Keri Wallace - Winter Tranter Round FKT

© Keri Wallace - Girls on Hills

Earlier this month Lochaber-based running guide Keri Wallace fulfilled a long-held ambition to complete Tranter's Round in winter, in the process setting a new women's winter record of 21 hours and 5 minutes. "I honestly had no idea it would take me three years of frustration to find a window that worked" she tells us, in this account of a dream mountain run, on which the finishing time came very much second to the overall quality of the experience.

It's shaping up to have been a busy season for Tranter feats, with Andy Berry's winter record coming in late January:

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.

So how does a winter round differ so much from a summer one? And how did Keri get on? Rob Greenwood was itching to find out...

Rob: You've wanted to do the Winter Tranter since 2020, but the journey there has been far from linear, with several abortive attempts. Could you describe the complexity not just of getting the route in good condition, but also how this fits around the other variables in your life, including running a business (Girls on Hills) and having a family?

Keri: When I first decided to try the Winter Tranter's Round, I honestly thought that as a local, I'd be able to swan up there any time I wanted and so would find it pretty easy to snatch the perfect window. I imagined consolidated snow, decent cover, a clear night (with a full moon obviously) and no wind. Ideally it would be a massive high-pressure or an improving forecast to offset my growing tiredness. In reality the windows were fraught with trade-offs, gambles and weather/conditions that were frankly not forecast – you've gotta love the highlands for that unknown quantity!

My very first attempt in 2020 was pretty special – an incredible weather window and a stunning day out but just too much snow. I didn't want to give in, so slogged it out, post-holing round (clockwise) to the Ring of Steall. At this point my support runner developed an injury and had to retire. We briefly discussed me continuing solo in the dark but I wasn't keen on the grade I ridges ahead. Naively I thought 'rather than take the risk, i'll just come back and do it again in faster conditions!' I laugh about that now because I honestly had no idea it would take me three years of frustration to find a window that worked, and to get back to that same point.

I have two children (ages 6 and 8) and my husband works overseas for much of the winter (plus my family don't live in Scotland), so being able to get out for 24h, particularly overnight and at short notice, is surprisingly difficult. To make an attempt I needed to line up multiple friends to help with sleepovers, play dates and pick-ups, making sure the kids were happy and comfortable with the plan. This last part is important to me because if the girls aren't happy, I simply can't run – I just feel plagued with guilt or worry, and give up. I also needed to make sure that neither the kids or I were unwell with a bug or cold etc (which is surprisingly difficult in winter).

After multiple tries, I can definitely say that getting my hill kit and food bags together or support runners lined up was easy compared to all the clothes, snacks and arrangements that needed making for the kids. My colleague Nancy came in more than once to sleep on my sofa, so that I could get away in the early hours – and the kids would race downstairs in the morning to find her there all bleary-eyed. And with everything laid out for her, she would take them to school (legend). It takes a village, as they say!

Work-wise things are quieter for me in winter, but I still had to ask another running guide to step in to free me up, so that I could have a go at the most recent window.

I honestly had no idea it would take me three years of frustration to find a window that worked

Your initial attempts were solo and unsupported, but you switched to a supported style for your successful attempt. Can you tell us a bit about the differences between the two styles and why you adopted one then the other?

I do all my winter running solo and so it had been an ambition of mine to run all of the daylight hours without support (as I had done in previous attempts), but in the end, the window that presented itself was a funny time of day, bookended by high winds and rain. It meant that all the technical sections had to be completed in darkness. I'd previously set myself a rule-of-thumb not to run the CMD arete or Ring of Steall alone in darkness, especially on tired legs. So in the end, I plumped for going fully supported based on the notion that done is better than perfect.

I had one supporter for each half – Al Docherty (first half) and Jess Williams (second half). They were both amazing. Nancy also came into the changeover point to bring hot coffee and super noodles.

I really love the self-sufficiency of running solo and actually feel I move quicker on my own but the flip-side is that I feel less confident about pressing on when the weather is poor. Also, I stop and faff/fuel more with support, which probably results in me looking after myself slightly better overall. With just a single support runner, you're actually still doing a lot of the carrying and decision-making in winter - you're kind of in it together, unlike when you have a team of supporters. I definitely noticed however that towards the end I was following more and contributing less usefully to the route-finding etc.

It's an exciting time for women's running and I do feel proud to have played a small role in the story of this fantastic mountain round and hope to inspire other women to give it a try

I discovered that sharing the experience on the hill with friends was really special. It was definitely fun in places and much less of a sufferfest. Al and I certainly did a lot of smug chuckling and whooping as we ran along bullet-hard snow with a glowing sunrise!

In the end, you said that the support you received not just from people who were there on the day, but also from the local community, was something that provided an extra special - and somewhat unexpected - experience. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

When the project was finally complete, it struck me how many people had been involved in helping it come together over the years. Many weren't event runners but were other mums who were rooting for me regardless. I was overcome with gratitude for each little component. I used to feel really guilty whenever I asked for help (with the kids or with the round) but on the final attempt it had begun to feel like a community effort to bring it home!

For your most recent attempt you were gifted a marginal weather window; however, the timings of that window weren't ideal. What effect did that have on your round?

The weather window was actually too short, but I was desperate. There were gales in the West Highlands on the Saturday (4th Feb) and these were only forecast to drop around midnight. The 5th was a full moon and so a very early morning start seemed a sensible way to get some sleep, while making the most of the lower morning winds. I started out clockwise from the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, completing the 4000ers in low to moderate winds and with a clear sky. The wind speed gradually built through the day and by the time I reached Sgurr Eilde Mor it was gusting around 40mph.

As we climbed the E ridge of Binnein Mor there was a lot of spindrift and snow-devils were whipping into the coire, so we had to don our goggles to make progress. A few times we had to stop and brace against axe/poles and I thought for a while that it might not be possible to carry on. Fortunately, conditions seemed easier (though still very gusty) on the summit and we were able to keep going. I would say that the winds dropped slightly from around 6pm and that made things much more tolerable. On Am Bodach, low cloud settled in and it began to drizzle (it had warmed considerably since the morning), so before long we were soaked. Thankfully this eased around Sgurr a' Mhaim, though the visibility remained poor until near the finish, when we dropped below the cloud.

Overall the marginal nature of the weather window made me feel happier about my decision to run with support. It also meant that I set out with a much better mindset than previously. Instead of expecting a perfect bluebird day and being sorely disappointed, I was expecting the worst and in some ways was pleasantly surprised. It did feel pretty weird though, spending most of the daylight hours on the easiest or lowest terrain.

How did doing the most technical section in the dark actually unfold?

These sections went smoothly in the main – especially the CMD Arete. Conditions made for rapid progress here despite the dark. The climbs up Aonach Mor and down from Aonach Beag however, were on extremely solid neve, and we had to take real care on the steep ground, even with axe and crampons. The consequences of a slip would have been considerable.

The An Gearanach ridge is the 'crux' in winter in my opinion, and on this day it did just as I was expecting and served up a tricky barrier to progress! Jess and I stayed to the crest of the ridge but at one point it was necessary to move slightly down onto the E face. It was literally just a move or two but the snow there was like concrete and very steep. A set of rigid boots and crampons with front-points would have dispatched it easily but as it was, we managed to chop out a few shallow steps to get steeply up and down with maximum caution. I was grateful that Jess is such a solid winter climber, and she was the perfect support at that moment.

Magical though the photos are of dawn and dusk, the reality of a winter round - and a winter round in Scotland - is that you're going to be in the dark for a long, long time (circa 16 hours). What impact did this have on you, both in terms of navigation, pacing and psychology?

Herein lies the difference between a supported and unsupported round. When you're running solo in the day, the approaching nightfall weighs heavy and can bleed your enthusiasm and confidence. With company it genuinely didn't bother me at all. I used a Petzl Swift RL and had plenty of spare batteries, so things were pretty well lit up. Morale was high throughout and we had incredible sunrise and sunset, which was an added bonus. It would have felt very different alone. Darkness can make the ridges feel narrower, snow slopes steeper and drops longer!

The biggest impact of the long dark was probably on navigation (which has a knock-on effect on your pace). Even when you know a route really well, there is a lot of micro route-finding necessary, which is harder in dark than in daylight.

The fastest male times on this round (see Andy Berry) are such that comparatively fewer hours need to be done in darkness, and all the technical ridges can be undertaken in daylight. Going at my slower pace means more darkness, more food and probably more kit too – so it's a bit of a negative feedback loop in terms of speed.

What does a 'winter' round mean to you?

Both my support runners were very experienced mountaineers, so it was brilliant to have them there to bounce ideas off. Winter running is a bit of a fudge, and in these conditions my hardwear was marginally effective at times

From the outset I was committed to the idea of running the round in Scottish Winter conditions, rather than just within calendar window of Dec 1st – Feb 28th (which is what technically qualifies a 'winter round'). This partly came from my experiences Scottish Winter climbing, where certain conditions need to be present for an ascent to be considered 'in condition', but also from an outdoor mountain leadership viewpoint, winter conditions are defined as the 'time when snow and ice prevail, and travel requires the skills and equipment required to cope with special hazards.' In Scotland, winter isn't really confined to Dec – Feb and often March is the best month in the year for skiing and other winter sports. I wanted to tackle the round when the mountains were 'white', and required the use of my axe and crampons.

That's not to say that running in the absence of these conditions isn't tough (it's always going to be a lot colder and darker than summer) but compared to Scottish winter that's a bit like comparing apples and pears. I think it's a nice tradition to honour the approach of the previous record holder and for the Tranter's Round, the male and female records were set in Scottish winter conditions.

Whilst you're primarily known for being a runner, you're also a climber and mountaineer, and the Winter Tranter definitely draws upon the skill sets of both. What is it like to combine these disciplines and what complexities arise as a result of their (at times) conflicting priorities?

The biggest conflict is probably in kit. Part of you wants to take more kit, enough stuff for every eventuality, and also to have the equipment to deal with anything the mountain can throw at you (mainly a set of rigid boots and crampons with front-points, which enable you to face inwards and climb or descend the steepest slopes when show is hard). But as a runner this really slows you down and you end up with sub-optimal apparatus that can only deal with 'most' conditions. I guess you have to run with the mindset that you may not be able to continue and have an escape route in mind than avoids steep slopes.

We were expecting some big, hard snow slopes on this round – especially over the 4000ers. Because of this, Al took the decision to run leg 1 in his B2 boots and bring lightweight mountaineering crampons, so that we had backup if anything became too serious. Ultimately, he could cut steps or assist me if required but in practice we managed fine - though we couldn't take advantage of some of the steeper, faster snow lines because my flexible crampons and soft boots made that impossible.

Both my support runners were very experienced climbers and mountaineers, so it was brilliant to have them there to bounce ideas off. Winter running is a bit of a fudge and in these conditions, my hardwear was 'marginally effective' at times.

Given the extremity of the conditions, how do you go about factoring in a margin for error, be that in terms of timing or the amount of food/clothing carried, just in case something should go wrong?

My winter running bag is pretty hefty (i.e. not really the kind of bag you would want to 'run' with). Even supported, I felt that I needed to carry my own food, spare layers and first aid kit etc, so that I could eat or change easily on the move and in case of emergency (separation due to a fall or suchlike). My support runner carried whichever pair of crampons I wasn't wearing and some gels for me. Jess also carried my down jacket for the night. We had a lot of warm kit and battery life between us, including a power bank and about eight headtorches!

To keep folk updated off the hill we kept in touch via the 'Keep Keri Alive' WhatsApp group, sending a message on every other summit. The problem with the Tranter's Round is that there's no phone signal in Coire an Lochain, our changeover point, so we relied on progress against a rough schedule to decide when the supporters should be in place.

What training did you do to prepare yourself for the round?

I have to confess to being pretty rubbish at disciplined training. Basically, I do a lot of running and a lot of hills. Sometimes together. For this round I had worked at increasing my mileage on the flat but had found it hard to get the kind of ascent done that I would have liked per week (due to deep snow or repeating storm cycles). I know that for me, the Winter Tranter's Round is less about running fitness and more about power-hiking and determination. Endurance is obviously easier at a slower pace; you just have to keep-on-keeping-on as they say! I do a lot of running in the winter mountains though, so I guess you'd say training was variable but specific. This approach means that I'm ready to go whenever the window appears. I don't think it would work to try and 'peak' for a certain date with this kind of thing.

When you're spinning so many plates, it's definitely better to get it done than hold out for an ideal situation. In Scottish Winter that's a unicorn

While it's essential to be physically prepared, you need to be psychologically prepared too. In this respect, what role did your previous attempts have - were they a help or a hindrance?

The previous attempts were definitely a hindrance. On the previous one (stopped due to gale force winds), I had all but decided that it was not the challenge for me – that I had underestimated it, and that it was taking up too much of my life (I do find projects pretty absorbing and had become more than a bit obsessed). The only good aspect was that I had run in pretty much every combination of weather and snow that was undesirable. Nothing on this final round compared to the swimming, blasting and freezing nature of my previous exploits.

What was your mindset going into it on the day itself?

Interestingly, I had decided 'this one is going to happen regardless' in terms of the schedule, so asked to be kept in the dark about my progress. It wasn't until we reached the summit of Shurr a' Mhaim (only two summits left to go) that Jess asked me to guess the time. I was 2h ahead of my guesstimate, which was just the boost I needed at that point! Running without a schedule was a huge pleasure and it was nice to be able to enjoy the round without worrying about pace.

You're incredibly modest, and massively self-deprecating, so I suspect I know the answer to this, but are you happy with what you've achieved (which, just for the record, is extremely impressive)?

Ha ha! I am definitely relieved and super happy not to have to go back and try again. Obviously, I'm a bit disappointed that I didn't get to run a good chunk of it solo (something I was quite set on doing) and I've already had to bat away thoughts of doing it again completely solo (in perfect weather and snow obviously). Erm, déjà vu.

I know my time is still pretty slow by fell running standards and feel a bit embarrassed about that, but I do recognise that it's more than a bit niche, with the winter mountaineering elements involved. As Helen Rennard also said, after completing the first recorded female round, there's definitely scope for someone faster to take a really big chunk off this FKT.

It's an exciting time for women's running and I do feel proud to have played a small role in the story of this fantastic mountain round and hope to inspire other women to give it a try.

You've spoken about imposter syndrome previously. What effect did this have on you throughout the process of attempting the Tranter?

Weirdly I started out with 100% belief that I could do this round in winter (which is unusual for me). It seemed the perfect challenge. But as time went on the demons definitely started to erode my conviction and self-belief. It's hard to keep putting yourself out there when arranging it all is so stressful and you keep failing, time after time. I tried to keep the objective and attempts a 'secret' because I felt a bit of a fraud (not feeling like a real 'runner', moving at such a slow pace).

There were a lot of tears of frustration. In the end it was other people telling me that they believed in me that made the difference. It just goes to show what a big impact your positivity can have on other people, and that something little but encouraging, maybe said in passing, can be the difference between their success and failure.

In winter, the clothing you use is all-important. What did you use?

I wore Powerstretch leggings and inov-8 baselayer with a Powerstretch mid-layer over the top. Over this I wore inov-8 Venturelite jacket and Trail Pants throughout. I wore a combination of Montane Prism Mitts for running and Montane Rock Guide Gloves for scrambling/axe use. I ran with Mountain King Trailblaze poles (though often just one). In the night I added my (old and trusty) Rab Photon jacket underneath my shell.

My axe is a Petzl Ride and I took both Kahtoolah KTS (10-point crampons) and Kahtoolah microspikes. I probably wore the crampons for 20% of the time and the microspikes for about 70%, with only 10% of the duration spent running (low-level) in just inov-8 Roclite boots.

Footcare must also be an issue. How did you go about looking after them throughout and what state were they in afterwards?!

Actually, my feet were fine and there's not a mark on them! I wore these amazing Dexshell Hytherm waterproof socks, which are incredibly warm and comfortable. I had trained in my sock-boot-crampon combo, so was pretty used to how it would all feel. I always apply a little Vaseline between the toes and at the heel to reduce chaffing.

How did you manage food and drink, both in terms of what you took, how you stopped it from freezing, and how frequently you ate and drank?

I find that bars and packets are really difficult to manage in big gloves and cold temps, so I've taken to carrying just two plastic sandwich bags with chopped-up food in – one sweet and one savoury. I put one in each side pocket and leave them flapping out so they are easy to locate and get into in big gloves. They look a bit ridiculous but work a treat. I had chopped-up flapjack and chocolate in one and chopped-up cheese and sausages in the other (I like a lot of fat on the hill). I also carried a few bags of salt and vinegar Hula Hoops, as they are literally life-giving, and Mountain Fuel jellies for the biggest climbs. I drank spring water from the burns, which thankfully weren't frozen this time. I was grateful for hot coffee and a few spoonfuls of Super Noodles at the changeover.

You've now done the Tranter in both summer and winter, so what are your observations about the ways in which they differ (other than the obvious, which is that one is much colder and darker)?

The interesting thing about running the Tranter's in summer versus winter is the trade-offs that affect your pace, and watching how they play out on the day. In summer you rarely have to change layers and there's no switching of crampons on and off. In winter these things add significant non-moving time but sometimes, if the conditions are right, progress can be much faster. Running on firm snow is gentle and fast, and the gradient of the hills can be less, as snow fills in the undulations to give a smoother profile. If the snow is soft or layered however, it can be slippy by comparison or you can spend your day unexpectedly puncturing through a crust and having to recover your stride (which is tiring).

When conditions are thin (frost or rime ice) microspikes make quick work of even the most technical running terrain but give little grip on hard neve or thick water ice. Both scree and bogs are much faster when frozen solid. Powder snow of any depth is just annoying and any significant trail-breaking is the end of any running really.

The advantage of a clockwise Tranter's Round in winter is that you get the snowiest hills with the wildest weather out of the way first. In terms of conditions, anything you encounter after that is likely to be easier by comparison. In summer, most of the fastest rounds are done the other way round.

As a Lochaber resident, and someone that frequently works on the mountains featured on the Tranter Round, you're obviously very familiar with the route. How much of it did you do from memory and how much did you have to do with map, compass or GPS?

We relied almost entirely on memory. We carried maps and compass but didn't have to use them. In areas where there was a lot of snow, and it was dark, we occasionally checked against the watch (I used a Coros Vertix 2) to cross-reference where we were on the slope relative to the trail underneath. The watch was useful for quick checks like this and for making doubly sure we picked the correct line in the dark on very steep rocky descents, like that CW off Ben Nevis, Na Gruagaichean or Stob Ban (Mamores).

Were you to travel back in time, what advice would you offer yourself back in 2020, back when you initially set about completing the Winter Tranter Round?

I would tell myself to run without a schedule from the outset (to avoid retiring because you aren't where you hoped you'd be) and to expect bad weather regardless of the forecast. Ask yourself whether it can be tolerated, rather than whether it's what you'd hoped for.

When you're spinning so many plates, it's definitely better to get it done than hold out for an ideal situation. In Scottish Winter that's a unicorn.

Final (and fairly predictable) question: what next?

I've retired, did I not mention that? Actually I've entered the SILVA Lakes Traverse and the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa 2023, so I must be a glutton for punishment.

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Super impressive Keri! And those stunning pics almost make me want to try one (no chance - I'd need two full days...)

16 Feb

My last visit to the top of Carn Mor Dearg coincided with a guy just coming off the Ben & CMD Arete doing the Tranter Round in microspikes and heavy duty trainers. But it was amazing conditions with firm snow and very settled cold weather. We actually chatted for about 5 minutes which was generous of him considering he was up against the clock.

17 Feb

Cracking photo Sean!

17 Feb

Ballachulish is blessed with a few heros! Well done Keri!

17 Feb

Thanks for your nice comment. A 9 image stitch. Final photograph is a 1.3 gb file, 96 inches wide. I had it printed to 48 inches converted to B&W.

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