Earlier this season a record was set on Lochaber's classic Ramsay Round, with a strong time of 26.57 by Tom Phillips that shaved three hours from the previous best time (see UKH news here). If that wasn't impressive enough, over the weekend of 23-24 Feb local runner Jon Gay took another three hours (plus) off the record to log an amazing time of 23 hours 18 minutes.
'I was extremely fortunate to complete a Ramsay's Round in stunning weather and snow conditions this weekend' Jon tells us.
'I finished in a time of 23 hours, 18 minutes. I have decided to write it up briefly as I have enjoyed reading reports by others' (see below).
Back in December we said that Tom's might be a tough act to follow on this Scottish hill running mega-challenge, which covers 24 Lochaber Munros over around 60 miles - that's Ben Nevis, the Aonachs, the Grey Corries, the Easains, the Loch Treig Munros and the whole Mamores ridge, with a total ascent of around 28,500 feet - in case you're tempted. Jon Gay has proved us wrong, in spades.
Self employed architect Jon, a 'veteran' runner at age 40, did the round solo, with static food support at around the halfway point at Fersit.
He tackled the route clockwise, and says that the solid neve that's currently covering much of the ground helped make life easier.
Previously Jon has done a Summer Ramsay's (23:07 in 2010), various Tranters Rounds including in winter, mountain marathons and fell races. Living locally, he knows the ground and is well placed to capitalise on weather windows. Preparation prior to the weekend has consisted of 'general hill bashing', the Lochaber Athletics Club Winter League and training for the Lochaber Marathon.
'The solid neve that's currently covering much of the ground helped make life easier'
For those who wonder what top winter runners carry on the hill, Jon had: Led lenser H7 head torch; a light Event jacket; two thin tops; a belay jacket in case of having to stop; a Tesco's bag to keep everything warm 'down there' (!); light ski touring axe; Kahtoola 10-point crampons which fit on fell shoes; Inov 8 Roclite shoes, very big to fit two pairs of wool lined waterproof socks; a silver sheet which he says probably wouldn't save your life; a very light running sack with a bumbag at front for crampons; Pertex overtrousers; GPS (but he didn't use it); the new Ramsay's round map; and an altimeter. Everything was reduced to the lightest weight he could afford.
Jon's written us a full report here:
Winter Ramsay Round by Jon Gay
Having the advantage that the the Ramsay's is within running distance of my house it is possible to pick my weather (assume drizzle in Fort William). This time there were superb winter conditions, very benign. Paradoxically I believe that the snow surface made significant parts of the run easier than summer.
I like to spend most of my spare time in these hills and admit to failing many a winter Tranter or Ramsay attempt over the years. My Brother Dan (summer Ramsay's completion), and I became experienced at running the Corrour to Tulloch railway after abortive attempts, great for the neck muscles and general awareness. Last February we did manage to get well over half way anti-clockwise before retiring with cold feet. At the time Andy Kitchin was going the other way and also stopped due to the cold after a similar distance (we saw his head torch at Loch Treig). We realised that if you aggregated the times it proved that the winter round could be done in under 24 hours, assuming perfect conditions.
I was pleased to complete a Ramsay's in summer 2010 along with Pete Duggan. I am an average runner especially on the flat, but OK at ascending or general hill bashing. Completion for me in winter seemed a long shot.
'I started feeling sick, weak and dizzy - completely debilitating. I gave in a number of times and had to lie briefly in the snow, before becoming cold. It was a thorough effort of will to move'
My friend Bruce Poll who is a Ramsay-ist and Aspirant Alpine Guide had blogged about the improving climbing and snow conditions during the last week of very settled high pressure. I asked him if it was runnable up top, he said yes- solid, but remember your axe! Arguably a wind chill of minus 20, frozen to sea level and snow line at 600 metres would comprise 'full winter conditions', continental ones possibly. Axe and crampons were extensively needed. From studying the weather it was obvious that there was zero cause for concern here. As implied above I am not up to attempting in harsh weather at the winter solstice, though this would be a much more admirable ethic for completion!
This time I decided to go clockwise, not start in the middle of the night, nor walk to the start, nor go unsupported with a huge sack. This strategy had resulted in my latest retreat in January (drizzle). Sense prevailed and I asked my friend and fellow Lochaber Athletic member Tark Gunn, at short notice, to provide food (and motivational) support at the Loch Trieg Dam. I recommend Tark's hill walking courses, his advice and help kept me safe and made it all possible.
Ascending the Ben the cloud was down and there was fine snow falling. 'Here we go again' I thought, whilst struggling with my crampons/reviving my fingers. But emerging down Carn Mor Dearg Arete (runnable due to snow cover) I entered an Alpine wonderland with rime on the rocks and full 'styrofoam' neve (hard snow) underfoot. Extensive snow cover was visible throughout the route. CMD was way quicker than summer, most of the rubble was banked out. Descent was a full but careful run. Even a man in heavy plastic boots was fairly shifting, initially I thought he might be doing a Ramsay too!
The ascent of the West face of Aonach Mor was a little hairy in places (in Kahtoola flexible 10 point walking crampons) with pockets of water ice and very hard neve, and I went too far left where it steepens. On top some ski mountaineers asked me if I was OK and had I lost something? Why would anyone be running about up there? Fortunately the descent of the narrow Coire Bhuic, possibly the technical 'crux' of the route went well. I had tried digging an improvised snow inspection pit but could hardly penetrate the snow with the axe, it looked very safe. I carefully climbed along the back of the broken cornice and front pointed down the steep to a more comfortable angle.
I have traversed the Grey Corries many times but never has the 'running track' been this amenable, the hard snow covered nearly all the rubble. I had to phone Tark to say I was early. Just before randomly meeting my upstairs neighbour on the hill. I was able to sprint down to Stob Ban, although I nearly emasculated myself with my crampons in an unfortunate slide; didn't know my knee bent that far. The following describe the next few hills and are trends throughout the route - firm snow down to near valley level (if you followed the 'leads'). Not once did my foot go through crust, the surface was reliable. There was no ploughing through heavy snow. In some popular areas preserved footprints enabled crampons to be avoided (saving time). There was water ice in the valley (nice dry feet). Much of the heather was covered. My split of about nine hours at Chno Dearg (say half way) illustrates the strength of the conditions. I witnessed stunning orange Alpenglow as the sun set when I was descending this hill (at twice the speed of heather bashing). An Alpine day.
Along the track after Corrour innate mediocrity kicked in and I slowed. I met a guy called Viv who was completing a fast Loch Treig round (I realised that we had seen him at the Dam). I had thought his footprints may have been from a Ramsay-ist. Again this shows how good the mountain running was that day.
At the Loch Eilde ruin I saw head torches, amazingly they proved to be supporters for Jason Hubert's Anti Clockwise Ramsay's attempt. A big coincidence, but it shows consensus on the quality of the conditions. I was grateful for the coffee and malt loaf they gave me and I had a short rest. Kinlochleven was rather tempting at the time. I met Jason and friend on Sgurr Eilde Mor, this was very uplifting. It looked like he was going well. He warned me that the Mamores were icy. I confirmed that the Grey Corries were a dream.
Shortly afterwards I started feeling sick, weak and dizzy - completely debilitating. I gave in a number of times and had to lie briefly in the snow, before becoming cold. It was a thorough effort of will to move. If there had been any weather threat or higher wind chill I would have force marched myself immediately down, I guess to the bothy. But it appeared to be temporary low blood sugar or the body generally protesting as it does on these long routes. Glucose gradually brought me back to life. Binnein Beag was a grim experience. I felt bad again on Na Gruigaichean where in my tired state the lights of Kinlochleven were tantalising.
The Mamores were indeed icy and I believe retain less snow level than the Grey Corries side. Therefore the rocks protrude through which slow things down relative to my earlier mountain 'pavement' experience. The out and back legs are a slog (spiced up with their isolated exposed moves). I have done the Mamores too many times and I can be forgiven for not feeling an appropriate sense of adventure at points, the sickness making a minor reappearance. Sgurr a Mhaim's ascent was soul destroying, especially against the clock. I had haemorrhaged two hours in the Mamores, no doubt from my earlier over exuberance.
Seeing Mullach nan Coirean under the moonlight raised my spirits exponentially and reminded me of our winter 19 hour winter Tranter's round when we were nearly dead on our feet (harsh conditions). If I could do it then I could do it now, especially without ice block feet. I think this is crucial; this time two pairs of wool lined waterproof socks did the trick. The descent from Mullach wasn't the dream I had been expecting and I fell several times on water ice, too tired to to care or to put my crampons on again. Despite having been living for the moment I could stop running (lets call it jogging by that point) it was almost disappointing to do so, such was my exhilaration at the end.
Conclusion: Besides the mountains being so 'runnable' and the weather perfect, the near full moon topped everything. The solid snow may have made it faster or marginally less exhausting than summer. I have been extremely lucky. I am obviously delighted to complete but feel humbled to have got a decent time in winter when many runners could have gone faster in such wonderful conditions.