INTERVIEW: John Fleetwood's Epic New Winter Round

Over 7th-8th January, ultra distance hill runner John Fleetwood made a huge solo winter journey in Scotland's northwest. The Round of An Teallach, as he's called it, clocks up just under 60 miles and 25,500 feet of ascent, passing through some of the toughest and most remote mountain terrain in Scotland. Going non-stop, with no sleep and only minimal support, John expected the circuit to take about 36 hours. But facing inadequate water supplies, very challenging snow conditions and high winds, he ended up altering the route to miss out the planned climax on An Teallach itself.

Overview map of the planned route © Crown copyright 2018 Ordnance Survey. Media 011/18
Overview map of the planned route
© Crown copyright 2018 Ordnance Survey. Media 011/18

I treated it as a mountaineering adventure rather than a long run or walk

On the day, the final total was around 51 miles and 20,500 feet of ascent, and he reached Shenaval bothy after 35 hours of continuous effort. In the circumstances, making the call to avoid An Teallach at that point seems excusable!

Even minus the final two Munros of An Teallach, and the technical winter climbing on the full traverse of the mountain, he managed to tick 14 Munros and some challenging mountaineering ground in the Beinn Deargs, Fannaichs and Fisherfield, visiting: Eididh nan Clach Geala; Meall nan Ceapraichean; Cona' Mheall; Beinn Dearg; Beinn Liath Mhor Fannaich; Sgurr Mor; Sgurr nan Clach Geala; Sgurr nan Each; Sgurr Breac; A'chailleach; Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair; Beinn Tarsuinn; A'Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mor.

John even managed to find the wherewithal to shoot this short film as he went (with some help from local guide Tim Hamlet):

When it comes to unfeasible winter solo rounds, spiced with a bit of mountaineering, John has plenty of past form. Here's an article on his Winter Broxap Round; here he tackles off of the Torridon peaks in one winter day; and here's a film he shot while making the 60+mile circuit of the Glen Strathfarrar Munros:

To find out how he fared on the Round of An Teallach, and to get some insight into what it's really like to be so far out there, alone, for so long, we caught up with John for a Q & A session:

UKHillwalking: What sparked the idea for this particular route, and how long had you been considering it?

John Fleetwood: I love poring over maps and this is where most of my inspiration comes from. I first did this as a summer round five years ago and had thought about a winter completion for the last year or so.

Wind chill and spindrift - challenging conditions for a solo epic © John Fleetwood
Wind chill and spindrift - challenging conditions for a solo epic
© John Fleetwood

What sort of planning goes into a journey like this?

It's less about planning for me and more about getting my head in the right space. Having done lots of these I know what's ahead and it's pretty daunting, so I need a period of psyching myself up to dealing with the inevitable challenges. The planning itself is mostly about working out weather windows and where not to be in the dark. Doing these things solo or largely solo makes planning a lot easier as it enables you to be much more flexible and to take advantage of any good weather. I like to be spontaneous, so this style suits me.

How much of the route was new to you, and what difference does it make being familiar – or not – with the ground?

I love exploring, so don't like to know the route too well. It's the antithesis of highly scheduled ultra runs, where each leg is carefully recced and timed. Clearly, I'd done it all in the summer before and I'd also done An Teallach in the winter a few times as well as the Fannaichs and Beinn Dearg, but this was years ago. Knowing the route makes most difference in the dark as it can be very confusing. Not recceing the route makes it quite likely that you will go wrong and not find the optimal ways, especially in the dark; but it also means you get the surprise of a new view or an unforeseen delight.

The pace was very much dictated by the underfoot conditions. On the tops of the Fannaichs with tracks to follow, it was better, but after that it was tortuous. At times it felt like high altitude mountaineering

Dawn in the Beinn Dearg range © John Fleetwood
Dawn in the Beinn Dearg range
© John Fleetwood

You always seem to go solo on these things: can you explain the attraction in that approach?

It's a much more intense experience where you can really become part of the landscape. There's no-one to distract you from soaking in what you are experiencing and you take in everything around you. It's also a true test of character where it's all down to you.

Soloing these big remote winter rounds is clearly the most committing way to do them – what steps do you take to mitigate any risk?

I take much more kit than if I were fully supported and treat it as a mountaineering adventure rather than a long run or walk. I'm also very mindful of the need 'to look to each step' as Whymper said, and to be aware of the consequence of a slip and to make sure I don't. That means taking a lot more care than I might otherwise and focusing hard in the middle of the night when it's easy to drift off. But at the end of the day, it is committing - there's often no mobile reception for most of the route, and an accident would be potentially very serious. On this occasion I borrowed am InReach beacon so I could send a message with the grid reference even when there was no mobile reception.

Sunset in the Fannaichs - a long night awaits © John Fleetwood
Sunset in the Fannaichs - a long night awaits
© John Fleetwood

What did you wear on your feet?

Inov8 Mudclaws and Kahtoola ¾ inch steel crampons.

How about clothing and equipment?

I wore a 200g Merino top, very thin wool jumper, Rab down jacket, Paramo jacket, balaclava and hat, gloves from the market, waterproof mittens, Lowe Alpine mountaineering trousers, thin waterproof trousers and waterproof socks.

I carried a survival bag, 250g axe, walking poles, head torch x 2, Locator beacon, mobile phone, RX100camera, compass, 4 wraps, 10 bars, Christmas cake, homemade date slice and flapjack, chocolate covered coffee beans, dates and sugared ginger.

Ground and weather conditions are clearly utterly pivotal to success, safety, and even making any progress at all – so how was it this time?

The first day started off with fantastic clear skies and little wind and then clouded over and the wind picked up with blowing spindrift in places. The first half of the night made for difficult navigating as there was no moon and I couldn't see the shape of the hills. The next day started fine but got windier, until it was probably gusting over 60 miles per hour on the tops at the end of the day. It was very cold throughout with any exposed flesh needing covering up pretty quickly. The predicted windchill was -18 degrees C pretty much throughout. Ground conditions were very demanding. I followed footsteps for about 20% of it. The rest was mind numbing Good King Wenceslas stuff, except that the snow wasn't that crisp or even. There was lots of soft slab, soft breakable crust and bits of neve which made for relentless trail breaking over tens of hours. It's okay for a bit, but I find that this turns my legs to jelly after a while, making the descents slow and wobbly.

I was left with 0.5 litre of water for the next 22 hours...

Did you met any other people along the way?

Two ski tourers near the road and one person on Sgurr Mor. Apart from that, there was no sign of anyone.

What level of logistical support did you line up?

Local guide Tim Hamlet was on hand doing some filming, and gave me a cup of tea when I met him - but apart from that didn't really provide logistical support. The intention was that I would meet him at the col before Sgurr Bhreac where he would give me hot drink. I was rather relying on this as I didn't have a stove and there was no water available once I left the road. I could see his light at the col and I thought he'd seen my torch on the way up to Sgurr nan Each, but it later transpired that he wasn't sure and got so cold waiting around that he went down and I was left with 0.5 litre of water for the next 22 hours. There was nothing to be had anywhere as all the stream were frozen over and covered in snow, so I had to survive on 2 sips of water in the last 15 hours to Shenavall. In all I had just 1.5 litres of water on the whole thing plus soup at the road crossing.

How much rest did you allow yourself on the way round, and did you really not stop to sleep at all?

Rest was very difficult due to the cold and lack of hot food or drink. I stopped for 20mins at the road crossing for a hot soup left in a flask, but apart from that only had a few minutes rest at any one time. I lay down in the snow a couple of times to try to get a power nap but it was just too cold.

First light in Fisherfield, day two © John Fleetwood
First light in Fisherfield, day two
© John Fleetwood

The non-stop push has to be a very different sort of experience to a backpacking approach, where you're setting out with the intention to camp or bivvy: can you summarise the differences?

It's a much more intense experience and allows (normally) quicker movement. There's much more of a flow and a sense of journey. It requires more concentration, more focus and of course, a lot of movement in the dark.

The rewards? To come through a real test, to experience unrepeatable moments and to feel an intimate connection with this rugged landscape...

From plodding along in the dead of night, to moments of sheer joy on sunny summits, it must have been a real emotional and psychological roller coaster: can you describe how your feelings changed over the course of the journey?

The worst moment was definitely coming to the realization that Tim wouldn't be there with the drink and that I'd have to survive until Shenavall with just 0.5l of water. Also when I'd descended a steep slope in the dark, only to realise that I'd have to go back up. A real high was the sunrise from Beinn Tarsuinn, both looking back to the pinnacles and towards the sea where a big orange sky lit up ridge after ridge. Also, the dawn on Beinn Dearg and revelling in the privilege of making tracks across a dream-like ocean of sunlit snow.

Slioch from Fisherfield © John Fleetwood
Slioch from Fisherfield
© John Fleetwood

What were the most physically gruelling sections?

Definitely the lower hills of the night. This might look like one of the easiest sections on paper, but the reality proved far different. These steep-sided hills make for demoralizing slogs over a long dark night and counterintuitively, the snow was deeper and lay over peat hags, so I'd repeatedly fall into unseen holes.

How about technical mountaineering ground – I guess An Teallach would have been the 'crux' in that sense, but where else was a bit spicy?

Actually the pinnacles of the East Ridge of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair proved to be the equal of anything on An Teallach – at least in those conditions. In the summer I remember them as being trifling, but in the dark with the spindrift blowing about they seemed surprisingly intimidating. Of course, no-one goes up here – it's probably 10 miles from the nearest road – and the rock pinnacles were festooned in billowing powder. I was a bit out of it at that time of the night and not knowing the route meant that I wasn't sure whether to go right, left or straight over. The small points of my crampons filled up with the soft snow and skittered off the harder snow beneath and with the one axe, it felt awkward.

What sort of pace did you manage to maintain?

I went at a decent pace over the first section where there were footsteps and I could lollop downhill, but once the tracks ran out it was very slow with each step breaking through the crust to the ground. The pace was very much dictated by the underfoot conditions. On the tops of the Fannaichs with tracks to follow, it was better, but after that it was tortuous. At times it felt like high altitude mountaineering. Once it gets to that stage, you can't force the pace, but have to be content with plodding as best you can.

Snow conditions were energy-sapping © John Fleetwood
Snow conditions were energy-sapping
© John Fleetwood

In the event you omitted An Teallach. So what, I think most poeple would say. What, for you, constitutes sucess?

To my mind, this was a successful trip despite not doing An Teallach, as the conditions were so tough underfoot. It was also -18 wind chill for most of it and my feet were cold most of the time. Going solo and in these conditions, it's the little things that slow you up - having to navigate in the dark for instance. Not being able to carry a compass in the hand all the time, each check required taking off my mitts, making sure that they didn't blow away, getting the map and compass out of my pocket and ensuring that they didn't blow away, and then doing it all in reverse. Repeat that a lot of times and it makes a significant difference to your overall pace.

Pushing yourself is obviously integral to this sort of endeavour, but good judgement comes in knowing when to draw a line: What led you to the decision to give An Teallach a miss?

Firstly, I would have had to traverse it in the dark in a very weakened state on my own. This notwithstanding I would have gone for it, because I was able to have a break at Shenavall and get some hot food inside me. With tracks, I could have managed this okay. The real deciding factor was the wind. On the last summit, it was quite nasty with blowing spindrift and it was getting worse. The forecast was for 65 mile an hour gusts and the spindrift would have been everywhere. This would have filled some of the tracks and made it mightily unpleasant. Also despite having had some hot drink and food I still couldn't get warm even dressed in all my clothes, and this was down at 100m above sea level. But apart from the very real safety issues, I just didn't want to spoil the experience. I'd had a really fulfilling time, privations notwithstanding, and crossing An Teallach would have been a nasty ordeal. Just before I got to the bothy, there was a minute when the top cone of Sgurr Fiona lit up a vivid pink. I didn't want to spoil that sacred moment and felt that it was right to save it for another day. I knew that physically I could do it, but to what end? It felt like a success even though I hadn't fully completed the round and I was happy with that.

An Teallach from Shenavall - a ridge too far © John Fleetwood
An Teallach from Shenavall - a ridge too far
© John Fleetwood

How do you think this compares to a more 'conventional' winter hill round like the Ramsay or Bob Graham…?

Having done the classic rounds, I would say that this is very comparable in terms of physical endeavour. The stats are a bit less, but the ground is rougher and it's more remote. I think that it's harder than either in the winter (especially the BG), mainly because it is more remote and less trodden. It's a completely different experience to a winter BG and is much more of a mountaineering trip.

This home made round was clearly a labour of love, not something you did for the kudos or to set a record – so what, for you, were the rewards?

To come through a real test, to experience unrepeatable moments and to feel an intimate connection with this rugged landscape.

To sensibly take on something quite this bonkers clearly demands a lot of relevant experience, and a specialised combination of winter hill skills and endurance fitness. But many hillgoers – whether they're walkers, runners or climbers – will still look at this and aspire to doing something similar. What advice would you offer anyone who's tempted to try an epic winter round of their own (albeit hopefully starting smaller!)?

Try something that you think may be beyond you and give it a go. Be as flexible as possible to maximize weather windows. Be prepared for the journey to take a lot longer than you anticipate and prepare yourself mentally. Take poles to prop yourself up when your legs give way and take the night a bit at a time, not thinking too far ahead. Be positive and know that with the dawn, the embers of hope will fan into flame!

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