The ARCHIE Foundation's Mountain Challenge

Archie Mountain Challenge Reflections

The Best Laid Schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Barry McGuire and Matthew McCullagh

T’was a dark and stormy night when we drove up from Perth, heading to a small hostelry west of Inverness in preparation for an early start the following morning.

The plan was to meet up with Paul and some of the other runners at the dam at the east of Loch Mullardoch at 05.45, grab Rabbie, trot over a few ARCHIES, hand over to the next runners in Glen Affric and then have kippers for breakfast – well something like that anyway, but, as the other Rabbie says; schemes gang aft agley……..

In reality, we woke at 05.00 to a text message from Paul saying that we wouldn’t be running our planned route as things hadn’t quite gone to plan the previous evening, but still to meet at the same rendezvous point. We arrived to find the ARCHIE camper van but no sign of life. A hoot of our horn brought a very sleepy face to the van window – not the sort of face that only a mother could love, but certainly one that a mother would want to iron, riddled as it was with the creases and crumples of a night in a sleeping bag. Walking into the van we were greeted with the gentle aroma of damp Smelly Hansens and watched as other faces appeared from the most unlikely places (Paul seemed to have slept in a glove compartment above the driver’s seat).

The story was told of how the weather had really pulled in the previous day and that Catherine and Nick had had a really tough time on the hills the previous evening. In blizzard conditions, despite Herculean efforts, they had not managed to bag the last 2 ARCHIES on their route. Our brief was therefore to go back up and bag these before the team could continue on its planned way. To say we were a wee bit disappointed is an understatement – we now had no real idea where we were going and the route in along the loch shoreline to our peaks was described as ‘brutal’.

The ARCHIES we were heading for were Sgurr na Lapaich and the more distant An Riabhachan. Despite being advised to head for An Riabhachan first, we decided to make our way towards Sgurr na Lapaich by traversing under the south side of Mullach na Maoile and round the west side of Carn nan Gobhar, before following a burn from the north end of Loch Tuill Bhearnach up a re-entrant to the summit. The initial 5km was very boggy and the landscape was riddled with peat hags – real bog trotting territory. Anything to get off this trudgery seemed like a good plan, but, in hindsight, heading up for the nearer hill may have been unwise. As we got to about 550m, the wet boggy ground began to get colder with the odd patch of snow here and there. Visibility was still reasonable, although we could see that the cloud was sitting just below 1000m with snow fields from about 800m. We had every piece of clothing out of our bags and on our backs by this time. As we got to the start of the burn the conditions underfoot began to get more challenging and by the time we got to about 850m we were having to pick our way very carefully through deep snow fields. As we climbed to about 1000m, we began to enter the cloud and then the fun really began! With very poor visibility, deep snow and smooth, white, featureless terrain, our route choices got more and more difficult.  We constantly checked our emergency GPS unit hidden inside Rabbie to check where we were. We slowly and carefully climbed to 1100m, just 50m elevation short of the summit. At this point we realised the enormity of the challenge in climbing the last few metres. When we got the odd break in the cloud we could see that ahead of us was a very steep, snooker-ball-smooth snow field and although we couldn’t see it clearly, we strongly suspected there was a serious cornice waiting for us once we got to the summit ridge. We had no ice axes or crampons with us and were both wearing hill running shoes and felt seriously underdressed. Our worry was that if we slipped on the snow field we wouldn’t be able to stop ourselves sliding downhill rather quickly and potentially over the crags littered below us. We spent what seemed like a lifetime debating the merits of carrying on and heading back, but really there was little to debate. The reason it was a difficult call to make was we were desperate to bag our ARCHIES. However, we were also mindful that the ARCHIES Challenge was supposed to be an enjoyable event and that no one would thank us for throwing in a couple of hospital cases (although it would have got us some publicity and there is no such thing as ‘bad publicity’). What made it worse was the realisation that if we couldn’t get to the first ARCHIE, we would have no way of getting to the second as the ridge was almost certainly too dangerous. With heavy hearts (and heavy socks, gloves and hats) we headed back down to the Mullardoch lochside at Glen Cannich and began the 9km muddy trudge back to the van.

Returning to the others waiting in the van after 6 ½ hours with neither ARCHIE bagged was very difficult (we had to watch their faces change from those of glee to those of tempered disappointment), but everyone was very supportive and agreed that we had made the right decision. Nick Leslie helped our recovery by filling us with hot food and warm encouragement - if ever he fancies a career change I’m pretty sure he could walk into a job as a chef in a (Pot) noodle bar!

A record breaking human power relay over every Scottish mountain over 1KM high!