fellrounds

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!

Mixtape

In the absence of time to blog individual trips, here's a few snapshots of recent excursions.

Curved Ridge was a day out from the city, and a good one to get under our belt. The hardest part was finding the start of the route! After so many years building up to it, we got to the top somehow having missed the crux, thinking 'is that it?' but the situation is absolutely stunning all the way up, even in the summer dreich. On reflection we'll rope up for the start (what felt like the crux to me) next time, and finish off with Crowberry Tower.

In July, David, Richard and I went way out west with the intention of exploring Loch Morar. It was a trip about a year in the planning, but suffered several changes on the ground due to the vagaries of Scottish summertime. By day 3, the 3 drowned rats were hiding out with their tails between their legs in Sourlies bothy with beer and logs donated by the cook for the neighbouring estate. The trouble with only doing short trips of course is that you are soft for when more is required, but a fire was welcome relief at the time, never mind the alcohol. It went from the ridiculous to the sublime, with an early morning paddle on the ebb tide among Purpoise and Jellyfish, right around Loch Nevis into Inverie. A stylish finish, totally by accident.

In August I reprised a slow attempt on the Paddy Buckley Round, with more success than last year. The weather was kinder this time, grey and opaque for the first 2 days and blistering hot for the second 2. I rolled my ankle on a forestry ride and heard it pop. I lay there for 15mins in the middle of nowhere and a fair amount of pain, wondering how I was going to drag myself to the road. Luckily it was only a ligament that had torn, and with enough vitamin I and elevation overnight I was able to limp over Snowdon the next day and complete the Round. I bumped into some very twitchy Squaddies policing the military heli' crash on Y Aran, was charmed by quiet, heathery nooks and crannies in the west, and was utterly blown away by the foxes path through the Dinorwig quarry. I love Wales, it's my second hill home. I've spent the last 3 years trying to get these 3 big rounds done - they are long, intense days whether you are walking or running, I think.

Another day out scrambling recently, this time on Arran. Ian took Mick and I on a favourite route of his. Ropes were not really needed but we went through the motions just to prove to ourselves how we need to do this more than once every 3 months to make sure it's second nature. We're slowly getting the message I think. More planned for winter, if life doesn't make other plans.

Would you mind if I took your picture?

I'm not long back from the Paddy Buckley Round in Wales. Completing the 3 rounds as backpacks means the end of a 3 year project for me - small beer, but my beer. I ended up doing the last half on a sprained ankle, and finished on a hill above a place I wrote about when I first wrote about being out in the hills. This is how we mark our time. Anyway, here's a few of the people I crossed paths with this time out.

''We're out recceing, for his attempt - I did it in 28hours. It's just the love of running. Won't get this in the bloody Olympics!''

''I do the Snowdon 10K every year. This is just my regular training run. I don't think I'm fit enough for the Paddy. Walking it is great - anything that gets people out is positive. You see alot more women and ethnic minorities out in Wales these days, I don't know what changed but something did, and it's a good thing.''

''I've been coming here for 10 years, and I still haven't got to the bottom of it. What I'm getting into now is the age of different parts of the quarry, working out which of the old spoils were disturbed by new digs. There's a transgender guy in the village who goes caving up here - brave stuff. I wouldn't climb in here myself - I've seen things move about on their own.''

''I've been on the go for 6 hours already. I started at 9 from down on the road. I'm late - supposed to be in London tonight. The devil's punchbowl was hot!!''

''I couldn't give a monkey's - I'm too busy trying to breathe...''

''I'm done today, really - some days you're fresh, some days you're not. The record is 17hours? I reckon there's a bit of cheating going on there, what d'you reckon? I use to race, but not anymore. I just like being up in the mountains these days.''

 

Twenty from Tranter

A month or two ago I walked down one side of Glen Nevis, and up the other. This route is called the Tranter Round, after Philip Tranter, who first did the continuous walk in 1964. He took less than 24hours to do it, I took 3 and a half days! It was my second time as a complete route, and my third or fourth visit to most of the 18 Munros on the way. My friend Mick accompanied me for the Mamores section. It's a tough but elegant line, even taken at our relative snail's pace, and we were blessed with some great weather and even better light.

The Great Outdoors Magazine have published the story of the trip in the August 2016 issue, so I thought now might be a good time to show a few photos that didn't make their feature...