“It always seems impossible until it is done” - Nelson Mandela
This quote overheard on a t.v show about a magician on New Years morning was just what I needed. It became the tipping point for me to commit to an idea that had been bouncing around for a few days. An adventure that would be my biggest single-day run ever and certainly a psychological challenge unlike any other. An attempt at a winter Rigby round.
This description of the round is taken from www.gofar.org.uk:
“To many the Cairngorms represent an area of unique and unsurpassed wilderness. Nowhere in Great Britain can you stay so high for so long as their arctic-like plateaux roll on for miles before you. The spirit of this wild landscape appears to have cast its own magic spell by inspiring a tradition of true adventure running. In contrast to most other runs it is suggested that the route is completed solo and unsupported and, ideally, there should be no prior reconnoitre!”
First completed by Mark Rigby in 1988, the Rigby round is easily a match for the well known 24 hour rounds of the ‘Big 3”, Bob Graham (Lakes), Paddy Buckley (North Wales) and Ramsey’s round (Lochaber). It has been very much on my ‘to-do list’ for many years. Living and running in the Cairngorms it always seemed right that I should have a go at my local round. But more than that, the tradition of the round, solo, unsupported and on-site (without practice) really appealed to my sense of adventure. When I ran a Bob Graham round for my stag-do in 2012 I hadn’t been to the Lakes for a few years and had never been on many of the hills. I just about managed to get a support team organised at short notice and together we shared a brilliant adventure, honestly not knowing if my attempt would be successful, or collapse half way round. That said, there is no way that I could have done it solo at the time, physically and psychologically my team were a major part of that success.
A few years ago a spell of good autumn weather inspired me to have a go at a solo unsupported Ramsey round. After stashing some kit at Loch Treig I drove round to Glen Nevis and set off. After a poor start having a Bear Grylls moment in some storm damaged and recently felled forest I arrived at the first summit 15 minutes down on my schedule. By the time I was at the second summit it was 20 minutes. The mental pressure of the enormity of the task ahead was crippling, I lay down and had a snooze behind the cairn, then walked back to my car, tail firmly between my legs.
In the last year I have run further than any previous years and am training well for the Dragon’s Back Race in May, but I certainly wasn’t planning on a big round any time soon, December had been spent working on speed with short sprint sessions and no run longer than about 16km.
A chance conversation about how the Rigby had never been done under 24 hours in winter combined with a very poor start to the winter season aroused my curiosity. The 2nd January was forecast to be a perfect day after a week of stormy weather. Cold, but clear and no wind. Potentially perfect for a winter attempt, the bogs would be frozen, the cold temperatures and 16 hours of darkness creating real winter conditions, but the lack of snow cover meaning easy running for the majority of the route.
All I needed was the push to commit, you can talk about these things all you like, but unless you get round to trying, you will never know. Setting off is the hardest part.
The round isn’t a logical circuit in the same was as a Ramsey’s round, so there are significant tactical choices to be made as to the order to do some of the peaks. The self reliant spirit of the round really appeals to me, so I took to heart the idea of no outside support. I have been on all of the hills before, some of them dozens of times, so I knew most of the ground, but I kept to the spirit as much as I could by not reading any of the reports available. Other peoples experiences educating your own is almost the same as practicing to my mind.
I set off at 4am, planning to use the daylight to get around the western hills where navigation would be hardest. Starting from Glenmore Lodge I crossed the Chalamain gap and made my way steadily up Braeriach. Conditions were great, with a bit of a moon lighting up the snow patches and making route finding easy enough. It was well below freezing on the tops but for the most part there was no wind so I was fine, I made a few clothing adjustments but the main challenge was not getting too hot.
The first colour was creeping over the Eastern horizon as I got to Cairn Toul and turned my back on it to run out to Sgor Goaith, I would watch it go down again from Ben Macdui 8 hours later, only 3 km from where I was now!
The first half of the round felt amazingly good. I was comfortably able to run all of the ‘runnable’ terrain and I was mostly happy with my route choice. There were a couple of moments that I took a slightly wrong line that I could tidy up on a second attempt, but that is the joy of the on-site! The hardest moment in the first half was deciding to take off my shoes and socks to cross the river Eidart. The river was partly frozen and keeping my socks as dry as possible was really important in the cold temperatures, frost-nip would have been a real risk otherwise. Fortunately in this empty glen there was nobody to hear me squeal!
After a quick food stop in Corrour bothy I started the long climb up Carn a’ Mhaim. This tortuous climb through deep heather and boulders is the hardest of the many sections of really rough, wild ground that sets the Rigby apart from the Bob Graham round. The eastern half of the round has very few paths, plenty of deep heather, boulder fields and peat bogs, all of which are incredibly energy sapping.
I ticked off another couple of peaks before stopping again to refuel near the Fords of Avon. As I climbed steadily up Beinn a’Chaorainn I told myself that after this I only had one more really big climb to go, up onto Bynack More in a few hours time. My legs were definitely starting to feel the days efforts, but I was optimistic, I was onto the 3rd section out of 4 in my mind, knowing each section should be easier than the last. I didn’t have a schedule to work to but doing some rough calculations I had about an hour in hand, or so I thought.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and now looking at other peoples suggested routes I can understand why their choices don’t follow the obvious or logical line. The theoretical most efficient line that I had planned to give the least distance and ascent took me through some horrible ground, peat hags and deep heather absorb your energy and kill time. The descent from Ben Avon that looked like a quick runnable ridge became a never-ending nightmare. By the time I hit the track at the bridge across the river Avon the maths had stopped working; I was not getting round in 24 hours.
I had now been on the go for 21 hours in temperatures as low as -6 on the summits. As any water I carried quickly froze, I had been scooping a drink from the streams I crossed, not easy to do when it is almost freezing as well. This meant I was dehydrated so I also had not been eating enough. The cold water lowering my body temperature didn’t help either. I was probably colder than I realised and should have stopped to put on my warmer jacket sooner, but hitting the good track I thought I would soon warm up on the 5k run to Findouran bothy where I planned my next stop.
As I got into the bothy it was quite clear to me that I wasn’t in a good way and I needed to take some time to sort myself out. I put on both of my spare layers and my warm mitts and got inside my small emergency shelter on the bench in the bothy to try to generate some heat. I spent around 20 minutes in this position, eating all the best bits of food that were left, a couple of pork pies, some hot cross buns and salty peanuts! I was warmer than when I arrived, but not really getting comfortably warm at all. It was decision time.
In my mind at this point there were two options;
1. Get my last bit of emergency kit out, my blizzard survival bag and see if I could get warm while I rested until daylight, before walking out to Glenmore.
2. Get on the move again, taking the shortest line back over the shoulder of Bynack Mor to the track and get back to Glenmore as soon as possible. This isn’t quite as simple as it sounds, with 13km and over 400 meters of ascent.
At this point I didn’t even consider a third option, which would have been to continue with my round over Bynack More and Cairngorm. By my vague calculations as I approached the bothy this would have taken me at least 5 hours at the speed I was going and meant at least 3 hours up above 800 meters. I knew this was not a safe plan in my current state.
Giving up on the goal with relatively little still to go seems from the outside like a difficult decision. Even though I would be over the target 24 hours it would still have been a winter record. In reality there was no decision to make. It looks close on paper, but might as well have been 20 munros to go, not 2.
So I went for option 2. With all my warm kit on I packed up and started up the heathery slope behind the bothy, cutting a straight line to the good path over the shoulder of Bynack Mor. For the first 5 minutes I was violently shivering but this soon eased as I worked hard up the hill. Eventually I made it to the good path and the easy run home. With fresh legs this downhill 8km would take about 40 minutes but what followed was the longest 90 minutes of my life! Whether as a result of pure fatigue, or from the onset of hypothermia I can’t now objectively judge, but the desire to stop and sleep was now almost overwhelming. I ran 50% of this last 8km with my eyes closed, definitely fell asleep a couple of times on the move and sat down on a boulder to give myself “just a few seconds” 2 or 3 times before forcing myself up and moving again.
Getting back to Glenmore from Faindouran took me 3 hours, but I made it home for breakfast and a good sleep, after covering 111km and 6392 meters of ascent in 24hours, 58 minutes.
On reflection I have only positive thoughts about the day. I like an adventure with an uncertain outcome and enjoyed the first two thirds of the day immensely. I do believe that setting out on these seemingly impossible challenges is the hardest part, and having a go is more important that outcome in many ways.
With no specific preparation I was also amazed how well I was going and it has given me huge confidence for my preparation for the Dragon’s Back Race. Competing in the Cape Wrath Ultra last year has broken the psychological barrier of big days and moved my perception of my personal limits, this was a great test of this and I was very happy with my mental state throughout this big test, there was no stress or pressure at all, I just took it all as it came.
As for the round, I have no doubt that someone could break the 24 hour mark in winter, but the combination of the right person having a go in exactly the right conditions might be something that this fairly unknown mountain challenge will have to wait a while for yet. I am certainly keen for another go, but it will probably me more likely to be on a warm summers day! I will definitely take some different route options, but the personal debate as to what these will be will go on for a while yet.
“It always seems impossible until it is done”
Here is my route on Strava if you are interested: