Walking buddies Joss Smale and Peter Watson recently completed a continuous round of the Munros. The original target of 100 days slipped away as they awaited a weather window on Skye, but the pair went on to finish on 6th August in a total 106 days, saving the hardest - the Cuillin - for last. Peter, 29, a Mountain Sports Advisor in Decathlon Braehead, and Joss, 44, a London-based web designer, have so far raised nearly £3500 for children's cancer charity CLIC Sargent. Here they tell us a bit about the trip.
UKH: What kind of background in hillwalking and the outdoors do you both have?
Peter: I started from quite a young age; most of my family holidays were camping trips up in the North West Highlands, nothing serious just walks in the hills and the occasional Munro. From there I've taken it further myself, so I've been hiking in Peru, New Zealand, India, Nepal and of course Scotland. Generally I've been into doing long distance hiking trails rather than climbing mountains (I have no real technical expertise), so this was a bit of a departure.
Joss: My first hike was in 2014/15 in New Zealand where I first met Peter. We were both doing the long distance trail called the Te Araroa - quite a serious undertaking for the first one! Then in 2016 I walked from Lands End to John o'Groats, taking in some popular routes on the way including the South West Coast Path, Offas Dyke, The Pennine Way and the West Highland Way.
What sparked the idea for a Munros challenge in particular?
Joss: While on the walk in 2016 my Scottish cousin, Rick, joined me for a walk up Ben Nevis (my first Munro). As we descended he said to me "Don't you start getting any ideas that you can complete all the Munros!". I hadn't really thought about it until then. A few months later I drunkenly texted Peter seeing if he fancied attempting them all in one go... and the adventure was born. We went for a drink with Rick after finishing - he still can't believe we made it.
Where many (any?) of these hills familiar to either of you before this trip?
Peter: I'd done 20 or so before, mainly around Arrochar, Tyndrum and Crianlarich, being within easy reach of Glasgow. I'd never done any of the tougher, scrambly ones though so that was a learning curve.
Joss: I had done Ben Nevis (via the tourist route) as mentioned above - then last summer we had two weeks training where I only managed three more - Beinn Narnain, Ben Ime and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh - as I damaged my knee. I wanted to climb Sgorr nam Fiannaidh just to see what the Aonach Eagach ridge was like as it terrified me (sadly we got it on a foggy day).
What kind of preparation went into it?
Peter: Most of the pre-trip planning was trying to decide exactly how we were going to approach it, what kit we were going to take and rough budgeting. For the route, we came up with a very rough plan, however day to day we were basically winging it. It seemed most of the publicised Munro rounds are done by serious fell runner type people, whereas we are just two normal guys with average fitness levels so had to find our own way that worked for us.
Joss: I figured my biggest issue would be dealing with the exposure as I wasn't great with heights. First thing I did was search the web to find the hardest Munros. The same names kept coming up... Aonach Eagach, An Teallach, Liathach and, obviously the Cuillin on Skye. I watched lots of youtube videos and reports of other people's walks, which made me far more afraid of those climbs rather than helping.
I thought the CMD Arete would be a good tester for coping with exposure and a "stepping stone" for the Aonach Eagach. In my head, I felt it was really important to be able to traverse the AE - as if I could conquer that then I'd have a good chance at the others. Peter always said that I'd get used to the exposure, and although I was sceptical, that's exactly what happened. By the time we reached AE I'd seen a fair few steep drops and it didn't seem to bother me any more. I actually really enjoyed all the scrambles in the end.
How about physical training prior to the trip?
Joss: I was woefully unfit for this at the start which made the first few weeks really tough for me. I did do some indoor climbing for the first time before we started - I thought that might help with the scrambling.
How did you travel between the hills, and where did you sleep?
Peter: We bought a campervan especially for the challenge, which we used to drive between groups of mountains and we slept in it the majority of the time. Sometimes we had to go out for multiple days for more inaccessible hills, and then we either used tents or bothies. We also quite often cycled the longer approaches (if the path was good enough, neither of us are experienced mountain bikers) or back to the van if our route wasn't circular.
How did you find it, as both a physical and mental challenge?
Peter: We talked about this quite a lot, and both agreed that it's much, much more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Physically, obviously now we're in good condition, but neither of us are supreme athletes. There were some physical issues (arrrgh the knees!!), but luckily neither of us suffered any real injuries, just the expected aches and pains, the odd dodgy stomach and *cough* slight hangover *cough*.
Low points in motivation? Well any time it rained! Which, to be fair, we got quite lucky with given the standard Scottish summer. By far the toughest point for motivation was when we realised we wouldn't do it in 100 days, that was a killer. Mentally we'd been using the 100 day target to push ourselves into putting on stinking wet socks and to go out and climb mountains in the rain. It was having that time limit target that kept us going on the days we were frankly hating it. If we hadn't set a time limit I reckon we'd still be going in October!
Joss: There were a few times I wanted to quit. There were plenty of days where neither of us felt like hiking up a bunch of Munros; this was especially true in bad weather or when foggy so you weren't rewarded with the fantastic views Scotland has to offer.
Did you enjoy the experience, overall?
Peter: It's tough to answer. I wasn't waking up every morning thinking 'this is awesome, I can't wait to climb more mountains today''. But there were great moments, beautiful views, fun experiences. Probably it will be one of those things that we look back on, thinking it was great, once the memories of all the suffering fade a little bit. And there's always a kind of enjoyment in working really hard towards a specific goal.
Joss: There were times I loved it and times I hated it. I'm sure though that I'll look back with very fond memories.
Can you tell us about a couple of your hardest days?
Peter: Definitely the hardest physical day was when we did a loop taking in the 12 Munros around Loch Mullardoch. It was getting to a point in the challenge where we had to do those 12 over two days in order to be able to complete our 100 day target. We decided to take our full camping gear, do the four on the north side of the loch, camp up at the head of the loch, and then head back towards the van, taking in the eight on the south side.
The second day was absolutely brutal, it took about 15 hours, constant up and down. We were not used to carrying so much weight, which made things twice as difficult. I had hurt my back and at the same time had a bit of a stomach bug meaning I couldn't eat as much as I normally would. The whole thing combined into a bit of a nightmare, but we got through it! Using the 100 day target as motivation...
Another tough day was an early one on Ben Bhuidhe. We had a disaster on day three, our van broke down after we had stopped at the Rest and be Thankful carpark, the RAC were called and we were towed to Inveraray. The mechanic said it would take a few days to fix, which left us in a tricky spot! Bhuidhe was close enough to cycle to though, so we cycled down the road, quite a long ride for us, climbed the mountain in snow, strong winds and then heavy rain. Absolutely freezing and soaked through, we had to cycle all the way back to Inveraray. Cycling was tough for us, because it takes a different kind of fitness to hiking, and it was so early we weren't really that fit anyway yet. The weather was horrible. The van was broken, we had no idea how expensive it would be or how long it would take. Basically it was miserable and we thought the challenge might be over before it had really started.
Joss: I agree with Peter's assessment of the 2nd day around Loch Mullardoch! I've never seen him hobbling around like that. I felt like I was going to be sick when we got back to the van.
How did the weather treat you?
Joss: I'd say it was one of the hardest things for me. I hate getting soaked and then having to put on wet clothes the next day. Also, I kept reading that the rest of the UK was having a heatwave. Seeing photos of friends enjoying BBQs on Facebook all summer didn't help - I would have ignored social media altogether but we needed it to write updates and advertise the justgiving page.
Peter: Joss has different feelings on the weather I think, being from the South of England. I've had a bit more experience of just how grim Scotland can be even in summer time, those years where we hardly see the sun at all up here.
The first few weeks were rough, there was still quite a lot of snow on the ground and we went through all the different kinds of bad weather you can experience, hail, snow, freezing fog, rains, winds, more rain etc. Then it improved, and we had a long stretch of good weather, dry and sunny. The heatwave brought its own challenges though, trying to stay hydrated and for me avoid sunburn. And something about the weather this year caused an absolute plague of clegs [horse flies], which no doubt plenty of other folk experienced too. I went a little bit crazy at times with the heat and the clegs. Obviously the weather right at the end ultimately caused us to fail our challenge, which felt kind of ironic, given it had been really good for so long.
How did it feel on Skye when it was clear that you weren't going to make the original 100-day cutoff?
Peter: Absolutely gutting, then numb, then I just wanted to go home and forget the rest of them. We'd invested so much into doing it in that time frame, to fail two days before the end was so tough to deal with. Everyone was been amazing with their response, to keep us going and finish, but it was just such a shock to realise we weren't going to do it. Everyone says 106 days is still a huge achievement, which I guess is right and maybe over time I'll be able to accept it a bit better. But I think there will always be some regret that we didn't actually achieve what we'd set out to.
Joss: I couldn't quite believe it at first, then I wasn't sure I wanted to finish the final six. We were both ready to go home at that point and our guide had informed us that he wasn't free til September anyway. Fortunately we decided to give it one last go, and got lucky finding a guide for the final day.
Were there any particular highlights?
Peter: Finishing on the In Pinn was a great day. The weather was awful, but our guide John (Skye Adventures) was amazing and kept us safe. It was one of those days where the conditions were so bad and the climbing so tough, that it took on a kind of epic feel of us battling against everything, to get us over the finish line.
Joss: We had awful weather every time we stepped onto the Cuillin, but despite that I found them to be incredible mountains.
Do either of you have a favourite Munro now?
Joss: I loved Sgurr Nan Gillean, An Teallach and Liathach. Oh, and everything around Glen Coe and the Mamores... there's loads of favourites! I loved the ones that looked almost impossible to climb.
Peter: There's some, especially on Skye, that I'll have to go back to do in better weather.
Is there anything you'd do differently in a hypothetical next time?
Peter: Well, maybe it turned out to be a mistake leaving Skye until the very last, as it's one of the most weather dependent ranges. We didn't give ourselves a chance to recover if the weather was against us there. But overall, I think we did pretty well considering we're no experts, and there's nothing major I'd change.
Joss: Have a 10 year time limit?! It was a great challenge but there's definitely a case for taking your time and waiting for good weather.
What words of advice or encouragement would you offer someone who was contemplating a mega mountain challenge of their own?
Peter: Just go for it! You'll remember it forever and it'll be an amazing experience. As for advice, just make sure you do it as safely as possible. Other than that, I think part of the fun is in learning and figuring things out as you go.
Joss: Stick with it. There may be times when you want to quit but then a really enjoyable day will be just around the corner!
Why did you choose to raise money for CLIC Sargent in particular?
Peter: Joss's nephew Quinn was diagnosed with cancer at a very young age and Clic Sargent really helped to support them at the time. We are now way over our fundraising target (£10/mountain), so many thanks to everyone who has donated! It's another thing that really helped keep us motivated along the way.
- Visit Peter and Joss's page on justgiving