Castle Douglas, Dumfries, Glasgow, Stirling, Perth, Aviemore, Inverness and finally a stop for dinner in Strathpeffer. It was late on Friday night after a tough working week; I had a numb arse following the long car journey and the forecast was looking grim for the next couple of days. Below are pictures of the MWIS forecast for the weekend of the Highlander Mountain Marathon 2015.
Following a decent result in the 2014 Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon (LAMM), my running partner Kerstin and I decided to have another crack at the A-class (a class easy to underplay behind a pint in the pub, but bloody tough in reality!). For those unfamiliar with the format of mountain marathons they basically involve two days of fell running and mountain navigation carrying all provisions and equipment necessary for an overnight camp. Event locations are traditionally kept secret until a month prior to the event taking place, the Highlander is notable for its half-way ceilidh with bar!
Saturday morning found us pulling on disturbingly light running clothes between hail and rain showers. My biking mates preach the old ‘be bold start cold’ adage but the weather had me worried I was underdressed. The start point was a village named Elphin, roughly 15 miles north of Ullapool, and a grand wee place it is too. After a final brew, we were transported to the start line with two military lads who had driven up from Southhampton, a car journey of over 7 hours!!! Decked out in standard issue military gear with bags the size of fridge freezers they seemed optimistic about the day ahead, if not a little feckless (we saw them the second day too so they must have got on OK – on the boys!).
The map below shows our first day, long but with rewarding views of stags, hinds and general scenery (the pink lines scored out weren’t mistakes we made on the ground but by me trying to re-trace our route for the purposes of this write-up). Checkpoint 5 to 6 was our low point crossing a seemingly endless boulder field with little to no opportunity for running unless you had the legs of a mountain goat, Mr Tumnus style. The first day ended well for us in overall A6 position and 1st mixed team (our mixed team competition missed a couple of checkpoints so had to drop out unfortunately).
The lads from Gearpest in Aberdeen had hooked me up with a new Haglofs L.IM. (Less Is More) Down + 1 Sleeping bag. Weighing in at 473 grams (195 cm bag excl. compression bag) and packing down to 18 cm long x 15 cm diameter, this is the sort of gear that gets your average mountain marathoner more excited than a 12 year old girl going to a One Direction concert. Gearpest (established 2014) are bucking the trend of large retail outlet style outdoor shops and instead offer customers a bespoke service according to their specific needs. I hope that doesn’t sound to corporate and arsy but basically what I’m trying to get across is the lads behind the company have spent a serious amount of time in the hills and so can give genuinely sound advice and first hand info (as opposed to someone reading directly from the product label as you stare blankly around the shop for inspiration).
Onto the bag, the main and stand out feature that sets it apart from the opposition is the fish tail style foot well which can be opened and closed via an elasticated cord. On receiving the bag I was slightly worried about air leakage through the end as it wasn’t sealed. However, this didn’t prove to be an issue. In fact when I was cramming the bag back into its wee stuff- sack the next day I noticed that I had forgotten to undo the end and air was building up much like it does in a sleeping mat. I had to undo the cord to realise the air giving an indication of how well a seal the elasticated foot end does form. Cold feet weren’t an issue.
The night at the mid-camp was cold. Hail, rain and snow pounded the tent all night and we were treated to a still morning with snow covered hilltops. I would be lying if I said the bag was warm enough on its own in these conditions to allow sleeping in your y-fronts. In fact I donned another layer during the night. However, there comes a point where you have to weigh up what you want and what you need from a sleeping bag. The Highlander is the first Scottish mountain marathon in the year and hence is a good test of any light-weight sleeping bag. My verdict is that it did the job; its weight and pack-ability make it a no-brainer during the day and worst comes to it at night you just slap on another layer. I personally can’t afford to have more than one racing weight sleeping bag and so will use one bag year round. For the LAMM and weekends away during warmer months the bag will be extremely hard to beat, offering the potential to loosen off the foot end to increase ventilation in warmer conditions. The potential to slip your feet out of the bottom of the bag and sneak around the camp causing mischief in the wee hours should also not be overlooked. I found the bag to have plenty wriggle room for moving about in the night and the three hanging loops on the foot end would be useful for hanging it to dry. In conclusion, the bag is hard to beat from my mountain marathon and hill experience.
We stupidly burnt all of our gas making dinner on the first evening so when frosty morning came, we went begging to the marquee where we managed to haggle a cup of tea and cup of hot water to make porridge with for £1.50. To get our route card for the second day we had to run through a river with smug officials looking on in welly boots. Through bleary eyes we started noting down the points we were to visit, my heart began to sink as point number 1 was marked on the south end of the map, consecutive points seemingly heading northwards to the midway point before returning south once again. We read through the list of grid references another couple of times, confused by a course which seemingly would have us cross the same patch of hill ground twice, descend hills the same route as we went up and generally not seem feasibly possible in the time we had due to the huge distances involved. We looked around, seeing if there were any other A-teams also puzzled but to no avail, Kerstin even suggested double checking we had the right route card with officials. These were the first signs that we should have re-read the route instructions. The first leg took us well over 2 hours, not another soul in sight. Points 3 to 4 had us climbing Suilven in a white-out blizzard, only to descend by the same route. We exchanged banter with other teams heading the opposite direction but still the penny hadn’t dropped. It wasn’t until the snow went from vertical to horizontal on the way from checkpoints 5 to 6 that we stopped to put on more layers and re-read the route card. It was only then that we read the essential information – Visit ALL checkpoints in ANY order. We had been out for more than 5 hours and to finish the course before closure was now impossible (as if it wouldn’t have been hard enough with the 32.8km 1725m standard route!!). The run from Loch na Gainimh back to the road and start point was notable for its lack of talking, both of us despairing at how obvious our mistake should have been earlier in the day. All the signs were there!!! The map below shows our route.
It wasn’t until a bit of hot food and craic with some other teams in our class who retired that our spirits began to lift. The leading female team had fallen foul of the same mistake. It was the classic schoolboy error, comparable to not reading the top of an exam paper where it says “only answer 1 of the following 3 questions”, electing instead to have a crack at all 3. Eeejits.
Reflecting now from a comfy sofa with beer in hand I remember the nicer parts of the second day, like views of Suilven rising out of snow covered moorland with perfectly still lochs and the odd group of deer. Prior to the blizzards, and realisation of the mistake, and when legs were fresh of course………..all good craic though.
The photos below were taken by Phil Hindell – all credit to him, brilliant photographer!