Before the Beast From the East roared in to wreak havoc, the recent spell of cold settled weather and firm snow conditions yielded a number of impressive winter hill running efforts. On 21st February Helen Rennard became the first woman to record a winter Tranter round (see here). Just five days later, on Monday 26th, came news that Finlay Wild had broken the winter Tranter record by a big margin.
Named after Philip Tranter, who completed the first round in 1964, the 36 mile route (ascent around 6000m) visits 19 Munros in a gruelling loop around the the Mamores, Grey Corries, Aonachs, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis. The route was later extended by Charlie Ramsay to create a challenge comparable to Lakeland's Bob Graham. But as a sub-24-hour goal the original Tranter remains a formidable round, including four of Scotland's 4000-foot peaks and sections that become mountaineering terrain in winter conditions. To qualify as a winter round it has to be done in the winter months, but of arguably greater importance to the spirit is the presence of true winter conditions on the ground. Helen and Finlay's recent efforts very much ticked that box.
For this Winter Tranter double bill we spoke to them both about their respective rounds.
Finlay Wild Sets New Winter Tranter's Round Record
Running solo and unsupported, Finlay's new time of just 14 hours 24 minutes 48 seconds knocks about 4.5 hours from the previous record (and only other known sub-24-hour winter completion) of 18:59:06, a gauntlet thrown down by Dan Gay, Jon Gay and Paul Manson in February 2009. As the existing record holder in summer (10:15:30, salso olo and unsupported, October 2016), and having previously skied the route, Finlay already had a strong track record with the round.
Dan: 14:24:48 … wow! Did you set out from the outset to try for the winter record?
Finlay: I mainly decided to go and do the round because I was aware conditions were great. I'd just read Helen Rennard's account from her traverse the week before, and I'd been out in the hills and seen how fast and firm conditions were. I was also aware Monday was the last day I could fit in a traverse before March (and so the last day I could do it within the three core winter months).
So my main goal was having a great day out in some of my favourite mountains, but the record was of course an objective. I've been round faster than the winter running record on skis, with Tim Gomersall (17hr 35m on 28th Feb 2016) and although of course this is a different discipline, I feel I can draw several parallels when thinking about the mountaineering tradeoffs between skis and on foot in different conditions and situations. So I was pretty confident I could beat both the ski and running records in the current good conditions, body willing!
What time did you start on Monday?
4am monday. It was very windy - I almost bailed out actually, but decided to keep going and see if the wind abated. It did ease, just enough, which made for quite a cold, wind battered day out! At 5am a highlight on Mullach was seeing a deep orange moon which then faded behind the horizon.
You've also got the summer record - so would you say you're pretty familiar with the route?!
Yes! These are my local mountains and I've been round the route three times in its entirety now (ski, summer run, winter run) as well as doing sections of it many other times too. Earlier this winter I did a random 'Tour of Stob Bans' taking in the two mountains of the same name which both lie along the Tranter route. I looked at the map once to triple check something on the Grey Corries (I've got a thing about checking summit cairns now…!) but visibility was good for the majority and there were no route finding issues.
The previous winter record of 18:59:06 must have seemed a tall order to top. How confident were you?
I suspected the current conditions were totally optimal - very firm neve, so no trail breaking or scree hopping - so I was pretty confident to be honest. I also had the advantage of going at the very end of 'proper' winter, so knew it would be lightish from about 6am till 7pm. Starting in the dark but then knowing that I should hopefully finish (just) in daylight was a bonus - the cumulative gains of seeing a clear route, not having to stop to navigate, and the morale boost of a view. A slight concern was that I haven't done many long runs over the winter, and had had a full on weekend skimo racing both days. Time spent on my feet mountaineering in various forms this season must have kept my endurance levels reasonable however.
Did you go clockwise or anticlockwise?
Anticlockwise, which meant finishing on the Ben. Then it's 'just' the descent back to the Youth Hostel. The neve in the Red Burn extended all the way to the bottom of the Grassy Bank, something I've not seen for a long time.
How were ground conditions, and what would you consider to be helpful snow, versus unhelpful? How much difference does snow state make to your pace, basically?
I had firm neve, with quite a bit of scouring. No soft snow. Cold. Some old frozen tracks at places; in other places blank and bullet hard.
For a winter round, the optimal conditions are something I've pondered quite a lot - and particularly how this would vary for skis vs on foot (it's all mountaineering!). I think skis were the way to go for our 2016 round as there was quite a bit of soft snow that would have meant slow trail breaking on foot. Whereas this time, foot and crampon was totally the way to go due to the scoured solid conditions. I love the fact that it is so entirely dependent on conditions - a traverse earlier this year in the deep fresh snow we had would have been unthinkable either on foot (trail breaking exhaustion and avalanche danger) or skis (even more avalanche danger).
How about the weather?
It was very windy initially, then settled to just windy. But I had clear summits except about 30mins on Sgurr Eilde Mor when cloud passed through. The Grey Corries were in and out of cloud while I was approaching them from the glen, but pretty much cleared by the time I was on the ridge. Finally, in the afternoon, the sun came out and the wind eased further making for a glorious evening on the Aonachs and the Ben.
What did you wear on your feet?
I suffer from cold feet so have tried various combos. I used Salomon XA Alpine shoes - basically a light trainer with a gaiter - and Sealskin socks. Unusually for me, I didn't get cold feet! It was cold enough that there was so little water around and no meltage, so my feet stayed dry, which probably kept them warm. I used a set of aluminium strap on crampons which I took off and on multiple times. Also two ski poles and a lightweight axe.
Can you talk us through the day – how you felt at various stages, energy levels, psyche etc?
I was excited to start, up Mullach in very strong cold wind, and it was satisfying to see the familiar mountain shapes take form around me with first light. Jogging the flatter sections felt solid and fast going on the firm neve. Often there was just enough grip to eschew the donning of crampons and continue with poles and shoes. I'd say the most dangerous part of the route was in making a continual assessment of snow firmness, terrain steepness and consequences, to allow me to travel fast but also to take the time to put on crampons or to take out the axe when needed.
Energy levels waned a little going off Sgurr Eilde Mor to the geographic low in the middle of the route. I ate plenty of bars, nuts and chocolate which picked me up. I had a few gels (not classic winter mountaineering provisions) - one of them froze so was a bit more like an ice cream! Getting onto Stob Choire Claurigh is always a boost as after that you are basically heading in the homeward direction. Up Sgurr Choinnich Mor I was pretty tired, and was a bit fed up with the incessant wind and constant battle to keep hands warm. Luckily, that was the point where the weather improved and got better and better across the Lochaber Traverse to the Ben and down. I only looked at my watch a few times - on Sgurr Eilde Mor where it was almost 7hrs elapsed I knew it was just a case of keeping going. It was much more fun to guesstimate how much daylight I had left by the height of the sun and the quality of the light, so I was confident by the afternoon that I could get in in around 15hrs or less.
The final few hours were quite difficult physically as I felt generally fairly exhausted - but mentally I knew what I had coming and just had to keep going. The CMD arete was fun with a build up of snow filling in some of the bouldery parts and smoothing the way.
Finlay Wild is sponsored by: Mountain Equipment and Norman Walsh UK
Helen Rennard - First Female Winter Tranter Round
On 21st February Scottish winter climber Helen Rennard achieved the first ever winter traverse of the Tranter's Round by a woman. She completed the round in an anticlockwise direction, in 23 hours and 30 minutes - in solid 'winter conditions.' And what does she think of the achievement? Well, she's a bit embarrassed actually!
Helen Rennard is a dark horse. Those that know her, know her as a powerhouse, as a wad and certainly as a winter climber - but not as a runner. She is also extremely modest. Helen's round was achieved in ideal conditions - conditions which also enabled two further records to be smashed within four days (Finlay Wild; Tranter's Round and Uisdean Hawthorn; Cuillin Ridge). Instead of feeling smug about snatching a perfect window of opportunity, Helen is 'a bit embarrassed about not having gone faster'! In this interview, Helen Rennard talks candidly about her approach to the round and her feelings on breaking a glass-ceiling for future female challengers.
Keri: We didn't know you were a runner Helen!
Helen: I'm not really much of a runner. I see myself more as a winter climber who does some running and hillwalking. I have been Scottish winter climbing for 20 years. I love the Scottish mountains in winter and it is the whole experience that appeals to me, rather than purely the climbing. My favourite days are ones in remote locations where I arrive back at the car exhausted, ideally having seen no one all day. In the summer I do more hillwalking and running than rock climbing. I enjoy long distance mountain walks and last September I walked the GR20 in Corsica.
So how did the idea of a winter Tranter's Round come about?
I have been considering trying a Tranter's Round in summer for the past few years. Last May, Alicia Hudelson visited Lochaber from the US to try a Ramsay's Round and I helped out with her support. This was the first time I'd ever been involved in anyone's round, and it was inspiring just being a part of it - even in a small way. Alicia completed her round on a really hot and humid day, and I thought to myself "I'd never manage in that heat! I'd be far better suited to winter." And so it was that I decided to have a try.
You describe yourself more as a winter climber than a runner. Tell us about your achievements as a top performing female winter mountaineer…
In the last six years, since moving to Fort William, I have climbed a number of hard classics and also modern routes, including The Godfather (VIII,8), Unicorn (VIII,8), Knuckleduster Direct (VIII,8), Sioux Wall (VIII,8), The Gathering (VIII,9), Babes in the Wood (IX,8), Citadel (VII,8) and Castro (VII,7) and Nose Direct (VII,8) on the Fhidhleir; new routes including Night Fury (IX,9), Cloudjumper (VIII,9) and Red Dragon (VIII,9) on Ben Nevis with Dave MacLeod, Beggar's Belief (VII,7) with Simon Yearsley, The Prentice Pillar (VII,8) with Iain Small, several new routes with Simon Richardson on Cul Mor, Lochnagar, Braeriach, Stob Ban, Aonach Beag and Ben Nevis, with Andy Nisbet in the north west and with Pete Davies in Glencoe; second ascents including Mammoth (IX,9) and Bavarinthia (IX,9) with Dave MacLeod, Sake (VIII,9) with Dave Almond and Pobble (VII,7) with Ben Silvestre; and first winter ascents including Southern Freeze (IX,9) on the Cobbler with Dave MacLeod and Turkish (VII,7) on Ben Nevis with Malcolm Bass and Simon Yearsley.
Did you recce the route and how much preparation did you do?
My preparation for the Tranter's Round centred on buying lots of fancy new lightweight kit rather than doing much running! I have done a lot of big winter days though, and days out winter climbing this season. I backpacked the Tranter's Round over two days in May 2016, and have run/walked the Ring of Steall, Carn Mor Dearg arête and the Ben many times (although never as a recce per se). In mid-January of this year I walked the length of the Grey Corries, the Aonachs, Carn Mor Dearg and the Ben in one long day with Kevin Woods (friend and Tranter's Round support) - a classic route in its own right called the Lochaber Traverse (see this UKH article). It took us 16 soul-destroying hours breaking trail. That is when I realised that success would be all about choosing the right conditions. At the end of January I set off to do a Mamores Traverse by myself, as a recce and also for training. As night fell I chose to bail out. For this reason, I certainly didn't think that the round was 'in the bag' when I set out last week. On the morning of the round, I was surprised at myself for actually being there and setting off at all. Realistically I had thought that February would come and go, and I would have found a reason to not try!
An anticlockwise round means that the biggest ascents (including Ben Nevis) are right at the end, when your legs are most tired. What made you decide to tackle the round in this direction?
I decided early on to do it in an anticlockwise direction. The main reason was that I didn't want to have the 'out-and-backs' to An Gearanach and Sgurr a' Mhaim towards the end of the round, when I would be tired. I think the prospect of coming back on yourself at that point would be very demoralising. I also felt happier about ascending Aonach Beag than descending. I know Ben Nevis very well and have spent a lot of time on it in the dark in winter (typically when finishing winter climbs), so it made sense to have the mountain I was most familiar with at the end, when I would be the most tired.
Can you tell us what gear you carried and what support you received?
I used an Osprey Talon 11 rucksack, in which I carried:
- Lifesystems Survival bivi bag
- Rab Photon X jacket inside a dry bag
- Paramo Alize fleece
- Rab Pertex jacket
- Berghaus lightweight waterproof trousers
- Hat (carried mostly on my head!)
- Fleece head band (as above)
- Three pairs of gloves – 2x mid-weight climbing gloves and 1 x thin gloves
- Three litre Camelbak
- 500ml Nalgene bottle
- Ramsay Round map
- Petzl Headtorch
- Spare batteries
- Petzl Leopard crampons
- Climbing Technology Alpin Tour Ice axe
- Mobile phone
The day before the round I hid a stash of food and kit at the half way point (river crossing before Stob Ban). This contained sets of spare gloves, socks and thermals.
I started the round solo but my friend Kevin Woods supported me from half way along the Grey Corries to the finish. This was 'support' in the sense of being there with me and navigating when necessary. Kev didn't bring in any food or drink for me and didn't carry my kit.
Kevin Woods recalls:
"I eventually met Helen's headtorch coming out the gloom just beyond Stob Coire an Laoigh. She looked pretty fresh given she was 13 Munros in. By contrast the place felt pretty dark and wild at that point. I was mostly there to strike up some kind of conversation."
Surely your feet must have been freezing!
Actually they were ok. Thanks to my Salomon S Lab X Alp Carbon 2 GTX boots and Dexshell mid-calf thermal and waterproof socks. The Dexshell socks are amazing! I changed my socks at the half way mark and my feet only really started to feel cold as I reached the summit of the Ben, but probably this was mainly because I was physically flagging by then.
Your round was completed in irrefutable 'winter conditions'. How much did you have to use your axe and crampons?
I had my axe out from about 600m up Mullach nan Coirean until the Red Burn on Ben Nevis. I hardly wore crampons at all in the Mamores as there was a granular surface on the firm snow which provided some grip. There were extensive footprints all the way along, until Binnein Mor. Binnein Beag was wind scoured and from there the snow was softening in the midday sun. I didn't put my crampons on again until heading up Aonach Beag. But by then it was night fall and the temperature had dropped, so I kept them on until the Red Burn.
Kevin Woods reflects that "the main difficulty was the neve, which despite assisting our travel (being firm), was hard work on the ankles and concentration. This was definitely the case going onto Aonach Beag and descending west off Aonach Mor. Those slopes were relentless!"
You must have to eat and drink so much to keep moving for 23hrs 30mins. What did you take on?
It was my plan to carry 2500 calories for the first half of the round. This consisted of:
- 2 litres of SiS energy drink - 400 calories
- 500ml strong milky coffee - 100 calories
- 3 x sausages - 400 calories
- Peanut butter sandwiches - 200 calories
- Topic and Bounty - 500 calories
- Cereal bar - 200 calories
- Banana cake with jam - 300 calories
- Jelly babies - 400 calories
The energy drink was in my Camelbak but I also had two short stops en route to drink coffee from my Nalgene bottle. When I reached my halfway 'stash' I took a 40 minute break, where I drank some more strong coffee and 500ml of recovery drink (and replenished my camelback). I also ate two hard-boiled eggs and a tin of rice pudding (yum!).
Total food and fluid or the round was:
- 5800 calories
- 4.5 litres of water (2 x 2 litres in the Camelbak, plus 500ml recovery drink at half way)
- 1 litre of coffee
There must have been many highs and lows, both physically and mentally. What were your most memorable moments?
I will always remember those first Munros on crisp snow under the stars. It was amazing! I also watched the sun rise while heading back along Devil's Ridge. It felt really special to have all of that to myself.
Mentally, I hit my lowest point about half way, when I became really discouraged by how long I was taking. It was an emotional moment seeing Kev's headtorch through the dark and mist halfway along the Grey Corries, when I was feeling my most vulnerable.
I put my crampons on mid-slope (in the dark) heading up Aonach Beag. It felt an extraordinary faff and I was close to tears. From Aonach Mor to the finish I felt slightly nauseous and any food I put in my mouth made me feel sick.
My highest point was charging along the Carn Mor Dear arête on compacted snow under the stars, before reaching the summit of the Ben with enough time left to complete the round in 24 hours. The realisation that it was still possible was such an exhilarating feeling!
There have only been three male winter rounds recorded to date and none by women. Why do you think this is?
I suppose it is probably something to do with the physical and serious nature of the challenge involved in a winter round, as compared to a summer round. Certainly what I found most off-putting was the fact that I would have to do a lot of it in the dark and that felt intimidating. I don't know if that is something that dissuades other women. I wasn't concerned about being out for that length of time in the cold because I have had longer days winter climbing (including a 30 hour 'day' on the Shelterstone last February). I figured that I wouldn't get as cold as I do waiting at a four hour belay, on a hard mixed route! I don't have the running fitness that a lot of female athletes have but I do have stamina and the ability to suffer, if it comes to it. Perhaps this is a prerequisite for this kind of challenge?
"Helen's round is a fantastic achievement" says Jasmin Paris, holder of the women's (and outright) record for the (summer) Ramsay's Round, plus women's record holder for both summer and winter Bob Graham Rounds.
"I know from my experience of running the Bob Graham Round in both summer and winter that a winter round is a completely different kettle of fish, and a far greater challenge - navigating at night, in a blizzard, and whilst falling through the snow at every step! In winter conditions any running would simply be a bonus."
How would you describe your success on the round, and what advice would you give other women?
I am pleased to have completed the round in winter and in under 24 hours. It also feels special to be the first woman to have done so. However, I am a bit embarrassed about not having gone faster. I walked most of the round! I can see now that I also wasted a lot of time, stopping to send messages and take photos. This is the first round that I have ever completed, so a lot of what was involved was new to me. Nevertheless, I hope that my achievement will encourage other women to have a try. I would say there is huge potential for other women to take a chunk off my time! My main advice would be to familiarise yourself with the round, including in winter condition, be competent in using axe and crampons, choose the best conditions and weather possible for your attempt, and get experience of completing other rounds so that you have a good idea what is involved.
Finally, I would like to thank Kev (support), Jon Gay (encouragement and lots of advice before the round), Helen Smith (loan of tracker), Dave MacLeod (checking I was down safely), Alicia Hudelson (encouragement and advice before the round) and last but definitely not least, Peter Duggan (invaluable advice and banter).
- Trip Time: 23:29:07
- Time Moving: 18:40:07
- Trip Distance: 58.8km
- Speed Max: 12.5km/h
- Moving Average: 3.1km/h