UKH

Winter Broxap Round - 29 Munros in 61 Hours

In 1990 Jon Broxap set the record for the most Munros climbed in 24 hours, with his eponymous Round. Covering a whopping 29 Munros on both sides of Glen Shiel and Glen Affric, and weighing in at around 75 miles and 35,000 feet of ascent, it's a true epic. During a spell of stunning conditions 24-26 February ultra distance machine John Fleetwood, a 47-year-old social enterprise expert from Kendal, had a go. Instead of racing the clock he took a leisurely three days, doing it solo, unsupported and with practically no sleep just to maintain the challenge. John, username Full moon addict, is no newcomer to extreme hill routes; check out the blog from which we've reproduced this account for loads more. And his son Ben has an affinity with the hills too, holding the record until recently for the youngest Munro round.


I first considered trying a winter Broxap Round several years ago, but twice gave up in deep snow. With February's fabulous weather and hard snow conditions I was once again tempted, this time with the plan of walking round with full camera kit. The goal was to complete and a photograph the journey rather than trying to run it. I therefore set out with a 48-hour target in mind. I was only underestimating by about half a day...

Ciste Dhubh and Beinn Fhada from A'Chralaig, 227 kb
Ciste Dhubh and Beinn Fhada from A'Chralaig
© John Fleetwood

The moon shone irritatingly through the car windows as I tried to grab a few hours sleep, curled in the back of the Honda. I didn't feel rested. It had seemed a long drive up that afternoon and I was tired after organising a talk the previous evening. Still, the late afternoon light had been spectacular on the drive past Loch Lomond and I was replete, having feasted on stodge at the chip shop in Fort William. The short, shuffling night came to an end as the alarm sounded 3am and the slow process of breakfast in the frigid air began. At 4:16 I set forth, jogging steadily down the first 6km of tarmac in the light of a full moon and with only the occasional vehicle whizzing past. The night was perfectly still, the silvery beams of the moon accentuating the silence of a calm, frosty night.

'I front pointed round, crab-like, aware of the drop beneath, until I emerged from the shady slope in to the sunshine above the pinnacles'

Half an hour later I left the road, not to re-cross it for almost 39 hours. The effort soon produced a sweat, counterbalanced by the stinging cold, but I made good progress buoyed by the moon overhead and a myriad of stars. I reflected on passing this way as an 11 year old and how little I would have guessed that I'd be embarking on a rather larger venture almost 37 years on. Above 700m the frozen bog and heather gave way to crisp snow and I could dispense with the torch. Nothing but the sound of my breath, the crunch of boots on snow and a big, big shadowy landscape. The snow had just enough traction to make crampons unnecessary on the swift ascent to the first Munro, Carn Ghluasaid. The moon slipped behind the hill and a light breeze moved me on and up. Sgurr nan Conbhairean's summit was icy enough to warrant the ultra-light short-toothed crampons I'd brought, and these stayed on for the majority of the time thereafter. A little way after the summit I abandoned the rucksack for the out and back to Sail Chaorainn, a deliciously free romp without the weight of the sack, the lightness being matched by the coming sunrise.

The pinnacles on Mullach Fraoch-choire, 145 kb
The pinnacles on Mullach Fraoch-choire
© John Fleetwood

At this early stage I could still saunter down the easy slopes of the western top before unexpectedly encountering a steep little slope leading to the crest of the A'Chralaig ridge. Suddenly it felt tenuous as I approached the small cornice, the short and steeply angled front points of my crampons failing to bite in the ice. I balanced with one arm and thwacked the pick of the axe hard, teetering up on a few mm of metal. I carefully pulled through the sugary cornice and it was over almost as soon as it had begun. But it was notice of things to come. Regret at not taking a pair of heavier longer-pointed crampons was sharp. From then any steepish downward slope was treated with great caution as the crampons skittered over the surface.

Mullach Fraoch-choire, 118 kb
Mullach Fraoch-choire
© John Fleetwood
Sunset from Mullach na Dheiragain, 89 kb
Sunset from Mullach na Dheiragain
© John Fleetwood

For the most part the snow was a delight – rock hard snow-ice forming a regal highway along the huge ridges. The view to the West from A' Chralaig was magnificent, both in its extent and quality, peak upon peak rising and falling from Torridon in the north to Ben Nevis in the south. But the real delight of these hills, at least in the winter, is the serrated edge leading up to Mullach Fraoch-Choire. In summer the pinnacles seem fairly inconsequential, but in snow they take on a more malevolent air and can be quite awkward. The traverse beneath one of the towers was frozen hard with little trace of passage. I front pointed round, crab-like, aware of the drop beneath, until I emerged from the shady slope in to the sunshine above the pinnacles. The top was close by and the end of the beginning was at hand, for the real challenge lay ahead in the remote country at the head of Glen Affric. First, a steepish slope demanded downclimbing, then on down, down, down to the youth hostel beside the river.

In the sunshine, I had munched sandwiches and absorbed the warming rays, the river burbling beside and the wind turbine stock still. I had a peek into the hostel to see what winter comfort it might provide: a stone shell to escape the elements. I had no need of it today and set forth in the mid day sun for the most committing part of the round, the elephantine hills of Affric. These begin in a low key way with a steady climb through heather and grass to An Socach, a gentle hill from this aspect, but sporting crags on the far side. The steep drop off the subsidiary top proved easy in softer snow, before the vast bulk of Mam Sodhail loomed ahead. The sunshine had faded and mist obscurred the foretop. This was to last until Beinn Fhada many hours distant. The day had taken on a different feel as I followed the compass needle over the undulating ground to Mam Sodhail's massive summit cairn. It was chill, drab and uninspiring. If I needed something to energise me, I found it on the steep north ridge. Once again I found it difficult to trust my crampons on the ice. It was too steep to flat foot downwards and there wasn't enough bite to traverse sidewards. I used the rocks as much as I could and frontpointed the rest; sketchy. Carn Eighe came and went but time was moving on. I had estimated an arrival time of between 11pm and midnight at Camban bothy but that was looking unlikely, and the later it got, the longer I would take overall. A brief reprieve whilst I went out and back to Beinn Fhionnlaidh without sack was all too short and the ensuing descent of the steep heathery slopes to the river was proof of my tired legs. From there on, at least one walking pole was used to prop me up to the end.

'I was in another world: a world of shadows, half-light and a fuzzy consciousness'

The wide river was thankfully easy to cross without getting my feet too wet, but the ensuing slope was only overcome by perseverance. I was already tired, the effects of a rather sleepless night before and the insistant ache of the sack beginning to take their toll. Slopes like this are doubly cruel. Just when you want the monotony to be shortened by cruising up the slope, it is drawn out and redoubled by a stuttering pace. I took solace in a semi-frozen waterfall where I stopped awhile to capture a few images. I was determined to enjoy these moments rather than rushing by in the pursuit of speed. This was to be a different kind of journey, one in which I could absorb the mountains a little more fully. Still, I was aware of impending nightfall and resumed the plod upwards onto one of Britain's most remote tops – Mullach na Dheiragain. On this isolated mountain I was rewarded by one of the most spectacular sights I have ever witnessed. As the clouds gathered, the setting sun lit them up in a truly awesome show of fire. Beyond the snow bedecked ridge, the swirling clouds were transformed into pillars of fire reaching into the sky in deep red, yellow and orange. Beyond lay the spiky profile of the Skye Cuillin and beyond that the flaming ocean. I was transfixed by the ever-changing vista until finally the sun sank.

A chilly Camban bothy, 96 kb
A chilly Camban bothy
© John Fleetwood

Buoyed by this light show I made the steep ascent of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan just before dark. Using a pole for balance and an axe in the other hand I front-pointed efficiently up the final cone to the summit of this fine peak. Even in the swirling mist it was just about possible to pick out the character of the narrow ridge leading to the subsidiary top, from whence I descended south. A long and tedious trog through a boggy coire followed, before the final descent to the wide valley bottom. Once again I emerged from the river crossing with wet, but not saturated, feet and had a quick snooze before contemplating the rather dreary ascent of A'Ghlas Bheinn. By now I'd had enough and Camban had taken on the status of a sanctuary, but I knew it was still far off and in between I had two gnarly hills. The initial slopes of A'Ghlas Bheinn succumbed to sustained plodding, but the top is somewhat complex – a steeper headwall of ribs and little gullies. In the dark, angles and distances can be hard to judge, and the rocks rose to 50 degrees with steeper steps. With my pole dangling from my wrist I was keenly aware of the seriousness of the situation and took plenty of time to ensure secure, if slow, progress. Finally I reached the summit, then set off following tracks toward Bealach an Sgairne. This popular normal route up the mountain weaves in, out, up and down undulating ground before dropping to the pass, and it proved difficult to follow. It was slow, the weather was dispiriting, and sanctuary was still a mountain away.

By now it was late and I was sliding into the haze of a fatigued nightime plod. More encouragingly the clouds had started to part and the moon made a re-appearance, lighting up the broad slopes of Beinn Fhada. This is a massive mountain where the slopes seem to recede into the distance, never getting closer, never succumbing without effort, but slowly, oh so slowly I did climb towards the moon and that elusive summit. I was in another world: a world of shadows, half-light and a fuzzy consciousness. I lay down on the snow and stared at the moon, the stars and the snowy peaks all around. I tried taking some pictures of this ethereal scene then slowly moved on. The moon was in the ascendency now, shining bright over the huge whaleback ridge. My mind was dull but responsive to the harsh beauty of the landscape, a place so far removed from normal life as to be in another reality. Finally, at 3am, I entered Camban bothy.

'Waves of fatigue swept over me, so I just lay down where I was and entered the land of nod. I don't know how long I was out for, but I woke in confusion. The reality of a bed of snow and ice soon kicked in'

There have surely been better havens than Camban. Without a fire it is a cold, friendless place, yet it was a haven nevertheless: a place to stop, recuperate and switch off from the journey. But not until I had donned all my spare clothing, changed socks, fetched water and got the stove going. A pocket rocket it was not. In the cold, the gas sputtered weakly, barely warming the water. I switched it off and thrust the cylinder under my armpit, before lying on the hard boards pretending to rest. I lay on my back, torch off, and tried to drift off. It wasn't working, so I groggily fired up the stove again. This time it was more like its usual self and I soon had a warming soup and then a panful of noodles and sauce. Not condon bleu but filling and more to the point, warm. The meal was completed with a mug of tea and a bar, and it was only then that I could rest somewhat more comfortably. The cold wouldn't allow me to rest long, however, and after washing up by the burn I contemplated leaving. Despite the absence of sleep three hours had passed and daylight would not be far away. I was not sad to leave the bothy but it had served its purpose.

Five Sisters from Saileag, 127 kb
Five Sisters from Saileag
© John Fleetwood

The stream crossing was easy but the ascent beyond was not. The flanks of Ciste Dhubh are unmercifully steep and I laboured slowly upwards into a glorious dawn. Pink alpenglow lit up the North Glen Shiel Ridge as I gained height and by the summit the day had truly dawned. Fog lay over Loch Cluanie but the sun beat ever more strongly in the deep blue sky. Even in my weakened state I could sense a fine day in prospect, taking full advantage of the opportunities to stop and stare and to try to capture something of the scene with my camera. It was too good a day for rushing and in any case I couldn't. It was a day to savour the peace, stillness and aesthetic curves of the snow, so I did just that. The steep snow was much easier here as steps had been made when soft, so there was little to trouble me on an idyllic morning traversing the fine ridge that forms the north side of Glen Shiel. By the second Munro of the day, Aonach Meadhoin, I spied the first person of the journey, and by the third I'd caught up with him. I played in a snowy bowl that had formed in the lee of the ridge, then said goodbye to my newfound friend as he descended to Glen Shiel and I continued over the Four Sisters of Kintail (the fifth not not being on my route), alone once more. I can't remember much, save a feeling of deep contentment and slow but rhythmic movement over the hard snow and exposed rocks. I left my sack and crampons for the up and down to Sgurr Fhuaran, then contemplated the descent to Glen Shiel.

From previous experience I knew this to be awkward in winter as it traverses some steep and craggy ground to a ramp leading down from Sgurr na Carnach. Water ice festooned the slopes so I rather tentatively traversed beneath Sgurr na Carnach, crossing a couple of ribs in the process. The snow was too hard and steep for anything other than crab like front pointing and it felt very precarious. I decided to back off and go back up the way I had come to find a better line. Once on the ramp it should be plain sailing down to the road; or so I thought. The indecisive to-ing and fro-ing before had cost me half an hour and by the time I reached a gorge it was almost dark. Here I just followed the heather down, but before long I was stranded above a crag. The torch revealed a 10-foot drop and some greasy looking slabs. The road seemed tantalisingly close, but I daren't risk it. I turned tail and hauled myself up the knee high heather back to where I'd come from. Time to get the map out. Oh dear. When printing the map I'd omitted this last ½ mile of the descent. Memory had already failed me, so following my nose was the only option remaining. More to-ing and fro-ing ensued. Soon I was stopped by a little crag, and again I couldn't take the risk. After more heather pulling on a 45 degree slope and shuffling across slabs the road and much-dreamed-of food stash seemed to be getting no nearer. I'd had enough now. Trees, crags, slippery compressed bracken and waist high heather were a frustrating combination that seemed to be conspiring to keep me on this God forsaken hillside, but even this unholy morass eventually succumbed to a traversing slither downwards. By the bottom I felt bruised in spirits if not body. By the river I was too fed up to bother looking for the best place to cross; I just waded in up to my knees and sloshed through the undergrowth on the other side to recover my food bag in the gorse bushes. It was 7:30 pm.

'The night was over, a glorious new day had dawned, and I was still moving'

A car park on the main road as a freezing night falls is not a comforting place. I had nothing with which to dry my feet, and worse the boots were now saturated and dripping. What I really wanted was something hot, but the stove was pitiful. It blew out twice and this time my best efforts only produced lukewarm mugs of soup and tea. I put everything on and sat eating cold sandwiches as underdraughts from passing lorries intermittently buffeted me. The tarmac made a worse bed than the bothy. I made a call home, but beyond saying where I was had little energy for chit-chat. I signed off and put my cold, squelching boots back on. It was 9pm; I was not rested, but more hills awaited.

Moon set behind Sgurr na Sgine, 53 kb
Moon set behind Sgurr na Sgine
© John Fleetwood

Unsurprisingly I was not sprightly. A large full moon shone overhead, but it couldn't stir me. Waves of fatigue swept over me, so I just lay down and entered the land of nod. I don't know how long I was out for, but I woke in confusion, not knowing where I was. The reality of a bed of snow and ice soon kicked in and I blearily stared at the moon. During the remainder of the night I must have succumbed to a nap half a dozen times, each time curling up on the snow, using my rucksack for a pillow and immediately falling asleep. One time on a hard, icy slope, I whacked the axe in to avoid slipping down the slope whilst sleeping. There was no denying the overwhelming desire to sleep, so I found a way of managing it. In the cold I couldn't sleep for long, so regular naps were the order of the night. As soon as the tiredness became overwhelming, I'd just lie down and give in, escaping to a soft and comforting dreamworld before coming to as the cold ate into my body. In between the sleeps I'd drift onwards under the glare of a dominant full moon. The Saddle stood resplendent, its ridges standing proud like Alpine giants, sparkling silver above the deep shadows.

What a night! Once above the snow line I was transported to a Narnian world, with only me moving through it. In my zombie-like state it was if I were in a dreamworld, but the harsh reality of stinging feet, aching shoulders and a general weariness acted as a constant reminder that this was real. Having to move slowly is a humbling experience and one with which I was familiar. I therefore took each step at a time and enjoyed the moment. The final face of The Saddle reared up, shining brightly under the moon. I elected to take the leftmost route so that I could tackle the steepest bit on grass and rocks rather than icy snow and that worked well. At some time after 1am I emerged at the summit trig point, having collapsed in a heap twice on the way up. Dignified it was not, but I was enjoying the otherworldly experience nevertheless. I tried taking pictures on the summit, but they fail to capture the serene but harsh beauty. I will just have to hold them in my mind's eye.

The rest of the night is a bit of a jumbled memory, but I recall apprehensiveness before tackling the steep slopes of Sgurr na Sgine and Sgurr a'Bhac Chaolais. All went well, and I descended the southern ridge of Sgurr na Sgine to avoid the steep face. The ascent of Sgurr a Bhac Chaolais required concentration, being an indeterminate broken wall of rock and grass, in these conditions smeared in hard snow and ice. In between the snoozes I focused on picking the best line through the crags, which in the shadow of the moon wasn't terribly obvious. From there on there were no technical difficulties beyond a small icy step leading up to creag nam damh, first of the South Glen Shiel Ridge Munros. Most remarkable was the setting of the moon. As it sunk behind a hill to the south west, it glowed a deep orange flecked with horizontal bands as if it were a fiery planet. Then as the sun broke over the horizon some time later the sky filled with a deep rose, smearing the horizon with colour. The night was over, a glorious new day had dawned and I was still moving.

With the break of day, the desire to sleep abated somewhat and the never-ending slopes of the night were replaced by more amenable snowy ridges. Curvacious cornices overhung the cliffs to the north, accentuating the beauty of the landscape. The clarity of the air, its freshness and the expansive panorama were quite special. I might have been slow, dazed and sluggish, but I could still absorb all that was good in such a morning in such a place. The ridge was mine for the day, save for one lone person spied far off; or rather I belonged to the ridge, becoming part of the scenery. Summit followed summit, until I could only go down. Except that I couldn't. From my 29th and final Munro, Creag a'Mhaim, the normal descent north looked too steep, icy and untravelled to risk in the lightweight crampons. Instead I lolloped down the easy sunny slopes to the south west, cutting off the final corner by following a snowy ribbon almost all the way to the moor and the track. Now all that was left was to trog four miles along the broad track and road to Cluanie. As the sun set the hills were bathed in colour one more time, a fitting end to one of the finest of journeys.



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