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Loch Earn

Glen Ogle viaduct <em>Picture: Chris Fleming</em>

Glen Ogle viaduct Picture: Chris Fleming

By Matthew Shelley

My ultra marathon virginity has been lost: a coy start followed by seemingly endless humps and bumps and a sprint for the finish.

The inaugural Glen Ogle 33 was not a race I intended to enter, as I’ve got a dodgy knee and am focusing on an event down south in early December.

But recently I’ve been curious about whether I could make the jump from marathons to ultras, and discovering that one was due to start and finish a few yards from my home in Strathyre proved irresistible.

Perhaps I could do OK – I had home advantage.

The mountain tracks above Kingshouse, the old train track from Lochearnhead towards Lix Toll, the Acharn Forest near Killin and the back roads round Balquhidder are my stamping ground.

Organisers Bill Heirs (who came up with the idea while camping here) and Mike Adams designed the course as a joyous romp through fabulous scenery and with a total ascent of around 730 metres – ideal for ultra novices and veterans alike.

They expected around 30 or 40 entrants, but attracted 129, including some famously quick athletes such as Lucy Colquhoun and Paul Raistrick.

So, as the first of the morning sunlight caught the peak of Beinn an t-Sidhein (Ben Sheann), I lined up with some of the best in the business. My intimacy with every twist and turn of the course would be pitched against their athletic prowess.

I knew all about the agonising hairpin-bended hill overlooking Loch Earn and the land-on-your-arse potential of the slippery slats on the wobbly wooden bridge over the River Balvaig. They knew how to crunch miles and eat mountains.

The run itself was a stunner. Living in the area can make you blasé about its beauties.

Competitors passed on the outward and generally upward struggle, and on the pleasant rush back down, reminded me of how privileged I am to have such a backyard. A highpoint was steaming over the 12-arch railway viaduct, now a cycle path, towards the top of Glen Ogle itself.

The views down into the valley, with the last remnants of an 18th-century military road, and up to the sun-goldened heights and the white rush of autumn waterfalls, can temporarily wash the aches from even the most tired muscles.

And certainly Saturday showed the area at its seasonal peak, with the middle and homeward sections transitioning from the enclosed hush of mist-wreathed woodlands to blue, green and grey panoramas taking in Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’Chroin.

My plan was to conserve some energy for the final road section – a largely flat loop from Kingshouse, through Balquhidder, passing Loch Voil and back to Strathyre, with a few short snaps of hills in the final two miles.

It worked, and the last punch was spurred by the thought of free soup being ladled out for every runner by Steve and Jill Nixon at the Inn at Strathyre.

There were, though, a couple of alarming moments. One came when I had to evade some of my favourite villagers – a pair of Great Danes (the biggest of which answers to the name Dave) and a third canine which is part Great Dane and the rest Standard Poodle – a Daneadoodle? They normally mob me with big-pawed slavering playfulness.

The second was a pink-coated two-year-old waddling straight into my path, pointing and giggling at the funny, sweaty man – me. Should I swerve (no telling which way she would go), or jump over her (unfortunate if misjudged)? Oh the gratitude when daddy hoisted his princess from in front of me and I could simply swing down to the finishing line.

How had I done? The time of four hours 37 minutes was a touch slower than I had hoped, but not bad. So the big question was how fast the frontrunners had been.

At no point had I been truly breathless, until then. A marshal cheerfully told me that Paul Raistrick finished in 3:21, with Gareth Mayze not too far behind. They could have watched a movie before I turned up.

Lucy Colquhoun was first woman, in 3:46, ahead of Rebecca Johnson with 3:59. How the hell do they do that? I could almost weep with admiration.

Never mind. I checked with Mike Adams afterwards and he kindly informed me I was the first and fastest Strathyre resident. My pride in that achievement was tempered when he checked the entrants’ addresses and confirmed that I was also the only Strathyre resident.

But then again, 48th out of 129 means I have a realistic chance of improvement in next year’s event, and thankfully this is one sport where age need not be a handicap. Indeed, at 46, I’m a spring chicken compared to some.

In fact one thing impressed me even more than the winning times: the finishers included a bloke who still merrily hurls himself vast distances up and down Scottish mountains at the age of 75.

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Ben Lomond

Ben Lomond

For many hillgoers, February is one of the best months of the year. The daylight is starting to stretch, the snow is – or at least should be – firming up nicely, and the roads aren’t – or at least shouldn’t be – quite as dodgy as they were during the dark days of December and January.

The snow has certainly improved in quality, apart from in the north-east where they still seem be getting industrial-scale skiploads of fresh stuff day and night. In the western and central Highlands, the wind has been blowing and the freeze-thaw cycle has been doing its work after that weird festive-season spell when heaps of snow fell and temperatures were Baltic but there was barely a zephyr to nudge it into shape.

It’s a couple of weeks since I’ve been able to get up a sizeable hill, so I’m lacking recent first-hand evidence. But even on my local-Ochil option of Ben Cleuch on Monday, what streaky snow there was had very little give in it. I was wearing Walshes – studded fellrunning shoes that are surprisingly good in skiddy conditions – and these were fine on a 700-metre hill with no more than 30 per cent snow cover.

Had I been on anything higher, however – even a straightforward plod such as Ben Ledi – I would have taken the big boots, the axe and the crampons.

It’s with this in mind that I find myself remounting an old hobbyhorse, to ask – no, to plead – that mainly-summer walkers don’t try to sneak up “proper winter” hills armed with just a pair of trekking poles.

This has become a modern trend, and it would be interesting to hear the reasoning from someone who does it on a regular basis. My own theory is that such people regard poles as “gear” – safety devices, in other words – but in a halfway-house kind of way. Better than taking nothing, but not as committing as the axe-plus-crampons combo.

I don’t dispute that poles have their place on the Scottish hills. They provide weight-bearing support for walkers with dodgy knees or hips, serve as aid when balancing across burns, and are of use when yomping across undulating snowfields. Where poles are neither use nor ornament is on steep icy ground when good grip is essential. Here they risk luring the walker beyond the point where they would have retreated had they been carrying nothing.

It’s with this in mind that I would ask you to study the photograph above. It was taken on the last day of January by an experienced winter walker, Jim C, who was tempted out by a good weather forecast “when others stayed home to watch Murray get trounced at the tennis”.

Jim went to Rowardennan and did the standard clockwise circuit: over Ptarmigan and up Ben Lomond by the north-west ridge. The last bit is quite steep and quite narrow, and needs care in winter. It’s pretty straightforward, pleasant even, in crampons, but can be a nightmare without them – and Jim’s photograph shows two men struggling to reach the summit. They had no ironmongery, just a pair of poles each, and were on all-fours at times.

On all fours on Ben LomondThe picture is – to my eyes – alarming. A slip here is going to mean work for the rescue team, and maybe also for the coroner. Thankfully the two men got to the top OK (I hesitate to say that they got up safely), and went down by the easier south ridge.

Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t wish to deny them their day’s adventure, and I’m not wanting to control hillgoing competence by any kind of legislation (and neither is Jim C). We all learn by our mistakes – I’ve made plenty – so long as we survive them relatively unscathed. That’s the best way to learn. But there must be easier, safer, less mind-shreddingly scary ways than this to learn about appropriate equipment and technique.

It’s impossible to truly tell someone’s mood from a rear-view photograph taken at distance, but neither of these men look happy to me – and, what’s really worrying, this kind of thing is becoming commonplace.

I’ve seen a poles-person picking their way downhill, cramponless, on ice on this exact same ridge, and another prime location is the “tourist route” up Ben Vorlich near Lochearnhead. In winter this is mostly a plod-cum-slog, but it steepens in its final 100 metres, crossing thin shaley ground that readily ices up. It also has a bad fall-line, off to the side rather than back down the ridge. Go here in winter and you will likely see pole-wielding walkers looking decidedly worried as they tiptoe up and (even more scarily) down the ridge.

One thing that is happening in both these places is that mainly-summer walkers are giving little or no thought to “aspect”, to which way the hillside faces. In July this scarcely matters, apart from trying to keep out of the worst of any wind. But aspect is central to planning from November to March, as north-facing slopes are always likely to be icier than south-facing ones.

Perceived expense seems to be a factor in some people not carrying crampons, even though a pair costs only as much as two or three tanks of fuel, and considerably less than many cagoules.

The whole issue – like the Scottish upland weather – can be very non-straightforward and subjective. In the past, I’ve found myself making almost the flipside of this argument, puzzled by people wearing crampons in places where the snow is too soft to merit them.

Generally, though, the point is that any decision to wear or not to wear them is redundant at 900 metres on a windy, icy, alarmingly exposed ridge if one doesn’t have a pair about one’s person. Better, surely, to spend a bit of money, learn a bit of technique (it’s fairly basic: tread carefully and don’t trip up), whereupon a whole world of sensible choices and safe progress will open out in front of you.