Below is my article, ‘Beautiful madness,’ on the Glen Coe Skyline, published in the Scotsman magazine.
Midges clung to the perspiring face of Emilie Forsberg as she caught her breath. Forsberg – an extraordinarily talented Swedish ultrarunner and girlfriend of the equally extraordinarily talented Kilian Jornet – had spent the previous eight hours running across towering summits and precipitous ridges in the Highlands as skyrunning came to Scotland for the first time.
‘How was it?’ I asked. ‘It’ being the inaugural Glen Coe Skyline race, the Scottish leg of the 2015 Skyrunning UK National Series.
She smiled. ‘I am so happy,’ she said. ‘That was so cool. Pure mountains.’ Forsberg Continue reading
Doctor Andrew Murray is at it again. Not content with running from Scotland to Morocco, galloping up Mount Kilimanjaro or jogging to the North Pole, he has this week announced that he is going to run the 10 highest Scottish mountains in one day.
This is why:
‘We are doing this because we had a free Saturday and fancied a challenge.’
Reasons do not get better than that.
‘We’ is Andrew and his running mate, Donnie Campbell. Campbell has form: he once ran 184 miles from Glasgow to Portree without stopping to sleep.
I fancy a challenge too. And I’ve got a free day. Next week. Tuesday, July 15.
I am yet to find a running mate, however. Donnie Campbells are hard to come by.
You enjoy your iconic, windswept, idyllic mountains, Andrew and Donnie. I have a different plan, a making-the-most-of-what-I’ve-got plan:
To run the summits of the 12 Inner London boroughs in one day.
That is – in order and in a clockwise arc – the highest natural points in Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, Camden, Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Greenwich, Southwark, Lewisham, Lambeth and Wandsworth.
Together, these summits add up to 957m – a slouching Scafell Pike. Think of the whole thing as a satire of the Bob Graham round. Utterly pointless. But then, is not that the point?
I am not sure how long the run is – it could be 30 miles, but 40 may be nearer the mark – and I am not sure how long it will take. It is perhaps best not to know. I’ll probably have to drop-off and pick-up my daughter from nursery, meaning around eight hours will have to suffice. Any longer and a 16-month-old girl is going hungry.
Down here in London, we are stuck with the capital’s vertically-challenged undulations while our highest points have been built on, buried under concrete or adorned with telecommunications paraphernalia. The highest point within the M25 circle, faraway from the urban chaos in the North Downs, is 270-metre Botley Hill. They stuck a telecommunications mast there, naturally.
I looked down on London from The Shard very recently. I can confirm that London – from some 300 metres up – is appallingly flat. Even the Crystal Palace ridge, away to the south and positively Ben Nevisian close to, is smothered by perspective.
Nonetheless, my response to Andrew Murray is this.
He is calling his challenge the ‘Big 10’; I’ll call mine the Little Dozen.
He is doing his 10 in one day; I will do my dozen in one day.
His 10 add up to more than 10,000m; the Little Dozen do not exceed 1,000m.
He will start on 1245m Ben Lawers; I will begin on College Park, the 45m summit of Hammersmith and Fulham, a concrete summit standing precisely 1200m lower than Ben Lawers and close to a Travis Perkins depot.
He will finish in the Cairngorms on 1291m Cairn Toul; I will end my journey on Putney Heath, the 60m roof of Wandsworth.
His Big 10 has never been done; I can safety assume nor has the Little Dozen.
His obstacles will include boulder fields, perilous cliffs and knife-edge aretes; I must take account of rambling, iPad-touting tourists, low-flying pigeons and cracks in the pavement.
He is running to showcase the benefits of regular exercise; that will do for me too.
And, of course, I have a ‘free day’.
Hammersmith & Fulham – College Park (45m)
Kensington & Chelsea – Harrow Road (45m)
City of Westminster – St John’s Wood Park (52m)
Camden – Hampstead Heath (134m)
Islington – Highgate Hill (100m)
Hackney – Seven Sisters Road (39m)
Tower Hamlets – Bethnal Green (16m)
Greenwich – Shooters Hill (132m)
Lewisham – Sydenham Hill (112m)
Southwark – Sydenham Hill (112m)
Lambeth – Westow Hill (110m)
Wandsworth – Putney Heath (60m)
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: very hard
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.
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.
‘Land of the giants,’ a running friend remarked when I announced I was Knoydart-bound. Knoydart is a wild, west coast peninsula suffused in the mythology of the outdoors: a place of extremes, a place of dreams. The Rough Bounds – as Knoydart is also known – have also been over-described as Scotland’s ‘last wilderness; that interpretation demands a definition of wilderness – and one man’s definition will be very different to another.
My objectives were the trio of Munros of Knoydart: Ladhar Bheinn, the highest, Meall Buidhe and Luinne Bheinn. There is nothing simple about these three; the giants have seen to that. First, I had to hike six midge-bothered miles from the road end at Kinloch Hourn to Barrisdale, then spend a muggy night in the estate bothy before the mountains could be contemplated.
Summit day dawned mercifully bright; I set off expectantly shortly after 7, a pasta breakfast consumed. A writer on Walk Highlands described Coire Dhorrcail as Lord of the Rings-esque. I can’t argue with that. The corrie was big and scary, getting out of it an unrelenting slog. Alone and having told no one of my specific plans, I had never felt so spectacularly isolated. The consequences of a trip or twist here were alarmingly apparent. This is the thrill of being in high and remote places, but – and perhaps it’s cowardly to say – on this occasion I was overawed by the exposure to danger.
Nevertheless, in a shade under two hours since leaving Barrisdale, I was on the top, a blanket of mist to the right, a gloriously clear view to the left. Standing there was like being on the rim of a smoking volcano, such was the proliferation of mist on one side and nothing to the other. How wild is Knoydart? I could have searched the web or sent an email; there was 3G coverage up there.
Ladhar Bheinn would be the physical and emotional high of the day; what ensued was struggle. I struggled up the north flank of Meall Buidhe. Don’t go there. It is steep, wet and grim. I struggled over the terrain between Meall Buidhe and Luinne Bheinn, falling heavily on an already-troubled ankle in the process. I struggled on to Luinne Bheinn, my 66th Munro. The view from here of Barrisdale and an emerald Loch Hourn is one of the most extraordinary I’ve seen from a mountain.
The final descent to Kinloch Hourn should have been a joy, but the sore ankle reduced my progress to a determined limp. After 7 hours and 17 miles I touched the door of the bothy and slumped down inside. Knoydart had redefined my perception of a ‘long mountain day’, and there were still six miles to go.
I feel guilty writing these final words: for while Knoydart is meant to captivate and inspire, I’d had my fill. I wanted to escape. This land had challenged me and – at times – scared me. I shouldered my pack, took a last glance at the mountains and got the hell out of there.
Reviews continue to come in for The UK’s County Tops. Good ones, I hasten to add. The most noteable is from Grough‘s Bob Smith, who calls the guide a ‘fascinating little book’. Meanwhile, there is a write-up on a walking blog, My Pennines. And there’s also an extract of one of the featured walks (Cornwall’s Brown Willy) on the website of St Christopher’s Inn, a global travel company. The book is available now on Amazon.
Outdoors Magic has given an early welcome for The UK’s County Tops (the ‘ideal step’ for anyone weary of the usual hill lists), published last week. I’ve copied the text below – or click here to see the real thing.
Just arrived is a new book from Cicerone, The UK’s County Tops by Jonny Muir, a guide to summiting the highest point in each of 91 ‘historic counties’ – we’re convinced the historic bit is there purely to allow the inclusion of the amusingly-named ‘Boring Field’, the highest point in Huntingdonshire…
It’s the ideal next step for anyone who’s already knocked off the Munros, Corbetts, Marilyns, Wainwrights, Donalds, Grahams and whatever other peaky tick-lists you can think of and the author should know what he’s on about as he was the first person to summit all 91 tops in a single 5,000-mile walking and cycling expedition back in 2006.
It’s a 205-page, medium-format paperback clearly laid-out and nicely produced in the recent Cicerone style. The book’s divided into country sections and works through each in a logical progression so, for example, the England bit begins with Brown Willy, the highest point in Corwall and finishes on the Cheviot in Northumberland.
Each top gets, usually, a double-page spread with a quick description of the hill, image(s) and some background details, a location map plus a brief route description illustrated with a proper OS map extract.
Yes, Of Course It’s Daft…
The whole concept is, of course, ridiculous, but then that’s part of its charm and Muir never pretends otherwise. And there’s a certain amusing daftness to any book that can go from Boring Field at one extreme – a whopping 80m in height, comment: ‘the clue is in the name’ – right up to the brooding 1344m lump of displaced alpine rockiness that is Ben Nevis at the other.
My Munro-bagging efforts have been lacklustre in 2011 (and, for that matter, 2010). Living in England hasn’t helped. I managed 38 in 2009 (at a time when home was Inverness). My Munro count plummeted to a miserable one in 2010 (not including repeat ascents on the bens Nevis and Wyvis), although the one was at least a good one: the Inaccessible Pinnacle.
This year I’ve managed a paltry three: Sron a’Choire Ghairbh and Meall na Teanga, both by virtue of my participation in the Loch Lochy Munros race in June, and, earlier this week, Beinn Narnain (pictured below), The Cobbler’s higher but less illustrious neighbour. I once convinced myself I’d climb all the Munros before I was 30. Yet, here I am, aged 30 and marooned on 62, with further Munro pursuits in the calender year highly unlikely.
Still, at least the Munros got a little easier this week. The Fisherfield peak of Beinn a’Chlaidheimh has been found to be too short for the Munro party, therefore going the way of Sgurr nan Ceannaichean in 2009. Beinn a’Chlaidheimh – 1.5 metres or 6.7ft shy of the necessary mark – has thus been sent packing into the lower reaches of the Corbetts. So where there were 284 Munros two years ago, there are now 282. Time to get updating those guidebooks.
The downgrading of Beinn a’Chlaidheimh has sparked an interesting debate about Scottish 4000ers, Munros and Corbetts in general, not least on the Caledonian Mercury website. It’s a shame to lose any hills from the Munro list – especially, as one commentator has noted, there don’t appear to be any promotions on the horizon – but it does, at least, make my Munro quest a tiny bit easier.
I’d never climbed Ben Wyvis on a clear day. A vast tract of the wild north that I knew must be visible from the summit plateau had been elusive during my previous four forays, hidden from view by obstinate walls of mist. Furthermore, life on the plateau had a habit of being wind-blasted and breathtakingly cold, even in summer.
Ben Wyvis was a different beast last night. It was benign: calm and clear, with a panorama from the top that was worth the wait of several years. Four of us headed up the tourist track from the west – a pair of Highland Hill Runners, a junior British orienteering champion, who climbed peerlessly, and I.
As we gained height, escaping the midges, the realisation that Wyvis would be mist-free grew. And so it was. Nor were we greeted by a previously inevitable battering ram of wind that strikes when An Cabar is reached.
What a pleasure it was to bound across the carpet of soft grass that layers this summit, to gaze over that vast tract of Scotland unfurled in all directions: the distinctive bump of Fyrish; the firths of Dornoch, Cromarty and Moray; Ben Rinnes rising above Dufftown; the distant, grey outlines of the Cairngorms; a jumble of unknown mountains to the south-west; the soaring Fannichs; the glinting waters of Loch Glascarnoch; shafts of sunlight on Little Wyvis; the red sky of the western horizon; the marvellously-sculpted peaks of Sutherland.
It was mesmerising; our eyes stunned by innumerable wonders that are so often hidden treasures.
I’d forgotten how hard Scottish hill running is. My last outing had been the Ben Nevis race last September; memories of the anguish of the grassy bank, the relentless of the slope, the desperate tiredness of the road, had ebbed away. It took a wander over the Loch Lochy Munros to remind me how brutal running up and down mountains north of the border can be. They made the Lake District hills I had scampered over the previous weekend seem like mere molehills.
Two hours before Loch Lochy I was sitting in the Little Chef in Spean Bridge eating a full cooked breakfast. I needed the calories. Starting beneath the impressive Eas Chia-aig waterfall, 44 of us churned along forestry tracks, then an undulating track, before being spat out onto open moorland.
The ground here was sodden and boggy, and the path intermittent, making the going slow and strenuous all the way to the first checkpoint. From Fedden, a ruined building, the track turned to the east, beginning a tortuous grind up the grassy flanks of the first Munro, Sron a’ Choire Ghairbh. Runners were strung out in front and behind, crouched figures, hauling ourselves up a steepening slope. My calf muscles screamed; I longed for the end. A summit followed a false summit.
A pall of mist obscured the mountain as I reached the top, hiding from view the vision of Loch Lochy and, more worryingly, the runners immediately ahead. For a few moments, I was baffled: Where do I go now? Worse still: Am I going to have to navigate? My saviours were a pair of Lochaber runners who surged past me. I followed, trusting their local knowledge. The descent was more straightforward than most – predominately grassy and a not too appalling gradient, yet my legs were unconditioned to such a sudden altitude drop. Life in south London simply can’t prepare you for such descents.
I was soon climbing again, relentlessly again, to the second Munro, Meall na Teanga. A further down and up took me over the Munro’s top and the penultimate checkpoint. A Lochaber runner and I plunged downhill to the glen, contouring a slope which made my already aching ankle (caused by chronically overused Inov8s) to throb further.
Back in the glen I was in more runnable territory and mustering scraps of energy I sought to gain time I had inevitably lost in the final descent. I gained a single place, rather cruelly in the last 100 metres. He was an over-50 too, so the moral victory was surely his. Still, on the run-in, I had time to reflect: Slopping through bog; a wrecked ankle; flailing down slippery, tussocky descents; long, painful ascents, it was, nevertheless, a joy and a privilege to be racing in the Scottish mountains again.
Full results here on the Scottish Hill Racing website.