Thursday, 30 April 2015

Highlander Mountain Marathon 2015, Elphin

The break in blogging is, ironically, due to our last mountain marathon experience last year at the LAMM. A post-MM blog was on my mental to-do list for an age, but it felt like it would just take too long to write and I didn't get round to it. It felt wrong to write about subsequent events until I'd processed the LAMM, and this resulted in blogstipation. Anyway, I'm regarding the Highlander as a sort of blog laxative.

My dear in-laws arrived on Friday to look after the kids and found me in a stressy mood, resenting the prospect of a weekend traipsing around hills in dubious weather when I should be tackling my Very Important Work (my diploma coursework is building to a climactic finish; you can anticipate a great deal of displacement activity over the coming weeks...such as, er...blogging). Helen and Willie joined us on the long journey northwards, and their company (plus a tot or two of G&T) massaged my surliness into submission. A phenomenal fish supper at Aviemore nudged me towards something close to cheeriness. Matt drove and drove through twisty wilderness until we reached the Altnacealgach Motel. Yes. Motel. <skreek skreek skreek skreek!>. None of us had a shower the following morning. (NB: it was actually a very decent base for anyone planning a roam around Assynt.)

OCDesque weather-checking informed my choice of clothing. It was going to be a five layer weekend: thermal vest, long-sleeved top, light fleece, chunky cashmere jumper, and jacket, plus waterproof trousers, leggings, long socks, several buffs and three pairs of gloves. Dry base layers plus a whoppingly heavy fleecy jacket were carried for overnight/the next day. I did wonder if this might be OTT, even for an easily frozen bod such as myself, but even Willie and Helen had donned their waterproofs from the start and they're well hard.

After a short mini-bus journey I was shooed out like a recalcitrant pony into the fields at base of Beinn an Fhuarain. I don't remember much of the start because I was absolutely bursting for a pee. After a minute or two of staring blankly at the map and the co-ordinates, agreed with Matt (whose teeth were also floating) to mark out the first check-point and head roughly in the right direction for a discreet tussock. Aaahhhh.

CP1 was located fairly easily, and we headed on up, neatly skirting the summit of the first hill and down towards CP2 at a lochan in the col between Fuarain Ghlasa and Breabag. The weather was "inclement" at this point, as the wind and hail scoured any exposed skin, but protected by my Five Layer System™ I felt smugly snug. Onwards over Breabag, and I started to have a few wibbles. The wind was buffeting my very non-aerodynamic form, the rocks were rocking underfoot and the cliffs/crags looked scary in the low cloud. I reminded myself that this was meant to be fun.

We took the lower (but longer and arduous) route past Conival and slogged up a gully towards a rocky outcrop on Beinn an Fhurain (wait a humdinging minute....there are two identically named hill in close vicinity! Gaels: be more imaginative!). We bumped into Alex and Liam en route to CP3, and we had a brief chat. I marvelled at Liam's frosted barnet.

CP3 - cumulative time of 4.38 hours. Beginning to despair.

The route from CP3-4 looked easy - a gentle descent to a lochan. We eyeballed a patch of water in the distance and gambolled away down the slope - pretty much the first bit of actual running all day. Surveying the lochan, we tried very hard to make the landscape fit the map. It wasn't happening...Matt figured out that we had overshot and there was a lochan somewhere beyond a hump behind us. This seemed unlikely to me (I can't remember my reasoning), and I felt lost and despondent as we traipsed uphill. My internal monologue abused the rough, rocky ground.

We spotted the lochan and half-heartedly celebrated with a bit of flapjack. Unfortunately the combined efforts of flapjack ingestion and rock hopping resulted in a full-frontal wipe-out, and I went the full Elton John with dummy-spitting. All objects inanimate and, unfortunately for Matt, animate were cursed for a shamefully long time after this point. Phrases such as "I am never EVER doing this again" and "I fucking hate rocks" were uttered ad nauseam.

I continued to wail and gnash my teeth all the way over to and up Beinn Uidhe. The Gaelic pronunciation for this is Ooya. The word doesn't mean anything - it's just the sound people make as their feet turn to pate while negotiating the 3km long boulder field along its ridge. We chose the up-and-over option naively hoping for the terrain to be much easier going than this, and if my feet hadn't been so battered I would have kicked myself on hearing that Alex and Liam's choice to traverse the hill had been a much, much better option.

A desolate, soul-destroying landscape.

The rocks on Beinn Uidhe were strangely pimply.
The time between CP4 and 5 was nearly two hours, which says it all really. It did include a Snickers in the col between Ooya and Glas Bheinn though (OMFG...<dribble>...hubbahubba...this is the best thing I've ever eaten!!).

Waterfall being blown upwards.

Morale rose as we picked off CP6 in a mere 19 minutes, and zipped around to CP7 in 48 minutes. Suddenly we were on the home straight! We tootled off the hill towards base camp feeling pretty strong and reminiscing about our horrific 10 hour day 1 at the LAMM. We felt significantly less trashed than then, having spent a mere 8.44ish hours out in the hills.

Socks on the warm air pipe...steamy.
The overnight camp by Loch Assynt was pretty enough, but the intermittent hail showers and my chilly weariness meant that I saw little of it, preferring instead to loiter in the marquee (Beer! Pasta! Tea! Shortbread!), and later in the snug confines of Jasmin and Konrad's bijou tent. For the avoidance of doubt, JasRad were away storming around the Fellsman, not squidged in with us. The <1kg tent was a marvel of engineering and withstood a fairly windy night, secured by pegs hardly bigger than a hairpin. You do need to be on very good terms with your tent-pal, mind you, and not be averse to waking with their nose rammed against your eyeball. After a second supper, a snifter of Willie's whisky and a soupcon of his pasta 'n Bisto cheese sauce (*so* much better than it sounds - tasty and solidly warming), Matt and I hunkered down for the night. In hindsight, we should have slipped our lightweight sleeping bags into our survival bags, but instead spent the night slightly too cold (but not quite cold enough to properly get up and rectify the situation.

I dozed restlessly, half-listening to the rain/hail on the tent, and a neighbour happily snoring. I assumed it was Willie, but he too had a sleepless night as his kip-mat required reinflating every half an hour. Predictably this prompted a multitude of Gibsonesque jokes involving various combinations of the words "pumping", "Helen", and "keeping me up all night".

The next morning, some sights were prettier than others...
Breakfast consisted of double-strength Malteser hot chocolate plus coffee, "Expedition Food" porridge and an egg roll. We headed off to the start in our nice dry socks, only to be faced with a river crossing. Bah. Not that it made much difference as the first half hour at least was spent sloshing through swamp on the way to Canisp. With CPs 1 and 2 under our belts, and some nice dry squeaky snow underfoot, I was all set for a yomp to the summit, but the lack of sleep, caffeine, and generous breakfast were sapping Matt of his usual joie de vivre, so we took it easy.

The start :-(

The plan was to skirt around just shy of the summit, and head down the ridge on the other side to CP3. We got nearer and nearer the summit, and couldn't see an obvious exit point to traverse. We ended up at the summit and thought ah well, we'll just keep heading forward down the ridge. A peek over the crags past the summit resulted in a resounding Nope. We dithered for a bit wondering what to do and headed back down the way we'd come thinking we must have missed the "exit". More dithering, and we headed back up to the summit again, which meant that we'd bagged Canisp unnecessarily, twice. Eventually we figured out that we had been aiming slightly in the wrong direction (an error that would have become apparent in seconds if I'd bothered to take a bearing at the top). We tottered down off the summit and off along the snowy and somewhat precipitous shoulder.

The section from Canisp to Suilven was relatively fast-going (I think we might even have hit the heady pace of 3 miles and hour!), and even included a section of track. This meant I was able to look up occasionally and enjoy the view as thick snow fell silently in the still air. It was really quite beautiful, but a shame that neither Canisp nor Suilven were visible in all their pointy glory. CP4 was bagged and we headed up the steep gully to the "nick" in Suilven's ridge. We saw Alex and Liam around this point, making great progress as they'd left an hour after us in the chasing start, as leaders in the B Class. It was a long, steep pull to the top, and I had to silence the Michael Buerk voiceover in my head as I wondered if I might suddenly find myself paralysed with fear, clutching the vertiginous, slippery boulders. The reality check was in seeing other teams skipping nonchalantly back down this section.

The gully up Suilven. Much bigger and steeper than it looks - honest.

With no rewarding view at the top, I gingerly picked my way down the other side. Matt waited patiently as I experimented with bum-sliding and the reverse crab. There seemed to me a queue of folk behind me, but none of them wanted to overtake when offered. Maybe they were enjoying the entertainment.
Controller Alec Keith at CP5. Barmy.
Once off Suilven, I realised that I had given scant attention to the rest of the course. There weren't any dramatic peaks to worry about, just a lot of humpy bumpy undulations and wateriness. CP6 was nabbed fairly quickly, but the ground was very boggy and tussocky and I'd expended quite a bit of energy pushing over it as fast as I could. I think I was hoping brute force would see us back at the finish pretty quickly. However, the humpy bumpiness, water-logged ground, and the confusing proliferation of lochans made navigation from CP6 to CP7 desperately hard work. There are no photos from from CP5 to the finish, which indicates how little fun I was having.

At one point we were looking out over a small loch with what seemed to be a large island in it. There were no islandy lochs on the map. At this point the penny also dropped that we actually had a total of nine CPs to cover today, rather than eight (I really hadn't been paying much attention, and had devolved all decision making to Matt at this point). I felt very demoralised, and low on energy. We'd had a  caffeine gel on the way off Suilven, but it didn't seem to have worked at all. I shovelled in a couple of flapjacks and tried to mentally regroup. I was all for sinking into the boggy tussocks and waiting for the gentle embrace of death, but Matt steered us back on route. Syrupy-oaty goodness started to course through my veins, and lo! a (sort of) path materialised. Spirits lifted as we trundled towards CP7 and slumped again as Matt noticed we'd overshot our turning, requiring a minor backtrack, plus some sheepish hellos *again* to a B class pair whom we had repeatedly chased, overtaken, and then fallen behind due to mis-navigation.

Matt's map-reading prowess came to the fore however with a very neat route to CP8. I could hardly believe we were nearly done, and had to triple check the CP code, suspecting that after all the slogging around this one had just been too easy. Happily, it was all legit and we headed for CP9 at the finish. As Elphin appeared in the distance we realised that, cruelly, it was going to require a climb from the loch up the tarmac road. We were back just in time to catch the end of the prize-giving, and after pasta, tea and shortbread, we collected the car and parked up to see Helen and Willie come in after their gruelling 47 mile weekend. Having snowed and hailed for much of the weekend, the weather now cleared to blue skies and sunshine, and we contentedly admired Suilven and the other snowy peaks from the comfort of our warm car.

Willie capitalising on the "kissing" gate.
White-out on the pinkie.
So, the Highlander: 35+ hellishly slow miles, a terrible night's sleep, face scoured by wind and hail, dubious food, chillblains, cankles, and many, many moments of seriously questioning my life choices. Will I be back next year? In the quavering words of Ed Milliband, "Hell yeah".