When news of the success of the expedition to climb Mount Everest was revealed to the world on June 2, 1953, four days had elapsed since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had stood on the summit. When Jez Bragg reached Glen Nevis youth hostel at the end of a record-breaking Ramsay Round in the Scottish Highlands, the world knew in seconds.
Bragg’s round is symbolic of the technological age. For 18 hours and 12 minutes, Bragg’s mountain toil was exposed to the world’s glare, as the matchbox-sized tracker that Bragg carried updated his position every 90 seconds. It was as addictive as watching football scores on Ceefax. Nothing for 90 seconds, then the blue line would wiggle forward: a shuffle on an uphill, a great leap on a down.
I am awoken at 5.22am by the cries of my youngest daughter. I know she will not go back to sleep. I scoop her out of the cot, place her one knee, rock her for two minutes until she is silent, and then check Twitter. Bragg left the youth hostel at 3am. His wife, Gemma, posted a picture of Jez and a leg one pacer, with Charlie Ramsay to the far right of the shot. Standing in the darkness with head-torches blazing, and Jez in short sleeves, there is no hint of what is to come. Gemma later posts a short video clip of the two runners vanishing into the darkness to climb Ben Nevis.
Someone counts down to 3am, presumably Charlie: ‘Four, three, two, one, go…’
Then Gemma’s voice: ‘Good luck.’
‘Gone. That’s it,’ says Charlie ominously.
At 5.26am, the blue line is poised on the col between Carn Mor Dearg and Aonach Mor. I am jiggling a baby in a London bedroom. I exit Twitter and sniff her nappy. When I check the tracker again at 7am, Jez is approaching Stob Coire an Laoigh, the sixth summit. Soon after, Gemma confirms this on Twitter, noting that Jez is ‘moving well’ having done six summits in four hours.
‘There is no sense of solitude such as that we experience on the silent and vast elevations of mountains,’ said Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The Victorians hadn’t heard of Twitter though, had they?
At 9.57am, he reaches the Loch Treig dam, the tracker reveals. Gemma tweets again. In the pictures, the sky is blue and the day bright. Charlie sits on a stool. There are other seats but Jez is standing in all the photographs. I know what he is eating because Gemma tweeted a picture of Jez’s ‘fuel’ a few minutes earlier: bananas, sandwiches, Coke and rice pudding. It was reassuringly simple.
It is 11am and I have taught two English lessons, although I couldn’t stop thinking about Jez and the blue line. We were doing Macbeth. I asked my pupils if they had been to Scotland. Three out of 22 had. Jez was progressing up Stob Coire Sgriodain, the first mountain after the dam. Two more lessons and I check again at 1pm. He is coming off Beinn na Lap, nearing the railway lines.
The emails begin. ‘I was comparing his tracker to Nicky Spinks’ schedule from her 19:39,’ Duncan says. ‘It looks like he’s 30 minutes to one hour up on her schedule so going very well indeed.’
Andy responds: ‘I was doing exactly the same thing – he was 30 minutes up at Loch Treig and is now 20 minutes, and the entire descent off Beinn na Lap ahead. That is a VERY heathery 4km descent too. In the dark it took me 40 minutes, so I’d say he is in the region of 50 minutes up on that schedule now. Mental. Isn’t the record still over 18 hours?’
It was – and it still is. Jez needed to finish before 9.22pm to break Adrian Belton’s 26-year record.
I emerge from an hour-long exam invigilation at 3pm to see Jez scaling Sgurr Eilde Mor. There were further pictures at Jez’s leg two pitstop by Loch Eilde Beag: more blue sky, Coke, Charlie again. He’s sitting this time, with a selection of food in grabbing distance on a bench.
Andy, sitting at work in Newcastle, is getting excited: ‘He’s 47 minutes up before starting the Mamores. Looks like record pace to me. COME ON JEZ!’
Shortly before 4.30pm, Steve Burkinshaw tweets: ‘He is going to be close to the 18h 23m record.’
Adrian Stott resorts to Shakespeare inspiration for the modern generation: ‘#thegamesafoot’.
Still the tracker moves. Over the Binnein hills, onwards to Na Gruagaichean. With the children in bed, I went for a run, a cautious 20 minutes as I recover from an angry ankle. I think of Jez as I run along Streatham High Road. Gemma clearly has reception as she was tweeting as he ran through the Mamores. He is 13 minutes up on the record, she says, then eight minutes, then five minutes.
Home again, I press refresh immediately. He’s on Mullach nan Coirean. It is 8.26pm. A thunderstorm breaks over London. I shower, stretch, watch five minutes of Don’t Tell the Bride and return to the computer. It is now the 90th minute and I can’t take my eyes of Ceefax. He is descending Mullach nan Coirean rapidly, but his route kinks as he drops through the forest. I gasp as the kink unravels on the screen. Normality is soon resumed, though. He is on a marked path, heading north, dropping down onto the Glen Nevis road, running along the road, seeing the youth hostel reaching the youth hostel. A finishing line of red and white tape had been strung across the road. I know because it was on Twitter.
At 9.12pm I make an announcement to my wife: ‘He’s finished.’
She starts to say ‘who’s finished?’ but stops herself, replacing the words with ‘Did he break the record?’
Gemma confirms it for the world: ‘@jezbragg does it! 18hr12min, 11min record #RamsayRound a record that has been held since 1989, not anymore!’