The 10 weeks of lockdown is the longest period without a visit to the mountains that I can remember at any any time in my adult life. Given the record amount of sunshine and a view of the northern Cairngorms tempting me from my window every day, when my chance came to re-introduce myself to my local hills, I had to make the most of it!
During that 10 week period of lockdown I had a pretty empty schedule. With bigger plans for the summer I was keen to make the most of the opportunity without the usual distractions of life to put in some consistent training. The structure and purpose of this also gave me some much needed mental focus. Although we were staying out of the hills, we are very lucky with what we can access from our doorstep in Aviemore, so lots of laps of the trails in the forest, and multiple repeats of Craigellachie gave me plenty to work with!
On the 29th May the announcement was made that we were now allowed to travel a short distance for leisure, and access the high mountains again. We were poised and waiting, so enjoyed a stunning lap around a quieter set of trails and hills from Glen Feshie. Taking our time to soak it all in, these hills that we can see from the house felt like an exotic adventure!
Despite the new freedom to access the hills, the period of good sunny weather was due to come to an end on the Tuesday, before at least a week of colder wet weather. Desperate to make the most of it I knew I had to have another go at a Rigby Round!
The round was first completed by Mark Rigby in 1988, and takes in the 18 Munros of the northern Cairngorms. There are several significant route choice decisions to be made, so every round is a little different, but my planned route was 115km with 6726 meters of ascent and decent.
I say ‘another go’ as I first made an attempt in January last year. The round has only every been done once in winter, in a 54 hour epic by John Fleetwood. Conditions were very favourable for my attempt, but the cold and fatigue got the better of me and I bailed after 16 Munros. My account is here, and includes some more history of the round.
It is a testament to the remote nature of the route, with no opportunity for support points and the rough terrain that it covers, that the Rigby round had only been completed 22 times before. In comparison at the end of 2019, 2384 people had completed a Bob Graham round in the Lake District. More people get to the summit of Everest on a single good day in the spring than have ever completed a Rigby round.
Although I had a good couple of months of running in the legs, I hadn’t done a long mountain day since March, so I wasn’t that confident of how my legs would hold up. Add to that the forecast of 20+ degrees and a conservative strategy was in order, telling myself that I would set off with enough food for 24 hours, but if I only did a third, or half of the route it would still be an awesome day out, and good training value.
A last minute decision to reverse my route to run clockwise saw me starting up the Cairngorm ski road, just after 7am. Keeping to a conservative plan of pacing the day to give me the best chance of success, I knew I only had to maintain a 5.1km/h average to make it within 24 hours. This gave me plenty of scope to take it easy and let the legs warm up.
I was down off Cairngorm to The Saddle and around to Bynack More before my legs woke up, but the relief of finding a good deer path off Bynack More to the Fords of Avon and a bit of nice trail to run down the river was a good morale boost. The day was already warming up so the cold crossing of the river Avon was welcome before the long steady climb to the Beinn a’ bhuird plateau.
Loch Avon from the Saddle
After the dry spring the hills were remarkably dry for this time of year so with the heat I was concerned about finding water. This was never a problem though as large snow patches were melting fast and topping up the burns nicely!
The morning went without real incident, I was just so grateful to be back out and able to enjoy a day in the mountains again. Highlights included startling an enormous Golden Eagle as I rounded a corner on Beinn a Bhuird, it took flight from less than 20 meters away. No doubt surprised to be disturbed in the hills after 10 weeks of human absence!
Descending Beinn a’ Chaorainn I took the opportunity for a refreshing swim in the Dubh Lochan. I was a third of the way round and feeling good, I was ahead of my schedule and had managed to eat and drink well. With no need to give up now and spoil my fun I laced up my shoes again and started the steep climb up to Beinn Mheadhoin.
I don’t have enormous experience of these super long days but have done enough over the last few years to know the importance of patience. I find efforts like this the ultimate form of mindfulness. Once I’m a few hours in, the hills that I have passed feel disconnected from my current effort to the extent that they could have been on a different day. Likewise there is nothing to be gained from thinking about what is to come. There is an addictive simplicity to just keeping moving.
On my winter attempt the long rough climb up from the Laraig Ghru to Cairn a Mhaim really took it out of me. This was partly why I reversed the route, but also this time I re-ordered the western hills to allow an easier route off the south of Cairn A Mhaim. It is still 500 meters of descent, shortly after the 500 down from Ben Macdui, so it takes it toll on the legs, but it was a much easier line than I had found before.
Looking across to Braeriach from the ridge of Corn a Mhaim
Because of my route choice the next section up to Beinn Bhrotain took me into some really wild terrain. This is pretty much as far as you can get from a road in the UK and isn’t on any of the normal ‘Munro bagging’ routes, so it is not impossible to imagine that I might be the only person to pass that way this year.
Sunset on Beinn Bhrotain
Now up on to the western plateau I was on to the most runnable section of the round, using high level estate tracks and good grassy footpaths, the kilometres ticked by quickly as darkness set in. Without any big climbs this section should feel easier than others, but it is easy to forget the distance involved, 26km of easy terrain was a different effort for the legs, and I was looking forward to the rest of a few good climbs again as I approached the Devils Point.
The faster section had again put me slightly up on my average speed target, but only just. The mental arithmetic showed me that I still had a buffer for the 24 hours, but it was definitely getting smaller. After the rough ground linking the moine mor to the Devil’s point I was looking forward to following a good path around the plateau edge now that I was back onto the more frequented route. Unfortunately this was not to be. The climb up to Cairn Toul is basically just one big boulder field, potentially I missed the start of a path because of a large snow patch and I wasn’t going to spot a better line in the dark, but this 4km was the most frustrating of the day.
I finally arrived at the summit of Cairn Toul with around 3.5 hours left of my 24 hour target. I had now joined the route of the classic ‘Cairngorm 4 tops’, the 4 Munros (now 5 that Angels Peak has been promoted to Munro status) over 4000’. In 2018 Ally Beaven (who I ran the Marmot Dark Mountains with in 2019) took this record under 4 hours for the first time. For the reminder of my round I imagined a race between Ally and myself, with him starting at the Cairngorm ski carparks, surely with that much of a head start this would be an easy win for me!?
Pleased that my legs weren’t feeling any worse than they had done 12 hours ago, I made good progress around the plateau to Braeriach and started the long decent down into the Laraig Ghru. At this point I made a rash decision to change my route, rather than going for the shorter route via the Chalamain gap I decided to save myself the climbing up and the hassle of the boulder choked gap with a tired mind. Instead I stayed on the Laraig Ghru trail before cutting across to Rothiemurchus and Loch Morlich. Although easier, this line is a bit further, so all of a sudden I had 7km to do in a little under an hour. Despite the hills being generally dry, the day had plenty of river crossings and wet sections so I basically had 24 hours of wet feet. Shrivelled up like I’d spent far too long in the bath, they were not enjoying the hard track and fast pace of the finish, so it was with some relief that I made it back to my car 23 hours and 53 minutes after I left it, to become only the 23rd person to ever record the round.
All in all, it was an enormously satisfying day out. It was encouraging from a running perspective and gratifying to have joined such an exclusive list. But it held so much more significance and appreciation because of its representation of freedom and health in the current times. I am extremely lucky in lots of ways, I hope I always as grateful for that as I am now.
Also thanks to Laura for watching my tracker dot move slowly all day!
Here is my route on Strava if you are interested. After a watch faff I managed to split it into two parts:
1st-2nd June 2020
23 hours 53 minutes 51 seconds
Average speed 5.1km/h