A record breaking human power relay over every Scottish mountain over 1KM high!
The ARCHIE Foundation's Mountain Challenge
Out of the wind and driving rain and moving quickly again, we soon warmed up and brains began functioning more normally. It was with new eyes and heightened senses that we viewed the landscape of rivers in full spate, great noises of rushing water leaping into the air, blown upwards by the howling wind. Feet remained numb but the sodden brown grass was a welcome change to the piercing cold whites and greys of the summit ridge. This now felt like a familiar day out on the hill, back to a comforting level of virtuous discomfort.
I started my Archie adventures with some trepidation- would I be able to keep up with all these athletic anaesthetists who look so at home in lycra? Would I get lost (again)? Would I let the team down and put the itinery back by days? Would I be sucked into a peat bog in the Great Wilderness forever? Would I ever be able to pronounce this mountain’s name? These thoughts were pushed aside on the first dawn morning when I had to concentrate on the first navigational challenge- finding my running partner. Katie Boocock was waiting in a campervan in a layby on the edge of an area known as the Great Wilderness in Wester Ross. We had exchanged a couple of texts and emails but we had never met. I was relieved when I knocked on the van’s door to find that I was not waking up a hapless tourist and that I had passed the first initiative test. Katie, rising bleary eyed from sleep seemed quite friendly for that time in the morning and not in the least intimidating. Katie’s partner Peter took the obligatory pictures of us with the mascot Rabbie whose innocent childish exterior concealed a James Bond style tracker device. Peter promised to meet us at the other end of our run to speed Rabbie further on his way by mountain bike.
We set a reasonable pace along the lochside, sussing each other out and settled on a pace which allowed breathing and convivial conversation at the same time. We soon discovered mutual friends and from what I gleaned about Katie, the Archie challenge was fairly pedestrian compared to some of her previous outdoor antics, including setting up the Strathpuffer, a nocturnal mountain bike marathon staged in the depths of Scottish midwinter.
The responsibility of keeping Rabbie going at a brisk trot weighed heavily and it was with some relief that we handed him over to Peter who tore off down the track on his bike. The Great Wilderness was tamed and I had overcome my first day nerves without recourse to mountain rescue services or helicopters. I considered the day a pretty good initiation to my own personal Archie challenge.
Full of optimism after my successful run with Katie over the Great Wilderness, I set off with Nick to link up Glen Strathfarrar with Glen Cannich across the ridge that separates these two remote glens. We did not know each other previously but the Archies Challenge had unique way of throwing people together and encouraging storming, forming and action without too much need for introductions and social niceties.
We set off up the slopes from Loch Monar at a tremendous pace which did not seem to stem the chat at all and led me to revise my sexist belief that blokes don’t talk. Despite the rain coming down and poor visibility we found ourselves on the first hill of the ridge, took some summit selfies and had a lively debate about preferred navigation techniques.
The slopes on our way up the hill had offered us protection from the prevailing wind so that the ascent was warm and benign. Up on the ridge my initial optimism waned as we headed west into driving, icy rain and strong winds. As we made further progress, rain turned to blizzard and there was plenty of snow, fuelling concerns about avalanches. We began to have difficulty remaining upright and steering clear of the ugly black drops disappearing into the swirling abyss below the north side of the ridge. Constantly battered by the wind, disorientated by painful needles of snow in our eyes, we had to shout to be heard above the noise of the gale. Our lycra outfits, while shapely and alluring at Dundee Park run, were not the best attire for the conditions and our light weight running shoes meant being numb from knees down.
Arriving at a narrow section of the ridge, frozen fingers gripped the rocks, feet slipped on the snow and now and then we sank into drifts up to our knees. We found some welcome shelter behind a boulder, relieved to be out of the raw wind, and shared out all our spare clothes and choked down some chocolate rations. Nick’s teeth were chattering but he was ominously quiet. It was difficult to know what he was thinking. Was this uncharacteristic reticence due to the onset of hypothermia or was he just fed up? We studied the map. We were pretty near our next Archie, however beyond this was a narrow stretch of ridge, likely to be snarled up with snow. The map indicated further precipitous cliffs. The experience of the last few metres had been unnerving, unbalanced by the unrelenting wind, feet slipping with vertiginous glimpses of plunging vertical rock faces. This was not what happens on a summer day in June.
My mountain demons were returning with thoughts of a fateful hill walk one winter when a straightforward day out turned into something quite different. The day climaxed by being plucked unceremoniously off the hill, spinning into space in the dark, being winched upwards towards the deafening noise and downdraft from the blades of a helicopter above. That days experience, the result of a series of my own navigational errors, an over-ambitious route choice for the party’s abilities and suboptimal communication left me chastened and dented my mountain confidence for a while afterwards. A remedial navigation course and several mountain marathons later had seen my mountain mojo return but this was not a situation I wanted to repeat. On the ridge with Nick I had the same sickening feeling of plans unravelling and the situation beginning to spin out of control.
Our designated task was to knock off some Archies and deliver Rabbie safely to the next runners so that the Archie Challenge could continue. If we did not succeed we would let the whole team down, scupper the schedule and risk the disappointment and ridicule of our peers. The thought of jacking it all in was galling but then the idea of making a mistake and turning the Archie Challenge into a newspaper headline for all the wrong reasons was also not an appealing one. The tracker was on- we were being watched, Big Brother like, by people at home, we simply had to keep going.
We made some further progress westwards but the wind did not abate, the visibility was reduced to a few metres, we were cold and wet, underequipped for the conditions and there was still the feared tricky technical section to come. Even consumption of Tunnocks Caramel Wafers did not improve our morale. Gesticulating wildly to one another over the gale, I think we were both relieved to be pointing towards our escape route, heading down a southerly slope out of the unrelenting wind and away from the threatening cliffs. The nagging doubts about avalanches were swept away as we careened down the snow slope and gratefully reached the reassuring grass tussocks beyond.
We trudged back along Loch Mullardoch through paths ankle deep in water, sneaking occasional glances upwards towards the ridge, reassuring each other that we had made the right decision not to press on. By that time, the ridge had cleared and it glimmered white in the evening sunshine, mocking us for our ignoble retreat. Had we imagined the conditions up there? Did I let my mountain demons get the better of us?
Back with a hot drink in the warm fugue of the Archiemobile camper van our fellow team mates were careful not to make us feel guilty about our aborted mission. The peaks we had missed out were attempted again the following day, but again the weather prevailed and the mountains sent the team packing. The peaks were saved until a later date and were finally bagged via a convoluted route through Glen Elchaig by some keen cyclists on a balmy sunny day, possibly with a wicker picnic hamper and certainly with warmer feet.
Kirsty and I did not know each other before the Archies Mountain Challenge but paired up as a running team for two of the Archie legs. Exploring new places together while getting to know one another other was a very positive and rewarding aspect to the Archie’s adventures. It appealed to my feminist principals that the girls got a chance to join in with the mountain capers and contribute to the success of the challenge.
Following my day with Nick when we were scoured off Sgurr na Lapaich by biting winds, I was hoping for a more straightforward trip. Our first route took us from Glen Affric up collection of hills forming a band between Loch Mullardoch in Glen Cannich in the North and Loch Affric in the South. As someone with a poor sense of geography it was very illuminating to link up these remote glens by travelling between them in a linear route, so joining up the jigsaw of the highlands. Our mountain hitlist for the day included Beinn Fhionnlaidh and Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan which are an unlikely pairing in any guidebook since they are separated by 9 km and 1000m. There were several peaks on the way, the summits of which we scorned as they were not on our itinery. This would raise an eyebrow from any keen Munro bagger, but part of the charm of the Archie challenge was taking the unconventional approach and the path less travelled.
We set off from the luxury of the Archiemobile campervan at an early hour shortly after dawn- and this really is early during a Scottish midsummer when it is dark for only a few hours. Glen Affric has a wild timeless beauty with its ancient forests of Scots pine. Cycling along the lochside through the tranquil woodland the valley opened up before us, green and inviting.
Finding the right spot to stash our bikes we headed up hill on foot. Negotiating a steady pace which suited us both we followed a river meandering up a glen, an old drove path to Beallach Coire Ghaidheil. This track links two remote glens and progressing pilgrim like along this created a sense that we were following a route walked by centuries of travellers.
We took a rising traverse towards Mam Sodhail and on towards Beinn Fhionnlaidh. The mist came down and the cold increased. An uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu descended too. Unhelpful negative thoughts regarding previous map reading errors and helicopters re- surfaced. However Kirsty remained optimistic and our exemplary map reading led us to an old roofless stone shelter where we escaped the wind and took stock. Morale improved with cake, as is often the case, and we trotted on to Beinn Fhionnlaidh, passing over a snow bridge across a stream, taking photos which would look more in keeping with a day in January than this one in June.
Once at the top we could see that the eastern ridge that we had so carefully avoided was almost snow free and we skipped lightly down this one waving our axes with happy abandon. Once the ground on the ridge flattened out there followed a significant post summit slump in energy, requiring consumption of a large number of jelly babies.
On the resulting sugar high we made fast progress off the hill towards the remote Altbeith hostel, happily removing layers of fleece and waterproofs as the unaccustomed sun beat down, broiling us in our plastic wrappers. We found Paul Fettes, looking slightly anxious, peering out of the youth hostel window. Rabbie was passed on the next pair of fresh running legs and we sat down to a fine cup of rehydrating tea in the rather bohemian surroundings of one of the most remote hostels in Britain.
I was pleased to meet up with Kirsty again at a later stage of the Archie Mountain Challenge. I had planned just to do the days in the North West but having been back at work and feverishly watching the tracker outlining Rabbie’s route through the highlands, I couldn’t resist another chance to join in with the fun in some hills closer to home.
Our route took us from Glen Lyon to Schiehallion via a ridge of hills including the Archies Carn Gorm and Carn Mairg. This involved another absurdly early start after camping for a few hours kip. The invigorating wake up brew was spoiled a little by the swarming midges but it did reduce the usual procrastination.
The run over the ridge was mainly in the mist, no snow drifts this time, and required some careful but satisfying micronavigation. We approached Schiehallion by stealth from the south side, scrambling along the boulders to the top and surprising some walkers on the summit. It was all we could do not to boast about our heroic and lengthy approach route to these guidebook led hillwalkers who had stuck so unimaginatively to the conventional Munro bagger’s path.
On our way down, two very energetic young men came sprinting uphill towards us. They were taking video for Archie Challenge publicity. For this we decided we should probably do some proper running. We speeded up still further to the cheers of the Archie families doing the Schiehallion hill walk. It was great to see familiar smiling faces of friends and colleagues, spurring us on. I am proud to say that several seconds of video of our ankles made it onto the Adventure Show on national television. Our incoherent ramblings to camera fortunately never made it past the first edit.
For a few short weeks in June the Archie’s Mountain Challenge provided a splendid adventure, an opportunity to meet mental and physical challenges, appreciate the wild and beautiful places in Scotland and work as part of a team to realise a fabulous idea.
There was a tremendous sense of achievement and euphoria for all involved in completing the Challenge. This was later followed by a melancholy sense of loss and lack of purpose once it was all over. Reliving those weeks a little by writing leaves me with a question- What is the next challenge to be?
My mountain demons first arrived after a day out on Ben Vorlich, a winter hill walk which was to lead to significant reflection and introspection for some time afterwards. Three of us set off early in good weather, well prepared with rucksacks stuffed to the brim with food, clothes, crampons, ice axes, compasses and maps. I had been walking and climbing in the hills for over 20 years, my friend Catherine had done a lot of walking and we were hill running companions so knew each other’s capabilities. Catherine’s friend had not set foot on a hill in winter but was full of enthusiasm with a hiking trip booked to Patagonia. On our way up the hill we practiced ice axe breaking, using our crampons and we made it to the summit in good time, enjoying our sandwiches and joking about getting back in time to stop for afternoon tea at Crieff Hydro.
That was the point at which I made the fateful suggestion of taking a slightly different return route along the northwest ridge, thus making it a circular walk and therefore a proper day out. Retracing our steps while straightforward would have been a little dull, after all we had plenty time to spare to savour the views.
The mist then descended and, distracted by chat, I chose the wrong ridge down from the summit, one of a series of errors leading to our day finishing as far removed from high tea in Crieff as is possible. We found ourselves on steep ground going upwards and while I hadn’t been expecting this, we were having great fun. It was not until we were on a precipitous ridge using our axes for real and kicking steps into the soft snow that I thought perhaps we may have taken a wrong turn. We topped out on an obvious summit and realised we had inadvertently climbed another hill- Stuc a Chroin. Well, never mind, our Patagonian- bound friend needed the practice and she had acquitted herself very well in wielding the tools of a real mountaineer.
The story should have ended there with light hearted banter in the pub later. There was an escape route via a ridge to the south east which would lead us back onto a footpath heading north to whence we came, circumnavigating Ben Vorlich. Our day would be lengthened by 8km and one extra hill, but there is nothing like training for improving stamina and we might make it back for last orders.
At that stage things still seemed to be under control, but it was getting late and I was worried about being able to find the path heading north in the dark and about how difficult this terrain would be underfoot. In retrospect, a bit more time spent studying the map at this stage, discussing options and considering the strengths of all the party may have led to a more direct and achievable route off the hill. In our haste to beat the fading light I succumbed to navigation error number 2. A dashed and dotted line was marked on the map on our chosen ridge. We followed the lure of a series of sturdy metal fence poles, beckoning likes sirens in the mist, reassuring in their regularity. This was surely the fence marked on the map. Scant regard was paid to the compass bearing which was obviously playing up as it did not want to point in the direction that we were heading.
We continued on this undulating ridge in the mist, generally heading down hill and pleased to keep warm and moving while hypnotically following the fence posts. It was getting cold and dark. Our novice hill walker was not enjoying herself any longer, getting slower and colder despite application of extra layers of clothes and doses of chocolate. The wind was increasing, it was getting darker. We saw some torch lights ahead- marvellous, some fellow hill walkers who would be able to confirm we were heading in the right direction. We shouted and ran after them. It took a while to realise that these were not torches but car headlights heading uphill in the distance on a road that didn’t exist on the map. I had to finally admit that perhaps the compass was right and that we were lost. That sinking feeling, realising that the situation was sliding out of my control, is not an experience to recommend and not one I wish to repeat in a hurry. I tried to make sense of where we were from the little we could still see but in the dark it was very difficult to judge how far away the road was and my brain was beginning to malfunction.
Thank goodness for mobile phones. I would just phone someone who knew the terrain round here, we would describe the ridge and the fence poles and they would surely be able to tell us where we were. Phone calls were ruefully made to both husband and father in law, who enjoy maps and navigation more than I do and usually remember where they have been. Later I realised I had been along this ridge on that very spot a few months previously on a hill race, with zero recollection of the fact. Husband was unobtainable- in a soft play area with our children he had wisely chosen not to take his phone into the ball pit. Father in law was having fun off up a hill somewhere.
Our friend was getting colder and did not have the energy to chew the Tunnock’s Caramel wafers we plied her with. I got the map out of its plastic case to see if we may have lost ourselves in a fold somewhere- it began to disintegrate in the rain and bits were flying off in the wind. The map key showed the dashed and dotted line as a boundary marked on the map and therefore not the metal fence we had been slavishly following on the ground. We had a frank discussion and agreed that it was time to seek some professional help. It was with great reluctance that I phoned mountain rescue- something I had hoped I would never need to do. I told myself that we just needed their advice to help with orientating ourselves. We could then pace ourselves and walk all night if necessary to get back to a road and civilisation and then perhaps we could hitch a lift or phone for a taxi.
A number of phone calls later, we explained our situation to various people and eventually spoke to a very reassuring voice from Killin mountain rescue team. I gave the coordinates of the ridge we had thought we were on and received a phone call back saying “listen very carefully, you are not where you think you are.” In a less stressful situation this would have reminded me of a scene from “Allo Allo” Eighties situational comedies were far from my mind at the time but the ridiculous nature of our predicament was not lost on me.
I would like to think that the Killin mountain rescue man was able to figure out where we were from his local knowledge and my description of the topography but I suspect that the police were able to track the phone signal. We were given some instructions to take a bearing off the ridge, head downhill and that someone would come and meet us. Suddenly the map made sense again, the compass was not broken after all and our legs worked with renewed purpose. It was a tremendous relief that we now had a plan and could therefore make positive progress. I began to relax a little, knowing that we were only a couple of kilometres from the main road to the metropolis of Callander. Out of danger, out of the wind, we would make it home. Having been lost I had also experienced the unpleasant sensation of losing my mind; the ability to think clearly had vanished in the stress and panic of the situation. It was an immense relief to be back in control again. As the self- nominated leader of the expedition I had the responsibly of keeping the others safe and I felt dreadful that it was my mistakes that had achieved this mess.
Just as things were looking more optimistic than they had done for hours, there was noise in the sky which got louder and louder. We could see headlights which looked like they were in the sky rather than on the road. These were tracking nearer and nearer until the noise was deafening and we were being blasted from above by the down draft of a helicopter and trapped in the scrutinising beam of its search light. Is this for us? Now what are we supposed to do? Never having been in this situation before, I wasn’t sure of rescue helicopter etiquette. Were we allowed to run away? Couldn’t we just walk the last kilometre? I tried to speak to the mountain rescue call handler but even if I could have heard him above the roar of the engines and blast from the whirring blades, it was no use as the phone had run out of battery. Under the circumstances, with a large noisy metal machine hovering directly above us we thought we should probably stay still and shut up.
A figure silhouetted by the glaring light descended from the helicopter and the female winchman attached us with harnesses to the rope. One by one we were plucked from the grassy slopes, spinning in space, hoisted up into the dark, nearer and nearer to the menacing, whirring blades. Each of us lurched in turn into a large space the size of an aircraft hanger which looked as though it should contain a squadron of soldiers. This was a very peculiar day out on the hill. Catherine gets travel sick at the best of times and with the spinning, fatigue and adrenaline her vestibular system gave up and she later owned up to vomiting into her woolly hat.
The helicopter landed us safely on flat ground and we were met by a land rover and magically transported back to our cars with advice to refuel with tea and biscuits at the local pub before attempting the drive home. The Killin mountain rescue team were very kind and not critical, although they would have had good cause to be so. I felt tremendously guilty about using their time and resources for an avoidable call out, with not even a broken bone as an excuse. The reply to my apologetic thankyou letter was very pragmatic: get a back- up GPS and do a navigation course. Catherine and I followed their suggestion with a day of remedial navigation with a lady alpine guide and have finished several mountain marathons together, cognisant of our location at all times. This has helped boost our levels of hill confidence, but it did take a while for my mountain mojo to return and the mountain demons are never far away.
A reluctant writer, with the memory capacity of a goldfish, it has come as a surprise to me that sitting down a year after our Archie Mountain Challenge adventures I can vividly recall the people and places that I was privileged to encounter.
The Challenge provided an inspiring sense of shared vision and purpose with an ambitious goal, enthusiastic team working and some impressive leadership skills. For a few weeks in June the project had the aura of a new cult religion, with the progress of the long eared Rabbie carried so carefully through the high mountains of Scotland being tracked live by avid worshippers on computer screens across Tayside.
Rabbie’s route threaded through the highland landscape, linking up the most beautiful areas of Scotland, fitting together pieces of a jigsaw of ridges, glens and wilderness. As one of the many runners, the joy of the venture was discovering these obscure routes through the mountains, often with a new running partner and rapidly sharing a sense of reliance and trust in someone who an hour or two previously had been a stranger.
The route from Beinn Fhionnlaidh to the our next peak, which we named Ben Chrysanthemum, in the absence of a Gaelic speaker to keep us right, took us along a vibrant green glen to a hanging valley with a coire and lochan that offered a perfect camping spot, lush and still. Mental note was made to return one day. It was tempting to linger and savour the solitude, but we reminded ourselves that this running business was a serious endeavour and Rabbie and his electronic tracker could not wait for dawdling picnickers. We had chosen the northeast ridge for our summit approach rather than the east ridge due to lengthy speculation about avalanche risk and slope aspects. As the ground steepened we needed to wield the ice axes we had brought along “just in case”, making our way up some very steep ground, the usually rocky ridge shored up with snow, exactly like the Hillary step on Everest. The summit of our Everest afforded us spectacular views and satisfied grins for the summit photos. The welcome sunshine banished the last of the mountain demons.
We headed up into the mists of our mountain, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair with cooperative navigation. I brandished a map and compass but Katie’s phone with reassuring satellite- delivered blue dot convinced me that screen time has its place. We picked our route up a grassy slope between slimy rock faces and into a boulder strewn hanging valley. The summit ridge was covered in fine sand, in the mist giving an eerie impression of being back on Broughty Ferry beach, wending our way through the sand dunes. A wet, boggy ridge descent brought us views of Lochan Fada and we trotted along a neatly made cycle path through towards Kinlochewe.