Scottish 4000s

I’m not by nature a drinking man, well not seriously anyway, but everything that happened on this adventure was as the result of a drink or two. Or three. I’m not by nature a running man. I’m a cyclist. My legs like going round in circles and until fairly recently going downhill at more than walking pace wouldn’t have been contemplated without the aid of an carbon fibre handlebar for support. However, everything that happened on this adventure involved running on my own two feet….

The idea: To run all the hills in Scotland over 4000ft in 3 days. This would involve scaling the nine highest hills in Britain and running the points between them. Four of the peaks are on the west coast close to Fort William, while the other five are some distance away in the Cairngorm Mountains near Aviemore.

The team: The chief instigator in all this was my good mate Gareth Craft, and I have honestly no idea where his idea came from. We’ve done previous time together, serving a major sentence together first in 2002 when we rode off road from Aberdeen to Kyle of Lochalsh pulling trailers behind our mountain bikes, and since on a trip down the west coast of Ireland. But this was a new league. I mean we’re bikers, and he’s normally a cripple from one injury or another, so it would be tricky enough just making sure we were in some sort of shape to start it, never mind finish the whole thing. To aid the chances of at least one person making the challenge start we put the idea to our running mentor Richard Hooley, who lapped up the idea, which was a relief as we were confident we would need the reassurance of his navigation skills and other experience along the way.

We checked out the history of the route and discovered that Martin Stone held the record time of 21 hours 39 mins. That’s continuous! We were going to split it into three 7 hourish days and that was still a hell of a challenge! The man’s not human!

The date was set for the August Bank Holiday weekend and provisional route plans were made over many pints of cider in the Packhorse in South Stoke, Bath, then….nothing. The idea was put on the back burner as exams, work, relationships, and injuries all got in the way, until somebody brought the subject back up again two months before. Luckily everyone was still keen as mustard and we were go!

Day 1 started in Fort William with our greatest single ascent for the whole trip: the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis (1344m/4409ft). For the ease of completion we were taking the easy and slightly less interesting route straight up the tourist path, along with the many thousands of others that seemed to be heading to the heavens on the sunny summer morning we had in front of us. It was a fairly gentle start to the challenge, and we amused ourselves with a sweepstake on which exclamations people made as we ran past – I think “Your mad!” won, just ahead of “**** me!”. Slight deviations were made off the tourist path to check out direct routes for future races up the hill, but apart from that it was straight up onto the cloud shrouded top for a quick snap, a few mouthfuls of food and an introduction of legwear to keep the chill off. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to find our way off onto the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, more due to not engaging brains than lack of skill, we found the right track and picked our way along the rocky slippery ridge all the way up onto the summit of Carn Mor Dearg (1220m/4002ft) and summit number two. It was a slow descent over a myriad of slippy rocks down to a low bealach before a 400m climb straight up the steep slopes onto the wide ridge which first Aonach Mor (1221m/4006ft) then Aonach Beag (1234m/4049ft) form. After the steep ascent a gentle gradient graced the top for the 800m run to the summit. Another quick snap and it was a blast straight back along the ridge and onwards to Aonach Beag. Here we met a chap who was out on a walk from Glen Nevis to bag the two Aonachs to add to his Munro’s total. We ran on down a good track to incidentally pick off another Munro in the form of Stob Coire Bhealaich, before descending down steep grassy slopes into the wide basin of upper Glen Nevis. Here we followed the Abhainn Rath East into Loch Treig along an often boggy but distinct path, passing a couple of groups of heavily laden backpackers on the way. One group said they were only out for a couple of days yet had bags over three times the size of ours, and we were out for three! Just goes to show that if you have the space you’ll fill it…or we were under-prepared for the conditions we could face…

Meet Richard, Gareth and John The start of the Ben Nevis path The tourist track Fort William disappears from view The crowds start
Off the tourist track Jon Boy climbs Richard picks his way up Looking good! Almost halfway up the Ben Beds on our backs

It was along this section that we were presented with our first problem as Richard began to slow and then admitted to be suffering badly with a dodgy knee. Gareth was feeling very strong so took Richard’s pack and wore it on his front, enabling Richard to bravely persevere at a respectable pace, although he was still obviously in pain. Salvation came in the form of Corrour Station, where although disheartened by the inhospitable welcome we received, we were lifted to find that Richard would be able to catch the last train out to Fort William that night at 21.18hrs. He quickly got himself relaxed again with a beer from the station shop, while Gareth and I bade our farewells and trotted off down the track to the Loch Ossian Youth Hostel. The hostel has recently had a fantastic £130 000 renovation and is probably the most environmentally friendly hostel you’re ever likely to stay in. The manager Nick creates just as friendly an environment within the hostel making us feel very welcome over a few drams of (purely medicinal!) Ardbeg. We are in fits of giggles after a while when the two remaining guys booked in for the night pitch up off the last train. Instead of two, there’s five guys of Indian origin who have plans to walk out to Fort William the next day, and up Ben Nevis the day after next. Their first problem is that there is only one spare bed so two of them have to sleep in a shed somewhere down the track! Their second problem is that they have brought a ton of food with them in glass jars and metal tins, not realizing that all rubbish has to be carried out from the hostel. Next problem is that the weather forecast for the next day is pretty nasty and they are kitted out in cheap waterproofs, and worse still some are planning to wear jeans and they have no waterproof trousers. They assure us they’ll be fine as they’ve been walking in the monsoon in India and Scottish rain can’t be worse than that!

Setting off on day 2 after a breakfast of Super Noodles and Dry Roasted Peanuts, we followed the south shore of Loch Ossian to the impressive new lodge house being built there, then headed North East off up the glen following the Uisge Labhair to a bealach below Ben Alder. The weather took a bit of a turn for the worse here, but luckily it was coming from our backs and helped blow us up and over the pass and down the great track for a quick breather in Culra bothy. Luckily for us a couple of guys sitting out the bad weather here were just brewing up a cup of tea, so we warmed ourselves for a while, then headed off on a good path to meet a Land Rover track that brought us down to Loch Ericht at Ben Alder Lodge. This magnificent lodge nearly ended the trip once and for all, for as we admired it whilst walking along I failed to notice a 6inch deep wooden drainage gutter across the road that suddenly swallowed my foot sending me crashing to the ground. How I did not break my ankle or do some ligament damage I’ll never know, but the mishap made me realize I was losing concentration due to hunger so I was grateful when in another hour we made out the outline of Dalwhinnie at the head of the loch. As we ran into the village we spotted a chap taking photos of us from the road, and because we were running across a farmer’s field full of cows and horses we thought he was going to have words, but no fear it was actually Richard, who shepherded us into the respite of the local hotel.

Hill 1: Ben Nevis Carn Mor Dearg Arete Hill 2: Carn Mor Dearg Hill3: Aonach Mor Hill4: Aonach Beag Gareth leads carrying two packs Jon Boy and Gareth approach Dalwhinnie

After a nutritionists worst nightmare of a lunch we loaded up with supplies for the remainder of the run and headed out of the village on a land rover track following an aquaduct to a hydro electric scheme several kms up the glen at Loch Cuaich. Here the track climbed steeply to a pass where it stopped leaving us to bash on across the boggy heather strewn ground through the pass and contour round the lower slopes of Bogha-Cloiche. It was slow going here and we thought our luck had run out when we dropped down to where we thought our bridge for the crossing of the outlet of Loch an t-Seilich should be, but couldn’t find it. After Gareth did a bit of running around, while I checked the map, he finally found a very well tree hidden bridge across a gorge and we were on our way again. The next stage was slow progress as we tired and the ground was soft underfoot. We followed the Allt Bhran East then branched off up Allt na Cuilce to join a land rover track heading down into Glen Feshie. Many times along this section we contemplated stopping and camping for the night, as it was getting dark very quickly but the thought of a warm dry bothy and the idea of having further to run the next day to get to the Cairngorms, forced us on through the dark into Glen Feshie. By the time we arrived in the glen we were pretty tired and hungry, and there was no way we fancied the extra 3 km trip down to the bridge over the river and back to the bothy, so we took a look at the river and decided it was crossable. Supporting each other as we waded across the thigh deep water, we slowly reached the other side and trotted on with renewed vigour towards the Ruigh-Aiteachain bothy praying that it wouldn’t be too busy for us to squeeze inside. So it was somewhat of a surprise to turn up and find it deserted with a fresh stack of firewood inside. We set about getting a fire going, and Gareth tried lighting the cooker for a dinner of super noodles, but…disaster! The stove would not light no matter how much we tried and so we were faced with a rationed dinner and breakfast of oatcakes, jaffa cakes and crisps.

After a reasonable nights sleep, that saw us sleeping in to 9am, we made a hasty withdrawal and headed up onto the Cairngorm plateau by the good track from the bothy. Heading North-East along the track towards Cairn Toul we were faced with the bizarre sight in the mist of a caterpillar digger working on the track, at over 3000ft and miles from anywhere. It must have taken the operator an eternity to drive up to where he was working! The track eventually came to an end and we were heading out onto open country skirting round the lower slopes of Angel’s Peak and up onto the saddle that separates it from Cairn Toul. It was at this point that things went a little awry, as the weather came roaring in like a steam train instantly devouring the hazy sunshine we’d been enjoying, and forced us into scurrying to the depths of our bags for full waterproof clothing. The wind was ferocious and the strongest gusts of over 80mph were regularly picking us up and throwing us down on the boulder field of the summit cone. The rocks were coated in Teflon and often we would have to cower behind a large rock to shelter from the strongest gusts. The visibility was down to about 10 metres and at times the wind threw horrendous stinging hail at us. The whole situation was becoming a bit worrying, but we carried on to the summit of Cairn Toul in the hope that the conditions would improve by the time we had descended back to the saddle. We had a brief discussion at the summit and decided that things were getting too dangerous, and if one of us went over on an ankle, which was pretty likely, we would be in big trouble. The mobile phone was showing no signal, the wind was too strong to get the tent up, and we were already wearing pretty much everything we had with us, and we were still cold. If something had happened to one of us, we were a long way from shelter or help of any kind. Even if we could alert mountain rescue there was no way a helicopter would get up in such bad wind and visibility, and it was a hell of a long way for a foot rescue party to get in to help. The decision was made at the saddle that we just had to get down to shelter as soon as possible, and that it would be quicker to head back west and pick up a track leading down into Glen Einich, instead of onwards to Braeriach and down into the Lairig Ghru. On paper this was the shorter route but would involve some very accurate navigation in an area we later found out is a “navigational graveyard” used by Mountain Leader training courses to destroy candidate’s confidence. However, with Gareth keeping me on my toes I managed to find the aiming off point, and within a minute we were picking our way down the excellent track into Glen Einich, eventually joining the land rover track that would take us into Rothiemurchus Forest and a reunion with a worried Richard at Loch an Eilien visitor centre. As soon as we dropped below the clouds we were greeted with a calm warm day and unless you’d been up high (like Richard had been while waiting at our original rendezvous at the Cairngorm ski centre) you’d have no idea that the weather was so bad. With perhaps fortunate timing Gareth found himself struggling with an injury in the last two miles that forced us into a slow walk, however, the challenge was over and most importantly we’d made it down off the hill in one piece to run another day.

Total Distance Run: Approx 110km
Total Ascent: Lots!
Total Time actual running: 30 hours
Total Time ‘in the field’:Approx 56 hours

The run was a great adventure and also perfect reconnaissance for next year’s Scottish 4000’s duathlon, a race involving runs over all the 4000s but connected by road bike from the bottom of the Aonach Mor mtb downhill course to Glen Feshie. Its only open to those with elite mountain running experience so we’ve a lot to do in the next year to promote our running CV’s. First up is the A class in the KIMM at the end of October, then a winter of Welsh racing awaits…

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