Monday, 21 May 2018

NOT the Old County Tops

Kit Faff!
How to start? I've been a bit off it for a while - well, since the 4 Inns actually. Looking back at my diary its been about 7 weeks of sniffles, general fatigue and stuffiness. Not what you would call a decent training block. I've been meaning to do some serious hill training since January, and in that time have done a single session. Just the one. To say I was a little worried about doing the Old County Tops with Chris would be a minor understatement. Especially when he declared that he reckoned we could go faster than last year.... I was basically imagining being in a lot of pain for about 7 hours as I got dragged around the Lake district by someone a lot stronger and in better shape than me. I knew I'd be able to do it, but it might not necessarily be fun.

Rewind back to February when we entered the OCT. Chris said... to be fair, I really want a crack at Ramsays round this year, and if it comes to it, and the weather looks good on the OCT weekend, I'm going to have to bin it and head to Scotland.... so I figured that would be fine - and basically hoped that he'd forget about it.

Food prep for the weekend
I lacked fitness and basically resigned myself to a hard OCT. Then Tuesday arrived and a text. "how about we bin the OCT and head to Scotland"? Oh dear.
My fitness was probably good enough for 7-8 hours on the hill... but a round that might be up to 24 hours long? Now that is a bit of a different proposition.

Now if you don't know, Ramsay's Round is about 100k and 8000m ish of ascent going over the Grey Corries, a few hills to the East of Loch Trieg and the Mamores. There is a 24 hour time limit, and the ground underfoot is.. well, it isn't a picnic, by any means. Chris had already done both the Bob Graham and the Paddy Buckley in sub 24 hours, so this was the last of the big 3... he wanted to get it done, and my fear was that in my current state, I'd be an anchor holding him back, and might be the reason why he didn't make it. I made this abundantly clear to him, but, as Chris does in these situations, he breezily dismissed my concerns talking about "long term fitness".

And so I agreed.


The next 3 days were spent feverishly borrowing a map, looking at the route (here's a tip, look at the
1:40 vs 1:25
1:40k map, it makes it look a LOT easier than the 1:25... that is truely terrifying), getting tips from John Ryan who had recently completed a round in 20 hours, and asking around for ANY support that anyone could provide, cooking, and generally getting gear together.

Unfortunately, this weekend is pretty much the busiest in the fellrunning calendar. Everyone at Glossopdale Harriers was racing something, everyone we knew from Carnethy was off doing something else, so it looked like a pretty much solo onsight attempt. At the last moment, a guy called Pawel from Lochaber AC got in touch saying that he had been on the Mamores on the wednesday, and would happily help us out on that section if we wanted.... a true godsend. Someone who knows a bit of the ground! So we decided that we would do the round clockwise - mainly because we could get the objectively dangerous Grey Corries out of the way while still vaguely awake, and run the "runnable" Mamores at the end when we were tired... (ha).
This just goes to show how little we knew...
Chris had been up Ben Nevis once before. I had never set foot on any of the hills in the area.
What could possibly go wrong?

Nope- I didn't get round with a lot of grip
Friday came and we headed up to Scotland after work, the plan being we would go to Fort William via Loch Trieg to stash a drop bag there, and then start from Fort William at 2am, meeting Pawel at the foot of the Mamores at 4pm. We figured that since John Ryan had got around in a mere 20 hours, we'd be on for somewhere around there as well.
We got to the Youth Hostel at around 1am, sorted our stuff out and had a quick 20 mins lie down in the back of the car before putting on our shoes and getting on with it. Yes... we started it after having already been awake for about 18 hours.

I put on my mudclaws... and thought... oooh, they feel a bit tight. They might have more grip than my semi-dead x-talons, but if my feet are going to swell, I'd rather have less grip and better fitting shoes.... so went with the old semi-ungrippy x-talons instead. I'm sure it'll all be fine.

2 am came, we clicked our watches on and set off up the Ben.

We decided that going around on a 24 hour schedule would be the best - John Ryan had indeed had a fast round, and most of the people that we knew had gone around on an Anti-clockwise route, so their schedules would be totally different to ours. Best to find a general schedule and see if we could stick to that. The minor issue being that if we dropped behind it, we would be behind on a 24 hour target. Not a good thing.
The only GPX track that we had was that of Johns recent Anti-clockwise round, so we knew where he had gone - but that meant if we followed it to a T then we would be climbing his descent lines and ascending his descent lines - not the most optimal way to get around - so it was a guide at best. Along side that we had a map and a compass - and on leg 3 - we had Pawel.
Chris... the calm before the storm

Straight up the Ben we went - at a ridiculous pace. I told Chris to tone it down a little - knowing that I was the weaker one of the pair and didn't want to blow out too early. The schedule said that we needed to summit the Ben in 1 hour and 30 mins. As we marched on up the hill I did a couple of calculations. If it takes about 30 mins to descend Ben Nevis, then on the race, that means to get a 2hour time, you have to get up there in.. 1:30. Hang on. Are we going at Race Pace?! We seemed to be - or near enough. I know that the Nevis race starts in a slightly different place, but still - 1:30 to get up Ben Nevis at the beginning of a 24hour round seemed a bit suicidal.

Up we went in the dark, passing 5 other walkers on the way, path, rock, and then snow on the ground, along with cloud all around us. We marched on as quickly as the terrain allowed us and had to rely on the hand over headtorch technique of navigating in fog at night in order to workout where the top was. Apart from a minor issue of losing footprints in the snow and being unsure of the summit and coming a tad too close to the edge for comfort, we got to the top about 7 mins down on schedule.
My heart didn't exactly sink, we had a little trouble in the dark - and figured that once it got light we'd catch up on the time - not too much of a problem.
Coming onto the CMD arete. maybe?

Compass came out and off we dropped to the CMD arete to find our way across to Caern Mor Dearg. This lovely bit of hill was fantastic, there was just enough light to appreciate the spectacular situation we were in, though it was still full on headtorch levels of light considering the terrain we were on. However... my right knee started to complain a bit. The FIRST downhill section and my knee hurts? Really? Come on.... I decided not to tall Chris- it'd just sound like moaning- and resolved to keep an eye on it for the next few hills.
Over and across to the summit as fast as we could, hit the top - 5 mins down on schedule... then turned the wrong way, dropping north for 100m before realising our mistake -the terrain off to the side we were meant to be going looked like an absolute sheer drop, which is why we (I) made the mistaken assumption that we couldn't possibly be going down there.... however, we went back up, looked carefully, and then committed to the ridge line.

It was getting a little lighter now, and there was a fair amount of cloud in the sky. Could free summits? Sometimes... but mostly not... across and over to the monster that is Aonoch Mor... a big old down and up - something that would become a bit of a theme throughout the day. Over and up to the top of the Mor, and by this time we were moving as quickly as possible- and yet - still 10 minutes down on schedule. crikey?! how fast do they think we can move? We'll just have to keep going and try to nibble back some minutes for the rest of the leg. We're BOUND to be up by the time we reach Loch Trieg.
Sunrise- just off Aonoch Mor

As we headed south back to Aonoch Beag the sun momentarily showed itself across to the East, and provided some fabulous views. Headtorches were no longer needed as we bashed on up to the top. and around the edge to the descent which- to a week ago had been too snow clogged to get up or down safely. Maybe a chance to get some time back? The hill was blissfully clear of snow, so we launched our way down the hill and across to Sgurr Choinich Mor. I was sparing my right knee a bit as every step was jarring. Considering it was probably just muscle ache, I put up and shut up, and just went at it. I can descend as well as Chris on any day of the week with or without knee pain - it's the ups I have issues with.
A climb to Sgurr Chonich Mor, and a drop and contour at the 900m level to catch the col that climbs to the top of Stob Coire an Laoigh... still 15 mins down - and we're going as hard as possible, given how long we expect to be out.
Really- I have no idea where I took this

The next section involved ridges and scree and a lot of broken ground, and a fair amount of mist - ahead of us, mountains faded in and out of cloud - and across to our right we saw a glimpse of the future - Binnein Beag standing alone from the Mamores - another down and up to contend with later in the day.
Up to Stob Coire Claurigh, and my goodness me, we're 15 mins up on schedule! The elation! We carried on a bit, with me expecting to see Stob Ban appear in a moment - and it did - a lot further away than expected. Oh. That wasn't SCC. On and over and up, and over and up, the scheduled time came and went, and we eventually topped out 15 mins down again.
I was beginning to get a bit psychologically worn by all this clock watching. If I was late, it didn't really matter - Chris really wanted that sub24, and I was the reason he was going slower than he could actually go. What if I was the reason he failed on this attempt. Not cool... despite all the protestations that he thought I'd be fit for it, things were not looking as hopeful as they might have been.
I began to hatch a plan that if we were looking likely to not be on time by the mamores, to cut him free to catch up the time and I'd bin it and head home down Glen Nevis.

Down and up to Stob Ban, and my knee was hurting on the ascents as well as the descents now - the next down was going to be huge- about 500m of down, followed by even more up to Stob Coire Easain. I must have fallen over about 6 times by now - the grip on my shoes just wasn't enough to hold onto the soggy ground, though they worked pretty well on the rock - so any falls tended to be onto something soft, at least. The descent took a while- but we didn't lose any time, still down on time, but maintaining the same amount - could be worse.
The climb was massive, and hot, it seemed like we were going upwards forever and ever. Slowly the terrain changed from bog to heather to stone and we topped out on a wind blown summit again, 15 - 20 mins behind... ach, nothing to do but carry on.
More food, more liquid and the traverse to Stob a Coire Mheadhoin (to be fair, by this point we'd given up attempting to pronounce the names, and it was very much - how far down are we? as opposed to - what is this one called?).
the descent to Loch Trieg. Probably

Then the long downhill to Loch Trieg and the drop bag.

We had high hopes that we'd get to the bag with some time to spare on the 24 hour schedule, but it was not to be. Down and across the hill, the paths indistinct, boggy and generally hard to run down meant that we arrived to the bag about 20 mins down. I was beginning to seriously doubt my ability to speed up - this was certainly the fastest I could possibly manage over the terrain, and although we weren't losing masses of time, we certainly weren't gaining any. I was worried for Chris's chances to get around in 24 hours and suggested that if it came to it, he should get on with the mamores section without me, I'd make my own way out.
Dam wall- Loch Trieg

He was having nothing of it, insisting that the schedule would become easier as we went on.... we'd see about that.
Bag drop- secret location in the woods.

We stuffed down food, a coke, a lukewarm coffee and rammed our bags full of food as well. From now it - it was just past 10am, there would be no other food replenishment (apart from seeing Pawel) until we finished. Maybe sometime around 2am. As quickly as we had got there, we left, heading on into the sun and up the long tortuous ascent of Stob Coire Sgriodain. It's a long slog. As in a LONG slog. Not particularly steep, but the main aim of this part of the round was not throwing up all the food we had just stuffed in at the drop bag, so we took it as easy as we dared.
Over a few false summits and to the top, and then a light jog around the bowl to ascend Chno Dearg, where we caught up with a couple of walkers out for a bit of a bimble.
Chris with a couple of walkers on Chno Dearg
We walked to the top with them having a bit of a chat before dropping down the hill to the valley before Beinn na Lap.
Having never been on the ground before we took some pretty rubbish lines down the hill, and ended up having to climb up a ridiculously steep heather clogged hillside to gain the somewhat flatter shoulder of Beinn na Lap. How we didn't lose more time here I really don't know. We were both a tired and I was starting to fade physically as well as mentally.

From where we got to the shoulder of the hill to the top was a good 2-3km, and although it wasn't steep, it was definitely not runnable. The sun was out and the wind was strong as a headwind - it was hard work to get to the top, but once there, we came across pretty much some of the first actually runnable section of the round - the descent to the South end of Loch Trieg.
The only really decent runnable descent
The gradient was such that when running my knee wasn't in pain, and we made good time on the descent, blasting away down the moorland and scrubland to the track. Our next time check would be meeting Pawel, who was a good 12km away down what was theoretically a decent track - and for the first couple of km, it was. We maintained a steady pace, jogging away until we got to the turn off along the Abhainn Rath where the path became less distinct and less well trodden and walking becomes the only real possibility.
Lack of path - lack of speed.

Surely we were losing time here. Progress seemed painfully slow, the ground was frustratingly broken allowing you to run for a dozen metres before stopping to jump over a stream, or get around an obstacle. We were not moving smoothly, and kept stopping to refill waterbottles as the sun beat down on us. On and on we went until we were in the middle of a bog. A light came on in our heads... Ah - THIS bog, the one that we looked at previously and didn't want to end up in... in which case the path was to our south. Through the bog.

We struck out going south, waded across the river and eventually got to the path- a solid bit of ground- thank heaven for that.
Chris looked at his watch... dyou reckon we can get to Pavel in 25 mins?
Under normal circumstances, 4 and a bit km... easy... today? Not so much.

We ran the downs and alongs, and walked the ups - the ups were barely an up at all, more of a slight incline, but it was all about just keeping moving. Chris decided to jolly me along by pointing out that if we'd have done the OCT we would already have finished and we'd be sitting in a field drinking tea and reflecting on the day.
My reply was curt.

Slowly but surely, the lochs came in sight and we turned the corner to see the ruins at the north end of Loch Elide Mor and the figure of Pawel waiting for us.

We met Pawel 5 mins up on schedule, just about 4pm. He had Coke and Mars bars - all of which almost eclipsed the fact that to our west was the forbidding mass of Sgurr Elide Mor. We were all smiles and joy while introducing ourselves and downing vast quantities of sugar - the main thing was that Chris was in pretty decent shape for someone who had run that far and had been awake for 36 hours. I was in slightly less good shape, but now were were ever so slightly up on schedule - for the first time in 14 hours, there was a slight psycological boost.
Which lasted until we started to go up the hill.
The indefatiguable Pawel. What a decent chap.

I was certainly the slowest of the 3 of us, and instead of thinking "I'll never be fast enough to gain any time back", I was now thinking "just keep moving - don't leech any time".
In our heads, the Mamores was going to be the "easy section". Hills with paths, runnable bits, not quite as much climb as the Grey Corries.

Each step up Sgurr Elide Mor was hard, and I kept telling myself that it was the "last big climb". How untrue. Still - you have to kid yourself to keep going.

From the Top of Sgurr Elide Mor, it's a down and up to Binnein Beag- and island on its own with a semi-runnable scree descent. At the bottom of that we looked across to Binnein Mor which still had a fair amount of snow on its flanks, deciding a decent ascent line, considering the normal line was un climbable. We opted for the far right flank, followed by a trek up the shoulder.
I was starting to be physically worn down. I had been exhausted when we met Pawel, and now we had done another 2 massive climbs... running on fumes didn't even cover it... I was barely even running on vapour.

the shoulder up to Binnein Mor
Sugar, haribo, shot bloks, water. That was the main thing that was going to keep me going now. It was unbelievable how slowly we were going up the hills, because of my lack of fitness. Chris was easily cruising, and I was getting frustrated at not being able to go faster. Still, at the top of each summit, where I was constantly expecting to hear "we're down by...." he kept saying "we're up by x mins". The whole thing was now just a battle to NOT stop.

Looking across to the west were the outlines of the Mamores. It was about 6pm.
The only way off now was to go over them. On schedule, that would mean another 8 hours of effort - and I was beyond rock bottom.
By this stage I have no idea where we were- these photos are Pawels

On to Na Grugauchean, and then the out and back to An gearnach, dropping our bags to make things lighter for the small section. I nearly bonked, and on the way up Stob Coire a'Chairn there was a moment when my legs simply failed to do what I told them to do.
We were an hour from dark, about 30 mins up on schedule and I was in a bad way.

If I started slowing down any more, 24 hours were certainly not going to be possible for me. Chris was way stronger, but I was in a pretty bad place - if I told him to go on an finish without me, he would easily get round - but I'd still be up on a hill in the dark, semihypothermic and generally not in a good way. I simply needed not to stop.

More sugar. The legs started working again, and metronomically I started climbing.
All the way through this section, Pawel was just ahead of me, Chris was just behind, tapping out the miles, and making sure I was ok. We struggled across to Am Bodach - just one more out and back to go... but tiredness was encroaching as well as fatigue.
Chris looking really quite jolly- probably at the bottom of the scree chute Binnien beag
Caffiene chewing gum was produced which provided a short lived boost, though my hands were getting cold and I had been stumbling badly for a good few hours. I gave Pawel a packet of shot blokz and asked if he could be ready to give them to me one by one on the next few climbs. My body was operating on burning whatever it could get, and these seemed to be working.

Sgurr an Lubhair came and went in a blur, and then out over devils ridge to Sgurr Mhaim, where we finally needed our headtorches again. Pawel mooted the idea of a massive down and up to Stob Ban... but considering how slow I was on the ascents now, we agreed it was better to go back the way we came and keep our height even if it was longer underfoot.
Later in the evening. Waterproofs on - wind getting up, contemplating the next down and up

I kept telling myself this was the last hill. THIS was the last hill... THIS next one, that's the last one.... but no. It seemed like it would go on forever. Up Stob Ban, and the end was finally in sight, I was taking in more sugar than ever before and my teeth were beginning to get sensitive to the shotblokz- but I wasn't going to stop. For the last 4 hours I had been surviving on will power, and it was all I could do to get to the top of this thing... then a final easy summit and home.

At times like this, when it's dark, the wind comes up and chills you to the bone, and you've been awake for more hours than you can count, NOTHING is easy. I was pretty blindly following Pawel now, Chris was occasionally giving out timings, we were up, but not as much as previously. I figured that we just needed to get off the damn hill before I became a liability- and in the dark Mullach nan Coireen seemed a LONG way off. I might as well have been mainlining haribo at this point, we trudged along the ridge- the ridge that- in my head, sitting at the kitchen table- should have been so easy and straight forward- was a complete never ending nightmare.
Slowly by surely we edged our way forward through the strengthening wind. At every step I was more and more conscious that I wasn't really moving fast enough to generate enough body heat- hypothermia might well have been a real risk- sitting down and crying (which, many times seemed like a pretty decent option) was the worst option, and there was nothing else to do but just keep going.

Finally - the top, and the final descent started. "we've got 2 and a bit hours to get down" says Chris. It's about 6-7km depending on how you do it, but our legs are trashed. Our heads are spinning, and the ground is pretty treacherous in the dark. Descending 900m is normally pretty fun - but not now.

Down and down, through scree, rock, bog, trees and eventually onto a track. Looking at out watches, the decision is made to get to the road and go along that... slightly longer, but much less chance of a mistake. We can't walk past a Youth Hostel without noticing it.

2 miles of road. "shall we jog a bit?" says Chris.... but my jogging pace had disappeared about 5 hours previous. It was all I could do to maintain a walk.
On and on the road went, the danger of the hills, the weather, exhaustion, everything was all behind us, and slowly eventually, the YHA appeared.
23 hours and 21 minutes after we set off, we had returned.
The end.

I have to say that this was one of the hardest things I've done. My lack of recent training certainly had something to do with how hard I found it, and there is no way that I could possibly have got around without Chris or Pawel.
Onsight, less than well prepared and generally unencumbered by knowledge of any of the hills has to be one of the worst ways to do this round. Don't follow my example.
2 blisters. That's it.

Strava route is here

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