Finlay Wild

Finlay Wild
Hill runner, mountaineer, skier
Sponsored by Norman Walsh UK and Anatom / Dynafit UK

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Skimo Tranter Round

On Sunday 28th Febuary myself and Tim Gomersall completed the Phillip Tranter Round in a time of 17hours and 35minutes. This is a classic running Round of 40miles and circa 6000m ascent along the Ben Nevis, Aonachs, Grey Corries and then Mamores ranges in Lochaber. We set off from Glen Nevis Youth Hostel at 0421hrs and finished there at 2156hrs. As far as I can see this is faster than the winter running record of 18hrs 59 mins and 6 seconds recorded by Dan Gay, Jon Gay and Paul Manson in February 2009. We used 'Skimo' lightweight ski mountaineering equipment, as well as trainers for the first approach and last run out. We were unsupported and had no gear or food caches. We estimate we were 'on skis' around 70% of the time.

Tim Gomersall setting off

Setting off up Ben Nevis in the dark we were very excited - the forecast for the day was perfect, and the snow cover looked good too. We had debated whether to do the round as a run or a ski, and even now I am not sure what the fastest option would be. The benefits of running are of course lighter gear and less kit faff, whereas the ski mountaineering benefits would be ease of travel over (some types of) snow, as well as faster descents which would likely save the legs compared to running downhill. Snow conditions would be a huge factor as skis would have the edge in soft conditions, whereas on this day conditions were set to be fairly firm and scoured, so would the skis be a hindrance or a help? I have long been fascinated with the idea of doing this Round using skimo kit - would it be possible?

The problems of doing a round like this with traditional ski mountaineering kit are mainly the weight of equipment and also the faff time for 'transitions' from uphill mode to downhill; from skis on to cramponing, etc. With modern lightweight skimo equipment these problems are largely overcome as transitions can be made very quickly with functional 'race' systems, and also the skis are light and short allowing them to be easily carried on the back without much detriment.

First light on top of Ben Nevis. Perfect clear skies and no wind. Moonlight and stars. I let out a whoop skiing some nice snow down to the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. Crossing this on foot we continued into the rising dawn. Very firm down to the Carn Mor Dearg - Aonach Mor col. Steep cramponing up firm neve to the plateau. After this things started warming up a bit in the sun and we made steady progress along the Grey Corries, mainly on skis with some foot sections when steep or rocky. Off Stob Ban (Grey Corries) we had a fantastic spring-like ski down east of Meall a Bhuirich and grass hopped right to the river Abhainn Rath. A quick barefoot river crossing wasn't so bad as the sun was out and we got a breather and a chance to take on water.

Tim skiing off Ben Nevis towards CMD Arete in the half light

Fast conditions on CMD Arete
Skiing down to CMD - Aonach Mor col by moonlit dawn

Up to Aonach Mor plateau

Approaching Aonach Mor plateau with Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg behind

Sunrise: descending Aonach Mor for Aonach Beag

Stob Coire Bhealaich gully off Aonach Beag

Grey Corries traversing

Stob Choire Claurigh

Descent all the way to the river Abhainn Rath on ski

River crossing

Crossing ranges, we now skinned up the long and lovely northeast ridge of Sgurr Eilde Mor. From this summit we crossed to Binnein Beag and found a brilliant half pipe gully of soft snow near the crossing of the Allt Coire a' Bhinnein's southernmost fingers. For Binnein Beag we left the skis and bags for an out-and-back. Skiiing off Binnean Mor and traversing Pt 1062 to descent to the col east of Na Gruagaichean was rewarding, but the descent from Na Gruagaichean itself was icy and chattery on skis. Another out-and-back to An Gearanach as the evening light was deepening. From Stob Coire a' Chairn down was a fun ridge-ski, and up Am Bodach felt steep. The last out-and-back along the Devil's Ridge to Sgurr a' Mhaim was a final 'crux' and we again left the skis and proceeded on foot for this. Darkness finally descended on arrival back at the skis and a surprisingly good headtorch ski down to Lochan Coire nam Miseach and some opportunistic water.

Looking from Sgurr Eilder Mor NE ridge towards Binnein Beag and Ben Nevis

Nice snow gully below Coire an Lochain of Sgurr Eilde Mor

Rising traverse towards Binnein Beag

Descending into evening light towards Am Bodach

Skiing off Stob Ban (Mamores) was unconsolidated and rocky so we had a short walk, but then got skinning again along the final section to Mullach nan Coirean. Chat was fairly minimal by now with necessary information communicated in grunts. After descending down the final northeast ridge a ways on foot we had a nice ski down beside the fence and then switched to trainers for the final 4km run out to the Youth Hostel.

Dark again: somewhere near Stob Ban (Mamores)

Finished: at Glen Nevis Youth Hostel

This was another unforgettable hill day - for pure length; for variety and interest; for perfect winter weather. From being barefoot in the warm(ish) sun at the valley river crossing, to being fully layered in the dark with increasing wind going up Stob Ban (Mamores) many hours later. I had long thought that this Round could be done utilising skis as a tool for travel in the winter mountains, and I'm very pleased that we managed to turn this into a reality.

GPS trace here:
My watch battery was running low so I switched to my phone at Sgorr an Lubhair (being careful to take this into account in the timings). Annoyingly the GPS trace for some reason hasn't worked between starting at the Glen Nevis YH and Aonach Mor.

Split times:

Start Glen Nevis YH          00:00:00
Ben Nevis                           1h53m50s
Carn Mor Dearg                      32.42
Aonach Mor                            51.04
Aonach Beag                           17.27
Sgurr Choinnich Mor              56.02
Stob Coire a' Laoigh               38.53
Stob Coire Claurigh                46.01
Stob Ban                                  28.46
Sgurr Eilde Mor                    1.56.18
Binnein Beag                           58.40
Binnein Mor                          1.00.19
Na Gruagaichean                      23.46
An Gearanach                        1.04.40
Stob Coire a' Chairn                 32.35
Am Bodach                               32.42
Sgor a Iubhair                            30.23
Sgurr a' Mhaim                          39.19
Stob Ban                                 1.18.21
Mullach nan Coirean                 52.31
Glen Nevis YH                       1.13.27

(as detailed, timekeeping switched device at Sgor a Iubhair due to low battery, so split times from there on are approximate. But total time for the round was accurate)

Monday, 15 February 2016

A Fast Winter Cuillin Ridge Traverse

On Sunday 14th February 2016 myself and Tim Gomersall completed a Winter Cuillin Ridge Traverse from Sgurr nan Gillean in the north to Gars-bheinn in the south. Our route took in all 11 Munro summits, Bidein Druim nan Ramh, and included the TD gap. We started at Sgurr nan Gillean at 07.40am and touched the cairn on Gars-bheinn at 1.54.17pm. The summit to summit traverse took 6hrs 14minutes and 17seconds.

Tim and myself in Glen Brittle after our traverse
We had heard that the Cuillin traverse was in excellent winter condition, and were aware of several parties who had completed traverses in the past few days. The weather looked to remain good for Sunday, if a little windy, so we arranged to drive up to Sligachan and sleep in the van. I was excited to share this adventure with 23 year old Tim who already has many impressive mountain feats to his name including sixth place in the Glencoe Skyline race last year, the Cuillin Greater Traverse record, and an eight hour winter round of Glencoe to name just a few.

Setting off at 05.25am to walk in up the South East ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean we were brimming with enthusiasm. The weather was clear and we could gradually make out the familiar mountain masses as the dawn developed. Popping out on the South East ridge and seeing the main Cuillin spread out before us in its winter coat lit by early morning light was breathtaking, beautiful and incredibly exciting. We have both spend a considerable amount of time in the Cuillin in summer conditions - what would it be like in winter?

Looking south from Sgurr nan Gillean to the rest of the Cuillin 

Looking from Sgurr nan Gillean to Am Basteir and the Northern Cuillin

Several factors were key to our fast and light approach. The snow conditions were excellent, with both a decent base and a forgiving fresher covering on top. The weather was clear and the wind not too persistent. Several parties had been along the ridge in the past two days and so there was a trail already broken - which took a very good line for at least ninety percent of the route. We also had the advantage of light equipment. In particular, we both wore Salomon X-Alp Carbon GTX boots - which at 500g each are essentially a stiff running shoe with an outer gaiter. These take a crampon remarkably well. We decided to take two ice axes each, to allow a maximum of soloing, and used one technical and one super light axe each for the majority of the time. For the multiple abseils we took a 38metre length of 8mm rope, and a 26metre length of 6mm cord. We took multiple slings and abseil tatt although as hoped all but one of the abseils we made were already equipped by recent teams. In addition we had a small rack of nuts and 4 quickdraws, for use on the Inn Pinn and TD Gap. We took just over a litre of water each and ate mostly gels and jelly babies.

Equipment used

Setting off from Sgurr nan Gillean we were incredibly excited. Getting the timing right with days off work, weather, snow conditions and partner had all come to pass: now we could get on with the task at hand. Tim set a blistering initial pace and fell back on his alpine experience to rig the first abseil extremely quickly. From then on we developed an efficient partnership, soloing and running between the more technical short sections or abseils.

Tim on Sgurr nan Gillean just before starting the traverse
Finlay on Sgurr nan Gillean

Ideal conditions: Tim on Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh with the southern half of the Cuillin beyond

Tim powering on up

Having a broken trail which was in the right place was key to our speed. Also the recently used, visible abseils were quick to find and safe to use - they didn't need dug out, re-equipped or hunted for. We moved very quickly between the abseils on Sgurr nan Gillean, Am Basteir, Bhasteir Tooth; the second and then third tops of Mhadaidh. At times were were overheating in just a single thin top layer, but as we got to Sgurr na Banachdich and the change of general ridge direction, it got a bit colder in the wind. Reaching a wintery Inn Pinn Tim took the lead and we simul climbed up to the summit block at about 3hrs 15mins elapsed. After a quick abseil and another gel we continued on, and warmed up. Abseiling Kings Chimney we should have used both ropes, but didn't and had a short awkward downclimb.

Climbing the Inn Pinn

King's Chimney abseil

Approaching the TD Gap I was apprehensive. Things were going well but we still had this final technical obstacle to overcome. Many winter traverses descend into Coire a' Ghrunnda from the gap, but we felt that the ideal aesthetic was to include the climb out of the gap. After a brief pitiful attempt at some lassoing of the top of the gap from abseil, we descended and I set off on an anxious lead. To my delight, I found several positive hooks which I had no idea were there, despite knowing this short section well in summer. It's pretty steep with poor feet and my forearms were screaming, but at least it is short and fairly soon I was up and out. Me delighted, Tim seconded up and we continued on.

Finlay leading out of TD Gap

The sun came out now again and it was getting hot. We also picked up the pace slightly and enjoyed a brilliant romp up Sgurr Dubh Mor. Racing down the snowy gully towards Caisteal a' Garbh-Choire was certainly easier than ascending it in summer, although we had to make a few minor route changes in these winter conditions. From Sgurr nan Eag we stayed close, pushing each other on, and finally reached Gars-bheinn and its eagle's eerie view in a pretty knackered state. We took in the ridge and that favourite view across to a snow topped Bla Bheinn, before stumbling our way down the south west screes to the track and some water. A friendly family on holiday squeezed us into their car at Glen Brittle and dropped us back at Sligachan, for a much needed cup of tea.

Finished: At Gars-bheinn

The view back along the ridge

See here for GPS watch trace:

Split times:

Sgurr nan Gillean             00.00.00
Am Basteir                            16m37s
Bruach na Frithe                    20.57
Bidein DNR                           38.45
Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh                 43.24
Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh               11.00
Sgurr na Banachdich               22.33
In Pin                                      40.53
Sgurr Mhic Choinnich            25.19
Sgurr Alasdair                        26.58
Sgurr Dubh Mor                  1.17.04
Sgurr nan Eag                        28.50
Gars-bheinn                           21.51


A few weeks ago we headed down to the John Muir Trust 'Wild Space' in Pitlochry, to hang my first art exhibition 'Kaleidoscape'. It will run in the Alan Reece Gallery there for the next two months. It was great to see so many of my painting all up in the same space - 15 framed canvases and 5 framed prints.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Skimo British Champs washout

The 2016 Skimo British Champs were set to take place at the Roc et Pic race at Thollon les Memises on the slopes above Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). I've done the Roc et Pic before, and remember some great sections with sunny slopes and expansive views down towards the shimmering lake with bluebird skies above. Unfortunately this weekend was not to follow suit.

Things started badly for me as I expertly procrastinated on getting packed, and then for one reason or another ended up spending a pretty uncomfortable time in Glasgow airport as far from ideal race prep. Arriving in Amsterdam airport I was totally disorientated as I woke up to being climbed over by the guy next to me who was rushing to catch his connection. I just made mine, despite being in a sleep deprived, caffeine-addled, dehydrated suboptimal state.

That done I was in Geneva. Or rather stuck at the outsized baggage area in Geneva airport. Eventually it transpired that my bag was delayed until the evening, so I abandoned it and got a lift with the patient Neil, Andy and Tim to Thollon. 
Impromptu lunch break in Thollon Les Memises (Pic: Bjorn Verduijn)

Getting there it was decidedly Scottish - mild, damp and windy. There wasn't an awful lot of snow to be seen either. The race organisers had worked tirelessly to try and put on a 'C' course despite the conditions, but the briefing was noticeably devoid of racers, with the Brits making up more than 10% of those assembled. This wasn't really a good sign. Adding to this my lack of any ski kit led to a general uncertain atmosphere. A message came to the hotel that my bag wound arrive at midnight - well we would see I suppose but I wasn't for staying up hanging around for it so set the alarm and had a much needed sleep. Waking early we were greeted by an apologetic message from the race committee - the poor guys had been out at four am checking the course, and had decided to pull the plug. Looking out the window this was entirely unsurprising as the wind had now increased and it was raining and mild in a way that even Skimo Scotland might struggle to race in. Feeling fairly deflated we met the other Brits and I found that my lost bag had indeed made it. Just in time for the 'annuler' message.

After some moping about, commiseration and general indecision we decided to go for a skin anyway and - not being as hardy as the GB girls who went for a skin up the icy wet race course in the soaking rain - we headed fairly en mass to Grand Montets at Argentiere and skinned up the marked track to the ski area and down the home run. This was still pretty soggy but at least the wind was lighter, we were in the trees, and there was even some reasonable snow. Thoroughly soaked through we hit one of the Chamonix cafes for many coffees and frites.

Neil and Anthony at Grand Montets

Next day I went skinning with Colin, Guillem, Naila, Ben B, John and Alasdair at Les Houches. It started cloudy and mild and we headed up to Le Prarion before skiing some heavy snow and then down the pistes. Some folk headed up for another lap but some of us had other business - namely getting the entries in for Glencoe and Tromso Skyline races, which both opened that day at noon. Turned out this was a good idea as they sold out in minutes! Then I headed back to Scotland and the wild gales blowing lorries off the road in Glencoe.

Lycra at Le Prarion summit

Cheers to Ben Bardsley for all his work setting up the British Champs - no one could have predicted just how unhelpful the weather was going to be. There's always next year...

Monday, 25 January 2016

Once upon a time when there was snow..

We've had a few weeks of reasonable snow, followed by the devastating thaw on Sunday.

On 16th January myself and Suzy decided to head up into the Mamores. From the forecast it looked like Lochaber could be a better bet than the Cairngorms, although the opposite was true in the end and the cloud came in early.

The Mamores isn't really an obvious choice for ski touring, excepting spring skiing the bowls off Sgurr a Mhaim and a few others, as it's pretty rocky and scree topped, with a fair few narrow ridges. I have always wanted to head up there on skis however as the idea of travelling on skis along the ridge traverse appeals to me. There are also some pretty remote slopes which look like they would be amazing to ski in the right conditions. Also with an eye on the Tranter round, it was worth a reccy.

We headed up from Achriabhach onto the slopes of Mullach nan Coirean. Getting the skis on it was straightforward to start with, but then as it got more rocky it became more awkward. The basic problem was the lack of any significant base! There was quite a bit of soft snow, but not much between it and the (many) rocks. We made our way up into the mist as the wind picked up...

The cloud had come in much earlier than expected. We picked our way along to Pt 917 and then to the col where the north ridge of Stob Ban heads off. We decided to bag Stob Ban, in the mist, then descended back to the col.

This was a fairly ski wrecking sort of descent with what tantalisingly looked like enough snow, but which really wasn't, and the rocks scraped through far too often! Thankfully no major damage was sustained. That done we got the skis on the packs and came down the North Ridge. It was all soft snow so reasonable to just pick our way down the scramble carefully. From the bottom of this there were some nice turns (between the rocks) down the long ridge, and then it got silly as the grass to snow ratio increased.

In Glen Nevis, the wind had dropped and fluffy snowflakes were falling straight down onto the road, turning it white. We enjoyed that silence you get when snow is falling straight down, muffling the earth.

It was a useful day as information gathering for the Tranter - some sections were definitely quicker using the skis, but of course a better base and more consolidated snow were sorely needed. It's potential ski trashing terrain up there - but then again using the ski as a tool for travel, getting all the way along the Mamores would be worth quite a few ski gouges.

Cairngorms Navigation

For Sunday I headed to the Cairngorms. The weather apparently had been brilliant on Saturday so I was kicking myself a bit. I got a reasonably early start going up Cairngorm into the mist, which I felt was likely to clear from the forecast I had read. The snow cover was much better here and I couldn't wait to get a glimpse across the Lairig Ghru. Unfortunately the visibility just got worse and I spent a slow 2 hours on map and compass work to Ben Macdui and back. Finally the cloud lifted a bit at Coire Domhain and I headed down into a fantastic looking Loch Avon basin. Its been ages since I saw the Shelter Stone so gliding down to the base of it and then onto a frozen Loch Avon felt pretty special. It was a quick ski along the flat and then up to the saddle back into the mist. I skied towards the Ciste car park but then thought better of it as the snow gave out, and came over the An t-Aonach back to Coire Cas carpark.

Glenshee Skimo Race 23rd January

There was a record turnout of about 50 skiers for the second race of the season. Although there had been a bit of a thaw, there was still plenty snow around and a course was set on the east side of the resort.
Glenshee start line (Picture: Fiona Wild)

I really enjoyed the course, which mostly ascended at a relatively gently angle with pretty fast open piste descents. I managed to break away from Ben Bardsley and then keep my lead to come in first after 48mins. It was great to see so many folk out racing, and some more lycra speedsuits too. As dusk approached the wind increased, and by Sunday the mega thaw had set in.

Ben Bardsley crosses the finish in second place (Picture: Fiona Wild)

Myself (1st; centre), Ben Bardsley (2nd; left), Jon Morgan (3rd; right)