Worked all Munros!

copyright Practical Wireless 1990 (abridged & updated)

by James Gentles GM4WZP

When I first became licensed in 1984, I was also gaining an interest in hill walking. Very soon I was fascinated by the long distances it is possible to work from high ground. Scotland contains virtually all the land above 3000ft in the British Isles, and it was a challenge, not only to visit all of Scotland's Mountains, but to have a VHF QSO from each one. A tall order considering the low population density in these mountainous areas.

In Scotland there are 277 hills over 3000ft (914.4 metres), and a further 240 subsidiary tops, points significant enough to be listed but not mountains in their own right. These are now widely known as 'The Munros'. Over the years resurveying has added and deleted some points but the list, now maintained by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, is largely unchanged from 1891, when it was first published by Sir Hugh Thomas Munro Bart. Munro's list created quite a stir in climbing circles, it was the result of many expeditions into the countryside plus thorough research, and it is sad that Munro himself never completed his 'Munros'. The weather and the Inaccessible Pinnacle on the Island of Skye was his downfall, and to this day many a dream of becoming a 'Munroist' will end 70ft below the summit of this unique hill. The honour of the first 'Munroist' goes to Rev A.E. Robertson, in 1901. It was to be 1950 before 15 people had completed the round, but the explosion in interest in hill walking post-war has meant that over 800 had completed the challenge by 1990.

Most ascents take about 3 hours to reach the top over rough ground, often without paths. An ability to navigate, and have the correct clothing are essential, as the weather can quickly change and mist descend. Some mountains can only be practically reached by sleeping out overnight. On such trips absolutely everything must be carried, food, cooker, sleeping bag and tent. This load can be reduced by leaving out the tent and sleeping in bothies, these are open mountain refuges, providing very basic shelter out of the elements, with a place to sleep on a wooden floor or bare dirt.

Winter brings a whole new set of delights and dangers. The cold still air brings views as clear and almost as far as the 2 metre QSO's. The beauty of the mountains is greatly enhanced with their icing of snow. All this has to be balanced against the increased dangers, so only experienced and well equipped walkers should venture into the hills in winter.  I'll never forget climbing Liathach in Torridon, it may have been April, but winter conditions still prevailed on the hill. To look back and see our tracks 100 metres below obliterated by a small avalanche was un-nerving to say the least. Prudence was the better part of valour that day, as we descended safely, using ropes, without reaching the summit. Another winter danger is the white-out. This is an extreme test of judgement and navigation with the walker rendered blind by a featureless white view, with ground and sky indistinguishable. The walker stumbles over the ground unable to see anything, people have been known to walk over precipices.

Operating in such conditions requires that summit stops be kept to a minimum, to prevent cooling down, especially the hands. In winter I normally use a pair of fingerless inner gloves, and outer mitts, with a slit in the palm for finger access without removing the whole glove. It is not unusual for summit stops to be only 5 minutes, thats the longest time that could be tolerated. On some tops trig points or cairns of rocks can afford some shelter, on other tops I have resorted to lying on the ground to operate or sheltering behind a 'human wall' of masochistic companions.

The summer brings longer days and bigger expeditions to the hills. The Letterewe Forest, south of Ullapool is a case in point. A vast area with no access by road or land rover track. Even the Ordnance Survey were prevented from surveying the area properly in Munro's time by a very insular land owner, later two extra mountains over 3000ft were found! The circuit of the 6 Munros in the area is one of Scotland's largest walks. It is 2.5 hours from the nearest road just to the start of the walk at Shenavall Bothy. With friend Neil, the two of us spent the night there, then the following day walked the 30Km distance and climbed over 2400 metres height over the 6 summits. On four tops a 5 element beam and mast was erected to get a contact, we arrived back at remote Shenavall Bothy 13 hours later, to spend another night before the 2.5 hour walk out. It was quite a team effort to keep moving all day, and keep the summit stops to a minimum. Whoever was going strongest to each summit would carry the 5 element beam, and have it erected before the second caught up, thus saving time.  It is not always appreciated by fellow amateurs the remoteness of your location, especially on the bigger walks. It was not uncommon to hear: "Fine business OM; got your QTH; I didn't realise there was a car park up there"!

That was a great success, and despite our long walk it was possible to appreciate the peace and tranquillity of the mountains at the bothy in the evenings. There were other walks that were less successful, but it must always be kept in mind that although possible to raise a contact from the summit, it is much more difficult from lower slopes, so the radio is not a substitute, for safe mountain procedures, and walking within your capabilities.

The remoteness of the Munros is emphasised by the fact that despite their excellent radio sites, only two are used for permanent radio communication to my knowledge. On top of the fifth highest mountain, Cairngorm at 1245 metres, there is a radio relay station and an unmanned weather station. The weather station, run by Heriot Watt University, uses a 3 watt VHF radio link, with a folded dipole aerial to transmit the weather telemetry. The weather is so harsh that the station only exposes the instruments for 4 minutes every half hour. Originally the telemetry was received in Aviemore, 13Km to the north west and then sent by land line to Edinburgh. It was soon realised that the 3 watt signal could easily be received in Edinburgh, 138Km away, thus simplifying and reducing the cost of the data link.

On the ascent of Beinn Sgritheall I stumbled on an interesting UHF television repeater for the tiny west coast village of Arnisdale. Providing television for such a small hamlet, the repeater was of very low cost construction. with 2 domestic yagi aerials it simply changed the signal from vertical to horizontal polarisation. It was powered by a tiny windmill, an old chest freezer contained the UHF amplifier and a battery for the unit.

By far the most spectacular mountains in Great Britain are on the Island of Skye. The Black Cuillin ridge has 11 Munros along its length, a climbers paradise of rock and cliff. The mountains are all on one long north-south ridge, which is precipitous along its whole length, only one of the mountain tops is not guarded by cliffs. Here are hills where the walker must consult the guide book studiously before setting out as there are only a very few walking accesses onto the hill. The walker must use hands and feet on the steep ground, and if that is not enough then the Gabbro rock is magnetic, making the compass useless. The views are breathtaking, and in places the main ridge is so narrow that the walker places his feet on ledges just below the ridge and uses the top as a hand rail. Fortunately, Skye is close enough to the GB3HI repeater that I did not take the beam onto the ridge, you have enough on your plate scrambling over the rocks carrying a rucksack. In the event a simplex contact was achieved on all but three Skye summits.

There is one mountain on the ridge that cannot be scrambled to the top of, the Inaccessible Pinnacle of Sgurr Dearg, a 20 metre blade of rock which rises above the rest of the mountain. This is the only Munro that requires rock climbing skills to reach the top, and most walkers will request the help of a climbing friend to lead them up. The bare minimum equipment was taken to the top, 2 metre handheld and helical, I hate to think what my operating was like from there, I was excited at having reached my goal, and worried about abseiling back down!

The correct choice of radio equipment for use in the hills was not difficult for me as 2 metres was the only band I considered using. HF would have guaranteed a contact on each summit, but size of equipment and especially aerials is a major drawback. Being 3000ft ASL gives the VHF operator a much better advantage over his lowland colleague than it does for a HF operator. Most hills involve a full days hard walking, and excess equipment cannot be carried. The set-up time on each summit must also be kept to a minimum, and as all field day operators know the weather on top is 10 times worse than it is 30 metres below the summit. So I started with my trusty Icom IC02E 2 metre FM hand-held, and in the end it was the only piece of equipment that accompanied me to all tops. On various occasions a YAESU FT290R and a Mizuho SB2X were also carried to give 2 metre SSB, but their size meant that they were more often left at home. Normally 2 sets of NiCd's were carried and one set of alkaline cells. All three sets clipped onto the base of the IC02E, for ease of use. These small 500mAh NiCd's gave enough power for an average day (15-25 minutes operation each). When backpacking an external battery pack giving 9.6V at 2Ah was also carried. A 1/4 wave whip was used on the HT, with a helical being carried as a spare. The 1/4 wave whip was chosen as a compromise between a 5/8 and a helical. All these aerials are compromises when used with HT's. The 1/4 wave does have the advantage of being physically shorter than the 5/8, it also performs better than the helical when there are local nulls in the received signal.

The Icom IC02E HT, that was used extensively, performed very well. It was subjected to temperatures of -10 to >30 degrees C, extremes of damp and moisture, plus the inevitable rough handling. The rig continued to work when compact cameras and broadcast radio receivers failed.

All the Scottish Munros are north of a line from Glasgow to Aberdeen, and are in the central and western areas. The major populations being to the south and east. So at least around the south-east edges of this area it is possible to reach highly populated areas for either repeater or simplex QSO's. As you get further away from the major areas of population, reliance on repeaters increases. It was when I ascended my 50th Munro that the repeaters ran out! Tony, GM1GEW (now GM0DHD), and I climbed a small Munro, A'Ghlas-bheinn in Kintail on 17th June 85. It was a wet and uninspiring day with visibility less than 30 metres. If we could have seen the view we would have noted that the top is surrounded by larger hills. I was very lucky to work a station simplex that day, GM4RCE/M, he had left his rig on in the car, and forgotten about it. As he sat in a car park in Gairloch, surrounded by high hills, I think he was just as surprised as I was to hear someone on S20!

From then on I began to realise that I would have to carry some sort of beam to try to increase my chances of obtaining a QSO in these more remote locations.

I purchased a standard J-Beam 5 element Yagi. The front element and reflector were modified so that they clipped onto the main beam with pipe clips. The remaining three elements were modified slightly so that they could either be positioned for normal use, or folded away along the line of the main support. All elements connect with large wing nuts. The mast consists of 2 pieces of plastic Durapipe, 3/4 inch and 1/2 inch, both the same length as the yagi's boom. The smaller radius is exactly the correct size to fit inside the larger, thus the mast when assembled is approximately 1.5 times the length of the beam. A guying kit was also made from various tent guy pieces, but normally the mast was used as a mono pole and the aerial held by hand by a companion, or if a vertically sided Ordnance Survey triangulation point was handy it could be lashed onto it. The mast, aerial and carrying case, which was carried to over 130 summits, weighs only 2Kg.

If carrying the beam was a chore then what people thought it was proved highly amusing. Tent poles seemed the most likely to most people, but an American thought it was skis, in August? Another thought it must be a hang glider, must be a very small one though!  One chap greeted me warmly like an old friend, I was very embarrassed as I hadn't a clue who he was. Finally he said "We met in Glencoe 18 months ago, I don't recognise you, its that big aerial!".

As I climbed more mountains I was always surprised by the radio contacts I obtained. You can create quite a pile up with the flat-landers of PA when, under tropospheric conditions, you announce you are /P at 3000ft! But tropospheric is by far the exception, normally I would rely on my height to make contacts possible. For example, from Mount Keen on the 26th July 1986, 50Km inland from Stonehaven, with a flat band I worked G8TFL, and his wife G1INI, in Berwick on Tweed. These stations, despite the distance of 150Km are line of sight.

I have kept a hill log and radio log of my 277 ascents between 1984 and 1990, and subsequent ascents of all the 3000ft mountains in Wales and Ireland. Not only detailing stations worked but comments on radio conditions. Normally I tried to listen round the band to see what repeaters were audible or workable, however weather conditions and time meant that this was not always possible. It should be noted that other hills can block the radio path between operator and repeater such that adjacent Munros may have widely differing characteristics.

Fig 1 shows the location of all the Munros and the repeaters heard from at least one summit.  Fig 2 shows the number of Munros at which each repeater could be heard.  The data is broken down into worked (a QSO was obtained) or accessed. Note that on 190 Munros a simplex contact was obtained, but they are difficult to collate into meaningful statistics. Repeaters being fixed, and always 'on air' are a much better barometer of possible contacts from a summit.  GB3HI is the most often heard with its good location on the Island of Mull. GB3BI (Black Isle near Inverness) and GB3SS (near Elgin) come next with their location to the east of the main mountain areas. GB3BI seems to suffer from input de-sensing, from several locations it could be heard well but not accessed. On at least one occasion this meant that the 5 element beam was required.

Next most often heard are the Central Scotland repeaters that are only accessible from the southern-most hills. Repeaters further afield can be worked from selected locations with a good take-off in the right direction, or with a 'little lift'. A good example of this is GB3AY (Ayr south of Glasgow) that can be received well from the Crianlarich and Loch Lomond area, and the Northern Ireland repeaters which can be worked from selected west coast locations. I would expect GB3NG (north of Aberdeen) and GB3IG (Stornoway) to be more widely heard, but unfortunately they only went on the air during the last year of this survey.

Fig 3 shows the Munros where no repeater was accessed with 3 watts and 1/4 wave whip. A 'lucky' simplex contact with the 1/4 wave or the 5 element beam was required here. These 15 summits are generally smaller Munros, well 'hidden' from the main repeaters. Most of these locations in the far north west were visited before GB3IG came on the air. Although GB3IG should be audible from some of these hills, the low population in the Outer Isles means that few extra amateurs would be able to hear a high west coast station via a repeater than simplex. The repeater would however help to focus attention on one frequency, and increase the chance of a contact.

On 90 summits no contact could be made through the repeaters that were accessed, but a simplex contact was obtained. On 5 summits no contact was made at all despite strong repeater access. 2 of these were on second ascents, the first ascent having achieved a contact. The others were activated on a second ascent only. The best DX on FM was GW3SR, 400Km, in North Wales and on SSB was PA0EHA, 800Km, in Maastricht. Both these contacts were achieved using only 3 watts and a 1/4 wave whip.

On the 30th June 1990, I set off with my wife Lyndsay and 10 friends to climb Lochnagar in Deeside, my final Munro. It was not the kind of day I would have chosen for the final ascent, cloud shrouded the hill, and if it wasn't raining it was trying to. Lochnagar has a spectacular summit cliff, but all we could see was cloud and rain. A bottle of champagne raised our spirits. The speed record for climbing the Munros now stands at 67 days, I had taken 6 years, but have more memories to cherish. On the radio I contacted GM0DHD, and GM4HQU both amateurs I had walked with in the past, and GM1GGP, a station often worked from eastern hills. I believe that I am the first person to have had (un-scheduled) 2-way radio communications from all of Scotland's Munros.

No contact is complete without the other operator and I am indebted to the Radio Amateurs who made the other half of the QSO's. I am especially grateful to those in the North of Scotland, around GB3HI, GB3BI and GB3SS who talked to me, some on numerous occasions. These are sparsely populated areas, and I was impressed by the Radio Amateurs who promoted their hobby in small communities with difficult VHF conditions. Special thanks to the amateurs of Fort William who invited me to their meet on several occasions, and made me most welcome.

Finally, Fig 4 shows the most often worked amateurs. This serves to illustrate the magnitude of the task in obtaining a contact from each mountain. On over 110 summits one of the 11 stations listed was heard, this demonstrates just how low the amateur population is in the north of Scotland, and despite the huge distances signals could be transmitted, the same few amateurs kept popping up.

Of course I was not the first amateur to operate from Scotland's mountains, in the 1970's stations like GM3OXX had made forays into the hills, however advances in equipment made it possible for me to systematically work all the Munros. Since my achievement an increasing band are joining me in the hills, their activities being formalised by Jack Hood, GM4COX, sponsored by the West of Scotland ARS (WOSARS). The Scottish Worked All Munros Project (SWAMP for short) provides a framework, rules, and award system both for those wishing to climb (Sloggers), and those who wish to collect from the comfort of their own shack (Baggers). My rules were to arrive at a summit unannounced, and obtain at least one QSO, repeaters allowed if necessary! The SWAMP rules allow pre-announced climbs, but three simplex QSO's are required, a very difficult task for the remote hills in my experience.

Sloggers are awarded a Bronze award after activating 10 Munros, and this is endorsed after each subsequent 10 Munros up to 90. The Silver award is made at 100 and Gold at 200, with similar endorsments. The Supreme award is made when all 277 Munros are activated. For Baggers a similar award scheme exists.

To date over 30 have registered with SWAMP, and the highest number of activated Munros is over 60. One day last year 5 stations were active simultaniously from 5 different Munros! Activity continues to grow, and a sister award has been started, this one based on 100 significant hills between 2000ft & 3000ft, called Walked All Corbetts and Donalds (WALC'D or WALKED for short).

This is an exciting new aspect to portable operation. As for myself I still carry my HT when out on the hill, but perhaps the 5 element beam has been left at home! Only a few weeks ago I heard Norwegian voices on the radio whilst on the hill. Unfortunately that LA contact from a Munro still eludes me, but as always what happens when you open up the station is just as unpredictable and surprising as the hill walking itself. So why not turn your beams north towards the Scottish hills around lunchtime at the weekends to see if you can work one of the Munro's, and make someone's climb worthwhile!

List of Figures (referenced in text)

  1. Map of all Munros and Repeaters.

  2. Pareto of Number of Munros Repeaters can be heard from.

  3. Map of Munros no repeaters can be heard from.

  4. Pareto of Number of Munros specific Amateurs were worked from.

References

Scottish Mountaineering Club, "Munros Tables", Scottish Mountaineering Trust, 1984

Scottish Mountaineering Club, "The Munros", Scottish Mountaineering Trust, 1985

The Swamp Manager, WOSARS, P.O. Box 599, Glasgow, G3 6QH.

Mountain Bothies Association: The Secretary, 81 Dundas Street, Edinburgh.

Biography

James Gentles BSc MSc CEng MIEE has been interested in electronics and radio since school but didn't become licensed till after finishing full time education. First licensed in 1984 as GM4WZP he is primarily interested in 2 metre portable and HF phone operation.

James is Chairman of the Dunfermline RS, and a member of the Central Scotland FM Group, the RSGB, and has contributed to the GB3HI repeater.

He is currently employed as an Electronic Engineering Manager, working for Hewlett Packard in the telecommunications field. He is married and currently lives near Edinburgh, QTHR.