Interview: Glen Coe Skyline, UK's 1st Scrambling Hill Race?

Fell races aren't generally known for being easy, but this summer a new event will push the boundaries further than most, bringing mountaineering to a British race for what may be the first time. Taking in The Buachaille, the Bidean nam Bian range and the full length of Aonach Eagach in a 45km loop with around 4500m ascent, the Glen Coe Skyline looks impressive enough on paper. But it is the hands-on nature of the course that has caused a bit of a stir in the hill running community. As many have pointed out, not least here on the forums, the route covers some very challenging terrain, with long sections of exposed high end scrambling up to about Moderate grade rock climbing. As far as we know this is the first time that a commercial event in Britain has ventured onto such technical ground, unroped.

'It is not meant to be easy, and a course of this caliber has inherent risk' says Race Director Shane Ohly. 

'We are not creating another mass participation fell or trail running event, but rather a world class Skyrunning course for experienced and competent participants. The Glen Coe Skyline is a fusion of mountain running and alpinism where competitors need to be skilled at both disciplines to negotiate the course.'

So what does he mean by Skyrunning; and what on earth is he thinking, staging a race on Aonach Eagach and Curved Ridge? UKHillwalking caught up with him to find out.

 


What, in layperson’s terms, is the definition of Skyrunning?

Skyrunning has been evolving rapidly in recent years so please allow me to explain some background context.

Skyrunning was the brainchild of Italian mountaineer Marino Giacometti, who, with a handful of fellow climbers, pioneered records and races on Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa in the Italian Alps in the early ‘90’s. In 1993, with the support of the multinational Fila as sponsor, Skyrunning took off across the world’s mountain ranges with a circuit of awe inspiring races stretching from the Himalayas to the Rockies, from Mount Kenya to the Mexican volcanoes.

Aonach Eagach - it's not trivial ground for a race  © Dan Bailey
Aonach Eagach - it's not trivial ground for a race
© Dan Bailey

Giacometti’s term ‘Skyrunning’, as the name suggests, is where earth and sky meet and that is precisely what a classic Skyrace does; race along the ridges and mountain tops.

"The Glen Coe Skyline is pitching itself at the very top of the pyramid in terms of technical difficulties and seriousness of the terrain"

Marino Giacometti’s vision didn’t stop there and in 1995 he founded the Federation for Sport at Altitude (FSA) to address the need for rules to govern the sport and generally manage this fast-growing discipline, which today counts some 200 races worldwide with around 30,000 competitors from 54 countries. Today, the sport is managed by the International Skyrunning Federation, which took over from the FSA in 2008.

There is a World Series, Continental Series and many National Series and three classes of races including: Sky (typically less than 45km), Ultra (typically greater than 45km) and Vertical Kilometer (one kilometre of ascent). Both the Sky and Ultra category races have very significant ascent of many 1000s of metres.

Within this International collection of different races there is great variety in the technical nature and terrain. It would be fair to say that the Glen Coe Skyline is pitching itself at the very top of the pyramid in terms of technical difficulties and seriousness of the terrain.

It is important to realise that the standard within international mountain running has progressed rapidly in recent years and this has been driven to a large extent by the explosion of popularity in Skyrunning. The most challenging Skyraces have moved far beyond what the lay person would consider a typical fell or trail race as seen in the UK.

The Glen Coe Skyline is part of the UK Series in 2015.

On the pinnacles of Aonach Eagach  © Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com
On the pinnacles of Aonach Eagach
© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com, Oct 2009
A deserted Curved Ridge in the summer holidays?!  © carter4505
A deserted Curved Ridge in the summer holidays?!
© carter4505, Aug 2012

Has a race this technical ever been staged in the UK before, to the best of your knowledge? And what about overseas?

In the UK, no. But abroad, races like the Tromso Skyrace, Dolomites Skyrace, Trofeo Kima and the 3 Refugios all have very technical sections that would be equivalent in nature and risk to the terrain encountered on the Glen Coe Skyline route.

What particular challenges does the inclusion of scrambling throw up for you as the organiser?

There are many challenges but the safety of the event staff and competitors is always my first consideration and I will talk more about the management of risk further on. From an organisational and logistics perspective, the big challenge is marking the route.

There will be two routes, the primary route and a bad weather route, and the plan is to wait until the last possible moment (so that we make our decision based on the best weather forecast) and then to use multiple teams of very experienced people to mark overlapping sections of the route.

Of course, there are many other logistics to deal with as well to ensure that the event runs smoothly!

What is the ideal skill set for a prospective competitor?

Clearly, as well as being an accomplished mountain runner they need to have enough experience of technical, rocky terrain that they can solo Moderate standard rock climbs (scrambling grade 3) in all but the most severe weather conditions.

Aonach Eagach  © OwenF
Aonach Eagach
© OwenF, Sep 2011

How many top runners have enough of a climbing background, do you reckon?

Honestly I am not sure, but we’ll find out in August! The thing to remember is that this race is aimed at an international clientele so the potential pool of competitors is larger than just the domestic UK audience. I’d anticipate participation in year one being low and we’ll take it from there.

What are your vetting criteria? The declaration of competence on the race website looks sensible: but how can you be sure an applicant really has a realistic grasp of the demands of this course, and an honest appreciation of their own abilities?

Thanks for describing it as sensible! We thought carefully about that. The vetting process includes the requirement that:

“Aspirant competitors must provide evidence of the completion, within the last 5 years, of a mountain run or race of similar severity to the Glen Coe Skyline.”

If someone needs to ask us whether their running experience is similar in severity to the Glen Coe course then they probably don’t have the right experience to make a judgement about their own abilities.

Competitors must also agree to a very strong statement that emphasises the risks of participation and makes the type of experience required from competitors crystal clear.

We can never be 100% certain that everyone provides 100% truth on their race application form, but in my experience very few competitors lie and those that do are usually comically obvious and nearly always claim to also be ex-SAS! 

Obviously there is a need to communicate the nature of the challenge clearly and unambiguously to the competitors and to do our best to ensure that they understand precisely what they are committing to, and we make this clear in all the pre-event information on the website, emails, news stories and the disclaimers and declarations that each competitor must agree to.

How many people do you think will enter?

For planning purposes I have assumed between 100-200. The higher figure allows us to stress test the event plans as they are, and the lower figure is probably a more realistic expectation.

Dawn...Glencoe.  © JCameron
Dawn...Glencoe.
© JCameron, Aug 2008

Can you describe the provisional route, and explain the thinking behind it? It looks like you’re missing out some of Buachaille Etive Beag for instance – would that just be a ridge too far, even for this event?

Ah… Buachaille Etive Beag, whether to include this or not is one of the questions we have been considering!

Before describing the primary route let me just explain that we have two routes. The primary route is as described on the website and below, but there will also be a bad weather course. We won’t finalise the details of either course until the spring when the snow has melted and we can finish the risk assessing started in the autumn. The approximate minimum distance and height gain for our primary course is 45km with 4500m of ascent.

Gary Tompsett, our course planner, describes it below:

“The route dances along the jagged mountainous horizons above Scotland’s most famous glen. Glen Coe has long held travellers in awe. It is described and known by the characteristic shapes of each individual mountain along its length, and by the essential and ancient passage of the roads below. The mountains tower over anyone that stands below them, or who passes along the present A82 road, necks craning to see the tops."

"This Skyrunning race is based at the Glencoe Mountain Resort (alt 360m) at the foot of Meall a’ Bhuiridh, and incorporates the West Highland Way as a conduit to and from the foot of the mountains."

"The classic triangle of Stob Dearg (Buachaille Etive Mor) is a sentinel to the eastern entrance to the Glen, and backdrop for the event venue, and the first few kilometres. The West Highland Way will take you to the settlement of Altnafeadh (alt 290m), our divergence from the Way and onto the steepening open hillside. Summit Stob Dearg (alt 1022) by either the exposed scramble of Curved Ridge (grade 3 scramble / Moderate rock climb), or by the path in Coire na Tulaich. At the summit, a vast view eastwards to Rannoch Moor is presented. The route then heads south-west along the multiple summits of the Buachaille Etive Mor massif before dropping rapidly into Lairig Gartain (Pass alt 370m), crossing the River Coupall and immediately ascending the smaller Buachaille Etive Beag massif and summiting Stob Dubh (alt 958)."

"Now passing through increasingly remote territory, it is time to descend to Lairig Eilde (alt 490m), and immediately then ascend onto the shoulder of Stob Coire Sgreamhach, before summiting at 1072m. We are now on the highest and most complex terrain of the whole route, and soon reach the summit of Bidean nam Bian (alt 1150). We are considering a dog-leg to Stob Coire nan Lochan (alt 1115m) to enable competitors to experience another mountain spur into Glen Coe – it’s a stunning environment here. Returning to the summit of Bidean then enables descent using regular paths to the A82 road at 90m – the lowest point of the route."

"Above us now remains a stiff ascent to the famous Aonach Eagach ridge, an arête with occasional grade 2 scrambling, and for us it extends west to east from Sgorr nam Fionnadh (alt 967m), over Meall Dearg (alt 953m) to Am Bodach (alt 943m). That is 3km of intricate ridge traversing, with distant views over the coastline and hundreds of mountains including Ben Nevis. The ridge continues over smaller summits and flowing ridges until descending a shoulder to the West Highland Way. Cresting the summit of the path (alt 540m) brings a renewed view of our sentinel mountain, Buachaille Etive Mor, and the final descent of the Devil’s Staircase, an exciting sequence of switchbacks to the A82 at Altnafeadh (alt 290m)."

"The West Highland Way outward route is then reversed to return to Glencoe Mountain Resort and the Finish."

Bidean on a glorious September morning  © JamesRoddie
Bidean on a glorious September morning
© JamesRoddie, Sep 2009

There will be no fixed ropes on the scrambles – so what safety measures will you have in place on the crux sections?

Before getting into this specific detail I’d like to explain my approach to risk more broadly. It is important to understand that I am not trying to create a risk free activity. Take motor racing or cycling for example, everyone understands that there is an element of risk when participating in these sports but very few people would argue that they should be banned because they are inherently dangerous. Within these sports, the organisers take certain measures to mitigate risk without altering the fundamental challenge. For example, both sports require competitors to wear helmets whilst competing but competitors still race around the course as fast as possible.

"I am not trying to create a risk free activity"

For the Glen Coe Skyline competitors will also race round the course as fast as possible - that is the nature of the challenge. This phrase, the nature of the challenge, is very important and I often return to this concept when deliberating the details of an event. The nature of the challenge for the Glen Coe Skyline is to complete a very challenging mountain course as fast as possible, and this will require a combination of running and climbing skills and experience. As the race organiser, it is my role to put in place the logistics and support to make that happen without ‘designing in additional risk’.

The notion of ‘designing in additional risk’ is also important. For example, the route may well ascend Buachaille Etive Mor via Curved Ridge (Moderate) and this is part of the nature of the challenge. However, if the optimum course actually meant that competitors would be tempted or could choose to ascend via nearby Grooved Arete (Very Severe) instead that would be constituted as designing in additional or unnecessary risk through poor or non-robust route management.

I understand that these are nuanced considerations but it is something that both Gary Tompsett and I consider very, very carefully.

Back to your original question: there are currently no plans to have any fixed ropes on the crux sections of the route and this is in keeping with the nature of the challenge as described. However, we will review this decision carefully in the spring and absolutely reserve the right to change our minds! We are considering the incorporation of lightweight climbing helmets, by some method, up to and including the competitors possessing them throughout the whole run.

The danger of a serious accident on this event seems higher than average: does that worry you?

The instinctive reaction of many people to this race is that the risk of an accident is higher than average. However, this is not necessarily correct and I would argue that whilst the consequences of an accident are higher than average, the risk of that accident happening in the first place remains average because of the vetting process, and the advanced experience, skills, care and dexterity that the competitors will possess.

The experience of the competitors themselves, to the extent that they may even choose not to participate, is the single most important factor when considering event safety. My experience at other challenging events demonstrates that, with a good vetting process and clear pre-event information, you can trust that the competitors on the start line are informed, experienced and capable of participating within acceptable safety boundaries given their experience.

I’d like to reiterate that I am not trying to create another fell or trail race, but bring to the UK world class Skyrunning and a course that has world class difficulties. It is not meant to be easy and a course of this caliber has inherent risk - which brings us back to the nature of the challenge.

At all commercial events there should be constant underlying stress about the safety of the competitors and event staff, and the Glen Coe Skyline will be no different. I do not relax until robust event management plans are set, and everyone is safely accounted for at the end of event.

What form will the waymarking take?

The different sections of the route favour different approaches and we intend to use a variety techniques learnt from many previous events including marker tape, stone-weighted-baskets, signs, flags and personnel. All the waymarking will be removed immediately after the race.

I image there is potential for bottlenecking on AE and Curved Ridge, if your competitors are trying to share the route with random members of the public: are you planning to mitigate this in any way?

Yes and yes. The impact that the event as a whole may have on other recreational users of Glen Coe is a fair question to raise, and this was the first question asked by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) who are the major landowner. Gary and I have plenty of experience of mitigating an event's impact on other recreational users and we were able to reassure the NTS that we will have robust plans and processes to achieve this. These will consider timing, directions and interaction by skilled mountain personnel in crux areas. Although the minds-eye and common terminology conjures knife-edge-arêtes, there is in fact a lot of space up there!

As an aside, the NTS are very excited to have the event, and are offering excellent guidance during the consultation process.

While we always seek to mitigate our environmental impact, we understand that we do still have an impact.

Have you or Gary run the skyline in a one-er yourselves?

No. But between us we have experience of the majority of the race route over the years, including multiple ascents/traverses of Curved Ridge and Aonach Eagach, and in fact Gary has been course director of two adventure races that had hill stages on these ridges (in 2005 and 2007). However, one of the reasons that we are delaying final conformation of the route is that we must return to some key locations and re-assess the risk from an event organisers perspective rather than relying on knowledge and experience gained from recreational visits in the past: you just think differently about the competitors experience when you stand on the spot as an event organiser and ask the difficult questions. We also have to be open minded during these safety assessments. There could be route sections that, under certain conditions, are more precarious than the headlining ridges.

I do like the idea of running the entire route myself though… and I’m not the only one judging by the excited emails I’m getting from aspirants!

 

  • The Glen Coe Skyline takes place Saturday 22nd August 2015. Entries open Monday 6th April 2015
  • For more info see the event website

 

 


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18 Mar, 2015
Climbing race without ropes? What could possibly go wrong..
18 Mar, 2015
It would have been interesting to find out more about the "robust plans and processes" to mitigate the impact on other walkers and climbers. Short of closing the route to all bar the competitors, I'm not sure what can be done to cover this. Having a race where competitors are potentially held up because someone's taking a wee while on Curved Ridge or on the Pinnacles on the AE ridge seems a strange kind of race to me.
18 Mar, 2015
I wonder what measures were taken when the AR world championship used Curved Ridge? There's also been a race that went up Pinnacle Ridge on St Sunday Crag, where similar issues apply.
18 Mar, 2015
great article good work Dan. Pleased to see the NTS involved.
19 Mar, 2015
I don't understand all the negativity raised about this event. Sounds great to me. There's plenty of space for 100 or so people to race around Glen Coe, even on the scrambling terrain. I'm not based in the UK so won't be doing it, but certainly would be if I was a bit closer.
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