Bagging Series

Kevin Woods Takes on Winter Munro Round

Kevin Woods, 28, has begun a winter round of Scotland's Munros, a back-to-back challenge expected to last several months. If successful he will be, to our knowledge, only the third person to complete a full round of all 282 Munros in one winter.

Kevin will be following in the footsteps of the late Martin Moran, the first to climb the Munros in one winter season. Like Martin, Kevin will be using a vehicle to travel between hill groups. The alternative, a continuous journey using leg power alone - perhaps the toughest challenge ever undertaken in the British hills - has only been done once, by the late Steve Perry. It's a sad coincidence that both Perry and Moran were killed in 2019 in separate climbing accidents. Kevin has big shoes to fill!

Kevin putting in some winter training in November  © Dan Bailey
Kevin putting in some winter training in November
© Dan Bailey

Starting on Mull's Ben More on the morning of 22nd December, Kevin then travelled 50km by road before catching the ferry over to the Mainland and heading to Ben Cruachan. Since then he has been steadily working through the southwest highlands:

"I'm coming up on almost two weeks into the round and it's been enjoyable, as well as challenging" he told us on 2nd January.

"Things started really well, with Ben More on Mull then a couple good days doing the four Munros of the Cruachan range, and five at Bridge of Orchy. That sort of progress was just what I was looking for.

"A couple things occurred thereafter. First, the van had a couple of mechanical issues, not yet entirely resolved. Then walking off Ben More at Crianlarich on Christmas day, an uncharacteristic misstep made me go over my ankle. That hurt a lot, though more importantly I was unsure what I'd done to it. Soon after, an appointment with the physio cleared the doubts and there appears to be no significant damage, just some fluid build up to clear off.

Hogmanay in Glen Coe  © Kevin Woods
Hogmanay in Glen Coe
© Kevin Woods

"While this was all ongoing I kept doing the hill days, but made them a little bit shorter so as not to push too far. Then, I pushed the pace back up a notch and it's been great fun. Weather-wise, Hogmanay has been the best day yet, the only day so far with sun-splitting skies. I went over Buachaille Etive Mor, Etive Beag and Bidean nam Bian [six ticks in total - Ed.], slotting perfectly into the daylight hours.

"It's worth making mention that conditions, especially for the past few days, have been warm and almost snowless. This definitely helps move quicker, and when I was having the issues, it helped maintain momentum. Anyway, I'm having a good time at the moment and looking forward to the big days coming up. There are a lot of them! I'm also enjoying this process of getting out and working toward one singular goal. It's not often in life you get to do that to the expense all else, I'm making sure to enjoy it."

A big day, but not untypical of those he'll have to do over the next few weeks  © Kevin Woods
A big day, but not untypical of those he'll have to do over the next few weeks
© Kevin Woods

I can't think of anything more involved or immersive: maintaining many hours of walking each day through Highland storms, darkness, moonlight, snow and ice. I think it'll be a brilliant, hard test.

Kevin, a film and TV editor, Winter Mountain Leader, professional drummer and frequent contributor to UKHillwalking, already knows the Munros well, having recently completed his third round on Ladhar Bheinn. Knowledge of the ground should prove invaluable this winter, on an epic journey for which every possible advantage will need to be exploited.

Ground conditions will make all the difference to this challenge  © Dan Bailey
Ground conditions will make all the difference to this challenge
© Dan Bailey

From the limited daylight and hostile weather, to unpredictable and often challenging ground conditions, there is a good reason that winter Munro rounds are so rare. While Steve Perry walked the whole way in his 2005-06 round, a distance of around 1500 miles, Kevin has opted to drive the longer legs between hill groups and make good use of a van for accommodation and logistics.

"The advantages of using a vehicle rather than walking/cycling the whole thing are that I get to choose the location to make use of the best weather, a massively better diet and less pack weight. It also makes me able to be more self-sufficient. Having family come often to help is such an investment on their part."

"Sadly Steve is no longer here" Kevin tells us. "I'd have really liked to talk this over with him."

We caught up with Kevin recently to do just that:

UKH: You're only 28, but have already achieved more on the hills than most walkers manage in a lifetime. When did you start hillwalking?

In childhood I'd been up the usual Glasgow hills; Ben Lomond, The Cobbler. But it accelerated pretty quickly age 15, 2007 onward.

What's so special to you about Munros?

They are a stunning all-in-one summary of the Highland geography. That's it, and that's beauty enough itself.

How about Munros in winter? 282 far-scattered summits at the hard end of the year is not a challenge many would relish, or even conceive of – so what sparked your enthusiasm for the idea of doing this trip?

So much variation and harsh beauty. So much to think about in such short time-frames before the sun disappears again. Winter Munros are stunning, and the learning always continues.

A guy associated with a mountaineering club I used to be in gave me a copy of Mike Cawthorne's Hell of a Journey, roughly 2014 [a continuous winter round of the 1000m peaks]. The writing is brilliant, he makes the misery look beautiful; a bit of a lightbulb moment. I started actively incubating the whole idea - it's got to be properly hard, and worth a punt at least. I'm not sure if he wanted the book back or not, I still have it.

Why would you say you're drawn to bigger and more testing hill challenges in general?

They're great fun to put together, in the planning and in the doing. You go through a cycle of doubt resolving into relief or pure joy. You get an intense sense of understanding the land and how you can move around it.

Winter Munros are a much harsher and more rigorous prospect than summer Munros – What do you think are going to be the main seasonal-specific difficulties of this journey?

Maybe it goes without saying that the unique difficulties all relate to weather and ground conditions. Darkness as well, but nothing compared to weather: the isobar chart and freezing level are king.

There's going to be a lot of darkness in the next few months  © Dan Bailey
There's going to be a lot of darkness in the next few months
© Dan Bailey

How long have you been planning this, and how much of a challenge has it been to put it all together?

It's been a work in progress for a long time with no specific 'planning period'. But it has been a constant in life for a few years, to say the least. The preparation is so multi-faceted it is difficult to see it all at once. It's nice to begin and have everything stitch together at last.

Can you quickly talk us through your intended route, in broad brush terms?

The plan is very similar to my 2013 summer round: start on Mull, begin with the Southern Highlands to match lack of daylight and better roads. Go from the Eastern Highlands to the west coast through to February. Then finish up the North-west for the longer days into March.

Are you confident you're fit enough?

I'm confident in my fitness. I'd worry more about injury, nutrition, sleep and hydration. These are things you can do something about.

How much slack have you put in there in terms of heavy weather, or unforeseen enforced rest days?

I've been taking down daily winter weather observations for a few years. There are a handful of days each winter that are just too bad to go out in - but they're statistically quite rare. While knowing that you can walk in really bad conditions, there is ultimately a ceiling. Rest days would ideally be in tune with this.

How many days in total have you planned for, and will it matter if you overshoot that target?

There's no set time and no set finish - I'm starting at day one and will go forward as well as I can. I'd like to do them in good time, as long as that squares with reality on the ground.

How much of this are you intending to do alone, and do you enjoy your own company?

I'm always happy out on the hill myself. Solitude is brilliant and loneliness is never a problem in the face of a good plan. I wouldn't say I prefer being alone to company, but it doesn't matter too much either way.

What sort of logistical and moral support are you setting up?

I'm meeting family to swap out replaceable items, as well as looking for the nearest pub food. If anyone wants to go for an evening meal and give me some chat, you know where I am because the nutritional quality of a backpacking diet is shocking!

Have you been putting in much in the way of training?

It's been a busy walking year, and I continue to get out on the hill as much as possible.

Some Munros or areas are obviously more difficult than others - especially in winter. Which do you anticipate being particularly hard stages, and what coping strategies might you use to deal with them?

I think of the Cairngorms as being one crux, and the Cuillin being another for entirely opposing reasons. That said, there are no shortage of other big areas. But these two have me thinking a lot. If it were bucketing with snow and blizzarding at the start of the Cairngorms, that would be really unlucky. The big North-west areas don't bother me so much - I've spent so much time in all of them that they don't feel that isolated.

How are you hoping to address the Cuillin?

The Cuillin would be ideal with good weather and a cover of neve, just like it was in spring 2018. If this is achievable, the ridge could be crossed quickly - I'd like to do that.

What's the approximate distance and ascent, as planned on the map?

I have a spreadsheet with best-case statistics. It works out at 2,300km and 140,000m of ascent. That's also very close to my 2013 round statistics, so makes sense. That's the best case route without diversions!

Are you bringing 2-wheeled transport too?

I'd like to use a bike to cut down some glen miles. But any bike use will be predicated on do-able conditions, and as always with the winter plan, we'll see.

What is accommodation going to be like along the way - a lot of camping, bothies etc?

No doubt it will be a mixture of camping, hostels and staying with friends. Some bothies too, though I anticipate using them a bit less than you might think. It's a shame a lot of smaller Highland businesses shut for winter, that restricts options somewhat. That's where my van comes in!

In terms of experiences and personal satisfaction, what are you hoping to get out of this journey?

I'm just keen to try something new. I can't think of anything more involved or immersive: maintaining many hours of walking each day through Highland storms, darkness, moonlight, snow and ice. It's been exciting and illuminating to work toward it, so much so that I'm slightly amazed to be at the starting blocks. I think it'll be a brilliant, hard test.

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