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Ridges, rounds and eclecticism

Sgurr Alasdair from Sgurr nan EagSgurr Alasdair from Sgurr nan Eag
...and Drumpellier golf course (photo: Ken Stewart)                                                                                                                                                                                                          ...and Drumpellier golf course (photo: Ken Stewart)

It’s less than two months since Finlay Wild’s remarkable sub-three-hour traverse of the Cuillin ridge, although it feels longer, given that proper autumn – with darkness, sogginess and early season snow – has since arrived. During those few weeks there has been plenty of discussion, both online and off, about what it takes to get from Gars-bheinn to Gillean in 2 hours 59 minutes 22 seconds (and this includes, don’t forget, the big off-ridge diversion to Sgurr Dubh Mor and the smaller one to Sgurr Alasdair).

Being neither a climber nor a runner, I’m not able to offer much insight into this beyond stating the obvious: Wild’s achievement was utterly amazing and deserved considerably more media coverage and acclaim than it actually received. A place on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist, perhaps? Not that the man himself – who appears to be refreshingly humble by nature – seems to want any particular plaudits.

Quirky hill-comparative stuff is more my field, and one aspect of Wild’s wonderful run-cum-climb that caught my eye was a comparison with, of all things, golf.

Let me explain. Wild had three serious attempts at the “Cuillin record” over the summer and autumn months, and – helpfully, from a research and analysis point of view – he logged each of these on his Go Mountain Goats blog. The attempts came on 9 June (3 hours 10 minutes 30 seconds), 16 June (3 hours 14 minutes 58 seconds “in damp conditions”) and 12 October (the sub-3 hour effort). Although the first traverse was substantially quicker than the second – and beat Es Tresidder’s time of 3 hours 17 minutes 28 seconds from 2007 – Wild didn’t claim the record as he forgot to scramble the few metres to the cairn on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and very honestly owned up to this afterwards.

Modern running watches provide split times, and it’s here where the basis for the golf comparison lies. It might be thought that Wild’s splits on the 12 October attempt would be consistently faster than on the two earlier dates, given how much he carved off his overall time. But while that was the case as far as roughly halfway along the ridge, in the later stages something odd started to happen. His Banachdich to Ghreadaidh time on 12 October, while still a decidedly brisk 16 minutes 15 seconds, was 38 seconds slower than on 9 June. Similarly, the Bidein Druim nan Ramh to Bruach na Frithe stretch was done faster – by a whopping 92 seconds – on that first attempt compared with the third.

The slowest of the three runs, the 16 June one, saw the fastest time for the Bruach na Frithe to Am Basteir section: 8 minutes 44 seconds as compared with 46 seconds slower on 12 October and 65 seconds slower on 9 June. “At Bruach na Frithe things seemed a wee bit harder,” Wild wrote after the third traverse, “maybe because I had pushed faster earlier on. I made a slight route error before Naismith’s [Route] on the Bhasteir Tooth and went a bit low on the scree.”

So a theoretical traverse could be constructed from a composite of the splits, and – if my arithmetic is correct – this gives an overall time of 2 hours 56 minutes 26 seconds, almost three minutes faster than Wild actually managed in continuous end-to-end terms in October. Of course he didn’t run the faster time – no one has – but it gives an indication of what might be possible even beyond the remarkable figures thus far achieved. Whether Wild himself is capable of bringing the overall time down yet lower remains to be seen, but no one could criticise him were he to say that he’s done enough, given the effort and the risk involved, and it’s now someone else’s turn.

There was a similar comparison of split times during the spell around 1990 when Andy Hyslop and Martin Moran swapped the ridge record on a couple of occasions (back then it stood at an almost sluggish-sounding 3 hours 30 minutes-ish). There was one particularly interesting comparison – I seem to have mislaid the stats – when one of Hyslop or Moran’s efforts saw several minutes gained on the Bidein Druim nan Ramh stretch, apparently because one man used a route-nuance unknown to the other.

Anyway, this kind of thing – a composite series of figures rather than a continuous, linear one – is akin to what golfers would call an “eclectic” score. This is where the total for a “round” is calculated not from any actual 18-hole sequence but by taking the lowest score for each of the holes, regardless of when it occurred. Sometimes – in the case of eclectic competitions – this is done over relatively few rounds over a short period of time (and if, for instance, eclectic scores were calculated for the four rounds of an Open Championship, there is a fair chance that the claret jug would be taken home by a different player than in the real-world event).

The concept also exists in the concept of a lifetime eclectic score, compiled by someone who has played the same course repeatedly over a long period. Courses are redeveloped and redesigned, holes lengthened or shortened, bunkers added or removed – but then chunks have a habit of falling off the Cuillin at critical points (eg on the In Pinn, Am Basteir and the west ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean in recent years), so the comparison just about holds together.

What is striking with golf eclectics is just how low the score can go. I discussed this with my hillgoing friend Ken Stewart, who has done a couple of rounds of Munros, one each of Corbetts and Donalds, and also happens to be the person who coined the term “golfer’s round” to describe starting a second or subsequent set of Munros from scratch, rather than taking the “cumulative” position of it not mattering whether the hills were climbed before or after a particular completion.

Stewart is a keen golfer and has played over 100 different courses – but has stuck with the same home course for much of his life: Drumpellier, in Coatbridge. “I’ve been playing there for 59 years,” he says, “so maybe 3,000-plus partial or full rounds”. And his best eclectic round? “I think it’s 44: 332 323 134 (24 out) 232 312 223 (20 in). I’ve never been on ninth green in two (the longest hole), so possibly a near but low chance [of a four there]. On the other hand, the two at the 15th was an albatross, plus I think six eagles. Par is 444 434 345 (36 out) 443 435 444 (35 in), but Standard Scratch Score (the basis for handicaps) is 70.”

To me as a non-golfer (well, apart from occasional afternoons devoted to seaside putting), this composite score of 44 sounds mightily impressive, but Stewart reckons his best actual round of 67 – 443 534 344 (34 out) 443 434 344 (33 in), in June 1982 – is the more notable. “It was only two above the course record at the time,” he says, “and the greens had suffered so badly from winter that there was no use trying to hole putts of any significant length. Birdies came from reaching two par fives in two (and I chipped close at the ninth), plus hitting two long shots within a foot.”

Of course the main difference between Ken Stewart’s Drumpellier eclectic and Finlay Wild’s Cuillin version (apart from the small matter of the terrain) is the number of attempts: 3,000-plus plays three, although Wild will have had a few other complete and partial ridge traverses by way of recceing and also just for fun. But the fact that certain sections can be done more quickly does prompt the question of just how low the ridge time could go were someone – Wild, Kílian Jornet, Ueli Steck or whoever – to arrive on Skye with the ideal mix of climbing and running ability plus a good dollop of luck with the weather. Wild wrote of aiming for “the fabled 3hr barrier”, but might 2 hours 45 minutes be feasible? Ultimately, it’s one of those hypothetical-ish questions akin to a sub-three-hour marathon (which seems likely) or a sub-nine-second 100 metres (still a long way off, despite the best efforts of Mr Bolt).

The idea of eclectic or composite timing can be applied widely, and has featured in my own somewhat more humdrum hillgoing existence. These days I’m entirely a walker – injuries have long put paid to any idea of running – but I’m in the habit of jotting down timings (useful in navigational and fitness-monitoring terms, although mainly done through a mixture of curiosity and OCD). Once in a very occasional while I’ve tried to walk up the trade route to my local hill, Ben Cleuch in the Ochils, as fast as I can manage. This is done purely for personal amusement, with the one self-imposed rule being that every step must be walked. Absolutely no jogging, let alone running.

The route is the standard guidebook approach – from the road-end in Tillicoultry, up the Mill Glen walkway (which climbs 130 metres or so), then the 460m slog up the Law and finally the mile across the plateau to Ben Cleuch. Usefully for time-measuring purposes, this divides into four fairly even splits: from the road to the Gannel Burn bridge at the foot of the Law; then to what tends to be known as the Halfway Rock, a conglomerate boulder around 55 per cent of the way up the slope; then to the top of the Law (including the route’s nod to the Sgurr Alasdair diversion, hopping over the fence to the cairn); and finally to the main summit.

Coming close to beating my personal best requires several ducks to be lined up in a row: feeling fit and sprightly, of course, and a spell of weather settled enough to dry out or nicely freeze various boggy bits where vital seconds could be lost – most notably a distinctly squidgy section about five minutes before the end. There’s also the issue of traffic in the glen at the start, where getting stuck behind some poles-wielding slowcoach on one of the narrow sections can put paid to a serious attempt. (Again there is an echo here, in a humble way, of Wild on the Cuillin, where he mentioned the risk of “congestion problems” on very technical sections such as the TD Gap and the In Pinn.)

My normal brisk-stroll time for the Tilli-Cleuch route is around 65 minutes – closer to 70 once pauses for drinks and the shedding or adding of clothes have been factored in. The best deliberate fast attempt I’ve yet managed, however, on 16 August 2006, is 48 minutes 24 seconds. Another attempt, on 18 June 2010, saw the first and last splits done faster, but 35 seconds were leaked during the bridge-to-rock section with a further 9 seconds gone from there to the summit of the Law, leaving the overall effort 24 seconds outside the target. It did at least provide the consolation of nudging the eclectic time down to 48 minutes 4 seconds.

Incidentally, evidence that even slow running appears to be as fast as fast walking comes via the Maddy Moss race held on a Wednesday evening each July. This takes the same route as my own efforts apart from starting a little way up the hillside rather than at the road – and, while the leaders reach Ben Cleuch in around 25 minutes, almost all the strugglers and stragglers have also been and gone by 48 minutes.

It should be said that – as regular Ochil-goers will know – the direct route up Ben Cleuch isn’t legal just now, and certainly isn’t viable in fast-time terms, with the glen walkway having been closed for the past couple of years due to rockfalls and a shoogly bridge. The close-by alternative – using the path system on the slope immediately east of the glen – is perfectly pleasant, but leaves the bridge at the foot of the Law around four minutes further away in normal-walking terms, and between two and three minutes further in eyeballs-out mode.

So I haven’t given it a go for a while – and, with the walkway unlikely to be fixed in a hurry, chances are I won’t ever dip under 48:24, even in perfect conditions, given that age is against me. Frustration has been eased, however, by another bespoke hill game along similar lines – again with a connection to golf – as my Ochiling friend Mike Adam suggested that periodic attempts at beating my age could be in order. This is an excellent idea – and, if I tried it tomorrow, assuming the glen was open again, a summit time of just under 52 minutes 25 seconds would be the target, given that I’m currently aged 52 years four-and-half months.

Breaking 70 minutes in the year 2031 might be a trickier proposition. I’ll be happy just to last long enough to give it a go – and, more to the point, it will be interesting to see what time Finlay Wild can manage for a Cuillin traverse when he reaches the same age.

Dave Hewitt

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