UKH

Interview: My Summer of Munros with Kevin Woods

© Kevin Woods

In the summer of this year Glasgow-based site user Kevin Woods celebrated finishing his degree in computer animation by going for a big walk. In three months he knocked off all 282 of Scotland's Munros; he was alone for much of it; and at the time he was a mere 21 years old. So how did he get on? We found out.

Learning from the boss. Foot of Ben More, Mull, the night before. 1 May 2013  © David Woods
Learning from the boss, Hamish Brown. Photo:David Woods

However you choose to get around them, doing all the Munros in one summer is a big ask. Before committing to it, what sort of background did you have in hillwalking and climbing?

I started hillwalking when I was 15, so it's been about six years. I seemed to have steadily ramped up my volume of hillwalking and climbing year on year. I just find myself going away for bigger things each summer, and having a driving license helped a lot. When I started, I pretty much went alone out of a really intense desire just to be out on the mountains. I discovered other folk over time, primarily through forums and through my mountaineering club. I got into the idea of multi-day trips and long routes really quickly, which made me dream of bigger and bigger routes.

So what inspired this trip?

A big trip was in the back of my mind for a long time. I used to read the articles from those who had done a Munro Round, distantly knowing I might like to do something like that some day. Being out on mountains has always inspired me, and as my experience grew over the last five years, I realised that it was something that might be possible and that I might enjoy.

It was really a mental challenge; the physical challenge paled by comparison

Tell us about the fundraising

My brother Steve was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes over a decade ago. I figured this summer would be a good way to raise some money for Diabetes UK so I set up a Justgiving page. I'm really stunned by the amount raised so far and I'm glad to have been able to do that - but I'm still short of my target, and the page is still open to donations!

Did you start off with a must-finish deadline to aim for?

When I planned my trip, I really wanted the emphasis to be on having space to breathe. The idea of doing the Munros back to back was a big enough challenge that I didn't want to get crushed under the load of big days piled on big days. Once I'd put a plan together, the final total came out as a shade under 100 days.

I had to finish up with university a week early, because I decided I wanted to be away at the start of May. I literally handed in my final work, drove home, then left for Mull that afternoon. My schedule meant a finish on August 7, and although this was never set in stone, folk wanted to join me at the end. Once everybody had got time off work, I realised there was no option but to finish on that date! That gave me some pressure and stress in the final fortnight, but ultimately I was so happy that so many people came all the way up to Ben Hope to see me to the top.

Snow at the end of May. An Caisteal group, Crianlarich  © Kevin Woods
Snow at the end of May. An Caisteal group, Crianlarich
© Kevin Woods, May 2013

Did you do any specific training or other preparation in advance?

I didn't do any training, I trusted that years of hill fitness would see me by and this was the case.

The preparation was enormous, and multi-faceted. I began planning it June 2011, and drew all over Scotland maps looking for the most efficient way of connecting the hills. I gradually worked out how to make best use of bothies, crucial bridges, different ways of doing every range. There's so much more variation and creativity in there than you'd ever think. I made changes to my map over time as I read Hamish Brown, Chris Townsend and Martin Moran's books, working out why they taken the routes they had. This was so helpful and I learned a lot. By the end I had a huge map with everything relevant drawn on, and the process of doing so meant I had every relevant detail in my head which proved so useful when it came to chopping and changing plans on the go.

In 2012, I visited many of the remote areas like the Cairngorms, Mullardoch and Monar with my pal Struan. These were all multi-day trips, the latter in vile winter conditions. In October I had a brief one-day recce of the Cuillin, since I'd never been. It was effectively the last day of good weather before winter came in and I got from Sgurr nan Eag to the In Pinn. These trips weren't intentionally reccying at the time, they were just going out for the fun of it. But I was aware of their value, and they all gave a boost of confidence. In hindsight, if I had done the Munro Round in 2012 as originally planned, I would either have not made it, or the learning curve would have been enormous. I'd have never expected how much easier a set of hills were simply because I'd done them before.

Then New Year hit, I realised the Munro Round was just around the corner, and I'd better stop spending all my cash on petrol. So instead of going to the Highlands, I ended up spending most of my time on the Dumbarton boulders losing fitness. I got a groove going there which I'm still trying to pick back up now I'm home.

Cairn Lochain looking epic  © Kevin Woods
Cairn Lochain looking epic
© Kevin Woods, Jun 2013

How well did you already know the Munros before starting – how much of the ground you travelled was familiar, versus new ground?

I've looked at them quite obsessively on maps for years, so even when there was an area I hadn't been to, I 'knew' the ground intimately. For a while, in 2012, I wondered if I might finish the Munros a first time before going off to do them in summer 2013. This never worked out, mostly due to finance, but I reached a total of 238, and this was a great foundation to work from. By the time I started, the only areas I had no personal experience of were Knoydart, the central/northern Cuillin and the Ullapool bunch. Not too bad.

Ultimately it's all about the mood of the place, the humbling enormity of mountains, changing light, landform, all this stuff...it's amazing

Your journey started out self-propelled, but then morphed into a car-based trip for pragmatic reasons. Can you talk us through how that happened?

I always wanted to do this kind of thing self-propelled. I really liked the idea of linking it all into a single route, because it's quite logical and I guess it's simply a more difficult and natural way to do it. It was absolutely jaw-droppingly nice weather the day I travelled up to Mull, but the storms set in as soon as I started. I got winter conditions on Ben More - snow and hail at the top, and then for the next few days it was absolutely horrendous. It was hovering around zero degrees on the summits, and I struggle to stay warm at the best of times. Each day I was finishing completely soaked through, extremely cold, legs bleeding from the wet rubbing. I was getting by, but only because my Dad was up for the first few days and the convenience associated with that.

On my third day the plan was to walk north from Loch Awe, camp in Glen Kinglass and do Ben Starav+ 4 the following day. The weather was due to stay awful for the time-being, and doing that planned trip actually felt dangerous. It was the kind of weather that you'd look out at and understand that it's difficult simply to exist among. In the stress and under that pressure not to go off schedule, I took a lift around to Glen Etive and did the Starav lot from that side. I knew fine well that I was breaking a huge rule of the whole thing; self-propelled, but it surprised me that at breaking point, it didn't mean as much to me as I'd imagined.

A week later I turned back from Bidean nam Bian due to bad snow, and moved south to other mountain regions. Until the immense amounts of wet snow melted it seemed pointless to stay. So I began requiring lifts here and there, all over the Southern Highlands. I was using my Mum's car for a few days at a time because by the end of May, the summits were so strung out, all over the place. My old plans were in shreds and I thought it best just to use a car from then onward.

Zebra stripes, Beinn Mhanach. 2 weeks in.  © Kevin Woods
Zebra stripes, Beinn Mhanach. 2 weeks in.
© Kevin Woods, May 2013

Was the car always easier and more convenient than walking would've been, or did the need to return to a car park at the end of each stage sometimes actually prove a faff?

I have to say I enjoyed being car-based. In the beginning when I was very much living out a rucksack and self-sufficient, I found it quite a trapped experience. There were normally only a couple of options at most. I think had the weather been better at the beginning, it may have tipped the scales in favour of a fully self-propelled walk, especially had I stuck it out until the weather got good, which at the time of course I wasn't to know.

Using a car isn't as 'pure' in terms of style, but it opened up a fascinating tactical game which I got really into: juggling the route, weather, personal condition, etc.

One thing that was always crucial to me was to keep the direction of travel in the same order. I didn't have any interest in darting all over the place, filling in gaps, and doing hills here and there. I preferred to stay in one area and go until I'd finished the lot. This gave me the experience of travelling through the Highlands, watching mountains advance, recede, as well as the enjoyment in completing a section.

Loch Hourn from Ladhar Bheinn  © Kevin Woods
Loch Hourn from Ladhar Bheinn
© Kevin Woods, Jul 2013

After a cold stormy spring the summer turned out peachy. That must've helped?

The cold conditions meant a lot of snow was still lying from winter.Then at the end of May, the weather just came good. I was walking on golden mountains under sunny skies at Glen Lyon. The snow thinned out and I savoured every warm day. I felt like it might go bad again any moment, but as time went on it dawned on me the weather was holding. I got good days all the way through the Grampians. The Cairngorms were magnificent. Beyond the wet first few weeks, I estimate I had only 14 very wet days all the way to Ben Hope, which is a really good hit-rate.

How did you stay motivated, day in day out?

I found the weather forecast a scarier proposition than the actual weather. I hated to hear of coming bad weather, especially when I was tackling hills where it would already be very easy for me to get behind schedule. Nonetheless, I never would have thought I'd have the motivation to walk straight through the rain day after day. In the longer term, I didn't know I could do 30 or 40km days and keep going. In general, I found my mental state to be surprisingly consistent. In the preparation leading up to the Round, I was worried that loneliness, despair, etc, might crumble motivation. But in the event, I had no problems. I just knew I really badly wanted to do this, and I'd do whatever it took to see Ben Hope. I never thought about giving up.

"Even my worst days were accompanied by very special experiences, while my biggest days seemed to be the most memorable"

Weeks of relentless midgies would put me off trying something like this. How were they for you?

I only got a couple until Fort William, nearly two months in. They were pretty horrendous in Torridon, but in general I got off very lightly. A mixture of drought and frost seemed to have done it. In return, I got hell from clegs [aka horseflies, Ed.]. They really came out at Loch Mullardoch in the heat wave toward the end of July, and I had to get above 3000 feet to escape. At least midges can't keep up when you're walking. The clegs were hell and I got some nasty bites. It wasn't very fun.

Give us a quick run-though of your gear… what sort of loads were you carting around?

In general, I used the gear I already had, and only bought a few extra bits for the trip. My ten-year-old rucksack has a huge hole in the bottom, but I used it for most of the summer. I wore Nike trainers for the vast majority of the trip, going through three pairs at £30 each. The only times I used boots were at the beginning in the winter conditions, on the Cuillin and in Torridon, to protect my small toes which became tender. My clothes and waterproofs were all stuff I already owned, so in that regard I didn't need to buy much before the trip.

Regarding rucksack weight, the car-centric way altered this a lot. I found I enjoyed nailing out ranges in a day with a light rucksack, a lot more than going slow and heavy. Rucksack weight was increased for the remote northwest ranges when I accidentally left my cooking stuff with my friend James in July. I had to take an actual pot and cutlery set around Loch Mullardoch: 55km in two days with an insanely big rucksack, in a heat wave. I regretted that, and pack weight came down for Monar and Fisherfield bothy trips. There, I had a day rucksack, plus sleeping bag and nothing more. I trusted I would find sleeping mats at the bothies, which I did, and just ate bananas for breakfast. I left GPS out from the beginning because I knew it was a crutch I didn't need - although sometimes a little confirmation from the smartphone helped navigation! All in all it wasn't often I was carrying a heavy load.

Fire starter, Tarf Hotel (bothy in Atholl). Nearly one month in.  © Kevin Woods
Fire starter, Tarf Hotel (bothy in Atholl). Nearly one month in.
© Kevin Woods, May 2013

Lochan na h-Earba, Ardverikie  © Kevin Woods
Lochan na h-Earba, Ardverikie
© Kevin Woods, Jun 2013

How about food – did you manage to eat enough, did you ever cache stuff in advance … or wasn't that sort of supply logistics faff necessary once you got motorised?

I always felt this was my biggest fear! Getting food in was in a sense a bigger challenge than actually doing the mountains. Before the trip, I made food parcels full of non-perishables and had a fun weekend delivering them all around the Highlands. After that, the whole venture felt very, very real. Although my eventual change to motorised transport made the food parcels semi-redundant, it set up an infrastructure which no doubt helped carry me through. My appetite went sky-high once I was a few weeks in. When I was carrying three days of food (the most I ever had), my rucksack would be piled high and I'd still feel short of food each day. So in some regards I'm glad I went motorised for this reason - I essentially never went hungry.

While we're on the topic, I gained 3kg in the first few weeks and stayed at that thereafter. I'm still there.

Tent, bothy, hostel, car seat - where did you spend your nights?

A bit of everything really. I haven't worked out exact tallies, but I camped most of the time. I spent some time staying with friends, stayed in some bothies and occasionally slept in the front seat of the car which was always a bad move. I didn't ever bivvy out. That's always led to bad sleep in the past, and sleeping bad was one of the biggest knocks I could take. I spent a few nights at home because I was switching between parents' cars. In retrospect this bugs me a bit because it really eroded the 'continuous' element – but that's just the way circumstance went.

"The first few weeks of the Round I felt permanently exhausted, trying very hard not to let the weight of it all roll over me"

I presume you got fitter as you went along: what sort of distance/ascent were you doing per day (very roughly)?

I spent the few months prior to the trip doing almost no walking, I went rock climbing instead, which at least was mercifully cheaper than driving to the far side of Fort William. The first few weeks of the Round I felt permanently exhausted, trying very hard not to let the weight of it all roll over me. Then around three weeks in I just seemed to calm in mind, an amazing fitness came through in time with the weather, and I started soaring over the hills. My daily average comes to 20km and probably 1500m per day, I haven't worked out the ascent bit yet. My longest days were 40-50km, in the Braemar area, and my highest daily ascents were upwards of 3km. The strange paradox was I found these huge days really easy when I finally went and did them, but so often I found short days frustratingly difficult. Figure that one out?

Physically, I was fine. Just a stiff knee which came and went, and tender little toes which the Nike trainers were responsible for.

Psychologically I usually didn't have the time to feel low because this all-consuming focus was driving me on. It was a definite attribute unique to me being in mountains, and it let me plough through usual psychological barriers. I suppose a byproduct of that focus is a non-stop intensity, and that got pretty tiring.

Everyone who came along to see me to the top of Ben Hope, Munro #282!  © Kevin Woods
Everyone who came along to see me to the top of Ben Hope, Munro #282!
© Kevin Woods, Aug 2013

Can you tell me about a couple of real stand-out great experiences?

As you can imagine, the great experiences were why I went in the first place, and these vastly outnumbered the bad experiences - to the extent the bad bits don't seem to matter much. Even my worst days were accompanied by very special experiences. As I set off up Cruachan, soaking wet and feeling down, a chink in the cloud opened up for only a moment as I walked around the reservoir. I was worried about there being whiteouts on the summit as forecast, but in Coire Cruachan I caught a glimpse of the summit ridge, snowless and bare, and in that moment I knew it was 'on'. Within moments I was bubbling over with excitement.

On a bad day at Bridge of Orchy I accepted I wouldn't get my planned five Munros, so set up my tent after on the bealach between Beinn a' Chreachain and Beinn Mhanach. I ate a meal, relaxed for the first time all day, and something clicked inside. I knew I'd get that last mountain if I went now. I can't fully understand what happened. I packed my tent up, walked out of the shadows of the mountains, and into one of the highest 'highs' I've ever had on the mountains; straight into the light of sunset, noticing the profound silence, sun dappled on warm slopes at Glen Lyon. The peace that came over me that evening was indescribable, I quite unexpectedly felt completely at home, and walked down to the head of Loch Lyon to camp in twilight somewhere around about midnight. But it took a full day of turmoil to get there. The internal peace persisted; I woke up the following morning under big blue skies and lapping water, and sailed to the top of Creag Mhor without an ounce of effort.

Many other days were great, my biggest days seemed to be the most memorable: crossing the Grey Corries to Ben Nevis, doing the Mamores in a day, doing Am Faochagach to Seana Bhraigh, crossing the Cairngorms... All were immensely memorable experiences and I won't forget them. I loved to stand on Skye and look all the way up the north-west coast of Scotland and pick out all the mountains I'd been over and all that was yet to come. Crossing the Cuillin in perfect weather from Sgùrr Alasdair to Sgurr a' Mhadaidh was a real highlight, and being on the north-west late evening with the sun going down is simply unforgettable.

What was your hardest day?

The absolute hardest days were Ben Cruachan and Bridge of Orchy, because they were so draining emotionally. I had a hard day at Loch Quoich in a fun sort of way. Myself and a mountaineering club friend, Dougie, were crossing from Sourlies back to the Quoich Dam, where we had a tent and curries stashed in the grit bin. It rained all day, and we walked back to the dam almost without stopping. We got back at 1am, put the tent up, threw down a meal and got to sleep at 2am. It was one of the most relentless days of the summer!

All in all, the hardest days weren't the long days - they always felt oddly easy. The hardest moments were when I hit doubt, didn't know what to do, was on the verge of slipping behind schedule, or was facing up to a situation I didn't want to accept. The key in every case was to railroad straight through it, and I always found myself back on par. Whenever I felt "there's so far to go...", the next thought would be "don't think about it, keep walking". So for myself, it was really a mental challenge, the physical challenge paled by comparison.

How did you deal with the Cuillin?

I've got a background in rock climbing, so the Cuillin didn't worry me too much. Nonetheless I scheduled six days for them and decided to take my time. I knew bad weather could make the Ridge difficult, and I didn't know the ridge well on a practical level. When I got there the weather was perfect and I enjoyed them a lot. At the campsite I met a girl called Jo-lynne from Yosemite, and she was looking for someone to climb with. I told her I was going up the In Pinn, and we were both partnerless. So we headed up there a couple days later and that's how I got that one done. Last I heard she's in Wales, on her way to Italy on a bike, and doing some climbing on the way.

Sgurr nan Gilleanthrew up a last obstacle. I assumed I'd get up the West Ridge no issue, but the bit where the gendarme used to be felt too exposed and I felt too uncoordinated. I did the other two Munros instead, descended, and went all the way back up a couple days later and got Gillean via the Tourist Route.

My experience with them has left me with a lot of love for the place... full traverse next?

Kevin Woods  © Kevin Woods
Kevin Woods
© Kevin Woods

Did you discover any new favourite hills or areas?

I noticed over time that some areas were more memorable than others, but nothing unsurprising I'd say. I would like to go back to the Cairngorms and do a lot more exploration there. There's so much in the Cairngorms, even though I've been over all the summits multiple times now. I could spend a lot of time in Glen Nevis climbing, and I'd like to go back to Skye. A Cuillin Traverse is for some time in the future, and definitely achievable now. Just a shame we're now on the long downhill slope into winter, there's so much still to be done.

Now you've done them all in one summer, is that it for you and Munros?

Definitely not - I've been bagging away for years! One plan is to finish the Munros I didn't do before I left - 44 of them. I'll do some Corbetts and no doubt see them all at some point. I'd like to go foreign some time. I'm doing more rock climbing these days but have yet to take it to the mountains... There's so much possibility. Maybe in years to come I'll do a complete self-propelled Munro Round as was my original intention - but not any time soon!.

I'll always climb mountains, they're a part of me and it's not something I'd put to the side now that I'm finished the summer Round. The Munros have been the focal point for my last six years on the hills. This summer seems like the beginning to me, it's opened up so much possibility: I guess I didn't expect how hard I could try for something. Thus I can set my sights on other ideas I might not have realistically considered before.

I'm sure I'll notch up a few Rounds in due time just because I love being out there seeing Scotland and going places. I got a deeper appreciation of the effort of those who have done this kind of thing before, it's reputation has actually grown in my mind since I did it. It was a good taste of the long haul.

What do the hills mean to you?

They've always been necessity more than choice. I've always found them really inspiring and I get so much out of being there. I enjoy the logistical, physical and mental aspects of doing big hill trips, but it's really all based from love for the mountains. I wouldn't do 2000km over anything but mountains, despite some people thinking, understandably, that this would make it harder (it doesn't). Ultimately, it really is all about the mood of the place, the humbling enormity of mountains, changing light, landform, all this stuff...it's amazing.

For a blow-by-blow account of the trip see Kevin's blog

Check these other UKHillwalking articles for more Scottish long distance fun:



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