Charlie Ramsay Winter Round Attempt

1st Feb 2012

In 2008 I had completed a winter Charlie Ramsay Round in a new record time of 29:59:34 (you can read about it here>>>. Ever since I’d wanted to have another attempt and felt that if conditions were right a sub 24 hour round in winter was a real possibility. During 2009 and 2010 I was unwell with Chronic Fatigue and unable to contemplate another go. By 2011 I was well again but didn’t feel ready or want to risk a relapse. Finally, by the winter of 2012 I was fitter than ever and brimming with confidence after my OMM Elite win with Duncan Archer at the end of 2011.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that the concept of a winter round is contradictory and open to criticism as, just like a summer round, you want to wait for the best weather but without compromising the winter experience. Clearly, there is a difference between ‘a round in winter’ (Dec to Feb) and ‘a round in winter conditions’ (anytime of the year theoretically). It is a personal matter, but for me I felt that for a winter Charlie Ramsay Round to be credible, it should be completed both ‘in winter’ and ‘in winter conditions’. For winter conditions, I would expect an ice axe and crampons to be essential and for there to be significant snow on the mountains; the mountains must look wintery.

Once you have these wintery conditions, you then want the best possible weather! My experience leads me to believe that this is sub zero temperatures (to freeze the snow so that you can run on it more easily), good visibility, full moon (as much of the Round will be completed in the dark), little or no wind and absolutely no precipitation of any kind.

Essentially, what I am describing is one of those rare but perfect winter days with blue sky, sunshine, no wind and cold temperatures. Living in Cornwall I needed to follow the weather patterns and forecasts very carefully and after being frustrated through December and January it finally looked as though there would be a weather window at the beginning of February. I waited to the last minute before committing and then started the long journey North whilst desperately trying to arrange some support.

Having run solo, unsupported and largely on-sight in 2008, I wanted to maximise my chances of success this time and was able to enlist the help of Gary Tompsett, who has intimate knowledge of the route and previously held the winter record at 33:48.

On Tuesday 31st January, the day before my attempt, I was in Fort William and confident that everything had fallen into place regarding the weather and conditions… except the wind, for which the forecast was predicting gusts of up to 50mph in the worst case. With the temperature likely to be between -5 and -10°C high up, this could be really bad.

On balance though, I thought with everything else in place, having travelled from Cornwall and with no guarantee that it would indeed be that windy, it was worth starting.

Above: Feeling apprehensive about what I know lies ahead of me, Gary Tompsett snapped this photo moments before starting. Photo: Gary Tompsett


So the following day - Wednesday 1st February - I stood outside Glen Nevis Youth Hostel waiting to start. I had decided to start at midday and run on a 22½ hour schedule and was hopeful that I’d have sufficient flexibility to account for the extra difficulties of a winter round and sneak in under 24 hours. I was one minute down arriving at the summit of Ben Nevis but had had to faff with my crampons for a few minutes. By Sgurr Choinnich Mor, the fifth Munro in, I was over 12 minutes up and enjoying myself.

The initial adrenalin hit of storming up the Ben and the fantastic conditions on the CMD arête were now wearing off and the reality of what lay ahead announced itself with icy blasts of wind as I gained the Aonach plateau.

I’d been really concerned about the descent gully off Aonach Beag as in 2008 I’d had to front point (in orienteering shoes!) down the initial 10m with giddying exposure below. Conditions vary enormously in winter and I was in luck this time, as the gully was full of powder snow and I was able to glissade down in a few minutes.

As I’d climbed Sgurr Choinnich Mor the wind really picked up and the strongest gusts were making progress difficult (I later learned that the ski lifts a few kilometres away at the Nevis Range had been closed). By Stob Coire an Laoigh conditions had deteriorated further with knee deep snow forming a precipitous crested ridge, making running difficult and dangerous. Inevitably I slowed a little. The combination of a slower pace, wind and freezing temperatures were serious. Very quickly I began to cool (temperature with wind-chill was recorded at -27°C at the Nevis Range by now). Soon, I had lost almost all sensation in my hands. My feet weren’t far behind; with my toes long ago numb and the freeze creeping up my foot to my heel (losing sensation in your heel is quite a bizarre experience for anyone who hasn’t felt it).

I was still telling myself, “Just keep increasing the work rate to generate heat; just a few more kilometres and then I’ll start to loose height, drop out of the wind, and warm up”. I kept going for another ten minutes or so before realising that this strategy was doomed. I was really, really cold and struggling to think clearly. My water had frozen (including the bladder mechanisms and despite blowing back the water), my gels had frozen, my food had frozen, my outer shell was frozen - everything was frozen!

I spotted a boulder on the lee side of the ridge and dropped down to it, taking a break from the wind and putting on my spare clothing. However, when I left… I left my axe behind. I continued along the ridge initially oblivious to my mistake but after about another kilometre there was an awkward section and I reached between my left shoulder and pack to pull out my axe – where it always is - but it wasn’t there…………. I felt sick with the realisation of what I had done. The situation was rapidly becoming critical. I had two choices. I could retrace my steps and search for my axe or continue without. Snap decision. I decided to continue as I was dangerously cold already and my priority was to loose some height quickly, as I felt I couldn’t risk spending an extra second on this ridge being blasted by the freezing wind. Also I wasn’t certain I would find the same spot if I did go back.

Continuing along the Grey Corries Ridge now required extreme care. The exposure is impressive with cliffs and steep snow slopes dropping away on both sides from a snowy knife-edge ridge. With no axe I couldn’t risk a fall and I had to slow my running again.

By Stob Choire Claurigh I’d managed to send a text message to Gary. “Need Axe!” Luckily he was hanging out just in reception, and he had an axe! He bombed back down to his van by mountain bike, and got back up to the Lairig Leacach Bothy in time to see my torch coming off Stob Ban. Finally dropping out of the wind, the fast descent off Stob Ban to Leacach warmed me and the burning joy of hot aches announced my hands and feet were coming back to life. However, night had now fallen and the lack of axe, the cold, the wind, the deep snow and now the unplanned slight detour rendezvous with Gary meant I lost all the time I had gained on my schedule earlier on; I was 6 minutes down on my 22½ hour schedule by the time I arrived at Leacach Bothy. Gary had guided me in with his 1800 lumen Exposure light, which had been a welcome sight.
 

Above: My torch lights the descent from Stob Ban, as seen by Gary who was now waiting for me to arrive at the Leacach Bothy so that I could borrow his ice axe. Photo: Gary Tompsett

 

With hindsight I can see that my efforts in the Grey Corries had been more draining than I had thought at the time. The affect was subtle and insidious though. My legs didn’t ‘feel’ any more tired than I would have expected but the brush with hypothermia left me with a peculiar and unspecific tiredness for hours afterwards, which I noticed as I’d starting climbing up Stob Coire Easain opposite the Leacach Bothy. Suddenly it all just felt really hard.

Although there was a half moon, there was some high cloud obscuring most of its light. During my 2008 round I’d been lucky enough to have a full moon with no cloud cover and the difference was significant. Now, as I tagged the Stob Coire Easain summit cairn, I had little sense of the mountains around me and needed to pay constant attention to the map and compass. With my unplanned stop at Leacach Bothy and unexpectedly tiring ascent of Stob Coire Easain, I was now twenty minutes down on my schedule.

I lost another minute on the short leg to Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin but worse was to come. The descent from this mountain is complex at the best of times (i.e. summer and in good visibility) with an indistinct path interspersed with bands of cliffs. As I started to descend my headtorch battery failed. This was a bitter disappointment as it had only been on for less than three hours and had a supposed endurance of 30 hours (the battery had been kept in my pack, next to my back for warmth as well). I switched to my emergency headtorch, which although sufficient for proximity lighting doesn’t provide sufficient light to enable you to run in rough and complex terrain. Progress was slow. As I dropped below the snowline, I knew I would have some track running coming up, so my crampons needed to come off. However, they were frozen solid and I wasted more time trying to piss accurately on the frozen straps. The minutes ticked by.

Another 21 minutes lost off the schedule and 42 minutes down in total but at least I was now down at Fersit Dam, where Gary had stashed a support bag for me; warm water in a thermos, rice pudding, dry socks, more hill food and a new headtorch battery awaited. I had a mental list of jobs to complete but it all takes time, especially getting your shoes off and changing socks when your hands are numb. Another 25 minutes passed before I was ready to go and I had now used up much of the spare time within my 22½-hour schedule.

There doesn’t seem to be any easy way up Stob Coire Sgriodain and I opted to follow the train track for a few kilometres before taking a direct line up the west face, skirting just south of the cliffs below the summit before reaching the top. I’m not sure if this is the best line and another 10 minutes was lost (now 1:17 down overall). Although I was slipping beyond an overall sub 24-hour time now, I felt confident that I’d be able to make up the deficit.

However, ascending Beinn na Lap I become aware of my right ankle hurting. I couldn’t remember injuring it specifically but it was complaining for sure (I think the crampon strap had bruised some soft tissue). Now was the time to take my first painkillers and I decided not to mess about and used a potent mix of maximum dose Voltarol and Paracetamol, as I couldn’t afford to slow down and risk getting cold again or losing any more time.

14 hours and 45 minutes after starting, I rendezvoused with Gary as planned at a remote and exact rock band that helps with a crossing of the Abhainn Rath river, near Meanach Bothy. I was about two thirds of the way through the Round and circa 20 minutes down on a sub 24 hour schedule. I felt good mentally and my legs weren’t that tired. However, despite the massive painkiller hit my ankle had deteriorated further and I was now hobble jogging. It was -11°C in the sheltered valley and I was seriously concerned that if I continued and committed to the Mamores I would be unable to move quickly enough to stay warm, or even alive, as I was certainly not equipped or clothed for moving slowly. Inevitably, it would be significantly windier up on the Mamores, and I knew that the Grey Corries Ridge had pushed me close to my limits and that the only thing that had kept me warm enough had been a close to maximal, unsustainable effort to move quickly. I knew that my sore ankle now compromised my ability to do this and therefore I would be taking a huge risk if I committed to the Mamores. My heart wanted to continue and I knew a sub 24 round was within grasp but my rational mind (yes I do actually have one!) said I needed to stop.

Above: The long walk back to civilization and mobile phone reception from the Meanach Bothy. Photo: Gary Tompsett


As it transpired, the decision would have been made for me anyway, because as Gary and I headed to Meanach Bothy my second headtorch battery died (this time after six hours use). At the Bothy we had hot drinks by the fire; amazingly Gary had carried in a bag of firewood… just in case! We opted to sleep for a few hours, sharing one-man’s worth of sleeping kit between the two of us + some survival equipment, before starting the four-hour walk back to the road and more importantly mobile phone reception. Daylight appeared suddenly, proving that we had managed to nod off, and we started the plod out, in marvellous surroundings, though some lower cloud was starting to roll in. My biggest concern now was that my wife Heather, who had been keeping tabs on my progress (following my brief text messages from the summits – i.e. summit 1, 3, 5 etc), would only know that I hadn’t checked in since 0100 and I was now massively overdue and unable to communicate with her because of the remote valley we were in. Eventually, at 1030, we managed to get a text message to send and an hour later I was able to call, explain and seek forgiveness.

This winter Andy Kitchin (solo) and Jon and Dan Gay (together) also made attempts on the Round and I am quite certain that they had similarly tough mountain experiences to me. An indication of how hard it is to complete in winter is that - I believe - only four people have ever managed it.

Before attempting a winter Charlie Ramsay Round there are various equipment choices to consider. Let’s assume that you have done the hours of training required and that you possess the mixture of climbing, running and navigation skills required. Still, the most difficult decision for me was choosing to stop two thirds of the way through rather than jeopardise my safety (and possibly others) by continuing.

The Charlie Ramsay Round is a fantastic challenge that I find compelling, but the magnitude of it should not be underestimated. The remoteness of the route and the seriousness of the Scottish mountains in winter put it on a totally different level to anything else in Britain (with the exception of some other more obscure Scottish mountain running challenges). If I can’t squeeze another attempt into this winter I’ll certainly be back next winter.

Gary and I share a laugh before the start of my attempt at the foot of Ben Nevis. I couldn’t have asked for better support and who better to provide it, than the previous record holder! Photo: Gary Tompsett