“IT’S ONLY A NUMBER!”

By David Wilkinson

 

A maxim I share with 81 year old Terry Robson, a fellow Macclesfield rugby veteran. Terry has always defied his years, he stopped playing rugby at age 44 and took up refereeing and running; the running became almost obsessive competing in over 100 Marathons throughout Europe and the USA. But in his late 70s he broke his leg whilst out running, his Doctor told him “that’s it, you have to stop running”; so he got on his bike; and he hasn’t stopped pedalling since. This is his story:

 

End to End, Lands End to John o’Groats bike ride

“Last year, after putting in a lot of miles, and to celebrate my 80th birthday, I decided to really challenge myself by attempting to cycle the length of Great Britain. I had got over half way, and doing OK, when an encounter with a stone wall put an end to it; I was too injured to carry on”.

At this stage most people would have thrown the towel in, but Terry, once healed got back on his bike, determined to have another go, no doubt to celebrate being 81. After another year of training, Terry joined the team at Land’s End to embark on his 14 day challenge, riding 1,040 miles with a total ascent of 62,000 feet. He told me that Dartmoor was very tough, after that they crossed the Severn Bridge up through the borders of Wales; then further north through the Lake District, making sure that he didn’t hit that stone wall again, and onto Gretna Green at the Scottish Border.

Terry heading in to Scotland on his End to End bike challenge

Terry told me: “Edinburgh which was very interesting as the Fringe Festival was in full swing, so music was being busked on every street corner. Next came the ride over the Fourth Road Bridge and up through the Grampian Mountains. One climb at the ski resort of Glenshee near the Royal Palace of Balmoral is road sign posted as 22% gradient; to the cyclist this rears-up like a vertical wall, but with no Plan B we just had to slog up in bottom granny gear”.

1040 miles in the saddle, well done Terry

They finished at the most northerly point on the mainland, the pretty fishing harbour of John o’Groats it must have been an enormous feeling of satisfaction, after 14 days hard cycling averaging 75 miles each day. He had raised £2,850 for Macmillan Cancer Care Nurses and was delighted at the generosity of the public. “Chapeau” Terry, one day of 75 miles in the saddle would do for me, let alone 14. The 81 year old is now considering his next target; cycling the length of France, from Caen’s Normandy D-Day landing beaches to Monaco, it’s another 1,000 miles that involves getting over Mont Ventoux at over 6,000 feet in height; best of luck Terry.

Terry’s fundraising page is still open, should you wish to donate: Terry Robson is fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support (justgiving.com)

The Cuillin Ridge Traverse, Isle of Skye

My septuagenarian challenge was very different to Terry’s 1040 miles. The Cuillin Ridge had been pencilled-in on my wish-list for almost 60 years, but it was put on the back-burner at the time, as my focus was directed towards the great North Faces of the Alps. Its fascination came about after spending an amazing day in the mountains with a young instructor called Eric Beard, who would go on to smash the record for completing the traverse, amongst many other mountain and long-distance challenges.

The Cuillin Ridge with a cloud inversion

Rugby, family-life and business, pushed such ideas on to the back-burner, until my 70th birthday; at which time I decided that age would not define me, or stop me from attempting anything that I saw to be reasonably possible. The Ridge was now the goal, the goal to get fit, the goal to push myself to my limits. The following year, after what I thought was a fair amount of training I decided to test myself on the high mountain ridge of Liathach in Scotland’s Torridon region.

It is a giant of a mountain, in fact four mountains joined together creating a very challenging ridge traverse including four perpendicular pinnacles. I managed the technical climbing without any problems, but my fitness was tested to the extreme, getting off the mountain after ten and a half hours, exhausted, just before nightfall; there was work to be done. An attempt would not be possible the following year, so I decided upon July 2023. There were two hurdles in the way, who could I attempt it with, and given my years, how fit would I need to be to make a reasonable attempt. My family would not let me attempt it solo, and I couldn’t find anyone else that I trusted; the answer was an experienced Cuillin Guide. Scott Kirkhope was recommended to me, and his knowledge and experience of the Cuillin Ridge Traverse was exceptional.

Scott was happy with my climbing experience but was very blunt about my likely fitness: “You need to ramp-it-up; you should be doing double-days in the mountains, 10 hours with 6,000 feet of ascent, and lots of scrambling”. For the next 12 weeks most other things were put on ice, including Scotch and beer! Long days in Snowdonia were painful, but great fun; and I could feel my fitness improving week-on-week. Besides my age, a previous heart-attack and arterial fibrillation, limits the amount of oxygenated blood getting into my legs. To combat this I worked out a way of very quick deep-breathing that radically helped in keeping me going on the very steep sections.

The jagged ridge of An Teallach

I arrived in Scotland a week before my scheduled time to start the traverse, with the plan to do one last training climb. An Teallach, another ridge of 4 peaks, and second in line to the Cuillin Ridge as the most serious traverse in the UK, which presented me with the nearest challenge possible, for what was to come; or so I thought! The weather forecast on Skye was not good; there were no days within the week without predicted rain. Scott called me on arrival to discuss tactics; he had said to me previously that if we think we need to pack full waterproofs, we will not be doing the traverse: “It’s not looking good David, I can’t see a window of two decent days, but we can stash our bivi gear and food part way along the Ridge and try an attempt on the Ridge following day”.

We set off the following morning with the aim of dumping gear high on the Ridge, approaching from the West and then doing a little climbing to test out our rope work. It was drizzly from the start and when we reached the Coire of An Doris the rains came. We pushed on reaching the bivouac, and after three hours, the gear was stuffed into a large pvc bag and covered in boulders to prevent a Raven attack. It was a very wet, but a quick decent, with the rest of the day spent drying boots and waterproofs.

Abseiling off the In Pinn

The alarm was set for 4.00am the following morning, but the weather prospects were very sketchy with two hours of rain predicted during the night. The Cuillin Ridge Traverse consists of 20 summits, 11 of which are classified as Munros (over 3,000 feet), it is seen as the toughest mountaineering challenge in the UK, with only a 5% success rate. Getting onto the Ridge to start the traverse requires a long walk in from its southern end, which I wasn’t looking forward to. But the steeper it got the more I was able to use my new breathing technique to good effect, keeping up a decent pace. Although wet, by midday the first four Munros were in the bag, the legendary Inaccessible Pinnacle was next. In Pinn, as it is known, can only be summited by a rock climb, which for many is a daunting prospect; but for us both an enjoyable diversion. As we started the climb a stiff breeze blew the clouds away and for once we had a dramatic view of the jagged ridge and the sea beyond.

Making my way through the mist in full waterproofs

Lots of fantastic knife-edge ridge scrambling followed as we climbed 3 more of the 3,000 foot plus Munros, reaching the An Doris bivi site, ahead of schedule at 6.00pm. Then came the bad news; at the summit of each mountain Scott had held his phone into the air looking at the weather forecast: “It’s not good David, the forecast is now rain from 7.00 pm, and continuing all night and into the next morning”. There was no alternative we had to get off the mountain.  The heavens opened at 7.10 with winds of up to 80mph, making the decent treacherous and very slow. Although my pack wasn’t too heavy (Scott was carrying most of the load), I was suffering. Fourteen and a half hours on the Ridge had used all of my reserves and every part of my body was now hurting, I felt at times that I was coming to a complete standstill, but Scott assured me that I wasn’t! It was 9.30 when I reached the road, sixteen and a half hours on the Ridge. Half an hour later I crawled into my tent for supper; a large glass of Scotch and half a bar of chocolate.

It rained for 30 hours, but frankly I needed the rest. We met at 6.00 am to decide upon a plan. Scott’s main concern was a huge slab of basalt rock that one has to descend, that must be dry; otherwise it is far too dangerous, someone had fallen to their death in the vicinity, 4 days previously, although this was never discussed. To give the slab time to dry-out, after some early rain, we agreed to attack the ridge from the North and climb South to where we had descended.

Climbing to the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean

Descending the towers of Sgurr nan Gillean

With all of the rain the rivers on the approach were very swollen, which required some boggy diversions to avoid. The weather was perfect, but the lack of wind made for ferocious midge attacks, face-nets were obligatory. The approach from the North is even longer than that from the South, and I was finding the going tough, which was then made worse by heavy showers, as we reached the high cories. Relief for my legs came when we roped up for the climbing, which was fantastic, a series of steep airy pitches up to the superb summit of Sgurr nan Gillean. Scott delivered the bad news; the deteriorating weather meant that the basalt slabs would most likely not be dry, and as such too dangerous. Having diced with death too many times in a previous life, I didn’t need too much convincing, safety was paramount.

The Bad Step on Am Basteir

We still managed to bag one more Munro, the summit of Am Bastier, with its ‘Bad Step’ that wasn’t that bad. We chatted about adventures in the Alps as we leisurely descended; it had been a traverse of sorts but missing one of the Munros and some minor summits. The main thing was staying safe, 5 people lost their lives this summer on Scotland’s big ridges; the Ridge will still be there next year, as will I to finish the job.

I linked My Name’5 Doddie Foundation for MND to my challenge which is still open, should you want to support.  https://www.justgiving.com/page/david-wilkinson-1686996505631

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