It had been 2 and a half years since I’d been to the highlands of Scotland. Too long, but what better way to mark my return by visiting the nine highest summits of its beautiful mountains? Inspired by a race devised by Martin Stone and run in a couple of iterations in 2001/3 we set out to ascend all Scottish 4000ft peaks in one go. Trouble is there are 4 on the West and 5 on the East so to add to the challenge we had decided to cycle between them. In 18 hours if possible.
Normally a 3 day weekend would be crammed with action but instead this one would have one very full day and a couple of days of sorting or clearing up the debris. On Friday then we dumped some food in the fridge at Loch Morlich hostel, left a car with some more luggage and headed off west to leave bikes at the Aonach Mor carpark. Looking up at the downhill mtb track amidst the preparations for the Scottish Downhill Mountainbike Championships brought home to me how incongruous my rigid 29er with CX tyres was in that environment – hopefully it would be better suited for the next day’s plans.
We wondered if getting up at 3.20am would cause a problem in the hostel but we were only marginally earlier than the legions of 3 peakers who were setting off on their trilogies in a similarly Alpine fashion. After starting the stopwatch at 4.04am we soon came across the first little group, wheezing and gasping their way up the well made stony path up Ben Nevis, looking unlikely to make the halfway lochan never mind the next two peaks. We reached the summit before 6am meeting a couple on their way down who, bizarrely, would be the last people we’d see on the hill until about 9pm.
A slight navigational hitch saw us on top of the North East Buttress rather than the Carn Mor Dearg arête but that was easily corrected and soon peak number two was visited. My hands had been really cold but came back to life crossing the arête reminding me of the first time I’d descended Ben Nevis in 1986 when, in the manner of all the best heroes of Alistair Maclean books, I’d carried on a conversation with folks ascending without showing a flicker of pain as my hands thawed. I thought so anyway. We found a good path up to the bealach between the Aonachs and soon we were running down the ski slopes towards our bikes. Running down the downhill mtb track was brilliant but also frightening when we considered riding down it!
Transition to the bikes was smoother than the track, however, and soon we were on the road to Spean Bridge and a sandwich. The cycling was hard though, much harder than we expected. Whether it was the headwind or the wide, open roads that we’re used to travelling at much faster speeds, the ride seemed to go on for ages. Added to that I was in danger of falling asleep when following Nick’s wheel – better to be in front.
The final section up to Loch Einich was off road and we’d no idea how good the track was – there was always the chance that we’d have to run or at least walk it – fortunately the track was very well surfaced and proved an easy way of gaining a few hundred feet of height too.
Dumping the bikes in amongst the heather freed us to climb up again to Braeriach where the first of a few wintery showers greeted us. We soon cooled off but, with the next section at a high altitude, the only answer was to run!
Suddenly I discovered that I’d bashed my knee falling off my bike in the valley – it had been fine on the steep ascent but running downhill hurt, especially the steeper, more technical bits. The steep and long drop off Cairn Toul started to fill my thoughts. I didn’t say anything to Nick but he realised soon enough as I lagged behind. He told me later that the only escape option he could think of was to carry on! Luckily I had no intention of escaping, especially as the Taillear Burn looked much less intimidating from below. I should have eaten something though as I had to stop several times on the way up and, in Jens Voigt style, give my tired body a good talking to.
Finally the summit of Ben Macdui, second highest in Scotland, was reached and again the cold and altitude meant one thing only – RUN! It’s a long way to the Cairngorm but thankfully mostly runnable, even when it’s more of a hobbling shuffle. I played mind games, lifting my mood by deliberately ‘enjoying’ it. A last feed before the summit and then we were there, sheltering from the cold wind and snatching a couple of photos before gratefully heading down towards the shelter of Loch Morlich YHA. The days of the YHA’s strictly enforced rules are gone thank goodness – I’m not sure we could have coped without a bite to eat and a shower even though it was well past 11pm.
So our ‘race’ time was 18hrs 10. Well below the records, or even well after the last finishers but we’d done it and thinking back over the distance and height covered it was hard to believe what we’d done. All that was left to do (apart from sleep) was a day of recovering abandoned gear, not least the bikes which would need a 7 mile, uphill walk to get to! A wasted day? No, we’d really had 3 days in 1.