Bagging Series

Climbing Europe's Ultras with Richard and Denise McLellan

In August 2019 Richard Mclellan became the first Brit – and to date only the second person – to climb all 98 of the Core European Ultras. Hear the word ultra and you might think of hardcore football thugs, but in this case we're talking mountains. To qualify for the list a summit must have an elevation of at least 1500m on all sides, an ultra prominence that bars most of the world's mountains. Nevertheless the current list of World Ultras still runs to 1539. Needless to say, no one is yet close to completing them all.

Richard and Denise on the summit of Maja e Kendrevicës, Albania  © Richard and Denise Mclellan
Richard and Denise on the summit of Maja e Kendrevicës, Albania
© Richard and Denise Mclellan

Below was a vista of rocky peaks, deep valleys and wide gleaming white glaciers. A fine peak to complete on

The European entries on the list make a more achievable goal, and Petter Bjorstad of Norway was first to complete them in 2014. Currently in third place to finish is the high achieving hill bagger Rob Woodall, on 86 summits, while fourth is Richard's partner Denise with a tally of 77. Neither looks set to complete any time soon - Rob's hurdle is political instability in the Crimea, while the barrier for Denise is that one of the peaks, Atos in Greece, is a religious site forbidden to women.

"My first European Ultra was Ortles, 3905m, in the Italian Alps in September 1980 on my first trip to the Alps with a group of friends" says Richard.

"I've always looked to climb the highest mountain in an area but at the time I didn't know that Ortles would later be classified as an Ultra."

Hochtor, Austria  © Denise and Richard Mclellan
Hochtor, Austria
© Denise and Richard Mclellan

'Core Europe' includes everything west of Russia except Iceland, Svalbard, Jan Mayen, Madeira, the Azores and the Canaries. Climbing 98 peaks of 1500m prominence, widely scattered across the continent, is no small achievement; but Richard did not originally set out to bag all the European Core Ultras.

"It was only as there became fewer local Ultras I hadn't climbed that the objective of completion of the Core European set became a nice objective" he says. "Technically they were all within my climbing comfort zone, so completion was really a matter of having a little luck with weather on the more difficult ones."

Richard on the summit of Store Lenangstind, his final European Ultra  © Denise Mclellan
Richard on the summit of Store Lenangstind, his final European Ultra
© Denise Mclellan

For Denise the first Ultra was an African one, Morocco's Toubkal, which she climbed in 1988 before having met Richard and long before she'd heard of Ultras.

"Before I met Denise, now my wife, I was happily working my way through the European 4000m peaks" recalls Richard.

"However, the Alpine starts, altitude, boisterous nature of Alpine huts and the pre-dawn clanking of gear and enthusiastic chatter over bowls of black coffee and chunks of dry bread did not prove to be to her liking. This led me to search for more compatible alternatives. The list of World Ultras came to my attention and this appeared to offer mountains encompassing cultural, logistical and climbing challenges.

"The fact they were a group of large prominent mountains on an international scale with huge variation in character appealed. They span political, geographical and cultural divides, some frequently visited and some no doubt as yet unclimbed. The appeal is the interest and excitement of travelling and climbing in new regions, researching the mountain and area and developing a plan of reaching the summit in a cost effective way. Many take you to little visited places and into new environments with new challenges, different peoples and adventures."

The technical difficulty of the European peaks varies from easy walking over gently undulating grassy pasture to roped ascents of steep glaciers and climbing ridges of unstable shattered rock. The fun, says Richard, is in taking on the variation of the challenge.

Jof di Montasio, Italy  © Richard and Denise Mclellan
Jof di Montasio, Italy
© Richard and Denise Mclellan

"In truth, none are that technically difficult" he says, "and with the rise of budget airlines, the majority of the European Core Ultras are now straightforward to get to at an acceptable cost. The majority you can drive to a trailhead and climb in a day (though in some cases it may be a long one) if that is your desire, but for me the interest is spending a little time to explore the area so most of my ascents are done in a more leisurely fashion.

Out of all 98 summits Richard found the most technically difficult were the Grand Combin in Switzerland, and Norway's Store Lenangstind, which involves glacier travel, a bergschrund, steep ice and a shattered rock ridge.

Tricky access is as much a consideraton as technical climbing - and in the case of the European Ultras often more so, says Richard.

"Sarek 2089m in Sweden is possibly the remotest of the Core European Ultras. For us it was a three-day trip on skis with pulk into a remote mountain area where we enjoyed superb weather of blue skies and bright sunshine" he says.

Sarek mountains, Sweden  © Richard and Denise Mclellan
Sarek mountains, Sweden
© Richard and Denise Mclellan

"Then there are the ones with man-made barriers such as Mount Athos (Agion Oros) in Greece where a visit is dependent on permission from the Orthodox Christian community who control access to the peninsula and mountain. These difficulties all add to the interest and the ascent of Agion Oros was memorable, not only for the fine views and sunset from the mountain but also for the hospitality provided by the monks in their huge stone built monasteries which dot the peninsula."

For half of humanity, Atos is effectively off-limits since it is barred to women. This seems anachronistic in 21st Century Europe, but Denise seems unpreturbed.

"I am pragmatic" she says.

"There are plenty of other mountains to climb. I have no chance alone of influencing the Greek Orthodox Church to change their mind, but would join in with others if I thought there was an opportunity. It's not realistic to pretend to be a man and I do respect their religious views. If I had done all the European Ultras bar that one, I would consider I had finished the list. Atos is not technically difficult."

It's quite hard to explain to others some of the challenges faced, and good to talk to people who get it!

In light of that it would seem fair to say that female Ultra-baggers had effectively finished the European list when they'd done the other 97.

"The question has never arisen, but I think others would be supportive of my stance" Denise says.

"It aligns to the position taken by many on tops closed as they are militarily sensitive. However, Ultra bagging is primarily about personal achievement and setting one's own goals, not following others', possibly arbitrary rules."

While much of Europe will feel like familiar ground to Ultra baggers, unusual pockets do still exist. The hills of Albania must rate among the more adventurous destinations:

"At the time we visited, their bases were only reachable on 4x4 tracks of dirt and rocks" recalls Richard.

"Groups of sheep grazed the hillsides, watched over by shepherds and guarded from wolves, bears and strangers by huge ferocious dogs with cartoon-like spiked metal collars; here it's definitely a case of meet the shepherd before the dog! If that isn't enough there are rumours of anti-personnel mines still being present in the border area where the high peaks are.

Varful Moldoveanu, Romania   © Richard and Denise Mclellan
Varful Moldoveanu, Romania
© Richard and Denise Mclellan

"Further east, I was lucky to climb Roman Kosh, 1545m, in the Crimea before the recent political changes; currently access is under Russian control and I suspect the summit is now militarised and falls within a restricted area."

Richard's final Core European Ultra was Store Lenangstind, 1625m, in Arctic Norway, climbed with Denise on 18th August 2019.

"You start at sea level, initially on a track through birch woods along the edge of a wide valley... but such easy going is not for long and there's a couple of miles of traversing loose raw rock scree. The upper valley has idyllic camping spots beside turquoise glacial lakes and it's here we pitched the tent. The snout of the glacier is another mile; in August the lower section was hard ice and easy going crunching up in crampons.

Denise on the Koppangsbreen glacier  © Richard and Denise Mclellan
Denise on the Koppangsbreen glacier
© Richard and Denise Mclellan

"Above 1000m the glacier was snow covered, hiding the crevasses so we travelled roped up. It's a fine location, the deserted glacier ringed by impressive rocky peaks rising to blue skies. The sides of the glacier steepen into gullies rising to the ridge line but all are guarded by bergschrunds – cracks in the ice slope leaving deep chasms with upper walls of overhanging ice. Earlier in the year these are filled with snow and snow bridges provide a means of crossing onto the steep snow slope beyond, but not in August. It took a while to find a way into the base of the bergschrund from where a traverse of a rock ledge gained the wide snow ice gully above. 50 to 60 degrees of steep icy snow with the edge of a yawning bergschrund just below takes a little getting used to - 200m of unrelenting snow ice in which front points of crampons scrape small steps leading to the ridge and col.

"The ridge was free of snow and ice but the rock was loose and shattered. There is no hint of path nor cairns and finding a route around the rock gendarmes was fun if a little frustrating at times. More than once I thought we'd reached an impasse but each time we found an alternative way.

View from Store Lenangstinden  © Richard and Denise Mclellan
View from Store Lenangstinden
© Richard and Denise Mclellan

"The difficulties eased and at 14:30 we reached the summit, having left the tent at 06:00. The weather was kind and we sat in hot sunshine on the cairn perched on the edge of the sheer SE face. Below was a fine vista of rocky peaks, deep valleys and wide gleaming white glaciers. A fine peak to complete on."

To date Richard has summitted 268 of the 1539 World Ultras, leaving him a not inconsiderable 1271 peaks to go; Denise is on 227. Part of the attraction of such a geographically diverse list must be the different countries an Ultra bagger has to travel to. Richard has many stand-out memories:

"We were provided with an escort of three armed police officers to climb Volcán de San Vicente in El Salvador. A 4x4 truck was commandeered and the local chief of police accompanied us all to the trail head. None of the officers had ever climbed the mountain before and their excitement was palpable as the view expanded as we gained height. Although they found it much more tiring than they had expected, a good day was had by everyone.

"In Morocco one of the Ultras rises from a Hashish growing area and while driving within 30 miles of our objective we were quickly tailed and the next day provided with a 'minder' who 'happened' also to be visiting the summit. He collected mushrooms from the woods which we enjoyed for lunch on the summit roasted over a fire seemingly produced in seconds from nothing.

"Generally, Central America has scored highly for memorable travel, the packed local buses with endless chatter of salesmen in the aisles, drivers who see any vehicle ahead as a challenge to pass and boys running through lines of moving traffic carrying your sack to transfer you to your next bus. We crossed Lake Nicaragua to climb Volcan Concepcion on a crowded ferry with water lapping at the gunwales and a member of crew furiously hand pumping the bilges all the way. It was an old ferry so I guess it's like that every trip.

"In Mexico two local men with their three dogs insisted on accompanying me up Picacho San Onofre. They considered my 'blunt' machete – or perhaps my wielding of it – amusing, as they effortlessly trimmed back the spikes of Aloe and vines with theirs which were razor sharp. When on the summit I complemented one on both his English and fitness I was told it was the US penitentiary system he had to thank!

The worldwide Ultra bagging community is notable for its sense of friendly competition, a mix of cooperation and rivalry.

"We share routes, GPS tracks and access information and sometimes ascend peaks together" explains Denise.

"For example Richard, Petter Bjorstad, Rob Woodall and I (the top four Ultra baggers in the world) recently climbed five rarely-ascended Ultras in Ethiopia together, and there was a clear sense we reached the top together.

"I obtained information from a contact about Daisen, a hard to climb peak in Japan, and I am delighted that Rob has just managed to ascend it (before me - but he has shared his detailed route). Equally, we watch others' ascents and have a very clear sense of how they are doing and where they are. Knowing others are continually adding to their totals is a good incentive not to just sit down in front of a computer all day. It's quite hard to explain to others some of the challenges faced, and good to talk to people who get it!"

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