Editorials

Sea kayaking and hillwalking in Scotland: Ladhar Bheinn, Knoydart

An editorial feature I produced for Emily Rodway, editor of The Great Outdoors (TGO) magazine in the UK, describing our experiences on a sea kayaking and hillwalking trip to Ladhar Bheinn, a Munro on the remote Knoydart peninsula in the West Highlands of Scotland.

Paddling Loch Hourn with the summit of Ladhar Bheinn in the distance

Paddling Loch Hourn with the summit of Ladhar Bheinn in the distance

"My experience of 2 days of kayaking is that it's knackering on its own", my friend Kirsty replied to an email I'd sent her asking if she and her partner Steve were interested in a sea kayaking trip to climb a Munro (a Scottish mountain peak over 914.4m/3,000ft high). "But a hill thrown in? You'll need to get training!".

As a photographer who specialises in outdoor and adventure sports, I know a little bit about a lot of outdoor activities. I do endeavour to pick up hints and tips from athletes during photo shoots but when it comes to sea kayaking, I'm still very much a beginner. Kirsty's words therefore rang loud in my head as I focused on my technique and concentrated on making an energy-efficient paddle stroke as we left behind the tiny settlement of Kinloch Hourn on Scotland's remote west coast and headed out on a two-day sea kayaking adventure to climb the Munro, Ladhar Bheinn.

Ladhar Bheinn, 1020m tall, is one of my favourite Scottish mountains. Partly, this is because it is only accessible by boat or by foot. Getting to the peak involves travelling 9km by boat from Mallaig to Inverie (popularly known as being the home of Scotland's most remote mainland pub) or hiking c.13km of rough terrain from Kinloch Hourn (itself a 35km drive along a single track road).

Most visitors looking to climb Ladhar Bheinn from Kinloch Hourn will hike in. The idea for a sea kayaking approach came to mind two months previously, during a particularly gruelling mountain backpack through deep snow in the Cairngorms National Park. Conversations that usually focused on the joys of light packs in Summer and afternoons spent relaxing outside sun-soaked alpine huts turned to the potential for a waterborne approach to climb some of the hills on Scotland's archipelago-like west coast.

At the time, a discussion on the merits of kayaking into a mountain was just a means of taking my mind off the weight of a winter backpack on my shoulders and freeze-dried food in my belly. Fast forward to May 2016 and we'd made it a reality. Kirsty, Steve and I were joined on our Ladhar Bheinn adventure by Ben Dodman, a professional sea kayaking instructor with Rockhopper Sea Kayaking, a Corpach-based business near Fort William that offers day and overnight trips. Kirsty and Steve had been on trips with Rockhopper before and, when we approached Ben with the idea, he was keen to come along.

"There's no real need for lightweight sea kayaking", Ben had said when I'd asked him if it was worth limiting the camping equipment I'd planned to bring with me. "A kayak carries a lot of gear so you don't have to skimp on the nice-to-have's". Kirsty and Steve - our volunteer cooks for the weekend - demonstrated similar principles in the menu they had prepared. Not the usual backpacking fare but pancakes, honey and banana for breakfast, fresh salad vegetables, tomatoes, wraps, tuna fish and mayonnaise for lunch and pasta, home cooked tomato, vegetable and chilli sauce and freshly-baked muffins for dinner. The latter three to be washed down with fine Italian wine. It had all the makings of a great weekend.

As we paddled Loch Hourn, the water's translation from Gaelic, the Devil's Loch, became apparent. One of the benefits of sea kayaking is it allows you to get close to nature. Kayakers on the west coast of Scotland have reported sightings of otters, seals, basking sharks, all habitual visitors to our islands and, on occasion, orcas. Shooting down the loch, metaphorically speaking, taking advantage of the tide and wind, we saw no sign of life. Nothing in the water nor in flight above the steep slopes either side of the water. We didn't mind though, as dominating the view, partially covered in cloud, was the lower slopes of Ladhar Bheinn.

I'd climbed Ladhar Bheinn twice before. My first time was via likely the most popular route up the mountain, from the small settlement of Inverie. We'd headed first for Mam Barrisdale before breaking off up steep, fern-covered slopes onto the curious feature of Aonach Sgoilte, or split ridge. My second ascent was during a 4-day backpack of all the Munros in Knoydart, when we reached Aonach Sgoilte after first climbing two nearby Corbetts, Beinn na Caillich and Sgurr Coire Choinnichean. Both times were in excellent weather and we could see all around as we continued up the scrambly north-west ridge of Ladhar Bheinn to its summit.

The classic route up Ladhar Bheinn is to follow a horseshoe around Coire Dhorcaill. The headwall of this great mountain corrie is ringed with crags and it is enclosed by two great, narrow, steep-sided ridges, Stob a'Chearcaill and Stob a’Choire Odhair. As we crossed Barrisdale Bay, we could see right into the corrie. The wind caused the chop on the water to increase as we headed into more exposed waters - the bay opens out into the Sound of Sleat offering access to Glenelg, Inverie and more - and care was needed as we negotiated a stiff cross-wind. Barrisdale bay however is not big and we soon reached the shelter of the shore and looked for a place to stay the night.

Outside the comforts of Inverie, there are three overnight options when you climb Ladhar Bheinn. You can wild camp almost anywhere, courtesy of Scotland's refreshing outdoor access code, or stay in one of two private bothies nearby, Barisdale bothy or Druim bothy. Neither bothy is maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association and both charge a fee for staying at their accommodation. Barisdale however has the advantage of not needing pre-booked.

"Keep an eye out for a place to camp", shouted Ben as we kayaked along shoreline. (I'd learnt that normal conversation was quite difficult on a kayak, soft-spoken words far too easily getting whipped away on the wind). We'd agreed as a group that we should take advantage of travelling in sea kayaks and wild camp on the shores beneath Ladhar Bheinn, only taking advantage of the bothy if the weather was really bad, After a short paddle, Ben found a suitable spot in a sheltered bay and we beached the boats safely away from the tide, pitched camp and ate a quick lunch.

Despite the fact we'd started paddling at an early hour, there wasn't much daylight left when we started our ascent of Ladhar Bheinn. From our campsite, there were a few routes we could have taken up the hill but we really wanted to do the classic route, via Coire Dhorrcail. To reach the corrie from our campsite involved a 2.5km traverse along the coastline, which involved some fun, but slippery coasteering and a river crossing. This made for an interesting start for our ascent, but it wasn't long before we'd left the waters behind, gained some height and entered the mouth of the corrie. 

"What an awesome location", I shared with Kirsty as we followed Ben and Steve further into the corrie. I had envisaged a natural mountain amphitheatre and the terrain didn't disappoint. As well as its steep outer sides of Stob a'Chearcaill and Stob a’Chiore Odhair, Corrie Dhorrcailhas two mini corries within it, separated by a steep rocky nose. It's quite a special place. 

In 1999, Knoydart had a burst of media attention when the local community raised £850,000 to purchase the land from the then estate owners. The east boundary of what became the Knoydart Foundation’s land (www.knoydart-foundation.com) ran along Ladhar Bheinn’s north-west ridge and, three or so hours after we had left the kayaks, we crested the headwall of the corrie and broke out onto this ridge near the summit of Aonach Sgoilte. The Knoydart peninsula is known as the 'rough bounds' for the wild nature of its terrain but we hadn't found the ground so far too bad and had gained height relatively quickly. We had however been sheltered by the corrie headwall from the prevailing wind. As we stood on the ridge looking up towards the summit, we were more exposed and we quickly donned the extra clothing and waterproofs needed to keep warm as the wind whipped ominous-looking clouds across the steel-coloured sky. It was clear we were going to have some squally, windy weather on our way to the summit. To reinforce this fact, when we looked down to Loch Hourn 'white horses' had already started a race across the water all the way back east towards Kinlochourn.

Despite the somewhat bleak weather, we were enjoying ourselves. Ladhar Bheinn's summit flanks are a fantastic viewpoint and, as well as the view to Loch Hourn, we could see south-east to its neighbourly Munros, Luinne Bheinn and Meall Bhuide, and west out over the Corbett of Sgurr Coire Choinnichean towards Mallaig. Ladhar Bheinn's north-west ridge is also great fun. It's quite rocky and there's a handful of scrambling on it, grade 1 at most, but nothing overly technical or exposed. (You can though stand on an obvious prow of rock halfway up that overhangs a drop of several hundred feet. It makes for a great photo opportunity). 

I was almost disappointed when we climbed the last of the summit slopes and joined up with the connecting ridge that goes out to Stob a’Chiore Odhair. All that was left was an enjoyably airy walk that took us across Ladhar Bheinn’s final summit ridge and on to its summit cairn. As is all too often the case on Scotland's mountains, we didn't hang around for too long. Rain had been falling for most of the previous hour and thoughts of being back at camp eating dinner had started to cloud my thought process. (This was despite the banana and walnut muffins Kirsty had produced out of her rucksack on the way up. "There's enough for two each if you want them", she triumphantly proclaimed. There was definitely little concept of 'light and fast' on our trip and, I must say, it was all the better for it). 

It was after 5.30pm when we started our descent. Despite not having to go back to our starting point at Kinlochourn, we still had a fair way to go to get back to our tents. The decision we'd made was to reverse our steps back along the summit ridge and then complete the horseshoe of Coire Dhorcaill by a descent of the mountain via Stob a’Choire Odhair. One of the benefits of wild camping is you're not restricted to existing routes up or down mountains and, as we descended the ridge, which is enjoyably narrow, we realised it made sense for us to break off towards Bealach a’Choire Odhair. After a few steep descents, we could see our tents below and we headed straight down to the shores of Loch Hourn. All that was left was a final short burst of coasteering before we reached our tents, the stoves were lit and dinner was served as we sat on our kayaks and watched it get dark. 

Sidebar

Planning a sea kayaking trip

Whilst our paddle on the way to climb Ladhar Bheinn was greatly assisted by the outgoing tide, our journey the next day back to Kinlochourn was needlessly harder as we paddled through the narrows at Caolos Mor straight into the tide (only because everyone was kind enough to stop in Barrisdale Bay so I could take some photos for this article). Paddling against the flow of the water is hard work and, energy-wise, it meant we all had to work at least 2 times harder than if we were going with the flow. It makes much more sense to plan a sea kayaking trip around the tide. If you don’t know how to do this, go with a professional. Rockhopper Sea Kayaking (www.rockhopperscotland.co.uk) is based in Corpach, near Fort William, and offers half, full and multi-day sea kayaking trips through 'some of the most spectacular coastal, mountain and island scenery in Scotland'. All you need to do is turn up and play. 

Basic sea kayaking equipment

  • Wet or dry suit

  • Sea kayak

  • Spray deck

  • Buoyancy aid

  • Paddle

  • Map (For Ladhar Bheinn we used OS Landranger 33, Loch Alsh, Glen Shiel and Loch Hourn)

  • Compass

Nice to have

  • Dry bags (lots of them)

  • Rubber shoes

  • Hat and gloves

  • Tow belt

  • Spare paddle (at least one between a group)

  • Waterproof camera case

Other kayaking / hillwalking trip ideas

  • Loch Quoich / Ben Aden

  • Loch Scavaig / Skye Cuillin

  • Loch Veyatie / Suilven

  • Loch Mullardoch / Benula Forest

  • Loch Monar / Monar Forest


Wordcount: 1831 words (main article), 274 words (sidebar)

Published in: The Great Outdoors, Spring 2017

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Adventure Medic magazine: Q&A on adventure sports photography

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Matt Wilkes from Adventure Medic magazine asked if I would answer a few questions on mountain and adventure sports photography for their readers. 

Adventure Medic is an "award-winning free online wilderness, expedition & humanitarian medicine magazine for students and healthcare professionals". The magazine has 10,000 to 15,000 regular readers from all over the globe and it's aim is 'to encourage the pursuit of interesting, charitable or unusual paths through medicine'. (Matt himself was not far off another stint in the Himalaya as medic for a commercial paragliding expedition).

Matt and I chatted about adventure-related and expedition photography. He asked me questions including what I felt made a great adventure sports photo and what you could do to improve your own adventure photography, along with what gear I use and how I process my images. You can read the full interview on www.theadventuremedic.com/features/photographing-adventure. 

Weekend Wonders: Backpacking Tranter's Round

Words and images I've submitted to Adventure Travel magazine for publication in their 'Weekend Wonders' section (a regular 2-page spread where they share some 'cracking UK adventures to help people make the most of those precious two days').

David Hetherington on the summit ridge of Binnein Mor in the Mamores with the summit of Ben Nevis in the distance.

David Hetherington on the summit ridge of Binnein Mor in the Mamores with the summit of Ben Nevis in the distance.

A natural progression if you enjoy backpacking trips is to look for opportunities to link different routes together, increasing length and difficulty to set yourself a challenge. One such opportunity is Tranter's Round in the Lochaber region of Scotland.

Tranter's Round is named after Philip Tranter, son of the Scottish author, Nigel Tranter, who in 1964 devised a 24-hour challenge for fell runners when he connected (at the time) 19 Munros in the West Highlands of Scotland (the Mamores, Grey Corries, Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis) in a 36-mile epic that covers 20,600ft of ascent. Tranter's Round is a fell runner's classic (superseded these days in terms of difficulty by a longer Charlie Ramsay Round, and with a demoted Munro) but it's a route that's also tailor made for backpacking.

To give us a head start on our attempt at backpacking Tranter's Round, we bivvied on a damp summit of Mullach nan Coirean in the Mamores at 2300 hours. Early the next morning, we continued over the Mamores, ticking off the peaks of Stob Ban, Sgurr a'Mhaim and Am Bodach. I didn't go out to An Gearanach, choosing to dry my sleeping bag in the sunshine instead, but Na Gruagaichean soon came next, then Binnein Mor, Binnean Beag and Sgurr Eilde Mor. Sixteen hours after we started out we descended and spent the night at Meanach bothy, having climbed 10 Munros.

Our return leg on day two is commonly called the Lochaber Traverse. First we ticked off the Grey Corries, starting with Stob Ban then Stob Choire Claurigh, Stob Coire nan Laoigh and Sgurr Choinnich Mor. A steep, grassy scramble then took us up onto a very wintry Aonach Beag. It was here that we decided to cut our trip short. A storm that had been distant for much of the afternoon brought in 50mph winds and freezing rain and, in true Scottish style, what had been a pleasant Summer's day turned distinctly nasty with a great risk of hypothermia. None of us are new to bad weather but with eight hours in, three Munros to do (including Britain's highest mountain) and a sharp scrambly ridge between them, it wasn't hard to make the decision to bail over Aonach Mor and descend to the roadside. Despite our disappointment, it was a great outdoor trip. Tranter's Round proved to be a very worthy backpacking route.  

Travelling light

The current fastest known time for Tranter's Round, set on 01 October 2016, is 10h 15m 30s by Fort William-based doctor, Finlay Wild. Although such a fast time will be unachievable (or undesirable) for most, adopting a hill running ethos for backpacking Tranter's Round isn't a bad idea. Travelling with as little gear as possible will be easier on your knees.

Navigation

Harvey Maps publish a map for the Charlie Ramsay Round, which includes the same peaks and is ideal for Tranter's Round. The route is also covered on Ordnance Survey Landranger map 41 (Ben Nevis, including Fort William & Glen Coe). You can choose to go clockwise or anti-clockwise. The latter has the distinction of finishing on Britain's highest mountain.

 
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Weekend Wonders: Lochnagar's mighty cliffs

Words and images I've submitted to Adventure Travel magazine for publication in their 'Weekend Wonders' section (a regular 2-page spread where they share some 'cracking UK adventures to help people make the most of those precious two days').

Alex Haken walking along the top of the summit cliffs of Lochnagar, a Munro in the East Highlands of Scotland.

Alex Haken walking along the top of the summit cliffs of Lochnagar, a Munro in the East Highlands of Scotland.

Lochnagar, a 1155m high Munro in the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland, is a mountain with royal connections. The peak, located nearby Balmoral Castle, is the summer home of the Queen and the Queen's first son, Prince Charles, has been known to climb the hill when the family is in residence.

I had made two attempts to climb Lochnagar before this image was taken. Both times were in the depths of winter and on neither occasion did I meet another soul on the hill, royal or not. On my first attempt, I didn't get past the bealach beneath Meikle Pap, regularly unable to stand on two feet due to strong winds, and on my return I was thwarted at Cac Carn Mor, a giant cairn on the plateau at 1150m, just 5m shy of summit height but 0.5km away of the true summit, Cac Carn Beag. Not because it is slightly confusing (I believe a Mor is 'bigger' than a Beag so you would be forgiven for thinking it would be the summit) but again because of the weather. Great gusts of wind that had built speed over the surrounding rolling hills swept across the plateau and threatened to launch me off the top of Lochnagar's spectacular cliffs. These cliffs, some 200m high in places, hold lots of summer rock climbs and winter ice climbs. I don't believe they are appropriate for base jumping (even with a parachute) so, after a few calls that were too close for comfort, I half walked half crab-crawled my way back to the relative shelter of the approach path and returned with a friend in more amenable weather.

Getting there and around 

Lochnagar is usually climbed as a day trip from the Spittal of Glenmuick. For added spice, head in from the North near Invercauld Bridge on the A93 Ballater to Braemar road and climb the great Stuic Buttress, a grade 1 scramble that takes you out onto the plateau near the summit of Carn ' Choire Bhoideach. From there, it's a simple 2km stroll across the plateau to Lochnagar. Alternatively, to enjoy the peak during an overnight trip, walk along the shores of Loch Muick and camp beneath the great cliffs near the Dubh Loch. You can tick off four Munros as you make your way back across the plateau to Cac Carn Beag and your fifth Munro of the day. 

 
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Weekend Wonders: Bothying bliss

Words and images I've submitted to Adventure Travel magazine for publication in their 'Weekend Wonders' section (a regular 2-page spread where they share some 'cracking UK adventures to help people make the most of those precious two days').

Looking up to the summit of the Munro, Devil’s Point, from Corrour bothy in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Looking up to the summit of the Munro, Devil’s Point, from Corrour bothy in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Bothies are unlocked shelters dotted about the UK, many of them managed on limited funds by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA). Often remote, bothies vary in quality and, if you're like me, your feelings towards them can change depending on how tired you are or how bad the weather is outside. (Even a really basic bothy can be a delight when the weather is foul).

Corrour bothy, located in the Cairngorms National Park, is one of the more popular Scottish bothies. It’s not far from my home and I’ve made multiple trips there over the years. 

The range of feelings I’ve experienced at Corrour bothy includes; 

  • Enlightenment - through long, varied conversations with like-minded souls I otherwise wouldn’t have met

  • Happiness - to live in a country where I can freely wander up hills and through glens and stay out overnight

  • Annoyance - to find lots of garbage left behind by previous parties (there's no rubbish collection service in mountain bothies)

  • Satisfaction - as I sat outside with a dram on a beautiful Summer's evening after a trek over the Lairig Ghru

  • Relief - to reach the shelter of the bothy in the midst of a full Winter storm

Overall, my main feeling towards mountain bothies is one of contentment. From knowing that bothies exist and I can stop for a break from the outdoors if I want to, as on this day one Autumn when I walked door to door from the National Trust base camp at Mar Lodge over Devil's Point, Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Braeraich, four of the great Munros in Cairngorms National Park, during a fantastic hike that took me over 16 hours. 

How to get to Corrour bothy

The Mountain Bothy Association publishes details of bothies on their website (www.mountainbothies.org.uk). You'll find Corrour bothy at GR NN981958 on OS Landranger map 36. It can be accessed from the south-east from Braemar via Glen Lui or from Aviemore in the north via the Lairig Gru. 

Other bothies to visit

Less well known bothies worth a visit include Glencoul and Glendhu bothy near Kylesku, the Schoolhouse bothy near the Munro Seana Braigh and the fantastically-positioned Lookout bothy on the northern tip of the Isle of Skye, at Rubha Huinish. 

If you do visit bothies, be aware of the bothy code; 

  • Respect the bothy

  • Respect the surroundings

  • Respect the agreement with the estate

  • Respect the restriction on numbers

 
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Weekend Wonders: The cool Cuillin

Words and images I've submitted to Adventure Travel magazine for publication in their 'Weekend Wonders' section (a regular 2-page spread where they share some 'cracking UK adventures to help people make the most of those precious two days').

Scrambling over Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh on a traverse of Sgurr a’Mhadaidh to Sgurr na Banachdaich in the Black Cuillin on the Isle of Skye in the West Highlands of Scotland

Scrambling over Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh on a traverse of Sgurr a’Mhadaidh to Sgurr na Banachdaich in the Black Cuillin on the Isle of Skye in the West Highlands of Scotland

The extremely rocky Black Cuillin on Scotland’s Isle of Skye is a group of mountains (including 12 Munros) that offers some of the best scrambling and climbing opportunities in the United Kingdom.

The peaks are often described as Britain’s answer to the European Alps and there’s certainly nowhere else in the UK of such a serious mountaineering nature, with sustained difficulties on many peaks needing to be overcome before you can reach the summits.

I’ve a chequered history of success on the Cuillin ridge. It’s not due to effort – I’ve climbed Sgurr nan Eag twice, Bruache na Frithe three times and Bla Bheinn fi ve times (the north-west ridge on Bruache na Frithe, a grade two scramble, and the amazing Clach Glas-Bla Bheinn traverse, a Moderate rock climb, being the highlights). These though are the easier Munros, with minimal exposure (the latter rock climbing route excepted). When it has came to the test, I’ve bailed just feet from the top on Sgurr na Gillean’s ‘tourist route’ due to the exposure and balked at the descent of the 3m high ‘bad step’ on the only route feasible for non-climbers up Am Basteir.

I’ve not been completely unsuccessful on exposed peaks on Skye though. Recently, I followed a Cuillin route that is described in J Wilson Parker’s Scrambles in Skye guidebook as ‘one of the most enjoyable (or horrifying) scrambles in Britain.’  The traverse of Sgurr a’Mhadaidh to Sgurr na Banachdaich, over Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh and Sgurr  Thormaid, is a grade three (out of three) scramble. It follows a series of steeply-angled, knife-edge ridges that can delight (or perhaps terrify) you with great drops beneath your feet. During the traverse, we had great views of the Cuillin mountain range, especially over to Sgurr Alasdair, the highest mountain in Skye, and to Sgurr Dearg, where we could see people climbing on the Inaccessible Pinnacle.  The views down to Loch Coruisk (pictured here) were also equally impressive.

Despite the daunting description in the guidebook (which I’ll admit I didn’t read until afterwards), I didn’t find the exposure that bad. I’d highly recommend it.

 
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Weekend Wonders: Isle of Rum

Words and images I've submitted to Adventure Travel magazine for publication in their 'Weekend Wonders' section (a regular 2-page spread where they share some 'cracking UK adventures to help people make the most of those precious two days').

Bill Snee descending from the summit of Askival towards Dibidil Bothy in the Isle of Rum, West Highlands of Scotland

Bill Snee descending from the summit of Askival towards Dibidil Bothy in the Isle of Rum, West Highlands of Scotland

The Isle of Rum is a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). There are no roads on the island and reaching it involves a boat trip, adding to the feeling of an adventure. The jewel of the island (for walkers and climbers anyway) is the Rum Cuillin, which, like their counterpart, the Black Cuillin on the Isle of Skye, offers excellent rock scrambling along narrow ridges to mountain summits jutting above the Sea of the Hebrides, with great views out to the Atlantic Ocean.

The highlights of my visits to Rum have been hillwalking and backpacking trips on Ainshval and Askival, two of Rum's Corbetts. Although only c.2,500ft high, the view from both peaks is spectacular - a 360 degree view taking in Skye, Eigg, Muick, Canna, the Hebrides and much of Scotland's mainland west coast. On one occasion, on a sweltering bank holiday weekend in May, we bivvied on Ainshval's summit during an epic 3-day expedition where we climbed all Rum's hills, soaking in the heat and the views as the sun set as a fiery orange ball on the horizon. On another trip, pouring rain caused us to bail on a traverse of the Cuillin ridge into the Atlantic Corrie, a gigantic, amazing amphitheatre filled with seemingly no less giant stags that stood their ground and defiantly roared at us as we interrupted their rutting season. 

Fortunately, my ratio of good days on the island outweighs the bad days. This includes the day we descended from Askival (pictured), after a brilliant Summer's day's hillwalking, which culminated in an engaging night making new friends at Dibidil bothy on the shoreline. 

Getting there and around 

Caledonian MacBrayne (www.calmac.co.uk) and Arisaig Marine (www.arisaig.co.uk) both offer easiest access to the island, via their ferry service. For venturing thereon in, you'll need to don your walking shoes. If heading anywhere remote, take standard hillwalking gear (e.g. warm clothes, waterproofs and gloves) plus be experienced in the use of a map and a compass.

Places to stay 

The 'capital' of Rum, Kinloch, has an organised campsite plus cabins for hire. The Isle of Rum Community Trust operates a bunkhouse. Wild camping is an option all over the island (as long as you follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code). Alternatively, choose to go basic and stay at one (or both) of the island's two mountain bothies - Dibidil bothy and Guirdil bothy). Read more about your options on the island's great website – www.isleofrum.com.

 
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Weekend Wonders: The majestic Mamores

Words and images I've submitted to Adventure Travel magazine for publication in their 'Weekend Wonders' section (a regular 2-page spread where they share some 'cracking UK adventures to help people make the most of those precious two days').

Alex Haken in the Mamores, descending Na Gruagaichean, a Munro in the West Highlands of Scotland.

Alex Haken in the Mamores, descending Na Gruagaichean, a Munro in the West Highlands of Scotland.

One of the joys I find in backpacking (aside from poring over maps as you plan a trip) is staying up high in the mountains and walking right to the very end of the day, knowing you'll very likely be the only folk left on the hill.

Many times over my hill-walking career I've experienced the solitude of being the 'last man standing' on a mountain. Backpacking has enabled me to camp on a number of high bealachs and summits in superb regions of Scotland such as Glen Torridon, Glen Coe, the Cairngorms and Glen Affric, as well as further afield in the Alps and Patagonia.

One of my favourite backpacking locations is the Mamores in the West Highlands of Scotland. Totalling 10 Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000ft/ 914m high), the Mamores are grouped into 3 sets of hills, all easily tackled by a number of different routes.

The central Mamores are characterised by great ridges, including the narrow arete on An Gearanach and the ominously named Devil's Ridge on Sgurr a'Mhaim. Shown here is us descending off the sweeping ridge of Na Gruagaichean one November, headed for a wild camp on the bealach between An Garbhanach and Stob Coire a'Chairn. We had started our trip the previous day in Glen Nevis, planning to climb only Binnein Beag, Binnean Mor and Sgurr Eilde Mor, but good stable weather meant we were able to continue over Na Gruagaichean and put ourselves into position the next day for an easier round of the more well-known Mamore peaks that make up the Ring of Steall.

How to get there

The Mamores are usually accessed from Glen Nevis, near Fort William, for the western and central Munros, or Kinlochleven for the eastern ones. OS Explorer Map 392 covers all 10 Munros, as does Harveys Superwalker XT25. 

Alternative options

It's possible to climb all 10 Mamore Munros in one day.The very fit can also pair them up with the Lochaber traverse, backpacking what is known as Tranter's Round, a classic 24-hour hill-running challenge that covers all the Mamores, the Grey Corries, Aonach Mor, Aonach Beag, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis. With an overall ascent of 18 Munros and 20,000 foot of climbing, it must rank as one of the best backpacking trips in the UK.

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Weekend Wonders: Winter hiking on Streap

Words and images I've submitted to Adventure Travel magazine for publication in their 'Weekend Wonders' section (a regular 2-page spread sharing some 'cracking UK adventures to help people make the most of those precious two days').

David Hetherington traversing the ridge from the summit of Streap that leads to Streap Comlaidh in the West Highlands of Scotland

David Hetherington traversing the ridge from the summit of Streap that leads to Streap Comlaidh in the West Highlands of Scotland

My first sighting of Streap, a superb, 909m high Corbett in the West Highlands of Scotland, was on a 6-day backpacking adventure in 2010 from Glen Shiel to Glenfinnan, when a friend and I followed part of Scotland's epic Cape Wrath Trail. After I returned home, a paragraph in Ralph Storer's classic book, '100 Best Routes on Scottish Mountains', which highlighted Streap's narrow summit ridge "should be left well alone by the inexperienced" continued to intrigue me over the years.

In February 2016, I finally decided to visit Streap. The weather forecast was excellent and we spent a great two nights in Gleann Dubh-Lighe bothy, trekking on snow-covered slopes through the day beneath a clear blue sky in temperatures that remained, pleasantly, well below freezing.

Ralph Storer was right. In poor weather, you'll need top-notch navigation skills to steer yourself through Streap's complex, craggy bluffs and its steep-sided, narrow arete demands caution all the way to the summit. On a nice day, the difficulties are slight and the ridge is simply awesome, with just the right amount of awkward terrain to keep your interest and incredible views - south-east to Ben Nevis and north-west out to the islands of Eigg, Rum and the Skye Cuillin.

Streap is an outstanding hill. We paired it up with an ascent of Streap Comhlaidh and another Corbett, Braigh nan Uamhachan, completing a round trip of ‘feet in front of the bothy fire’ to 'feet in front of the bothy fire’ of 12 hours (our slowness in part due to being hampered by deep snow). In Winter or Summer, you should find it's an excellent day out.

How to get there

Take a train, bus or car from Fort William to Glenfinnan. Roughly 3km south-east of Glenfinnan, just west of the bridge over the Dubh-Lighe river, a turn-off north leads uphill to a small public car park. From here, OS Landranger map 40 (Mallaig & Glenfinnan, Loch Shiel) and OS Explorer map 398 (Loch Morar & Mallaig) both cover the approach to Streap via the quiet highland glen, Gleann Dubh-Lighe.

Where to stay

Fort William and Corpach are obvious choices. Glenfinnan has a quirky bunkhouse - check out www.glenfinnanstationmuseum.co.uk. If you’re looking for more rustic accommodation, the bothy in Gleann Dubh-Lighe is maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association (www.mountainbothies.org.uk). In 2011, the building was accidentally burnt down when a leaky gas cartridge caught fire. In 2013, it was rebuilt by MBA volunteers.

 
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Cairngorms Loop: A 300km mountain bike time trial in Scotland

A home for an article I published in 2017 about my experiences challenging myself on the Cairngorms Loop, a 300km independent mountain bike time trial in the Scotland Highlands.

My finishing time at the Cairngorms Loop in May 2017. I finished 10th out of 10 finishers in the group ride (which I appreciate is another way of saying ‘I came last’) but, overall, 18 riders started so I didn’t feel too bad).

My finishing time at the Cairngorms Loop in May 2017. I finished 10th out of 10 finishers in the group ride (which I appreciate is another way of saying ‘I came last’) but, overall, 18 riders started so I didn’t feel too bad).

It proved to be a mountain bike race of many firsts for me. The first time I'd cycled for more than 12 hours. The first time I'd hiked-a-bike for almost 14 consecutive kilometres. The first time I'd broken up 37 hours of continual effort with only 3 hours sleep. And, as I ascended the steep slopes of Culardoch, a 900m high Corbett near Braemar, c.200km into Scotland's 300km Cairngorms Loop, the first time I'd fallen asleep whilst standing up, as I pushed my mountain bike up a hill. I recall blinking heavily as I'd stared into the darkness. It was 11pm on a Sunday night. I still had 15 hours to go before I was finished.

"You always want to run before you can walk" said my friend Davy, metaphorically speaking. Over lunch, I'd expressed interest in making a second attempt at the Cairngorms Loop, an unsupported 300km (186-mile) mountain bike time trial around the Cairngorms National Park in the Eastern Highlands of Scotland. My first attempt at this long-distance, off-road cycling route, which you're challenged to finish within 56 hours, ended ignomiously on a cold, wet and windy weekend in 2014. Nothing other than apathy from constantly numb fingers and cold feet led me to bail not even halfway through. I'd suffered from pins and needles in many appendages for several months afterwards.

In the case of mountain biking, what Davy said about 'running before I could walk' was true. On paper, I was completely unqualified for something like the Cairngorms Loop. Other than my first attempt at the route, the only long-distance mountain biking I'd done previously was in a pair, with Davy, at the 2015 Strathpuffer, a 24-hour winter mountain bike endurance event in the North-West Highlands of Scotland (I'd also previously completed the 'Puffer as a part of a team of four). Aside from that, I didn't regularly bike, unless you count a daily 15-minute commute and 4 hours of indoor cycling every week at my local spinning studio (Lifescycle in Edinburgh). But I'd done a little mountain biking in our local hills and we'd fared okay at Strathpuffer (completing 20 laps and finishing in 18th position in the pairs category). Granted, a finish at Strathpuffer wasn't much of an achievement for Davy - he'd previously competed in the solo category, on a single speed, and finished on the podium - but it cemented an idea for me that I could sit on a bike for a decent length of time and keep going. Coupled with my experience hiking and backpacking outdoors and a stubborness I have to keep moving for long hours, summer or winter, I felt confident I could finish the Cairngorms Loop. I just wasn't sure if I could do it in the 56-hour time limit. But as another friend said, “Well, there's nothing to stop you from finding out”.

The Cairngorms Loop is organised by Steve Wilkinson, a mountain biker from the north-east of England. Steve describes the Cairngorms Loop as an 'independent time trial based on the classic Tour of the Cairngorms mountain bike route, using different trails to loop twice around the central Cairngorm Mountains with the intent being to ride the route as fast as you are able, whilst adhering to a set of rules for self-supported mountain biking'. There is 'no entry fee or prize money' and 'there are no waymarkers or checkpoints and no support and you are expected to navigate the unmarked course entirely on your own, with no caches or pre-arranged support'. Steve also shares that 'the inspiration for this challenge, and the self-supported philosophy based rule-set, came from North American events the Tour DivideColorado Trail Race, and Arizona Trail Race. The guiding principal being that you 'do it all yourself'.

The Cairngorms Loop can be attempted at any time of year but a group ride is historically held at the end of April, when there's still snow on Scotland's hills, the temperature can drop to below zero degrees C and the threat of hypothermia is very real (the route ascends twice above 700m and crosses 11 rivers, at least one that can be thigh-deep, and if you've no spare clothes the only way to dry off is to keep moving).

The start and finish of the Cairngorms Loop is the sleepy village of Blair Atholl in the southern limits of Cairngorms National Park. The idea is you leave Blair Atholl at 10am Saturday morning and you have to be back in Blair Atholl by 6pm on Monday. In between, you travel north through the Gaick Pass to Aviemore, over the shoulder of 1090m high Bynack More and the Lairig an Laiogh to Linn of Dee, back to Aviemore via Glen Feshie then east to Tomintoul, continuing over the shoulder of 900m high Culardoch to Braemar, then heading back to the Linn of Dee and down Glen Tilt. A sting in the tail being, as you approach Blair Atholl, the route crosses over to the remote outpost of Fealar Lodge and traverses the bulk of three Munros that make up the Beinn a'Ghlo massif before it leads you to the finish.

All the locations on the Cairngorms Loop had been burnt into my brain by the time I stood on the start line at the Old Bridge of Tilt car park in 2017. I'd felt a bit of a bikepacking fraud as I spoke to Steve and some of the the other competitors. My first attempt at the route had, it's fair to say, been a bit Macgyver. I'd treated it as a backpacking expedition on a bike and I'd carried far too much of the wrong gear (enough to fill both the 40-litre rucksack and the panniers I carried with me, which included a tent) and not enough of the right (e.g. warm shoes and plenty of spare gloves). This year, despite a resolve to carry less stuff and the purchase of new bikepacking gear to put the weight on (my also new) bike, I still had a hillwalker's mentality and had brought with me a fair amount of things that weren't essential but that I *might* need (given it had been snowing at 600m above sea level three days previously). I clearly had more gear than others. But that was fine. My strategy for the race was to go slow and steady and to keep moving as long as possible. It's a strategy that needs fuelled with a healthy amount of gear and food but the challenge for me in a race like this is invariably against myself, not the other competitors. A few extra kilos in weight wasn't going to make or break my attempt.

(iPhone snap) My brand new bike, just out the box a day or so before the trip. A Bird Zero Hardtail from    www.bird.bike   . I love it.

(iPhone snap) My brand new bike, just out the box a day or so before the trip. A Bird Zero Hardtail from www.bird.bike. I love it.

Saturday 10:00am - The race starts

Steve started us on the 2017 Cairngorms Loop with a simple two minute warning. We departed Blair Atholl and followed the old road alongside the A9 to the House of Bruar, I chatted to Donald McIntosh. who'd introduced himself as a software developer from Glasgow. Donald was competing in his first Cairngorms Loop (you can read Donald's account here). I also caught up with Lucy Greenhill, from Oban, whom I knew from Oban Mountain Rescue Team. Lucy was also in her first race, using the experience as practice for her upcoming (and successful) attempt on the Highland Trail 550, the Cairngorms Loop's 'bigger brother/sister'. Lucy zoomed away from me very quickly (she went on to finish the Cairngorms Loop with a female FKT of 36 hours 42 minutes). It wasn't long before Donald was also ahead of me as well and I was on my own and could settle into the challenge ahead.

The route through the Gaick Pass was as enjoyable as I remembered. Most of the route is on a good landrover track, the rivers we crossed were low and there was only a little hike-a-bike (across some marshy land to reach the singletrack alongside Loch an Duin). A good tailwind helped me leave the track behind and speed down the tarmac into Glen Trolmie, reaching a top speed of 48km/h as I'd drafted behind a car. I navigated the Thieves’ Road and crossed the woods on the great trails around Loch an Eilein into Glenmore Forest. By the time I reached Loch Morlich, I was an hour up on my 2014 time. I'd learnt from my first attempt at the Cairngorms Loop that 6 hours is the longest I can go on quick breaks and snack food before I get tired and grumpy so I stopped at the bridge at the foot of Bynack More for a 30 minute break and some energy food. I knew I'd appreciate the boost it would give me before the long climb to the Fords of Avon refuge and the hike-a-bike that I knew would follow as I crossed the Lairig an Laoigh into Glen Derry.

Donald McIntosh passed me again as I rested. I'd only moved in front of him because he'd taken a few wrong turnings and stopped for a cake and a Coca-Cola at Glenmore. I watched Donald as he cycled up the hill. He looked strong, much stronger than I felt. As I contemplated this, I was passed by another two competitors, who I presumed were racing together, as a couple. I don't think I was in last position but I didn’t see either Donald or them (or anyone else) for the rest of the race. It was 4pm Saturday.


(iPhone snap) The bridge on the way up Bynack More, not far past Glenmore Lodge.

(iPhone snap) The bridge on the way up Bynack More, not far past Glenmore Lodge.

Saturday 4.00pm - Bynack More and the Lairig an Laoigh

The climb over the shoulder of Bynack More across the Lairig an Laoigh to the Linn of Dee was never not enjoyable but it did test my patience. Numerous waterbars on the ascent plus a mixture of ground that was too technical for me to ride and numerous snow patches where I ground to a halt meant I pushed my laden bike for nearly 13 consecutive kilometres before I was able to get back in the saddle and speed up my descent into Glen Derry. I then misjudged a tree root in the dark and went over the handlebars. To add insult to injury, I soaked my feet and legs as I crossed the river to reach Derry Lodge.

My plan for the first 24 hours of the race had been to reach and bivvy in the woods in Glen Feshie (Ruigh Aiteachain bothy was closed in 2017 for renovation). However, the hike-a-bike across the Lairig an Laoigh had taken me some 6 hours and, with some time out for a late feast at Linn of Dee, it was 01:00am before I crossed the Moor of Feshie and started to follow the Geldie Burn. The Cairngorms Loop is not a navigational exercise - you follow an established .gpx route - but the light on my GPS only came on when I pressed it and I was mainly travelling by feel. Tiredness had kicked in and I made an error, mistaking the tributary river Allt Dhaidh Mor for the Geldie Burn itself. I followed a wet ATV track for 200m before I realised something wasn't right. A quick check of the compass confirmed I was headed North and not West and I splashed my way back to the river. It was 01:37am and I’d been on the go for 15.5 hours. I decided it was time to stop and bivvy.

Sunday 9:00am - Wading across the River Feshie

A 4-hour sleep left me feeling fairly refreshed. For breakfast, I'd decided I'd eat snacks on the move (I did have a stove with me, to heat water for soup and hot chocolate, but I never used it). It does seem odd to want to graze on junk food at such an early hour but in the past I've been prone to not eating regularly when I'm on the hills (I'm reminded of a memorable Winter’s day on Beinn a’Ghlo when I hiked for 12 hours in deep snow and strong winds on some boiled sweets and a single slice of buttered malt loaf). These day, I generally go by the principle that any calories are good calories and I rarely, if ever, bonk. To that end, I'd prioritised Tailwind drinks powder and snack food that I knew from past experience I was happy to eat whilst exercising and I could consume easily whilst I was on the move. My breakfast consisted of chunks of Nak’d bars, M&Ms, liquorice torpedoes, a broken-up chocolate hazelnut bar, cheddar cheese cubes and Twiglets, all of which I ate periodically throughout the day as a handful of 'pot luck' out of a bar bag (though after my first taste of this savoury/sweet concoction I realised it was a bad idea to combine the Twiglets, which went soft in the cheese and didn't go with the liquorice. I usually like savoury and sweet foods together but you live and learn). Aside from these snacks, I also had with me a number of sachets of coconut-flavoured almond butter (Pip & Nut), a much healthier snack that I love but I found them to be tricky to open whilst on the move (I’ve not yet been able to replicate my childhood feats of riding my bike with no hands on the handlebars) and I wasn't fond of the taste when I swallowed the butter with fruit-flavoured water (which I needed to because it can be quite dry). A much healthier diet is something I'd want to focus on for future trips.

The nature of the terrain across the Moor of Feshie meant I was off my bike a lot in the morning (I can't really remember why - I don't recall it being particularly rocky or wet). There are definitely worse places to push a bike but I do remember being glad when I crossed the river at Ruighe nan Leum and climbed the short slope to reach the landrover track that descended into Glen Feshie.

Glen Feshie is surely a contender for one of the loveliest glens in Scotland. The head of the glen has a really wild feel about it, with tall Scots pine trees adorning its steep sides, which are scarred by landslip, and a braided river that needs crossed twice. This river, the River Feshie, has the deepest water on the route and I got soaking wet feet and legs on both occasions (I almost swam for a bit on my second crossing but this was mainly due to poor route choice - I'm glad I didn't do it in the dark). The landslip at the head of Glen Feshie posed little problem, much less so than the landslip you encounter after the bothy - I found this really tricky terrain to haul a laden bike up - but I'd soon left the difficulties behind and dried off as I raced past the car park at Auchlean, headed for Inverdruie.

Sunday 10.44am - Onto the outer loop

The inner loop of the Cairngorms Loop crosses onto the outer loop near Feshiebridge. The point of no return though for the outer loop, I'd say, is at Inverdruie, near Coylumbridge, where you're closest to the 'fleshpots' of Aviemore. For no particular reason, I'd stopped at Inverdruie, opposite the adventure playground. As I'd sat on the ground and watched a family walk by, I felt frustrated and pondered whether I should jack the race in and get a train home. There wasn't any pressing need for me to do this as the weather was fair and I still felt quite strong but the sheer amount of pushing I'd done, regularly since 4pm the previous day, caused me to question my enthusiasm to continue. Fortunately, I'd picked up a fair amount of speed on the tarmac road from Auchlean to Inverdruie, and the route ahead continued for a bit on a paved road, so I gave myself a mental slap and started moving again before I changed my mind.

Once you're north-east of Aviemore, the Cairngorms Loop starts to head East towards Conie Hill and Forest Lodge. I got lost in this section on a couple of occasions but soon found my way back onto the route. I passed a man and woman on the bridge just after Forest Lodge as I entered the trails of Abernethy Forest. I went the wrong way here too before I found the almost hidden path that led me deeper into the forest onto some of the most delightful singletrack I've ridden, a gradual uphill through great greenery and beautiful Scots pine that brought me out to a superb view towards the direction of Bynack More.

I was in great spirits as I continued heading East and cycled past Loch a'Chnuic. I'd got over my funk at Inverdruie, I was enjoying the route again and my head was filled with grand thoughts about how I was going to reach Tomintoul much earlier than planned and how maybe I'd be able to finish on Sunday night. The trail through Abernethy Forest really had cheered me up no end. It appeared though to have caused me to become somewhat irrational. As I'd stopped for a drink and admired the view, I turned the map over and realised I still had a whole page to cover before I reached Tomintoul. A whole page of a map that was encased in an Ortlieb map case. That's about 10 squares. 10km still to go. Just to reach Tomintoul. Which was 36km from Braemar. Which was 27km from Fealar Lodge. Which itself was still 30km from the finish. As this realisation sank it, it brought me back down to earth with a massive bump. I still had a huge distance to go. At the pace I was going, it really was going to be a difficult challenge to finish before Monday 6pm.

Sunday 6.00pm - 24 hours to go

I'd laughed out loud when I truly realised how little concept I had of the distances the Cairngorms Loop covers. I'd thought about it, yes (I'd been thinking about it almost daily since December 2016) but, with no experience of long-distance mountain biking (if you discount lapping the 11km track at the Strathpuffer) I had nothing to properly compare it with. My mental model was so skewed it was laughable. As it turned out, this wasn't so bad as it enabled me to put all thoughts about finishing the race on time out of my head. It was simply too far to get my head around. I resorted instead to something I'm good at. I concentrated on surveying my horizon and setting myself challenges. If I can get to x, I can get to y. If I can get to y, I can get to z. If I repeat that, I'll eventually be where I need to be. It's an approach I've honed over many years as I've hiked hundreds of kilometres across Scotland's hills (including trekking most of the way from Fort William to Cape Wrath).

My change in mindset helped me to enjoy the rest of my journey to Tomintoul. I'm not usually a fan of the rolling, farmed land that is typical of the East of Scotland, preferring the rougher highlands to the North and West but it was nice to travel through parts of the country that I'd not usually visit. That's not to say it wasn't hard going. There were a couple of tough climbs and I went the wrong way just before Glen Brown and its multiple river crossings. But the countryside was scenic enough and my good mood had continued as I cycled into Tomintoul at 6.00pm on Sunday night.

Sunday 11:00pm - The climb over Culardoch

I'd felt fairly fresh when I arrived in Tomintoul. Which was good, as I was cycling back to Blair Atholl, no matter what. The only question in my mind was how long would it take me. As I rode through Tomintoul's main street, the thought of stopping for a hot meal in the hotel bar attracted my attention. I decided to keep going. My digestive system doesn't take kindly to too much exercise after food - one of the reasons I decided to carry food for the whole route - but, more-so, I really wanted to finish within 56 hours and I still had no idea how long it would take me. The threat that I'd get to Blair Atholl after the cut-off and know I'd missed it because I'd stopped unneccesarily spurred me on. I put the thought out my head and got back to the task in hand.

There's a distance of 36km between Tomintoul and Braemar and then a further 7 kilometres to reach Linn of Dee, where the River Dee threads its way through a narrow rock gorge. I wanted to reach Linn of Dee for two reasons - for the mental boost it would give me when I revisited ground I'd already covered (the outer loop joins the inner loop here for a bit) and because the distance home seemed much more manageable. All that barred my way was two long glens, a traverse along the shores of a remote mountain loch (Loch Builg) and a climb over a 900m high lump of a hill called Culardoch. Oh, and the fact I’d been on the move for 30+ hours.

After I'd left Tomintoul, I passed through the gates of the Glen Avon estate. Unfortunately, they were locked and they didn't open grandly for me like a Lord entering his manor but a side door gave way to continued easy terrain - a landrover track that leads past the settlements at Torbain, Dalestie and Inchrory. A strong headwind built up as I made my way up Glen Avon towards Glen Builg. This kept my pace slow and continued to test my patience. I'd also began to suffer from pain in my right knee (which I still have as I type these words, 12 weeks later). My knee had ached slightly for a few weeks before the race but the terrain had aggravated it and by the time I’d reached Loch Builg and negotiated the 1km+ singletrack along its shoreline there was a fair amount of grimacing going on. I was glad when I reached the landrover track that took me to the foot of Culardoch. I started the steep climb. I think it was around 10.30pm. There wasn't enough lack of light to warrant the use of my bike light but my head torch was on. I kept moving uphill, slowly. Pushing my bike in front of me and taking a few steps. Then pausing for a moment before repeating the process, over and over again. In a little pool of light, on my own, moving up the side of a hill at the pace of an ant. With each step, I complained to no-one in particular about the jabbing pain in my knee.

My climb in the dark up Culardoch felt like it went on forever. It definitely took longer than it should - I recall closing my eyes for a bit whilst I leant against my bike and I nodded off to sleep. If there was any consolation, it was that the hill track doesn't go all the way to the summit - it climbs over a shoulder - and the pain of the ascent is soon a distant memory once you've encountered the amazing descent all the way to Invercauld Bridge.

I'd been considering stopping and having a sleep, first when I reached Invercauld (at the car park for Ben A'an and Beinn a'Bhuird) and again as I cycled into Braemar around 01:00am (I'd eyed up the tables outside the butchers opposite the outdoor shop). I decided I'd keep moving and I gradually ground my way along the road west of Braemar to reach the forest just short of Linn of Dee. At 02:30am, I rolled out my sleeping bag and bivvy bag in the forest, blew up my sleeping mat and I was asleep within minutes. I'd been on the go for 21 hours.

Monday 6:30am - Revisiting the Linn of Dee

When I awoke a few hours later, the pain in my knee was sharp and I had difficulty bending it. I was concerned I wasn't going to able to exit my sleeping bag, never mind cycle anywhere. After a fashion, I was on my feet and I found the pain eased off with movement and a few painkillers. As long as I bent my leg the way you're supposed to and I didn't move it too much laterally, I could cycle with relative ease.

It was a good feeling to rejoin the inner loop at the Linn of Dee, if only for a while. The route repeats a portion of the ground you've crossed earlier past White Bridge until you continue south over the Geldie Burn and the Bynack Burn and head into Glen Tilt. Despite my knee pain, I felt strong and the sleep had rejuvenated me. The sun was shining and I knew it was going to be a good day. Was I going to finish within the 56 hours? I still had no idea. But I was enjoying myself and all I had to do was to keep moving.

Glen Tilt is a popular Scottish glen for mountain biking. Recognition-wise, I'd suggest it's on a par with Torridon in the North-West Highlands. The terrain as you cross the watershed into Glen Tilt is very scenic and the technical singletrack high up on the side of the glen is good fun, if a little unnerving at times due to the drop-off. Instead of descending the full length of the glen to Blair Atholl, the Cairngorms Loop crosses the waters of the Allt Garbh Buidhe far up and heads out to the remote Fealar Lodge. After the inclement weather we experienced in 2014, one competitor described to me how he felt very close to hypothermia at Fealar Lodge. He'd found it a very barren place, despite the farm, and was concerned about what little protection he'd had from the bad weather. 

Monday 9:45am - Fealar Lodge to the finish

In 2017, the weather was warm and sunny and the river crossing to Fealar Lodge was easy enough. There was little flow in the water despite the snow that had fallen earlier in the week. On the opposite bank of the river, there is a steep ascent and a long traverse before you reach the lodge (I struggled to orientate myself here, despite having a map, possibly an indication I was more tired than I felt). Once you've circumnavigated the buildings at Fealar Lodge, there's a fun, fast descent on a vehicle track that I'd been able to anticipate for a while from the other side of the glen. Unfortunately, the descent was over all too quickly and I had another push up a hill as I passed the Munro of Carn Righ on my left. Once I'd reached the bealach (which I recall had great views back towards the Cairngorms hills), I realised I wasn't that many pedals away from the home straight. There's a fantastically fast, flowing descent to the farmhouse at Daldhu. All that's left is some fun singletrack up to the west side of Beinn a'Ghlo, another section of 'this is going on forever' hike-a-bike up to the bealach opposite Airgiod Bheinn and a great, grassy descent to the foot of Carn Liath before the final, easy river crossing and a glorious, glorious glide on tarmac downhill all the way into Blair Atholl.

iPhone snap: Crossing the last of many rivers before my descent into Blair Atholl. The Beinn a'Ghlo hills are in the distance.

iPhone snap: Crossing the last of many rivers before my descent into Blair Atholl. The Beinn a'Ghlo hills are in the distance.

And that was my finish to what proved to be a successful Cairngorms Loop for me in 2017. I'd tried in 2014 and failed. I'm sure I'd decided 'never again' but I'm glad I didn't. There wasn't any grand finish (though I'll admit to raising my hands aloft, Tour de France-style, as I arrived through some grand gates into Blair Atholl) but I think this ties nicely into the nature of the event. There's minimal rules. There's no prizes. You get nothing other than your name on a website. It seemed fitting therefore that my arrival at the station was a muted affair. I was greeted quietly by a dog walker and two hikers, one of whom kindly captured the photographic evidence Steve asks you to capture to demonstrate you've completed the route within 56 hours (I arrived at 2.33pm on the Monday, with an overall time of 52 hours 19 minutes). Within a minute, the dog walker highlighted that the Edinburgh train was approaching the station and it was time for me to leave. The ice-cold can of Coca-Cola I'd been looking forward to for hours would have to wait. I boarded the train, secured my bike and grabbed a seat. (Annoyingly, I forgot to switch off my GPS so my top speed was recorded as 108km/h). As the train pulled out the station and the landscape raced by, I leant back and stared absent-mindedly out the window, enjoying the simple fact that there was no effort needed to move. I'd like to say I was thinking to myself "never again' but, despite how hard the Cairngorms Loop was, I'd kind of enjoyed myself. Thoughts of how I could apply for the Highland Trail 550 Trail had already started to enter my mind.

Finished in 52:19mins (and 10th place). Breaking no records but I'm well pleased with it. Not that you can tell.

Finished in 52:19mins (and 10th place). Breaking no records but I'm well pleased with it. Not that you can tell.

Highs

  • Strong legs - One of the benefits of the many hours I spend each week indoor cycling at Lifescycle

  • Strong head - At my level of exerience, these types of long-distance time trials are as much, if not more so, of a mental challenge rather than physical. I'm pleased I kept going despite a few thoughts of bailing out

  • Deer - As I'd descended Culardoch into Invercauld Estate I surprised a herd of deer in the dark and cycled downhill as they ran beside me, just on the periphery of my head-torch

Lows

  • Far too much hike-a-bike - An indication of my failure, not the course. I'd need to be a much stronger rider to be able to muscle my way over the more technical bits (and the snow, and the wet bits)

  • Body damage - I had pins and needles in my hands/feet for many weeks after the route (I'll wear padded gloves next time) plus the small finger on one hand stuck out at a funny angle, which is a sign I believe to be damage to the ulnar nerve. I have Morton's Neuroma in both feet and they significantly played up near Fealar Lodge and my right knee is still sore in August 2017, three months after.

Gear list

Worn (continuously)

  • Underwear, powerstretch tights, wool socks, hiking boots, neoprene overshoes; merino wool t-shirt (short-sleeve), synthetic t-shirt (long sleeve), pertex windshirt

On bike (Bird Zero TR Hardtail)

  • Revelate Designs Harness + Salty Roll - Rab Winter Guide Jacket, pile mitts, spare pile mitts*, waterproof mitts*, waterproof hat*, spare base layer (top and bottoms)*, spare socks*

  • Alpkit Stingray frame bag - stove (MSR Pocket Rocket)*, pot* (MSR kettle) with 100g gas canister*, Fire Steel* and soup / chocolate sachets packed inside*), bike repair kit*, tools*, food (coconut almond butter sachets x6 and chocolate hazelnut bars x2), phone*, compass, bike lock*

  • Revelate Designs Vicacha seat pack - spare 27.5" inner tube (x2)*, sleeping bag (Rab Summit Alpine 400, rated to -4 degrees C) sleeping mat, bivvy bag, primaloft jacket (Rab Xenon Hoody)

  • Revelate Designs Mountain Feed Bag - chocolate m&ms, twiglets, licourice torpedoes, chocolate eclairs, cheese cubes, salted peanuts

On back

  • Camelbak backpack (18l) - 3-litre hydration pack, neoprene gloves*, fleece top*, waterproofs*, Tailwind drinks powder

(*Item not used)

The Celtman: A photographer's perspective

Thor Hesselberg (foreground) and support runner Ryan Maclean descending the scree gully on Beinn Eighe during the 42km running leg of the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon

Thor Hesselberg (foreground) and support runner Ryan Maclean descending the scree gully on Beinn Eighe during the 42km running leg of the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon

One of the founding organisers of the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon, Paul McGreal, is welcoming folk across the race finish line in Torridon, a remote village in the far north-west of Scotland. Spread out around Paul, both inside and outside a building that usually serves as the village's community centre, is a bustling pack of super-fit but now deservedly worn-out triathletes, all of whom can now call themselves a Celtman (or Celtwoman).

The triathletes, chosen by lottery from a strong field of international entries, are busy recounting the race tactics they've just used with each other, joking with their supporters, stretching, eating or simply staring into space as a handful of first aiders keep a watchful eye on them for exhaustion. Scotland's weather has been kind this year and the majority have just completed the third annual Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon, an iron-distance endurance race that starts on a remote beach near the picturesque village of nearby Shieldaig. To finish the Celtman race and be awarded a blue or white finisher's t-shirt - there's no prize money for the Celtman - each competitor has to swim 3.8km across a tidal sea loch, cycle 202km around highland roads and then run a marathon distance 42km over (for a blue t-shirt) or around (for a white t-shirt) 2 Munros, Scottish mountains over 914.4m high. There's certainly no guarantee that everyone who starts the race at 5am in Shieldaig will make it over the finish line in Torridon.

Photographing an extreme event like the Celtman is a challenge Edinburgh-based outdoor sports photographer, Colin Henderson, relishes.

"It's the distance the race covers that makes it so difficult, to be honest", says Colin, "You can't be everywhere so you need to pick and choose your locations wisely. For example, if you cover the swim start and exit, you're likely to get stuck behind the athletes because the early stages of the 202km cycle takes them up narrow Glen Torridon and you risk being unable to take any shots". Colin continues, "I like to take time in the days preceding the event to scout out what I feel are the best locations. The challenge I set myself is to aim for a small number of excellent photos from each leg so I can do the event justice photographically, rather than position myself in one place and photograph every athlete. I also like to find angles that are suitably different from the images I shot the previous year, or that are different to angles any other photographers use".

The Celtman triathlon was created in 2012, in the style of and in homage to the original extreme triathlon, the Norseman of Norway. It's since been billed as one of the 'toughest triathlons in the world' by 220 Triathlon magazine. The idea behind the race came from Paul McGreal's fellow founder, Stuart McInnes, who came back from a film commission to the Norseman excited about the potential for a similar event in Scotland.

Stuart, together with Paul and race co-ordinator, John Whittaker, designed the Celtman course in 2011. During their planning, they consulted regularly with the organisers of the Norseman to ensure a strong partnership was formed. Scottish triathlete, Stuart Macleod, was also asked for advice on the final course design. Three years on, the Celtman is now an established race with an international field. It is part of a family of extreme triathlons in Europe and abroad – see xtriworldtour.com).

On the 3.4km swim leg, Celtman triathletes have to contend with cold water temperatures, seaweed, jellyfish and strong tidal currents. "I like to get in the water to photograph the athletes at the start of the race", says Colin. "The water temperature is always a factor. On occasion, the swim has had to be cut short to 3km due to a low temperature of 11 degrees C and I found I couldn't stay in the water very long as it's difficult to manipulate the controls of your camera when you're body is shaking with the cold. What makes the start especially difficult to photograph is the dim light you're shooting in - the race starts at sunrise in a small, fire-lit cove off the north-west coast of Scotland. I like to use a flash in my underwater case to brighten up the colours in my images".

Once Colin has photographed the swim start of the Celtman, he packs up his gear, warms up again by putting the heater on full blast in his car and heads up Glen Torridon to catch the lead cyclists coming up the glen.

"For the 202km cycle leg, I like to do two things. First, I like to get up high above the competitors and show them in context of the landscape. There's various crags alongside the winding highland roads the cyclists follow that enable me to do this, though some of them require easy scrambling. Then I like to come back down to the roadside and capture close-ups of riders as they pass by. A zoom lens is essential here for separating the riders from the background. Having the camera handy all the time too means you can react quickly to what is happening around you. Your normal camera strap is sufficient but a dedicated strap is more comfortable and easier to use".

When it comes to the 42km running leg, Colin's background photographing mountaineers in the Scottish mountains gives him the edge. "After shooting the start of the cycle leg, my focus is to get back to Glen Torridon and climb to the summit of the first Munro (1010m high Spidean Coire nan Clach on Beinn Eighe) as quickly as possible", says Colin. "You think you have plenty time - after all, the athletes have 202km of cycling and half a marathon to run before they get there - but the first racers are heading towards you faster than you think".

Colin continues, "Normally I'm a big advocate of the 'fast and light' methodology prevalent in adventure photography, especially when long distance and large height gains are involved (the Celtman run covers 42km and goes over two c.1000m mountain summits). But I find with the Celtman I can get a better variety of shots if I carry a wide angle and a telephoto zoom lens on two separate camera bodies. For example, I can shoot wide when the athletes pass close to me and then switch to the telephoto lens to compress them and show their scale against the distant mountains. It's perfectly possible to do this with one camera body, switching lenses each time, but the speed the athletes travel mean you run the risk of missing shots. The downside is the weight. Ascending a 1000m high mountain and running along a ridgeline with 6kg of camera equipment trying to keep up with endurance athletes, even those 26km in to a 42km run, is challenging to say the least".

Basing himself near the first summit on Beinn Eighe, Colin can see the leading athletes making their way up to the summit. "It takes me a good 75mins to climb the from the roadside checkpoint to the summit. And that's me moving quickly. The first athletes aren't far behind and, as soon as they reach the summit I start running along the ridge with them. My pre-race planning means I've already visualised where I want to take shots so it's simply a case of trying to keep up with the athletes as they head off towards the second summit, 2.5km away. This is difficult as they're super fit and carrying only the essential safety gear".

Knowing the topography of the mountain is where Colin can start to gain an advantage. He continues, "I know I can't keep up with each athlete all the way along the ridge but to return to the roadside from Beinn Eighe the athletes need to descend into Coire Mhich Fhearchair. The access gully for this spectacular mountain corrie is on the way to the second summit so as long as I get to the gully entrance before the first runners return I can get some shots of them descending".

During the 2013 race, Colin spent two hours in this steep scree gully waiting for the first athletes to arrive. Cold, driving rain and strong winds are classic hypothermia conditions and the organisers, in conjunction with the volunteer mountain rescue safety team, had limited the high route to the first 11 athletes. 'Normally, the view from Beinn Eighe is epic but in 2013 the cloud was down to 500m and you were lucky to see someone 15m away from the top of the mountain. It was a cold, wet and miserable afternoon", recalls Colin. "My main challenge was how to keep my fingers warm and my camera and lenses dry. Nikon equipment is fairly water resistant but it doesn't completely keep water out so I use a cheap rainproof cover to give me peace of mind".

In 2014, 2015 and 2016, the weather for the Celtman was generally better and Colin captured shots of the athletes running along the Beinn Eighe ridge with the spectacular Torridon views in the background. In 2017 however, the weather dictated that the race didn't go up Beinn Eighe at all and the lead competitors were directed onto what is normally the ‘White T-shirt' route around the back of another Munro, Liathach (which is still a challenging trail and not to be underestimated). "That's what I like so much about photographing the Celtman. Each year the weather is completely different and it dictates what you can shoot, how and where. Even though I have a shot list, I'm not entirely sure what images I'm going to get until the action and the weather unfolds in front on me. Covering the race physically is a challenge but I enjoy that and, as I have complete autonomy on where I position myself and the shots I take, it's different from shooting commercial work. I treat it as a project and a way of keeping myself fresh. I look forward to shooting it every year".

Colin's Celtman gear list

  • For the swim - Nikon D700 camera body; Nikon 17-35mm F2.8 lens; Nikon SB-910 camera flash; Ewa Marine U-BXP100 waterproof case

  • For the cycle - Nikon D4S and D810 camera bodies, Nikon 24mm F1.4 lens: Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 lens; Joby Ultrafit sling strap

  • For the run - Nikon D4S and D810 camera bodies, Nikon 24mm F1.4 lens: Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 lens; Nikon SB-910 flash; Honl speed grid; Joby Focus tripod; Lowepro Toploader Pro AW75: Photosport AW200 backpack; Optech rain cover; Map and compass, waterproofs, extra clothing; nylon shelter for emergencies

The Celtman: All in it together

A home for a feature article I wrote about the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon, an iron-distance event that takes place in the North-West Highlands of Scotland. Competitors swim 3.4km in a tidal sea loch, cycle 202km on scenic highland roads and run a marathon 42km over two Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000ft high).

Competitors preparing to enter the cold water of Loch Shieldaig at dawn for the 3.8km tidal swim leg of the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon

Competitors preparing to enter the cold water of Loch Shieldaig at dawn for the 3.8km tidal swim leg of the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon

Yes, the Celtman’s only been on the go since 2012, and it only happens once a year. But it’s like a drug in some ways. Your training starts almost as soon as the race finishes, it’s super hard and you push yourself to some very dark places, even on race day. But we’re not competing for any money, it’s the quest for a finisher’s t-shirt that’s so addictive. And people are starting to return year after year. It’s becoming one big international Celtman family.
— Ryan Maclean, a local of Torridon and a competitor in three Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlons

One of the founding organisers of the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon, Paul McGreal, is welcoming folk across the race finish line in Torridon, a remote village in the far north-west of Scotland. Spread out around Paul, both inside and outside a building that usually serves as the village's community centre, is a bustling pack of super-fit but now deservedly worn-out triathletes, all of whom can now call themselves a Celtman (or Celtwoman).

The triathletes, chosen by lottery from a strong field of international entries, are busy recounting the race tactics they've just used with each other, joking with their supporters, stretching, eating or simply staring into space as a handful of first aiders keep a watchful eye on them for exhaustion. Scotland's weather has been kind this year and the majority have just completed the third annual Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon, an iron-distance endurance race that starts on a remote beach near the picturesque village of nearby Shieldaig. To finish the Celtman race and be awarded a blue or white finisher's t-shirt - there's no prize money for the Celtman - each competitor has to swim 3.4km across a tidal sea loch, cycle 202km around highland roads and then run a marathon distance 42km over (for a blue t-shirt) or around (for a white t-shirt) 2 Munros, Scottish mountains over 914.4m high. There's certainly no guarantee that everyone who starts the race at 5am in Shieldaig will make it over the finish line in Torridon.

“We created the Celtman in 2012, in the style of and in homage to the original extreme triathlon, the Norseman of Norway”, says Paul, pausing to check GPS co-ordinates on a computer that shows where the remaining competitors are on the course. A former project manager, Paul McGreal has been organising independent sports events for 8 years, 3 of those as a full-time professional. “The idea behind the race came from fellow founder, Stuart McInnes, who came back from a film commission to the Norseman excited about the potential for a similar event in Scotland”.

Stuart, together with Paul and race co-ordinator, John Whittaker, designed the Celtman course in 2011. During their planning, they consulted regularly with the organisers of the Norseman to ensure a strong partnership was formed. Scottish triathlete, Stuart Macleod, was also asked for advice on the final course design. Three years on, the Celtman is now an established race with an international field. It is part of a family of three extreme triathlons in Europe (Celtman / Norseman / Swissman).

Local heroes

When Paul McGreal and Stuart McInnes first visited Torridon and Shieldaig to scout out locations for the Celtman, a key consideration for them was a desire to involve the local population. As Paul says, "A race this size in this place can only be held with the goodwill and support of the residents of both villages".

Stuart McInnes continues, "Simply put, the Celtman couldn't exist without the support of the locals, their help is invaluable and we really appreciate it. To give something back, we were keen to find a local person strong enough to take part in the event. A name that continually cropped up in conversation was that of Ryan Maclean".

Born in Kinlochewe, a small Highland village 17 miles from Shieldaig, and now a resident of Torridon, 30-year old Ryan Maclean is a part-time firefighter and volunteer for the local mountain rescue team. Ryan's day job as an outdoor instructor for the Torridon Hotel sees him guiding hotel guests on kayaking, mountain hiking and scrambling trips outdoors. Such an active lifestyle provides Ryan with a good base level of fitness and he adds to this with regular cycling, running and swimming sessions amid the mountainous Torridon landscape.

Growing up, Ryan's ambition was not to be a triathlete but a mountaineer. Setting himself lofty ambitions from an early age, his goal for adult life was to stand atop the tallest mountain on earth, Mount Everest, whose summit is located in the appropriately named death zone. (The 8,848m/29,029ft high peak is littered with the bodies of frozen climbers who have come to grief on its slopes and not made it down alive). Standing on top of the world was not an unrealistic ambition for Ryan. From a young age, he was out regularly in the mountains with his father, Eoghain Maclean, the Reserve Manager at Scottish Natural Heritage and the team leader of Torridon Mountain Rescue Team until his retirement after 40 years service in 2013. Ryan followed his father into the rescue team at the age of 16 – one of the youngest team members - and has been a volunteer ever since.

After gaining lots of experience climbing in his local hills, Ryan focused his attention on realising his ambition to climb Mount Everest. At aged 24, with successful acclimatisation ascents of Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua behind him, he continued his journey as he set out ascend Denali (Mount McKinley), the highest mountain in North America at 6,168m (20,237ft) and a common testing ground for those wanting to progress to Everest.

Speaking as he looks out of his living room window to the mountains beyond, he recounts how "We had a lucky escape on Denali. After a successful gear carry to 16,500ft we descended to 14,000ft due to incoming bad weather. For 5 days we were stuck there, unable to go up or down as the weather got progressively worse. On the 4th night, gusts of wind that reached 80 miles an hour started to tear apart our tent. It was a harrowing time, as we clung to the side of the mountain protected only a protective wall we had made out of snow bricks. I have never returned to high altitude mountaineering, but I was looking for something else that would push me beyond my limits and along came the Celtman”.

Around the time Ryan Maclean was seeking new ways to push himself fitness-wise, Paul and Stuart were looking for their local athlete. In 2011, the three hooked up for the first time in the bar at the Torridon Hotel. Looking back, Ryan admits he was thrilled to be asked but somewhat hesitant to commit, at least initially. He recollects that "this was mainly due to my lack of triathlon experience (as in no experience whatsoever). But the Celtman sounded exciting and I soon said yes". Ryan's 'race-to-get-ready-for-the-race' was on.

"My first port of call was online", recalls Ryan, "I started off simply asking questionson internet forums, seeking out hints and tips".

Alan Cardwell, triathlon coach for Lanark Triathlon Club and Scotland's first Swim Smooth coach, gives new Celtman entrants some advice, "The Celtman is pretty special, as endurance races go. For the swim, the key is to be acclimatised to the cold water - it's not unknown for people to train offshore in the Scottish winter.Fortunately, this level of commitment is not essential but you do need to put in the hours outdoors. Cycle-wise, it'seasy to underestimate the difference 22km makes on top of an Ironman distance. Focuson building your strength and endurance on the bike - big blocks of aerobic work and low-rev, big gear intervals are ideal.But remember, it's the run where the tough stuff starts. Running on rough, hilly ground is obviously good preparation but, unless you plan to win, you won't be moving that fast in the race - most people run 1h:30mins+ for the Coulin Pass section - so there is no need to run overly hard in training. The key to success is aerobic fitness as the climb over Beinn Eighe is arduous to say the least. Legs are weary and the terrain is treacherous. Any lack of strength or co-ordination will let you down so be sure to include strength training so you can cope with the demands of the rough terrain. Finally, concentrate on what you eat and drink - don't try new ideas on race day or you may get a nasty surprise if your stomach rebels or you fail to fuel sufficiently for the day”.

In 2012, Ryan’s effort’s paid off and he successfully finished the Celtman, winning a white-t-shirt for completing the low-level route in 17:36:44 hours. In 2013, he was back, full of confidence in the lead up to the race and with high hopes for a blue t-shirt. But, Ryan recalls, "The month before the race I came down with a bad chest infection'. Despite his doctor's advice not to compete, Ryan chose to ignore it, a decision he still regrets as, during the swim, his illness brought on exhaustion and he was forced him to call for help and hitch a lift back to Shieldaig aboard the safety boat. As the remaining athletes headed out onto the 202km cycle, a crushed Ryan returned to his house, hugely disappointed with himself for his decision to start the race whilst not fully fit."I was crushed",he says."I'd put in the best part of a year's training for it and I felt I had let folk down.

To his credit, Ryan soon snapped out of his funk and continued to support the race. In 2014, he focused all his energy on completing the Celtman and trained hard throughout the year to shave over 90 minutes off his 2012 time and finish again with a white t-shirt. One of the people he credits with inspiring him throughout his journey is 43-year old Stuart Macleod, an IT Delivery Manager from Edinburgh.

Nevereverquit

Stuart Macleod is the only Scot to have completed the Norseman 3 times. An experienced competitor and veteran of the Celtman, he has placed in the top 4 in each of the three years the event has been running. Stuart is the only person to have completed the Celtman course in winter, attempted independently from the race, to celebrate his 42nd birthday in 2013. “The Norseman and the Celtman are both tough races",says Stuart from the balcony of his home near Arthur's Seat, an extinct volcano and a prominent landmark in Edinburgh. "The cold water temperature on the swim, the distance on the bike and the 3,000ft of ascent on the off-road run make the race physically demanding. Controlling your mental state is just as important as physical fitness. I think that anyone that has the right attitude can complete this race. It's having the ability to endure and be resilient. An attitude I call#nevereverquit”.

International flavour

Mental fortitude is a key attribute in long-course triathlons and a #nevereverquit attitude can often be the only thing keeping a competitor going when every muscle and sinew in their body is tugging at their psyche. It's a strong-minded individual who can battle through the challenge and finish the race.

Vasilis Toxavidis and Thor Hesselberg, two overseas competitors in the Celtman, are in the kitchen of a modern two-storey house they've rented for the week in Shieldaig. It's the evening before the Celtman and a number of folk have filled the house getting ready for the 5am race start. Alan Cardwell has just left, having introduced the group to a pair of support runners (each triathlete must have a buddy athlete for the marathon leg and many overseas competitors only get to meet up with these volunteers the evening before). On his way out, Alan traded good-natured insults with another competitor, Don King. Don, who works in Switzerland, has driven 1,000km from London to compete in the Celtman, freely admitting it's because "I love my sport".

Scottish-born Don, Greek-American Vasillis and Thor, president of the Tempo triathlon club in Norway, first competed in the Celtman in 2013. Speaking over a kitchen table littered with energy bars, bike parts and sports tape, Thor recalls that the Celtman was his first ever triathlon. "I'd entered in memory of a friend".he said, "having never biked, run or swum any real distance before. I was pleased just to get out the water that first year, to be honest. But my experiences on the bike and run were great and I’ve come to realise the Celtman is my type of event - I love the challenge".

Vasilis chips in, “The challenge is what keeps me coming back. I’ve had my fair share of technical issues - in 2013 I broke a derailleur on the cycle leg and I had to run 13 miles with my bike on my back (only to miss the cut-off) but I’ll keep coming back until I get a t-shirt. It’s that kind of event”.

Kindred spirits tend to form strong bonds and Thor, Don, Vasillis and Ryan all keep in touch. They stay in regular contact and give each other encouragement at endurance events throughout the year, always with the tag line #finishingisyouronlyoption. Vasillis has used this to great effect to complete the Virginia Triple Anvil, a 3x ironman distance event, Thor the Aurlandsfjellet Xtreme triathlon and Don the Rockman, a 41km swim/run race. Thor Hesselberg also set up a Facebook group designed to give support to new and past racers about the Celtman. The forum came into its own in 2014 when Swedish race winner, Johan Hasselmark, issued a plea for help after his race bike didn't arrive off the plane from Edinburgh. Within minutes, multiple offers of help were received and a state-of-the-art replacement was offered. Johan eventually started the race with his own bike, which he received only 10 minutes prior to the race start before going on to win the event in a course record time of 11h:41m:30s.

At first light

Before any Celtman competitor can contemplate the cycle stage, they must first conquer the swim. At 3am on race day the waters of Loch Shieldaig look black and uninviting as tiny Shieldaig bursts alive, albeit respectfully as the villagers are still asleep. As the triathletes, organisers and volunteers busy themselves with last minute tasks ahead of the coach journey to the start line, a film crew captures their early morning emotions (the race is covered by the BBC Adventure Show, as well as an independent film crew).

At 4am, the light in northern Scotland is still weak, even in mid-Summer. As the athletes depart from the coach and spill out into the cove that acts as the start line, flickering fire buckets cast them in atmospheric light. You can't see Shieldaig from the cove, which should add to the tension, but a strange, almost respectful, calm descends over the athletes as they settle in and focus on the immediate challenge ahead. On Stuart McInnes's command, a huge Celtman logo is set alight on the beach and a lone piper steps forward. As the sun begins to rise, the air is filled with the rousing sound of bagpipes as the triathletes are led, in front of a now fiercely burning logo, down to the shore-line. 'It's the start of the Celtman that I look forward to most", says Paul McGreal. "The atmosphere is almost electric and it makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise'. As he speaks, a sharp, sour smell of seaweed permeates the air as the athletes, first in singles and pairs and then in big groups, wade out into the water and swim into the sea. At least two lay claim to have encountered the race's first jelly-fish. Within minutes, they're at the start line, there's a short pause before the horn sounds and then they're off, each on their own personal journey.

All in it together

When you add together the atmospheric start of the Celtman, the stunning scenery of the cycle and the views from the mountain run, you have a great long-course race. Add on the camaraderie of a group of international athletes descending on a tiny Scottish village and the support the locals give the event and it makes the Celtman one of the premiere events in the triathlon world. Each year, more people enter the race than can compete and a ballot form of entry is necessary to give people a fair chance of being successful.

"The ballot system ensures we can keep our entries fresh and fair", says Stuart McInnes. "We've had so much interest in the Celtman from around the globe that we're keen to ensure as many as people as possible can take part. The 2015 event is full but if you're thinking of an event to enter for 2016, you should definitely keep us in mind".

Summing up his Celtman experiences, Ryan Maclean says, "Personally, both times I've crossed the finish line of the Celtman, I've been flooded with such a feeling of achievement that I know all the pain during training is worth it, it's a feeling like none other. In the first year, I was not sure I could complete such a challenge but with the right training and preparation I proved myself wrong and I did. Then, after my disastrous race in year two, I wanted so badly to come back and complete the course. The whole of my third year I was focused on becoming a Celtman again with the mindset that the impossible is nothing and if we want something so much we go and get it no matter what. That's what the Celtman does for me, it makes me believe that the impossible is nothing, It's the hardest day of your life but at the end it's one of the most amazing days of your life, it's a journey I enjoy being on. We are all in it together, Stuart, Thor, Vasillis and Don and every single one of us that stands on the start line, plus every person who supports us on the way, we are a family and we are there for each other. When we stick together, the impossible is nothing and it's the friendships I've made that will help push me to enter again next year, gunning for a blue t-shirt. Roll on my next Celtman."

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The Great Outdoors: Walking in Snowdonia (Front cover)

An image I shot on a trip to Snowdonia National Park was chosen by The Great Outdoors (TGO) magazine as their cover image.

The picture captures a friend of mine, David Hetherington, as he looks across to the summit of Tryfan during a descent of the Y Gribin ridge. It was taken near the end of hot summer's day which we had spent scrambling and walking over the popular peaks of Tryfan, Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr. 

TGO-Snowdonia-Y-Gribin-Tryfan.jpg

Camping in Circos de los Altares: Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

A final home for a short story I wrote to promote a Patagonia travel and trekking guidebook I had published on Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. It describes a trip I made onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap to view the remote west face of Cerro Torre. (The photos are from a tiny compact camera I used at the time, before I started taking photographs professionally. I’ve included them as I think they illustrate the story well).

The view to Cerro Standhardt, Torre Egger, Cerro Torre and Cerro Adela from Circos de los Altares on a much more pleasant visit to the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

The view to Cerro Standhardt, Torre Egger, Cerro Torre and Cerro Adela from Circos de los Altares on a much more pleasant visit to the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

It's 4am. I put on all my clothes and go outside to help dig our tent out of what is rapidly becoming a snow grave. I ignore the mountains soaring above me - because this is the second time I have been up tonight and because it is extremely cold and very, very windy. This is Patagonia, after all, and we're camping on an ice cap.

The Southern Patagonian Ice Cap is a great ocean of ice that sweeps west from the coast of Chile to the border of Argentina. It is one of the largest expanses of frozen water to be found outside the polar regions, nearly 350km long and at times 90km wide. Home to some of the most extreme weather conditions in the world, the smooth surface of the ice cap allows storms generated deep in the Pacific Ocean to race unimpeded and gather momentum before slamming into the Southern Patagonian Andes with a force generally uncommon in the northern hemisphere: apocalyptic.

Nearly 170km of these Southern Patagonian Andes have been designated as the Los Glaciares National Park, a collection of heavily glaciated, sheer-sided peaks that rise steeply out of the vast semi-arid plains that cover the landscape. Two of the most spectacular mountains in the world, Monte Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, are in this park.

New frontier

Access to these mountains is via El Chalten, a dusty frontier-type village nestling in a small horseshoe valley at the head of the nation al park. El Chalten is 220km from its nearest neighbour, El Calafate, which is itself a three hour plane journey from Buenos Aires. By any standards, the location is remote.

Monte Fitz Roy dominates the area, by virtue of its sheer size and bulk. Standing 3,441m high, it soars above the village and its neighbouring peaks, spouting out rivers of ice and satellite crests that overshadow everything except the Torre Range, a collection of needle-like spires 7km south. Undisputed queen of the Torres is Cerro Torre, the Tower Mountain. It rises vertically for 3,128m and is generally regarded as one of the most difficult in the world to climb. That's not because of the altitude or highly technical climbing, but by virtue of its location: standing sentry for the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. Cerro Torre lies right on its edge. Once described by the South Tyrolean climber Reinhold Messner as "a shriek turned to stone", the mountain receives the full brunt of the prevailing weather. The freezing conditions, coupled with the almost constant high winds, regularly see Torre and its adjacent peaks covered in a maelstrom of moisture-laden, boiling storm clouds and coated in a rime of perilous, and at times unclimbable, snow and ice mushrooms.Cerro Torre presents its west face directly to the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. It is home to one of the most difficult climbing routes on the mountain: 2,000m of vertical - and at times overhanging - rock, snow and ice. Its main defence, apart from the difficulty of climbing and the atrocious weather, is remoteness. It can be reached only by those few who manage the ice cap itself and, weather permitting, zig-zag their way south for 25km around a myriad of crevasses to the Circos de los Altares - Corrie of the Altars.

International: no rescue

Circos de los Altares is a deep glacial scoop, rough-hewn from the west side of the Torre range by many years of glacier excavation. Enclosed on all sides except its front by sheer granite peaks and with its mouth facing the ice cap, it is a spectacularly beautiful and at the same time threatening place - there is no mountain rescue here if things go wrong.

Which is what appears to be happening as, with us committed to the ice cap, and camped deep in the corrie, the weather takes a turn for the worse and we are forced to repeatedly get up in the night and dig our tent out of the snow drifts that threaten to bury us in the ground and result in us being tent-bound for three days.

When we're finally allowed to leave the corrie, it takes us nearly all day to travel the 20km south to the nearest exit to the ice cap, Paso del Viento - Pass of the Winds. It is a strangely quiet place, given its name and the preceding days' conditions.

Despite the weather, we reluctantly turn our backs on the ice cap and head off on the two-day trip it takes to descend the glacier, traverse endless moraine, and climb up and down steep-sided valleys to return to El Chalten.

In El Chalten I spent two days recovering from a nine-day, 120km round trip to Circos de los Altares. I had followed in the footsteps of Gregory Crouch, an American author and climber who entered the ice cap during the Patagonian winter of 1999 with a party of companions, set up a base in the corrie, and climbed the west face of Cerro Torre. Like his book said, the views didn't disappoint.

A six-day trek: Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

A final home for a short story I wrote to promote a Patagonia travel and trekking guidebook I had published on Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. It describes a trip onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, one of the largest expanses of ice outside the Polar Regions. (The photos are from a tiny compact camera I used at the time, before I started taking photographs professionally. I’ve included them as I think they illustrate the story well).

The remote west side of Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt from Circos de Altares on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

The remote west side of Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt from Circos de Altares on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

Camping on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap gives me a nervous ache in the pit of my stomach. I've read many, many stories of horrendous weather that can sweep through the region.

Reaching out of my tent, I glanced at the huge expanse of ice we're camped upon. Dotted across the ice cap are huge mountains that sliced out of the ice and soared into the sky. The largest peak in view is the snow-covered Cerro Lautaro, an active volcano. Sulfur fumes rise from its top and mix with the clouds that stream from its summit ridges. The peak is 35km away but seems close enough to touch. Behind Cerro Lautaro there is more of the same - ice and mountains - with no human habitation until the ice cap melts into the Pacific Ocean, 30 kilometres further on.

The Southern Patagonian Ice Cap is a great ocean of ice sweeping west from the southern coast of Chile to its border with Argentina. Up to 650 metres thick and almost 13,500 kilometres square, it is said to be one of the largest expanses of ice outside the Polar Regions.

Icy wastelands such as the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, not without reason, are usually out of bounds to the office-bound adventurer. But short trips here are possible, with the services of a guide, in Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park.

Los Glaciares National Park doesn't have, say, the Himalaya's high altitude to attract the masses. But its mountains rear up out of an otherwise flat landscape. Mount Fitzroy dominates the area, by virtue of its sheer size and bulk. Standing 3,441m high, it soars above its neighbouring peaks, spouting out glaciers and satellite crests that overshadow everything except the Torre Range, a collection of needle-like spires 7km south. Undisputed queen of the Torres is Cerro Torre, the Tower Mountain. It rises vertically for nearly all of its 3,128m and is generally regarded as one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb. That's not because of the altitude or highly technical climbing, but by virtue of its location: standing sentry for the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. Cerro Torre lies right on its edge. Once described by the South Tyrolean climber Reinhold Messner as "a shriek turned to stone", the mountain receives the full brunt of the prevailing weather. The prevailing wet conditions, coupled with the almost constant high winds, regularly see Torre and its adjacent peaks covered in a maelstrom of moisture-laden, boiling storm clouds and coated in a rime of perilous, and at times unclimbable, snow and ice mushrooms.

Most people see Cerro Torre from the east. A feasible 2 day journey takes you from Buenos Aires to El Chalten, where you can step into the famous view found in the postcards all over the park's gateway town of El Calafate. Less common - and a world away in terms of the memories you'll come away with - is to ski out onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap and traverse over the ice cap, to the remote glacial cirque called Circos de los Altares, where you can gape, mouth wide open, right underneath Cerro Torre's cathedral-like proportions.

Not everyone who attempts the Patagonian Ice Cap traverse reaches Circos de los Altares. The biggest obstacle is the weather. Strong winds, known locally as Escobado de Dias, or God's Broom, are generated far out in the Pacific Ocean. Known to gather speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour, they race across the flat surface of the ice cap and hit the mountains with great force. Any visitor to the cirque, or climbing high on the mountains at this time, is at the complete mercy of the weather gods.

Another obstacle to a successful traverse of the ice cap are crevasses, both on the Marconi Glacier on the way up to the ice cap and at the mouth to Circos de los Altares. The largest of these crevasses, 100 feet (30m) across, even has a name, La Sumidero. Crystal clear water arrives into this 'sink; before swirling round and disappearing down a great black hole which would easily swallow a man. Then there’s your pack size. Potentially nine days out from El Chalten requires a lot of food and equipment and you'll analyse the contents of your rucksack like never before. 'Light is right' is the mantra for any such trip but remember, a canny man always keeps his toothbrush in one piece.

Most people will require the services of a mountain guide for the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. You can use one of the local companies or hire one direct. In 2005, I used Pedro Augustina Fina of Argentina. He's a nice bloke, greyhound fit, with a naturally friendly smile. The trick is to slow him down with much of the gear, and to use your gas canisters first. He'll be wise to that now though. Pedro travels each year to El Chalten early, from Buenos Aires, to do some mountain climbing before the guiding season starts. He's been up both Aguja Poincenot and Aguja Guillaumet, serious peaks either side of Mount Fitz Roy and once spent 2 days under the ice cap hiding out the weather, after an ascent of Cerro Lautaro. On a different trip he took me on a partial circumnavigation of Mount Fitz Roy. But that's another story.

I spent 7 days in 2005 traversing a part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. Despite Patagonia's reputation for bad weather, I got superlative weather all week and spent two days enjoying the views in Circos de los Altares. Unfortunately I can't guarantee you'll get the same.