The Island Munros Triathlon: Adventures through the North West.
Alex mentioned the Island Munros Triathlon (IMT) about nine years ago, and it sounded as intimidating then as it does now. Quite simple in concept, to link all the Scottish island Munros, however, rather more difficult in practice. The route starts in Glen Brittle on Skye and covers all the 11 Munro tops on the ridge before dropping down to almost sea level into the Camasunary Valley before climbing up rough mountain side to the summit of Blà Bheinn in about 30 km and 3500 m of climbing. Then our bikes would be waiting on the other side of the mountain to cycle 240 km to Lochaline on the sound of Mull. The swim across was 2.5/3 km and followed by another 23 km cycle and the final ascent up Ben More (960 m) to finish. 13 Munros, 310 km and 6500 m. It was an epic adventure that I had to be part of, and I said yes before Alex had even finished the question.
The first thing I realised was that I had neither a bike nor an open water swimming wetsuit. With both acquired, I got down to the work of trying to swim again for the first time since school. A few YouTube tutorials later and I was jumping into the Lochs of the Trossachs and swallowing litres of peaty brown water in the process. Little by little it was getting easier to maintain a front crawl that was good enough to swim about 2.5 km in just over an hour, which was sufficient, I hoped! The cycling was easier to adapt to as there is a good amount of crossover from running. In the end, I managed to dedicate around three weeks in total to adapting my body to the different stresses of cycling and swimming.
All good adventures need a kit photo!
As children, me and Alex used to run wild in the North-West Highlands, adventuring close to home and exploring the hillsides, mountains, streams and forests, getting in and out of trouble as often as each other. We’ve been friends for longer than I can remember and as we grew up, our missions took us further and further from the sleepy sea lochs of Scotland. From alpine climbing in France and Switzerland to rock climbing in America and Spain, we fostered our climbing partnership over thousands of metres and hundreds of kilometres.
I gave up climbing years ago and converted to long distance running, so I was going to be responsible for nutrition and problem solving any issues that came up as the day went on. Alex on the other hand is much stronger at swimming, and on the Cuillin Ridge his intimate knowledge of the route combined with strength and speed over scrambling and climbing sections was critical to finishing the challenge. This was great because my skill set only came into play after about 15 or 16 hours, so I could follow Alex along the ridge with as little stress as possible (yea right…). He was in his element up there, like a duck to water, which turned out to be a pretty accurate depiction of reality!
The calm before the storm! (Photo credit Hazel Moran)
Weather watching in Scotland is somewhat of a dark art with fronts moving through unpredictably, at their own pace, changing erratically and, by sods law usually hitting the weekend. That’s what it feels like anyway when you’ve got a time window to get something done and, incidentally, that’s exactly what happened! August was freed up to have a chance at one good weekend of weather. The first weekend was good, then it wasn’t. The second weekend looked worse and got worse. Each passing weekend had a feeling of deeper and deeper frustration not least because we had a support team of around 10 people who had kindly agreed to help, and it felt like we were revving the engine every week only to stall.
The technicalities of the Cuillin Ridge with sustained exposure and grade 3 scrambling and the tide times and sea conditions in the Sound of Mull left us with a tricky trade off between safety and completion. The third weekend seemed to be the best and everyone was rallied into action mode. The final dice was cast and we committed for fear of leaving it too late and risking not getting the chance.
Then the weather changed. Not just a little bit. A lot.
Setting off into the mists of Skye. (Photo credit Hamish Frost)
Instead of a dry overcast day with some sunny intervals we were driving down Glen Brittle into persistent rain and wind with a feeling of impending doom on our shoulders. Alex has a way of calm reassurance though, and I followed him blindly into the swirling mists of the Cuillins.
Getting our heads into soaking wet grade three scrambling. Photo credit Hamish Frost
It quickly became apparent that water was not going to be a problem since it was streaming off the black basalt by the gallon as flurries of drizzle lashed down from above. Luckily, we had practiced the ridge several times beforehand and Alex’s intricate knowledge, passed down from Martin, became a light in the storm as we made our way as quickly and safely over the difficult terrain of the ridge. Unfortunately, we had to miss out the TD Gap, the King’s Chimney and Naismith’s Route due to the diabolical conditions, but it meant that we could keep warm by moving well over the selection box of geological rock types, fissures, intrusions and dykes. It was great to have Hamish Frost along with us until the Inn Pin, taking photos and enjoying the day out in the waterpark as much as we were!
Wet and wild on the Cuillin. Photo Credit Hamish Frost
Joking aside, the occasional slip served as a stark reminder of what lay below the clouds and the consequences of losing attention. What we had run over only a month previously, under a blue sunny sky, had turned into desperate slab shuffling, and although we maintained a steady pace we were slowly but surely falling behind schedule.
Concentration on the climb up to the base of the Inn Pin. (Photo credit Hamish Frost)
After 10 hours we arrived at the top of Sgurr nan Gillian through the final greasy chimneys and pinnacles to be greeted by Ibrahim and his wife Hafiedha who had kindly agreed to supply an aid station on the summit. The resupply was just what we needed for moral and energy and was a veritable vegan variety box! Homemade smoothies, hummus, sandwiches and the rest- what an absolute dream! We could finally relax a little after the hours of constant concentration and focus.
Having a pit stop on top of Sgurr Nan Gillian. Photo Credit Ibrahim Park
The Camasunary valley is vast, open and wild and you can feel the history of the Bloody Stone, the site of a clan massacre, just up the way which adds to the feeling of the place. It was a descent down to almost sea level off the main ridge to end up under the rising walls of Blà Bheinn, untracked and as wild a place as any in Scotland. As dark set in, we began the climb up to the base of Dogleg Gully, an easy grade 1 or 2 scramble, which would lead us to the summit. Now completely dark, we headed diagonally up and right hoping to hit the talus fan scree slope below the gully. It appeared that we had gone too high from the map, but we spotted a horizontal grass ledge that cut through the cliffs like some kind of superhighway to the cliff bands. We’d done it! The line was perfect and we just had an easy slog up Dogleg Gully. Or so we thought. Barring the way was a giant chock stone about 8 feet high with a flowing waterfall barring upward movement. The walls were void of friction and holds and had a layer of slime menacingly coating them. I tried to bridge to no avail, with water pouring down my arms into my armpits. Alex arrived into the headtorch lit scene and helpfully added, “OH MY GOD!”, which did wonders to calm my now haggard nerves.
We’d come too far, it was too dark, too wet and too close to the end of the first leg of the triathlon. My mind went numb as I hauled up into the waterfall and managed to get a solid knee into the chockstone which allowed just enough friction to pull up and over. The final scree slope was one of the worst I’ve been on in Scotland but the adrenaline of the moment powered us up onto the summit of Blá Bheinn, the second last Munro. The run down was simple and the support team greeted us with warm food, bikes and welcome smiles to end an epic 14 hour shift on the Munros of Skye.
The support team in action! The changeover after a long day on the Cuillin Ridge. (Photo credit Andy Neison)
We were now two hours behind schedule as we set off with Steve Walls, who was going to pace us on the cycle. The fatigue of the ridge was still evident when we hit the hills of Kintail and the night turned out to be frigid cold on the saddle. Tiredness was becoming a major factor and we were getting cold on the long downhills. Negative thoughts creep in during such moments and as I was calculating the splits in my head, it seemed like we weren’t going to manage to hold the pace to hit the slack tide at Lochaline. The word triathlon was being shortened to duathlon in my head as we discussed the possibility of missing the swim. How would everyone who had given up their time to help us feel? What about all the generous donors who had sponsored us? Had we bitten off more than we could chew? Motivation to succeed was still strong but the reality of it was slipping away second by second. A final long climb was rewarded with an equally long downhill into Invergarry where we arrived chilled to the core, tired and jaded.
Feeling slightly more alive after an extended stop in Invergarry. Photo credit Andrea Howard
The support team sprang into action, as if they hadn’t just been snoozing pleasantly, and got some food on at a frantic pace! Andy from South Skye Cycles, who had lent us bikes, was like a formula 1 pit stop mechanic, racing in to change our lights and check everything was in perfect working order. Hazel our crew chief was straight into action supplying us with Joy’s homemade delicacies, coffee, and anything else we needed (thanks for shaking the bubbles out of my Coca-Cola Hazel, I’ll forever remember this act of true generosity!). Meanwhile, Andrea was passing round gels, energy bars and filling bottles whilst still managing to be full of energy and much needed banter in the early hours of the morning! We drank and ate in the van for around 25 minutes warming up and reflecting on times, paces and the likelihood of making the slack tide. What we needed now was Steve and his famous legs to set a grueling pace for the rest of the cycle, and if anyone could, Steve could!
Getting back on the saddle for the final section of the cycle. (Photo credit Andrea Howard 1, Joy Moran 2,3)
The final section weighing in at around 140 km was flatter, excluding the final climb over to Lochaline, so Steve went out front, put his foot down and dragged us onwards. Me and Alex got on Steve’s wheel and we drafted each other as if we were riding a three person tandem. The distance was flying by and suddenly we were back in the game! Spirits lifted, daylight hit, drafting became easier and the energy flowed back into our cold, tired bodies. By the final support stop the time was looking very close if we maintained our speed for the final 30km. The last hill was punishing, but we had the support van and Joy cheering us on and we sped into Lochaline with just under 15 minutes to spare. 240 km and 1200 m ascent on the bikes was done and we were straight into our wetsuits still reeling from the adrenaline of making it on time after nearly 24 hours on the go.
Diving into the cold water over the top of the kelp forests was a refreshing joy, and what had been the most intimidating section beforehand turned out to be one of the more enjoyable sections. It’s a surreal place to be the middle of the Sound of Mull on a flat calm sunny morning, staring into the blue green depths swimming side by side and knowing that we were going to get to the Isle of Mull. Being in the water is like a mental reset and the enormity of the previous day and night seemed somehow detached from the situation. What brought it right back was the support team cheering us on from the ferry, an amazing experience I doubt we will ever have again! Despite a ruined lower back from the cycle and sporadic cramps we made it across, closely followed by the safety boat, manned by Dave, Roger and Finlay. Landfall has never felt so good! Lacking some (or most) of the ability to walk, we both staggered out of the sea like a pair of krakens, unable to find balance on the slippery exposed seaweed but with smiles ear to ear.
Emerging from the Sound of Mull! (Photo credit Haze Moran 1, Roger Coppock 2)
With almost the whole crew spread out over the jetty in the afternoon sun at Fishnish point, it felt like a celebration. However, we still had a 24 km cycle and the final Munro, Ben More, (966 m) to climb from sea level. The cycle passed without incident, except for the torrential downpour just before we got to Dhiseig where we started the final climb. With our van crew we laboured up the final slope with our heads down, eyes on the final prize and helped enormously by good chat and the thought of hitting the summit cairn. Rise after rise seemed to suck us in with excitement and then spit us out with disappointment as another false summit faded into another slope. It was then that the sleep deprivation really started to kick in, but each determined step after determined step got us one step closer to the top. Finally, we hit the final ridge and could muster a slow jog to the summit cairn and we embraced with relief, pride and disbelief.
Ready for a wee drink!
We had done it! Still to this day I think back and try to piece together those 32 hours, 22 minutes, 13 Munros, 6461m of ascent, and 309 km into one adventure and it doesn’t seem real. What was real was the 4.5 km descent back down the mountain to the taxi at Dhiseig! All too real! We were met at Fishnish Point again by Dave and Roger in the boat and whisked back across The Sound of Mull in mere minutes. The setting sun was reflecting off the water over the horizon as we sat, smiling and taking it all in one last time. We’d had it all, the best and worst combined into a madcap adventure through the magical west coast of Scotland, which never disappoints, but can be cruel or compromising at the drop of a hat.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing group of people who came together to support and help on every leg of the journey and donate from all over the world. Old friends and new came together and raised over ten thousand pounds for The Martin Moran Foundation set up in memory of Martin Moran. In October 2021 through the foundation, 8 young people were given the opportunity to get into the mountains and start a lifetime of adventures of their own. Most importantly, a community has been created to continue Martin’s legacy and spirit of adventure into the future. He certainly helped to shape the way my life has played out in the mountains, and I’ll always be grateful for that. The Island Munros Triathlon served to prove not only the positive power that community and adventure can have on people’s lives but also the strength of friendship forged in the mountains.
The amazing team! Thanks so much for all your help!