On Sunday 30th April, Will Copestake completed his Coldest Corbett journey, a round of all 222 of Scotland's Corbetts in a single winter season. A crowd of 40 friends and supporters joined him on his final summit, Little Wyvis.
In 2013/14 Will made a largely solo circumnavigation of Scotland by sea kayak before climbing all 282 Munros (see our interview here). Ranging in height from 2500-2999 feet, and with an all-round prominence (ie drop between it and the next summit) of 150m, a round of the Corbetts is generally considered to be as tough a proposition as the 3000-foot Munros, with summits that are wilder, less trodden and far more widely scattered. For the Corbett journey Will introduced a novel 'crowdsourcing' element, with an open invite to people to join him on any of the legs.
We've asked him a few questions about the experience:
UKH: You started on 1st November and finished on the last day of April – did you expect it to take so long?
Will: The original route plan had my end date sometime toward the end of March, however I knew this would likely be very optimistic as I had planned no rest days. The idea was that I would take days rest when they seemed necessary, more often than not days ‘off’ were days working freelance on various guiding, talking and filming jobs to keep the journey going.
How have you found the weather and conditions this season, and were they a help or a hindrance?
Overall the weather this year has been milder than I expected, perhaps I jinxed the winter by calling my trip ‘the Coldest Corbett.’ In reality it was more of a temperate adventure this year.
When snow did arrive it seemed to come in short winter blasts, giving the conditions I hoped for in manageable bursts. This I saw as somewhat of an advantage and in the last few months I have taken to running. I wore trail shoes far more than my heavy winter boots and without much snow to contend with I have also spent a lot more time on my mountain bike than I first imagined.
I still found those winter days I wanted, they just proved a little more elusive than they had been on my previous winter round on the Munros.
After several weeks of more or less thaw it’s ironic in a way that winter came back so hard in recent days: do you feel that’s an appropriate note to finish on?
I couldn’t have asked for a better send off on my third and second last peaks, the Rum Cullin. My biggest worry was that the gale force winds would cancel the ferry across as in the conditions kayaking was unwise. Thankfully I and a friend who had joined me, made it. Scrambling along Rum’s exposed ridges in winter flurries of thick snow felt exhilarating, it felt great to have an ice axe in my hand one last time this winter.
Physically, how hard have you found the experience?
Physically the experience has been expectedly tough and of course there are good days and bad days, however I think the Corbetts for me personally seemed an easier trip than the Munros.
Much of this I think comes down to being far more mentally prepared at the start this time, I knew what to expect of a winter running up Scottish peaks. Living in a van rather than a small tent on a bike also makes a massive difference to overall comfort, the ultimate luxury is a guarantee of being dry.
I found at the start of the trip I was relatively slow and constant, plodding up hills as they came. Now I am averaging two hours sea to summit return, the slow creep of fitness has spread over many steps, of course pace changes with different company too.
Now you’ve done rounds of both, which would you say are objectively tougher, and why – Munros or Corbetts?
I cannot really say as my approach to the two lists were very different. Personally I think that it was 100% the Munros that were harder than the Corbett round but I think this this is more due to the style of approach rather than the actual terrain. When I did the Munros in 2013/14 the winter was hard, gale force winds and perpetually building snow made navigation, travel and life in general much harder while this year has been mild. Living in a comfortable van and having regular doses of great company to support me along the way made an amazing difference to overall mood too.
As a purely physical observation, the Munros being higher summits often had cloud on their tops when the Corbetts were free and perhaps for this reason the Corbetts had much less snow than the Munros. Where the challenge of the Corbetts arises is in their approaches which are long, remote and often a journey in themselves just to make it to the base of the climb. There are also far fewer people and paths, but the latter are often hidden under snow in winter anyway.
Have you got any new favourite hills or areas that you’d not visited before this trip?
I absolutely loved the Ardgour peninsula. Taking a tent and walking the nine Corbett peaks over a four day hike I found an area I had never visited before. I did not expect the rugged exposure of the peaks, they had every quality one might expect in larger mountains without so much of a climb. I felt totally remote and a wonderful sense of isolation there. I will definitely be returning.
Other big highlights for me were the Arrochar Alps, the Fisherfield and Kintail mountains.
The biggest stand-out moments were those shared in company. There was a period in November where the south was coated in superb cloud inversions. To run around in snow with new friends above incredible views was truly amazing.
How have you found van life, and are you looking forward to spending more time in a house now?
Aha. Well, I’m not exactly moving out. While I am returning ‘home’ to Ullapool with my parents, my freelance season is building up. I already expect to be spending over half of next month in my van, as I lead journeys all over Scotland (and Svalbard!) mostly by kayak. If you would like to join my calendar is available on www.willcopestakemedia.com
Van life was surprisingly comfortable. Kitted out in wood it felt like a home, especially with the hiss of a paraffin lamp and warm brew on the table. ‘Damp management’ was tricky at times but the car heater often helped dry boots in the now smelly passenger footwell.
How did your crowd-sourcing companions work out on this trip, and is that something you’d consider repeating if you ever did anything similar in future?
It worked surprisingly well. I was first joined on Arran during my first week and since have shared the trip with many interesting and inspiring people. Over one third of the mountains I climbed were in company and of that third, over half were people who arrived as strangers and left as friends. Fellow hikers travelled from as far as York, Leeds and even London to join in, which was a wonderful surprise; I hope to maintain our friendships for a long time.
What were your feelings on finishing?
It is a strange feeling to come the end of a long journey. Throughout this trip I have accompanied many of my photos with the hashtag #ResetYourRoutine - a mantra to keep life interesting by regularly changing things up a bit, even in small ways. And today my routine of the last few months has changed again.
On one hand it is slightly daunting to be shaking up my ‘normal’ once again but I was tremendously excited to touch the last cairn. I was joined by 40 others on Little Wyvis, which was great fun and absolute chaos in equal measure. To reach the last peak is never the end, I will still be outside as much as I can now that the round is over.
For more on Will see: