On Saturday 28th January, Durham-based runner Andy Berry set a new winter record on the Tranter Round. Running solo and unsupported, Andy, 37, completed the challenging round of Lochaber hills in just 13 hours 45 minutes (and 18 seconds if you're counting), beating local legend Finlay Wild's 2018 record of 14:24:48 by a convincing margin of around 40 minutes.
"It was a spur of the moment thing" Andy tells us. "I only fully committed to trying on the Wednesday before, when I saw the weather window was there. It was pure luck that everything fell into place for me as it was a total last minute scramble to put it together."
"I decided to go as early as I could face as the weather was only meant to get worse through the day, and ended up leaving Glen Nevis youth hostel at 3.24 am."
What is a winter Tranter Round?
Named after Philip Tranter, who completed the first round in 1964, the 58km route (ascent around 6000m) visits 18 Munros in a gruelling loop around the the Mamores, Grey Corries, Aonachs, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis.
The route was later extended by Charlie Ramsay to create a challenge comparable to Lakeland's Bob Graham. But as a sub-24-hour goal even the original Tranter remains a formidable round, including four of Scotland's 4000-foot peaks and several sections of narrow ridges that become mountaineering terrain in winter conditions. To qualify as a winter round it has to be done in the winter months, but of arguably greater importance to the spirit of the challenge is the presence of true winter conditions on the ground.
Bettering Finlay's time of 14:24 may have seemed a tall order, but Andy didn't actually begin with a record firmly in his sights.
"I set out for an adventure and wasn't aiming for anything in particular" he says. "I was just totally engaged with my day and in the groove of working hard and moving safely."
"If conditions allowed it then a fast time was a possibility but the chance I would face a challenge that was beyond me was also there. In my head I was thinking push hard where safe, take my time when needed and enjoy my day."
"Conditions are everything with winter rounds and anything can happen, you have to trust in your skills to be able to get you out of trouble and be ready to back off and go home if it's not your day."
In the event the weather gave him a bit of everything, but not too much of it to slow things down. And underfoot, the weekend's hard-frozen ground on the Scottish hills proved ideal for fast travel, with enough cover of firm neve to smooth out the many rubbly sections on the ridges, and not too much soft deep snow to bog down progress. Conditions such as these are arguably essential for a fast winter time, but utterly unforgiving in terms of the potential consequences of a slip or trip on steeper terrain.
"On the higher ground the consolidated snow provided great running and the ridges were just spectacular when you could run right on the tops of them" recalls Andy.
"Some of the steep descents and traverses took special care and I had to cut steps in a few places, which slowed my progress. I had one fall on the descent of Am Bodach in the Mamores that required a self arrest where I was pleased there was a lot of space before any major drop."
Though keen on scrambling and indoor bouldering, it may come as a surprise that Andy doesn't have a mountaineering background. While he's previously done a winter Bob Graham Round, his experience of the bigger and more serious Scottish hills at this time of year was limited.
"I've spent time in the Lake District in snow and ice" he says "but Saturday was an eye opener on the scale difference in winter between the Highlands and the Lakes. But I have watched The Alpinist whilst running on the treadmill a stupid amount of times so I just harnessed a bit of my inner Marc Andre Leclerc!"
"But you do need a much more switched on mindset in winter. One slip might have far bigger consequences."
Well known grade I mountaineering sections of the Tranter Round such as the CMD Arete, Devil's Ridge and An Garbhanach turned out to be "fairly OK - fun in fact", but less so was a bit of the route that's often forgotten or underestimated in discussion, the intimidating link-up between the Grey Corries and Aonach Beag. Heading in the anti-clockwise direction Andy did this steep section in ascent, but even so it proved unnerving.
"This was without doubt the most danger I felt all day" he tells us.
"There was no good option and in the end I opted for a scramble up the rocky ridge and took my chances with the final snow section. The rocky part was good fun but the ascent of the snow at the top wasn't pretty. Staying calm and methodical was fairly key but I needed a sit down once on the [easy] ground above!"
Naturally, for a solo runner in remote winter terrain, safety was a paramount concern. This of course meant a heavier pack than anything that would be carried in summer.
"I had a sensible conversation with my partner about what I would need to survive for eight hours in the event of an accident whilst I waited for a rescue" he says, "and I think that is important. I went with an emergency kit including insulated jacket, extra hat, gloves and dry mid layer to wear in an emergency bag. I also sent text messages at intervals that would narrow a search area."
Keeping the calories piling in is clearly key in these situations. Some runners might resort to ghastly gels, but Andy took a more wholesome approach:
"This run was all about 'real' food" he says, "I eat a plant based diet for environmental reasons so it was things like vegan sushi and wraps with biscoff spread that stood out for me this time. As long as you are regularly shoving something in your mouth then you tend to be able to keep moving."
Knowing the ground also makes a vital difference to keeping up a good pace. Having done a Ramsay Round (which includes all of the Tranter plus lots more) in September 2022 (in a very respectable 17 hours 35 mins), the main essentials of the route were fresh in his mind.
"I'd reccied the Ramsay Round quite well" says Andy, "so had a quite good idea of the lines involved - although these were mainly a guide and the conditions dictated the best lines on the day."
So what would it take for someone to reduce the record time for a winter Tranter Round?
"I imagine if Finlay chose to he could drop it again" says Andy "but also anyone else who has a high fitness level, a good understanding of moving in mountains in winter and a bit of luck with the weather."
With this done, Andy is not discounting the idea of more big winter rounds in the near future, though he has already set sights on a big challenge for the spring.
"Never say never and this was so last minute, so who knows! I've done a winter Bob Graham Round already and do love a winter adventure so although I have no plans for this winter I haven't ruled anything out for next year.
"Meanwhile hopefully I can put together another solid training block and get the opportunity to attempt to add a top to the Lakes 24-hour record in May."
On the strength of his current form, he ought to be in with a chance.
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What a brilliant effort. I always thought Finlay was in a class of his own so it's interesting to me that there's others up there also.