HOW HARD CAN IT BE?
Find out if you’ve got what it takes to run 29k over rocky, exposed mountain ridges with 2500m ascent in the Mamores
Take on the rocky 29k Ring of Steall
There’s a reason it’s called the Devil’s Ridge. One slip to the left, and that would have been it. Game over. Not just a race DNF (Did Not Finish) but a messy splodge of something that used to be Claire Maxted at the base of the mountainside, between the classically pointed peaks of Sgorr an Lubhair and Sgurr a’Mhaim. Chanting the motivating, yet not entirely fall-to-certain-death-averting mantra, ‘My feet stick to rock’, I scrambled round huge rocky pillars, grabbing at blocks of grey granite, pulling myself along the knife-edge ridge as fast as I dared. At the time I thought this was the most testing part of the Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace (RoS), a skyscraping, double roller coaster of a route in the Mamores mountains in the Scottish Highlands. Little did I know there was a major battle involving a bog, a shoe, and a particularly dry cheese baguette the size of my arm to come.
The RoS is one of four races on the Salomon Skyline Scotland long-weekend; a 29k route with 2500m ascent, the day before the main event, the Salomon Glen Coe Skyline (GCS). It’s a fantastic event if you’re a mountain runner keen to challenge yourself on technical, high, exposed summits, but don’t quite feel ready to commit to the 55k and 4750m ascent of Sunday’s epic race. There’s also a Vertical Kilometre and, new for 2017, a 110k Ultra, each starting from a buzzing event centre in Kinlochleven, the Ice Factor outdoor centre. That Saturday morning, even registration was a thrill, as awe-inspiring British fell runners of the likes of Jasmin Paris, Jonathan Albon and Tom Owens milled around with us ‘normals’. Adding to the glamour, French and New Zealandish was heard from top international athletes like Baptiste Rollier and Ruth Croft from Team Scott Sports, who I was travelling with. With such a star line up, each race was going to be as exciting to cheer as to take part in.
“Have all your food to hand so you can get to it easily on the move,” said Ruth, as I did a last-minute kit faff. “Start slowly at your own pace,” said Baptiste as I jogged to the start line. The gun fired, the front runners sped off, and I coasted along with the back of the pack, cheese baguette firmly posted behind me in my pack, between the shoulder blades like a quiver, ready to be reached for at the first sign of hunger. Soon out of Kinlochleven, we were cheered on by Jasmin, her husband Konrad Rawlik and collie dog Moss as we climbed up a boggy, then rocky,
riverside path to the first peak, Sgorr an Lubhair. Chatting to a charming lady named Janet, we agreed that waymarked, marshalled Skyraces like this were brilliant for exploring the gnarlier mountain parts of Britain in great company and relative safety.
Surprisingly for Scotland in September, adding to that sense of security was postcard-perfect weather, with blue skies and low winds as we reached the summit of Sgorr an Lubhair and crossed the broken, rocky tightrope of the Devil’s Ridge to the second summit, Sgurr a’Mhaim. Supporters, sitting gnome-like at the top of one outcrop, cheered us through, saying, “What a day you’ve got for it; this is the best view of Ben Nevis we’ve ever seen!” And for a moment I was envious of their chance to linger here. When you paused and looked up from the beckoning drop, the reward was a 360 panorama of the kind that photos can never do justice. Vast waves of green mountainside crested with grey rock ridges, layer upon layer, fading into haze at the horizon. The peak of Ben Nevis stabbed at the sky. Ahead, we could see the racers hurling themselves down the steep zigzag slopes to the food station at checkpoint (CP) 5, like lines of hungry ants in leggings.
You might wonder, with a food station at half way, why I had packed such a long and unwieldy cheese baguette. We’ll get to that in a moment, but at CP5, while I hoovered up three Mars Bars, course planner Gary Tompsett explained, “The landslip on the other side of the Nevis Gorge has made the route dangerous, so be prepared for extreme bog in our diversion south of the river.” So I thought, ‘I’d better eat some baguette before it gets too
boggy to eat and run at the same time,’ but I hadn’t filled it with enough gooeyness (mango chutney works wonders), so it was a tad dry and difficult to chew. Hence, I was rapidly approaching the most treacherous, shoe-sucking bog on the entire race, with a half-eaten cheese baguette in hand. Who knew disaster was lurking just around the corner?
I glanced at the extremely useful race-gradient-profile temporary tattoo on my lower arm; it sort of makes you feel like an indestructible robot until you clock that there’s no ‘You are here’ blob charting your progress like a satnav (I give it 20 years). I calculated I had about 30 minutes until the second significant climb on the RoS route, a leg-burning, hands-on-thighs 800m up An Gearanach from the Steall waterfall, made famous by various scenes in Harry Potter. So, I resolved to finish the cheese baguette before then for energy. Worst plan, ever. In the first bog, up to my hip, the cheese baguette got plunged into the mud. I know it tasted dry, but I didn’t want it bog-moistened.
But forget the baguette, uh oh, the climb ahead was now looming like a monstrous beast. As we zigzagged slowly we met the parents of thirdplaced lady Jess Tullie, out to hike the course backwards (in direction, not literally!). Jess’ dad
Alan said: “The winners are back after four to five hours of racing,” We still had at least two hours to go, they must have climbed and scrambled almost twice as fast – how exciting was watching the top athletes on tomorrow’s GCS race going to be? That thought kept me going along the airy An Gearanach ridge, up fourth peak Stob Coire a’ Chairn, and the final twisting, calf-burning ascent to the wind-ripped summit of Am Bodach. Exposed as it was, here I stopped and looked back at the astounding mountains we’d run across, and asked a marshal to name the summits jagging to the horizon. “There’s The Grey Corries and Ben Nevis, the Mamores, and across the glen, the Aonach Eagach ridge the runners will climb on tomorrow’s Glen Coe Skyline race,” he said.
Awesome! I couldn’t wait for tomorrow’s main event. My “Thank you!” to the marshals whipped away in the wind as I ran the final descent. It was a glorious, big-dipping, bog-hopper of a trail, the kind you have to fully concentrate on no matter how tired you are and no matter how much your legs protest. The welcome scent of fresh pine hit home on the final descent through forest to Kinlochleven. Although the Ring of Steall Skyrace had taken 7.5 hours (it was a heavy baguette) I enjoyed every moment and was now even more excited to watch the athletes in the Salomon Glen Coe Skyline the next day. Will you try one of the four races this year?
Technical, high, exposed summits provide an epic challenge – and stunning views
One misplaced step could spell disaster
Hold tight on the ride of your life!