On Monday 26th of February 24 Year old Scot Uisdean Hawthorn set a new record for a winter traverse of Skye’s iconic Cuillin Ridge with his time of 4 hours, 57 minutes and 7 seconds knocking more than an hour and a quarter off the previous quickest ascent.
A traverse of the Black Cuillin mountains on Scotland’s Isle of Skye is widely accepted as Britain’s finest mountaineering challenge. 12 kilometers in length and crossing over 30 summits including 11 Munros the traverse is of a scale to rival many of the most arduous routes in the Alps and a one day ascent in summer is seen as a stern test for the most dedicated mountaineers only.
A continuous traverse of the Cuillin Ridge was first made in 1911 by Leslie Shadbolt and Alastair Mclaren, and their time of 12hours and 20 minutes in summer is still considered highly respectable today. The idea of a speed ascent across the ridge really hit the imagination of the British mountaineering world in 1963 when English fell running legend Eric Beard raced along the ridgeline in 4 hours, 9 minutes and 9 seconds. His time stood for over 20 years before a succession of Britain’s fastest fell runners and mountaineers whittled down the time to the current summer record of 2 hours held by Scot Finlay Wild.
Winter ascents are much rarer than in summer, with most parties taking 2 or 3 days to complete the route. As a result there are few records of speed ascents during winter however in February 2013 Finlay Wild and Tim Gomersall made a traverse in 6 hours, 14 minutes and 17 seconds, which was recorded by the Scottish Hill Runners Club as the first ‘official’ record.
Interestingly just a day after Wild and Gomersall’s 2016 ascent, unaware of the pair’s record, Uisdean Hawthorn had made his own traverse in a rapid 8 hours. That ascent proved valuable experience for his record-breaking ascent this week. “It helped having done it before” says Hawthorn, “but last time I had to break trail for long sections and find the correct way it felt like a big adventure, unsure if I could even solo all of it. This time the route finding was obvious with nice firm snow all the way along the crest it just felt like going for a run in the hills.”
In an effort that the record keepers Scottish Hill Runners described as “astonishing” Hawthorn traversed from the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean to Gars Bheinn in a time of 4:57:07 breaking Wild and Gomersall’s record by over an hour and 17 minutes. It was a time that even shocked Hawthorn himself. “I thought a time of 7 hours would be good and maybe closer to 6 could be possible if everything went absolutely perfectly. Before I set off I didn’t think it was possible to do a winter traverse under 5, so yes I was very surprised.”
A super fast solo winter traverse had been on the minds of several of the best mountain runners including Es Tressider, a previous summer ridge record holder. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” says Tressider, “but I didn’t ever imagine it would be done in under 5 hours. In fact I was thinking it would be slower than a pair as you’d have to rope solo some sections. Uisdean’s climb is very impressive, awesome – I’m envious.”
Whilst the day of Monday 26th February started cold and windy, with Hawthorn keeping his down jacket on for the first 30minutes whilst he ran, the low temperature and largely overcast conditions kept the snow hard and crisp, which was crucial for such a fast ascent. Hawthorn, who is much better known as a high standard technical mountaineer than a runner found the technical difficulties of the route “Very straight forward but the middle section traversing Sgùrr a’ Mhadaidh is more involved with a few abseils and lots of up and down. I only used a rope for 5 abseils, I down climbed the other abseils around 4 or 5 I think.”
Hawthorn describes the challenge of the winter traverse as “Just 100% Great fun, just at one or two points it might be type 2 fun if you’re going really fast. You just have to be fit but also be confident moving over easy ground something that only comes with climbing outside not training indoors, I feel this is where a lot of people go wrong these days.”
Having made his break through Hawthorn believes faster times are very possible. “Finlay, Tim and Es are all super fit runners. To be honest it doesn’t matter to me if they beat my time tomorrow. I hope it encourages others to get out and enjoy the winter climbing on Skye be that a traverse or other great ice and mixed routes. However, I am really happy personally as I was over 3 hours faster than last time so it’s nice to see some big improvements in my own fitness.”
At the finish Hawthorn was too tired to feel much emotion “I just ate whatever food I had left, put my jacket on and sat for a while looking back at the great view of the Cuillin and across the water to the hills above my house (in Glenelg on the mainland) and thought how close they are but how it would take me over 5 hours to get home.”
And how did he celebrate “I hadn’t even thought of that” confesses Hawthorn, “I came home had dinner and lay in front of the fire playing with the dog. I do this after most big days in the hills successful or unsuccessful.”
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Uisdean is sponsored by Mountain Equipment, Scarpa, Grivel, Edelweiss, OTE sports Nutrition and Trac Oil & Gas