically spent a lot of time convincing myself I could and would do it, and by no means ever give in.
"If it was too easy, everyone would be trying it"
How did you plan the route in advance, and did the plan change at all as you went along?
This was simple and took no time at all, I just altered the starting point used on the LEJOG round from Ben Lomond to Ben More on Mull. This meant a slightly different route through the early southern Munros and was cetainly more efficient. Once underway I changed my route twice; one was only slight yet enabled me to quickly climb 5 Munros around Glen Dochart without a pack, and then spend a night at Crianlarich SYHA in bad weather. A second more sizable alteration swapped the order I passed through Glen Etive, Glen Coe and Ballachullish. Both changes were on the advice of Lorraine McCall who had just completed a continuous summer round herself (see this UKH article), and both worked perfectly.
What influenced your choice of gear?
Basically I needed gear that kept me warm and dry. I searched for a layering system that covered a range of temperatures so there wouldn't be a constant stop/start of stripping off and putting on layers. The system also had to be simple; I didn't want lots of different layers and styles, less is more and all that. I also decided that being comfortable at night, and trusting the tent would guarantee sleep and essential rest. For all this I was prepared to carry extra weight. I've never been an ultra light guru thats feels a sleeping bag is too heavy if they're not shivering in it - I'd prefer a few extra pounds and comfort, any day.
My main influences were people I knew to be very active in the outdoors and actually use the gear they recommended; Lorraine McCall, Chris Townsend and Neil Mcadie to name but a few. Their advice mixed with my own experiences suggested the kit list.
What about logistics?
I spent a day at home making up parcels for each section of the route. Myself and Lorraine McCall then drove hundreds of miles around the Highlands leaving them at SYHAs, pubs, hotels and with friends. A typical box would contain Wayfayrer Meals, pasta, dried milk, sugar, cereal, chocolate (lots), Nutri-grain bars, biscuits, batteries and maps.
You didn't carry a full pack over every hill: how far did you factor this ability to go lightweight into your route planning?
There are lots of mountain groups where it was possible to store my gear then pick off the surrounding Munros fast without the pack. The base could be a bothy, a hostel, my tent or basically my pack just left at some point central to the group. It was crucial never to lose the pack so I always took a GPS reading of its position before leaving. My lightweight approach comprised a bum-bag with crampons and ice axe tied on to it, a map and compass, headtorch, snacks for the hill and a cup to drink from. I never once carried water, only a cup, and I never struggled to source it.
How often did you camp versus staying in hostels?
In total there were; 28 nights in my tent (4 of which were above 3000 ft), 25 nights in bothies and the rest a mixture of SYHAs, bunkhouses, pubs and friends' houses.
Did your schedule ever feel tight? What about unplanned delays?
For the challenge to be a success I had to complete it inside the winter season, between December 1st and March 31st. Towards the end it became very close indeed with me reaching the summit of Ben Hope around dinnertime on March 31st. There were also plenty of unplanned delays in which I lost valuable time. In total I spent seven frustrating days off the summits due to bad weather and three days of scheduled rest.
Until Glen Shiel I was always just ahead of schedule but after losing two consecutive days there I was chasing my tail all the way to Ben Hope. But I never seriously doubted I'd do it.
"I was driven by my determination to succeed; I'd never wanted something so bad"
What were ground conditions like that season? Ever wish you'd brought skis or snowshoes?
The first few weeks until Christmas were almost totally dry and frozen conditons, with temperatures dropping below -10C regularly yet no heavy snow worth mentioning. Underfoot the ice was treacherous and I had the bruises to prove it. The first real snow came between Christmas and New Year along with very high winds that kept me off the hill in Glen Coe.
January was a mixed bag; snow flurries, high winds, whiteouts, sleet and then fantastic high pressure through the Cairngorms bringing sub -15C temperatures with magnificent inversions.
Early February saw continuous soul sapping rain that almost stripped the hills completely of snow. Luckily within a night high pressure returned the scene to snow capped mountains and blue skies. Throughout the latter parts of February much heavier snowfalls had me snowbound for two consecutive days in Glen Shiel. At this point and later in the Fannichs snow shoes would have been very benificial.
Heading into March everything changed with hard days breaking trails through deep snow whilst being constantly whipped by biting winds. There then came a few days respite of high pressure through Torridon before an incredible few days of snowfall whilst in the Fannichs which made conditons near impassable.
Heading north through the final mountains was a return to Januarys' conditions of everything and more before a final blizzard on Ben Hope as a fitting finale.
In my view skis wouldn't work without full support from somebody mad enough to carry them for you whenever there was insufficient snow.
How big an influence was the weather?
It was everything, it controlled my state of mind and decided how tough a day would be physically. Days of rain made me depressed and everything became much more difficult but worst of all it could knock my morale. Then all of a sudden the sun would come out or rain would turn to snow and instantly I was happy again, it was that quick.
Detail a couple of your more epic days
I had a splendid 15hr crossing of all the Mamores which started in Kinlochleven around 5am and finished at Glen Nevis SYHA around 8pm. Glen Oykel to the Crask Inn, climbing Ben More Assynt and Conival along the way sticks out in my mind as a big day, but more distance than climbing - 40+km in winter with a pack in a day was good going I thought.
Distance and ascent didn't always make for epic days though; Kinbrek bothy - Sourlies bothy via the Sgurr Mor / Sgurr na Ciche ridge was a lung burster! Breaking trail through fresh snow carrying a pack with enough food to supply me through Knoydart and then out to Cluanie was very tough.
What about epic nights?
There were too many nights beng looked after by friends to mention them all but early in the challenge I spent a memorable evening at the Drovers Inn by Loch Lomond in the company of a certain Dan Bailey and Lorraine McCall. I'm sure the pints of Guinness ran into double figures each [no comment – Ed.]. Also the Cluanie Inn where on arrival I found a room with sauna and jacuzzi paid for by a friend when I'd arrived prepared to camp.
Finally the Crask Inn where after climbing my final Munro - Ben Hope - we ate oysters and a haunch of venison before drinking into the early hours. The best pub in the Highlands!
"I didn't speak to another soul for seven days straight"
Martin Moran was famously avalanched on his winter Munro round. Did you have any near misses?
One incident that really could have ended the challenge was whilst descending a steep snow slope in the Fisherfield Forest with no crampons on. I'd become quite adept - and cocky - at using my Pacerpoles for grip on the ice and my luck ran out. The acceleration was tremendous though luckily I didn't spin, my feet pointed downhill all the way which was fortunate as I crashed into a pile of rocks. Looking back up the slope I'd slid 20 - 30 metres and gotten away with it. Breaking a leg whilst out alone in the Fisherfields and with no phone reception doesn't bear thinking about at any time, never mind winter! I walked away with a bruised arse, a constant reminder over the next few days of what I'd done to deserve it.
The extended periods of isolation, prolonged discomfort, challenging conditions, separation from family... What kept you going?
Psychologically I coped fine, yes there were days I felt down due to weather but never was there despondency with the journey itself. The discomfort and challenging conditions were par for the course and that's why I attempted it in the first place, if it was too easy everyone would be trying it.
Knowing I'd see my daughters at the end kept me going to a large degree but being frank I was driven more by my own personal determination to succeed; I'd never wanted something so bad.
Are you comfortable in your own company?
Being alone on a trip like this was never an issue for me, I like my own company, I'm not much of a social animal. Yes it was always nice having friends come and join me for a day or so but then it was equally nice getting back to just me and the task of reaching Ben Hope. When it comes to being out in the mountains some may say I have more confidence than ability and they're probably right, but there must be an inkling of skill in me to have completed two continuous Munro rounds.
What were the key bits of help you got along the way?
Major support was given to me by Lorraine McCall throughout the challenge. This covered anything from her hiking into wherever I was based with bits of new gear to a morale boosting kick up the backside when required. Lorraine was also key to my success in the Cuillin where we were joined by Neil McAdie from Rab, my sponsor. Their combined winter skills helped me through some fantastic yet difficult conditions on the ridge.
Mike Lates from Skye Guides also kindly let me tag along for a day over the southern part of the ridge whilst he guided a client to the end of a successful winter traverse.
There were so many other people who helped out with accommodation and general acts of kindness along the way that it still amazes me even now.
What was your most daunting stage?
I had a difficult time on Skye. In those days my climbing experience was minimal and I struggled somewhat. The Cuillin in winter was completely different to the summer holidays I'd spent there previously and I vowed to myself that I'd concentrate on my climbing after the Munros challenge so I'd never be so reliant on other people. It was truly beautiful and terrifying all in one!
What was the longest you went without speaking (to another person; muttering into your own beard doesn't count)?
From Glen Affric I pushed north through Loch Mullardoch, Loch Monar and Strathfarrar to eventually appear near Achnashellach, having not spoken to another soul for seven days straight. I ended up talking the ears off some poor gamekeeper by the train crossing at Craig.
Can you recall any particular highlights?
I'd say the most uplifting moment was waking up at Kinbrek bothy to fresh snow and blue skies after days of heavy rain. Also four continuous days of cloud inversions which followed me through the Northern Cairngorms and down the Monadhliath.
What advice would you offer anyone intending to do this trip?
I've had four people contact me for advice on attempting a winter Munro round and I always recommend a summer round first. A continuous summer round is a very tough challenge, so why jump straight into a winter one? Unless you're a mountaineer of Martin Moran's calibre a summer round first makes sense and it worked for me. None of the four people who contacted me ever set off.
What factors most influence the chances of success or failure on a winter Munro round?
Without doubt it's having the correct mind set! A half-hearted approach would only end in failure and I'm sure the mental preparation I did before setting off put me in good stead. Also the weather.
Would you do it again?
I would never repeat the same thing again; onwards and upwards and all that. I'd certainly like to do another major journey in the winter at some point, it's been nearly five years since I did a big challenge now.
Isn't it time to hang up your Munro spurs and get cracking on the Corbetts?
I'm almost halfway through a 3rd Munro round actually (though this one's being done in bits like most people do). The last five years I've spent predominantly rock climbing but just lately I've been getting itchy feet for the hills. I was up Ben Hope again just the other day (it's only 30 minutes from my house) and was thinking to myself how much I've missed climbing Munros. I'd like to save bagging Corbetts for now.
So which is the best winter Munro?
My first ever Munro is still my favourite - Liathach.