Uisdean Hawthorn: new winter record on the Cuillin Ridge

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 28/02/2018
Uisdean Hawthorn on the Cuillin Traverse. Photo: Lukasz Warzecha - www.LWimages.co.uk
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On Monday, 24-year-old Uisdean Hawthorn trotted across Skye's iconic Cuillin Ridge in 4 hours 57 minutes, knocking more than 1 hour 15 minutes off the previous winter record, set by Finlay Wild and Tim Gomersall in February 2016. Sarah Stirling interviews the Scot, who can see Skye from his house. Uisdean is better known for his climbing exploits but is also a keen mountain runner.

Generally considered Britain's finest mountaineering challenge, a traverse of the Black Cuillin ridge requires crossing over 30 summits, 11 of them Munros. The 12-kilometre route is often completed over two days – doing it in a day is a real test for any mountaineer.

The traverse was first ticked in 1911, by Leslie Shadbolt and Alastair McLaren. They completed it in a remarkable time for the day – 12 hours 20 minutes. In 1963, Eric Beard was the first to try racing along the ridge – it took him 4 hours 9 minutes in summer conditions. It wasn't until recently that the idea of a speed ascent caught on though, and his record stood for over 20 years. Fell runners have now whittled that time down to 2 hours 59 mins – the record currently held by Finlay Wild. Winter speed ascents are much rarer: until Monday, Finlay (along with his climbing partner for the route, Tim Gomersall) also held the record for the fastest winter ridge traverse: 6hr 14min.

Finlay and Gommersall set their winter record on 14 Februrary 2016. By coincidence, Uisdean Hawthorn soloed the ridge a day later in eight hours, unaware of their effort the day before. Since then, apparently, he's been biding his time, and watching Skye from his kitchen window...

The photos were taken by Lukasz Warzecha the previous day. Uisdean soloed the route.

SS: What was your boot and crampon combo?

UH: Scarpa Ribelle Tech OD and Grivel G20 monopoints, but a bit modified.

Have you been planning this for a while and waiting for a weather window?

I had it in my head to attempt a winter traverse again this year, as over the last few months I've done lots of running in Tasmania and feel quite fit. It was just lucky that I managed to be around and available when conditions were good on Monday though!

You're better known for your climbing exploits – what do you like about running?

It's just so faff-free – put on your shoes and walk out the door! The running is particuarly good around Glenelg, where I live. You can run anywhere, there are so many different circuts over so many great Munros that I keep thinking it would be a great place to run high-level mountain running guiding ... but I never seem to find the time.

Do you train for running?

Not really. I tend to run lots at home in between big climbing trips, but not consistently. In Tasmania I did lots – it's hard not to as it's an amazing and adventurous place to run. I am a fan of just running slowly and for a long time for almost all my running; it means you can run long distances day in day out.

Can you see the Cuilllin Ridge from your bedroom window? Do you feel a particular connection to it?

I can see some of the lower hills on Skye from the kitchen window. And yes, I do feel a connection to the ridge. The hills at home around Glenelg are just as high as the Cuillin ones but more heathery and rounded. When I was younger I thought of the Cuillin peaks as serious mountains for climbers, so it feels nice to be able to comfortably run round them summer or winter.

I think it’s a shame that more people who grow up here don’t get into climbing or running in the hills. It's something I’ve been thinking about trying to do something about but I might require a bit of BMC support to get it going!?

Hint noted! Maybe worth asking Mountaineering Scotland? Did you take a rope?

I took 60m of Edelweiss 5.5mm Aramide, superlight and very strong but it does take a little getting used to!

What was your total time from campsite or wherever to pub?

4:57:07 from the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean to Gars Bheinn and around nine hours from the Slig to Glen Brittle.

WATCH: Winter skills 1.8: navigation tips on BMC TV

Best bit?

Running along the ridge coming off Bruach na Frithe. It's quite knife-edge-like but really straight-forward. You can really fly down it and it just felt awesome.

Worst bit?

Getting from the top of Gars Bheinn back to Glen Brittle. Mainly just the first steep bit after that – I just put on some Martyn Bennett music [a Canadian-Scottish musician who was influential in the evolution of modern Celtic fusion] and plodded along!

Have you ever done it over two days and enjoyed a winter night on the ridge?

No I haven’t! I keep meaning to but anytime I think about packing all the extra stuff I have a rethink!

Did it help that you've done it before?

It helped having done it before but last time I did it in winter 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. 

How were conditions on the ridge this time, could you actually run along it, and did you see anyone else?

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! I ran all the flats and downhills and fast-walked the uphills. I passed two groups of two on the way.

Did you do it north to south? Why is it best this way round in winter when it's the other way round in summer?

Yes – the main reason is that you can abseil the steeper sections that make pleasant rock climbing in summer.

What time did you start, must have had an amazing sunrise and sunset!

I left at 5:30 – sunrise was great. I was back at home for sunset!

What kit and food did you carry?

2 North Machine Carbon axes
Crampons
Grivel Stealth helmet
Scarpa Ribelle Tech OD boots
Mountain Equipment Aerofoil jacket (prototype windproof weighs 100g!)
Arete Down jacket
5.5mm Aramide 60m rope
3 wires
Knife
OTE Gels and Anytime Bars
1L of water
Headtorch
25L prototype Mountain Equipment Tupilak pack
phone and headphones

Any tips on fast winter Cuillin traverses?

Ehhh, get light gear, everything counts, from the weight of your rucksack to how much each screw-gate weighs. Only take bare essentials and I mean only essentials (headphones are allowed). Go climbing outside as much as possible in summer or winter, with lots of movement on similar terrain, it will be better for almost anyone's overall speed than any training program or days spent in the gym.

How was the TD Gap?

It was fine as I abseiled into it and simply walked down the gully for 40m, traversed 150m and came out where I would had I climbed out. I know Tim and Finlay climbed out when they did it in 6hrs 14mins a couple of winters ago, and I would maybe too if I was in a team. But by myself, however, it just feels stupid to solo a Grade VI when you can literally walk round in under 200m! I don’t think 10m of climbing is important when traversing the whole Cuillin.

The record keepers, Scottish Hill Runners, described your time as 'astonishing'. Were you expecting to beat the record?

I thought a time of seven hours would be good and maybe closer to six could be possible if everything went absolutely perfectly. Before I set off I didn’t think it was possible to do a winter traverse in under five hours, so yes, I was very surprised!

How did you celebrate?

I hadn’t even thought of that! 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 and thought how close they are but how it would take me over five hours to get home. I went 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!

I wonder if Finlay and Tim are planning a speed ascent now!

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 three hours faster than last time so it’s nice to see some big improvements in my own fitness.

What's your next goal?

I'm heading to the Revelations in Alaska with Tom Livingstone to climb some new routes hopefully, so I'd better start using my arm muscles again!

More about Uisdean on his blog: uisdeanhawthorn.com. Uisdean is sponsored by Mountain Equipment, The Mountain Boot Company, OTE Sports Nutrition and Trac Oil & Gas.

WATCH: Choosing winter boots and crampons on BMC TV

Watch: Conditions Apply – Winter Ethics

Watch Rob Dyer in action as he climbs a snow gully and explains the importance of minimising winter climbing’s impact on the cliff environment.

WATCH: The BMC Winter Essentials DVD trailer on BMC TV


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