Feature - A Challenge in the Round (& some news)

A friend pointed out this had gone up on Amazon for preorder the other day. After nearly six years, the book some said couldn’t be written, one or two said shouldn’t be and very often nearly wasn’t, is almost there.

 
 

Don’t feel obliged to buy it from the robot retailer - I hope to have some signed copies to sell direct later in the year, if that’s of interest. Back in real life, we’re at the Galley Proof stage, so there’s still work to be done. Second verse, same as the first.

I feel a tangential anecdote coming on.

Sadly, I’m old enough to remember the dubious wonders of streaming in education. Way back in them olden days, no-one told me dragging my sorry ass out of the M-band and hanging on for grim panic in the bottom set of the A-band might mean I’d be the first in my family to go off to university (though not the first to graduate - that honour goes to my hard-as-nails mum, who also had ideas above her station and got to wear a silly hat for her OU degree, two years before me). We all knew that the maths teacher who told us M stood for Median was lying. It meant Mediocre, not average. Education isn’t everyone’s answer, but it was the only way out of my personal cul-de-sac. I also saw that there are no rewards just for putting in the effort, and so it proved to be, despite plenty of advice from the men in the family on both counts to the contrary.

No one mentioned that the many subsequent years of signing on and labouring over four line verses for pop songs would creep up on me decades later in the habit of killing darlings and paring down until the least amount of words spoke the most amount of truth (at least to me). I can laugh about it now but at the time it was terrible. The stubbornness and devotion to creative pursuits over pound notes has helped with the going up of hills, too.

If you’re thinking I’m wanting to make hay from a bit less than salubrious beginnings, then this bit isn’t for you. This bit is for the misfits, the weirdos and the wrong’uns, who can’t seem to see straight but not for want of trying. Keep your head down and your chin up, and don’t worry about the posh accents here and thereabouts. Nobody likes a broken kid with ideas from the terraces, but eventually some might come to tolerate you. If you let them, people from every walk of life will teach you useful, positive things, even become the best of friends. Besides, we’ve all got our own luggage to cart around - seriously, have you seen the size of some of those Gucci bags?! Count yourself lucky. None of it matters. It’s all grist - fertiliser. Dig where you stand. Plant away.


It’s just an expanded guide book of sorts, so I’d best not get carried away. But to celebrate not having done all the work yet, but the darned thing having an actual cover, here’s a magazine feature I wrote in 2013. It describes a first, failed attempt to walk the Ramsay Round.

A Challenge in the Round

….Charlie Ramsay’s original route is actually an extension of another record. Meeting him before my attempt in an Edinburgh coffee shop, Charlie told me the development of his round was bound together with two other marathon runners - Phillip Tranter and Chris Brasher. Tranter was the first to join all 18 Munros around Glen Nevis in a continuous round in less than 24 hours. Charlie ran for the Lochaber club, and had successfully completed Tranter’s Round twice. On holiday in the Lake District he helped pace Chris Brasher (later the originator of the London Marathon), on his first attempt at the Bob Graham Round. Charlie started as part of the support team, but ended up finishing successfully. Chris challenged him to develop the first Scottish ‘24 in 24’ round. The logical place to explore that possibility was on home turf - his familiar training ground of Lochaber.

Could Tranter’s Round be extended? Indeed it could. On the 9th July, 1978, Charlie returned to his starting point at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel with two minutes to spare. Ramsay’s Round was a reality. He travelled anti-clockwise along the Mamores, heading east then north to add the five Loch Treig Munros to Tranter’s Round, then west again over the Grey Corries, the Aonachs, and finally, finished with a flourish on the Carn Mor Dearg arête leading to Ben Nevis.

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These are no ordinary Munros - they include 10 over 1100m summits, with some of the most challenging ground in the country. Carl, a ski tourer and alpine mountaineer I met on the way, called it ‘mountaineering with a backpack’. It’s certainly a step beyond regular hill walking, and best left for a clear weather window and the long hours of summer light that bless the north.

Within minutes of beginning my attempt, I came up against the first of the difficulties Charlie had warned me about. Forestry Commission trees brought down by gales made for some uncomfortable bushwhacking through deadfall and earthworks. Once beyond the obstacle course of logjams and tree stumps, I made for the first tops of Mullach nan Coirean and Stob Bàn, with shadows lengthening in golden evening light, and then a late camp at Lochan Coire nan Miseach. I had made a late and inefficient start, but I was on my way.

I had chosen a weekend of dazzling summer weather to make my modest walker’s attempt, and even at 9am the following morning the heat on the Devil’s Ridge towards Sgurr a’ Mhàim was intense. The two spurs that make up the ‘horns’ of the Ring of Steall add a good distance to the route and should not be underestimated. Today though, the scrambling was easy on dry rock, with barely a breath of wind to trouble my clambering, and at least I was able to leave my bag at each bealach and hop along unencumbered. Water was going to be more of a challenge and meant close attention to the map, as well as to the early signs of dehydration. After the easy summit of Sgorr an Lubnair (now demoted to a subsidiary top and not a Munro, but still officially on the route), a long pull up to Am Bodach was followed by a steep descent on loose rock and earth towards Stob Coire a’ Chàirn.

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Water is next available below the bealach between this summit and the ridge towards An Gearanach, and I collected this on a vague trod that contours around towards Na Gruagaichean. I climbed slowly, with the mid-afternoon sun reflecting uncomfortably off the quartzite on the path, and almost lay fully down on the top, tired and very thirsty. How many tops was this - seven? Eight? The next hour or so was easier, along a wonderful narrowing ridge that led towards the grandstand rocky jumble that is Binnean Mor. The views here across the entire round were phenomenal and the heat of the day had begun to dissipate. Descending on the northern spur was initially easy but dropping into the corrie on steep grassy slopes towards the first of three lakes was plain uncomfortable. I was still overheating and needed to stop.

The lochan under the outlier of Binnean Beag is simply a beautiful place to camp. I again caught up with Carl, who was recovering from mild dehydration and had decided to abort his two day attempt on Tranter’s Round. Discretion being the better part of valour, I put up my shelter, ate and took on fluid. I tackled the outlier after dinner and saw the sun go out over Ben Nevis. That, incidentally, is one of the joys of this trip - you get to see the UK’s highest summit from so many different angles and really appreciate its scale, before tackling it as the final top on the round. Later that night we heard fell runners coming in and bivying at the lake. Many had chosen to bail due to dehydration, and even the support teams were suffering in the heat.

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The following day and together with Carl, I headed out on a beautiful switchback track and then tackled the slog up the scree slopes of Sgùrr Eilde Mor. Type 1, followed by type 2 fun. At the 680m contour we parted company, and I headed for an early lunch and a wash near the ruins at Lùibeilt. This can be a difficult river crossing, but after weeks of dry weather there were no issues. I made reasonable progress through a hot dry glen towards Loch Treig, down past picture-perfect waterfalls and outcrops of native woodland, a wonderful window into how less intensively grazed highlands might look.

At the derelict Creagauineach Lodge, I wavered. I began to walk east but turned back after a few minutes. I simply didn’t have the time - or was it the energy? - to complete the full round in four days. I also knew I wanted to be on the CMD arête early on day four to maximise the chances of clear weather and reasonable photos. Time to swallow my pride and head north, making this attempt a Tranter’s Round, albeit augmented with some rather lovely glen walking.

I followed a long and winding path alongside the Allt na Lairige. The glen was airless and horseflies made mincemeat of exposed limbs. The second Stob Bàn on the route and my tenth Munro so far was a joyless and exhausting ascent at the end of the day, and the weather seemed to change as I reached the top, but at least the bugs were gone. Coming down off the summit was steep over very loose rock, but the bealach reached soon enough. How on earth did people run this in 24 hours?!

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By late evening my high camp was utterly still and shrouded in cloud. After a slow start, I descended to collect water and then headed into the mists for what seemed like forever to the highliner Stob Choire Claurigh. From here, I was on compass bearings for an hour or two, checking progress as I went. The Grey Corries were indeed grey, but no less impressive for that. Wind howled over the ridge from the south, but lifted the cloud enough to expose the dramatic cliffs near Caisteil.

I made a bad route choice at Stob Coire Easian and decided to ascend rather than tackle the scree. This took me around the back of the hill and wasted valuable time, but by then the weather was clearing and I descended on blocky slabs under clearing skies towards the lovely narrowing ascent of Sgùrr Chòinnich Mór, a truly beautiful mountain. I rested there for a while, chatting to a forestry worker on her day off. The steep scree slopes before Stob Coire Bhealaich were hard work, but the exposed muddy scramble directly afterwards was vertiginous and a little uncomfortable, even in this fine weather. This was quickly followed by a slow and simple walk to the summit of Aonach Beag, reached at 6pm. Descending the horribly eroded path off Aonach Mor (16, or was it 17? I’d lost count) to the headwater of Coire Guibhsachan, the last of my high wild camps awaited. I ate soupy couscous and watched alpenglow rise and fall on the Ring of Steall.

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The home stretch is in what feels like genuine alpine territory. I climbed above the inversion that had swamped my camp and was up onto the easterly ridge of Carn Mór Dearg and the summit by 8.30am. The infamous CMD arête stretched out in front of me, cloud again billowing over from the south but much clearer today, the shattered ridge snaking up to Nevis, a summit I’d be saving for just this occasion. The next two hours I spent in pure mountain bliss, relishing my slow daunder along this spiny dragon’s back, then up over talus to the tallest place in the UK. Nevis is big – if this were an alpine journal I’d be obliged to call it a ‘snarling edifice’ or similar, but suffice to say it took a while and was strenuous! The summit was busy, with tourists either woefully over, or woefully under-equipped. Consequently the descent on the main track was a little surreal, but the last 82 hours had made it all worthwhile. It was a very fitting grand finale to a demanding, exciting, world-class route. And I wasn’t even running.

The book is out on the 15th August, 2019!

Storm dodging in the CNP

Winter has arrived late, but my friend Tim, who escapes from that London but once a year, was right on time. Plans for the first route of a new book were abandoned as being too high, too dangerous, which in the end was OK by us - sometimes it’s best to stay down. I spent three days showing off the Western Cairngorms to Tim and Mick. It’s somewhere I’m getting to know more intimately now, but it’s always different, never the same. A day of sometimes chilly forest walking was rewarded with a visit to the refurbished bothy cum glamping arrangement in Glen Feshie, where we were greeted by a good measure of whisky and Lyndsey the MO, up for the weekend from that Glasgow.

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Friday’s promised visibility didn’t materialise, but by then we’d forgotten that advice about staying down and were already committed. The Mhoine Mhor was a surreal white wind tunnel, and Glen Gives-as-good-as-it-gooshikens was as brutal as I remembered. Corrour was full of happy Danes so I spent the night outside, sleeping with one eye open, occasionally grabbing the tent pole and watching Tim being slapped in the face by a corner of Silnylon. All at sea.

We flushed ourselves out by the Ghru, accompanied by Luke, a green, keen and determined young’un up from that Swindon, in beautiful but coruscating conditions. Heavy, wet snow followed our sandblasting, finished off with a christmas-card-like sun-dappled walk out and a pint of Stag at the Old Bridge Inn.

After a few weeks bouncing off the walls as a small cog in the Save Glen Etive campaign, a simple 57km stumble in fantastic company was a perfect tonic to the politrics back at the desk. My daughter calls it scantavanting, after stravaiging I suppose, but whatever we call it I’m deeply grateful for good friends and big country in these miserly, ridiculous times.

Thin Ice

I count myself lucky to tell stories as part of how I earn a crust. I love stories, I think they are as important as food and shelter, but then I would say that wouldn’t I.

I have a new story about a very special place in the April ‘19 TGO magazine - a hill called Streap. I get to quote Captain Beefheart and not have it cut in the edit - how cool is that?! However, there are always more photos than can be shown due to simple pagination limits, and so here’s a few that didn’t make it, including two of my personal favourites from 2018.

“My wintery perch overlooked Loch Beoraid, its blank headwall lost in matt shadows. Above that inky blackness, an orange fire reigned over Eigg and the Skye Cuillin.”

“My wintery perch overlooked Loch Beoraid, its blank headwall lost in matt shadows. Above that inky blackness, an orange fire reigned over Eigg and the Skye Cuillin.”

“Broader slopes for a while, light and dark as the skies above danced to their own tune…”

“Broader slopes for a while, light and dark as the skies above danced to their own tune…”

“The mountain drew me on, and I felt that curious sense of inevitability that high places can engender; a simple wellbeing, a rightness in being there, some kind of mountain blessing.”

“The mountain drew me on, and I felt that curious sense of inevitability that high places can engender; a simple wellbeing, a rightness in being there, some kind of mountain blessing.”

It's become quite trendy to talk about ‘thin places’ - places where earth and heaven meet. I like the idea, but it’s something I'd avoid in a magazine like the plague because it smacks of nature-writing-bandwagon- jumping. Who wants to go to a mountain party with a self important student rapping on palimpest or some such?

But that is what these places are: thin. We get to be gods for the day, we get to be protagonists in our own story. Yay, us.

The other thing about thin places is that they are delicate. Finely balanced. Our interaction with them is fragile, and they are acutely vulnerable to our follies. They exist without us, but we threaten them.

Thin places must be protected from the bulldozers and their greedy, cretinous drivers. We must descend from the land of gods, go down from the mountain and defend them.

“The middle ground bowed before rising to the final summit and the bottom corner of that big, beautiful Z. In here I was protected from the gusts, and that feeling of openness and gratitude returned.”

“The middle ground bowed before rising to the final summit and the bottom corner of that big, beautiful Z. In here I was protected from the gusts, and that feeling of openness and gratitude returned.”

“Streap is old school, its name expressive of more innocent times; before hilltracks and footpath erosion, before mapping apps and Goretex and Vlogging it all to death. It is pure mountain romance, a lifeboat of modernity in our otherwise complicated adult world.”

“Streap is old school, its name expressive of more innocent times; before hilltracks and footpath erosion, before mapping apps and Goretex and Vlogging it all to death. It is pure mountain romance, a lifeboat of modernity in our otherwise complicated adult world.”

Achadh nan Seileach

In February 2018, Stef and I spent 3 days in Achnashellach. Stef’s piece on the trip has just appeared in the March 19 issue of The Great Outdoors, alongside some of my photos. I’ve included some more below. Stef is a good writer, I’m a fan, an advocate and I hope a friend.

Everything coincided for us - timing, weather, conditions - to make this an unrepeatable trip in a remarkable place. I’d not long buried my stepdad, so it was good to be reminded of who I am when I’m myself. It felt as though I’d come up for air after 6 weeks of holding my breath.

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Within 24 hours of us getting home, news spread of a man that had gone missing in the same area. His name was Stephen Mitchell. I’ve told some of this story in another article (BMC Summit, winter 18). For all my ambivalence, even antipathy towards social media, in this case it was a boon. While it didn’t save Stephen’s life, it did allow myself and one or two others who’d been walking in the area to connect with each other, Stephen’s family and the police.

We shared information via a Facebook group and then privately. For a week or so, I became very caught up in the information exchange. We had walked very literally in Stephen’s footprints for much of the weekend. We had been so close. I felt personally responsible when the search came to nought. After the BMC piece was published, a reader emailed to tell me he was the one who had eventually found Stephen, in the spring.

These connections matter. I know Stephen will have been full of love for life, pinching himself at the beauty of it all, just as we were and just a few hours ahead of us. I know because his daughter told me he took great comfort in the mountains, that he’d be called there all his life. And I know his family took some comfort in knowing that although we were strangers, a wider family of stravaigers got involved and gave support where we could.

My friend Stef doesn’t do social media any more. He became disillusioned with it - the straw men, the backbiting, the jealously, the endless distraction. Certainly a wiser man than I. Then again, it’s not really us, it’s the machinery talking. At it’s best, the medium isn’t the message and it’s a means, not the end. It allows us to share the stories we forge out of ourselves and these breathtaking places. New alloys and allies are made from these raw elements, even the sadness, that sustain us when we return home. If we don’t look after each other and these places, then who else will?

For Stephen Mitchell, 1961-2018