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The Ramsay Round in Winter - An attempt by Tom Phillips
The Ramsay Round is the classic Scottish long distance mountain challenge. In Summer it has had less than 70 successful completions. In Winter such is the severity of the route it has had just a handful of attempts. Only the determined, talented or foolish need apply.........
I was in a bubble of light ascending the UK's highest peak. Glancing back I could see Jules, my support runner about 20 metres below on the steep neve slopes of the Bens' Western flanks. With no moon the darkness was total and we seemed to be floating above the eerie fog shrouded lights of Fort William directly below us. Looking up the sky was ablaze with stars and the milky way arced from horizon to horizon.
I stopped to snug down my shoe laces and let Jules catch up. He asked how I was doing and I told him that I actually felt like I was floating up! I knew the feeling would not last but it was great whilst it did. I guess a surge of adrenelin could account for this sensation, but I had to hold back energy for the huge challenge ahead.
At 6pm after a hectic few days planning and quite a few months of hard training I had set of on an attempt to complete the fastest Ramsay Round in Winter. I had been watching the forecast for this particular week for the previous fortnight, eventually a few days before it was showing what were likely to to be ideal conditions: very little fresh snow for 3 days and then plumetting temperatures, but most important of all virtually no winds. I never used to "feel" the cold, but after loosing about 5kgs in weight and with increasingly problematic Reynaulds Syndrome (a body malfunction that shuts down the circulation in your toes and fingers) the affects of subzero temperatures when combined with winds could very quickly put a
stop to such a challenge.
Into the unknown, Jules and Tom - Glen Nevis Youth Hostel just before 6pm on the 11th December
Jules was to run with me on the first 20 mile section which takes in 10 Munros and around 11,000 feet of ascent. We had been running and climbing together for many years and had built up a real trust in each others abilities. Whilst I carried a light backpack Jules was carrying most of my spare gear including Katoola crampons, ice axe, spare jacket, and all the emergency kit. The extra energy saved not carrying this kit even up the first climb of the Ben would come in useful the next day!
Having completed a summer circuit of this amazing mountain challenge 18 months previously I knew the time limits on the first "leg" were quite tough to stick to, so I was not too concerned when 1 hour 43 minutes had elapsed by the time we reached the UK's highest point, Ben Nevis summit. That was 8 minutes down on schedule and conditions underfoot had been excellent with hard packed neve for most of the last 2,000 feet of ascent. I was planning on picking up time later in the round as I had done in the summer.
In winter there is more equipment to deal with of course and with the formidable Carn Mor Dearg Arete ahead we now stopped to put on Katoola crampons, stow walking poles and get out our ice axes (used for emergency breaking should you slip). Even when done efficiently simple procedures such as this eat into your time (that was 3 minutes lost), but that was the least of my concerns as we plunged into what felt like an Abyss. The snow was different on this side of the mountain with just a thin plate of frozen snow on top of powder. Sometimes it was enough to support your weight, sometimes not and you would break through bashing your shin in the process. The lightweight crampons require a different technique to full winter crampons -
you have to "angle" the sole of your foot to mountains' slope, which on steep ground is not easy, particularly when traversing. I initiatated a few controlled slides which allowed me to get the feel for my new lightweight ice axe. It didn't particularly "bite" well as the powder snow under the thin crust provided very little friction.
However after 15 minutes we had completed the first testing descent (there would be many more) and were taking on the narrow exposed CMD Arete. With no moonlight it was as if we were suspended in space with a dark chasm on either side. The Arete is around a metre wide, the drop either side many 100's. Over my left shoulder I could sense the oppressive bulk of the Bens' North face which blotted out the star lit sky. The snow here was more powdery but it felt as though we were moving well and a quick time check at Carn Mor Dearg summit revealed that we were bang on schedule for that leg, quite a relief. We headed straight into the next descent a 400 metre drop in less than 1km. The silky smooth powder snow was un trodden and made this
descent a delight for the most part, but with very steep ground to the left of the ridge it still had to be given respect.
I was suddenly aware that Jules was a bit further behind than was normal, and was not catching up. Jules has completed the Bob Graham Round in 19 hours 30 minutes and is no slouch, so something was amiss. Once back together Jules said he would go direct to the gully on Aonach Beag and meet me there, he was feeling a bit fatigued, no energy in his legs.
I pushed on alone to the Aonach Mor summit which eventually loomed out of some localised hill fog. A quick time check and 5 minutes lost! Frustration as I felt I had been moving well, but the unconsolidated sections of snow slow your pace and there is nothing you can do about it! I'm fitter, lighter and better prepared than for my summer round, yet the splits seemed to be just out of reach. Next I follow my footsteps back from the Aonach Moor summit until I swing left down the broad shoulder towards Aonach Beag, I expect to see Jules ahead but he actually joins me from my right as he has only just topped out on the initial Aonach Mor climb.
Somewhere ahead another member of my support team should be waiting to assist us down the steep gully which guards the access to the Grey Corries. I know Dicks' light won't come into sight yet though as a subsidiary peak has to be traversed first. In fact it was hard to tell how far away any lights were (not that there were many). The few that there were seemed to hover on the horizon and could have been 1 mile away or 50 miles. The torch and Dick's bivvy were unmistakable though when they did come into view, and a relief as it also meant we would be able pick up some food and drink having set of with just a few emergency rations. The south facing slopes of Stob Coire Bhealaich had challenging snow conditions with an intermittent
layer of soft powder on top of rock hard neve. On the steep hard awkwardly angled neve I had to fight hard to maintain purchase, and and on a couple of sections where there was powder I gave in, slid, and checked my slide with my ice axe. As I was just wearing lycra running bottoms I new this wasn't entirely sensible as you can get badly bruised if you hit hard neve, but I seemed to get away with it.
Dick was ready to lower us both down the difficult upper sections of the gully but Jules said he was "done for" and that he would only hold me back if we carried on together. He said I should carry on alone and he would rejoin me later the next day. I knew this was the only realistic option and so we had a quick kit check and I took some emergency kit, just enough food and a small amount of drink hoping that I would find some flowing water in one of the frozen valley crossings ahead.
I asked Dick to tie the rope around my waist and then he was ready to lower me. The headwall of the gully was way too steep and corniced to lower over so Dick suggested lowering in from just down the southern edge where the slope was less steep. The gully was unrecognisable from the summer that was certain and as I lowered down the slope I was beginning to realise that even having a rope here was not necessarily going to make a descent of this gully a possibility. 20 feet down and I could see that I was lowering down onto what would be a free hanging overhang of about another 20 feet. With just a knot around my waist I knew that would be painful at the very least. So I decided to tension traverse into the head of the gully a bit
to avoid the overhang, but the Katoolas were only just biting into the surface and I kept skittering back towards the overhang. Doubts crossed my mind, was this going to be where the attempt ended? Were we going to be driving back down the M74 'tails between out legs' ? I paused for thought and decided to give it another go and using my axe as well I eventually got far enough across to a point where a short swing and quick lower ("down, down, down!") got me into the gully proper. One thing for sure it would be tough if not impossible to get back out from here!
Down in the gully I was in a different world. The overhang (I remembered now from the summer) was the edge of a huge undercut roof on the gully wall. Powder snow had settled in many feet deep making it easy to descend what was now an easy angled slope. When I thought I had gone far enough to be beyond any potential difficulties I untied the rope and shouted up "see you later!" , and ran off alone into the inky blackness.
The Grey Corries are a 5 mile long chain of peaks linked by narrow ridges. The snow on this section was generally much softer underfoot. There can't have been much thawing taking place. Indeed some of the ridge sections were quite deep in powder snow. Occasional cornices loomed into view, and I kept a sensible distance away from them. On the ascents I always tried to find the compact snow, but often there was none which meant minutes were lost rather than gained. Midnight had just past as I summited the last Grey Corrie peak of Stob Coire Claurigh. I was 35 minutes down, according to my schedule I should be on the next peak of Stob Ban. I knew that I couldn't go any faster and had to reserve energy to complete another potential 20 hours
plus on the mountains. So I just had to keep moving efficiently and carefully and see what happened.
Stob Ban is a superb peak, almost a perfect cone shape when approaching from the North West. Even in the dead of night I could appreciate its symmetry as my torch lit up the whole mountain and the small frozen lake at its foot. Modern LED head torches are truly amazing. I was using a caving lamp which had served me well on several winter outings. However on the steep ascent of Stob Ban its one weakness, the non-elastic head cradle let me down. I tilted my head back to enable me to look for a way through the steep slopes directly above me. The light fell back off my head and I snatched out to catch it, which I did, but as a result wrenched my hiking poles in a hole as I attempted to regain balance. Starting up again I realised I had
snapped one of my poles. At least I didn't have much more ascent on this leg, and would hopefully be able to borrow a pole at Fersit. I completed this split bang on time, perhaps things were looking up! Shortly over the summit I stopped change my GPS watch which had run out of batteries, and promptly spilt all my food rations which slid away down the icy slope never to be seen again! My energy levels felt OK so I was not too concerned. I hoped my mishaps were over for the moment.
I remembered the desolate crossing from Stob Ban to Stob Corie Easain from my summer round. In winter conditions like this it is certainly a more pleasant experience as the heathery slopes and boggy channels are replaced by fast snowy descents and iced over bogs. As I approached the river I listened out for water and found a small flowing channel where I made up some raspberry Chia drink - very refreshing! The main river was barely flowing and I balanced over icy rocks to start the mile long ascent ahead of me. Initially this went well, but as I got higher the powder snow got deeper, and crustier, every step promised a firm footing, only to collapse as I transferred my weight onto it. Tiring, demoralising and frustrating. I yelled out
in anger at one point! My torch picked out bits of mountain way above me, this ascent seemed endless.
I knew I had dropped more time but I was too tried to work it out so just carried, keeping an eye on some huge cornices on the short descent to the last and perhaps easiest peak on the first leg. I gained a few minutes on this climb but eventually worked out I was still the best part of an hour down as I started the long 4.5 mile descent to the Loch Trieg Dam. This is a deceptive bit of ground, initially it is easy running, delightful in snowy conditions, but in the later sections there are steep crags which have to be navigated, at one point I had to kick in steps and "reverse" a steep snow slope. Loch Treig was not visible anywhere but a distant light that seemed to have a reflection I thought was possibly a torch set up by my support
team near to the checkpoint. More difficult crags were passed and still there seemed to be a lot of ground ahead of me. A small valley crossing and short climb led me to the Loch side track, and more uphill! It's funny how such short sections of uphill can really annoy you, but this tiny section of uphill track just felt unfair! Running down the zigzags to the dam and loch Treig I whooped at full volume to signal my arrival! I was ready for food, drink and company!
3.30 am at Fersit.
Suddenly after so much time to think you have a lot to think about and you don't want to waste any time if at all possible. Dick had prepared some porridge and hot sweet tea which tasted like nectar. John Carr (read his report below) my support runner for the next section was having a few problems with his borrowed light, but Dick got it fixed. John lent me one of his hiking poles and took most of my emergency kit so I was now back to minimal weight. I didn't need to change any clothing as I had kept very dry, but I changed my shoes and socks (which is always a treat) and switched over to a new headlamp. Nearly 20 minutes had passed and after final checks (new maps, food, drink, etc) it was time to head off across the dam and a short
way along the railway line before clambering over some tatty fences and up onto the lower slopes of Stob Coire Sgriodain.
John Carr - my enthusiastic support for leg 2 - had never been further North than Loch Lomond before so all this was new to him. What he lacked in experience he more than made up for with enthusiasm and energy. After about 20 minutes we reached the top of a rocky spur - "Is this the top" said John! I told him it was perhaps a bit further! Within half an hour we were back on snow and our lights picked out the steep flanks of the mountain above us. We settled into a rhythm, trying to pick the best line and avoid the deep drifts where possible. In summer I had gained over 15 minutes on this section, but I knew in winter just keeping close to the schedule would be tough. Occasional Ptarmigan flew into the night sky as we disturbed
there roosts (simple hollows in the snow) and we often followed the footprints of foxes, hares and deer. The approach to Chno Dearg took us across a snowy plateau and I asked John to break the trail. He did a fantastic job but it was still slow going. After a brief pause to get organised in the shelter of the summit cairn ( even a 4 or 5 mile an hour wind can bite in such temperatures) we started on the rapid descent South East taking care to avoid the large cliffs that prevent a 100% direct route to be taken. Large drifts of snow create more obstacles on the lower slopes, but it's the long ascent through powder that eats into the time again and 15 minutes is lost somewhere amongst the energy sapping snows of Ben na Lap.
John Carr - leg 2 support and motivator
Even after such a long climb though our spirits rose as the sky to the East had smudges of red above the horizon. It was as if an impressionist painter was marking the new day with a few feint brush strokes. What would this day bring? More powder snow was the immediate answer on the gradual descent South. But this led on to great running as we followed the vague vehicle track and then took a direct line for the railway bridge, beyond which the track proper could be seen more clearly in the new dawn. John stopped to get a few things organised and prepare a bit more drink as I carried on happy to be running again and feeling very positive after the tough test I had come through. I was almost at the southern end of Loch Treig before John
caught me up and he said he had had to work hard to do so. He pestered to me to eat a bit more and also drink, he was really looking after me! The track was very icy in places, but the metal "dabs" in my Innov-8 shoes worked a treat, giving me enough confidence not to have to avoid smaller sections of ice. They didn't prevent me from breaking through one patch of thinner ice which resulted in wet feet and more bruising to my already tender shins, I think I may have sworn at this point!
I was looking forward to the run alongside the river Abhainn Rath, I remembered how idyllic it seemed in the summer, and even at the opposite end of the season it didn't fail to charm. There were occasional rocky sections and then smooth grassy paths at the rivers edge. The frosts also allowed a more direct line over the frozen bogs. Long distance running does not get much better than this. Past the bothy at Staioineag there is a short climb up to waterfalls, which were nearly fully frozen. Then the valley widens out and some distant pine trees mark a good crossing point. For a few minutes the distant Mamore peaks were lit up bright pink by the rising sun before fading back to white. I had decided to go almost as far as Luibeilt before
making the required river crossing and so avoid the rougher more direct line I had taken the previous summer. This worked out was as I could see the river was frozen further ahead and might allow us a dry crossing! I shouted "camera"at John who was a bit behind (he was either tiring or sorting out kit - I couldn't be sure). The walk over the frozen river, successful or otherwise would make a good picture, and Charlie Ramsay had asked me to try and get a good picture of the river crossing point. It was hard to judge how thick the ice was. Where it was bubbly it seemed quite thick and strong, but then there were sections where it was crystal clear and the ice might have been just millimeters thick. I prepared for the inevitable
plunge into the water beneath as the ice cracked and groaned under my weight. I must have been lucky or skilled in picking a good line as I made it across and left John to his chances. (John got across fine and even videoed some of it).
CP2 at Loch Eilde Mor was less than 3 miles away now and I knew I could be there in 30 minutes if I kept a steady pace. John had given me great support but was now running on empty and so I ran on ahead and along the final straight section of track I could see Dick waving in the distance. I was over an hour down still, but I hadn't given up on a 24 hour round as just like the first peak on leg two the first peak on the leg three had a generous time allowance, and if anything I felt much stronger at this stage than I had done in the summer.
Dick Gerrish at Loch Eilde Mor - Rope man, Checkpoint 1 and 2 support
Dick did wonders again with sweet tea, porridge, rice pudding and other goodies. He had had to cycle an icy 5 miles up steep tracks to get here, but wasn't complaining. I changed my shoes and socks again and was pretty much ready to go when John arrived and I grabbed my Katoolas crampons, a few emergency items, food and drink to see me through the first 10 kms of the next leg. I'd over shot my time limit here and it was time to move on again.
Sgurr Eilde Mor - A tiny dot on the landscape
I was soon back on snow but this Eastern slope was not particularly good going. There were many sections of breakable crust and a few with slippery powder on top of hard neve where I really had to fight to gain a purchase. It's a very foreshortened summit and my previous optimism slipped away on the ascent. I was not gaining enough time and now I realised the sub 24 round was out of the question. The amazing views and chance of a new best time for a winter round were more than enough to keep me focused though and after navigating some snowy ravines and ridges on the next descent I picked up the contouring path to Binnein Beag. This domed peak's summer screes were well covered in snow but that certainly didn't assist me in
any way going up, but it did make the descent across to Binnein Mor a real pleasure. Here I chose to head up the North ridge and avoid the seriously steep ground I had taken in summer. Even this was steep enough but the grandeur of the mountain more than compensated for the hard work. I kept a good pace going on the next section and reminded myself to eat a few bits and pieces, my drink had all gone by now. I scanned the ridges ahead for a sign of Jules who should be meeting me somewhere ahead. Na Gruagaichean is one of the easier summits, but beyond it you have to climb a steep peak just to continue along the ridge. As you tire this sort of vertical detour frustrates you but my my concern now was my very painful left shin. I could
see Jules at the next col but descending through wind slab was very painful so I just had to stop and do something. I decided to wrap a spare buff around my left shin to give it some padding. I took a painkiller as well. After the "extra" peak I had a pleasant run down to meet Jules who had arranged some food and drink and also took my pack for the next climb.
Late afternoon on the Mamores with support again
Hidden in my thoughts had been the two out and back ridges coming up. In summer these these might feel tricky enough, but in winter they are quite serious bits of mountaineering and have to be treated with respect. I was also hoping the snow conditions where not going to impede or even put an end to my challenge. First up was the 500 metre out and back knife edge ridge of
An Garbhanach. There were a few awkward moments but thankfully it was OK with a single axe and microspikes. Steep neve slopes on either side certainly kept the concentration levels high and there was little talk between us.
It was only a week of midwinter's day and already light was fading as we worked hard up to the summit of Am Bodach, and by the time we reached the demoted Munro of Sgurr an Iubhair it was time to get torches on again as the last vestiges of daylight faded away from pink to blue in the West. The remaining summits in the Mamores seemed to rise out of the snowy wilderness likes sharks teeth. The Ramsay in Winter still had plenty of fight left in it, but did I? Jules prompted me to take a Gel and a drink before we tackled the "Devils Ridge" of Sgurr a Mhaim ridge. (We didn't have much fluid left as the bottle of energy drink had disappeared into the night when ir rolled of down a snow slope earlier). In the twilight the "gap" we
had to get to and then cross looked very uninviting, and part of me knew that such sections of ridge can look a lot harder than they are. The trail had been broken by someone else in the last couple of days which made it a bit easier. Jules sat out the last bit of this "out and back" climb but together we returned to the "gap" which would allow us to escape the ridge and make a direct line for the last big climb of the round, Stob Ban. The steep gully was littered with huge blocks of cornice that must have collapsed sometime in the last few days, but gradually the angle relented and we could relax once more.
Winter Wonderland - Ben Nevis, Grey Corries and the Mamores
Relief was short lived and the fatigue the last 24 plus hours was making every step of the long steep climb up Stob Ban feel hard work. It was certainly the worst section of powder snow on the whole circuit and my whole body, particularly my back, seemed to ache now, I had to dig deep! Once on the summit the outline of Ben Nevis seemingly far to the North West soon became a constant reminder that it was still a fair distance to Glen Nevis and the finish.
I hadn't seen anyone else other than my support team since I started off, and now it looked as if I would finish the whole round with that statistic. Apart from the very occasional sound of running water and a few birds (ptarmigan and grouse) the silence had been total, just the sound of footsteps on a snowy landscape. Visually of course it had been unforgettable, with stunning vistas during daylight hours and even darkness had its own rewards. Running down the gentle slopes of Stob Ban towards the final climb the amazingly clear night sky was etched by frequent shooting stars, the arrival of the Geminid meteor shower. This was a very special moment to be savoured despite tired limbs.
The last Munro is reached via 2 miles of undulating but thankfully broad and unchallenging ridge. Time had slipped away and at my current pace it looked as if I was going to be well over 27 hours, well inside the current fastest time, but slower than I had hoped for. I decided there was no point in just ambling back to the finish, so I pushed the pace down the last snow slopes and onto the frozen "path" following the fence-line down The starry skies receded as we plummeted into the darkness of the steep glen. We decided to keep the microspikes on even though we were of the hill as there was a lot of ice around but finally we arrived at the new footpath which has improved access to the forest tracks, so we finally removed
our microspikes. Five more minutes and we had started along the first section of track, in the opposite direction to the finish! It's the quickest way as a short detour is needed to get to a more open bit of forest through which a direct descent is taken to the lower track, whilst trying to avoid sharp branches, tree trunks, boulders and gullies, A real obstacle course!
Reaching the lower track at 8.30 pm after pushing the pace meant I had a good chance of finishing under 27 hours. A short distance along the track we found John and he had a fresh pair of trainers for me. Hurriedly trying to get my fell shoes off I found that my socks were frozen into my shoes, and worse still my feet were frozen into my socks. Peeling back the socks I revealed a set of purple toes! I had no fresh socks to put on (Dick had them - he was warming them up but we had missed him somewhere in the woods). With comfortable road shoes on I didn't mind however and my feet felt warm enough after the quicker running of the last hour. John ran with me now and he was really keen to get me to Glen Nevis Youth Hostel before 9pm. The
track seemed uphill to me but John assured me it wasn't and I held the required pace with my final reserves of energy, racing across the final short section of frozen footpath back onto Tarmac for the last 200 metres.
26 hours 57 minutes - All the training, planning and perseverance had paid of!
This is what I chose, all of it except my gaiters performed 100%
Footwear - I find the Inov8 Orocs ideal in winter as they bit well into all but the hardest neve and also give at least some purchace on ice.
Clothing - OMM Kamleika smock over a lightweight baselayer. I wore this all the way around and never changed it, Due to the very cold dry atmosphere I sweated very little. I carried an OMM Rotor smocjk but never wore it. I also wore OMM flash tights. I use drymax socks which reduce moisture build up on your skin. I bought dome trekmate gaiters in Fort William as my Raidlight ones had gone AWOL. Unfortunately these let me down as the foot stirrup snapped. This allowed a small amount of snow into my shoes on the last leg, resulting in frozen socks and some minor frost bite.
10 days later my toes are still rather numb! Mountain
Equipment Randonee gloves kept my hands toasty warm all the way around. The odd time I had to pull my fingers into a fist to warm them up. I used buffs and an old fleece hat for headwear.
Hardware - Katoola microspikes are ideal but they do have limitations on steeper slopes as you have to angle your foot to get as much contact area as possible. You can't be as confident on steeper ground as you an in normal crampons. It is worth practicing with them as much as you can on steep neve. The Camp Corsa ice axe is a super bit of kit at just a shade over 200 grams it won't weight you down!
Headtorches - I used a Stenlight caving lamp, it is super bright but also has a beautifully smooth beam and good battery life. Alos easy to adjust the brightness level with gloves on. On leg two I switched to a spolite (a bike/headlamp system). Finally an LED Lenser lightweight headtorch for the last few hours. It has a superb zoom on it for such a small torch.
GPS - I used a Garmin Fenix (battery ran out after 8 hours) and then a Garmin 910xt. They are useful tools as they allow you to navigate/route find without stopping. They are of course no substitution for knowing the route really well. if I had followed the Garmin trace I had 100% I would have gone over some big cornices and over a barefly frozen lake! I also had laminated maps for each section and laminated timesheets.
Poles - Black diamond ultralight trekking poles!
Preparation, support, logistics and travel
Even with a relatively small support team there is a lot that can go wrong, and with more equipment requirements in winter it's vital to get well organised. Here are a few key issues.
Route familiarlity is of course more than just a bonus. Knowing escape routes and being aware of what is coming up so you are confident that you are taking the best line.
Fitness - In a winter round you need to be fit enough so that the distance is not an issue. You have plenty of other stresses to deal with! Due to the relatively slow pace dictated by the terrain it is surprising how little food and drink you can get away with. Plenty of long 10 hour plus days on the hills will stand you in good stead.
Food - This is one thing I am often asked about - what do you eat. Quite often people assume you have to eat huge amounts of high calorie food. This is just not possible though as you can't digest large quantities of food and run at the same time. I tend to just have a variety of mainly low GI food such as malt loaf, cereal bars, flap jack, etc. Fruit concentrate bars are one of my favourite items. Then I relied of a good helping of porridge and some rice pudding at the two checkpoints. I also used a few energy gels and energy sweets for when I felt my blood sugar levels were running low. On the last section I also had some sandwiches, although perhaps a bit harder to digest they are a welcome change from the sweeter
stuff. Generally though I think I relied on fat burning as my calorie intake can only have been a few thousand at most, yet expenditure must have been 15,000 calories plus. This is something that comes with training - eat just enough to keep you going and don't consume sugary foods or your body will demand or expect them.
Drink - With the very cold/dry climate I was expecting not to have to drink much, and thats how it worked out. . On the whole circuit I probably had 3 or 4 litres in total. But the porridge also provides a liquid boost. I just used Asda energy drinks and also some Chia Charge which was made up en-route.
Support Runners - You need support runners and helpers who you trust 100%, who can relate to the challenge and are experienced enough to keep an eye on your nutrition and hydration. With the technical nature of the terrain they also need to be 100% confident in their own abilities.
Travel/access - Unless you are lucky enough to live in the Highlands its a long drive up the M74. The heater on my car had broken so we were pretty well acclimatised to the cold. The start and finish is just a short drive from Fort William where the Morrisons supermarket provides good food and provisions. The two checkpoints are within an hours drive from Fort William. CP1 is a 1km walk from Fersit. CP2 is a 5km cycle from the carpark next to the abandonded Mamores Lodge Hotel near Kinlochleven. For the winter attempt we camped the night before, cold but very dry so it was not unpleasant. You will find the Youth Hostel useful (at the start/ finish) for the night after when you will be very tired!
Weather - As so much of the time on the Ramsay Round is spent well above 3,000 feet it is worth being flexible and waiting for good weather. A solo or very lightweight attempt in good weather is more likely to succeed than any attempt in adverse weather.
pressure chart prediction 3 days before I started - a year in which very few high pressures had occured
Flexibility - With a lightweight approach you do need to be able to cope with changes in plan. In both my summer and winter rounds I had to complete solo sections that I though I was going to be supported on. You have to have the confidence in your own abilities, particularly in the dark.
Start/Finish Time - Quite a few people asked my why I chose to start at 6pm. My thinking was that once I had battled through 14 hours of darkness the daylight would really lift my spirits (it did). Also the technical ridge sections in the Mamores are made less serious and stressful in daytime. I think I made the right decision.
Drop Tom and Jules off at Ben Nevis Youth Hostel and take a picture of them setting off. Cheerio lads!! Off into the unknown, well to me it was. In June this year I raced the Celtman triathlon up in Torridon. Prior to that the only Scotland I had experienced was six years ago when I was trying to become a golf pro. Tom took me under his wing in November 2011 after I bought my first pair of fell running shoes. I had a basic foundation of fitness from racing Ironman over the past 4 years and apart from the odd walk in the Lakes my mountain knowledge was limited. An armchair Chris Bonnigton. Tom is Jedi at any activity that involves going up or down a slope. Fell running, caving, rock climbing, cycling the lot. Fortunate for me his encouragement
has nurtured an 'knack' I never knew I had. The past 12 months has been indirectly preparation for the Winter Ramsay. In fact I cant remember a run where we have not talked about one of 'The Big Three'. Throwing me in at the deep end we have tackled a large number of long outings in range of weather conditions. In fact we have run more miles on the fells this year than I had done on my bike in 2010. Completely addicted. 2012 has been a fantastic year for sport in the UK, including Tom and myself. Howarth Hobble,Hardmoors 55, 3peaks, Coniston Old Man Tri, Celtman, Lakeland 100, Hardmoors 60 (65 in my case,direction issues) But some of the most rewarding moments have been when a text comes through. 'meet tomorrow 4am at my house, dales
skyline route?' No entry fees or finishers medals, just pure adventure (If I don't sleep through my alarm). We nearly broke a course record in September, if we had known it at the time we wouldn't have stopped to sit down for a ice cream and a sunbathe on Wernside. Helping Tom do this is the perfect ending to perfect year.
'Where are they?' I'm currently curled up on the front seat of the car that is parked at the end of footpath. Wrapped up in numerous sleeping bags I'm wedged in like china plate in its packaging. Its -8 outside the car and its -8 inside the car. From the outside looking in I can only imagine it looks like someone has decided to convert a VW Golf estate into a textile recycling bin.
The plan is that Dicky is meant to be walking back from the lowering point and as far as I'm aware,he should be back by now so we can head round to checkpoint 1. Not panic stations just yet, but when you have been on your own for 6 hours in the pitch black your mind does wander a little. Eventually I see a torch light and its not Dicky but Jules. He explains how he felt he couldnt hold the pace and decided to let Tom do the second half of the leg on his own. A few moments later Dicky arrives back. He has worked so hard in the last 8 hours. Although he is not running he took a huge pack 4 miles or so up to a lowering point on Stob Coire Bhealaich. He then set up the ropes,dug himself a shelter, set up a bivvy and waited for a few hours.
His plan was to make a cup of tea but it was so cold the gas bottle was frozen solid. In our own way each one of us are digging deep physically and mentally.
3am. Still in a similar foetal position just a different bit of Scotland. Now in a sleeping bag and bivvy on a gravel track beside the dam at Fersit. F@#cking freezing! But the happiest I have been in a while. Dicky and I have set out a buffet of food,drink and kit. As I curl up to keep warm I look up through a gap in my hood. Pretty sure Scotland get given extra stars in their sky. Every couple minutes there is a casual shooting star or a meteor shower. Its deadly silent, you could hear a robin fart in the neighbouring glen. The wind is almost non existent Ground conditions aside it is the perfect winter running weather. For the past couple of weeks we have all been on stand by for the eventual weather window where
everything becomes calm, how long it lasts is another matter. Eventually Tom arrives and starts to change shoes and refuel. Action stations. Just doing that alone is an achievement You go from survival hibernation mode to super yak in seconds. Get the pack out and transfer all Toms clothing and food into mine. Bloody head torch decides at the crucial moment to stop working. After a little fumbling I hand it to Dicky and continue loading up. At 3.51am I start my Garmin for leg 2. As every foot you climb it gradually gets a little whiter until 'crunch'. Just like breaking a meringue the hard exterior gives way to soft snow underneath. This is nothing like running at night. Firstly its not running
its speed mountaineering at best. But your heartrate is no different. It can be quite demoralising if you let it. Normally when your climbing you can look up and focus on a point to help keep tunnel vision but in the dark you see just see snow, endless snow. It feels endless as well, like your in this bubble floating in an eternal abyss. Its silent in the outside world like a vacuum, only the noise is from your lungs and feet, and by contrast they are deafening. I had one focus in my mind. Do everything I can to pace Tom to the last section on the track where it should be easy running. Tom was down on the 23:50 schedule so the magic number kept in my head was 3mph or 20min/mile. When there is no finish line it takes a different
mind set to keep the momentum going. The first mile took 27:20 then 39:15, 25:48, 23:08. It felt even longer. You try to tap out a rhythm and just when its going well 'crunch' snow past your knees. Then again and again. Every step your shin hammers against the crust .
A bad workman blames his tools is the saying......but there are tweeks I would make. Poles are a blessing when climbing a steep slope especially in the snow. I was down to one pole and a novel new toy called an ice axe. Tom had broke one of his poles earlier on so I gave him mine to use. The bag was another novelty as the largest I ever use normally is my Salomon Slab Skin that's a mere 12 litre,superlight and designed for specifically for ultra trail running. Pockets and niffty features all over it. I still haven't managed to fill it,even on a 60 miler. But this Ramsey is a different gravy. I had a spare tshirt,jacket,trousers,hat,mittens,map,gps,camera,first aid, torch, crampons, food and drink for Tom. Plus a spare jacket,trousers,bivvy,
crampons , food and drink for me, all in a 25 litre bag. It was a solid lump. Now if im hypercritical I would say the bag was the right size but it could have been better at holding drinks. I normally use a bladder but as its so cold the tube may freeze. The plan was to take a bottle each and fill up from streams. The only pocket that I could fit my bottle into was on the side of the bag. The only trouble is you cant reach it on the move, you have to take the pack off completely. Sounds so harmless but trust me it can make all the difference when your trying to move fast and light whilst keeping a momentum on difficult ground. The first climb was tough mentally. I tried to settle in as I have learned that it takes me a good hour to get
going. But balanced out you also need to keep a pace. When I do long climbs I play a little mental game to help me get up as fast as I can. I pick a spot up the mountain and reward myself with a tiny sip of fluid when I reach it. You can barely notice me do it when I have a bladder. But with the awkward bottle I have to forget that game. It frustrates me how I feel out of control and mixed in with the odd suprise fall into the powder. I bite my tongue and tell the inanimate objects to 'f#%k off'. You don't want to slow Tom down but you need to drink.
We hit the first descent and I was a happy Ironfarmer. If I let go I can murder the downhill sections. The average pace returned to the magic 20min/mile. On the second and third ascent I focussed hard on leading the way. If Tom can use my footprints it will help save him the little percentages of energy that will pay off later. The gradients were touching 45% and combined with the crusty snow it was very hard work getting the ice axe to bite. After a few minutes I settled in and chose to ignore my quads that were twitching like an electric shock.The last descent was long and pretty easy running if you read the snow and avoided the drifts. Tom was following my line nicely and the average pace was steadily getting better. The last 8 miles
of the leg was following a footpath along a river and then on to a narrow twin track. There was a small matter of a river crossing that needed a little bit of attention. All through your childhood you get warned about walking on frozen lakes. Switch the sensible brain off and get on with it. The ice was so clear you could see the river bed and the water running below. As Tom went first for me to take a picture I heard some worrying creaks and moans from the ice. Then it was my turn. My first footstep immediately made a crack that shot up the river for about 10 feet. It was like that classic cartoon moment.
'Im going in, I know it' I delicately shuffled across and amazingly made it without any dramas. Right then onwards. Eat Tom eat!
Somewhere on the descent I lost my drinks bottle, and Tom was no better off as he lost his. Luckily Tom wasn't feeling too thirsty but I was getting dehydrated. After pushing hard for 4 hrs and carrying the pack I was quite warm. Even though it was minus temperatures I wasn't feeling the cold at all. I stopped at a stream to scoop some water into my hand and let Tom continue on. There was no navigation needed on the track to the checkpoint so I wasn't particularly worried about dropping back. Tom was ticking along nicely, a little too nicely in fact. After my couple minutes of having a water and toilet stop he was long gone. I took off and tried to reel him in but it was surprising how difficult the track was to run on. All the little
potholes and ruts were covered in sheet ice. What I thought was going to be easy ground turned out to be pretty dangerous. My legs where blasted from hammering them so soon after lying in the cold for hours on end. I didn't feel anywhere near as light I thought they would be. It looked at little like I was skipping across stepping stones but gradually I was making progress. Eventually the checkpoint was in sight and the 19 miles was over. I was very surprised how hard I had to work for such short run. I don't think it helped that I had only drunk 500ml of water in 19 miles. But the adrenaline buzz kept me smiling and whole occasion of where we were and what we where trying to help Tom achieve made it most enjoyable. Tom was
getting ready for the next leg, as soon as I stopped the cold hit me instantly. Dicky handed me a cup of sweet tea and it instantly made me feel human again. As the car was 3 miles away from the checkpoint Dicky and I spent the next hour or so carrying the bags and mountain bike back to the car park. Also met Jules on the path who was making his way to meet Tom for the remainder of last leg. Chatting away and enjoying the views that moment alone will be a great memory.
Back in foetal position in my new best friend, the good old bivvy bag. Its back to -8 temperature and we are waiting for Tom and Jules on another uncomfortable gravel track in the last forest section of the round. Only 2.4 miles to the youth hostel where he started 26 hours ago. Just as I was starting to incredibly drift off to sleep a flash of a head torch catches my eye. They are here. If I can get him back in less than 30 minutes that will be a sub 27 hour round and a new record. Tom changes in to his Hokas, His socks are frozen to his feet after over a day covered in snow. No bags needed so I grabbed a bottle and set off pacing him. Like a caffeine boost the feeling of knowing he was going to make it lifted my
spirits and the legs felt very fresh. Tom locked on to my heels and I encouraged his legs to pick up the pace. He was hurting but you could see his mind was a laser. Nothing was going to stop him. The stars were out and you could nearly get away without a headtorch, at 8:57pm on Wednesday 12th of December we arrived at the youth hostel where 26 hrs and 57 minute ago he began this epic round. Job done.
After a bit of schmoozing earlier in the day I managed to get a room booked in the hostel and our first shower since Monday. I did not smell pleasant. Also bought Tom an early birthday cake and a card as his 49th was the next day. Incredible year for a man who seems to be getting stronger as his teeth get longer. Well done my friend