Steve Pyke's attempt this weekend to smash the record for the number of munros climbed in one day was dashed by atrocious weather two-thirds of the way into the route. Mark Hartell, himself a long-distance record holder, was one of the support team for the bid. Here is his account of the 'grand day out'.
Stephen Pyke – Spyke – is clearly aware of the old adage that an army marches on its stomach as he spent the better part of Friday preparing a hearty three-course meal and copious amounts of hill food for a growing army of supporters assembling at Invergarry.
Steve Pyke's during his munro-record attempt
Photo: Chris Upson
The reason behind all this activity had become an open secret over the preceding weeks as his forthcoming attempt on the Scottish munros record had been leaked onto the Fell Runners’ Association forum. Almost 20 years ago, Jon Broxap stormed around no fewer than 28 munros in 23 hours and 40 minutes, not by extending the Ramsay Round as others had but by shifting his attention to the Kintail and Affric area.
In the past 20 years a number of people have considered or attempted to better that record but it has repelled all comers. Perhaps the closest was Adrian Belton who managed 28 back on in the Ramsay Round hills of Lochaber but he finished with only a couple of minutes to spare inside 24 hours.
Mountains don't change much over the years but the Scottish Mountaineering Council – ‘keeper’ of the munros list – have changed their minds several times and so the Kintail-Affric round had become 29 munros and the demotion of Sgurr an Iubhar on the Mamores ridge had reduced the Lochaber round to 27.
Spyke: what better person to attempt the record? A Scottish 4000s record in 2007 and a new best time for the epic run from Everest base camp to Kathmandu. This spring we watched in amazement as Spyke became gradually wirier and disappeared more and more often to the Highlands.
Recce trips were sometimes epic; new skills were learnt like cutting steps in firm névé with a compass and the route was gradually pieced together. When Jon did his round he was aware that a further two munros on the north side of Glen Affric were potentially within reach but any more would require a major excursion.
So, not wishing to leave an ‘easy’ target for the next man Spyke determined to set his sights on 31 Munros in 24 hours.
With a pacing and support team of around 15 people, everything was looking great as we travelled down the beautiful Glen Affric on Saturday morning for the 11am start. The only cloud on the horizon was the forecast for strong winds and rain coming in early Sunday.
Spyke on the tops, with support-team member Mark Hartell close behind
Photo: Chris Upson
We had figured that if he got through Saturday night on schedule before the bad weather hit then success was well within his grasp. The opening pace up the first few kilometres of track past Strawberry Cottage was sensible but as soon as he tackled the first munro the pacing team knew they were in for a good workout.
Spyke was certainly hill fit with an ascent rate comfortably up to 20m per minute. For the pacers this is OK for a few hours but lose 50 metres to get food or swap a bottle and it's several minutes of hard work to regain contact.
Up on the ridges the views were gorgeous – an endless sea of summits – and there was a definite sense of occasion with Chris Upson and John Fleetwood determined to capture the day on camera and video. Spyke brushed aside the paparazzi though and, with a little help from Yiannis [Tridimas], carved some excellent lines to complete the first five munros around 18 minutes up on schedule.
Leg Two, the south Kintail ridge: fresh pacing donkeys and time for the first bad patch. He held this together well though and with renewed focus on eating and drinking was back on form and still on schedule by the end of ridge and heading for Sgurr na Sgine and The Saddle.
The cloud on the horizon was literal by his time though, and a few of us were anxious, sensing a pickup in the wind, a drop in temperatures and threatening greyness to the distant views. Bang on schedule at 9pm he reached the bottom of Glen Shiel, wrapped up for the night ahead and embarked on the 1000m-plus climb onto the Sisters ridge.
For the rest of the round we would simply have to cross our fingers as it passes through wild and remote country with no road crossings. As it turned out the weather front was every bit as savage as we had feared and the next four hours saw conditions go from pleasant to challenging to near survival. 40mph winds, nearly two inches of rain, thick hill fog and a significant reduction in temperatures meant that lost minutes were inevitable on the wet rock.
Minutes slipped away on the schedule and with a record attempt like this there is no way back, no slack. So the only viable decision at Camban bothy was to seek shelter and safety. 20 munros completed in around 15½ hours was a grand day out and everyone is fully aware that, given the right conditions, Spyke stood a very good chance.
So, let’s see what happens next year!