“The Classic Sub 24 Hour Scottish Mountain Challenge” – a route that takes you over 23 Munros (peaks over 3000 feet), up a cumulative ascent of 8600 m and a total distance of 56 miles in Lochaber, Western Scotland. Rude not to, really.
I was in bed by 10 pm and after an hour or so of fitful dozing, I finally drifted into a deep sleep. It didn’t last long. The alarm went off at 12.30 am and I was straight up to turn the hob on for the porridge I had prepared a few hours earlier. Georgia appeared shortly thereafter and we exchanged a few comments about the unusual breakfasting time. As I laced my shoes up there was a knock at the door and Aaron, Ollie and Josie appeared unexpectedly. They were too excited to sleep (well, Ollie at least) and had come over from the campsite to see us off.
Base camp for the week was at the self catering park in Glen Nevis, two minutes walk from the youth hostel; the start/finish point of the Charlie Ramsay Round. Georgia and I donned our vests and we all wandered down together, peering at the clouds as we went. A minute later, as the clock struck 1 am, Georgia and I headed off up the Glen towards Mullach nan Coirean, the first Munro on an anti-clockwise Ramsay Round.
The air was surprisingly warm in the forest, and it wasn’t long before I delayer-ed to t-shirt and shorts. The 3 km along the track was a nice warm up for the first climb, and my shortcut marker indicating the direct route up through the trees was just as I had left it a few days earlier. Above the forestry, conditions changed markedly as we followed the fence line steeply upwards, and the waterproof jacket was swiftly put back on. It remained on for the rest of the Round.
Cresting the first peak, the ridge round to Stob Ban was just about visible as the full moon forced a dull glow through the clouds. There was a strong breeze up on top and it wasn’t long before I started questioning my choice of legwear. On shorter routes I’d often run in normal underwear and loose shorts, substituting underwear for lycra shorts on longer routes. When I’m feeling particularly serious, I ditch the top pair of shorts in order to maximise lightness, as I had done for the Mountain Marathon the previous weekend. While this is not necessarily a flattering look (as suggested by some of my support crew), it is comfortable all day and ticks the ‘light and fast’ box. Unfortunately the Scottish summer conditions had been underestimated and it wasn’t long until my buff had to be stuffed down the shorts to offer a little more insulation.
The drizzle started shortly thereafter, but we were moving well in spite of the early discomfort. The first signs of light appeared as we headed along Devil’s Ridge to Sgurr a Mhaim, but it wasn’t until almost 4 am that we could turn the head torches off, owing to the overcast conditions. The wind kept us on our toes, particularly on the more scrambly sections, and as we headed back to Sgurr an Lubhair I had to strike a careful balance between stuffing a wrap into my face and maintaining my balance on the ridge!
I’d been getting steadily colder and I left it until the ascent of Am Bodach, the fourth Munro, to put on my only spare layer and gloves. Georgia did a fantastic job of wrestling me into my thermal; the fabric stuck particularly well to wet skin and my numb hands were entirely ineffective for manoeuvring awkward clothing. Even after this very brief stop, we were both cooling down rapidly and I set off at speed to try and generate some more warmth.
Pretty well soaked now, we picked off the out-and-back leg to An Gearanach and continued through the murk to Binnein Mor, the highest of the Mamores. Georgia looked particularly displeased at the whole affair as we summited, and I tried to convey some cheery positivity her way as we began the descent. The lack of visibility made navigation tricky as we turned off the ridge into the corrie, and a quick map check was required to verify our line. Crossing the saddle to Binnein Beag was a great boost for morale; our loss of altitude saw us drop out of the cloud and provided us with the first views of the day across Glen Nevis. It was short-lived though as we climbed back up to pick off Binnein Beag and onward towards the final peak of the first section, Sgurr Eilde Mor.
The NE ridge off the summit makes for lovely running, and it wasn’t long until we were back out of the cloud and seeing the first signs of sunshine to the east. Dipping off the ridge just before the saddle, we made a direct line for the first transition point at the track just short of Luibeilt ruin, picking our own lines through the boggy, undulating terrain. I could make out the figures of Mika and Goddard from well over a kilometre away, and spirits were high at the prospect of hot tea and friendly faces.
Optimistically hoping for a dry run over the Mamores, I’d made a note of the 23h10 and 21h Round timings on a piece of paper and stuffed it into my vest the previous evening. By the second peak they had been just about legible, and I’d given up looking after that, so it was a pleasant surprise to learn that we were a few minutes up on the 21h schedule at the first transition. Mika and Goddard had been up at 4.30 am to have breakfast, drive 45 minutes to Kinlochleven and mountain bike an hour along a track to be ready for us, and it was a huge boost to see them in position exactly as planned. Mika passed me a lunch box of shreddies, yoghurt and blueberries and plastered me in sun cream as Goddard arranged an array of foodstuffs in his rucksack. Ten minutes later we were off down the valley heading for the Loch Treig Munros of section two.
We found our intended river crossing as planned, and the benign waters and smooth bedrock of the Abhainn Rath looked trivial to cross. Unfortunately the rock was covered in brown slime and somewhat uneven underfoot, and with nothing to cling onto we both lost grip and took an early dip up to our waists. Laughing it off, we carried on down the valley, enjoying easy running alongside the river in the warm morning sunshine.
Goddard stocked me up on bacon and fruit loaf, and admirably backtracked to retrieve half a banana that I had clumsily shaken out of its skin as I jogged along. Water bottles were filled at the head of Loch Treig before the long trudge up Beinn na Lap. We said a cheery hello to a couple of walkers on the summit as we jogged past; they were the first people we had seen on the Round thus far, over nine hours in.
Having read reports of previous attempts, I was wary of the physical and mental damage the steep 500 m climb up to Chno Dearg could inflict, and was thus extra careful to stick to the half-hourly eating schedule. Everything feels slow on this steep, heathery terrain, but continuous forward progression saw us to the summit still 9 minutes up on schedule. We were over the crux of section 2, and knowing that hot refreshments were less than an hour away, I really started to enjoy the traverse to Stob Coire Sgriodain. The clouds were gathering again as we picked a line down through the crags, and a heavy shower hit us just as we crossed the Fersit Dam to meet the support team at the second and final transition point.
Fortunately, Mika had the foresight to bring a tarp with her which had been rigged overhead to keep the worst of it off, and we huddled under the narrow concrete bridge of the dam to keep out of the rain. Soup, porridge and sugary black coffee came my way, and I bolted them as quickly as I could, keen to maintain my advantage. I opted for a change of shoes and socks, t-shirt and jacket here, and it felt wonderful to be back in dry clothes again, albeit for a short period of time. Ollie and Aaron had painstakingly packed their vests with all my provisions, so I was able to ditch even the lightweight running belt that I’d taken over section two.
The atmosphere at Fersit Dam gave me a massive mental boost that carried me most of the way up the 850 m climb to Stob a Coire Mheadhoin, but as we descended right back down to the Lairig Leacach on the other side of Stob Coire Easain, I started to slow. The knees were starting to ache on the descents and my quadriceps lacked the springiness that they’d offered over the Mamores. Another heavy shower hit us as we ascended Stob Ban and Ollie and Aaron donated waterproof trousers and another windproof to try and keep me warm. I hadn’t had the foresight to insist on these items myself, and the fact that they had these at hand was a strong reminder of their commitment and dedication to my Round.
The carb-heavy combo of wraps, bagels and fruit bread from the morning was becoming evermore tiresome and the thought of consuming them made me nauseous. Politely enquiring what else was available, I was offered the extremely palatable combination of Haribo Tangfastics, bacon and roast potatoes, which worked wonders as we ascended the first of the Grey Corries, Stob Choire Claurigh. My morale seemed to mirror the altitude, and feeling like we were almost on the home stretch (though still with over five hours to go) we set off at a good speed along the ridge. I was amazed to learn that we were still heading for a 21h Round in spite of my perceived sluggishness, which did even more to bolster the mood.
When Ollie and I had run this section in April, the weather was fine and dry with excellent visibility, and on summiting Stob Coire an Laoigh, it was obvious that we should drop down the scree slope to the saddle preceding Sgurr Choinnich Mor to avoid the unnecessary ascent of Stob Coire Easain. In today’s clag it was not so, and off I went along the ridge, keen to stay ahead of time. Foolishly, I continued to ascend in spite of Ollie’s calls to drop off; it was all starting to look the same to me and I was rather concerned that we might skip a Munro and void the Round entirely! My distrust in the excellent navigation of my pacers came at a cost of 10-15 minutes, and I sheepishly apologised on realising our mistake.
As we skirted to the south of Sgurr Choinnich Beag, the clouds parted again and fantastic views across Glen Nevis took our minds off the long climb up to Aonach Beag. The ascent delivered us back into the cloud, and we took another brief soaking on the way to Aonach Mor. Dropping steeply off the plateau towards the saddle on the way to Carn Mor Dearg, the weather seemed to be improving markedly, though the final peak of Ben Nevis was still smothered in dark cloud.
It was 8pm as we made our way along the CMD arete. Pins of light struck through bubbling clouds and Aaron paused to take a spectacular photograph of Ollie and I scrambling towards the Ben. We’d managed to cut even more time out of the schedule after the Aonachs, and by now Ollie was talking excitedly about a sub 20 hour Round, something achieved by only five of the hundred and forty-something that have completed in under 24 hours. After a brief surge, I decided that rushing for a time was more likely to end in catastrophe than glory, and we mutually decided to enjoy the final moments and the glorious summer evening.
Our decision was rewarded as we topped out on Ben Nevis, the final Munro of an anti-clockwise Ramsay Round. We’d been in the shade as we scrambled up the SE side from the end of the arete, and it wasn’t until we glimpsed the summit cairn that the full force of the sun finally hit us straight in the face. I couldn’t help but stretch my arms out and laugh. It was a fitting end to what had been a difficult day of changeable weather. We lingered for ten minutes at the trig point, taking photos and marvelling at the beauty of the landscape that we had just traversed. With one eye on the clock, we relieved the packs of as much food and water as we could for the descent back to the Glen.
Agreeing that a 20h30 would be a nice round number to aim at, we took off at a steady pace, accelerating as the clock ticked down. With the hostel only a few switchbacks below us, the time fell out of reach, and we eased right up on the approach to the bridge. Everybody was waiting at the hostel, and I took my time to stroll in to the finish and savour the moment as the clock struck 9.35 pm – a Round time of 20h35.
After a few hugs and photos, we retreated to the caravan to escape the midges that were out in force. Most of the team enjoyed a glass of beer or wine, while I opted for an orange and a leg massage from Josie!
It was a fitting end to a wonderful ten days away from the Isle of Harris, and a privilege to be able to assemble such a fantastic group of people in pursuit of this objective. I’d put a lot of time and thought into doing the right training to take on the challenge, and I was thankful that the tendinitis that had flared up in the three weeks prior did not cause me any grief on the Round itself.
I was reflecting back on when I first heard about the Charlie Ramsay Round, and recall feeling like it would be out of my reach. It would require dedicating a huge amount of time to get fit enough even to attempt it, and I wondered if I had the commitment or dedication required.
In fact, I did commit a lot of time to training, but I think the Round mainly served as a reason to get out into the hills more – something I love to do but don’t always have the inclination for. Yes, I ran lots of miles, but it wasn’t really ‘training’. I ran because I loved it, only I found more motivation and focus knowing that it was leading somewhere.
I realise looking back that I spent too long comparing myself to others, and being pessimistic of my chances. I thought about how I might sneak in under 24 hours, rather than how much time I might lose to the incredible Jasmin Paris, who holds the record of 16 hours and 13 minutes.
If there is one thing I’ll take from the Round, it’s to believe in myself more. To be ambitious to the point of being audacious. Because you never really know what you’re capable of until you try something that you might fail at. As much as it served as a great personal challenge, I think I’ll remember it most for the time spent in the hills with friends.
Thanks to Mum and Mika for heading up valley support and executing the plan exactly as intended, to Georgia, Goddard, Ollie and Aaron for looking after me so well on the hill, and Josie, Tess and Witty for agreeing to be part of this whole ridiculous scheme! It would not have been possible without you all.