Thursday, 12 July 2018 11:14

Trail Running the Torridon Trio Featured

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I was sitting motionless, on a step of the steep path down from Mullach an Rathain, too nervous to move, in case I should find out that the result of the fall I had just had was more than bruises and grazes. I held my left arm up in front of me. It had taken quite a knock as I’d tumbled face first down the hill and a large lump had appeared half way along my forearm.

I tentatively twisted my wrist left and right. The lack of crunching noises or intolerable pain reassured me that it wasn’t broken. I then quickly checked the rest of my limbs to find a lack of skin in quite a few places, but no serious injuries. My left ankle was hurting quite badly, so I tried standing up to weight it. The pain shot up my leg, I nearly threw up and promptly sat back down again. I was on day one of my three-day stay in Torridon, had 2 more mountain days planned and a half marathon to run so this was not an ideal situation. I do have some experience of twisting my ankle and knew that if I took the time to sit for a few minutes and have a drink of water, I’d have a fair chance of walking it off. Thankfully this proved to be the case and I was soon slowly and steadily making my way down the mountain, more annoyed at my lack of descending skills than the pain. So there’s the ‘mountain running can be dangerous, be careful’ warning.

My race schedule involved a 37-mile ultra-marathon on the May bank holiday weekend in the lake district and a road half marathon on the outer Hebridean island of Benbecula the following Saturday, so rather than having 2 separate long weekends, I decided to make a week of it and head north. I have a place in the Glen Coe Skyline race in September, so I need some quality scrambling in my legs before then and here was the chance to head for some properly gnarly mountains and test myself. The name ‘Liathach’ had been calling me for some time and I had heard that the other two Torridonian sandstone monsters had some interesting ridges too, so there was the plan. Three days to run the ridges of Beinn Alligin, Beinn Eighe and Liathach.

As it’s the easier of the three, the Munro guidebook recommends doing Beinn Alligin first. I had every intention of following this advice right up to the point where Liathach came into view on the drive to the start. It looks totally impregnable. Surrounded by row after row of sandstone cliffs, it towers over the road and it took my breath away. What a mountain, I thought, I’m doing it!

Day 1 – Liathach

ward torridon 1

Spidean a Choire Leith from Stuc a’ Choire Dhuibh Bhig

Standing in the car park I could see the start of the path up, but it was hard to comprehend how it managed to reach the ridge, disappearing, as it does, into a maze of seemingly impassable sandstone crags. It was also clear that I wouldn’t be doing any running for a while, with the first 2600 feet gained in less than a mile, this was walking territory. I relish that sort of climb though, so after just under an hour spent following the path’s clever line up the hill, I’d done all the hard work and was on the ridge. I took the slight detour out and back to the subsidiary top of Stuc a’ Choire Dhuibh Bhig, the summit that forms the eastern end of the ridge, then followed the route up to the first Munro of the day, which was airy but relatively straight forward. Spidean a Choire Leith is the highest summit on Liathach and gave me my first good view of the most technical part of the ridge, the pinnacles.

ward torridon 2

Mullach an Rathain from the summit of Spidean a Choire Leith

I wouldn’t call what I did along the pinnacles ‘running’ exactly but I did try to cover the ground at a reasonable speed and was loving the feeling of moving at pace over difficult and potentially dangerous terrain. The exposure on both sides of the ridge was exhilarating and on a couple of occasions I’d look down to check my footing and see my car between my legs, 3000 feet below me. Sticking to the crest of the ridge I was in grade 2 scrambling territory and I was pleased to find I was getting plenty of grip and confidence in my foot placements from my running shoes. I use Hoka Speedgoat 2’s for my ultra-marathons and was hoping that they would be ok for scrambling so I could use them for the Skyline race. This was their first real test and while they are clearly not the best footwear for scrambling, they passed with flying colours.

With the technical section behind me I made my way up to the summit of my 2nd and final Munro of the day Mullach an Rathain. The weather was perfect. 25 degrees with clear blue skies and a warm breeze to keep the midges at bay, so I pressed pause on my run to sit at the summit, eat my lunch and stare out at the 360 degree views.

ward torridon 3

Looking down to Loch Torridon from the summit of Mullach an Rathain

The start of the decent was a bit sketchy, but soon turned into a good path. Pleased with how I’d tackled the scrambling on the ridge and buzzing from the day as a whole, I started running faster and faster, gaining confidence in my descending ability as I went. We all know what confidence comes before though….

Day 2 – Beinn Alligin

I wasn’t to be diverted this time. Beinn Alligin promised to be an easier day out and I needed it. Suffering from a sleepless night thanks to aches and pains caused by yesterday’s fall and needing to regain my confidence, I set off from the car park fully intending to take it nice and steady. There were still 2 Munros to summit and the descent from the second one would take me over the delightfully exposed Horns of Alligin.

ward torridon 4

Looking across Loch Torridon towards Beinn Alligin

The path to the top of the first Munro, Tom na Gruagaich, was similarly steep as the previous day’s ascent, but the ridge was much more runnable and a joy to traverse. There were no technical difficulties between the two Munros so the peak of Sgurr Mor was quickly gained and gave a stunning view of the massifs of Liathach and Beinn Eighe to the east and the Torridon wilderness to the north. The Horns of Alligin clearly visible in the foreground looked like they’d be a fun scramble.

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Sgurr Mor and the Horns of Alligin from Tom na Gruagaich

This proved to be the case. Nothing too difficult but plenty of exposure and in an incredible setting. Upon reaching the top of the last horn, I copied my action of the day before by sitting and soaking it all in. It was a wonderful spot and I didn’t want to leave. I did eventually swap this lofty perch for the beach at Ullapool. The view wasn’t quite as nice, but it was much nearer a chip shop.

Day 3 - Beinn Eighe

I didn’t have the time or energy to do the full ridge traverse of this magnificent mountain, so I settled for ticking off the two Munros. It felt like a bit of a cop out at the time, but I’m glad I have left something to return to and was also happy to leave something in the legs for the Benbecula half, which was only 2 days away.

Beinn Eighe feels very different to the other two Torridon giants. The day started with a steady runnable climb up the Coire Dubh Mor on a good stalkers path that lead me around the back of the mountain and into the breath-taking Coire Mhic Fhearchair. Not only did I get to gaze in awe at the lofty crags surrounding the coire, but I was joined by a heard of deer as they made their way down to cool off in the lochern’s crystal clear waters.

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Coire Mhic Fhearchair

The sun was out again, and the heat of the last 3 days was starting to bubble up into localised rain storms. Luckily these seemed to be surrounding the area but staying well clear of me. The humidity though, was stifling, so I took to dipping my cap in the streams I passed and poured water over my head at every opportunity. The first Munro, Ruadh-stac Mor is a bit of a featureless lump, but as it stands well to the north of the rest of the mountains in the Beinn Eighe chain, it gives a great view of the ridge. Wanting to be down before any of the surrounding bad weather worked its way to my location, I headed straight off for the next summit of Spidean Coire nan Clach.

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The view toward Liathach from the summit of Spidean Coire nan Clach

There was no scrambling in the route but the ridge between the two Munros made for a great run before the steep descent to the road following a well-made path, which I was delighted to be able to belt down to without any prat-falls to conclude my last day in these amazing mountains.

Other information

Maps/Guide books

I used the Scottish Mountaineering Club Hillwalkers’ Guide to the Munros and pretty much followed their route descriptions all three days. The book itself was too heavy to carry with me, but I just took a photo of the relevant pages on my phone in case I needed it.

I also used OS Explorer 433 which covers all three mountains. I always get the weatherproof version if I can. They’re a bit heavier than the paper ones, which you’d think as a runner would put me off, but they stand up so much better to being held in sweaty hands, rained on and generally miss-treated. I was so lucky with the weather that I always had good visibility and the routes I took were relatively simple, so the map was only used in planning and to sit in my bag, stopping my camera digging in my back.

Running Kit

These were relatively short days, with the routes taking me 4 to 5 hours and the weather was warm and settled so I travelled light. It’s always a compromise when packing for a run in the mountains. Take too much and the running stops being fun. Take to little and it stops being safe. I have a list of stuff that I would never go into the mountains without and the rest I vary based on the weather and distance/remoteness of the run.

Other than what I’m wearing, the essential kit (for me) is;

* Map

* Compass

* Waterproof Jacket

* Fully charged mobile phone

* Buff

* Energy gels

* Water

* Micro first aid kit (a couple of dressings, bandage, antiseptic wipes, tape)

That’s all I had for these mountains plus a camera. I wouldn’t necessarily advise traveling this light, but it’s what I’m comfortable with. I’m sure there are plenty of hillwalkers that would see this as heading into the hills under-prepared. I’m sure there are also a fair few fell runners that would ditch half that kit and take their chances.

Scrambling Ability

These are pretty serious mountains, and while I was happy to head up them on my own, with minimal kit and wearing running gear, that’s not necessarily going to be right approach for everyone. I’d say you should have a couple of grades in hand if you’re going to tackle the mountains like this. The Liathach ridge is especially committing and if sticking to the crest, involves some tricky and incredibly exposed moves. I may have had a silly fall on the tourist path down from the hill, but I can assure you my concentration on the ridge was at 100%, as a similar tumble here would have been fatal. There are paths that bypass a lot of the tricky bits, but these are no less exposed.

All the mountains above can be climbed individually, without recourse to hands on rock and they are still worth doing if scrambling isn’t your bag.

Route-finding

These are popular mountains, so have good and obvious paths to follow. The paths up to and down from the ridges were largely made stone paths. Once on the ridge it’s fairly easy to follow the polish

and crampon scratches. Don’t let the word ‘popular’ put you off though. I did the Liathach ridge during the May half term week and saw 4 people all day.

Shoes

As I mentioned above, one of the main things I wanted to try out during this trip was the suitability of my Speedgoat 2’s to this sort of terrain. I’ve done a lot in them, from racing across the wet and muddy isle of Arran to the dusty, rocky trails of Mallorca and they are the most comfortable running shoes I’ve used, but I’d never tried scrambling in them. The Glencoe Skyline is 35 miles long and has 14,000 feet of ascent, so I’m going to need something comfy on my feet if I’m not going to be crippled by the end. The route also goes up Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor and along the knife edge ridge of the Aonach Eagach so I’ll need to be pretty sure of my footing too.

I’d read a few reviews that mark them down as being good on the trail but not so good for serious mountains, but they worked a treat. They are clearly not designed for serious scrambling but they gripped the rock well, they gave me enough feel for the ground and they felt secure on my feet. Torridon Sandstone is notoriously grippy stuff though, so I’ll be testing them some more before September’s big race.

I should also point out that the fall I took on the descent from Liathach was not the fault of the shoes. I’d love to be able to blame something other than myself for that one, but it was a simply a case of my tired legs not picking my feet up enough and catching my trailing leg on a rock. So it looks like I’ll end the article where it started, with me falling face first down a Scottish mountain.

Last modified on Thursday, 12 July 2018 11:35

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