Walking the Dragon's Back over all 190 Welsh Mountains

© Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray

Over August 2018, friends Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray walked all of Wales' 190 2000-foot mountains, a continuous journey of around 554 miles, with an ascent roughly equal to five times the height of Everest. In the process they set what may be a record for the fastest completion of the Welsh Nuttalls.

Cardiff-based civil engineer Matt, 32, and London-based insurance actuary Mike, also 32, have between them raised nearly £5500 for Welsh Mountain Rescue Teams. They chose to celebrate the work of MRTs as something of a debt of gratitude, after Matt and his partner Alison were caught in a serious avalanche on Snowdon's PYG Track in 2014.

We caught up with the pair to find out more about their journey - and, of course, that avalanche...

Mike and Matt managed to come home smiling, and still speaking to each other!  © Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray
Mike and Matt managed to come home smiling, and still speaking to each other!
© Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray

UKH: What's your background in the outdoors generally?

Mike: I was introduced to the outdoors through scouts and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme at school. However, my love for the mountains really began in my early 20s. One very wet and windy bank holiday weekend Matt and I went up to the Lake District and I absolutely loved it. Since that weekend my passion for the mountains has only grown. I completed my Mountain Leader training seven years ago.

Matt: My Dad introduced me to the hills as a young boy. Family trips often involved hills, camping, boats, and other adventures. So I grew up spending quite a lot of time outdoors - something I am very thankful for now, although I probably didn't show it at the time! More recently Mike and I have had lots of adventures in the mountains together over the last decade since finishing university. Trips have included bagging Alpine 4000m peaks, Scottish and Welsh winter climbing, expedition mountaineering in Russia, and competing in mountain marathons. I have completed my Summer Mountain Leader training and hope to take the assessment soon.

Matt, can you give us an account of the avalanche accident?

Matt: The avalanche was a fairly traumatic experience. It was supposed to be a romantic Valentine's weekend away with my partner Alison, but ended up with both of us in hospital after a 1000 foot fall on Snowdon! We were walking on the Pyg Track in winter conditions with ice axes and crampons. On approach to the finger stone there was a deep dull thud and then everything happened very quickly. We were both carried a long way down the mountain and I was completely buried. Luckily Alison remained on the surface and called out for help, and thankfully Michael Byrne (Frenchy) responded quickly. Along with friends John Price and John Heaps, Frenchy found the top of my rucksack and managed to dig me out, before calling for Mountain Rescue. I had been buried and unconscious for quite a while so when Mountain Rescue arrived I was immobilised and stretchered down to a flat area where a helicopter could land. Alison and I were both flown to hospital where I remained for a few nights under observation. Everyone who helped us that day was fantastic, and we are hugely grateful to the Llanberis and Aberglaslyn Mountain Rescue Teams for getting us safely off the mountain.

The professionalism and dedication of these volunteers was really amazing. Naturally we feel a personal connection with these two teams. with this Welsh walk I wanted to try and express in my own way how grateful we are for their help, and I wanted to dedicate some of my time to saying thank you and raising money to help support them carry on their awesome work.

They camped for nearly half the nights on the trip  © Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray
They camped for nearly half the nights on the trip
© Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray

You could have picked all sorts of different challenges, so what sparked the idea in particular for doing all the Welsh 2000-foot summits in one journey?

Matt: The idea to climb the Welsh 2000-foot summits in a continuous journey evolved over the course of 12 months. In the summer of 2017 I had my sights set on climbing all of the Munros using a camper van. However, I felt the narrative didn't really work - why climb Scottish mountains to raise money for Welsh Mountain Rescue!? So instead I looked at the Welsh Nuttalls, and in January 2018 set out to climb them all over the course of the year. At the start of the year I was getting up before dawn on the weekends to go and run the summits closest to me in the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains. This was great fun, but I realised I would spend a lot of time in the car if I wanted to finish the list. Also, completing a circular route to get back to the car was sometimes a bit frustrating when I just wanted to press on a bit further to the next top!

At about this time I started to think about how quickly I could climb all of the mountains in a single attempt, and wrote to John and Anne Nuttall (authors of the guidebook to the 190 summits - see later info.) to see if a speed record existed for the 190 Welsh Nuttalls. They were very helpful, and told us about Anne Bowker MBE who, in 1993, completed a continuous traverse of the Welsh Nuttalls in just 35 days (181 peaks at the time). This was a really incredible achievement for many reasons, not least considering Anne was 57 years of age at the time and completed it solo, using heavier equipment of the era!

The continuous traverse seemed like a really logical way of climbing all of the mountains in a short space of time, whilst also increasing the fundraising potential. We couldn't really understand why the traverse had never been repeated - it just seemed so logical to us the more we looked at the map! Our initial traverse plans included use of bicycles for some of the non-mountainous linking sections in South and Central Wales. The final step in the evolution of our challenge was to abandon the use of bicycles (which seemed to create problems - how to transport them between sections where we didn't need them?). So we decided our only rule would be to walk every step of the way, coast to coast, across the 190 Welsh Nuttall summits.

I think this challenge was also a great way for me to regain some of the confidence I had lost in the mountains following my accident.

Snowdon from Llynnau Mymbyr  © Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray
Snowdon from Llynnau Mymbyr
© Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray

Do either of you have a particular affinity for the Welsh mountains?

Mike: I've spent a lot of time in the Welsh mountains, particularly Snowdonia, and they've been the place I've built up my skills and experience over the years. I did my mountain leader training with Plas Y Brenin using them as a base to develop my winter mountaineering and multi-pitch climbing skills. The variety of options in the Welsh mountains is unbelievable and I always love returning to them.

Matt: North Wales was a favourite destination for Mike and I when we both lived in London after we had finished University. We spent many weekends climbing mountains on Snowdon, the Glyderau, and Carneddau in particular, and enjoyed winter climbing in this area too. Since I have lived in Cardiff I have enjoyed exploring the mountains in Southern and Central Wales with Alison.

How well did you know the various hill ranges and areas before you started?

Matt: I estimate I had climbed about 35% of the list before we started our challenge. Many ranges were completely unknown to the both of us, including the Arans, Berwyns, and the Arenigs, which was very exciting but also challenging!

Mike: Like Matt, my previous experience has been more focussed in some of the more popular areas like Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons, so it's been amazing to discover so many new mountain ranges. I'm looking forward to spending more time in these quieter areas in the future.

Traversing Crib Goch  © Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray
Traversing Crib Goch
© Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray

What is the definition of a mountain in this context, and which summit list were you basing this journey on?

Matt: We adopted John and Anne Nuttall's mountain definition which comprises peaks which are at least 2,000 feet (610 metres) high with a relative height of at least 49.2 feet (15 metres). The list of 190 summits was taken from the third edition (published 2009) of John and Anne's book, "The Mountains of England and Wales: Volume 1 Wales". We also included an additional mountain summit which has been discovered since the third edition of the book was published. This additional top is Craig Gwaun Taf in the Brecon Beacons, as stated on John and Anne's website.

To link all 190 mountains looks a very complicated, wiggly route: how closely did you have to plot this on the map before setting out, and did you deviate much from your planned route once you were underway?

Both: We spent several months completing a detailed route plan for our entire walk. For each day we plotted our route online using OS maps, which enabled us to accurately calculate the distance and ascent for each stage of our journey. I think we both felt that there was a fairly clear general direction for our route across the mountains in Southern and Central Wales. North Wales was more challenging from a planning perspective due to the density and layout of the summits – we spent considerable time and effort optimising our route here which really paid off. Once underway we stuck quite closely to our planned route, although naturally we found we were able to make improvements on some sections.

Logistics must have been quite involved: how much support did you get along the way?

Both: Due to the demands of Alison's job as a newly qualified Doctor in Cardiff she was only able to join us on four separate occasions during the five-week challenge. One of our key priorities during the planning stage was to minimise the weight we would need to carry. We therefore prepared and posted 'stash boxes' to key locations so that we could pick up essential supplies en route. We actually found that we tended to overstock the stash boxes, and ended up leaving supplies behind when we passed through (kindly stored by accommodation owners until collection after we completed the challenge)!

Drygarn Fawr, a wild area they'd love to revisit  © Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray
Drygarn Fawr, a wild area they'd love to revisit
© Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray

How much stuff/weight did you tend to carry between resupply points?

Both: Due to careful planning, the stash boxes, and support from family and friends, we never carried more than several days' worth of food. We felt quite strongly that in order to reduce the risk of injury and fatigue we needed to minimise weight as much as possible (especially important because of the duration of the challenge).

Can you give us a rough kit list?

Both: We became a bit obsessed with weight and threw out quite a few things we decided were non-essential as the challenge progressed. We ended up both carrying very similar items with group kit shared between us. Below is our refined kit list we had at the end of the journey.

Personal kit:

40:50L rucksack, 3 dry bags (varying sizes), 1 pair walking boots (~600g weight each boot), 1 pair flip flops, 2 pairs walking socks, 1 pair merino boxer shorts, 1 pair walking shorts, 1 long sleeve base layer, 1 baseball cap, 1 sunglasses, 1 merino buff, 1 pair gloves, 1 lightweight mid layer (fleece type), 1 lightweight down jacket (~300g weight), 1 technical waterproof shell (~500g weight), 1 pair waterproof trousers (worn most days as trousers), 1 lightweight down sleeping bag (~500g weight, about 0 degree limit of comfort), 1 head torch, 1 compass, 1 map case, maps as required (1:25K OS), 1 spork, 1 plastic cup, sun cream (factor 50 for Matt!), 1 smart phone, 1 inflatable sleeping mat, 1 lightweight inflatable pillow (for Mike!) 2 walking poles, 1L water bottle, food as required.

Group kit:

1 toilet shovel, tissues, lighter, antibac gel, 1 group first aid kit (including tick remover), 1 stove, gas (usually single 230g butane/propane), 1 tent, 1 guidebook, 1 two litre collapsible water container, 1 battery, 1 GPS watch, watch and phone cables, 1 usb plug, 1 spare phone (non-smartphone), 1 tracker, 1 spare headtorch, 1 bivvy bag.

People were able to follow your progress on a live tracker. That was a good idea: did it work OK in practise?

Both: We feel that the tracker was a great way to engage and interest people in our challenge. Also knowing that family were watching probably motivated us to get out of bed on some mornings! At times it could also be stressful, for example on bad weather days when we adjusted our start times, people would ask if we were having a rest day or a relaxing breakfast, when in reality we were waiting for a storm to pass. The tracker and proposed route overlay on OS maps was also useful when we had friends and family joining us because they could use the tracker to help locate us. On several occasions we were surprised by friends and family in the hills which wouldn't have been possible without the tracker.

Did you wild camp every night?

Both: In total we had 12 nights wild camping, 3 nights camping on campsites, and the remaining 18 nights in hostels/B&B accommodation. We loved the wild camping, but it was hard work at times because of the duration of the challenge, especially when we had wet kit which we couldn't dry.

Did you manage the full 550+ miles within the planned 33 days, and thus set a new record?

Both: The total duration of our journey, from Swansea Observatory to Conwy Castle, was 34 days (this total includes a rest day due to injury). The first day of our challenge comprised a 20-mile approach walk to the foot of our first summit, so we actually climbed the 190 mountains in 33 days. We believe this is the fastest known time for an ascent of all the Welsh Nuttalls.

Family and friends joined them at several points  © Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray
Family and friends joined them at several points
© Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray

You daily averages work out at about 16 miles/4500 feet ascent: was that achieved comfortably, or did you find it tough at times?

Matt: In the end the length and ascent per day varied quite a lot throughout the challenge due to factors like injury and poor weather. Perhaps the easiest day was about 14 miles in length and had no summits (linking between ranges), whilst some of the harder days had well over 10 summits and approached 30 miles in length. Also I think when planning a route on a map it can be quite easy to overlook the type of terrain and amount of paths available for use. For example we found that 20 miles on paths in the Brecon Beacons was significantly quicker and easier than say 20 miles heather bashing between trackless summits in the Berwyns.

Were there any major lows, physical niggles, or points at which it seemed unlikely you'd finish?

Matt: On the second day, approaching the summit of our very first mountain, an old hip injury started to ache. It got steadily worse over the next few days until the sixth day when I couldn't walk and we were forced to take a rest day (our only day off out of the 34 day total). At this point I was overwhelmed with the scale of the challenge ahead because of my injury. This was a real low point for me and I felt unable to continue. The key to overcoming this was to try and think of each day at a time, without considering the bigger picture. At this stage every additional day completed was a real bonus for me, as I felt like each one could be my last. A few days later my hip gradually started to improve and was remarkably pain free by the end!

Mike: Injury wise I had a couple of recurring issues with my Achilles and tendonitis in the top of my left foot but I was quite lucky to avoid serious injuries for most of the trip. However, three days from the end whilst descending to Capel Curig after a long day in the Glyderau I developed serious knee pain. We were planning on quickly ascending Moel Siabod in the evening but this was out of the question as I could barely walk. We decided to get up and climb Moel Siabod before breakfast the following day but I was still in severe pain and the descent took about twice as long as going up. On getting back to Plas Y Brenin I was really low as I felt that I might not be able to make it round the last two days of the journey which was gutting after putting in such a strong effort to break the record. I took some pain killers and strapped my knee up and managed to hobble round the last couple of days but it was pretty tough. If we had been on one of the rockier sections of the route I'm not sure I would have made it but luckily the last two days on the Carneddau were a bit more rolling.

Both: Aside from injuries, we had a real low point in the Aran mountains when after seven hours of driving rain and high winds we were forced to pitch our tent early to avoid risking hypothermia. Despite new waterproofs and dry bags everything was soaked and we couldn't find a suitable campsite. We ended up pitching in a bog at about 800m, and had to boil up stagnant tarn water for drinking! Our lightweight down sleeping bags were wet and we spent a cold miserable night thinking about the next seven nights of wild camping until our next hostel stay when we could dry our kit. This low was followed by a huge high the next day when family met us at a road crossing with hot food and an entire homemade fruit cake!

"The whole challenge has been a huge high..."
© Matthew Myerscough and Michael Murray

Any stand-out days in terms of difficulty?

Matt: We had some very long days towards the end of the challenge because we wanted to set a new record for the fastest ascent of the 190 Welsh Nuttalls. I think we both realised that this wasn't something that people ever attempted to set, but rather a personal ambition of ours! So we really pushed ourselves in the last week to make up the time lost due to my injury at the start. For example, we completed the 12 Snowdon peaks on our list in a single 14 hour day which comprised over 3,000m of ascent. 5am alarms became the norm in our last week.

We also had quite a few days which we found challenging in terms of navigation. Generally I think the toughest bits to navigate seemed to be the linking sections between mountains or ranges which people would never bother to walk between normally. The traverse of the Rhinogs was also challenging due to poor weather and complex route finding through 'the bad lands'.

How about in terms of highs?

Matt: The whole challenge has been a huge high for me. Our aims were to complete the challenge safely in under 35 days, gain some publicity to maximise fundraising for mountain rescue, and still be talking to each other at the end! It's a very satisfying feeling to have achieved those aims whilst enjoying ourselves in the process. On our journey we also met some really generous and hospitable people which helped make it such a special trip. It was also a huge morale boost to spend time with friends and family in the outdoors.

Mike: The whole journey has been an incredible adventure. Enjoying the changing landscapes as we travelled through Wales was amazing and I couldn't believe how wild some of the areas were. As Matt says the hospitality and generosity of the local people we met en route and also the support from friends and family joining us for sections was also a particular high. We wouldn't have been able to make it round without everyone's support.

How did the weather treat you for the month?

Both: For the first two weeks we had fairly settled weather - low winds, little rain, and good visibility. The weather deteriorated during our long section of wild camping in the third and fourth weeks, which was tough. In the fifth week the weather improved and on our final day we finished the challenge in glorious sunshine.

Some people seem to derive their main reward, even if only retrospectively, from the masochistic challenge of a big route like this, but I get the impression that you've both got a real passion for the hills too. Did you enjoy the experience in itself?

Matt: I think it's fair to say that we are both pretty passionate about being out in the mountains. I don't know anyone who is as enthusiastic as Mike is for a mountaineering trip! For me personally I didn't enjoy the first week as much because of my hip injury, and once we got to the fifth week I was ready to be finished. Overall though I've got some really happy memories from this trip.

Mike: As Matt said we're both incredibly passionate about the hills so we both really enjoyed the vast majority of the trip. I think one of the main difficulties was trying to beat the record despite setbacks from injury and weather. This resulted in some very long days towards the end of the trip where we pushed ourselves much harder than we would on a normal hill day. A couple of these days became fairly arduous towards the end but didn't detract from the overall enjoyment and satisfaction of the trip.

One of the pleasures of a big backpacking journey is the sense of travel through a landscape, and the feeling of discovery around every corner. You went through a lot of corners: did any hills or areas really surprise or appeal to you in particular?

Mike: The sense of journey was a particular highlight for me. Each of the mountain ranges felt very different and I was surprised by the variety in such a small area. On clear days we could see for miles and it was great looking back on ranges we had traversed or looking forward to mountain ranges we still had to climb.

Matt: We definitely got the feeling that we were traversing through the landscape which is really quite unique and special. For example dropping down into a new valley from high hills feels really quite magical and exciting. Arriving somewhere on foot creates a very different first impression compared with arriving by car for example. Some of my favourite areas included the Elan Valley for its remote and wild beauty, the impressive Aran mountains (so close to Cadair Idris range but nobody seems to go there?) and the Rhinogs which are rough and trackless but stunning.

Would you do something like this again?

Matt: Yes! It's been one of the most satisfying and rewarding things I've ever done. One of the hardest parts of the challenge for me has been the immediate aftermath, the return to more normal life and the, 'what next'? I think it's fair to say we've no shortage of ideas, however we both have to go back to work in order to pay for the next adventure!

Mike: This has definitely given me the bug for more adventures and we're already discussing exciting options for what to do next time...

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