Driving west along the A82 through Glen Coe has always been a highlight of any trip I have made to the West Highlands. As you head away from Rannoch Moor the rocky pyramids of Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag tower above you to your left, a sight that’s never failed to make me pull the car over for a better look. As you enter the glen you become surrounded by immense peaks. On your left, the monster known as Bidean, guarded by the craggy ramparts of the Three Sisters and on your right the notched knife edge ridge of the Aonach Eagach. If there’s a more awe inspiring place in the UK, I’d like to know about it.
Glen Coe from Rannoch Moor, taken on a previous trip.
The Salomon Glen Coe Skyline race takes in all of these peaks, so when my friend Dan suggested we give it a go it was an immediate yes. When entries went live I entered all of my details. This needed to include proof of completing races of a similar severity and a list of my recent rock climbing/mountaineering experience, showing the ability to comfortably complete moderate graded rock climbs, un-roped and in all weathers. The race organiser looks to take this process very seriously and many people are turned down due to inadequate experience. Thankfully mine and Dan’s was deemed adequate and we greeted our acceptance to the race with equal parts fear and excitement.
I have done a lot of climbing and more recently, a lot of running, but until this year I’ve never combined the two, so my normal training runs along the Malvern hills really weren’t going to cut it. A week in Torridon (which you can read about here; https://myoutdoors.co.uk/adventure-zone/trail-ultra-running/item/1529-trail-running-the-torridon-trio ) and several trips to Snowdonia were enough to get plenty of practice moving fast over technical terrain, so as we made the tedious journey up the M6 I felt fully prepared. The only things troubling my mind were the fact I was still recovering from a nasty cold and the weather forecast, which was predicting gale force winds.
I wasn’t going to let a cold stop me from running so fervently ignored it, but sadly the race organisers couldn’t ignore the weather. With gusts up to 60mph predicted for race morning they made the difficult but understandable decision to run the bad weather route.
The original bad weather route misses out the two most technical sections, these being Curved Ridge and the Aonach Eagach. To do this route would have been really disappointing, as it is the technical ground you have to cover that really makes this race special and was what drew me to it in the first place. Thankfully the organisers made the pragmatic decision to leave curved ridge in, so we were left with a shorter race, but still over the type of ground we were hoping for.
The atmosphere at the start line was electric, with a truly international field of world class runners gathering in the start pen. Each race number was adorned with the flag of the runner’s home and with nearly 50% of the field coming from overseas, it made the start pen feel quite special. The sound of a lone piper blasting out Flower of Scotland in the pouring rain rang across the valley, sending shivers down my spine to add to the butterflies in my stomach. Now I am far from a world class runner so being in a relatively small field of runners (just under 200) that includes the likes of Killian Journet, was quite an experience and left me feeling a bit out of my depth.
A downpour at the start didn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm
At 10am the starting hooter was sounded and we were off along the West Highland Way, the wide track climbing out of the valley allowing everyone to settle into their own pace and hopefully time to spread out a bit before hands were needed on rock.
The route climbs steadily from sea level at the start, to the top of the Devil’s Staircase at 548 meters. It was on this section where my hands met rock rather prematurely, as I managed to fall over my own feet and land flat on my face. Something I seem to be making a habit of this year! Someone kindly helped me to my feet almost as soon as I hit the deck and other than a bit of blood running down my fingers and a severely bruised ego, I was back on my way and reached the top of the pass within the hour. From here we could see what was in store for us. The dark mass of Buachaille Etive Mor, it’s summit hidden from view by the violently swirling clouds, was our next summit and to get there was the most technical section of the day, along the grade 3 Scramble (Moderate rock climb) of Curved Ridge.
I was totally psyched about this and as the gradient increased so did the size of my grin. The race organisers ensured the route took a careful line around the steep scree section at the base of the climb, to limit the risk of falling rocks from those above and were very clear at the start that the marked route had to be followed exactly. As not one single runner had anything more than a cap or beanie protecting their head, this was a good thing.
Grinning all the way up Curved Ridge. Photo by MyBibNumber
I was pushing as hard as I could, struggling to get the oxygen in me as I was still coughing and spluttering from my cold, so wasn’t too upset to find myself in a queue for the crux of the climb. The most sociable part of the day and a chance to get my breath back and have a bite to eat.
A bit of a queue at the crux
The most difficult part of the scramble was manned by mountain guides. There were no fixed ropes for the runners and we were left to climb unaided which was great, but there was a reassuring presence of useful people on hand if anything were to go wrong. The vetting process had clearly worked, as everyone seemed to know what they were doing and I never felt in any danger, despite being surrounded by people while in some quite precarious positions.
We had been climbing steep ground for some time and any slip could well be fatal, so I was looking down often to check my footing and to take in the magnificent levels of exposure beneath my feet. As I approached the most difficult section of the scramble the pressure was on to get up the crux groove in the rock without faffing and holding up those behind me. The hand holds were good but the rock supporting my feet was wet, polished and sloped unnervingly away from me. The wet rock proved to have enough grip and with 100% concentration and a couple of awkward moves completed, the steepness eased. I took a look down behind me to see the snake of runners working their way up the ridge and in front of me the field was spread out enough to get back to my own pace all the way to the summit.
Up to this point the wind had been blustery but hadn’t hampered my movement. Upon reaching the summit however, it hit me with its full force and nearly knocked me off my feet. I struggled my way through it along the ridge, heading South West directly into the wind. It was here I was glad the Aonach Eagach ridge was off the route, this would definitely be enough.
After traversing the ridge for a couple of miles, we dropped off to our right and took the steep rocky path back down to the valley floor. The crossing of Lairig Gartain didn’t look too appealing, until I stepped into the river and the cool water soothed my complaining calf muscles. The soothing feeling would be short lived though, as the steep grassy slope ahead was our route to Buachaille Etive Beag, the 2nd Munro summit of the day.
The slog up Buachaille Etive Beag. Photo by Michaela Penny
I suffered on this climb, but managed to keep moving at my desired pace. I was just about managing the cramp in my legs. I could feel them twinging occasionally and every time I tripped or took a miss step I’d have to quickly react to stretch them in time to stop them seizing completely. The steep grassy climb ended at a col on the Buachaille Etive Beag ridge, where I met my friends who were out supporting. As always this was a real morale boost and I set off up the out and back climb to the summit with renewed energy. Once at the top I knew I had a long runnable descent ahead of me and knowing there was only one more climb to go after it, I decided to push on. I felt great and rattled down passing my friends and a few other runners, thoroughly enjoying the effects of gravity and relishing the concentration required to descend at speed.
Enjoying the descent from Buachaille Etive Beag. Photo by MyBibNumber
Soon I was at the final checkpoint, well ahead of the cut off times and 20 minutes ahead of my plan. I topped up my water and grabbed a handful of sandwiches to eat while I walked up the final climb of the day. Walking was off the cards though, as the marshal at the road crossing was the most vocal of the day and rather wonderfully screamed at me to run. At the same time the police had stopped the traffic on the A82 for me to cross, so I couldn’t linger and forced myself to run on until I was conveniently out of sight.
The last climb was a pathless heather bash, gaining 550 meters before the final drop to the finish. I took a miss step over a boggy section and my left leg sank in up to my thigh. The compression this caused in my right leg made my quad instantly cramp up and I was stuck. The chap behind me caught up and checked I was ok and with a bit of help, I got going again, concentration back to 100% and treading very carefully.
After what seemed like an eternity, I reached the top and with just over an hour left to meet my target time, I could finally relax and enjoy the steady descent into Kinlochleven. There was a muddy, slippery ridge for a mile and a half, before the route re-joined the large West Highland Way path where I managed to open up my stride and keep running strongly to the village. This race had loomed so large over the summer and was by far and away the most important race to me this year, so I don’t mind admitting I was seriously choked as I crossed the finish line.
Killian Journet showed his true class by taking the overall victory in 3 hours 37. Especially impressive as he also won the 18-mile Ring of Steall Skyrace the previous day. Hillary Gerardi won the women’s race in 4 hrs 17, pipping Jasmin Paris to the line by 7 seconds. I got to enjoy the course for rather longer than that, finishing in a more leisurely 6 hours 38, well back in the field but very happy with my day out.
The finish. Photo by MyBibNumber
The poor weather may have reduced the route distance, but it did add a certain amount of drama to proceedings and the welcome inclusion of Curved Ridge to the bad weather route meant that this will be a race that lives long in my memory. It was very well organised and felt every bit the international event it was. The support out on the course was fantastic, the marshals were some of the most encouraging I’ve witnessed and all of the runners I came across were out to help each other and enjoy the day as much as race. At the non-sharp end of the field anyway!
If it’s a race you’re considering entering, I’d definitely recommend it. You don’t need to be an elite runner, but you really do need to be a confident scrambler/climber with a good head for heights and a capable, experienced mountain runner, to be safe and to meet the cut off times. This short clip will give you a good idea what you are letting yourself in for; https://www.facebook.com/SkyrunningOfficial/videos/936485109877244/
The Glen Coe Skyline is one of 4 races starting in Kinlochleven over the weekend, so there are a few options if you want to join in next year. You can find more details about the race and the entry procedure here; http://www.skylinescotland.com/
The official photos were by MyBibNumber who did their usual bang up job as you can see above, as did my friend Michaela.
It’s going to be hard to find something to follow this race. Suggestions welcome!