Whether it's running or walking, most of us like to go big on the hills once in a while - and few epic routes match the challenge and cachet of the UK's big three, the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds. Packed with equal parts information and inspiration, new Cicerone book The Big Rounds is not just a detailed route guide to all three rounds, but a lot more besides.
While Lakeland's Bob Graham is best known as a sub 24-hour test for accomplished hill runners, and the Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay occupy a similar hallowed status as runner's rounds in Snowdonia and Lochaber respectively, there is no rule that says you have to do them at a trot. Making a massive high level circuit of each mountain range, taking in most of their best summits along the way, these routes double as logical and compelling multi-day journeys for backpackers.
Author David Lintern describes himself as a below average runner, and as that fairly describes me too I was pleased that this book is not prescriptive about the speed you travel, according ambitious backpack-toting walkers the same status as one-day runners. The big rounds are for everyone. As David says:
"Long distance routes are not the province of hill runners only, and the hills are agnostic - and they don't care if we walk, run or crawl. Passion and persistence are what counts, and they aren't exclusive qualities..."
This is the first book I've seen that gives comprehensive coverage of all three rounds, and since records keep being broken and the rounds seem to be more in the news and more in vogue than ever, its publication seems well timed. However I know David has been working on it for years. It's clearly been a labour of love, and I think he has done real justice to what is in every sense a massive topic.
It is a book that's arguably geared towards summer rounds, and my sole real criticism is that this is not made sufficiently explicit from the start (more on that later).
The UK's Big Three
Paddy Buckley Round
A 62 mile circuit of 47 Snowdonian summits, with 8700m ascent, the round was devised by Paddy Buckley but first completed by Wendy Dodds in 1982, and first run in under 24 hours by Martin Stone in 1985. The route includes the Carneddau, the Glyderau, the Snowdon range, the Moelwynion and the Moel Hebog range. For more details check out runner Bob Wightman's website.
Bob Graham Round
Done as a sub-24 hour push the Bob Graham round of 42 Lakeland peaks (including the four 3000-ers) is one of the toughest fell runner's challenges in the country. Wearing tennis shoes and fuelled on bread and butter the man himself set the bar high way back in 1932 and his time of 23 hours 39 minutes stood for 28 years. See the Bob Graham Club website for more.
An extension of an earlier effort by Philip Tranter, Charlie Ramsay's route covers 24 Lochaber Munros over around 57 miles, including Ben Nevis, the Aonachs, the Grey Corries, the Easains and Loch Treig Munros and the whole Mamores ridge. Ramsay just scraped inside 24 hours in 1978. More info at the Ramsay's Round site.
Covering the nitty gritty of these three epic rounds is no small feat - the Paddy Buckley section alone runs to nearly 50 pages, for instance. As well as a blow-by-blow route description broken down into manageable chunks (ideal for multi-day attempts, or a good psychological trick if you're doing it in a one-er), there are excellent sections on planning and other practicalities, and interesting potted histories of each round. For runners the essential info includes advice on the commonly used spots for logistical support and changes of pacer, while walkers get a backpacker's itinerary (the Bob Graham, for example, is suggested as a six-day walk).
While I don't know every inch of any of these rounds I am familiar with a great deal of each, including almost all the summits, and I think the route descriptions seem accurate and sensible, offering a useful level of detail without being overly wordy. Maps sprawl satisfyingly across double page spreads, reflecting the scale of the endeavours; and while I've only found one topo its inclusion is very worthwhile, as it concerns the notoriously tricky link between the Grey Corries and Aonach Beag, clearly marking the four different options.
The photos, and there are scores, range from lush landscapes to running and backpacking action shots. While they aren't all technically brilliant - there's the occasional lens flare and one or two blurred foregrounds - and I'm nonplussed by a couple of choices (p45, for instance, fills a whole page with a very dull-looking eroded slope) they do a good job overall of selling each of the rounds, and giving plenty of clues as to what to expect from the terrain. David has clearly spent a lot of time up high on all three rounds, much of it early or late for the best light.
Were The Big Rounds to end there it would already be a cracking book. But there's more. What lifts this book far beyond being a 'mere' guide is its human element, the inclusion of a whole series of mini interviews with the great and good of UK hill running. The People of the Rounds include Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay, along with more recent leading lights like Jasmin Paris, Nicky Spinks and Jim Mann. All speak with enthusiasm and authority about their experiences of these routes, and there's plenty of sage advice to be gleaned here. For his day job David is an outdoor journalist, and in these interviews it really shows. Well done to him, and to Cicerone for thinking outside the usual guidebook format. My one regret with the talking heads is that some walkers weren't also included.
It's fair to say I like this book a lot. But it's not perfect. As I'm more mountaineer than runner (a claim I can make rather more plausibly than Wendy Dodds!), the big lack that stands out for me is its only brief reference to winter. Add snow and ice, wilder and colder weather, and narrower daylight windows and all three of these rounds become a wholly different proposition.
In full winter conditions the Charlie Ramsay in particular slips over the line from merely a very hard run or walk into actual mountaineering, including as it does the UK's highest summit and plenty of borderline-technical ground besides. Winter conditions might come and go for around half the year in Scotland. Is enough made of this in the book? Well almost all the photographs are of snow-free sunny hills, while the seriousness of winter is only discussed in any depth in the interviews at the end. More stating of the obvious up-front would have been good. As Jim Mann, winter record holder for all three rounds, says in his interview:
"If people do try the Rounds in winter without doing the preparation, then people will die - and you can end up killing somebody else along with you. It's 'cool' and 'fun' to try these things, sure, but don't do it because you want to say you've done it. The entire team need to be operating at a really high level to make the risks remotely manageable."
Running on the hills seems to be more popular than ever, and I would not be surprised if that were to lead to an increase in the numbers aspiring to a big round. It's possible that there will be some runners who are fitter and faster than your average mountaineer, but who may not have the background of winter skills and experience to fall back on if things get spicy. At risk of coming across as a superior old beardy labouring the doom and gloom, I think The Big Rounds missed an important opportunity there.
This concern aside, there's loads to like here - a good 180 pages of it, in fact. If you're poring over the route details as you plan your own round, reliving the scenes of epics past, or simply browsing and dreaming big, The Big Rounds has mountains of inspiration. Whether you're a runner or just a walker with ambition, this attractive guide is a compelling and information-packed celebration of three timeless classics of the British hills.
I've long had a slow winter Ramsay Round on the wish list; perhaps this book will help spur me to make it happen.