On Saturday 12th October Finlay Wild broke the speed record for the Cuillin Ridge traverse for the second time in a year, knocking a hefty 15 minutes from his previous record to log the first sub-three-hour completion of Britain's greatest mountaineering route. So how on earth did he manage to get from the summit of Gars-bheinn at the south end of the ridge to the top of Sgurr nan Gillean in the north, in just 2hrs 59mins 22secs?
According to the 'rules' set by longstanding record holder Andy Hyslop the traverse between the two end summits takes in all 11 main ridge Munros over about 11km of relentless rocky ground, with around 3000m of ascent/descent, sustained exposed scrambling and key climbing pitches on the TD Gap, King's Chimney, the Inaccessible Pinnacle and Naismith's Route on the Basteir Tooth.
'Last week I was chatting with friends and psych reached boiling point as we realised that conditions for the weekend were looking good. Very good.' Finlay writes in his blog.
'My dad Roger Wild was more than happy to accompany me for an attempt during this October weather window so we headed up to Glen Brittle on Friday.'
'Setting off I felt great. I was 4 mins ahead by Sgurr Dubh Mor, and headed to the TD gap feeling good. I met some good friends who I knew were doing the ridge just before they started the abseil - good timing! A quick hello and I was down and then up - I enjoyed the dry climbing. By Sgurr Mhic Choinnich I was over 9 mins ahead and knew it was going very well. I made a very deliberate effort to keep focussing on the next summit, and continually consulted the map in my head. Meanwhile I was picking up the familiar lines and shortcuts I have come to know well.'
From the In Pinn onwards the chances of running into congestion problems were much less:
'I knew that if I kept at it, the fabled 3hr barrier could be in sight. But I had to focus, I had to keep the concentration and not make any mistakes. Somewhere on the traversing ground before Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh the hip pocket zip broke on my light sac and my jelly babies were trapped - I fiddled while running for a while, then decided to break it for access. Chain eating of jelly babies continued. Some gels and water. I was running in a light baselayer and shorts, with a barely noticable sac. It felt free and flowing.'
For the final hour or so he was consciously chasing the sub-3hr time, in a 'persistent push':
'Naismith's Route was and is my favourite part of the whole ridge. I got to the top of Am Basteir and had just over 10 minutes to do it. I could get there. Push. More jelly babies. My route up Sgurr nan Gillean could have been 10 secs shorter but it was ok, keep pushing. I was breathing hard and my knees were aching from all the high stepping. It didn't matter. The Window with a minute - keep going up the final small slab and there, to the summit, elated.'
'This time I knew I had done it. No doubts about summits touched, or route taken. I surveyed the ridge, counting off each top in the sunshine. I did some shouting.'
Bit of shouting? Fair enough, we reckon.
The entire Cuillin Ridge from Gars-bheinn (left) to Sgurr nan Gillean, seen from Clach Glas.
UKC Articles, Jun 2012
© Dan Bailey - UKH Editor
We caught up with Finlay (briefly) to learn more:
'Conditions were absolutely perfect for a run' he tells us. 'It was bone dry, and a good temperature with a bit of a breeze keeping things from getting too warm. The ridge dries out pretty quicklly in good weather. There were quite a few people out but no-one in the wrong place at the wrong time as it were.'
On his previous record in June of this year Finlay had to deal with mist and damp rock - a sketchy combination for anyone on a traverse and one that made for slower progress and perhaps a degree of added risk [see report here, Ed].
'Doing it in [Saturday's] conditions was a joy. It made the previous record traverse seem a bit sketchy actually.'
After setting a time of 3:14:58 in June, and logging an even faster 3:10:30 the previous week (a time Finlay himself discounted on very strict ethical grounds) was he consciously aiming to beat the 3-hr mark this time?
'Haha, no' he says. 'I thought 3h5mins certainly possible. The fact that I pushed and was only 4.5mins slower in the wet (3.14.58 vs 3.10.30) on my previous record made me realise that if I got back soon enough in good conditions, before I forgot the route, I could certainly go faster. Having maybe taken a few more risks [in June], I hoped to be at least 5mins faster than 3.10 in the dry! I did think sub-3hrs was physically possible, and aesthetically it was an obvious target. But I wasn't hell bent on it and I just didnt know if I personally could do it'.
In the event, knocking a good 15mins off his own already impressive record is a phenomenal achievement. Did it help that weather, fitness, route knowledge and personal drive all came together at the right time?
'Exactly! I live in Fort William and had the Friday off, so could take advantage of the weather window at short notice. And it was amazing weather! My fitness is the best it has been - having done three times as many races this year as any other, including racing in the Dolomites and spending time alpine climbing in the alps. I have also done some longer runs and races than previously, so working on stamina has helped (Mamores circuit 7hrs, Peris horseshoe race in Wales 3hrs 15 ish). I had my fastest uphill on the Ben Nevis race a month ago.'
In total Finlay has now done the Cuillin traverse a total of six times, four of them this year alone, so it's probably fair to say that he knows it pretty well.
'This is obviously a lot less than guides such as Martin Moran, but I think more than [previous record holder] Es Tresidder' he says.
'I can't quite do a virtual run-through every single feature in my head, sitting here - but not too far off! Certainly the main sections are embedded in my memory - eg crucial holds descending TD gap, going up In Pinn, and reaching over the top of Naismith's route. Also some of the spectacular and unlikely rock formations that you see up there, and become familiar with (the rock staircase going up to the West top of Bidein, or the 'secret door' on Sgurr nan Eag, for example). Some of this I'm sure will become more vague with time - the middle section between Banachdich and Mhadaidh for instance gets a bit jumbled if you try and think it through at home; but if you're up there you recognise each section as you come to it, and it all clicks into place.
'My route knowledge has grown every time I traverse. I was back looking at a line earlier in summer, but other than that managed to remember it all well. I think I have a good head for remembering routes.'
'As for personal drive - well I was obviously delighted to get the record with 3.14.58, but there was also an element of dissatisfaction as I knew I could better it. Now I have done and I feel happy I have run a strong record to be proud of.'
So can he see himself pushing the time even further, or has he hit a limit at just under 3 hours?
'It wasnt a perfect run - I think it would be incredibly hard to sustain that level of concentration and focus for 3hrs and not make a single minor mistake (eg minor slip on scree or route variation). I can think of places where I lost a few seconds, and others where my route definitely improved. From my splits at one point near Am Basteir I was 45secs slower than a previous time (for an 8minute leg). That's quite a chunk, but I think due to the fact that I pushed harder earlier and so was more tired at that point, and made a small route choice mistake.'
'So in theory I could go faster - but the motivation of breaking a whole number is definitely strong, so now that I have done it, I am happy with the record - for now.'
'Of course maybe Es or someone new will come back and give it some more time.'