What is Alan Hinkes up to at the moment? … and other questions

Traffic – is that the right way to describe people? – to this blog arrives via a plethora of web searches. Handily, WordPress lists these terms. Many are questions: some are perfectly logical, others make me question the sanity of the human race. However, according to the web search questions, people do not want much. Generally, they care about three things.

– How hard things are.

– Ben Nevis.

– What Alan Hinkes is up to.

Here are my Christmas top-20 (and some helpful answers). The hard stuff first –

1. Is it hard to row the English Channel solo? Probably, yes.

2. How hard is the Inaccessible Pinnacle? It’s tricky, rather than hard. Take a climber with you.

3. What is the hardest Corbett to climb? I really don’t know. For the hardest Munro, see above.

4. How hard is the Beachy Head Marathon? Not as hard as the Ben Nevis Race.

5. How hard is the Ben Nevis Race. Harder than the Beachy Head Marathon.

6. Is the Highland Cross harder than a marathon? If it’s the Beachy Head Marathon, yes.

7. What is the weather like on Ben Nevis in September? Wind, rain, fog, sleet, snow, mist, and probably all at the same time.

8. Which Munro should I climb in preparation for walking Ben Nevis? Why are people obsessed with this mountain?

On to the information seekers-

9. How do I prepare for cycling Mont Ventoux? Cycle. Lots.

10. Where is there a half-marathon tomorrow in UK? Tomorrow? Nowhere.

11. When are midges worst on Rum? All summer long. But don’t let it put you off, though.

12. How high is Worcestershire Beacon? 425 metres.

13. Is Catbells on the Bob Graham Round? No – unless you’ve had a navigational catastrophe.

14. What speed do you need to run for a Bob Graham Round under 24 hours? Three miles per hour-ish. Sounds slow, doesn’t it?

15. Why is Twmpa called Lord Hereford’s Knob? I’m still not sure. Something to do with Lord Hereford? And his…

Now for the ridiculous –

16. What’s going on in the Cotswolds? You’re in the wrong place.

17. How long will it take for my blood blister to go away? Umm…

And the utterly ridiculous, the bang-your-head-against-a-table level of ridiculousness.

18. Is Marble Arch the same as the Arc de Triomphe. NO!

19. What country is the south of England? Country?

And one that only Alan Hinkes can answer –

20. What is Alan Hinkes up to at the moment?

Ben Nevis pony track

Ben Nevis: very hard

Two out of three ain’t bad…

Having survived my altercation with the ghost of a Jacobite in Glen Shiel, I ventured east, first to Inverness, then to Moray. I had a three-day Bank Holiday plan. Day 1 – The Glen Challenge, a 10-mile trail race that forms part of the Glenurquhart Highland Gathering and Games in Drumnadrochit; Day 2 – Ben Rinnes; and Day 3 – the Munros either side of the Cairnwell Pass in the Grampians.

Meatloaf sang that ‘two out of three ain’t bad’ and such is the case in the north of Scotland when one is utterly dependent on the vagaries of the weather. Day 1 dawned drizzly and cool – ideal running conditions – and 24 of us made the 10-mile dash from Corrimony to the Games field in Drumnadrochit. I was 4th until half-way, then squeezed into 3rd, only to be pegged back on a two-mile climb. I clung on, though, arriving at the finish in bronze medal position to a ripple of applause and a £20 note in an envelope.

My legs were weary as I headed up Ben Rinnes the next day, but since the altitude gain is little more than 500 metres and the path dry, rocky and obvious even to the navigationally-inept, I vowed to run all the way. And I did – just about, in 31 minutes. Only when the steps arrived did I start to wobble.

What a view from the summit, the marvellously-named Scurran of Lochterlandoch: Speyside, the Moray Firth, the Cairngorms, the hills of Caithness, loads of wind turbines. I descended via Scurran of Well, accurately described as a ‘pile of pancakes’ by my guidebook, then down and along a winding 4×4 track to the car park. While traipsing about on the Ben, a fine day had become a glorious one. I basked in the sunlight outside a Dufftown cafe enjoying a celebratory slab of cake.

No such luck on Day 3. Winter came overnight. There was flooding in Aberdeen. High winds were cancelling ferries in the west. I knew there was no chance of doing a round of the nine Munros either side of The Cairnwell. As I breached The Lecht I scaled back aspirations to the three west of the pass. But ascending to the Glenshee ski station, my car was engulfed by mist and driving rain. Such was the shroud I missed the cafe and had to turn back. Carn Aosda, a 917-metre Munro, the smallest of the lot up here, I thought?

A few seconds outside made me realise the foolhardiness of even this. Terrible visibility, driving rain, absolutely miserable. I got back in the car and turned my nose to Edinburgh, wondering whether I was in the same country that 24 hours earlier had held me in its warm, gentle glow.




Macaroni cheese, the perverted Jacobite and the South Glen Shiel Ridge 9

What can one expect of a day that commences with the consumption of a can of lukewarm macaroni cheese, eaten with a Debenhams gift card? Standing in an empty layby near the Cluanie Inn, I gazed skywards at the mist-covered South Glen Shiel ridge. The forecast was for this theme to continue: mist and intermittent rain. The same thought ran through my head: today, I actually have to use a compass. Not just carry one and be deemed ‘prepared’ should I tumble off a cliff and need rescue. I am going to have to navigate. On my own. I contemplated calling the whole thing off. I contemplated the north ridge instead. But the lure of nine Munros – from Creag a’ Mhaim in the east to The Saddle in the west – was too great, and I set off running slowly towards Cluanie Lodge.

I passed my river-side camp site of the previous night. It had been a dreadful few hours. I was woken repeatedly by rain and wind, and then a nightmare. Sleeping on my front, I felt the weight of a man on my back, pressing down hard. Weirdly (and very disconcertingly), he was licking the back of my neck; not aggressively, but how a cat might gently lick a hand. I struggled for breath. Three times I cried out, waking on the third. ‘It’s the spirits of the glen,’ my wife’s aunt told me later. ‘A Jacobite, no doubt.’

The problem with running over nine Munros – especially in the mist – is that it is subsequently difficult to recall the characteristics of the individual mountains and summits, or to even remember their names. Creag a’ Mhaim was memorable as number one, followed by Druim Shionnach because I gained a rare view from the summit. Thereafter, it’s a blur. I crossed Aonach air Chrith, the day’s highest point, and clambered along the ridge to Maol Chinn-dearg. Sgurr an Doire Leathain I recall because I twice went the wrong way as I tried to re-find the ridge from the summit.

The mist had closed in by now; the weather getting worse as I progressed west. There is nothing pleasant about running in waterproof trousers. Still, there were moments of unexpected joy: the view to Loch Quoich as I skirted Sgurr Beag, a dozen ptarmigan battling the wind on Sgurr a’Bhac Chaolais, a glorious vision of Loch Hourn.

I took the steep way up Sgurr na Sgine, popping out by the summit cairn. A tricky descent was followed by a straightforward ascent, watched by a herd of deer, of The Saddle. Finding the trig pillar, I knew I couldn’t go wrong from here. I turned to what I thought was the east, and headed for the famous Forcan Ridge.

It’s a good thing for me I’m never surprised when I make a navigational error, such is the regularity of these occurrences. An absolutely-nothing-can-go-wrong approach means everything is about to go wrong. It turned out I was moving west, not east. It took me 10 minutes to work that out. As a belligerent soul, there was no way I was reversing what I’d just done. Even if it was going to add on two hours, I wasn’t turning round. I pressed on, blundering over two of The Saddle’s Munro tops, before plunging down a slippery, mossy slope to the river that flows to Shiel Bridge. I’ve never been so pleased to see a caravan site. I hadn’t seen another person since leaving Cluanie.

Thank goodness I was running. I would be out for eight hours in ridiculous weather as it was; walking would have been purgatory. I can also understand why the advice is generally to tackle the seven easterly Munros of the ridge and the round of Sgurr na Sgine and The Saddle separately. But two outings? Where’s the challenge in that? Back at base camp Findhorn – my temporary Scottish home – I told my wife’s aunt about the ‘Jacobite’. The spirits wanted me to feel their suffering, she told me. ‘Imagine them fleeing from the English to Skye after Culloden.’ I didn’t ask why a Jacobite would want to lick my neck like a cat. ‘Well, I’m glad you had a good time.’

I thought for a moment: macaroni cheese for breakfast, a Jacobite with a fetish for licking, rain, sludge, rain, waterproof trousers flapping round my ankles, rain, mist, rain, navigational incompetence, torrential rain. ‘I wouldn’t quite describe it as a ‘good time’,’ I said.

The Rum midge

On the wall of the visitor centre on Rum is a poster entitled ‘the Rum midge’, which illustrates people under attack by a swarm of giant midges. It’s like something out of a horror movie, but the poster isn’t ironic: the midges on Rum are that bad.

There are midges, and then there are Rum midges, famed for being the most aggressive of their kind in Europe. The island is a midge factory. Rum’s wet, grass and heathland landscape is ideal for the midge larvae, from which billions of the critters are produced. Against this kind of quality and quantity, the camper has no chance.

I had two nights on Rum. The first was bad. It couldn’t get any worse, I thought. But I was wrong. Night two was far, far worse. They came a couple of hours before sunset on the first night, setting about me like they truly despised me, like I had somehow wronged them. I escaped to my tent. I had no alternative. Stay outside for too long and they will force any man insane.

They surrounded me. I could see their little black bodies, thousands of them, crawling all over my tent’s outer sheet. I dare not open the inner sheet, for they would gleefully pour in. My tent was a graveyard of midges by the morning, with countless little bodies strewn across by belongings. A little olive oil bottle I’d left outside was encrusted with the devils.

I didn’t see another midge until later that day, again not long before dusk. A breeze will tend to keep them away, but when the wind dropped for some minutes, I knew trouble was brewing. They suddenly discovered me, swooping on me in a grey ball of fury. I dived into the tent, but knew I would have to emerge to retrieve items I’d left outside.

I stepped into a cloud of the monsters, seemingly furious that I’d had the audacity to run from them. They attacked me with gusto, coating any area of exposed skin – hands, legs and face. I don’t mind being bitten; it’s the sensation of them on my skin that I can’t stand, as well as the inability to do anything about it. I dashed to grab my belongings, waving my arms about my head like a maniac, and charged for the tent again.

I tossed everything inside and hurled myself in, hurriedly zipping up. I was sweating with disbelief. How could the Rum midges be so bad? I hadn’t believed the horror stories, but here was the proof: they were even worse than the stories. How I despised them, the wretched creatures.

An awful reality dawned on me. In my haste to get into the tent, I had neglected to brush the midges off my body. Now I saw them, hundreds of them, crawling over my legs and arms. I could feel them in my hair. How could I be so stupid to allow them to get inside the tent, the place I had to sleep tonight? There is simply no way I can stay here, I thought. I contemplated abandoning camp and running to Kinloch Castle to beg for a bed in the hostel. Let the midges have the tent, I reasoned.

I quickly thought better of it, and instead commenced a process of mass slaughter. As they attacked me, I attacked them, arming myself with books, maps, clothes, whatever I could lay my hands on. It seemed hopeless, like I was attempting to turn back the tide. But after several minutes, I was definitely winning. I was making headway. Fyodor Dostoevsky could never have known that a copy of Crime and Punishment could serve such a purpose.

The tent was again surrounded by the incessant and eery buzz of countless midges but at least they were outside. I knew I could never eradicate them all, but after 20 minutes of bashing, slapping and swotting, I was satisfied that I’d broken their spirit. When I eventually fell asleep, it was a slumber disturbed by unpleasant dreams of insects: midges, flies and beetles, all of them scurrying about me.

Isle of Jura Fell Race

We were sent on our way, a ripple of applause and the pounding of 200 pairs of feet on road drowning out the skirl of pipes. The theatrical idiom ‘break a leg’ was written across a saltire – a light-hearted but all too realistic prospect. A gloomy blanket of mist had been thrown over Jura in the night, hiding the Paps. ‘It will lift,’ we were assured. It did – after the race was over.

Runners were soon stretched out, climbing silently in single-file across boggy ground to the rocky, mist-shrouded summit of Dubh Beinn, check point one. I had been repeatedly warned that navigating between the first three check points was as troublesome as route-finding on the Paps. So, with the clag obscuring our objectives, I stayed close to a group of three other runners, and together we soon gained Glas Bheinn.

Joyously we swept downhill across a wide ridge towards Aonach-bheinn, the lowest of the seven mountain top check points. No-one else was in sight. It was as if we were racing among ourselves and all the others had disappeared into the darkness, never to be seen again. But as we neared the check point, I glanced behind. There was a group of at least a dozen athletes, bearing down on us like a pack of hungry wolves. And while I absent-mindedly blundered to the west, the followers swooped north – the right way – leaving me flailing in their wake.

We only had to descend a short way before we emerged out of the mist. The descent was ‘moderate’, according to race literature. Much harder and rougher was too come. But this was alarming, terrifyingly steep. I watched runners that were behind me moments earlier plunging downhill, first across heather, then scree, to reach the foot of the glen, seemingly oblivious to the perilous terrain. I froze momentarily, contemplating the descent – and therefore complicating it. Down I went, ankles jarring, feet burning, teeth rattling.

There was to be no respite. The first Pap, Beinn a Chaolais, lay in wait, dark and brooding, its summit lost in the greyness. I began the longest single climb of the race, 600 vertical metres, up a gully, across scree slopes and ramps of vegetation. It was endless, extremely steep. No-one was running. We crouched with hands on thighs, hauling aching bodies to the top, never stopping.

Underlying the pain was something stronger, something deeper. It is always there. It is a grim sense of satisfaction (enjoyment would be the wrong word), allied with the rawness of the terrain and the exhilaration of just being there. We all shared it. That is why we run, why we submit happily and willingly to the ordeal.

I descended with one of the leading women, another Jura novice, who I watched as she appeared to surf down vast shutes of scree. She fell, I fell, and she fell again. Falling is certain. Adrenaline numbs the pain. Rocks ricocheted off my ankles, making me wince in pain. As we began the ascent of Beinn an Oir, she told me to go on ahead if she was too slow for me. I tried, but the woman’s sure stride took her away from me.

The summit ridge was a fearful place: bleak, misty and wind-blasted, with sharp, unknown drops looming right and left. Once on the ridge, I glimpsed two runners ahead. I must catch them, I told myself. The need to reach them became incalculable. I did not want to descend alone. One started walking, the other copied, meaning I was able to reel them in slowly. We came together and descended as a trio. I was lazy. I let them do the vital map and compass work, choosing to trust the judgement of these strangers. I had a paper map only; the wet would have ripped it to shreds. I imagined we were attached with a length of elastic and I could not let that band stretch too far, else it would snap. My fear of being alone was now greater than my fear of these hideous descents.

The ascent to Beinn Shiantaidh, the last Pap, is a blur. I cannot recall the terrain; I cannot recall who I ran with. All I remember is working myself into an unnecessary frenzy about the descent to come. ‘Descent of north side is very dangerous – sheer drop a short way below the summit,’ advised the organisers.

A marshal took my number and I descended for 30 seconds. I passed a runner laid out on the ground. Three times I asked him if he was alright. It was only on the last occasion, when I shouted at him, that he replied he ‘just needed to eat something’. I left him to it, treading carefully downhill. Suddenly I was alone, for the first time in more than three hours of running.

I pulled the map out of my bag. I was right – the wetness soaked the paper, obliterating the contours between Beinn Shiantaidh and C0rra Bheinn. I fought to control a rising sense of panic. I traversed the hill for what seemed like two or three minutes, but was probably less than 20 seconds, before about 10 runners appeared from above. I joined them as they galloped across an indistinct route over large boulders that would have looked at home on a building site, eventually joining a narrow path as we lost height. They were a focussed bunch. One wore nothing but a vest on his top half, while their maps remained folded in bags.

I looked at my watch – three hours and seven minutes, the record finishing time clocked by Mark Rigby in the 1994 race. I was still six miles, two check points and one hilltop away from the end.

One-by-one the group passed me. Not that I minded. Were it a road race, I would have cursed every rival, as a way of deflecting my personal frustrations on to them. Why am I not faster, fitter, stronger? I would torment myself. Not on Jura. I silently applauded each runner. They were heroes, brave, determined, stubborn heroes.

The final hill, Corra Bheinn, sometimes generously referred to as Jura’s fourth Pap, loomed ahead. I struggled up, at times on all fours, praying for the top. I had heard horror stories about runners who had been disqualified because they had failed to find the summit check point in poor weather. I dreaded that prospect. Imagine coming all this way and failing. But I had no such difficulties.

I set off downhill, knowing that I no longer had to go up, forgetting that going down can often be as hard. The run to the road was as endless as the ascent of Beinn a Chaolais. Energy levels plummeted, morale waned and ankles throbbed. My face was scorched, as if I had spent a day in the sun, not mist. Scree that had rolled into my right shoe on the descent from Beinn Chaolais dug into my foot. The little stones would trickle under my toes, hide beneath the arch or dig into the sole. Sometimes it was agony; sometimes I forget they were there, as they rolled to a place that caused less hurt. For the hundredth time, I told myself to take off the shoe and remove the offending rocks. But that would mean stopping, and I doubted my cold and shaky hands would be able to unravel a double knot.

The ground became increasingly boggy as I neared the Corran River and occasionally a leg would plunge calf-deep into a stinking pit, forcing me to use all my remaining energy to haul the limb free. Ahead a little crowd had gathered on Three Arch Bridge, the final check point. I passed beneath one of the arches and climbed away from the river to meet the road. To feel a flat, firm and stable surface below my feet was heavenly.

The race was effectively over, just three miles to go and mercifully no more hills. I soon passed two runners and had a lonely run in as no-one else appeared ahead and no-one was to catch me. It was calm and peaceful at sea level, midges fussed about me. The pier at Craighouse appeared, then the chimney of the distillery. I was very nearly home. I looked at my watch repeatedly. Finding a final burst of enthusiasm, I sprinted over a humped back bridge, passed the ‘break a leg’ saltire and crossed the finish line, culminating my Jura race in a shade under four-and-a-half hours. I stopped. Nothing could feel better than stopping.

I was 58th, more than an hour behind the winner, Bingley runner Rob Jebb. For another three hours, runners poured over the finish line, hailing from the hill-running cliques of the UK: from Ambleside and Carnethy to Dark Peak and Mourne.

Numerous awards were given out: To the top-10; the leading men and women in their age categories, right up to the over-50s, known as super-veterans; the highest place Jurachs and Eilachs; and to two runners who had completed 21 races.

And then the drinking started. Weary runners needed rehydrating in the form of beer and whisky. The Jura Hotel was brimful, spirits high. The alcohol flowed. Anyone arriving at Craighouse that night would have laughed at the notion we were fit and disciplined fell runners. The party eventually moved to the village hall for a ceilidh, with music and shrieks from the pier continuing until well into the small hours of the morning.

It was about 3am when I wobbled to my tent, singing quietly to myself. I was drunk and could not sleep. My head was ringing. After an hour, I gave up and packed up. I walked the eight miles to Feolin very slowly, watching dawn break over Islay and Jura, arriving there at 7am.

After catching a bus across Islay to the port at Port Ellen, the ferry was approaching Kennacraig when a big man with a big smile sat opposite me. He was George Broderick, a Germany-based university professor who devised the Jura course in 1971 and organised the first race in 1973, when 30 runners took part.

What elevates Jura above other hill events, I asked. ‘The unusualness of it,’ he answered immediately. ‘It is a fell race in the true sense of the term. There are no paths. Runners are left to their own devices. When you are on the mountains, you’re a long way from civilisation. You have to have navigation skills required for fell running, which is orienteering and mountaineering in an athletics environment.’

‘How hard is Jura?’ I asked.

‘How hard is it?’ he said, laughing. ‘It’s hard, very hard. It’s one of the toughest races in the country, if not the toughest.’

The writer Will Self upset one or two Jura athletes some years ago, describing the runners as ‘goaties’, arguing – in jest, obviously? – that one would have to be more ungulate than human to contemplate such an undertaking. On race day, he said the ‘feral and slightly faecal stench of them is most off-putting’. I found it amusing; others not so. It shows that despite the brilliance of some athletes and the hardiness of all, fell/hill running still has a freak-ish reputation to many. But then isn’t that the very reason we do it?


I’m writing this from Brodick, Arran, three days into my inter-island journey on the Scottish west coast. I’m in the fortunate position to have been commissioned to write a travel book on these wonderful islands.

Today is a ‘rest day’, after 48 hours of excessive physical exertion. First there was the Goatfell hill race, a brutal 13km run from sea level in Brodick to the mountain’s 874m pinnacle. I wasn’t in the best hill shape: the result of a fortnight of road running in London.

The race follow the so-called tourist track up Goatfell, but is a combination of rocks and large boulders, meaning no two steps are the same. I could feel myself tiring with every stride, resisting the urge to stop. The decision to quit running and walk is a major one. There’s no going back. Once you’ve allowed yourself to stop running, breaking that rhythm, however slow, the mental battle is lost.

I clawed my way up mud and rock to the summit, running the final few yards, and sneaked a glimpse to the west, where an extraordinary vista of sea, mountains and islands stared back. That fleeting glance reaffirmed my faith in my sport. The self-doubt, the self-loathing, the self-criticism was gone in that moment. Of course, those feelings came back as soon as the descent started, but that’s the heaven and hell of running up hills.

On the day after running up Goatfell, it would have been perhaps sensible to take it easy. Why I made the decision to walk to Lochranza – 15 miles by road from Brodick, goodness knows how far over the hills – I don’t know. My legs were heavy, my pack  heavier, but I’m glad I did, if only to realise that there’s more to Arran’s mountains than Goatfell. Highest it may be, but it’s certainly not the finest.

Take Cir Mhor for instance, the hardest Corbett I’ve ever climbed: extremely steep and arduous. I then headed north to Caisteal Abhail, an easier climb but topped by a series of rock protrusions resembling castles, hence the mountain’s name. Coire nam Fuaran lay to the south-east, the scene of the infamous Goatfell murder.

Alas, Lochranza was a further five miles away, across pathless hill-side and then on a sopping wet path. Rarely have I been so glad to feel concrete under my feet.

Onward to Holy Isle tomorrow and Bute on Wednesday…

Carn na Saobhaidhe

Carn an Saobhaidhe 

Carn na Saobhaidhe is a 811-metre Monadhliath Corbett, rising a long, long way from anywhere. Unwilling to face the tedium of walking there and back – a 17-mile roundtrip – I ran, instantly turning a six-hour trudge into a two-and-a-half hour sprint.

The bulldozed tracks to the summit are rightly despised by environmentalists and these scars will only grow if a proposed windfarm on the estate is given the green light, but these wide paths do provide an outstanding running surface, making for swift ascents.

This is no soaring peak. One hour-and-a-half after leaving Dunmaglass Mains, my reward for 500 metres or so of ascent was a flat summit topped by a small pile of stones. Despite clear skies, I had no sense that I was standing hundreds of metres above sea level on a mountain just 100 metres shy of a Munro.  It was, however, immensely satisfying, for Carn na Saobhaidhe stands at the centre of some genuinely rough and wild land (if you ignore the tracks) and its considerable distance from roads makes it a challenging bag.

On the summit there was a book – Brain Storm by Richard Dooling, in case you were wondering – contained in a resealable plastic bag. According to the words on the bag, it is a ‘special book, travelling around the world and making new friends’. I now have to read it and place it somewhere else for someone else to find, then log the details on a website. Nice concept, I think.

It was a weary run down, especially the last four miles, much of which was spent with a small flock of panicking sheep running just ahead of me, convinced that I meant them great harm. Back at the car, a Mars Bar, albeit a mini Tesco version never tasted so good.


Clear ClishamClaggy Clisham

We’ve all done it. Climbed the sodding hill in a grey clag, unable to see a bloody thing. Then you trot down, look up and lo-and-behold, it’s suddenly a beautiful day up there. That is what happened on Clisham, the 799m highest point of the Western Isles. The photographs – one clear, one cloudy – are self-explanatory.