On Friday 13th March, mountain runner John Fleetwood completed a rare winter round of the Glen Coe skyline. The ultra distance solo specialist made full use of a brief window of stunning weather to complete the 40km-odd circuit of the mountains surrounding Glen Coe in a time of 22 hours, totalling around 4000m ascent in the process (the stats are estimates). With technical winter climbing on Aonach Eagach (grade II) and Curved Ridge (II/III), and trail breaking for much of the distance in deep snow, this must be one of the most impressive running/walking days on the Scottish hills this season.
Setting off at around 5am, he first tackled the traverse of Aonach Eagach west-to-east before following the high ground to the Devil's Staircase. Buachaille Etive Mor was accessed via Curved Ridge before a traverse over the Buachaille's two Munros, and Buachaille Etive Beag's pair.
"A steep descent then takes you to the Lairig Eilde" says John.
"I'd intended to go up Sron na Lairig but without a properly functioning torch and in the dark I felt my way up to the left of this to the ridge and on to Stob Coire Sgreamhach, then Bidean nam Bian. I intended to go to Stob Coire nan Lochan but couldn't find the ridge in the dark, so went straight down to Coire nam Beith to the west of Church Door Buttress..."
Long known as a classic challenge, and in recent years heavily publicised by the skyrunning race of the same name, the Glen Coe skyline had been in John's sights for a couple of years, but most particularly in winter.
"But I wanted full-on conditions for the Aonach Eagach in particular" says John, "and a nice day". That's a combination that hasn't been seen much this season, but he really lucked out on Friday, with wall-to-wall sunshine throughout the morning.
"The day started with a bit of wind and blowing spindrift, but it very soon cleared to a superb, pretty still morning with excellent visibility. It clouded over in the afternoon, the wind got up and in the night it snowed and the wind rose to what must have been 40mph which made it feel very cold as the freezing level also dropped."
Underfoot conditions covered a full range from deep snow: a mix of powder and some "heavy, wet stuff" to occasional patches of neve. The route was made more spicy by the complicated snow pack, with areas of avalanche concern and many big cornices. The deep snow also slowed him down a lot.
"I was trail blazing most of the way" says John. "The only points where I wasn't were the final ascent to Am Bodach, the approach to Curved Ridge, and bits on the Buachaille Etive Mor and Beag ridges. Everything else was mostly extremely taxing ploughing through deep snow."
"The Aonach Eagach was stunning with the pinnacles being plastered in snow. I had the ridge to myself until just below the final rise and it felt very special to traverse it in those conditions. The snow formations were beautiful with care needed on some of the crests where the snow had been whipped into attractive curls."
"I'm fairly comfortable soloing grade 3, but without any tracks and being loaded with soft snow, I found it quite tricky to identify the best descent routes on the Aonach Eagach heading east. This felt quite precarious at times."
"Swimming up a completely untouched Curved Ridge was also memorable. I took a couple of the trickier options and although there was some wet ice, it was completely buried under mountains of soft snow."
But perhaps the most dicey moments came at night, when he was forced by the loss of his torch battery to avoid the ascent of the Sron na Lairig ridge (II) and ended up below a huge cornice in the corrie to its south.
"My torch almost immediately went into emergency mode in the night" says John.
"I'd forgotten to flick the lock button in the morning after switching it off and it had turned itself on. I was left with a poor light for a very limited period and a basic Nokia phone torch. I took a risk and tried walking up in the dark without a torch to conserve the battery for when I really needed it, using poles for stability (there was no moon so it was pretty dark)."
"When skirting Sron na Lairig I ended up under a scary overhanging cornice which was not possible to chop through and the ledge beneath it was pretty fragile [we can vouch for its size, having also been there on Friday - Ed.]. I had to traverse beneath it in crab-like fashion for perhaps 100m to escape to a point where the cornice was smaller and I could belly flop over."
"By Bidean the weather had turned and it was really windy, misty, dark and started snowing. I got very cold as I was moving slowly and it was near the end. I couldn't find the ridge down to Stob Coire nan Lochan. I re-ascended and went straight down into Stob Coire nam Beith. The snow was pouring down in little avalanches of spindrift and at one point the slope to my right started to move a bit..."
Compared to a summer running pack, John's winter load can't have made things easier. He had 1.5 kg of camera kit, two axes, crampons (Grivel Air Tech), Scarpa Ribelle Tech boots, plenty of food, juice, shell, waterproof trousers, spare gloves, Buff, down jacket, survival bag, first aid kit, torch [perhaps he should have carried two? Ed], helmet, harness, sling, map and compass.
Physically he thinks the Glen Coe skyline is a lot easier than some of the bigger winter rounds he has done, but in terms of technical winter ground it's on a different level of seriousness.