Attitudes and Altitude: Tranter’s Round
An Introduction to the Attitudes and Altitude Project
Words and Photography by Alex Roddie
‘Get your shit together, Alex,’ I ordered myself as I fumbled, shivering, with a crampon strap. It was 8.00pm. The summit ridge of Binnein Mor leered grotesquely out of the blackness in front of me, crooked rocks and a snow arête gleaming in the beam of my head torch as I looked up from my faffing for the nth time, worrying about the descent. To my right was a colossal void. I had to get down there somehow. There was nowhere safe to sleep up here on this summit ridge – an enjoyably exposed place in daylight, but Gothic and intimidating after dark.
Stars pricked through the deepening velvet above. An hour before, on the summit of Na Gruagaichean, I’d felt a fierce and nostalgic joy at being up there on the snowy ridge for the alpenglow show at sunset, 7 Munros in to my 18-Munro circuit of Tranter’s Round. Tranter’s is a legendary mountain enchainment in Scotland traversing every peak on the Glen Nevis skyline, and arguably the finest really big mountaineering route on the British mainland.
Years before, living in Glen Coe, I’d spent all my spare time tramping over the Bidean range, the Mamores, the Grey Corries, the Aonachs, Ben Nevis. It had been so long since my previous visit. A day before, on the bus journey through Glen Coe, my first sight of the Buachaille’s pyramidal perfection rising above Rannoch Moor had felt like a physical punch to the chest. I’d gasped out in sudden choked tears, poleaxed by the emotion of homecoming. I was absolutely in bits until we passed the Clachaig and Glencoe village and the bus whisked me on to Fort William. I’d been suppressing the deep, unquenched longing of living so far away for so long. Perhaps, I wondered, this was the only place where I could truly feel anything real at all. The place where I belonged.
I’d known of Tranter’s Round for many years, of course. It had been a dream for well over a decade. I’d climbed every peak individually many times, even completed the Lochaber Traverse (the route’s northern half) in winter, but I never believed that I would be good enough to complete Tranter’s in a continuous push. Certainly not when a significant proportion of the route would be in winter condition, with steep snow slopes and sculpted ridges to negotiate. Such feats were for fitter, more hardcore people than I would ever be.
But my fitness or experience had never really been the problem. It was my attitude.
As a teenager and young adult, I’d been overweight and unfit. Although I lost weight during the Glen Coe years, the ghosts of old attitudes never left me – and I was never happy with how I looked. A bit podgy was how I’d often describe myself with a self-deprecating smile, or not particularly fit, despite all the mountains I’d climbed. I began hiking long-distance trails, but always I would make excuses for myself, take the easy option, avoid the bigger challenges that part of me craved. I’m not good enough was the unifying theme. I saw myself as heavier, slower, more limited than I actually was. The barriers were real, but they were self-imposed ones in my own mind. Fundamentally I did not believe that I was capable of taking my fitness and experience to another level, going faster and higher, pushing through the boundaries of my carefully constructed comfort zone.
But here’s the thing: whenever I did find myself pushing just a bit harder, I’d find that I was already fitter than I expected, that I had no idea where my true limits actually were.
In 2007, I reached the 4,223m summit of Castor above Zermatt in the Swiss Alps – my first 4,000m peak, something I never would have believed possible only a few years before. I was sharing a rope with my brother James, who has his own demons to wrestle when it comes to body image, exercise, and eating disorders.
In 2018, towards the end of the Mercantour Traverse in the Maritime Alps, I achieved a zen-like flow state on a day of multiple technical passes, and felt such joy when my rapid descent into the Vallée des Merveilles actually turned into a run. I never forgot that feeling of swooping over the landscape unencumbered and free. I am a bird was the thought that kept coming back to me as I ran downhill.
In 2019, I began hiking the 832km Pyrenean Haute Route in ultralight style, secretly convinced that I would be too slow and unfit to complete it. Not only did I finish the trail, I did it in 33 days – a week quicker than I expected.
And, in late 2021, after several false starts in previous years, I decided that I was going to become a runner. It was time to be brave and push through the boundaries I’d built in my head. My goal was not to win any races, but to build up my fitness to a level I’d never seen before, with one objective: bigger journeys in bigger mountains. Fastpacking, blending ultralight hiking with trail running. I wanted to reach for that flow state I’d experienced in 2018 and hold on to it, riding it from the Mediterranean across the crest of the Alps to Zermatt, the place where I first spread my wings as a mountaineer many years before. 1,000km fast and light and free. Be the bird again.
To help me on this journey, I recruited my friend and Sidetracked deputy editor Jenny Tough – a legendary fastpacker in her own right, having run across a mountain range on every continent. I didn’t trust that my motivation would hold, so I asked her to be my running accountability buddy, coaxing and encouraging when I needed it. At every milestone, every time I’ve tried something harder and surprised myself, Jenny has been there to tell me that I’m stronger than I think I am. As my mileage and strength have increased, so have my self-belief and confidence, matched only by her belief in me as I explore this new learning curve. I’ve improved rapidly – and found myself eager to test where my true limits are.
Tranter’s Round in winter was never going to be a run, not at this early stage in my path as a runner, but that wasn’t the point. It was never going to be a 24-hour challenge. Beating anyone else’s time was not the point. The point was that once – recently, in fact – I’d never have considered it at all. Now, however, things that were once unthinkable seemed possible. After months of running at home in the flatlands, I wanted to see where my new levels of fitness could take me, and when a weather window opened up I decided to go for it.
I had watched the sun set and mist curl over the mountains from the summit of Na Gruagaichean. I had descended 40° snow in the dark, front-pointing down hard névé and daggering with my ice axe. I had woken up to the soft calls of ptarmigan in a high coire with frost nipping at my nose. I had descended all the way down to the river in the bottom of Glen Nevis and climbed the long, pathless slog back up into the Grey Corries to begin the northern half of the route, hardly daring to believe my luck at how good conditions were – and hardly daring to believe how good my legs felt after thousands of metres of ascent. And then I had danced along the aesthetic snow arêtes of the Grey Corries before negotiating the route’s crux at dusk and watching darkness fall from high on Aonach Beag.
I had felt again. The hope, the elation, the self-doubt and the digging deep, the soul-lifting beauty, the intense gratitude. Emotions that are not even named, that I cannot even mould into language. All of it. How do people go through life without this? How can anything possibly be better? Those were my thoughts as I trod the sharp East Ridge of Carn Mor Dearg at dawn and the sun’s terminator glided towards me – in textured blue shadow one moment and purifying white the next. And when I topped out, and became the first person that day to see the North Face of Ben Nevis laid out in topographic detail at the other end of the CMD Arête, that fabled tightrope of rock leading to the highest point of the British Isles, I let out a whoop of joy that echoed from the mountain wall I had spent so many hours exploring as a younger man.
But that younger version of me, who did not feel capable of the big journeys and struggled to progress beyond the easiest climbs, could never have imagined that one day I would climb every mountain on the Glen Nevis skyline with ultra-running gear, an ultralight pack, and nothing but a bivvy bag for shelter – that I would feel strong and fluid and empowered, and capable of much more.
I haven’t found my limits yet, but I still have a long way to go. In the days after coming down from Tranter’s Round I have been second-guessing myself, wondering if I could have done it a bit quicker. Maybe in running shoes and microspikes instead of big boots and mountaineering crampons. Maybe with a bit more running and a bit less plodding. Other people manage it, I think. Fitter, stronger people than me. But then I have to remind myself that five months ago I was not even a runner, that I have come a long way in a short period of time.
I still have a hard time thinking of myself as any kind of athlete. In my head part of me is still overweight and unfit and can’t even run 1km, let alone 30km. Even my body, leaner than it has ever been, doesn’t match my own mental image of it. But I am learning and I am listening.
Now my attention turns to the big fastpacking journey across the Alps this summer. The plan is simple: I will begin alone from Ventimiglia in the south, run and hike for a few hundred kilometres north along the Grande Traversata delle Alpi, then meet up with Jenny and my brother James towards the end. We’ll string together sections of classic trails including the Tour of the Matterhorn and Tour of Monte Rosa. In solitude I will push myself a little further, and in the company of two of my favourite people I will get a new perspective on how far I’ve come – and focus on enjoying the mountains. ‘We are going to have so much fun!’ Jenny texts me.
We consult maps, obsess over gear lists, imagine how it will feel to run those last few kilometres downhill to Zermatt and high-five in the Bergfuhrerplatz under the gaze of the Matterhorn. Where once I would have seen an impossible undertaking, now I see only the wide horizons of the Alps, a challenge on a scale I can understand, and limitless possibilities.
Alex used clothing and equipment from Montane’s VIA trail-running range on Tranter’s Round. ‘This kit helped to keep me comfortable in a range of conditions from icy shade and billowing mist to hot sun,’ Alex says. ‘I was particularly impressed by the lightweight Spine Waterproof Jacket, breathable enough to use as a windproof layer even when working hard uphill. The Trailblazer 30L pack was big enough for all my kit while being incredibly light.’ He also relied on Leki Ultratrail FX.One Superlite running poles, which made a big difference on the countless steep uphill and downhill sections.
Alex Roddie is an author, writer, speaker, and mountain lover. He is Sidetracked’s editor. Attitudes and Altitude begins this July, supported by Montane and Leki. Follow the adventure on Sidetracked.com, on social media, in Volume 25 of Sidetracked’s print journal, and live on the 2022 Sidetracked Creators Tour.