Highlander Mountain Marathon

The Highlander Mountain Marathon

by Stephen and Tim Martin (SYO)

It had snowed on and off all night. Our lightweight tent had kept us dry and balloon beds had kept us off the frozen ground. In lieu of bad weather, we had brought the tent extension. The extra 100g was well worth it, especially in these conditions as we could cook breakfast and get ready out of the biting wind and hail storms. Despite loosing 10 minutes unable to find the control the previous day - must remember to read control descriptions even when exhausted - we had an overnight lead of 15 min after a day of exhausting but exhilarating running. With a worsening forecast it was going to be another tough day navigating, surviving and possibly enjoying one of the most extra-ordinary mountain marathons held in recent years.

We had really enjoyed the first Highlander MM held in Strathconon west of Inverness. The weather couldn’t have been more different; sunny and terrain marvellous, been technical and fast we had been doing 12.5min/km over Scottish mountains!  So we moved up to the C class and were excited to hear that the 2008 event was to be held in Torridon, possibly one of the most spectacular areas in the highlands.  As the weekend approached weather warnings of an artic blast with snow falling across the country raised the levels of anticipation and ensured that this was going to be a challenging weekend.  We drove up on Friday under clear skies - isn't it always the case? and even had time to get in a quick rock climb on the lower flanks of Ben Nevis. Fortunately, with a friend’s house just 40mins from Torridon we spent a warm pre-race night oblivious to the gale that raged outside.  As we drove into Torridon at first light the hills were resplendent in their newly acquired winter coats. The organisers were concerned since many of the controls would now be snow covered; would the competitors find them? Were poor weather courses required? Patches of blue sky and bright sunshine settled nerves and 86 two people teams were transported by bus to various starts south of Torridon.  One concession was we were given our 1:40000 maps to mark up during the journey so no excuses for making any mistakes.  As we climbed up through the forest to our start it was clear that the courses were going to be tough.  Fortunately the wind was not strong, so we opted for just a thermal top and waterproof, aiming to keep warm by not stopping. After a final check we were off and soon encountered the first of many river crossings, which ensured that our feet stayed wet for the entire course. The first control was on the snow line and thereafter we were above it until we descended nearly 6 hrs later to the campsite.  Navigation varied between easy and hard, depending if you were in or out of the frequent snow showers that raced cross the competition area all day.  Compasses were in frequent use and Tim’s good eyesight was often required to spot the orange and white flags against a white background. Kites cannot be hung high as they would never last long in strong winds, so they are often placed on the ground and held down with rocks.  Most of the problems were with route choice, and with all well planned courses there were some difficult route choices. The snow covered ground gave away little information about what the underlying terrain was like. One straight line choice had us stuck on top of a series of unmarked snow and ice covered cliffs. There was a grassy chimney cutting through the cliffs, but the seriousness of the situation meant we took the safe option and lost loads of height in order to get round the bottom of the cliffs to then regain it as we climbed up to the next check point. This is one of the challenges using the OS 1:40000 maps where crags are not marked accurately and may or may not be passable.  Considering we were one of the last two to start, we didn’t see many teams which only highlighted the remoteness of our situation. Traversing up to the courses high-point we were engulfed in a white-out. By this stage, hands were frozen and we really needed to get over to the other side of the pass and start our descent. I was proud of Tim’s ability to keep going in such difficult conditions but he was well aware of the dangers of stopping in such an exposed place. The snow made the rocks extremely slippy and we regularly fell over. We were relieved to find the final high controls easy, taking the slightly longer but safer approach; this was no place to be hanging around. With renewed vigour we descending quickly to below the snow-line and as the storm finally moved away it revelled the stunning scenery again.  As we lost height, the temperature noticeable increased and soon we were jogging into the over night camp on the shores of Loch Coulin. With the tent up, dry clothes on and food cooked, it was off to relax in the warm marquee, get some more food and hear the stories from the other competitors and not surprisingly, there were plenty of them. It was not until late evening that all the teams were accounted for, many having retired back to Torridon so that everyone could enjoy the Ceilidh.

The chasing start on Sunday was at 7am in the marquee. Today the snow was deeper and weather forecast worse, but with more clothes on we set off in high sprits up into the mountains for a slightly shorter course, by 2km, but conditions ensured that most teams were out longer. The snow certainly was deeper and breaking through the crust ensured slow but steady progress.  As we crossed a valley, we caught sight of a chasing team and tried to hold them off during a long and difficult descent. We reached the checkpoint first but they were closing rapidly. We headed off back up into the competition area on what was the longest leg of the day at around 1½ hrs. Again there were route options, direct with more height or round between the cliffs. We slowed to take on some food and drink and discuss the route options, finally deciding for the longer route but with a better attack point. After yesterdays bad luck with the cliffs we got the optimal route through the cliffs straight into the control. There had been some complaints the previous day that it was hard to find so the control had been re-checked and made more obvious during the morning, by hanging it from a 30cm high stake - what dedication. It was downhill from here past a manned control who told us one team had already gone through so we were unsure of our position. We just hoped it would by the A class elite team of Tim Higginbottom and Chris Near who, despite having the longest course, were posting amazingly quick times for the conditions. We had two major river crossings, both nearly waist deep, before the final 2km section along the flanks of Liathach. For some unknown reason the planner sent almost all the courses 150m up to a control then a difficult contouring section across deep heather and rocks to find the lonesome pine. In our exhausted state this was a really hard grind. For the first time since nearly being caught, we were surrounded by teams probably on the score class but just to be safe we needed to get in front of them, which was a tough call. From the pine it was all downhill and we finished just before the weather really started to close in, with heavy wet snow falling. This really reduced visibility and was going to make it very difficult for the majority of competitors. On finishing we were told that the 2nd place team overnight had retired and so we could have eased off a little, especially if we had know that the team that almost caught us were the leaders on the score class, but that’s racing.

Prize giving was delayed twice due to the lack of finished teams. Clearly everyone was finding the conditions difficult, except Tim and Chris who again finished way ahead of anyone else; maybe they had tiny skis hidden in their tiny rucksacks.  As we headed home through the snow storm, teams were still finishing. Overall times of 17 hours for some of the teams revealed just how resistant some of the competitors were. Congratulations to the team of ‘hands-on-events’ for their brilliant organisation, planning and bravery. Despite the weather and conditions, there were no major incidents as all the competitors displayed great mountain craft by either completing their various courses or choosing to retire safely. The weather was not horrendous, but very challenging and who will ever forget those views.