Munro-round record hits new heights as 40-day barrier is breached

Stephen Pyke (second from right) and his support team on Ben Hope
Stephen Pyke (second from right) and his support team on Ben Hope

Well, that didn’t take long. At 3:06pm on June 3, a mere 39 days, nine hours and six minutes after having started on Mull on April 25, the Staffordshire-based runner Stephen Pyke – Spyke to pretty much everyone who knows him – reached the top of Ben Hope, Scotland’s most northerly 3,000ft hill.

He thus completed the fastest self-propelled round of the list, beating a record held for just under a decade by Glaswegian Charlie Campbell. Campbell’s effort – 48 days 12 hours – was rightly regarded as monumental, so to see Spyke carve off nine days – or 18 per cent – is remarkable.

Asked shortly after reaching the trig point whether he was glad to have finished, Spyke said: “In some ways, yes. I’ve enjoyed every day in some way. It’s been a really good excuse for 40 days on the hill, and it’s definitely been a team effort.”

The Essex-born ultra-biathlete averaged more than seven Munros per day in a extended bagathon during which he cycled and occasionally canoed between groups of hills. He shredded not just the record book but also the guidebook, racking up two 12-Munro days, five 11s, four tens, one nine, seven eights, five sevens, three sixes, five fives, one four, four threes, two twos, and one one.

The daily dozens were a sweep-up of Schiehallion plus the Carn Mairg and Lawers ranges, and a remarkable surge that took in all ten Mamores after an aperitif of the Beinn a’Bheithir pair above Ballachulish. Day 20 saw another huge effort: the Cruachan four, the Etive five, then Stob Ghabhar and Stob a’Choire Odhair.

On Day 28, the plan had been to simply cycle from Kintail to Skye, then set about all 12 Cuillin Munros next morning. But the outlying Bla Bheinn was climbed that evening, clearing the way for the traditional 11-summit exposurefest, In Pinn and all.

Thus each of Spyke’s 40 days included at least one Munro – quite possibly a record in itself. The physical and psychological strength needed for such a relentless attack is barely comprehensible. It is one thing to have a massive day in the Scottish hills, but to immediately follow it with another, and another, requires huge reserves. Apart from the evening feast and nightly sleep, there was no rest break, no downtime.

Best days? The ten eastern Cairngorm Munros in snow, the Cuillin, and the big Fannaich/Fisherfield traverses were all mentioned, as Spyke and his support team sipped champagne from plastic flutes in the Ben Hope sunshine. “An unexpectedly good day was over Beinn Dearg,” Spyke said. “The north side of Cona’ Mheall was really interesting, and Seana Bhraigh was a nice evening hill.”

There is great mutual respect in the hill-running world, and Campbell had been up some time earlier to wedge a gift-wrapped bottle of malt – The Singleton – into the cairn awaiting his successor’s arrival. Ten years earlier, Rory Gibson and Andrew Johnston, whose record Campbell had beaten, had done exactly the same (well, it was The Macallan in their case). Campbell’s bottle came with a note to Spyke: “It takes a singular determination and character to see an enterprise like this through to a successful ending, and you have done that.” He described the Munro record as “a people thing”.

If that was tradition, there was also a lovely coincidence. Chris and Jim Sharp from Edinburgh, who were climbing Ben Hope in holidaymaker mode, are friends of Gibson. “These days Rory is a busy architect and dad,” said Chris Sharp, “and as good a golfer as a skier and climber.” The Sharps had no idea that they would be on hand to witness the record change hands again until they saw the malt at the cairn.

Can the record come down any lower? Will Spyke one day return, clutching a bottle for a runner even speedier and stronger? “Someone could trim four or five days off,” he said, “but they would have to go some to do that. It could be beaten, but it would need armies of supporters setting up bivvies on the route.”

It is not his worry, though. Asked if he would have another go were someone to claim the record next year, he laughed and shook his head: “I only do things once.”

It is hard to see the Munros being done much faster than this. Over the course of almost six weeks Spyke and his team racked up high scores in each of the necessary disciplines: route planning, support logistics, luck with the weather, injury avoidance (switching to a pair of Inov-8 X-Talons put a stop to the mid-round Achilles twinge), plus the old staples of speed and stamina.

Highland weather can scupper any attempt – and Spyke had it almost as good as could be hoped for. Generally dry and no major storms (although one of his support team was blown over and injured a wrist on Ben More Assynt – she duly climbed Ben Hope with her arm in a sling), while fears about lingering snows proved unfounded.

Campbell undoubtedly had worse weather in 2000, with rain on 20 days including six utterly foul ones. He also had more trouble with injuries, necessitating a visit to Oban A&E. The great incalculable is how might Campbell and Spyke have fared given each other’s weather and injuries. Evidence suggests that Spyke would still have been the faster, but with the nine-day margin much reduced. It is worth remembering that Campbell likewise set off with 40 days in mind.

The scale of Spyke’s effort was perhaps best summed up by a walker met halfway up Ben Hope, who described it as “an Olympic level of achievement”. It certainly is – and the comparison, made by one of the support team, of a sub-40-day Munro round with a sub-four-minute mile is apt, too.

Were there any justice, Spyke would be a strong contender for the Sports Personality of the Year award – but, just as with Gibson, Johnston and Campbell before him, he won’t even merit a mention. Hill running is too niche – and perhaps too nice – to appeal to a television audience obsessed with commercialised mainstream sport.

Come the end of 2010, however, will anyone else have managed such a sustained, at-full-stretch achievement as this – and enjoyed it in the finest traditions of amateur endeavour? Unlikely.

Spyke was raising money for, and awareness of, the John Muir Trust.

The Munro record

  • Hamish Brown, 112 days, finished on Ben Hope, July 24, 1974 (Brown was attempting the first continuous round, rather than trying to set a fast time)
  • Ashley Cooper, approximately 90 days, finished on Ben More Mull, late July or early August 1986
  • Hugh Symonds, 66 days 22 hours, finished on Ben Lomond, June 25, 1990
  • Rory Gibson and Andrew Johnston, 51 days 9 hours 22 minutes, finished on Ben Hope, July 13, 1992
  • Charlie Campbell, 48 days 12 hours, finished on Ben Hope, July 16, 2000
  • Stephen Pyke, 39 days 9 hours 6 minutes, finished on Ben Hope, June 3, 2010

See the Angry Corrie for a more general list of continuous rounds.

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  • Jim Braid

    A phenomenal achievement. It’s as far removed from ordinary hill walking round the Munros as the Tour de France is from the average cyclist. Most hillwalkers will have the occasional big day on the hills , maybe even two or three days in a row but nothing that comes close to this. I could comprehend the fitness levels needed to do the individual days but not the recovery needed to string them all together. How did he keep his energy levels up? What did he use for fuel? Going back to the Tour de France, which is the closest sporting analogy I can think of, (even if it is for about half the number of days and the hours on the go each day are much shorter in the Tour)I’ve read that some cyclists use a medical drip going in to their body to get all the nutrition they need. Can’t imagine that happened here so any info on how he was able to keep going day after day.

    You’re right it does deserve recognition by a much wider audience – I’ve yet to see a mention on the BBC news site.

    A further word of praise for Charlie Campbell and the style in which he did it = swimming to and from Mull plus across Kyle Rhea just blew me away when I heard of it.

    So as someone who took 25 years for his second round, my deepest and sincerest congratulations to Spyke on his extraordinary achievement.

  • Dave Steane

    Thanks Dave for this and your earlier pieces on Spyke. Informative and entertaining as ever. Spyke’s achievement is stunning. I was trying to think of something comparable on the sporting front – and came up with the Tour de France, but I see Jim beat me to it.

    I’ve done one or two hefty Munro bagging days over the years, so can appreciate something of the immensity of the days he undertook, but to be able to sustain that over a five week period…well that clearly takes commitment and determination beyond most mere mortal Munro baggers.

    I spoke to Spyke – which gave me the opportunity to congratulate the man himself, and to ask him to pass on my thanks to John for providing a highly entertaining blog during the challenge – and confirmed with him what I think is a further 12 x Munro day to those you’ve highlighted – the three eastern Fisherfield hills then followed by nine Fannaichs, which also included a bike ride to Achnasheen (day 37).

    Now, must get on with the ninety eight I need to complete my first round – a couple of weeks should do it.

    • Dave Hewitt

      Good spot, thanks. I’d worked out the daily-breakdown figures from the schedule spreadsheet on John and Spyke’s blog, but as you say the blog postings themselves differ re the Fisherfield/Fannaich binge on Days 36 (Slioch, three of the F’fields, both An Teallach Munros) and 37 (the other three F’fields, then all nine Fannaichs). So that means three rather than two 12-Munro days, four 11s, four 7s and four 6s.

      The weekly breakdown (on the basis of a week being Sun-Sat, which fits with Spyke having started on a Sunday) works out at Week 1: 51, Week 2: 57, Week 3: 47, Week 4: 42, Week 5: 56, then 30 in the five days of Week 6.

      Someone more numerate than me had better check this, but I think that the most Spyke managed in any continuous seven-day period is 58, twice: Days 2-8 inclusive and again for Days 31-37. Charlie Campbell had a 54 and a 53 during his round in 2000. The highest weekly figure I know of outwith full Munro-round efforts is 50, by Jamie Thin in July 2001.

  • Dave Hewitt

    By a neat coincidence, the day after Spyke finished his round saw Steven Fallon climb Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and the In Pinn and thus complete his 14th round. This is almost certainly the record – no one else is listed by the Scottish Mountaineering Club as having completed more than ten rounds – although one of last year’s Munro Society newsletters mentioned a nameless person who was on the verge of an 11th completion. That person, whoever it is, is clearly not listed, and it’s possible that there are other huge-tally people such as this.
    Fallon tells me his lifetime Munro total now stands at 4084 (coincidentally 4084 is the height of Cairn Gorm in feet). Massive though this is, it is still miles behind the highest such totals. I believe three people have Munro totals over 6000, and the highest I know of – over 7000 – belongs to someone who has only completed a single round.
    Fallon’s previous round ended in July 2006, so he has slowed down markedly since the days when he racked up a round per year. Slowed down isn’t really the right term, though – he’s got more into hill running these days. He’s blogged about his recent finish here:

  • Callum Black

    The story made it onto the Daily Record site:

    Seems to be a reasonably accurate take on things, apart from this bit:
    “Hamish Brown, who became the first man to conquer every Munro in 1974”
    (Actually, I guess that could technically be correct, depending on how you rread it)

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