The ARCHIE Foundation's Mountain Challenge
Celebrity Strictly Come Baking on Ice Factor became second rate viewing in our house for the weeks of the challenge, “Tracker Watch” became essential viewing. Where were the team now? What was the weather like? Had the team summited? Why was the tracker stationary in the high mountains in bad weather when there was no bothy on the map? Who was going to get Barry’s desk in the office if he really had frozen to death up there? There was enormous relief every time the tracker moved to a place of safety or carried on its journey but it became clear that the Ericht crossing was not going to coincide with our time off work. Mobile phone reception was patchy in the northern part of the challenge so communication was more difficult than anticipated and we were not sure if we’d be any use. The tracker headed into Glen Garry.
Sod it we thought, we’ll go anyway. We’ll bring food and beer and boats, bikes, maps and waterproofs and meet up by Kinloch Hourn. We’ll probably be of no use to the challenge apart from the food and beer and possibly the campervan but we’ll go anyway. There is only one road in and out; we’re bound to find them.
I headed off the day before the other two, looking to catch the Archie team at some point late in the afternoon and by the time I’d reached Loch Lochy I knew it was a good idea to come. There was a break in the weather and the sun was out, its rays making the water sparkle and the rain had filled the burns and waterfalls making them cascade over the hillside at the edge of the road. The traffic was light and it would be worth it for the drive, even in a van, if nothing else. I grew up in the West Highlands and hadn’t been back since my parents sold up and moved to the east coast and it reminded me how beautiful this part of the country is. It had been too long since I was last here.
My first doubt didn’t come until I found myself descending the steep, narrow, rocky single track road down to the car park at Kinloch Hourn in a 7m long, 3m high and worryingly 2.3m wide campervan. Well, the snow plough and bin lorry presumably manage and Paul’s probably brought his aunt’s van along here too, I thought…
I arrived to find Dave Henderson packing up his sea kayak having finished relaying Rabbie to/from Knoydart, too late dammit, and caught up with the team’s progress. The northern loop had been tricky and the schedule had been delayed by having to come down some mountains and then approach the summit from the other side due to the impassable cornices and many had had to return to work but the Knoydart had been completed and Rabbie was now back with Paul.
“Hi Craig, I’m away to cycle up the glen to the next mountain. Want to do an Archie?”
I agreed on the proviso that I had to eat first and repeated I was no runner and didn’t want to hold anyone back. We agreed that Paul would cycle to and then run up and down Sgurr Maoraich in the daylight as he could do this both quickly and safely and then Jason and I would shuttle a van and bikes to the right places so we could cycle on from the foot of Sgurr Maoraich to the foot of Gleoraich for a twilight climb with a bed/food/beer at the bottom.
Topography doesn’t seem to affect Paul the same way as most people. Normally, a cycle up a steep road, a yomp across a peat bog and a climb up and down a 1027m mountain from sea level would cause a person to break sweat and take a period of some several hours but no, as soon as Jay and I had finished the shuttle and taken the bikes off the rack a sleek, fast moving creature appeared on the horizon like some kind of bipedal puma and bounded down the hillside. The bog’ll slow him up we agreed, wrongly as it turned out.
A few minutes later Paul appeared and we set off up the road back to the van on our bikes. Back at the van we quickly changed into hill walking kit – wait a minute, why was Jason getting changed into what looked suspiciously like running kit? The answer became quickly apparent as the quality of the light started to fade and the Scottish drizzle thickened up into a light rain as we jogged gently up along a good quality path that became progressively steeper the further we ascended. “Fancy running for a bit” suggested Jason? I thought I was already but picked up the pace a bit and we found the sweet spot where Jason managed to avoid hypothermia and I managed to avoid cardiac arrest.
We arrived at the summit after the wind picked up but just before darkness fell and posed for the obligatory summit selfie and paused briefly to allow our phones to connect with the outside world with the mountains out of the way then set off down again into a very welcome headwind which softened the blow every time our feet stuck the ground and took the strain off our knees. In fairness, Jason probably didn’t notice but this old kayaker’s knees were very grateful. I also managed to bag the best head torch so the fact that I wasn’t plunging blindly into the darkness helped me keep up pretty well.
Back at the van Paul had both food and beer waiting so we caught up properly on the progress so far and looked for potential solutions to the thorny issue of how to get to the south of Loch Quoich without going for miles around it and having to cross many burns in spate and where to place the team to walk out to. Many had assumed that this would be a rest day for Rabbie as the storm blew through. I suggested we could paddle across, safe in the knowledge that no one would be daft enough to agree. Paul immediately agreed. Jamie was pitching up in the morning and hopefully Neil shortly after then we’d have enough boats to shuttle runners across the loch. The paddlers could then relocate to Loch Arkaig and wait there.
The plan improved further in the morning when Kirsty’s parents arrived with their beautiful sea kayaks and split paddles and offered to lend them to us to make the crossing. A sea kayak is the perfect boat to cross a choppy loch in, we’d all brought our play boats which are best suited to white water river descents; akin to taking a land rover to a race track, it’ll do but it’s not really the right tool for the job.
Paul and Jason took the sea boats, excellent boats but not their own boats so not fitted out for maximum stability and comfort. Jamie and I took our own – stable, comfortable, perfectly fitted but relatively slow in the water and particularly my own boat has the aerodynamics of a brick. Our landing point was on the southern shore, a mile or so to the west and into the headwind. The plan was that we would paddle up the shoreline until we were level with the egress then cross. Jamie and I were to shepherd the ‘weaker’ paddlers across and tow the boats back.
Half way up the shoreline we came out of the lee of a small hill and it became apparent to Paul that speed made for stability and stability was in shorter supply than anticipated and he charged across the loch with Jason and Jamie in tow. It became apparent to me that I was no longer going forwards and as a rescue boat I would have to wait until a swimmer was blown back to me to rescue, and therefore I should stop fighting the wind, lift the slow, flat hull of my boat into air with my knee and use it with the wind to ferry glide across the loch into the lee of the hills to the south. We regrouped on the south bank, the runners ran off and Jamie and I swapped into the sleek, fast sea kayaks and towed our boats back north. Tow is too strong a word really, we steered the playboats as the wind briskly blew them home. In fact I stopped paddling at one point and my boat blew past upside down, and towed me.
As well as lending us their boats, Kirsty’s parents fed us on our return before we went our separate ways and the three of us headed to Loch Arkaig to await Paul and Jason.
The weather had again closed again and the mountains were interfering with the data signal for ‘tracker watch’ by the time we arrived at Loch Arkaig so we were a little concerned that having talked our friends into a perilous open water crossing then deserted them cold and wet on the shores of a loch in a storm that we might hear about them on the news rather than see them again. To ease our collective guilt, we decided to leave the van at the bottom of the glen, take a car to the end of the road and cycle up into Glendessary and wait for them there. Fortunately, sometime later, two cold, wet runners pitched up and by this time they were travelling so slowly that even I could keep up. Jamie and Neil packed Rabbie onto mountain bikes and headed off to the foot of the glen whilst I packed the runners into a warm car and chauffeured them to the food, drink and accommodation.
Back at the van Paul was aghast; Rabbie was going to have to rest for the night again! “He needs to get to Fersit!” he beseeched. “There’s no one there yet Paul” we replied. “No one expected to be able to cover so much ground today and the fresh legs won’t arrive until tomorrow morning.”
“But how will he get there by the morning?” he worried. I agreed to set an alarm and cycle him over in the morning and Paul finally relented and passed out asleep.
After a short cut through the Achnacarry estate, and a jaunt up the bank of the Spean, Rabbie was finally passed over to Phil Lacoux who was enjoying an early morning cuppa in the car park at Fersit whist waiting for the rest of the fresh legs to arrive. Shortly after as I headed back down the road I was passed by what can be best described as John Irving and two car loads of lurchers who needed to get out and run. That rabbit’s going to have a hard day, I thought.
Jamie and Neil picked me up and we returned to Arkaig to check that Paul was still alive as there had been no signs of life at all from his van that morning. It turned out he was, he’d slept for about 12 hours straight and admitted he was glad that Rabbie had travelled in the morning and that he hadn’t had to do it as he was in fact, “a bit tired.”
We finally put the playboats to use and paddled the Arkaig – in high spate, in summer – it’d have been rude not to. Neil’s stint was done after this – farmers don’t generally have too much free time in summer – but Jamie and I had the chance to catch up with the challenge a week or so later in the Cairngorms.
John Irving had a plan to save the runners who were quickly bringing the challenge back on schedule. We were to meet Paul Fettes and Steve Manning as they descended the Grampians at a ruin on the path, north of Braemar and cycle Rabbie out and up towards Lochnagar. As it transpired, the lateness of the hour meant the back up the next hill bit would be scrapped and we’d just take Rabbie and the runners back to the bottom of the hill. Amy Manning arrived in her campervan and met us at the car park before we headed up the hill. Being pregnant, Amy was concerned that she’d hold us up but as she’d chosen a cyclocross bike, was wearing what looked suspiciously like British team kit and was married to Steve we were more worried that it would be the other way around.
A good while later a patch of ‘not quite so dark’ appeared on the mountainside and this eventually resolved itself into a patch of light followed by a rather weary Paul and Steve. We exchanged greetings and immediately set off down the hill. Out of curiosity I hung back a little to see if the lower fork was visible in the dark from this direction and in fact, Steve confirmed that it was not and strode on by. This corrected we headed down to the others and regrouped. We split the group again, Two bikes were dispatched, one to take Rabbie down the hill before his 4am rendezvous and another to bring a vehicle back up the road (fortunately there were no locked gates that night on the estate roads) to recover the weary travellers. Rabbie headed off up the mountain again whilst we slept and in the morning we headed over to Glenshee for breakfast and our next rendezvous.
As we sat in Glenshee car park after a good night’s sleep munching a cooked breakfast and sipping coffee it occurred to Jamie and I that instead of musing at how the pace seem to have tailed off a little and contemplating another glass of orange juice we could, in fact, push our mountain bikes up to at least the top of Meall Odhar on the supply road to the ski field and then bike the bunny down to the car park before swapping to our road bikes for our planned descent into the Spittal of Glenshee before handing over to Russell Duncan and Matthew McCullach at Dalmunzie Castle.
The challenge was a fantastic adventure through stunning scenery with remarkable and inspiring people and it was a privilege to be able to be part of it. I thought that our Archie adventures would come to an end as we headed home but in fact my eldest daughter has taken to Archie bagging, and has to date accompanied me up four including the first, Ben Wyvis.
AMC inspired photo of Caitlin atop Schiehallion.
When Paul suggested the Archie Mountain Challenge it sounded like an ambitious but crazy idea. Excellent, I thought. I like mountains; I’d like to be a part of that. I know some people who are daft enough to want to be part of that too. I enlisted Jamie Smith and Neil Fettes to the team: we’re old kayaking friends from Uni, enjoyed some mountain biking before we had kids and enjoy a stroll in the hills. None of us are runners.
Paul quickly assembled a team of pretty accomplished hill runners, mountain men and a cycling peloton and it soon became clear that to be useful to the team, we’d need to try to bring something different to the party if we were to be more useful than parachute on a bicycle. Fortunately for us, the route required a crossing of loch Ericht. Excellent we thought, we’ll book a few days off and take a campervan, some kayaks and our mountain bikes and do some biking and kayaking around the time when Rabbie need to cross loch, keeping an eye on the tracker so we are there to support the runners and shuttle them across the water. It was a good plan. Unfortunately, it was bad weather.
We set off with bikes and good lights into the dark and were soon at the ruin which was a little beyond the point where the track was easily navigable by bike and a little before the point where the landscape opens up again and you can see up the mountain. We also discovered that the path forked a little before and a little after the ruin and we were on a little island only visible from the lower of the two tracks. Mobile reception had let us down again so Jamie waited with Amy and I walked up a little past the fork in the path, turned off my light and waited to look for lights and listen for voices in the darkness.
We therefore hauled our bikes up a rather steep track and onto the shoulder of Glas Maol and it was not long before John Irving ran down followed by a slightly broken Tom Fardon. Tom, it turns out, does do running but doesn’t really do hills. Each to their own, I suppose. We relieved John and Tom of their burden and headed down fairly briskly, switched to road bikes and then headed on even more briskly down to the Spittal before finally having to pedal again along to Dalmunzie Castle. 6ft tall Matthew drew the short straw at Dalmunzie Castle and had to borrow my mountain bike to pedal to the bottom of Glas Tulaichean. I’m 5’6.
A record breaking human power relay over every Scottish mountain over 1KM high!