Kelli Roberts has beaten the women's fastest known time (FKT) on the Cuillin Ridge Traverse with a time of 5:56:46, despite soaring temperatures. There's little information about the previous women's FKT, but it is believed to be Anna Wells' time of 6:34 set in 2017.
Ambleside-based Kelli Roberts is the English Fell Running Champion in 2018 & 2019, as well as the British Champion in 2019. The Traverse requires a range of skills, and Kelli is an accomplished climber, spending several years Trad Climbing, Sport Climbing, Scottish Winter Climbing and Mountaineering. Kelli and her partner Pete had previously done the Ridge in 2019, clocking a time of 7 ½ hours.
After Kelli had a chance to rehydrate, we caught up with her to find out more about how her FKT unfolded:
How long have you had your eye on the Cuillin Ridge for? Presumably a large amount of recceing went into the process.
My partner, Pete has always been keen to try the Ridge, we had often talked about it but never committed to the drive up, mostly due to the Scottish weather not syncing up with the school holidays. Last April, the forecast was great over Easter so we decided to head up and check it out. We wanted to move quickly across the ridge, but I was unsure how I would feel soloing the climbs so the plan that year was to go and see. We recced the main technical parts (TD gap to In Pinn) and I was wobbly so we decided we would use a rope and see how fast we could do it in a day. That year it took us 7 1/2 hours. I had real trouble on Naismith's Route that day - soloing way too high before putting the rope on and getting panicky. I was happy with our time but after I kept getting a nagging feeling - could I do it solo? On the way back from Skye I started googling the route and read a blog by Anna Wells who had set a time of 6hrs 34mins a few years previous. I planned there and then to go for it.
Your plans must have been halted a bit this year?
This year I thought my luck was out. COVID meant we couldn't get to Scotland and Pete's back went at the start of August. I had resigned to leaving it until Easter, however, the weather forecast was great in Skye, so with the promise of carrying all the kit up on our recces and doing all the cooking in the van, we headed up to practice some of the routes. In my head, if I could nail the exposure on Naismith's route, I felt it was achievable. So that's where we headed first. We had 4 days in Skye this time round so spent the first day on Naismith's route and the second on the TD gap, Kings Chimney and the In Pinn. We almost went for it on day 3 but the forecast looked slightly cooler on Sunday so we decided to have a rest day and went for it on day 4.
How effectively were you able to train throughout lockdown without visiting the Skye?
To be honest, 2020 has been a much more relaxed year training-wise. With all the fell races and training sessions being cancelled I took to just running in the hills. I had a bad ankle sprain in June so had to take it easy for a month or so. I'm really lucky living in Ambleside and have great access to the Lake District fells. During Lockdown itself I took advantage of the quiet roads and did some cycling too.
Can you tell me a little bit about what your training consisted of?
Mainly running (slowly!). I think I overdid it during training last winter as I was pretty tired by the start of this race season in March. I have really just used Lockdown to readjust and take stock of what I can manage training-wise. My ankle injury meant I had to be very steady with my running, so I decided to give some heart rate training a go. I am definitely enjoying a steadier pace for the majority of my runs now! Climbing wise I knew I had to get on the rock so managed to squeeze in a few easy routes after the Lockdown was eased and before the rain!
What was the previous women's FKT and were you setting off with a schedule to try and beat this?
When you google 'Women's Cullin Ridge record' there is basically no information other than the blog posted by Anna Wells. Anna took 6hrs 34min, so I took this as being the time to beat. I didn't really have a schedule as such, just kept an eye on the time. The main plan was to run steady until after the In Pinn and then hopefully pick up the pace over the more runnable sections and see where that got me.
What were your expectations before setting off?
To be honest, I had absolutely no idea how it was going to unfold. I had practised the routes so I knew I could do them - it was all going to be about my mental strength and how I was going to deal with the exposure on the climbs. Each climb had at least one move I would have liked to be easier, so I couldn't make up my mind as to whether or not to take a rope in case I got stuck. Eventually, we decided we would take a small rope and rack and run in our harnesses just in case!
How did the day unfold? Can you run me through how it went?
Our original plan was to bivvy on top, but the Midges seemed really bad on the ridge when we were recceing the In Pinn, so we decided against it. Pete was keen to set off early (5am) but the weather forecast said sunshine and cloud, so I insisted we started our day at a normal time! Oh, how I wish I had listened to him!
I had somehow managed not to set my alarm properly, so we were up later than planned! We set off from the campsite about 7:20am and reached Gars-bheinn just before 10am. It was then that I realised just how hot it was going to be! It was already baking and there was very little cloud. We set off along the ridge at 10am and made pretty good time to the TD Gap (1hr 15 mins). This was the first technical part and I knew it was make or break. We were just ahead of a group of three, so we didn't have to wait. I had made the choice to carry my rock shoes up with me to give me more confidence on the climbs. This turned out to be a great move as it allowed me to sit and catch my breath before tackling the climbing. To my surprise, I felt incredibly calm and cruised the downclimb into the gap. This gave me a lot of confidence and I set off up the other side feeling good. I got a bit stuck just leaving the crack where it is a little bit awkward, but I knew this was one of the moves I didn't like so I just dealt with it and moved on!
Still feeling good we headed off towards the King's Chimney (VD). Again, I felt great climbing up the corner and by this point was totally buzzing as I knew I was in control and that I would be able to complete the ridge if we just kept going. We bumped into a few groups climbing the In Pinn, but they stayed very still as we nipped round them. They gave us some encouragement as we passed which was nice.
We were still making good time and were off the In Pinn in about 2hr 30mins. I was totally stoked to have most of the technical climbing done and was eager to push on, however, by this point we were beginning to get low on water. Pete was especially thirsty and was cursing me for insisting on taking a minimal amount of water (I blame the weather forecast!). A guide kindly told us where his stash of water was and told us to help ourselves, however, we could not find it anywhere and in looking for it almost headed off the ridge back towards Glen Brittle!
After tearing Pete away from the search, we headed back up onto the ridge and found the correct way off Sgurr na Banachdich. This was meant to be the more runnable part, but my bad planning had us trying to move quickly in the midday sun with no water, so we quickly slowed to a walk. We had a few gels to keep us going but the heat was relentless. Thankfully, some walkers were happy to support our attempt and willingly gave us some water to keep us going. I have never been so thankful in my life! Eventually, we made it to Naismith's Route (S) in 5hrs 20mins. At this point, I was no longer sure if I was going to make it in record time, but the extra water and some fruit jellies seemed to do the trick. Pete needed a bit of time here to compose himself, so I tried to be patient whilst he had a mini bonk! We discussed whether or not he was going to do the climb, but he started to feel better and eventually made his way up the route.
I was super happy to be at the top of the last route and apologised to Pete for having to leave him (I didn't have long to get to the top!). I met a group of climbers on the way up the final chimney on Sgurr nan Gillean, I couldn't resist asking if they had any spare water - the thought of being able to guzzle some water on the last top was too much to bear! Again, thankfully he said I could help myself as he was heading down and no longer needed it - THANK YOU SO MUCH to that man! I had one last push to get to the top in under 6 hours, thankfully it was closer than it appeared, and I made it in 5hrs 56mins 46sec! We spent a few minutes on the final summit but soon headed down in search of water.
How did you cope with the heat? You must have been pretty thirsty!
As you read above, I'm not sure I did! I am used to running with little to no water during fell races, so I was sure that with a sunshine and cloudy forecast my 850ml of water was going to be enough. I knew I could drink from the springs on the way up and down, so I only needed enough to get across right? I was soooooo wrong. I was mega thirsty from about halfway through and it slowed me down. I am not a fan of running in the heat anyway and all that hot rock was a bit much!
How did you tackle the pitches of climbing? I know other people have worked out methods of down climbing sections, but could you elaborate on how you went about these?
Basically I practised the routes until I felt ok on them. On Naismith's Route (S), I wanted to lead straight off but was too intimidated (it was the first time I had touched rock for a while) so I seconded it first, then practised it on a top rope a couple of times (up and down). Then I lead it and climbed back down taking out the gear, and the final time I soloed it with a rope on! That's the route I worked the most.
The TD Gap down climb took a bit of working out; I found it better to down climb further left than the ab route as the rock felt less slopey! I lead up the other side twice for practice and the King's Chimney (VD) once. The main shock was the downclimb off the In Pinn as I found it hard to find the best route. I worked it by abbing off to begin with and then climbing back up but there were a couple of routes both with a sketchy move in the middle. I would have liked to practice that one more, but the midges were relentless! On the day though the moves came easily, it was brilliant!
I know your partner, Pete, was up on the ridge – but did you have a support team?
Ha - no, I didn't have a support team Pete was basically it, he was pretty integral though, especially for moral support - although he did drink more than his fair share of water!
How did it feel breaking the record afterwards, and also now that it's had some time to sink in?
I was pretty pleased after thinking it wasn't going to be possible at Naismith's. I was especially pleased with how the climbing went considering it was the thing I was most worried about. I let myself down on the running parts though and that's the bit I'm supposed to be good at! I don't think I'm going to be able to let this one lie until I've had another bash. Although, I will listen to Pete next time - go early with plenty of water!