A record breaking human power relay over every Scottish mountain over 1KM high!
The ARCHIE Foundation's Mountain Challenge
Long days often feel easy for the first half, and then don’t feel easy again. The descent to the col is 1700 feet of rocky scree and short diversions onto snow in the Allt na Clach Tailleur. This flowed smoothly. The ridge to Carn a Mhaim is a grand highway, and more snow runnels took us down steeply to below Derry Cairngorm. This is when the effort started. 2000 feet of ascent of windless, midgy deep heather, was the psychological crux of the day. Fatigue held us back, chat a required distraction. Bad holiday jobs were recalled, reveled in and we ground back up to the summits.
Duke of Edinburgh groups were camped at Loch Etchachan, too excited to sit in quiet contemplation. We trotted past and onto the steep shoulder of Bein Mheadoin. The pace steadied and rolled onto the flatter ridge. The northerly wind chilled more deeply in the brief showers, summit rewards were required a mile early as the waterproofs went on. Snow and rainbows led down to the Loch A’an outflow and the base of the final climb. Seracs perched on the slabs and we crept underneath. Tom was delighted with the altimeter setting on his Garmin and called out the passing of every 50m. Suddenly we were on top of Cairngorm, Paul Fettes and Steve Manning grinning in the early evening light, our timing spot on. Rays of sunbeams picked out Aviemore. We had put in a good shift.
It was my idea to volunteer for the Lochnagar to Glas Maol leg. I knew the ground well and relished the idea of a dawnlit lope over the undulating plateau to Glen Shee. Russell Duncan had phoned me the previous Thursday morning. I was in tidy up mode at work after an emergency case in the small hours, caffeinated into activity. We sat in the fresh air garden among the cigarette butts and trees. He had the news from the west. The team was stretched thin, and unsure of timings with rising river levels in Knoydart. The plan was to fix the long and committing Cairngorm legs for fresh runners giving enough time to make slow progress in the west. We could fill up spare time with peak bagging around Creag Meagaidh. It all made practical sense, and I agreed. He offered accommodation in Carrbridge and I accepted. He suggested that he would quite like to do the Glen Feshie hills to Braeriach and Glas Tuilachean. Such reasonable requests could not be denied. I was keen for Lochnagar, and the Macdui Cairngorms. That left a short recovery time in between. Nevermind. It’ll be fine.
Carrbridge curry and beers partially restored the inner men. Tom needed to download the day onto Strava to prove it had happened. I needed an early night. 0130 2 hours sleep and time for day 2. The drive round past Tomintoul was steady, we picked up the rabbit off a campervan step as planned and headed into the hills. Energy levels seemed reasonable as we climbed though the woods.
I had described the day as an undulating half marathon, conveniently ignoring the 5 mile walk to get to the first summit, and the accumulated fatigue. Lochanager was bright and smiling, we undulated over the short grass moss and thin soil as it stopped being early morning. Attempts at running became less frequent and ceased. The hardest struggle was contouring past the barely protruding pimple of Tolmount, we had to deploy mutual tales of incredibly clever diagnoses made on limited information to keep morale out of the ditch. But slow and steady leads to the end eventually. Carn of Claise marked the watershed, and Glas Maol followed . Jamie and Craig had mountain biked to the top of the tows on Meall Odhar, and we captured a group selfie in sepia. Our job was done.
“I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent but only vaulting ambition that o’erleaps itself and falls on the other”
It was 0530 on the White Mounth, 4 km west of the summit of Lochnagar, and a beautiful summer morning was slowly getting started. Golden early morning light glowed, birdsong chattered like the shimmer of strings presaging a key moment in a film. The path from the Ballochbuie woods eased onto the plateau and I turned to Tom Fardon and nodded, it was time to run. Twenty seconds later we stopped. His straight legged stumble dictated by “illio tibial bands like banjo strings”; my eccentric, penguin waddle was no faster than walking pace. Two minutes later we tried again with the same result. Sublimity crashed into reality. We were due at Glas Maol, 12 miles west at 0800 to hand over the rabbit, we were moving at 2 miles per hour. The relay chain of colleagues, friends and partial acquaintances stretched virtually into the future, looking at their watches and tutting. How had we gotten ourselves in this mess?
The previous day had gone so well. Luxury accommodation had been provided in the Duncan – Hardie holiday mansion in Carrbridge. Tom and I awoke at a civilized hour, and logged on to the tracker. The lads had crossed the Moine Mhor to Ben Bhrotain at great speed. Would there be time for the full breakfast? It might be tight getting to the Pools of Dee at the top of the Lairig Ghru, but they couldn’t fail to cross our path on their way down. We went for it; slow release of pork fat from a stuffed stomach is underrated these days as a fuelling strategy for endurance exercise, but I find it reliable. We talked through the plan, sipping a second cappuccino. 20 miles and 6000 feet would take us round 5 Archies in a big loop of the Cairngorms. Weather was clear and sometimes sunny, but not hot. It was going to be a good day, contemplated without apprehension.
The first rendezvous was with Dominic the cameraman for the adventure show. We settled into trotting along the path to the Chlamain gap, and stopping for filming from different angles. Tom and I had not been out together on the hill before. I knew him as well as one can from chats at Parkrun, and adjacent clinics in Arbroath Infirmary. His athletic credentials were well established as a doyen of Monifeath Traithlon Club, and Parkrun director. He was dressed for racing with full body lycra, wrap around shades and logo encrusted baseball cap. I shuffled alongside in shorts and fleece. I had a good few miles in my legs having survived gale force rain and snow on the Highlander Mountain Marathon and the Islands Peaks Race a few weeks earlier. It was a surprise when Tom told me that every feature of my gait was the precise opposite of everything he trained people to do in triathlons. While I was unsure about how relevant this observation would be I reflected that it was good to establish such clear communication and teamwork so early in the day.
We stopped again for interviews in the Chlamain Gap. I burbled away happily, Tom kept his shades on. On again into the Lairig Ghru and no sign of Russell / Jason. Conditions were perfect for running, and the pace was gentle. We walked up the steep and broken ground and trotted along the smoother stretches of path. We were into the boulder field in no time, and picked out separate ways to the lochans. Tibetan prayer flags fluttered in hippy transgression of littering laws. The wind ruffled the dark surfaces, and we hunkered down behind some boulders in a patch of sun. Conversation slowed. Out of sight on the Braeriach plateau, the tracker was pinging out a satellite signal to the watching world on office monitors, but not to us. We had nothing to do but wait. Loitering in the hills for an unknown interval is a privilege that is hard to obtain; we enjoyed every moment.
Russell and Jason crested the skyline and interrupted the daydreams. They handed over quickly and we were off. The rising traverse from the Lairig Ghru is not well travelled, there was no hint of a path, but it is a superb route. Steep enough to be interesting, and the views change rapidly, opening out massively to the Devil’s Point and beyond. Dominic had been uncertain about following us up to Ben Macdui with Health and Safety Rules discouraging solo high mountain travel when working. He was delighted with the pictures, running strongly on ahead, filming us from both sides and capturing the Cairngorms as the opposite of rounded bouldery puddings. With all the distractions time flew and the summit of Ben Macdui arrived, filming finished with us heading over the horizon to Carn a Mhaim.