Nothing Ventured...

Sometimes the stories find us, and sometimes we find the stories.  The best is when the two are woven together.

I don't remember when, but at some point early this year I first read about the Ramsay Round, and shortly after mentioned it to a friend.  We quickly resolved to attempt it together as a backpack, as a means of him trying some Munros for the first time.  It's a challenging route of 56 miles and 28,500ft of ascent and a really fascinating corner of British mountain culture.   It's also a neat package that's easy to sell to someone already with the mountain bit firmly between their teeth.

The trip didn't happen.  I fouled up the schedule and Andy then couldn't get the time off work at short notice.  But as this plan imploded, the man himself got in touch out of the blue.  Charlie Ramsay had seen one of my photos in a magazine and wanted a copy to use in his upcoming talks about the round.  Sure, no problem, I said.  You're based in Edinburgh?  The round is 35years old this year?  ...Um, would you mind meeting for a chat?

It was good to meet Charlie in the flesh, and he was easy and enthusiastic company.  He explained that the route developed out of his relationship with Chris Brasher (pacer in the first 4 minute mile, originator of the London Marathon) and an intimate knowledge of a pre-existing fell running route, the Tranter Round.  In 1978, Charlie bolted an 5 extra Munros to Tranter's 18 to make it a punishing 24 summits in 24 hours (if you're wondering about my maths here, it's down to Munro re-classification)  It's still the benchmark Scottish Round and almost certainly the toughest 24 hour ultra-distance mountain challenge in the UK.

There was a degree of synchronicity here that I needed to acknowledge.  Because Charlie had got in touch unsolicited and done me the honour of meeting, I felt obliged to try for the route.  I felt bad for for being away when T's parents were visiting, and worse for going solo and not with Andy, but as T said: 'you have to go now''. 

It also seemed to me like a great story for a magazine, but I didn't yet have a 'home' for a full article.  I couldn't really understand this and was finding it frustrating, as much for Charlie's sake as my own.  Not a hard sell you'd have thought, some great big mountains, human endeavour and a timely anniversary.  Anyway, first world problems, right!?  If I waited for 'permission by commission', nothing would ever happen, and most importantly of all, this wouldn't honour the flow of events.  Work with not against - the rest is filler.   And equally also, I should just go - flow or no flow.

In the end, and after all that, I didn't make it.  I bowed out with as much grace as I could muster at the time, and managed Tranter's Round instead - in my case, around 42 miles and 21,000ft ascent.  For me and my mortal self, Ramsay is a 5 day route - I only had 4, and I completed Tranter's in slightly less.  I have absolutely no idea how people run these hills in 24 hours or less.  It's ferocious.

But in my own relatively slow and small way, I discovered a route of real grace and purpose, that to me had the all the qualities of a through-hike in miniature - big ascents, high level camps, long days and some interesting decision making.

What I value most is that a route has elegance, that following it makes sense topographically.  Tracing the huge undulating line of these 1100m monsters around the vast bowl of Glen Nevis has a simple logic.  But to finally end up on the CMD arete and then Ben Nevis, a line I've waited years to take for exactly the right moment, makes this a world class route. The best journeys are transforming, aren't they?  This really was.

There were 2 crux points, but they weren't physical, even though these are serious hills and others quit from dehydration.  It was mental ballast that gave me issues.  ''What's the point to all this? It's empty, it achieves nothing. Why aren't you with your family? They need you around.  What's so wrong with human politics and raw economics? That's all there is, you freak!  And who invited you along, you miserable b*stard?!  (silence…)'' 

No room allowed for quiet reflection and natural symmetry.  No time given for unconscious computing, letting thought fragments rattle down the gully to experiment with forming different patterns at the bottom.  Certainly no space for silent acknowledgment - what Barry Lopez describes in his book Arctic Dreams as ''bowing to the horned lark''.

Trust, it just won't be forced.  I should learn to let things take their course.  Walking free of the demons that sometimes keep me company is an awkward business.  Only then do I get to go softly. That's how it was for me, anyway. 

So I hauled my sorry first-world self out of a doubt shrouded camp on day 3, dropped 70ms out of the cloud to find running water, and climbed 600ms more into the weather on a wing, a prayer and a compass bearing.  I lost 7 pounds in 84 hours, and found space for metaphor, magic and imagination once more.  So it goes.

A Q&A with Charlie Ramsay appears in this months The Great Outdoors magazine.  The trip report of my attempt to backpack the round later appeared in Mountain Pro Magazine, and is available to to read for free online

For more info on Charlie Ramsay and the Ramsay Round: