Trimarans, bile and night sections
SPRING 2008 saw a long spell of dry weather in much of the Scottish Highlands — May in particular was remarkably good — and this prompted all sorts of attempts on very long hill days made easier by the firm ground and the ability to travel light given the settled conditions. The biggest of all these efforts was Steve Pyke’s assault on the long-standing most-Munros-in-24-hours record starting on 20 June, although early fine conditions and good progress ended with an abandonment at Camban bothy in heavy rain and unseasonably strong winds. Still, a fine effort (20 of the intended 31 Munros were climbed), and it seems clear from the various reports that Pyke and his strong support team stand a pretty good chance of managing all 31 come the next attempt.
Two successful attempts on big outings were made by Chris Upson and Rob Woodall. Upson appeared to surprise himself by forming part of the first crew home in this year’s yacht’n’yomp Scottish Islands Peaks Race, while Woodall fulfilled a long-standing ambition by becoming the 46th person known to have completed the Charlie Ramsay Round: 23 Munros inside 24 hours on a massive out-and-back circuit from Glen Nevis. The two recall their efforts, Chris Upson first.
The Scottish Islands Peaks Race (SIPR) is an extreme sailing/adventure event up the west coast of Scotland. Starting in Oban and finishing in Troon (the first race in 1982 went the other way), it visits the highest hills on Mull, Jura and Arran. Each team consists of three sailors and two runners, with the runners covering 60 miles and 14,000ft of ascent over two or sometimes three days.
To win requires a host of factors in your favour. Simply having the fastest boat or fastest runners is not always enough. You also need good fortune to survive the vagaries of Scottish weather, tides, seasickness, navigation problems, injury and boat damage.
My first SIPR encounter came in 2003, on board race sponsor Boyd Tunnock’s spacious 38ft Lemarac with my more experienced running partner John Donnelly showing me the ropes. I returned in 2004, on the 31ft Twilight and running with Jon Slowe. This proved to be a weekend of becalmed boats, super-fast run times, and a Monday morning finish.
In 2005 I teamed up with skipper Steven Garrett and runner Damon Rodwell on the speedy 28ft trimaran Blue Chip. Steven was clearly “in it to win it”, but we couldn’t compete with the 47ft Playing FTSE, and finished third overall. In 2006 I was back on Blue Chip, this time running with Mike Robinson, but once again Playing FTSE led from start to finish. We came in fourth.
In 2007 I skipped the event, just as well since it was abandoned at Mull due to appalling weather. Come 2008, I travelled to Oban with rookie SIPR runner David Riach, hoping that third time with Blue Chip might prove lucky. The race kicked off at lunchtime on Friday 16 May in glorious sunshine for a cross-country “sprint” around Oban to break up the field before we set sail for Mull.
Oban — David and I jogged round the 6.3km prologue in 28 minutes 20 seconds, to finish fifth, with Joe Symonds / Graham Bee (Calypso) easily winning followed by Henry Blake / Finlay Wild (Memec), and Donald Naylor / Daniel Gay (Aberzen). Following this opening exchange, and given the sprightly look of the trimarans Memec and Aberzen and their runners, David and I were expecting Blue Chip to finish third at best come Troon.
Mull — Arriving at Salen in Mull 3˝ hours later we were neck-and-neck with team Aberzen as we raced to paddle ashore and leap out on to black slippery rocks. Don and Dan pipped us to the checkpoint by about 20 seconds, then proceeded to sprint away down the road and out of sight. We later tracked them on their way up Ben More, but lost them in mist near the summit. Plugging away, we finished the 37.7km stage in 4hr 8min 49sec to limit Aberzen’s lead to five minutes, then soon caught and overtook them once we set sail.
Jura — Any advantage gained from our Mull run was soon lost on the sail to Jura as the wind dropped and the tide turned, allowing most of the chasing boats to catch us again. Frustrating, but all part of the event.
Later in the night we picked up again and arrived at Craighouse on Jura at 7:40am in third place behind Aberzen and the catamaran Obedient (John Hepburn / Neil Arnott), both around ten minutes ahead of us. David and I decided to attempt the route via the Keils burial ground, as this is about a kilometre shorter than heading up the road to Jura Forest House — but we blundered by not crossing the Abhainn a’Mhinisteir to its north bank straight away and wasted time floundering through bog and tussocks before reaching firmer higher ground.
We reached the first pap, Beinn a’Chaolais, in an hour and 40 minutes, and were amazed to learn we were the first team to the summit, having not knowingly passed anyone. Spurred on by clinching the lead we hurtled down the steep stony descent and bumped into Don and Dan climbing towards us. Not wanting them to follow, we raced down scree to the checkpoint at the lochan inflow, then vanished from sight in the mist on Beinn an Oir. We never saw the Aberzen pair again on Jura, nor anyone else apart from the spectating John Blair-Fish on his bike at Three Arch Bridge, where he confirmed that we were in the lead.
We finished the 23.8km stage in 4hr 4min 39sec, giving us a healthy lead and allowing us to get away from Jura at 11:50am, about 25 minutes ahead of Aberzen.
Jura to Arran — The 70-mile sail from Jura to Arran was horrendous. Lurching slamming seas from the outset meant that all I could do was to lie there in my sopping running kit, shaking with hypothermia and reluctant to move or open my eyes. I took a Kwell anti-sickness pill, and was instantly sick. I half-managed to crawl into a wet sleeping-bag with waves breaking over the boat showering legs and feet. The next ten hours were grim, with high levels of discomfort and repeatedly retching up bile.
Arran — David and I reached the Lamlash checkpoint at 10:30pm on Saturday, weak from the bumpy voyage, drained from the two long runs and having had nothing to eat since Jura. We took a bag of food ashore into the tent and tried to scoff Hula Hoops and chocolate mousse during the kit check, but were timed out so had to carry on eating as we jogged shakily down Lamlash high street.
We never really got going and ran the ridiculously slow time of 4hr 34min 21sec for the 31.4km, arriving back at 3:10am completely done in. The crew had nearly lost Blue Chip while we were away, as the motor-ignition key had snapped off in all the earlier excitement rounding the Mull of Kintyre, so the boat had no manoeuvrability and would have run aground had not the crew jumped into the sea to prevent disaster. Luckily David and I didn’t know anything about this until later, lost as we were in our world of hallucinogenic stumbling up on Goatfell in the middle of the night with a bitter wind blowing over the summit.
We didn’t see another soul on Goatfell until well below the deer fence on our way back, when we passed a group of eight headtorches (some of which said “go on Chris!”), soon followed by Memec pair Henry Blake and Finlay Wild, all on their way up Goatfell. So I figured we had at least an hour’s lead on any chasing team as we staggered back to Lamlash feeling totally washed out and woozy, and somewhat confused to see our previous nearest rivals Aberzen just arriving on the beach as we were leaving Arran. We later discovered they had lost the use of their centreboard.
Troon — During the final sail to Troon, the runners can relax and get their heads down, but I felt too nervous about some last-minute disaster to sleep properly. We sailed (and finally rowed) into Troon harbour at 8am on Sunday with the wind dropping away behind us. Neil and I did the honours, jogging along the pontoons and up the ramp to the marina office to check in Blue Chip as the winning team. Quite an emotional moment. We were three hours ahead of Memec, and this gave us just enough time to strip the boat, laze in the sun, consume two bottles of champagne and polish off a full Scottish breakfast. Our overall time, Oban to Troon, was 43hr 53min 19sec, with a combined time of 12hr 47min 49sec for the three main runs on Mull, Jura and Arran. Three weeks after the event, Blue Chip skipper Steven Garrett was still reportedly grinning from ear to ear.
See www.sipr.zetnet.co.uk/ for more on the race.
The last of the Big Three (the other two being the Bob Graham Round in the Lakes done in July 1996 and the Paddy Buckley Round in North Wales, July 1997) had been on my to-do list since July 2001, when I had dropped out with knee problems in poor weather two-thirds of the way round. This time — 17–18 May 2008 — was just about perfect: high cloud, light winds and a little sunshine. The route we took, traced on Anquet, totalled 90km with 8650m of ascent. The idea had been to provide support for Nicky Spinks of the Penistone club on her attempt, then to go for my own fully supported round in June. But with the forecast looking good, a contingency plan evolved for doing the whole thing this time, provided I survived Nicky’s first section…
12:25pm Saturday, we leave the Glen Nevis hostel with the Ben in cloud. As usual, the ascent is busy, and at the Red Burn we collect Ian C and top up with water. The descent to Carn Mor Dearg is deserted, until part-way down we find Charlie Ramsay himself (no great surprise — he’d called in before the start). The aręte is in sunshine, the rock dry — a contrast to my last recce, a month before, when it was plastered in untrodden snow. The steep descent east from CMD is captivating — until Ian falls, breaking two fingers. He passes Nicky’s kit to me and heads down to Glen Nevis. Beyond the col, Nicky has linked up with Ian W and Rus for the rest of the section. I cross a good stream and finally catch the others on the Aonachs. Views are clear and long, not that we have much time to study them.
There are a couple of places on the Charlie Ramsay where late snow can be an issue. The first is the descent off Aonach Beag, where today the preferred gully holds a mass of snow with an overhang. Nicky knows the direct way off the nose — an exhilarating little descent — and after skirting a boulderfield we are back on track. Looking across, the northern corrie of Binnein Mor is holding a lot of snow: a consideration for later.
Gleefully we slide down the Sgurr Choinnich Mor snowslope, then comes the rubbly ridge. The predominance of rock is one of the factors favouring a clockwise round — best tackled while reasonably fresh. The main Grey Corries ridge ends emphatically with Stob Choire Claurigh at 5:35pm, with Stob Ban below and the intimidating bulk of the Easains looming across the Lairig Leacach. After another nice snowy descent, the curving grassy line off Claurigh is easily found, and by Stob Ban we’ve finally made up the ten-minute deficit from the Ben Nevis climb.
Before Stob Coire Easain, I dig out some food: I’ve got through most of the fruit cake, and a couple of slices of quiche have been playing on my mind for a while. Nicky is already unfeasibly far up the hill, pursued by Ian and Rus. We all find the grassy route, hitting the ridge just right of the summit. I’m on top precisely on schedule but Nicky is already out of sight. This isn’t ideal, as she’ll have no food with her, but the Treig dam is only an hour away and she isn’t about to wait. The rocky descent off Easain is suddenly hard, legs stiff after seven hours of running, but I catch Nicky and just before the survey pillar we pass a high-level camp: some other hillgoers are capitalising on a lovely evening. Our way slants down half-right, to the dam where food and fresh support await. It’s 8:23pm.
Charlie S, Nicky’s brother, has her ten-minute pit stop timed with precision. I take longer to deal with noodles, pasta and coffee, then head off in pursuit, rucksack lighter but legs heavier than when I started. Following the railway until just before the tunnel, I catch the others at the start of the climb to the Sgriodain ridge. Here the plan is to refill with water, but somehow I miss the stream. Luckily there’s still some water in the drinks bladder. Out north-west the sun sets, the peaks of Knoydart silhouetted against a red sky. A half-hearted drizzle falls, but the cloud stays above summit level. We cross rocky Sgriodain and grassy Chno Dearg in the last of the daylight, then follow the south-east ridge before dropping off the end in darkness. At the bottom, we lose another supporter (sprained ankle) and I somehow forget to fill my water bottle, but the endless heathery Beinn na Lap ascent goes smoothly (11:22pm on top), as does the descent.
I dislike night sections, and the 90 minutes which follow are my low point. At last the path comes close to the Abhainn Rath, I fill my water bottle, make up a bag of energy drink and all’s well again (except that Nicky is still running everything — I hang on grimly to the lights ahead). We miss the gravelly river-crossing identified during the recce, and stagger across a boulder bed in thigh-deep water. On the track to Loch Eilde Mor the full moon makes its only appearance, reflecting off the loch (pleasing effect, but could try harder). We’re 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Again Nicky and co are off, and I leave a few minutes later, chewing an apple. An occasional back-cast torchbeam helps with the routefinding.
Sgurr Eilde Mor at 3:17am is a lonely place with daybreak still 30 minutes away — a consequence of being ahead of schedule. There are two descents on offer. The first follows the west ridge just right of its crest before zigzagging down. The second heads north-west down scree. Unable to find the first in the dark, I follow the scree path until it disappears at a boulderfield. A steep grassy tongue leads to the path to the Binnein Beag col, but the torches have long since disappeared around the corner. Tom is waiting at the col: he confirms the others are intending Binnein Mor via its north-east ridge, and offers to refill my drinks bottle while I bag the little Binnein (4:20am), passing Nicky and Mark H as they head down. Previously I’ve gone up the north corrie on the big Binnein, but it’s snow-covered and probably icy, so I’m happy to play follow-my-leader. The route isn’t entirely clear, but seems to start on the right of the buttress. I cross to the left, then scramble up easy clean rock, enjoying the change of rhythm after the hours of running. As I perch on a rock above the final climb, the sun is an orange ball balanced on the point of Binnein Beag; yesterday’s hills fill the northern skyline. The sunset was good but this is better. I’m up on schedule, but there’s a long way to go.
Approaching Na Gruagaichean I see the others ahead; they’ve gone over both tops and I do the same, as the bypass route is frosted and the feet are too sore for serious contouring. It’s possible to bypass An Garbhanach en route to An Gearanach, but it’s easier — and much nicer — to take the scrambly path along the ridge. Below the col I stop at a burn and make up an energy drink. Mark is at the col. I dump the pack; Nicky and I cross paths again between the summits. My deficit is down to ten minutes — in a foolish moment I think I might even catch up! No matter — I’m 30 minutes up on the 23hr 45min schedule. A small climb to Stob Coire a’Chairn, 6:56am, then a bigger climb up Am Bodach (tents at the summit — great pitch). I stop for a rice pudding, and by the time I see Mark and Nicky on their way off Sgurr a’Mhaim, the deficit is back to 15 minutes. The Devil’s Ridge is again a nice change, with the pack left at the col — I could get used to these outliers!
Lochan Coire nam Miseach is a peaceful spot: I sit at the outflow and make up a Complan, then head up Stob Ban (9:19am), its cliffs shown to perfection in the morning sun. Once off the clattery quartzite, the running improves — round a rocky top, over a grassy one, a lovely grassy descent to the Mullach nan Coirean col, then cram in a final couple of jaffas and a glacier mint on the climb. Big cairn, big view, 21hr 31min elapsed; sub-23 seems inevitable … if I don’t get lost in the forest.
The initial descent is rocky, then it’s grass, and the bog by the stile is less boggy than usual. I enjoy the descent to the forest track — soft pine needles, slalom through trees. At the track it’s a left/right choice. Left is best, but where six months ago there was an easy descent, today there’s a tangle of wind-felled spruce. Back the way I came, round a couple of bends, then through steep open forest and a slither down a steep bank to the track. This is stony but mostly runnable, and there’s only 2km of it. Down to the road where the forest is narrow, past the hostel to the bridge — and it’s over at 11:03am: 22 hours 38 minutes for the round, six minutes behind Nicky. Absolutely brilliant. It’s a privilege to complete the Charlie Ramsay in such good conditions, and in (or at least within sight of) such good company.
Ed. — Rob’s been on a roll. As well as completing the CRR (there have been a further five finishes since, by Digby Harris, Jason Hubbert, Willie Gibson, Fran Williams and Neal Speight), he also managed the fourth Rigby Round: all 18 Cairngorms Munros, and back to Loch Morlich, inside 24hrs. See: http://www.ramsaysround.com/charlies-schedule/ http://www.runbg.co.uk/Nickys%20RR.htm
Charlie Ramsay’s original round came on 8–9 July 1978, and went unrepeated for nine years. It was a remarkable achievement, but anyone looking at his split times is likely to be startled by two things in particular: the slow time over the Aonachs, and the amazingly fast descent off the Ben at the end. He was going anticlockwise (which, as Rob says, has become unfashionable), and took 75 minutes from Aonach Beag to Aonach Mor. The SMC guidebook walking time for this is only 30 minutes, and he had just covered the much longer and notoriously problematic leg from Sgurr Choinnich Mor to Aonach Beag in 70 minutes. Here’s what happened: “I knew that I had a final support team at the bealach between the Aonachs and the Ben range, with the necessary goodies to assist me on the final leg. I had been up the gully leading from the Grey Corries to Aonach Beag a couple of weeks earlier: it’s a killer even on a good day. Roger Boswell my support partner reckoned he could manage this formidable climb providing the going was slow. On hearing that, I relieved Roger of a few nutty bars and my schedule sheet, made a flat-out solo attempt on the gully, and arrived on Aonach Beag very tired indeed. This is where I made the biggest navigational blunder I’ve probably ever made.
“I was obsessed by wanting to head west and get there quickly, so without looking at the map in my hand I went west as opposed to north, losing a lot of height and getting stuck in a load of crap when it should have been an easy run north towards Aonach Mor.
“On discovering my error I almost cried. I had no other choice than to sit down and let the jets cool down. The feeling of disappointment was fuelled by tiredness; I had to try hard to compose myself and sort things out quickly, which I did, but that error cost me 40 minutes.”
Ramsay then covered the stretch from Aonach Mor to CMD in 65 minutes, and reached the top of the Ben in a further 35 — but with only 35 minutes remaining to break the 24-hour barrier. He made it in 33 minutes — and this at the end of a monumental 24-Munro (as it was then) day.
“I was met at the top of the Ben by a number of lads from Lochaber MRT,” he recalls. “I took some sweet coffee and said that I felt great despite cutting it fine due to my earlier navigational blunder. Sub-24 was still on, but I was by reputation slow at descending in most fell races. But this was the Ben, I knew it well, motivation was at optimum, and the quicker I got down the quicker it would be all over.
“I loved running past the tourists steadily climbing up the tourist path, although I took the main line of the Ben race, cutting out the zig-zags and then down the grassy slope. Once out of the corrie I could see the hostel, and recognised friends and family looking upwards. Before I knew it I had left the main path and headed for the bridge — I only had to run to the hostel and not to Claggan Park, as in the race. I crossed my ultimate finishing line with a few minutes to spare. I had cracked 24 hours.”