A record breaking human power relay over every Scottish mountain over 1KM high!
The ARCHIE Foundation's Mountain Challenge
Gary and Amy were waiting by the gate at the bottom of the path, ready to take Rabbie on to Glen Coe. And then it was over. Amy and Steve left to get to Glasgow, and I returned to the empty car park, and my car. Everyone else had moved on to Glen Coe, and more adventures. It was only when I got to the car that I realised I probably needed a new pair of running shoes:
Mountain man, Gary Tomsett, had passed on some advice about the return leg. Unfortunately he passed it on through Andrew Dalton! The message started off as “Have a look at the Western slope, and see if you can contour back along: it could save you some time on the return leg”. This became “Descend to 700m, and you’ll be able to save loads of time contouring round to the start point”. 700m turned out to be a large rock field. And once we were into it, we had passed the rubicon, and were committed to it. My mountain goat abilities are not renowned, and my choice of footwear wasn’t exactly tailored to traversing a 60 degree slope of scree. But we made it through, and decided on “The direct route” down, at full whack. Steve was a true gentleman again - every time he started pulling away from me on the descent, he’d very thoughtfully fall over, allowing me to catch up.
But what a view from the top! Where there had been cloud, snow, rain, drizzle, and an urge to get off the summits in the Cairngorms, the summit of Sgorr Dearg offered us a 360 degree view of Scotland. The Ben, the Cairngorms, the Coullin Ridge, the isle of Jura. A phenomenal sight. It has to be my favourite ARCHIE summit photo from the week.
But we didn’t hang around too long, as we were off down the saddle to start the climb up the second of the of the climbs. This was even more technical, with some scrambling up rocks, and some *very* narrow paths. More looking straight ahead, and not looking right, and we were up, job done.
Brian, Andrew D and I set off to Fort William in search of civilisation, and some peanut M&Ms, while the rest of the AMC challengers followed Titch to a local bathing spot. I suspect it was a wee bit nippy in the river, but they looked a lot more awake when we met up again at the foot of the Ben to watch Paul and Nicky gallop down the tourist path, overtaking unsuspecting members of the public, leaving them in their wake. Amy took Rabbie and set off to cycle to Ballachulish, where she would hand over to husband Steve, and me. Realising suddenly that we needed to beat her to Ballachulish, we set off to the meeting point. We only just beat her there - so a dash up to the School gates was met with a “Where have you been?” look, and we were off.
On paper, the Ballachulish horseshoe pair of ARCHIEs are both low mountains, only just ARCHIEs in fact. What I failed to grasp before we set off was that the start of the run was essentially at sea level. So began a constant climb of the best part of 1000m, in a straight line, up the Southern ridge of Sgorr Dearg. Steve is a quick lad. I was a wheezy old man, hanging on for dear life behind him. The terrain was completely different from the Cairngorm climbs - rather than long domed summits, with wide approaches, the Western mountains are steep, the paths are narrow, the ridges drop off precipitously on both sides. Frankly, it gave me the Willies. Running up the ridge with only 4 feet of path to separate me from a long drop, Steve was a fantastic guide; “Just look straight ahead on this bit, Tom; probably best not to look to the right….”.
It was early, but we weren’t up as early as Brian and Titch who had set off at first light to chase around Brian’s first ARCHIEs, and his first go at hill running. Amy and I set off up the Glen Nevis road on our bikes to meet them off the mountain. We didn’t wait long to find them bombing down the path. A quick handover, and we were back down the glen to hand over to Rear Admiral Fettes and Nicky Conway who were champing at the bit to get up the Ben. As is typical of a Scottish Summer, they set off in shorts and sleeveless tops, with ice axes and crampons attached to their rucksacks.
I was left with a 3 hour drive back to Dundee, and a lot to reflect on. 5 days, 86km, over 4000m climbing, 10 ARCHIE summits reached, 120km cycled, 2 bags of peanut M&Ms scoffed, 2 full Scottish breakfasts, a curry, too many bottles of juice, probably not enough water, far too many energy gels consumed, and a frighteningly small number of hours of sleep.
"But what an experience. What a thing to be part of ".
The feeling of achievement still lives on, 3 weeks later, as I write this. And I’ve been back on the hills, running up trails, windmilling down descents, losing more toenails. Will we have another go next year, and try to beat 2 weeks? If so, sign me up. But can we do it in July?
We were given the ‘option’ of climbing Ben Mheadhoin - which meant, of course, that we would do it, to save those who came after us from having to do it. Just before the summit, John pulled out a bag of Peanut M&Ms. I hugged him.
After the first pitch we were able to pick up the pace a bit, and run up to the summit. Then we went back so Dominic could get the reverse angle. And again from behind. The same off the top. He left us to it at that point, and ran back to his car. I hope he had the lens cap off.
The rest of the day is a blur. Carn a Mhaim have us an amazing view of where we’d been, and what we were about to do. When John suggested we run down the show bank to cut across to Derry Cairngorm, I thought he was joking - apparently not. We’d watched Russell and Jay do a similar trick off the top of Braeriach, and it proved to be a genius idea - descending, or falling, with style.
The descent from Ben Meadhoin to the outflow of Loch Avon was tough on my knees, but the scenery got better and better. John had mentioned the possibility of ‘crossing a river at some point’. I hadn’t realised that this meant wading across a waist deep ice cold outflow of a mountain loch. But we kept Rabbie’s feet dry, and pushed on up Cairngorm. As we approached the summit of Cairngorm, we broke into a canter, just in time to see Paul and Steve waiting at the summit, with Amy and Cookie the dog. I have rarely been so happy to see the finish line of an event.
I’ve done a fair bit of running, off road, and on trails, half marathons at a decent lick, but I’ve never done anything so tough as climbing those 5 ARCHIEs. The walk down to the ski centre was painful - ITBs like banjo strings. But the elation of knowing I’d taken Rabbie over a big chunk of the Cairngorms in the previous 10 hours made it all worthwhile. As did the promise of a curry back in Cartridge.
Tuesday 9th June
The alarm went off at 02:30. By 03:00 we were back on the road, heading for Invercauld Bridge, to collect Rabbie from the MTB riders who had ferried him from the foot of Ben Avon. By 04:30 we were back running, through the forrest, and up to start the climb to Lochnagar. The previous night we’d had a number of guesstimate conversations on how long it would take us to get round Lochnagar, Cairn of Claise and Glas Maol - anything from 2 1/2 hours, to 4 1/2 hours. John told me to think of it as “Just an undulating half marathon”. We hit the top of Lochnagar at 2 hours 28. It was going to be a longer day on the hill than we thought. But what a way to spend a Tuesday morning. We were at the summit at 07:00. There was no-one else on the mountain, and had’t been all morning. It felt as though we were the only people in the highlands. And the view from the top was magical. A lesson in ‘contouring’ got us to Cairn of Claise, giving us a view of the last climb, Glas Maol. Just as 12 hours previously, just as I was reaching another tough stretch on the shoulder before Gla Maol, John reached into that bottomless rucksack of his and pulled out another packet of Peanut M&Ms. Don’t set off up the mountain without a bag of M&Ms.
By the summit of Glas Maol we were both hoping that someone would have set off up the ski-road to meet us. And half way down the steep descent - ITBs playing the banjo again - we were met by the MTB riders, ready to take Rabbie on at a faster pace. The walk down to the car park was painful, but we took our time to enjoy the moment - 36 hours, 71km, 4000m of climbing, 8 ARCHIEs.
Wednesday 10th June
A day off. Apart from meeting up at Laggan Loch to take the CX bike up to meet Graeme Gatherer and Joe Symonds running down off the Ben Alder group. It was a nice moment when Joe passed Rabbie on to his sister Amy - we then cycled round through Roy Bridge, on to Spean Bridge, and round back to Corriechoile to pass on Rabbie to Russell and Jay, on their way up the Grey Corries.
Thursday 11th June
The meeting point was the Youth Hostel at Glen Nevis, at daft o’clock. But by the time I got to there, their was a healthy number of AMC folk there, many of whom had slept in their cars overnight: Russell had turned the back of his car into a mobile kitchen, and was offering up a brew.
Sunday June 7th
An early start from Dundee to reach the Dalwhinny car park to meet up with Graeme Gatherer by 7am, and a quick dash to the Fersit meeting point where we met up with Rabbie, stored in the careful grasp of Phil Lacroux. Stood in the car park looking up at Stob Coire Easin, it suddenly became very real - 5 days to get up and round the Cairngorms, Glenshee, Ben Alder, back to Spean Bridge, through the Grey Corries, and up the Ben, then into Glen Coe. The start of a long shift. My role today was to get Rabbie from Fersit to the foot of Craig Meagaidh by cyclocross bike, only 8km up the road, then meet Rabbie 4 hours later and transport him to Feshiebridhe, where the runners would pick up the challenge for the Cairncorms the following morning. The bike route took us past Laggan Wolftrax, so it only seemed fair to take Rabbie down the skills trail on the way. Around the time I got to Loch Insh, it was getting a bit dark and spooky in woods, but Rabbie reached his destination after a short detour.
Monday 8th June
Our day in the limelight. John Irving and I drove to the Sugarbowl car park, just below the Cairngorm ski centre, and met our companion for the first part of the day Dominick, the freelance cameraman. The rendezvous point was the Pools of Dee, part way down the Lairig Ghru. As we had a few hours to get there, Dominic was very keen to get some ‘action footage’ of us running up the mountains - this meant running the same stretch repeatedly so Dominic could get wide angle shots, close ups, and those ‘from low down on the floor’ shots that the Adventure Show always seems so keen on. At the top of the Chalamain Gap was another camera man, there to carry out interviews. I think they were probably after some short, sharp soundbites, but instead they got 2 doctors rambling on about the beauty of the Cairgorms and the ludicrous nature of the Scottish summer, just as it started to snow.
We met Russell and Jay at the Pools of Dee. They ran over to us, then they ran back to do it again one the Dominic had the cameras rolling. 20 minutes of wide angles, close ups, and 'running past the camera’ shots, and we had Rabbie in our backpack, and 5 ARCHIEs to climb before bedtime. John Irving’s idea of ‘cracking on’ was to run up Ben Macdui from the South West, up the steepest approach. A baptism of fire for someone who’s never climbed a munro before; with the camera filming us, we started to climb. “Shouldn’t we head for the path?”, I suggested. “The beaten path is for beaten men”, he replied.