I N V E R P O L L A I D H M O U N T A I N M A R A T H O N
This blog is written proudly supported with CLIF energy Bars and Bloks #FeedYourAdventure
- Total distance: 48km
- Total Ascent: +4250m
- Time: 20h 24m
- Approx. 6050 kcal burned
It’s long been a goal of mine to go for a mega mission between the iconic Inverpollaidh mountains, and what better way than to attempt it with my good friend Tim from Hamlet Mountaineering. Both of us working as guides in the area, it was a long explore of a familiar patch. Moving swiftly from before dawn to after dusk in a non-stop traverse this trip would push us hard. Only one of us would make it to the end.
A wee while ago, we had kindly been sent a selection of energy bars, energy Bloks, a bottle and a hat as a kind gesture toward a grand adventure. I have always viewed nutrition like I view expeditions training, make it quality and go for little doses often. A massive run across my local hills seemed like the perfect chance to use the CLIF Bars which release their energy slowly throughout the day.
B E I N N M H O R C O I G A C H (743m) & S G U R R A N F H I D H L E I R (705m)
Watching the moon set blood red on the horizon, we geared up in the Culnacraig carpark, it was 2am. From Tim’s car, Eye of the Tiger blared full volume into the night. Spirits were high and after weeks of speculating the possibilities, we were finally here and committing to the challenge we had set.
Our plan was simple- climb every mountain between the sea and Suilven, a total of 7 peaks which were: Beinn Mhor Coigach, Scurr an Fhidleir, Beinn an Eoin & Sgorr Tuath, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Beag, Cul Mor and finally Suilven. A route crossed the iconic skyline that rises above the world famous North Coast 500 road-trip. All in all a 48km 4250m beast day. We both felt fit, and both ready.
Head-torches on, we followed the muddy trail toward the foot of Beinn Mhor Coigach. Chasing our torch beams, we swiftly reached the steep slopes of the south ridge and started to clamber upward. Coigach which is famous for its narrow ridge which plunges swiftly to the sea is mountain is full of character, exposure and spectacular views, the latter two shrouded in darkness and mist. In the dark our torch beams fell into abyss either side of the ridge, caught only by the cloud which drifted around us in a gentle fog. We had climbed fast and moving well.
In the darkness with no view to gaze upon our focus was purely on the summit. We tapped the cairn at 3.30am, with a cheer. One down, six to go. A quick detour rose back up to the sub-summit of Scurr nan Fhidleir a ‘short’ 150m climb from the north col of Coigach, before a brutally steep descent north through a narrow gully. Still in darkness we followed in each others footsteps as we picked our way between sloppy channels and loose rock. At last, the faint hope of sunrise was emerging from the darkness- ahead a mountainous skyline was fading into view.
B E I N N A N E O I N (619m) & S G O R R T U A T H (589m)
As we clambered over Beinn An Eoin and then to it’s sub peak Sgorr Thuath, we passed a camper in the col. Even from a distance we could tell he had been surprised to see us, to our surprise we would later meet on Stac Pollaidh- what are the odds another was on a big multi-mountain mission the same time we were!
For the first time since 2am we paused at 6.15 just west of Sgorr Thuath summit. In the next few minutes the sun would rise, so we waited to see what it would bring. We took our chance to take another CLIF Bar, balance on the sandstone pinnacle and photograph the spectacular view ahead and look optimistically onward to our monster task still to come. It looked a long way, but behind us equally and satisfyingly distant already.
To cross Loch Lurgainn Tim and I had stashed a canoe the night before, Tim’s counterpart buisness is in Canoe guiding, and we hope soon to add kayaks to our fleet. For today, the canoe would serve a brief rest for our legs and a convenient crossing over the loch to reach Stac Pollaidh.
S T A C P O L L A I D H (612m)
Probably the most popular mountain in the Inverpollaidh area, Stac Pollaidh is a true ‘pocket mountain’ – what it lacks in altitude it more than compensates for with it’s incredible pinnacled ridge line and world class views. For Tim and I it offered a welcome break from deep heather, a superbly crafted trail running to the summit.
Dosing up on Margarita flavoured CLIF Bloks, we headed for the steep NW gully otherwise known as ‘the climbers route.’ It is often the approach for more technical ascents. Steep and loose the trail brought us to the ridge quickly, but with panting breaths. From here, the ‘tricky step’ was all that was left between us and our fourth summit.
Of course, climbing Stac Pollaidh would be nothing without its famous pinnacled ridge. So our route lead east along the narrow scrambles, a fun distraction to break up a day of swift movement. Hopping from boulder to crag we descended with Cul Beag, peak number 5 firmly in our sights ahead.
C U L B E A G (769m)
A wide col of windswept grass gently took us between Stac Pollaidh and Cul Beag, occasional rocky pavements broke the moors giving a welcome break from the deep vegetation. There was no way around it, Cul Beag was steep. Heads down and feet forward we turned into ‘low gear’ ascent mode, pacing ourselves to endure 650m of brutal incline to the summit. We paused only to drink from the streams and top up our ‘little and often’ CLIF Bar rations. Within the hour we approached the summit, sweaty, out of breath and triumphant.
Looking ahead, the next and final two mountains looked distant still, the thought of being only half way in distance was compensated with the thought of leaving most of the ascent behind. We had already climbed 2600m and 24km, only 1600 and 24km to go! For the first time, our project seemed achievable, we’ve got this! I thought with a smile.
Dropping off the summit of Cul Beag I felt a sudden pang and an audible crack from behind my left knee, and then a sudden spasm shot across my leg. Shaking it off as a niggle, I put the next step forward but it burned deep. 100m further down and I was starting to limp, a gutting realisation now becoming all too apparent, something wasn’t right. For the first time in my life, my hamstring had failed me. I felt fit, I had trained but sometimes luck simply isn’t on your side.
I could see Tim, a qualified Physiotherapist, looking back at me with concern. I knew that this was only going to get worse, and from here onward we were heading further into the wilderness. In my head, I was torn with a deep longing to proceed, I could see the end and my muscles and mind felt strong, but I knew then that this was the end of my attempt. I’m out, I said to Tim defeated and gutted to hear the words as they came from my mouth. 24km, 2600m+ into the day, I was forced to call it.
After some discussion we both agreed it was ok for Tim to carry the torch alone, and with a hug goodbye we parted ways. Tim descended to the north toward Cul Mor and Suilven while I slid south on my bum toward the road.
C U L M O R (849m) – Tim’s Story.
Here is Tim’s Story from here out, in his own words:
‘Yes! Half way and we’re cruising!’ We’d just managed to bag the 5th summit of our 7 summit project and things were looking good. With just under half of the distance left and most of the height already done we were excited about the prospect of the midway point. Cul Beag is the first of the Corbetts on the route and has a gruelling ascent when approached from the Stac Pollaidh direction so it felt good to get that out of the way. Slam in some cliff bars and a healthy prescription of water then onwards to the finish line.
Crack… and audible pop come resonating from Wills’ leg like the bad untoned note on an old guitar, out of place and out of character. He says it’s nothing and hobbles onwards to the col. It soon becomes apparently that the injury is not going to be something you just walk off and it seems to spell the end for Will’s mission. Feeling torn between carrying on and staying to walk/hobble my friend off the hill. I was stuck in the dilemma till Will sort of said ‘You’ll be carrying on then?’ So he threw me the rest of the bars and I was off, sliding slipping and moving a little quicker than anticipated down the steep side of Cul Beag towards the biggest hill of the day, the mighty Cul Mor.
‘Lovely day’ is the standard greeting on the Scottish hills, often in the worst weather conditions, but today on the summit of Cul Mor the idiom held true and the sun was high in the sky. Views stretched as far as the cullins of Skye some 60 miles away as the crow flies. A lovely couple sitting there at the cairn dosing in the sun enjoys the warmth cheered the standard greeting.
‘Right I’d better get going, Suilven still to do’ They looked some what confused by my statement of intent and then asked what on earth I was doing. They wished me luck and got back to sleeping in the sun saying ‘I feel even more tired after hearing all that’
I knew for me the psychological crux was going to be the long slog across bog land with no paths between Cul Mor and Suilven. The distance and the severity of terrain did not disappoint. Knee deep in bog, heather, and golden coloured grass as I sweated my way across the amazing cnocan lochan landscape shaped by geological processes over 3 billion years ago. Following mostly small deer trails it gave me an insight into their lives of running around the hills and also proved very useful, a bit like cairns their piles of joy were left to guide the way for me through the crags and steep ground.
S U I L V E N (731m)
Finally! The base of Suilven and the mountain I know and hold so dear the pinnacle of this whole challenge and the final summit. Right, come on legs you can do this one more ascent. By this stage it has been 37km, 16 hours and I was looking at another couple of hundred meters of distance with a gruelling 500m of height gain. This is it, the top! As I look out over the large amount of distance I’ve just covered all I can think it this is a slightly hollow victory, Will should be here, we were in this together. It’s now 17 and a half hours since I left my car and my mind starts to play tricks on me, is that a rabbit, no just a boulder. Convinced I can hear a helicopter only to find it’s a stream. Walking down to the Glencanisp in what can only be described as the antisocial hours I reflect on my journey the decisions made try to distract my brain from the blisters growing by the minute in a shoes or the rubbing of my bag which has left a stinging raw patch across my back.
A big thanks to Will Copestake for being such a supportive friend and actually being crazy enough to join me (don’t worry I’m sure he’ll beat my time next year). Clif for supplying the CLIF Bars and Bloks needed to keep me going for so long. Laura my wife for walking down the track to meet me in the dark with my one year old on her back and the doggie running down the track.
Was it worth it? Yes, definitely. If asked, would I be doing it again? Possibly not next weekend, I might need a while to forget the stupidity of the idea but yes, I will.