Obscure is probably the right word. Linking the 13 Munros on the Scottish Islands was certainly not an obvious choice for a mountain link up in Scotland. However, when the obvious has been done then we must look for the obscure to give a unique challenge.
The idea had come to us ten years previously and stemmed from the fact that the Scottish Mountaineering Club Munro Guide lists the Island Munros together in one section. This was immediately appealing to me as the island Munros are the epitome of the landscape in the North West highlands: grand mountains rising out of the ever changing sea towards the clouds; great giants of stone and heather. The other appealing aspect was that the twelve Munros situated on Skye were part of the Greater Cuillin traverse, without a doubt the finest mountaineering outing in the UK. Whilst this would not provide the clear, continuously linked round of mountain running that the Ramsay or Paddy Buckley may provide, it was, nevertheless, a compelling challenge.
The key to unlocking this under our own steam was going to be a multisport event. As we had to cross mountain trails, many kilometers of road and a sizeable stretch of open water, we decided that running, cycling and swimming would be best, completing it in triathlon style. This however was a daunting prospect as, despite claims to the contrary, neither of us had really done a triathlon before and certainly not one of this magnitude. The distances involved were large with a significant amount of ascent. We were looking at around 40km on foot, much of this over the scrambling and climbing terrain of the Cuillin Ridge, 250kms of cycling and then a 3km swim all of this with the inclusion of 6500m of ascent over the 13 peaks and the cycle. For two green triathletes this was somewhat worrying. So worrying in fact that even starting on a training program seemed to be an overwhelming prospect.
The eight months preceding the challenge began in January during the second of the “unprecedented” lockdowns. After the usual Christmas excess I decided that to really give this my all I should go as clean as possible and give up alcohol until I am stood on the summit of Ben More. Alongside this, I invested in a turbo trainer for bike training in the winter months and a decent wetsuit. Now I truly had all the triathlon gear and still very little idea! Having never felt the cross training effects of swimming, running and cycling, I was blown away by the increases in strength and endurance during the eight months I was training. Motivation remained pretty high throughout partly due to the urgency of the issue. However, pushing me that bit harder was having to play catch up for my fitness levels to be anywhere near His Royal Thighness, Mike Coppock, who has just recently completed the fastest self supported Haute Route Pyrenees, 749km in 12 days 4 hours 41 minutes 58 seconds.
Because the Cuillin Ridge was going to be the most complex section, we felt this was the best way to use our solitary training weekend together in Scotland. As it turned out, it was wall to wall blue skies and furnace like temperatures. We spent the first day on the more complex climbing sections of the ridge around Allt Coire Lagan working out downclimbs and the quickest route finding. The second day of this scorching training weekend was one of the best that I have had on the Cuillin Ridge in many years. We started from the Camasunary Bothy carpark and made our way round the bad step to the vast valley of Loch Coruisk stretching right into the heart of the Cuillin. The idea was to climb the Dubhs Slabs to begin a full traverse of the ridge with the hope of Bla Bheinn to finish. It was ambitious and once on the ridge, after the four star Dubhs Slabs, the heat was taking its toll. We managed to make it round to the flat sanctuary amongst the sheer drops of Bealach na Glaic Moire before our water ran out. Luckily, Adele Pennington was there to point us to a trickle on the Glen Brittle side which saved the rest of our traverse. With our confidence in the best route we were now ready for the assault on the full challenge.
The Cuillin Ridge on a perfect day.
Being the North West Highlands, we were going to be up against it with the weather. We gave ourselves the month of August to complete the challenge; however, being limited to weekends due to work commitments, reduced that to four opportunities. We needed the weather gods to smile upon us with calm winds and dry rock. Our desperate prayers were not answered, and we were punished for our vain ambitions with weekend after weekend of wet and windy weather blown in off the Atlantic. Each week was a feverish schedule of forecast checking and organisation in the futile hope that it may come good. By the third weekend in August we were distressed, the support team were ready and eagerly waiting with boats, vans, and bikes. We could feel a now or never atmosphere descend over our incessant telephone conversations.
Ben More on Mull.
The morning of the 21st of August dawned grey and wet, wetter than we expected and certainly far wetter than you would ever want for moving fast along the Cuillin Ridge. Setting off from the car at just after 10 am, we had some company in the form of Hamish Frost who would be taking photos and generally keeping our spirits up with some chat. As we ascended into Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda water streamed over every surface and the rain set in. In the summer on the Cuillin the Gabbro rock can remain very grippy when wet; the winter is a different story as lichen and moss often reduces the wet gabbro to a slimy ice rink. However, the basalt which cuts through the gabbro and often provides the path of least resistance along the ridge, is a different story. Summer or winter, when wet, it becomes soap-like and exceptionally untrustworthy. Sections of ridge which could be skipped over in the dry reduce the hapless mountaineer to a grovelling Gollum like creature craving solid footholds and positive edges. With this in mind, we set off from the summit of Sgùrr nan Eag at good speed making quick work of Sgùrr Dubh Mòr and Sgùrr Alasdair.
Starting from Glen Brittle in as the rain began to fall
As we left Alasdair, the rain and mist continued to swirl around us, obscuring the trials which lay ahead on the rest of the ridge.. We had hoped to be taking on the ridge with all climbs included; the TD gap, King’s Chimney and Naismith’s Route. However, in these conditions we had to make do with devious routes to the summits which avoided the hard climbing which would slow us down in the wet. Our pace was solid to the Inaccessible Pinnacle where we left Hamish, and continued alone into the sea of vapour. We could now really feel the cold seeping in and had to keep moving to stay warm. The crux of the Cuillin for us that day was going to be the section from Sgurr a Ghreadaidh to Bealach na Glaic Moire. Here there is a lot of slabby ground with basalt rock dominant in many areas. Delicate movement was necessary and, as a result, we were losing time. As we inched closer to Sgurr nan Gillean, we knew that we were going to have Ibrahim and Hafeida waiting for us on top with food, water, coffee and smiles. This drove us onwards and we made light work of the Northern section of the ridge.
A Selection of surprisingly good photos considering the conditions! (Hamish Frost)
After a very welcome break with Ibrahim and Hafeida, we set off again, now at least an hour behind schedule with Bla Bheinn to do in the dark. Dropping to valley level, we crossed the boggy ground of Strath na Creitheach towards the imposing north face of Bla Bheinn. Light was failing as we began our ascent. We would have to feel our way to the line of weakness in the dark cliffs, Dogleg Gully. By now the weather was clearing and we could see some stars and the black outline of the summit ridge against the ink blue sky.
Skirting underneath the rockface, we reached the bottom of the gully and on closer inspection the steep sections were gushing with water from the day's rain. Without an alternative, Mike threw himself at these and surmounted them with water flowing down his sleeves and a manic look on his face. The final scree slope took us to the summit ridge, the final Munro on Skye and the rising moon. Racing down the path, we met the rest of the support team; my sister Hazel, Steve, Andrea and Andy who provided our bikes and maintenance, at the car park beside Loch Slapin. We were two hours behind our most conservative time estimates. The wet Cuillin had cost us dearly.
With the schedule now seriously compromised we needed a miracle, something that could propel us onward at lightning speed and make the slack tide in the Sound of Mull by midday on Sunday. Luckily, out of the darkness stepped Steve Walls, bulging thighs glistening in the pale moonlight. Surely Steve’s biking prowess could power us to victory! Mike and I creaked into our saddles and set off behind Steve. We had been briefed on the pace we would need to maintain in order to cover the 250km in time to have any chance of making the swim to Mull. The question was, could we keep up?
The first two hours were quite pleasant, still feeling the glow of conquering the Cuillins in dire conditions. We chatted and joked as we headed off Skye and towards Glen Shiel. It was perhaps at 2am on that cold night that I started to waver. My legs just wouldn’t do what I needed them to do. Stops to refuel with the support team, Steve’s encouragement and the will to move faster couldn't rouse my legs to the pace needed. Severely chilled and even further behind time, we pulled into the support van at Invergarry. it was now 5am and spirits were at an all time low. I was desperate to stay in the warm van and call it all off, however, ever the task master and endurance event veteran, Mike read the mood and he and Steve began extracting me from the van and once more placing me in the saddle. It was here that Steve came into his own, he set down the pace we needed to make slack tide. It was a brutal morning wake up but the roads along Loch Lochy and Loch Eil are mercifully flat. With the sun rising and our bodies feeling more energised, the mood lifted and remained high for the remainder of the cycle. We were able to stay on each other's wheel and maintain a pace. There was one final sting in the tail, the interminable hill over to Lochaline, but the sunshine bathed our limbs and the freewheel down the other side was blissful. Especially in the knowledge we were going to make slack water!
Staggering out of the water onto Mull. (Andrea Howard)
Meeting the boat and shore team of my Mum, Roger, Dave and Finlay at Lochaline we quickly realised that we had a mere 15 mins to get in the water and start swimming. Squeezing our inflamed legs into our wetsuits, we shoved down some food and water and dived in. It felt refreshing and an incredible relief as we began the swim. I will always remember the ecstatic feeling of floating halfway between the mainland and Mull, a mile from either shore, the end was in sight. Even the searing cramps in my hamstrings couldn’t bring me down. We flopped out of the water onto the rocks, and the long suffering support team were there to greet us with hot food and our bikes.
Starting the final cycle as the rain cloud gather. (Hazel Moran)
The final cycle passed in a blur as a heavy rain storm soaked us to the skin and we pedalled towards the foot of Ben More at Dhiseig. We began our ascent of Ben More with Andy, Steve, Andrea and Hazel. They were doing a great job of keeping the conversation flowing and the sun was out again proving the North West’s reputation for wildly changeable weather. The final slopes seemed perpetual, and when the summit came after 32hrs and 22 mins on the go there was little animation left for celebration. The most we could muster were some bear hugs and satisfied smiles before staggering back to the waiting taxi to take us back to the boat. As with all these endurance events the warm glow of satisfaction comes seeping in much later and often after a good sleep.
The summit of Ben More. (South Skye Cycles)
We couldn’t have done this without the support crew, who did an amazing job keeping us motivated, fed and safe during the challenge. I also couldn’t have done it without someone to share the vision like Mike. We received amazing help with equipment; bikes and support from Andy at South Skye Cycles and clothing from Mountain Equipment. Also during the many months training, my wife, Lou, was always there to understand and encourage. These challenges are never about the individual but are a true team event, thank you all so much! A Huge thank you must also go to our donators, your contributions were on our mind as we pushed on through the night, thanks for helping us raise over £11,000 for the Martin Moran Foundation.