/ ARTICLE: No Climbing Experience, No Race – The Future of Extreme Skyrunning?

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UKC/UKH Articles 09 Sep 2019
Fixed rope on Pinnacle Ridge, Lakes Sky Ultra 2016 Skyrunning is said to be a fusion of trail running and rock climbing; an 'extreme sport' suited to adrenaline junkies who dice with death on exposed ridges and loose descents. Keri Wallace takes on the inaugural Pinnacle Ridge Extreme race and speaks to the pros to find out if this caricature is really true.

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morpcat 09 Sep 2019
In reply to UKC/UKH Articles:

> Interestingly though, for those who are more experienced and competent on extremely technical terrain, skyrunning is generally not about seeking out risk

Just to add my small opinion to the mix... In general when I run in the hills I derive the most satisfaction from seeking out 'difficult' terrain, and moving over it quickly and efficiently. In other words, making that terrain feel 'easy'. I put the adjectives in quotation marks as difficulty is of course subjective. Ground that I love 'running' on would be too scary to be palatable to others, whilst at the same time there are many other 'runners' who can cross ground I can barely step foot on. 

Steep ground with satisfying levels of exposure and reliable holds is usually a good recipe. That's why Curved Ridge is so popular with the shorts-and-trainers crowd. Rarely is such rapid vertical gain possible on such reassuring holds seemingly placed there to facilitate the exact feeling of "[coordinating] all four limbs quickly whilst reading the route, and simultaneously propelling oneself upwards" mentioned above. 

There are times though when I like to stray from these 'confidence boosting' routes and onto ground that provides more of a question mark. Seeking out routes that are not known for running, or are reputed to be difficult, can bring a satisfaction of its own kind. Obviously this is not a domain that overlaps with the "racing" element of skyrunning, and will surely remain a subject of debate for many years to come. As people blur the lines of what's possible (even for amateurs) with light equipment, these questions will surface again and again. 

Race insurers will now sanction running up Curved Ridge in poor summer conditions (i.e. moderate wind and rain), but I'm guessing that lean winter conditions would still be a step too far, although not necessarily any more difficult. This is when the comment of "there is only 'real risk' if you don't have the skills, training and experience" becomes truly relevant. The problem of course, is how do you make that judgement call? 

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Siderunner 09 Sep 2019

Don’t know that I’m too impressed by the fixed ropes, this seems to be bringing the challenge down to a convenient level. I suppose it makes sense to iron out the hardest bits to get a consistent difficulty ... .

Personally I’ll always be more impressed by self-supported, or friend-supported, efforts as this feels more in keeping with traditional mountain culture.

It is good to hear how seriously race directors take the importance of a climbing/scrambling CV: the inexperienced are often unaware of their inexperience. I’ve met climbers who “have climbed HVS” who end up hanging on the toprope on VDiffs. Another person who had “recently soloed a 12 pitch HS” scared me silly belaying as he nearly killed himself leading a straightforward Severe (gear fell out and he looked very like he was going to fall off the topout with a full body elvis!). Overall it makes sense to have a fair amount of ability in hand, and well-developed judgement, to move fast yet safely on this sort of terrain.

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DaveHK 10 Sep 2019
In reply to Siderunner:

When the Glencoe skyline first ran there was an interview with Shane Ohly and he said they rejected lots of people. He said it was usually pretty obvious from the entry i.e. mega porky pies like having lots of experience but not being able to tell about it because it was with special forces!

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john arran 10 Sep 2019
In reply to DaveHK:

Well Shane would be able to tell a Special Forces fraud from a mile off. He has a long and illustrious record of service: http://www.thefreeclimber.com/articles/tfcSAS.htm

;-)

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Michael Gordon 10 Sep 2019
In reply to UKC/UKH Articles:

Got to say I feel slightly uncomfortable about technical scrambling/climbing being incorporated into a race situation. This quote stood out for me: "When you're in a race situation, you're oblivious to the risk" says Page. "You're focused on the race and not the steep drops!" Having difficult ground incorporated into racing would seem likely to lead to unnecessary risks being taken in the name of beating your rivals. It seems only a matter of time before a serious injury or death occurs?

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steveriley 10 Sep 2019
In reply to Michael Gordon:

I know what you mean. It's a fine line but then, this is a climbing site and we should recognise the need for self reliance. I know when I did the Welsh 3000s, the stretch along Crib Goch was one of my favourite moments ever in the mountains. To be moving along at speed in a state of flow, problem solving on the hoof and staying the right side of dodgy. I'd liken it to when you're leading really well and it all just works.

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summo 10 Sep 2019
In reply to Michael Gordon:

Most of the 'climbing' terrain, is only scrambling. Same difficulty as many classic routes like striding or sharp edge, crib goch  etc which many non climbers get across every day. 

99.99% of racers are climbers who run, or runners who climb. Some will slow down markedly on curved ridge as they aren't as fast, a small bottle neck appears. But this is because they aren't ignoring the risk as the author suggests, they are operating amongst it, taking care.

When you are going over 60km, the time saved by being oblivious to risk on the scrambles is minimal. It's tanking down hill on tired legs that far more become a cropper, ankle injuries etc. 

As above, I don't think ropes are a good idea, if two people grab or pull ropes at the same time in different directions it can cause problems. 

Post edited at 10:45
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Jeremy Wilton 10 Sep 2019
In reply to Michael Gordon:

You're right mate, as long as the organisers are prepared for the aggro when someone slips off and brains themselves. Each to their own of course.

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morpcat 10 Sep 2019
In reply to Michael Gordon:

> Having difficult ground incorporated into racing would seem likely to lead to unnecessary risks being taken in the name of beating your rivals. 

I think you might be pleasantly surprised by how politely and graciously everyone behaves in this environment. Overtaking sometimes devolves into a war of courtesy ("no, you go ahead, I must insist") and in general people take care and watch out for each other. 

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daWalt 10 Sep 2019
In reply to Michael Gordon:

I agree with your concerns, that comment had struck me too as a wee bit worrying.

We can't foist our own notion or risk onto others; but this cuts the other way to the organisers also. I think they must have some cognescance of how their route plannign affets things. for example the need to strike a balance in race distance so that you avoid a flat-out sprint (in relative terms) and it being too long where you've got half asleep zombieites stagering about on dangerous ground. there's already too many bigger, further, harder, quadrouple tungsten-man challenges around.

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Michael Gordon 10 Sep 2019
In reply to morpcat:

> I think you might be pleasantly surprised by how politely and graciously everyone behaves in this environment. Overtaking sometimes devolves into a war of courtesy ("no, you go ahead, I must insist") and in general people take care and watch out for each other. 

If that's so, it's heartening.

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Michael Gordon 10 Sep 2019
In reply to daWalt:

> I think they must have some cognescance of how their route plannign affets things. for example the need to strike a balance in race distance so that you avoid a flat-out sprint (in relative terms) and it being too long where you've got half asleep zombieites stagering about on dangerous ground. 

Yes, having technical sections far enough along that the field has separated, but not near the end where everyone is knackered, would seem sensible.

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Simon Caldwell 10 Sep 2019
In reply to UKC/UKH Articles:

I did this race and great fun it was too. 

TBH I wasn't expecting the fixed ropes (until the pre-race briefing) but they didn't really bother me. From people I spoke to and photos I saw, the front runners seemed to pull on the fixed ropes as it was quicker, those of us at the back took the "purist" attitude and avoided them. I didn't actually see any other runners on the scrambling sections - almost half the race is over before the first one, so the field was pretty spread out by then.

Most of us were shattered by the time we got to Pinnacle Ridge itself, as it was near the end of the route, and approached straight up from the valley below Eagle Crag. But that just meant we took it slower than we might otherwise.

Nobody's mentioned helmets yet. FWIW Charlie recommended that we take them, but they weren't mandatory. From responses to a question at the briefing, I don't think anyone took one. I didn't on the basis that it's a very long way to carry one for just 15 minutes or so.

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Harry Jarvis 10 Sep 2019
In reply to Michael Gordon:

> Yes, having technical sections far enough along that the field has separated, but not near the end where everyone is knackered, would seem sensible.

I believe this was one of the reasons why the race start of the Glen Coe Skyline race was moved from the Glen Coe ski centre to Kinlochleven, in order to thin the crowds by the time they get to Curved Ridge. 

Post edited at 16:51
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TheGeneralist 10 Sep 2019

The fixed ropes bit is just barmy. It doesn't make sense and I can't believe there's not a huge backlash against it.

If they need ropes to haul themselves up then surely should just find something easier to race on. 

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steveriley 10 Sep 2019
In reply to TheGeneralist:

There was a huge backlash if I remember - I believe someone nicked the fixed rope one year (last?). There was a kerfuffle on here about it.

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Simon Caldwell 10 Sep 2019
In reply to TheGeneralist:

I don't think any of the runners needed to use the ropes - but it was faster than not using them so those looking for a podium finish would have been daft not to.

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Bulls Crack 10 Sep 2019
In reply to TheGeneralist:

It looks to be running to the scramble, stopping running, doing the scramble then running again not one coherent thing. 

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Simon Caldwell 10 Sep 2019
In reply to steveriley:

You're right, the rope was taken a year or two ago. Not just moved as a protest, but stolen.

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Michael Gordon 10 Sep 2019
In reply to Simon Caldwell:

It could have been stolen as a protest?

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Tom V 11 Sep 2019
In reply to Michael Gordon:

I don't see it as being much different from trying to climb established routes in record breaking times , a similarly unwise practice in my view.

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Planeandsimple 11 Sep 2019
In reply to Siderunner:

Very true I blame the popularity of giving cams to beginners. If a nut if shit you generally know it and work to make it better. Cams, especially totems seem to encourage people to fire them in, minor pull test then forget them. Then they never learn. 

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DaveHK 11 Sep 2019
In reply to Tom V:

> I don't see it as being much different from trying to climb established routes in record breaking times , a similarly unwise practice in my view.

What you probably mean is that it would be an unwise practice for you. That doesn't mean it's an unwise practice for everyone.

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Tom Briggs 11 Sep 2019
In reply to UKC/UKH Articles:

My tuppence worth having done one European mountain race where they fixed ropes on some sections (Salomon Ubaye Trail)...

I climbed the rock. Most people hauling on the ropes seemed more out-of-breath! The problem with the ropes being in place is that people pull them across you if you try and pass.

I have heard from friends who've done Glen Coe Skyline that you're queuing on Curved Ridge and passing people isn't really on. To me this turns it into a bit of a gimmick for most competitors.

In general I think I prefer steep/technical/rough runnable ground where you can use your ability/confidence to actually pass people! 

Post edited at 09:36
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Simon Caldwell 11 Sep 2019
In reply to Michael Gordon:

> It could have been stolen as a protest?

I expect that was what they thought. But in my eyes that counts as theft rather than protest - they could have achieved the aim by removing it and leaving it somewhere, or putting it back the next day/week/ever.

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morpcat 11:42 Wed
In reply to Tom Briggs:

> I have heard from friends who've done Glen Coe Skyline that you're queuing on Curved Ridge and passing people isn't really on. To me this turns it into a bit of a gimmick for most competitors.

Yes, if you aren't one of the first ones up the ridge, then standing in a queue during a race can feel very contrived. The difficulty with Curved Ridge is that although there is space to move around, it isn't especially safe to do so, as there is a lot of loose rock and scree on some sections. The queue builds up leading up to the crux ramp and the steep wall below it, although you could bypass it by say, scrambling up the gully on the right, it would create a horrible rockfall hazard for everyone below. Once you're above the crux though it's easy to spread out a little bit and there's plenty of space to move around people. 

This is one of the main safety aspects that the organizers have to prepare for, by scouting and marking the route in advance and having people dotted along the ridge to ensure runners stick to the designated route. 

As Harry Jarvis mentioned, this was one of the factors that led to the change in the race start-point, moving it from Glen Coe ski centre to the race HQ in Kinlochleven. This means runners have the climb up the WHW out of Kinlochleven, and the descent of the Devil's Staircase to do before they cross the road towards the Buachaille. Unfortunately last year's race was shortened due to bad weather, which meant that runners were able to increase their pace on this early section, and the crowd didn't get as spread out as they might have done normally. 

That brings me to another safety point worth mentioning. The GC Skyline has a good weather route, and a bad weather route avoiding Curved Ridge and Aonach Eagach. Last year, there was rain and 100kph winds on the forecast, so it was obvious they would decide on the bad weather route. However, the organizers made a remarkable decision to use the bad weather route but add Curved Ridge back in, as the wind direction meant it would be sheltered from the worst of the weather. They were right, and the climb/run/queue up the ridge was in pleasant weather, whereas the run across the summits was a total blasting of wind and rain whilst trying to get one's jacket out without it blowing away!

This kind of decision required excellent judgement on the part of the race organizers and safety advisers, and I for one think they made the right call. The Aonach Eagach would have been desperate in those conditions, but Curved Ridge was safe. It's remarkable that in our 'health and safety' orientated world they were able to alter their plans at the last minute to include a section of the route deemed to be 'higher risk'. It made the race more enjoyable and satisfying for all the runners and was a great compromise between the planned good and bad weather routes. 

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