Running the Rigby Round – the Cairngorms in one go

The glory is in the doing, not in the having done.

These words have become my mantra. They are words to live a life by and they are words that ring with deafening truth when I go to the mountains.

But what if the doing is insufferable. What then happens to glory?

The Rigby Round is the connoisseur’s round. No hyperbole. No pretension. Just long, hard, rough miles. This is as pure as running gets. There are 18 mountains of Munro status in the Cairngorms. These can be linked – if you are inclined – in continuous fashion, starting and finishing where you like, but returning to the beginning to close the ’round’. There are caveats: solo, unsupported, on-site navigation. The hard is made harder. Nobody said it would be easy – and nothing easy is worth doing.

I start at 1.30am. With a hand on the boulder that marks the start of the Moine path in Glenfeshie, I push off, jogging into a starless night. The glory is in the doing. I do not contemplate an end. I live in the moment. They are fine words in the abstract. Suddenly, this is very real. I glance at the glowering silhouette of Mullach Clach a’ Bhlair, number one of 18, and imagine being up there, among the dark tendrils of cloud. I think, too, of the rabbit: the grey, illuminated lump, the momentary glow of two eyes, the thud. I picture it lying back there, a graveyard of asphalt on the A9.

A snaking track brings me to the highest point of Mullach Clach a’ Bhlair, a dour whaleback of grass topped by a pile of stones, 1019 metres above sea level. It is 2.40am. I run on, into the eerie starkness of the Moine Mhor, a vast expanse of bog described as the ‘ultimate in desolate wilderness’. Not that I could see it. I am running in the dark, in the clouds. I watch my feet. I try to stay calm. A group of deer drift across my path, offering a dozen or so glinting eyes. I had rehearsed these hours in my head. I knew that I would be afraid. Some people are scared of the dark in their own homes; it was acceptable to be scared up here. Silence imagination, I had told myself, and remember the inevitable – night always ends.

A gradual lightening. Dull outlines emerge. Sharp relief. Dawn is heralded by an orange tint in the east. I reach Beinn Bhrotain, the last half-mile a trudge across a sea of boulders. There is no path; I trust the compass. I trundle down the same way, continuing onto Monadh Mor. Sunrise kills the adrenaline of night. I am sluggish, nauseous, despondent. It is too soon to feel like this. But the summits come quickly, Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul, the fifth and fourth highest mountains in the land, and The Devil’s Point. I descend, some 500 vertical metres, to Corrour bothy and the busy cradle of the Lairig Ghru, one of the two channels that carve great slits through the semi-tundra plateau of the Cairngorms. The next summit, Carn a’ Mhaim, is directly ahead – and overhead. On the map, the contours rise like a bar code; the ground is littered by what Ordnance Survey’s mapmakers call ‘natural features’ – loose rock, boulders, outcrops, scree. Crags guard the lip of the summit ridge. There is no path here either. On tiptoes and fingertips, I go straight up.

This feels like the crux of the round, or at the very least a seminal part of it: the 500-metre drag to Carn a’Mhaim, a 200-metre drop to a col, then another 500 metres of steep ascent across boulder fields to Ben Macdui, the eighth summit.

And it is glorious. I watch the clouds being swept away from the highest reaches of Cairn Toul. I move with purpose, hopping sure-footedly between boulders, pushing strongly uphill.

Yet I feel the tentacles of tiredness. A calf is tight. I hear my breathing, more ragged than I would like. With physical fatigue comes mental weariness – head ‘fug’. The latter is more worrying. As I descend Ben Macdui, I doubt myself: the bearing is not right; I see a snow patch but in the now-returned mist assume it is a lochan; I contemplate going back to the summit and starting the descent again.

I had been right all along. There is a path here, winding down to Loch Etchachan. On safe ground, I switch off again, overshooting the junction for the out-and-back march to Derry Cairngorm. This is the pressure of having to navigate on-site, not only doing it, but having to do it quickly and having to do it continuously.

I climb to tor-topped Ben Mheadhoin, descend abruptly through heather and loose rock to Lairig An Laoigh, labour across a plateau of peat hags to the far off Beinn Bhreac, traipse north to the boggy col that leads to Beinn a’ Bhuird. Hours go by. Miles pass slowly. It is very warm. I reach Ben Avon, the eastern reach of the round after 12 hours. I scramble to the top of the tor, grunting with the effort. I do not linger. If I do – if I sit down – I will dwell on the enormity of what remains: seven major climbs, I calculate.

I run – although that is not the right word any longer – back to Beinn a’ Bhuird, up a ramp of crumbling stone, darkly and quietly suffering. I pass a walker in the col and sense that she is catching me as I struggle uphill. I am light-headed and wobbly, drunk on mountains. Sunstroke? Sleep deprivation? Dehydration? Simple exhaustion? Realistically, it is all of those things, and for the first time, I am concerned for my well-being. Will I be okay? I contemplate taking a break – I had not even sat down since stepping out of my car in Glenfeshie – or even attempting to sleep for a few minutes. Something worse consumes my mind: I am not enjoying this; I do not want to be here. I search for glory, for meaning. I know it is there in the sky and the mountains and the burns and the lochans and in the eyes of the hares that gawp and gallop, but I cannot see it, cannot touch it. Nor is there an easy solution. These mountains are high and wild; civilisation – roads, cafes, idle chatter, comfort – is remote. I have no choice – continuing is an imperative. ‘Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge,’ wrote Nan Shepherd in The Living Mountain. I assume she was not merely talking literally.

I do not think of Shepherd. She would not have approved of such rapid, head down peak-bagging. There will be other days to wander and think and be in these mountains, but that day is not today. I think instead of those who have gone before me.

I think of Mark Rigby who ran into a wild storm as he sought to be the first to connect these summits. His motivation was to celebrate the individualist approach: ‘The challenge could be made more spicy with just me to consider, by making it unsupported, and, as an extra, un-reconnoitred. In fact, the antithesis of the trend towards down-to-the-minute planning.’ It seems astonishing that these words were written in 1988. His route is below.

I think of John Fleetwood who spent 54 hours completing the round in winter – the only person to have done so. ‘Up is down and down is up, mist is snow and snow is mist,’ he wrote of his experiences. ‘Each step is one of faith into the unknown.’ Fittingly, he called his account Losing Myself.

I think of Jonathan Whilock who ran the round twice in 16 days because he thought it would be ‘quicker’ reversing the direction. ‘The heat was affecting me, my legs were dead, my guts were awful and my feet were killing me,’ he wrote.

Somewhere and somehow, I emerge from the stupor. But there is no epiphany on the other side, no second wind. I just feel less tired, more able and more willing to carry on. This is not ‘beasting’ it or ‘smashing’ it, to use terms that are bandied around on social media; I am just doing my best, just putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that this simple process will get me to the place I need to go – and then to the next one, and the next one after that. Nonetheless, to use hill running parlance, my legs have ‘gone’. I can move uphill with relative comfort. The downhills – first an awkward, contouring descent from Beinn a’ Chaorainn, then a stumbling, fumbling, wincing affair from the supposedly easier, grassier slopes of Bynack More – punish my lower legs: knees, ankles, heels, pinched little toes. Cairn Gorm soars now, its black cliffs dropping sheer to Strath Nethy. A path from The Saddle above Loch A’an leads me onto the wet ramparts of Cairn Gorm, home to numerous tiny frogs, before petering out in long grass. More trudging, counting steps. A ptarmigan struts and whistles; I see two white chicks scurrying through the grass. Further counting, hands on thighs, feeling muscle move beneath the skin. Silhouettes appear. A conical stone mound, a weather station, a lone walker. Cairn Gorm.

I call my wife as I descend. ‘You sound tired,’ she says.

‘I am tired.’

‘Talk to Daddy,’ she instructs our two daughters. I imagine them sitting at our kitchen table, spooning pasta into open mouths, chewing loudly.

My eldest daughter shouts across the room: ‘Come on, big boy.’ Mocked at 1200 metres. Does this count as ‘support’?

‘Three hours until I’m done,’ I tell my wife. Had I known then it would be five, I might have descended to the ski station instead.

There have, by my reckoning, been 19 successful rounds by 17 different people. Of these, 16 have been within 24 hours, 12 have been solo, one has been in winter, the rest in spring and summer. On average, there is approximately one Rigby completion every 18 months. The ethos is loosely the same for contenders: usually solo, almost always unsupported, strictly un-reconnoitred. The latter is non-negotiable. Years of knowing the Cairngorms is not the same as targeted reconnaissance, for the Rigby lines are not lines one would willingly take otherwise. No pacers, no road support, no navigators, no cheerleaders. More people attempt the Bob Graham Round on a late-spring weekend than have ever completed the Rigby. ‘It is the round that round veterans aspire to,’ David Lintern, author of the soon-to-be-published Cicerone guidebook The Big Rounds, told me after. The Cairngorms have been run clockwise and anti-clockwise, with the summits ticked off in a variety of orders, but every round had started in the Loch Morlich/Glenmore area. That is until I came along. I was convinced that starting and finishing at Auchlean would shorten the round. I was right – but shorter (a mere 70.8 miles) does not mean easier. The consequences of my decision – a decision that several round veterans and those familiar with the Cairngorms had warned me against – were about to unravel.

The March Burn spills over the western edge of the plateau above the Lairig Ghru. It is a brilliant evening of exceptional clarity: I seem able to see every mountain in Scotland. But I dare not look up. The ground drops away sharply and, like a giant conveyer belt, is moving. The rocks, bone dry, slip beneath my soles before I can respond. I am on my back, then momentum flips me over onto my front, my chest ricocheting against a boulder. I reach for my front, expecting blood, and crouch down on the scree, breathing hard. I am fine.

I cautiously follow a grassy ramp to the Pools of Dee, the highest point of the Lairig Ghru, where the path is jerky and disjointed, waterlogged and strewn with boulders. I traverse Sron na Lairig on more steep, difficult ground void of any sort of trod, eventually finding the zigzags that reach down to the col beneath Braeriach. Dizzy and faint, I clutch the highest rocks without breaking stride.

I take a direct route, aiming for a gap between two distant bumps south-west of Braeriach, following the watercourse that spills down from the Wells of Dee. The world is big up here – wide and sprawling and daunting. Once over the high lip, it is even bigger: the Moine Mhor lies before me, still and bright and sprawling in evening sunshine. I descend to a confusion of lochans, stumbling around them, every step bringing me closer to the rim of the corrie above Loch Einich. At one point, I sense a flashing, dark movement over a shoulder. The temperature seems to drop; instinctively I move faster. I reach the slender path that follows the edge of the corrie, but do not feel well. I fear a momentary blackout will send me falling uncontrollably towards the loch. I stop, sigh, allow my head to roll towards my chest, then look up. Across the loch, some two miles away, I see the shapes of gigantic letters spelled out in the rocks. An image of a bowler-hatted Charlie Chaplin emerges in the formations above. ‘That is Charlie Chaplin,’ I say definitively. Small animals surround me – dogs mainly, sometimes with their owners, and sheep too. On the summit of Sgor Gaoith, I see – not with my eyes, but with my imagination – a great bird swoop up, then about-turn to the loch far below. I had never hallucinated before, but nor had I felt like this before. I had only ever read about such things. Shane Ohly, in a similarly desperate state, hallucinated about hearing classical music and seeing a herd of unicorns at the end of his 30-hour winter Ramsay’s Round in 2008. Yet the hallucinations come with a calmness, an acceptance. I know they are not real; my mind readily accepts that truth. Down I go, with hallucinations littering the path to Auchlean. I am so convinced of the presence of a sheep at the side of the track that I stop and touch the rock. It is just a rock. I move on, shuffling, cursing. When Graham Nash completed the round last month with John Ryan, he had one of those run forever moments as he descended Cairn Gorm – as if you want movement to never cease. For me, the glory was long since over. It was buried somewhere in the rubble of Derry Cairngorm.

At last, at last, at last. The ground flattens. I am in the glen. It is dark. I can feel every individual stone in my shoes, sticking pins into my clammy skin. My left knee seems about to buckle. Sunburn bristles my forearms.

I touch my palm to the boulder at the bottom of the Moine path and stop time. It has taken 21 hours and 32 minutes to get back here. I have gone nowhere and everywhere.

I walk back to my car, a halting, stiff-legged half-mile. I feel nothing. I try to cry, thinking it might have a cathartic effect, but tears do not come. The car park emerges through the gloom. I look for my car, imagining what I would do if it was not there.

I slump into the driver’s seat, legs uselessly dangling out of the open door. I tug shoes and socks from wrinkled, oozy, wretched feet, and limp barefoot to the boot where I find a pair of sandals. I get back in the car and close the door. I scrape contact lenses from my eyes; one falls from my index finger, fluttering to the grubby floor by the clutch. What now? I turn the ignition and drive. I stop after 10 minutes, pulling into a lay-by in the forest. I push the driver’s seat back and get into my sleeping bag. I eat all the food I have – a packet of cheese and onion crisps and a satsuma. I cannot bear the taste of more water. I shiver, like I had by the lochans above Loch Einich, with the shivering becoming shuddering as I pull the sleeping bag tightly around my neck, telling myself to sleep. It feels like cold; it also feels like shock. I must have dropped off because I jerk awake to the radio – BBC Radio Scotland, a folk song. I turn the ignition again.

I drive. The A9 in the early hours of a Monday morning is very quiet, very lonely. I stop frequently, pulling into lay-bys, not sleeping, just tilting my head back, eyes wide open. I think there might be a 24-hour McDonald’s in Perth. There is not one I can find.

Another at last. At 4am, I am home. I finally lie down.

This is not meant to be a moan. I chose to run Rigby Round and I am trying to be truthful. Glory has many faces.

What emerged in the following days was a profound satisfaction, not from what had been done, but how it had been done. I had endured.

I look at a road map of Scotland. Just five of the 18 mountains are marked: Beinn Bhrotain, Cairn Toul, Ben Macdui, Cairn Gorm, Ben Avon. They are spread over a colossal area of wilderness. In my mind, I draw an imaginary line, curving east from Glenfeshie, over the Moine Mhor to the Lairig Ghru, to the Lairig An Laoigh to Ben Avon, and back again – that long, long way back again. My skin mottles with goosebumps. Now I feel tears prick my eyes. The day I ran the Cairngorms in one go, the day I had the audacity to try, the day I endured.

Update: Make that 21 successful rounds in 31 years. Donnie Campbell and Rob Sinclair completed in 20 hours and 54 minutes on July 15.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Nick Yates says:

    Good effort that J. You might have to go abroad to top it. I’ve heard of this round in The Urals…

  2. Congratulations! What a great read – confirms my thinking. I love walking hills. I love running. Let’s keep them separate. 😆

    Relax, recover, and bask in the memories.

  3. Johnny Parsons says:

    Brilliant write-up and an outstanding achievement.
    Bloody well done to you Sir!

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