New on Sidetracked:

Tranter’s Round by Bike

18 Scottish Munros, 36 miles, and a 24-hour challenge
Written by Tom Hill with Gary Tompsett and Max Cousins

Our minds play strange tricks when reflecting on feats of endurance. We forget large chunks – often the monotony of trudging. Hours and hours of our lives are perhaps marked by the fleeting recollection of a strange rock or shared joke. We know the rest happened, but, like a CCTV security recording, the memories are quickly overwritten. Equally, we store flashes of crystal-clear evocations, so detailed that we can almost pick them up like a physical souvenir and examine them from every angle. Our brains – perhaps overwhelmed by the enormity of our excursions and achievements – seem to be designed to distil down the very essence of what made the experience so special.

This, therefore, is not a complete record of a ride. Instead, it is the distilled essence of memories. A Highland single malt – or perhaps a blend, given that it is two riders’ stories – evoking the moments that draw them, and all of us, back to adventure again and again.

Kilometre 39 – Intimacy and exposure

It’s gone midnight and Gary Tompsett and Max Cousins are crouched at 1,056m, the summit of Na Gruagaichean, and eating perhaps the greatest ever cheese and pickle rolls. They guzzle Coke and neck jelly babies, midnight snacking as fast as they can. Wind and rain tear and harry so this is no place to rest for long, but for now, the heat generated by the climb is still with them. In some ways the wild weather is a positive. It keeps the pair focused. Adrenaline fends off tiredness, even though they’ve been moving for over 20 hours. They stand up, keen to keep going, and feel a wave of disorientation. Much of the climb so far has been about following the ridge; not so here.

A friendly cairn and scratches of path caught in their head torches give confidence to their navigation, throwing them 15–20m of vague visibility in the cloud. They move forward in their intimate bubble of diffused light until they reach a neck with kitty-litter gravel leading steeply down, branching to the left and right. Max suddenly remembers that he’s been saving the battery of his 2,500-lumen bike light on his helmet, and now he switches it on. It helps somewhat, and the way is obvious – turn right here, over the loose rocks balanced on the gravel. Then to traverse the rock slabs, the bases of which end in what appears to be an abyss.

Frankly the bikes they each carry on their backs aren’t helpful here: something of a theme for much of this adventure. They turn about and carefully step backwards down through slippery rocky traps, using handholds, then turn around again and walk on.

Not long after, the cloud on their left clears; and very suddenly, Max and Gary are not alone. Far below is the village of Kinlochleven, a sulphurous yellow constellation of life. This reminder of existence beyond the moment lifts their spirits. It’s a heart-warming sight after the recent remote, dark, damp hours. Is there anyone awake and looking at the hills? If so, they are no doubt looking up at ‘another pair of idiot Tranter’s’, a pair of lights twinkling in the clouds and silhouetted mountains far above.

Tranter’s Round was inaugurated by Philip Tranter in 1964. It is an elegant lap of the Lochaber Munros (or peaks above 3,000ft), starting and finishing at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, and includes the four 4,000-footers of Ben Nevis, Carn Mòr Dearg, and the two Aonachs (Mòr and Beag), as well as the Grey Corries and their outliers. Then, south of the River Nevis, all the Mamores and their triptych of outliers in the east. Including a total of 18 Munros, 36 miles (58km), and 20,600 feet (6,279m) of ascent, the round usually makes for a stern 24-hour running challenge, despite being surpassed in distance, number of tops, and popularity by the newer Charlie Ramsay Round. The terrain of the Tranter’s is typical of the Scottish Highlands: very rocky and steep, with tightly packed contours. In short, it’s a route that does not lend itself to mountain biking.

Gary couldn’t plead naivety. The former winter Ramsay Round record holder knew exactly what the terrain was like. Maybe that was what attracted him. As it is so often with this kind of thing, he isn’t quite able to articulate the ‘why’. Perhaps it was simply a case of ‘why not?’ and a sense of curiosity, a yearning for adventure. It was June 2021 and the bottled-up energy of lockdowns and limited opportunities for travel finally bubbled over. The first known completion of the Tranter’s by bike was to be the outlet.

This wasn’t an adventure to be undertaken solo. Partly for the practical reasons of support and safety, but mainly because Gary wanted someone to share the experience with. Someone who in years to come would be able to ask ‘Do you remember that moment when…’ over a pint in the pub. Max Cousins is a long-time friend of Gary. Despite never having ridden a bike with each other before, they knew that they both had a penchant for ‘liberation through hard work’ and a willingness to endure type-two fun for hours on end.

Kilometre 0 – Start as you mean to go on

At 4.58am on Saturday, June 5th, the pair arrive, on schedule, at the hostel in Glen Nevis, the traditional start and finish for both the Tranter and Ramsay Rounds. Weeks of meticulous planning and preparation are now behind them; at least 24 hours of effort in the mountains are ahead. They set off at 5.00am on the nose and join the tourist path to the summit of Ben Nevis. Within 200m they are carrying their bikes: lifting the 15kg machines over their heads and across their shoulders, using a Hookabike system to clip them to packs and allow hands-free portage. It is a routine that they will repeat innumerable times over the next 60km.

Kilometre 10 – A hard day is just the beginning

The first few hours are lost to the memory banks. The scale of the challenge ahead ensures that the pair are simply focused on steady forward progress. Their first break is for five minutes at the col at the head of Coire Giubhsachan – a chance to lie down after five hours’ continuous movement. Max forces down a cheese wrap, his body not keen on accepting food during this level of effort. He lives and rides in the Lake District, where, if you want to ride the hills, carrying is just a fact of life. The best mountain paths require a level of dedication to access. Even though they’ve barely started this adventure a quick tally suggests that he has already equalled the amount of carrying in a normal hard day. Looking up from the col following their path, the west face of Aonach Mòr rises sharply: a wall of grass and crag some 500m high. They move on into the unknown.

Kilometre 14 – The technical crux

The snowfield on the summit of Aonach Beag runs out into the steep slope leading to Stob Coire Bhealaich. The pair are relishing the opportunity to be moving on the bike, and the exposure is exhilarating. They round a deep gully and the sunken, rideable singletrack updulates (sic) to Stob Coire Bhealaich itself. For a short while, the pair are absolutely lost in the moment, focused on nothing more than where their front wheel is pointing. Then Gary stops and indicates left and down, pointing out of view: ‘Here’s the problem.’

The pair leave their bikes and walk to the lip. This is the crux of the whole route. The trail from the Aonachs to the Grey Corries goes steeply downhill from here. Very steeply. Usually this would be just a normal steep carry down – then riding where the gradient relents. But there’s a problem to solve.

In summer, the gully-path is guarded by a huge overhanging buttress of rock. The route drops down under the overhang and follows the gully. In winter, this north-facing gully traps the snow. It’s been a good winter for snow, and despite this being June there’s a massive plug blocking the top of the gully at a large ledge. And a steep, soft, wet tongue of snow nearly filling the gully runout.

An approach to the lower softer snow from the left-hand side looks possible to reach by traversing, first carrying out above some slippery looking slabs, then down and back across the slabs into the snow patch. This they do – carefully, gingerly, and one bike at a time, handing them across to each other, section by section. The wet snow gives way to gravel which itself gives way to steep grass. It’s a challenging ride down the rest of the mountain but a welcome relief to be past the problem.

Kilometre 16 to 26 – Cramp

For six hours, Max feels twinges that threaten to turn into cramp. Eventually he voices his concerns to Gary. They aren’t yet at the half-way river crossing and have already begun to realise that their 24-hour skeleton plan is going to need to be revised upwards.

Gary is stoic. ‘You are just experiencing a weakness’: a mantra he is inclined to say at these moments. He is experienced enough to know that they would both have these troubling moments, both physical and mental, over the course of the round. They are part of what keeps him coming back: the moments of insight into your soul, what’s truly important, and what you are willing to endure to achieve it.

Plenty of food and water help the physical symptoms, but doubt has been sown in Max’s mind. Gary breaks up the route into manageable chunks; the next is to their meeting point with Gavin Miles and the first of two pre-planned food and water drops. They keep moving, wondering how long it will be before they meet their second drop, placed on Na Gruagaichean by Donald Maclean.

Plod, plod – the pre-cramp returns not long before they meet Gavin. Lots of Coke and water. Two bananas, Eccles cakes, and jelly babies. Max begins to feel a little more human. Gary then offers Max an effervescent electrolyte hydration tablet. ‘Chew this and drink water, but try not to foam like you’ve got rabies.’ This Max does – but with a shut mouth the foam has to go somewhere and it’s the wrong hole. Gary and Gav are grinning. Max grins back while trying not to choke. The pre-cramp seems to be behaving now.

Kilometre 41 – Ring of Steall

Both Max and Gary have walked the Ring of Steall before. You should too; it’s a wonderful mountaineering day out. Starting from the road end of Glen Nevis you walk the Nevis Gorge and reach Steall Falls, where the Allt Coire a’ Mhàil spreads itself over cliffs before joining the Water of Nevis. From here it’s a classic ridge round, the most technical parts being An Garbhanach on the east side and the intimidatingly narrow Devil’s Ridge on the west.

Somehow, they’ve forgotten the scrambling. Neither Gary nor Max had wanted to recce the route beforehand – they prefer the adventure of not knowing exactly what is around the next corner. They reach An Garbhanach at 3.00am and their memories prickle into life: unseen exposure and ground that is challenging even in daylight. Up they go, hands required, part of their brains taking care to consider the width of the bikes that are hanging free on their rucksack carrying system.

The route breaches the ridge crest, exposure nagging at them, and it’s not yet done. They are halfway up the climb; still to finish and then reverse this section, as this is the second of the three Mamores out-and-backs.

The pair are tired and on maximum alert. Going is slow and methodical. It’s hard to pick the way up here and the consequences of a fall would be severe. Soon enough they miss a turning and end up bouldering through steep ground, watching out for each other’s hands and feet, grunting with the effort. Finally, they rejoin the correct path and move more easily to tick off An Gearanach.

Reversing the ridge is easier as dawn begins to shed light on the route, but they can be no less careful. The 2km round trip has taken 90 minutes.

Kilometre 53 – Mullach na Coirean

It’s the final summit but Max and Gary are not yet celebrating. It’s nearly midday and over 30 hours without sleep, and every one of those hours needed the utmost concentration. The old saying that a mountain is only ticked when you have made it safely to the bottom is perhaps even more valid when 17 summits preceded it. By now the cloud has lifted and they can see most of the round; Ben Nevis is still up in the cloud, but there are the Aonachs, Grey Corries, and Mamores in all their glory.

Gary’s eating at the cairn, Max is taking a photo of his bike. It’s impossible to fit in the entire panorama behind it. ‘Which way home, Gary?’

Emotions bubble up as they negotiate their way down the mountain. Focus waxes and wanes, but allowing the body and mind to think it’s over is not an option. Even this final descent refuses to give in easily. On the bikes, off the bikes. The trail steepens and gravity overcomes the roughness; the exit from the summit plateau is fast and rocky. Finally, they can enjoy the speed. Stay sharp. The scree path gives way to a firmer surface down the ridge. The easy feeling is alien, wrong, after all the carrying, and it’s a job to accept the exhilaration. The riders give in and flow down the trail, smiles creeping across their faces.

Kilometre 58 – The end

One last push, and the exhilarating speed of the forest road gives the illusion of feeling fresh. Gary and Max burst out of the forest gate at the bottom of the descent, hit the tarmac, and ride briskly to the hostel.

‘What’s the time?’

‘Twelve-fifty pm, so that’s…’ – it takes longer than normal to do the maths, forgivable given the circumstances – ‘err, thirty-one hours and fifty minutes, is it?’

They stop for photos outside the hostel. Relaxed now, the illusion subsides. Now it’s a challenge even to limp to the toilet. Released, the body tells the mind just what it thinks: What the fuck did you make me do?

Epilogue – Meditation and acceptance

Acceptance. That’s the meditation that the effort encourages. Accept this situation; you put yourself within it. Accept the weight; you chose to bring a bike. Accept the route’s cul-de-sacs; this is the established challenge. Accept the weather; there’s no controlling it. Accept the muscle effort; you’re here in this unforgiving place and there’s only one way to get out. Accept the muscle pain; this will pass in time. Accept and embrace. Embrace the moments of sheer joy; the few hundred metres of flowing trail sandwiched between endless plodding. Embrace the suffering and situation, the mind rising above.

This acceptance frees our minds to enjoy where we are, and Gary and Max were there – free in the mountains, the glorious steepness, away from all other worries.

Written by Tom Hill // @24tom
Photography by Gary Tompsett // @125gary & Max Cousins // @instamaxcousins – edited by James Vincent // @jamesvincent