The Mountains are Calling: Running in the High Places of Scotland

The Mountains are Calling: Running in the High Places of Scotland is a new book that explores the sport of hill running.

As well as characterising a sport that eschews commercialism and heralding its characters and culture, the book covers the history of Ramsay’s Round, Scotland’s 24-hour classic mountain run. In this guest post, Jonny Muir, the author of The Mountains are Calling, explains what it takes to be a ‘Ramsayist’.

Ramsayist (noun) – A person who has completed Ramsay’s Round

Ramsayists (collective noun) – The 105 people who have completed Ramsay’s Round

The Mountains are Calling cover

As the minutes ticked down to midday on 9 July, 1978, Charlie Ramsay tore down the lower slopes of Ben Nevis. He crossed a footbridge over the River Nevis and halted by the glen’s youth hostel. The clock stopped. In the previous 23 hours and 58 minutes, the runner had passed over the summits of 23 Munros – Scottish mountains of at least 3,000 feet (914 metres) – in an immense loop, starting where he had finished. No-one had climbed so many Munros in a day; nor would anyone do so again for almost a decade. Scotland’s classic 24-hour round – encompassing 60 miles of rough and wild mountain running, and an Everest-amount of ascending and descending – was born. Unashamedly, the originator called it Ramsay’s Round.

Nine years passed. Others tried; they all failed. Finally, in 1987, a second runner, Martin Stone, closed the circle, and by the end of the 1980s there were a further four successes, taking the number of completions to six. At the same time, 656 people had already achieved the Bob Graham Round, England’s equivalent 24-hour mountain running challenge. At the start of 2000, Ramsayists numbered just 26, with every victory in these capricious mountains hard-fought. Nine of the 20 completions in the 1990s took at least 23 hours. The first winter round came in 2002 – in an astonishing 55 hours. It would be another 11 years before anyone could breach 24 hours in the winter months.

Ramsay’s Round is, indisputably, the hardest of the three classic rounds – the jewel in the crown: the highest, the hardest, the roughest, the toughest, a place of superlatives, a place of devastating unpredictability at any time of year. Today, there are 105 Ramsayists. Even then, the round has never been accomplished in March, October or November. Some years – most recently in 2001 and 2012 – no-one made it around. Of the 105, only five – a hill running who’s who: Belton, Spinks, Bragg, Ascroft and Paris – have dipped under 20 hours.

So what does it take to be a Ramsayist?

The would-be contender need not look beyond the preparation of the round’s pioneer. After switching from the road, Charlie Ramsay ran the Bob Graham Round and twice completed Tranter’s Round. He was highly-competitive in hill racing, finishing the Ben Nevis Race in a time that would place him in the top 10 in recent races. In the six months prior to his attempt, Charlie amassed 1,600 miles of running and walking, and climbed a cumulative 80,000 metres, with much of his training spent in the high mountains of Lochaber rehearsing his pathless route. Even then, Charlie was two minutes from being timed out.

There is no secret to running Ramsay’s Round – 105 people have proved that. It is gained by effort, by resolve, by obsession – and a willingness to suffer. There is no other way it can be done.

In the list of Ramsayists, Charlie is number 1; some 39 years later, I would become number 101. After 14 hours, as I began what is known as the Lochaber Traverse, the eight-Munro stretch from Stob Bàn to Ben Nevis, I was suffering in a way that was both predictable and awful. I was sleep-deprived, weather-beaten, utterly exhausted, frustrated and unable to stomach food. I struggled on, over Stob Bàn, then down and up again to the first of the Grey Corries, Stob Coire Claurigh.

As I touched the highest stone on the cairn, I was imbued with a sense of certainty. The idea of returning to the start within 24 hours – a notion that was preposterous an hour earlier – was suddenly no longer a question. There seemed no way I could not do it. At the time, it was as if a decision was made there – as I lingered on the quartzite crown of Stob Coire Claurigh. The reality was far more complex. This ‘decision’ was the consequence of hundreds of decisions: the many hours spent in these mountains, the thousands of miles over two decades of running, and countless metres of ascending – always ascending. Ultimately, it boiled down to those three words: effort, resolve, obsession – and an acceptance that the doing would hurt.

Ramsayist number 100 is Alicia Hudelson, an American ultrarunner who finished her round some six hours before me. She is another who knows what it is to suffer. As she made her way along ridge and rubble between Carn Mòr Dearg and Ben Nevis, she too wondered how she would ever make it back to Glen Nevis. Again, there was no secret. ‘Sometimes even the boring approach of simply trying harder can work,’ she concluded.

When I spoke to Robbie Simpson for The Mountains are Calling, in the months before he had even gained a qualifying time for the Commonwealth Games, let alone clinched a bronze medal, he offered a metaphor for the sport of hill running – and Ramsay’s Round in particular. ‘If was easy,’ he said, ‘everyone would do it.’

It is not easy – but to be among the company of Ramsayists is not the preserve of a hill running elite.

In 2016, John Parkin, a West Yorkshire primary school teacher, came to Glen Nevis seeking to complete the ‘big three’. His hopes seemed fanciful: he had concluded Bob Graham and Paddy Buckley rounds with just 20 minutes to spare across the two. However, descending Mullach nan Coirean, the last summit on a clockwise round, John realised he was going to get around within 24 hours, becoming the 44th person to complete the three classics.

‘I look at the names on those short lists and see race winners and fell champions,’ he reflected after. ‘I have raised myself to exalted company.’

John Parkin was not in exalted company. He was exalted company. He was a Ramsayist.

photo of Runners on Ramsay's Round

Runners on Ramsay’s Round (Mark Hartree)

About the author:

Jonny Muir was a nine-year-old boy when the silhouette of a lone runner in the glow of sunset on the Malvern Hills caught his eye. A fascination for running in high places was born – a fascination that would direct him to Scotland. Running and racing, from the Borders to the Highlands, and the Hebrides to the hills of Edinburgh, Jonny became the mountainside silhouette that first inspired him.

His exploits inevitably led to Scotland’s supreme test of hill running: Ramsay’s Round, a daunting 60-mile circuit of twenty-four mountains, climbing the equivalent height of Mount Everest and culminating on Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak – to be completed within twenty-four hours.

While Ramsay’s Round demands extraordinary endurance, the challenge is underpinned by simplicity and tradition, in a sport largely untainted by commercialism. The Mountains are Calling is the story of that sport in Scotland, charting its evolution over half a century, heralding its characters and the culture that has grown around them, and ultimately capturing the irresistible appeal of running in high places.

Jonny Muir, author of The Mountains are Calling

Jonny Muir, author of The Mountains are Calling

 

Additional information:

Jonny Muir is a writer, runner and teacher. He lives in Edinburgh. The Mountains are Calling is his fourth book.

The Mountains are Calling is available from Amazon, and other good bookshops e.g. Waterstones

I completed the Charlie Ramsay Round myself in 2016, you can read about my experience here http://fellrunningguide.co.uk/charlie-ramsay-round/

Charlie Ramsay Round

The Charlie Ramsay Round is a running challenge in the Scottish Highlands, the aim being to cover 56 miles, 24 Munros (mountains over 3000ft) with a total of over 28,500 feet of ascent in under 24 hours.

Ramsay Round

56 miles, 24 Munros 28,500ft

Standing outside Glen Nevis Youth hostel on a sunny day in late May I was feeling a little nervous.  The plan was to tackle the “round” with my mate Ian with only limited support; a couple of people meeting us at Loch Treig (about eight and a half hours into the run) with food and supplies for the next leg, and someone at a remote point by Loch Eilde Mor another 6 hrs later, again with food and enough supplies for us to get to the finish.  We would have no support on the hill so would have to navigate ourselves and carry all our own kit.  This also meant that we would have to “manage” ourselves i.e. keep an eye on our schedule, make sure we were eating and drinking enough and motivate ourselves when the going got tough.

a flavour of the Ramsay Round scenery

a flavour of the Ramsay Round scenery on a previous reccy

My main concern wasn’t the physical difficulties of the Ramsay Round but the fact that I’d only managed one reccy of it and had no knowledge of the route through the Grey Corries. This was going to make route finding a bit more difficult and meant that we hadn’t had chance to check out the quickest lines. I was pretty confident that we could navigate the route but we couldn’t afford to spend lots of time studying the map. Choosing a bad line would be costly.  Not having run the first section also meant that it was difficult to know what schedule to use as we had no idea how hard it felt.

Starting the Ramsay Round

and they’re off! Leaving Glen Nevis Youth Hostel (photo Masa Sakano)

We set off clockwise just after midday on Monday (our original plan for a weekend attempt had been postponed by bad weather) in warm sunshine. The forecast was for dry weather and equally importantly light winds. After 15 minutes of jog / walking up the Ben Nevis tourist path we passed a group of lads looking hot and tired who asked us “how far to the summit?” Not sure they believed our “a few hours!” reply!

Things went well for the first few hours, the rock was dry, visibility was good and navigation was straightforward. After Aonach Beag we found a good line down “Spinks’ Ridge” named after the line Nicky Spinks took on a previous round. We were slightly behind our schedule but had heard that it wasn’t a big deal to be slow on leg one and not to worry if we were 15 minutes or so down. However towards the end of the leg Ian wasn’t feeling too good and by Loch Treig we were over half an hour down. Helen and Pawel our 2 support crew were sheltering on the dam wall from the un-forecast rain shower (thankfully the midges hadn’t yet emerged) with our supplies and we were soon wolfing down some real food.

pit stop at Fersit

pit stop at Loch Treig (photo Pawel Cymbalista)

Ten minutes goes very quickly and no sooner was my chilli con carne scoffed than it was time to go again, picking up fresh drink, food, map and head-torch for the night leg.

We’d had the chat beforehand about splitting up if one of us was struggling and so as we headed up the lower slopes of Stob Choire Sgriodain Ian did his “Captain Oates” impression and urged me to press on. That was definitely the lowest point of the round, leaving my mate who was struggling and heading off into the gathering gloom alone. It was going to be a long night!

I hit Sgriodain on schedule and turned my torch on. The good news was that I was back on schedule for that summit and confident that I could make up lost time, the bad news was that low cloud was covering the summit and navigating to Chno Dearg was going to be tricky. I wasn’t looking forward to the next section, I had reccied it and knew it involved a rough, steep descent off Chno Dearg and an awful, steep climb through heather up on to Beinn na Lap. In daylight I had been able to pick out the lines of least resistance but it would be harder in the dark.

Coming off Beinn na Lap in the dark I was trying to run on a compass bearing but managed to get myself into some thigh deep heather with large boulders that hadn’t been there on my reccy! Thankfully it didn’t last long and I was soon on the good track leading to Loch Treig and I knew I could make up time with some fast running. I’d opted for support at the ruin at the NE end of Loch Eilde Mor which meant crossing the river (Abhainn Rath). I hadn’t reccied this bit but had marked the exact crossing point on the map based on a friend’s attempt. Once I’d successfully negotiated this I could again run quickly on a good track to the support point. I was relishing the thought of a welcome brew when my head torch flashed, warning that the battery was failing! I was still a good 10 minutes away from support, track or no track; “Please don’t fail on me now!”

Masa had cycled in from Mamore Lodge the previous evening and was waiting by the ruin in his tent with hot water and my supplies for the next leg. I struggled with my ration pack bacon and beans but the licorice tea was fantastic! I had made some time up on the previous leg despite being solo in the dark and with a grey hint of dawn in the eastern sky I knew that the worst was behind me. I’d reccied almost all of the next leg through the Mamores and as long as I kept eating and drinking I felt I could continue to make up time.

brew stop at Loch Eilde Mor

brew stop at Loch Eilde Mor (photo Masa Sakano)

Refreshed and resupplied and with Masa’s spare head torch I set off on the long haul up Sgurr Eilde Mor. By the summit the torch was off and I’d whacked 9 minutes off my schedule without killing myself. With the night behind me and the sun rising into a cloud free sky I knew that I could do it. It was just going to be a long run, in lovely weather in the glorious Scottish mountains – what was not to like!

The Mamores passed without incident apart from meeting two people!  At each summit I looked ahead and identified my next target, then looked at the schedule and said to myself “No way!” The time allocated seemed impossibly short “It will take me loads longer than 35 minutes to get up there!” But it didn’t, I was knocking time off at every Munro. Feeling strong towards the end I was able to push on and when I managed to take 12 minutes off the Stob Ban split I knew that barring disaster I was home and dry.

Equipment I used:

a selection of the equipment & clothing carried on the Ramsay Round

a selection of the equipment & clothing carried

The route is a mix of different terrain: rocky, heather, track, short grass so for footwear I chose Inov-8 Mudclaw 300 which I knew would cope with everything. My feet were sore at the end and I had a couple of bruised toenails but no blisters. The only time I noticed my feet hurting was coming along the hard track and road at the end – you could possibly consider changing into something more cushioned for the last 30 minutes or so.

Running for over 23 hours with a backpack means that it needs to be comfortable! I used the Montane Jaws 10 which was big enough to fit in enough kit for a solo attempt. Mine is the older version with rigid bottles and I carried one bottle which was easy to refill from streams. The front pockets carried my compass, folded map and emergency phone whilst I adapted the pack by using an attachment from another bag to carry my Garmin Etrex GPS.

I wore a short sleeved cycling top with rear pockets to carry my food for the hill and long socks to protect my legs when in long heather (also in case I encountered any snow patches, again to protect my shins). Shorts were Ashmei 2 in 1 Merino (expensive but wonderfully comfortable!)

I chose the Petzl Nao head torch for 2 reasons; its long battery life and its reactive capability which would make map reading more comfortable (it automatically dims and so doesn’t dazzle with reflected light from the map). Unfortunately I made the mistake of selecting high power reactive rather than low power reactive which meant I only got four and a half hours from the battery rather than the anticipated 6 hrs +. Thankfully it got me through leg 2 – just!

I carried OMM Kamleika waterproofs (top & bottom) and had to wear the jacket (smock) when it started raining towards the end of leg 1. I kept this on until dawn, the deep zip allowing me to vent the smock when working hard. I wore thin gloves for the night leg and carried a buff (not worn). I carried an OMM Rotor Smock as an emergency layer as well as a long sleeved base layer (not used). Other emergency kit incluced a SOL emergency bivvy along with a small first aid kit comprising of bandage, plasters, paracetamol and 2 sheets of toilet roll – not needed! – and a mobile phone. I also took 2 spare batteries for my GPS.

I laminated sections of map, annotated with route notes and compass bearings. Having these back to back meant that I needed 5 separate maps for the whole round.

Ramsay round map

laminated map with route notes

I recorded the run on an old Garmin Etrex hand held GPS (I changed the batteries after 15 hrs) and recorded the split times on both a Garmin 910XT (which lasted about 16 hrs) and a Polar 610 sports watch (non GPS).

Food & Drink

Being unsupported on the hill meant carrying my own food and so was a balance between taking enough and being overloaded. I found on the Paddy Buckley round that I took too much and the same was true this time.  Food for the hills was a mix of Nakd bars, Aldi pressed fruit bars, Cliff Shot Bloks, assorted gels and my secret weapon: baby food in the form of Ella’s Kitchen pouches. I used Elivar Endure and Hydrate Plus powder mixed with water that I found on route and from the 2 resupply points. I ate “real food” at the resupply points: Adventure Food chilli con carne with rice and bacon and beans.  I was planning to have my favourite Bombay Bad Boy pot noodle in the middle of the night but as I was behind schedule I didn’t want to wait for it to rehydrate (it tasted good at the end though!) I had a bottle of Lucozade at Loch Treig support point and cup of licorice tea at Loch Eilde Mor. Water was plentiful on the route. I started fully hydrated and rather than carrying drink from the start I put powder in my bottle and filled it when I got to the Red Burn.

Navigation

This was by good old fashioned map and compass with pre prepared maps annotated with split times, heights of significant points, important compass bearings etc. I also had most of the summit waypoints loaded onto my GPS so that I could confirm that I was in the correct place if needed.  I only used this twice, to check that I had reached Chno Dearg in the dark and clag and to confirm the correct location for the river crossing on the night leg. There was still a bit of snow on the Ben and on a couple of north facing slopes but nothing that caused us to deviate from the planned route.

Schedule

We planned to start soon after midday going clockwise. The thought process behind this is that you’re starting having had a decent night’s sleep and have only been up for 4 hours or so (an evening or early morning start means that you’ve been up for hours already and are starting “tired”). A midday start also meant that we would run the long flat section after Beinn na Lap in the dark. Navigation on this section would be easy and the terrain conducive to fast running, lessening the need to slow down in the dark. Also psychologically dawn is a good morale boost which is more welcome after several hours of running. We were hoping for a 23.30 round looking to start on schedule and pick up time on the last leg. The chart below shows the schedule times and indicates where I was behind (red) and up (blue) on schedule.

Ramsay Round schedule

schedule with split and actual times

Lessons Learnt

The schedule wasn’t realistic. In hindsight I’d add time to leg 1 and take some off leg 3.
Know thy torch! I chose the Petzl Nao for its long battery life – having it on full power defeats the object!
I took too much kit. I could have done away with the long sleeved top and about a quarter of the food.
It is very unlikely that two people running on the same schedule will be evenly matched; one may be finding it easy whilst the other is struggling so it’s good to have a plan for that situation.

Low Point

Leaving Ian, behind schedule and setting off alone into the night.

High Point

Approaching Binnein Mor around 5am and getting back on schedule. The sun rose into a cloudless sky and a little bird was singing away. I felt then that I was going to do it.

Thanks

A big thank you to Helen Smith and Pawel Cymbalista for supporting us at Loch Treig where they waited in the rain, optimistically arriving early in case we were up on schedule! Also to Masa Sakano for cycling in to Loch Eilde Mor at night with a tent, stove and food for both of us (and for loan of his torch) and for waiting for Ian to arrive and lending him his bike to get back to Kinlochleven. Also thanks to Ian Loombe for his company on leg 1 and for encouraging me to press on when he was struggling.

Ramsay Round finish photo

back where it all began 23 hrs 18 mins later (photo Masa Sakano)

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