Before I start waxing lyrical about why the North-West Highlands is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in the world, it probably makes sense to define where exactly I’m talking about. The below map gives a pretty good idea of said region, noting that it doesn’t include Skye or Applecross (these are often included when people refer to the north-west). I have by no means explored this region in its entirety (I haven’t ventured further north than Kinlochbervie in fact), but as I sit here writing this I can’t help but feel overwhelmingly lucky to have experienced it’s rugged splendour, and want others to do the same - here’s why.
Escape the crowds
Escape people might in fact be more apt. There’s no-one there. As soon as you venture away from the hubs of Lochinver and Ullapool, or off the beaten track even a little, it’s unlikely that you’ll more than a couple of people out on the trail. When Sofie and I went out running on Ben More Assynt last weekend, we didn’t pass a single soul; the same can be said for a glorious day before climbing on Reiff. I even counted no more than a dozen people when I went up Suilven on a warm sunny day in May; that’s on one of the best-known, attractive walks in the area.
I should disclose here that I likely find rocks more fascinating than the average person, but even the most geologically- nonchalant of people would struggle to not be impressed by what the north-west has to offer. The Lewisian gneiss (pictured below) is around 3 billion years old, making it the oldest in Europe. On top of that there’s Torridonian sandstone (almost 1 billion years old), Moinian schist and Durness limestone. Furthermore, there’s sites where you can observe different “thrusts”, where one tectonic plate has been forced over another. It was the north-west Highlands that gave birth to modern geology, and it’s so geologically rich that the whole area has been awarded the status of “Geopark” - this also means that there are lots of information boards to stop at and learn about the area’s geodiversity when you’re driving.
It was hammered home just how wild the north-west is when climbing out on Reiff last Friday. Oystercatchers circled above us, singing their distinctive squeaks, whilst cormorants nested on the cliffs below, and a seal bobbed its head up and down in the little bay next to us. It’s also not all that uncommon to see white-tailed sea eagles up here too, or dolphins if you head a little out to sea. The island of Handa is home to more than 250 breeding pairs of puffins, whilst ptarmigans are commonly spotted on the higher tops. It’s a utopia for wildlife, and really made me rue not having a proper camera (other than my phone) to better document it.
There’s enough hiking, running and climbing here to keep you busy for a lifetime, with most of it feeling untouched, unspoiled and little climbed. The trails have a rugged charm to them, and are mostly unmaintained, necessitating good command of a map and compass, as well as high tolerance for bog-wading. The climbing is abundant, and rich in its variety; we went from sea cliff climbing in Reiff to sea stack climbing on the Old Man of Stoer to crag climbing on solid gneiss in Rhiconich over the space of two days. Walk Highlands is a good place to start for researching walks (https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/ullapool/ and https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/sutherland/), whilst UKC has heaps of area guides to available for climbers.
It’s really not that far
Part of the reason why the north-west seems to be such a hidden gem, with so few people, is that people see it as being really far away and hard to get to. But is it actually that far? Edinburgh to Lochinver is a 5-hour drive, with Glasgow the same. That puts it in the ‘close enough for a weekend trip’ category as far as I’m concerned. Now suppose that you’re flying into Scotland instead, and can choose to go to Inverness, and it’s a paltry 2 hours away. Furthermore, what seems strange is that people routinely drive this same distance or further to go to Skye, an admittedly beautiful island, but with perhaps ten times the number of people as in the north-west. It does seem like numbers are increasing to the region though, with the increasing popularity of the North Coast 500 driving route.
Will it become like Skye in the future? Quite possibly, so get there sooner rather than later. There’s no time like the present.
Earlier this year I was given a book from my girlfriend’s family titled “Danmarks Bjerge” by Roger Pihl (Denmark’s Mountains in English). Pihl groups the high points of Denmark into 4 categories:
It didn’t take long to realise that all but one of the Titans are found on Jylland (Jutland), with the only other based far out on the island of Bornholm (more on this one later).
Add to this my reading of Jonny Muir’s latest book, “The Mountains are Calling”, which brings alive tales of audacious trail running feats and ‘Rounds’ of running between high points in the UK, and the idea for the challenge was set: to run the Titans of Jutland. I knew I would be in Denmark spending time with my girlfriend’s family for five days before Christmas; this would provide the perfect window for the run. My girlfriend would drop me off at the first peak, spend the day with her friend in nearby Århus, then meet me four or so hours later.
A goal without a plan is just a wish
Luckily our flight from Edinburgh to Copenhagen was delayed, so I had an extra half an hour at the airport to cobble together a plan. I don’t like navigating without a physical map and compass but, with the challenge set for tomorrow, and us due to arrive in Denmark the night before, Google Maps and the names of the peaks written on my hand would have to suffice. Maps told me it was 27-odd miles to cover the 5 Titans, with Himmelbjerget (not technically a Titan, but worth summiting for reasons explained later) thrown in for good measure. So it would be a marathon effort, mostly on road – the perfect way to prepare myself for the festive period, where sitting indoors consuming would be the predominant activity.
In this part of the world it doesn’t get light until almost 9am at this time of the year, so we drive in the dark. Daybreak nudges the colour of the sky from black to dark grey; there hasn’t been a hint of sunshine for over a week now and today looks set to be no different. Whilst it’s obviously nice to be outdoors in good weather and see an area at its best, could I really have expected it to be sunny and warm on a day in late December? Moreover, it’s perhaps a more authentic experience to see the area in the wet, cold and grey; it is December in Denmark after all.
The drive from Odense (located on Fyn, Denmark’s third largest island) to Ejer Bavnehøj (located on Jylland, the part of Denmark connected to mainland Europe) is quintessentially Danish: nourishment in the form of wholesome pastries and an impressive bridge – the Lillebæltsbroen (Little Belt Bridge). Not long after crossing onto Jylland we begin to climb and rapidly ascend the first Titan; it is here where the adventure really begins. My girlfriend drives off into the foggy abyss, leaving me alone, with only Ejer Bavnehøj for company.
Ejer Bavnehøj - 170.35m (Grid Reference: 55.977033, 9.83065)
“Høj” means hill in English, a suffix we see in all of the Titans’ names; “bavne” means beacon; “Ejer” is the name of the nearest village. Thus we get “Ejer Bavnehøj” – the beacon hill of Ejer, a site which historically was used to light signal fires to warn the military and local population if the enemy were on the way. In 1924 a 13m tall tower was built on the site to commemorate the return of southern Jutland to Denmark after the First World War. The tower is prominent, the Arc de Triomphe of Jutland, complete with information boards and a toilet next to a carpark. The first Titan, fittingly honoured and marked.
Møllehøj - 170.86m (55.977437, 9.826331)
270m of muddy farm trail later and I’m standing on the summit of the second Titan of the Ejer Bavnehøj Massif, I think. Is this the same bench I remember seeing photos of last night in Pihl’s book? Does that look like the base of a flagpole I remember seeing with a flag attached to it when the photo was taken in summer? The large cattle barn behind is the giveaway, confirming that I am indeed at the top of Møllehøj, Denmark’s highest point. Yet it wasn’t until 2005 that this unassuming Titan was awarded its rightful title; for the 64 years prior to that, it was Ejer Bavnehøj that held the top spot. You’d easily be forgiven for not realising that the title had changed hands if the summit markings were anything to go by.
Møgelhøj - 169.4m (55.974786, 9.825046)
Another summit in the Ejer Bavnehøj Massif, I follow the trail down a cow pat infused slope and climb the 20m of elevation to tick off the third Titan – that’s three in under ten minutes! Compared to Møllehøj, Møgelhøj is impressively well-marked, with the crest of a mound clearly topping out with an information board and bench. Complete with wooden shelters to sleep in, this Titan understandably attracts locals in their dozens, the revellers no doubt lured here by the dramatic views of the cows and beyond.
Yding Skøvhøj/ Rodebuske i Ejer Bjerge - 170.77m (55.992496, 9.795825)
Grey skies and drizzle make the beautifully bucolic country road heading to the next Titan only more enjoyable. There’s something strangely addictive about the feeling of cold rain on the cheeks and numbed fingertips. The challenge now feels real and I am filled with a beautiful feeling of a plan coming together; the time flies to Yding Skøvhøj. It is here that I learn a new Danish word, “skovhøj”, meaning “forest hill”. At the top of this Titan rest three Bronze Age burial mounds, all vying for top spot. But it is the middle of the three that I am interested in, that named “Rodebuske”, sitting at 172.54m, almost a full metre higher than the two either side of it. 172.54m?! Isn’t that a whole 2m higher than any other Titan? In 1941 the Danes had the same thought, with Rodebuske at Yding Skøvhøj declared the highest point in the country, taking the title from Ejer Bavnehøj, but not without controversy. A heated discussion ensued as to whether man-made structures, such as burial mounds, could be counted as part of the contest for the highest point. The debate was eventually settled by Professor N.E Nørlund, and from here on in, the battle for the highest point in Denmark has been based on it being natural. Burial mounds were out, slight crests in fields and gentle hummocks in forests were in. The title was promptly returned to the Ejer Bavnehøj Massif.
Them Bavnehøj - 153m (56.081904, 9.510424)
25km now separate me from Them Bavnehøj. Google Maps kindly takes me onto an A road, where the challenge takes on a whole new dimension. For nearly an hour I hold my line and play a game of high stakes game of ‘chicken’ with the oncoming cars and trucks. Scared off my by short shorts and hi vis headband, I survive the game (perhaps more likely due to Danish drivers being an incredibly courteous bunch). I turn off at a farm track, where the path thins and takes me into a forest. As I run down the forest trails, it would be easy to not realise that a Titan lies hiding in their throngs. A steepening of the gradient to at least 3% notifies me that I must be near, and then it appears; the lookout tower, flanked by a picnic table and stone marker. Like a pilgrim approaching their church, I apprehensively climb the steps to the top of the tower. It is worth the effort; the views don’t disappoint.
Himmelbjerget - 147.3m (56.105147, 9.685028)
Ask a Dane what the highest point in Denmark is and they’ll most likely tell you “Himmelbjerget” (The Sky Mountain). As you are now well aware though, that is not the case; it isn’t even a Titan. Rather confusingly it is the only one of the peaks on my adventure called a “bjerg” (mountain), instead of a høj (hill). At 147.3m Pihl classifies it as a mere “Big One”, still high by Danish standards, but a considerable twenty odd metres lower than the Ejer Bavnehøj Massif. Yet until 1847 Himmelbjerget was believed to be the highest point in Denmark. Perhaps this was due to its position – it lies in the heart of the Danish “Lake District” and rises 121m from lake Julsø below, making it strikingly prominent. Compared to the rolling land near the Ejer Bavnehøj Massif, it is easy to understand why the title took so long to reach its rightful place.
Feeling a little gimpy in the final few miles leading up to summit, I realise that my legs are getting a touch tired. It’s amazing how much impact road running has on the muscles and joints; compared to trail running it can feel like pure masochism at times. But the niggles are a small price to pay for the adventure I’ve been on today; five ‘Titans’, one ‘Big One’, 27 miles and 600m of cumulative elevation gain. A morning well spent feeling the spirit of adventure.
Whilst there may only be five Titans on Jutland, there is a sixth red dot on Phil’s map, sat in the middle of the Baltic Sea. The sixth Titan, Rytterknægten (55.111708, 14.889269), lies on the island of Bornholm, an island most easily reached by plane or by boat from Sweden. Like an itch that won’t go away, the challenge is clear. Run the Titans of Jutland, cycle to Sweden, sea kayak to Bornholm, then run to the summit of Rytterknægten.
To be continued…
New Year has always been a time to reflect for me, to think about what went well in the year just gone and to be thankful to those around us that supported, cared for and loved us. I think it’s also important to challenge ourselves to improve in the year to come; against this backdrop I, like many others, like to make resolutions. This year I thought I’d use the first post on my new site to declare these openly to the world (and yes, you can hold me to account on these if I fail miserably!)
If I were to look back on New Year’s Resolutions that I’ve made in the past, I have no doubt that the vast majority would have been a colossal waste of time; I would have either not succeeded in realising them, or worse, not even known whether I had achieved them or not. The teacher in me is screaming the reason why: they weren’t ‘SMART’, or better, ‘SMARTER’. The SMART framework has been around for years; you may well have used it at work. So why don’t we use it when making resolutions? Do we perhaps take comfort in knowing that our resolutions are destined to fail, so we in fact don’t have to strive to make them happen? I think that’s a sure fire way of letting ourselves off the hook, and leads to resolutions not being achieved. So here goes with my SMARTER adventure resolutions for 2019:
1.Maintain my dietary preference to eat vegan food from ethical suppliers, as sustainably packaged as possible during time spent in the mountains.
I’ve yo-yoed on this one, from being holier-than-thou vegan to dairy-heavy vegetarian. Recently I’ve got my day-to-day diet back to being mostly vegan, well sourced from ethical suppliers (to the best of my knowledge!), minimising packaging, but there’s been a gaping loophole: nourishment when in the mountains. Given that I spend an ever increasing proportion of my time in the mountains, it’s a gap I can no longer fail to take account of. More fundamentally, what’s the point in having values if they only apply some of the time?
The trickiest part of ensuring this a SMARTER resolution is making it specific and measurable: how do I define ethical vegan food and how will I know whether I have achieved it? I’ll be as strict as possible with my definition of ethical vegan food and drink to be completely free of animal products, from suppliers that I know have healthy supply chains, packaged as minimally and sustainably as possible. I’ll measure it during (with reflection that will hopefully shape whether or not to make the purchase) and immediately after every time I purchase food or drink, by looking into, and being honest with myself, about where the food/drink I’ve bought comes from.
2.Complete the Bob Graham Round in under 24 hours in spring.
It’s been on my radar for a while now, but has seemed out of reach; I hadn’t even walked most of the Round, let alone run it. But now, having walked it, spent much more time in the Lake District, and broadened my trail and long-distance running experience, I think it’s realistic. That’s not to say it’ll be easy; far from it, it will no doubt be quite an epic, and will require serious training and preparation! It is 42 peaks and over 60 miles of running after all. I’ll be posting about the Round in more detail in the coming weeks, which I’ll then add to the Adventures section of this site.
Agreeing support from other runners will be crucial in ensuring this resolution becomes a reality. To successfully complete a Round without company during the recces, advice from others, and support runners on the day, is unfathomable (and just plain lonely!) It’s also an awful lot nicer to share the journey with others, learn from them along the way, and push oneself to dig deeper.
3.Get out in the Scottish Highlands to make the most of winter conditions at every possible opportunity.
It’s a big factor as to why I now find myself living in Scotland, so it’s crucial that I utilise the time I have here wisely and enjoy the scottish winter as much as possible. I count only 12 weekends between now and the end of March (I’m away this week, so I’ve excluded that one), when winter conditions usually come to an end. I plan on getting out, in the Cairngorms, Ben Nevis region, Glencoe or further afield, every one of these, throwing in the odd couple of Mondays and Tuesdays when I’m not working too.
To be more specific, I’d like to complete a number of grade II and III winter routes, and feel confident at these grades, by the end of the winter season.
4. Run at least once per week with a club to nudge my marathon PB closer to 2:30.
Last year I planned for 2019 to be the year that I run a 2:30 something marathon; now I realise that it simply isn’t realistic. To be able to run at such a pace for 26.2 miles requires more serious commitment that I am able to give, given other resolutions and time constraints. That said, I do think it’s doable to train with a club once per week and then commit to pushing myself in the runs I do by myself. Doing so will mean that I should be able to chip away at my current 2:52 marathon PB time (maybe get it down to 2:40 something.)
What’s the point in chasing PBs on road? It’s a question that I increasingly find myself asking. I much prefer trail running and long distances, but I feel that I’ve got unfinished business with the marathon distance on road. After all, it was when I was in full training for the London marathon almost 4 years ago that I had a climbing accident and broke my pelvis. I’d also like to get a solid road marathon PB ‘in the bag’, so that I’m able to hang up my road running, PB chasing shoes for a while and focus on enjoying the trails. Sounds silly? It almost undeniably is, but I’m hooked.
5. Lead climb competently enough to undertake Rock Climbing Instructor training.
Climbing occupies an ever increasing part of my life, and the trend looks set to continue. It’s one of the ways Sofie and I most love spending time with each other, and brings with it a variety of challenges, both mental and physical. A key factor that has made me want to take it further is its potential to be used as a tool for personal development. Through outdoor instruction at summer camps and voluntary work in Edinburgh I have seen how powerful it can be in building confidence, teamwork and developing communication skills. Being able to take this further and potentially use it in work is incredibly exciting, and involves getting qualified. The first stage in this is to log 15 lead trad climbs, then sign up for and complete the 3 day training course, hopefully before the summer.
6. Run at least one ultra trail race in the Alps.
November and December of 2018 saw me travelling hundreds of miles to run in races that I otherwise wouldn’t have had any intention of completing, all in the name of accumulating UTMB points. I went to Otley to run the 33-mile Short Circuit, which gave me 2 points. I then travelled for 12 hours by coach, train and car to run the Endurancelife Dorset Coast 46-mile Ultra, giving me a further 4 points. That makes 6 points in total, granting me the privilege to enter the ballot for the OCC race in the UTMB race series. Sounds ridiculous? You bet, but that’s what it takes to enter the biggest trail race series in the world. And even now I only have a 1 in 4 chance of getting a place!
So what’s the fallback in case the OCC race doesn’t materialise? Well, it’s not as if there aren’t other races in the Alps that are just as spectacular. Two spring to mind that I’d love to do: the Lavaredo Ultra and the UTMR. I’ll wait until January 10th (when the UTMB race ballot results are out) before considering these further though.
7. Climb a 4000m peak in the Alps.
Realistic? Well that depends on the realisation of resolution #3. Given that I’ll be working in the Alps all summer, looking at the high peaks day after day, there can be no doubt that I’ll be itching to be up there myself. Time will also be a factor with this, as I will have limited breaks in between guiding work, and lots of other pulls on my free time. The lure of the high Alpine peaks is too great to be neglected though!