A record breaking human power relay over every Scottish mountain over 1KM high!
The ARCHIE Foundation's Mountain Challenge
Rabbie with Katie A and Katy B on Meall Ghaordaidh
Again, I feel that I should leave others with a greater prowess in verbalising their thoughts to document the culmination of the challenge at Ben Ime. I feel privelidged to have been involved in this venture at all. I went in with trepidation that I would hold up the relay, but felt that I was whole-heartedly welcomed by everyone and embraced as part of the team. For anyone else still suffering from AMC-withdrawal, or those who regret not being able to take part, I would definitely be interested in doing it all again!
After an afternoon washing lycra and following the tracker, then a morning following the tracker and peering at the clouds trying to see Schiehallion directly, I rejoined camp Archies Mountain Challenge in another iconic car park. Cameron McNeish describes Meall Ghaordaidh and its surrounding mountains as “undistinguished”. I feel that he just lacked the company of Katy B: her enthusiasm for the mountains, mountain marathons, cyclocross and knitting got us around the muddy man holes to the summit, and then back down again with constant chatter and smiles all round.
Kayakers setting off down Loch Etive
Up through the last tendrils of the haze, then out and into the splendour of the tops of Glen Etive. Yet another day of 360° views to savour with a pathless descent down to out next handover point on the shores of Loch Etive. By that time the sun was beating down and there were no questions – we were going in the loch, and taking Rabbie with us. Soon he was off again, spirited away by the sea kayakers towards Taynuilt and Ben Cruachan. The day wasn’t over for Brian, who had a cycle leg to catch; but it was time for me to take a step back from the challenge, and realise just how much I would miss it.
Rabbie and Brian high above Loch Etive, with Ben Cruachan in the background
After a series of awe-inspiring runs through the night from Simon, Andrew, Russell, Mike, Tim and Gary, Brian and I were positioned at the 250 meter contour on the shoulder of Ben Starav ready to receive the baton at 0700hrs. A misjudged patch of mud had already seen me sink up to my knees that morning; thankfully I had not yet taught Brian that the correct mountain etiquette at such a time is to control your laughter just long enough to take photographic evidence then proceed to collapse into a heap of mockery, so I was promptly retrieved from the bog. We watched a shroud of harr rush in to envelop Glen Etive then cover us on our vantage point; only the shouts through the mists alerted us to Gary and Tim’s approach for handover. Time to take Rabbie on another adventure.
We had just enough time for a swim in the river while Paul and Nicky ran to the top of the UK and back. Quick congratulations, then onwards to Glencoe for more planning and a meal not cooked on a camp-stove with the tracker being compulsively refreshed on a gaggle of gadgets. I had been impressed by the fitness, stamina and positivity of all the people around me, but the feat of planning that followed was something else.
Mist creeping up Glen Etive
Another steep descent took us down into Glen Nevis. Much of the way back to Steall Meadows the “path” is really just a popular route through the mud. Soft under tired feet, but not the effortless running we were wishing for after over two kilometres of ascent, and all the downhill that comes with it. It was on the meadow that we came across other people for the first time, they were clearly very confused to see us – I suppose where we had come from must have been a complete mystery as they had been camping up the glen and it was still morning. The mighty Falls of Steall prompted a quick celebratory cartwheel for Rabbie, then it was a final blast down the track to where Amy and Tom were waiting – I remember a tip I was given on my first ever hill running descent: “the trick is to feel like you’re flying…but don’t actually go flying”. It was a close one for me. Time to belatedly celebrate Brian’s Munro (and Archie) initiation with rhubarb gin and whisky, then tuck into porridge and coffee with the late-risers of the world – do they even know what they’re missing?
I had thought that we might be able to skirt around the tops on the ridge that didn’t make Archie status. The first attempt at doing so resulted in backing off taking a non-climber on a traverse of a cliff without any gear or rope; the second with a panic that I had lost Brian when we somehow went opposite sides of a short prominence. From then on we mainly followed the ridge as it came. One more attempt to avoid a climb led us to a big sugar bowl. The best escape point was pretty much at the top that we’d been trying to avoid – another absolute failure to save time and energy from me.
Cloud inversion from the Mamores
Rabbie basking in some early morning sunshine on Sgùrr a’ Mhàim
From Binnein Mòr we could see that it was a steep descent, with no way to avoid the snow, before another steep climb up Sgùrr Eilde Mòr. I had an axe with me, but decided that using it to descend would probably scare my axeless, mountain-virgin comrade; and giving the axe to him would probably have been even worse. As our patch of steep snow ended abruptly on steep scree we had to adopt a more measured approach than seems to have been favoured during the Archies Challenge, but we made it with no injuries and dry backsides.
Shortly after starting the last climb of the day I realised that Brian wasn’t flying past me. I looked back to see I had a man-down to deal with. Apparently hill running gives some people cramp in places they didn’t know that they could get cramp. After threatening to summit without him I soon saw him nipping at my heels again, then pulling off ahead. At the summit of our fourth and final Archie of the day we struggled to smile for the summit selfie, but behind our grimaces we were both absolutely enthralled by the incredible views we had been running (and staggering) through. A message from base camp came in on that top:
“Great lines guys you are going really well. Bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo, bravissimo……”
What a fantastic boost to morale to know that people were keeping an eye on us, and that we weren’t going as slowly as it was feeling at that point. We looked west along the ridge again with refreshed eyes and really saw what we’d achieved.
We set off along the Glen Nevis road together a few hours later. Brian is an experienced runner, but I learnt later that he had never climbed a Munro before; the four Archies in the Mamores is certainly not a bad way to start! I picked our route to take us up a good path for the first few kilometres, then steeply up the side of Sgùrr a’ Mhàim, avoiding the scree until the last few meters. We did avoid the scree, but it was a murderously steep slope that had us on all fours. Brian took to the steep terrain like a newborn goat and didn’t voice any of the curses that I’m sure he had for me and for Russell, his good friend who had convinced him to join in this wonderfully mental challenge. We summited a little too late to see the sun rise, but what a view to summit to. The cloud inversion stayed with us for most of our trip along the ridge, clearing in time for us to descend back into Glen Nevis.
Rabbie taking a moment to appreciate the views from Starav
Looking down Loch Ericht with the Black Mount in the distance
I guess that the 24 hours after returning to my car really epitomise what the Archies Mountain Challenge was for me. I drove to another layby, where I found several vans to be envious of, and a gathering of people who immediately welcomed me into their circle to talk mountains, specifically the fastest routes over them. My next tasking was to cover the Mamores at first light; time for pasta, a swim in the Nevis and an early night. The aim was to be back at camp in time for breakfast – stoke me a clipper.
At some hour in the night my phone startled me awake in an unfamiliar van. Dr Duncan calling to say that the Carn Mòr Dearg Arete was looking like a no-go for him and Jay that night so they were returning to camp after Aonach Mòr. With something as exciting and entrapping as the Archies Mountain Challenge, and the prospect of covering the Grey Corries right through to The Ben overnight, it can be hard to resist always pushing on. Several people had to make the safe decision when really they wanted to give in to summit fever. Some good-natured teasing that this would go down on his record as calling mountain rescue and I wished him and Jay a speedy decent. Then I turned my attention to the man loitering nearby: something about him made me suspect that this may be my running partner for the morning – Brian.
“Will likely have a job for you on Thursday too…”
Having spent the last few days climbing in Wales, not doing jobs for anyone, I thought that this message from an unknown number was probably meant for someone else. Looking back, I am glad I replied. The following day I got down from the crag to find a stream of messages informing me of the plans that had been made for me and I was now committed to. I was to meet with two strangers in a yellow van in a layby at 4am. Standard.
I will defer to Dr Donald’s (sorry, Mike’s) vivacious account of Ben Udlamain, particularly his sleep-deprived summit emotions. How he ran and cycled through the night, then just kept on going for another Archie with a big smile and bucket loads of energy is beyond me. He was also very patient with my obsessive map checking – I guess he understood that I really, really didn’t want to go up the wrong hill on my first day! He was an all-round great guy to kick-start my Archies experience with, although we did look like a Shetland pony and a carthorse that had been paired in the traces.