After more than 13 years absent, the X-Scotia Hike and Fly race was resurrected as an informal get together of like minded Paraglider pilots in the Highlands of Scotland.
Little did the organisers know that these events are exploding in popularity and, much to my delight and surprise, I was chosen as one of the lucky dozen who were allowed to take part.
So 12 of us gathered in a field near Aviemore late afternoon on the 4th June 2021 with essentially no clue about the task that lay ahead. Even the organisers hadn’t decided yet and the final choice of route would be made based on accurate weather reports and overall safety.
I already knew many of the Scottish pilots and a few of the English ones too from previous hike and fly events, along with the organisers Warwick Lister-Kaye and Ben Johnson. But the Welsh guys were new to me and brought a real buzz of energy to the competition and obviously had a wealth of experience from years of flying in their home territory.
At about 7pm on Friday night, we were finally told the challenge ahead. It would be a Race to Goal, starting from Cairn Liath (turnpoint 1), near Blair Athol, and passing over A’Bhuidheanach Bheag (turnpoint 2) and then north to the final goal at the competition field where we were camped. The minimum distance through the turnpoints was a respectable 83km and the excitement grew instantly once we knew where we were going. The plan was to have a pre-race brief at 6am on Saturday morning, then all leave in a convoy at 7am to get to the start before 9am.
I never sleep well before a long race. Every marathon I’ve done was always preceded by, at most, 4 hours of sleep. This race was no different, but ultimately made worse by sleeping in the boot of my car and I had a restless night where I actually don’t think I dozed off at all!
Nevertheless, I was pumped with adrenaline and ready to go. So as we all stood like race horses waiting on the starter’s whistle, Neil raised his walking pole and we charged off up the first hill.
The weather was beautiful. Blue skies, small cumulus clouds popping out and light winds. We couldn’t have hoped for any better. Would anyone make it to Goal in one day?
Despite the lack of sleep I was feeling charged with energy and quickly fell into step with last year’s X-Lakes winner Keith (Bud) Paterson. We led the way up Cairn Liath and chatted freely about hike and fly tactics. Before long XCTrack chimed that I had entered the first cylinder, but I decided I needed more height, so I carried on to a point just short of the summit where there was a convenient launch. It wasn’t long before Ben was on the radio telling me my Inreach wasn’t broadcasting my location. Bugger! In all the excitement I had forgotten to switch on Tracking! I quickly pressed the relevant button and ten minutes later my track was visible on the spotwalla.com site.
As I got kitted up and went through all the usual checks I was having a parallel discussion with a hill walker who wanted to know all about paragliding and where I was flying to. I don’t mind telling folks all about this wonderful sport and all its variations, but this was one time when I really needed to concentrate, so hopefully he wasn’t to put off when my answers we getting shorter as I went about pressing buttons on my multiple gadgets.
As I started preparing to launch I could see wings already in the air that had launched lower down. Wow, these guys didn’t waste any time getting up and I could see Dougie Swanson-Lowe already climbing in weak lift out at the front of the hill. So with a certain amount of haste, I pulled my wing up and stepped off Turn Point 1.
The soaring was reasonable, but it was still early, probably 9:30, and the day’s thermals hadn’t quite started, at least not for me. I could see high aspect ratio wings above me as Bud and Dougie began to circle high and led the way over the back to begin the traverse to TP2.
Several other pilots went off in the same direction, Tosh, Greg, Adrian all had the same idea. For me I scrambled around searching for lift, but ultimately failed. I landed about 5 km away from Cairn Liath, hot and frustrated to bomb so early as I watched gliders overhead! I relaunched from a lower hill but again got nothing. A second attempt saw me landing in an area of dried bracken which is literally like Velcro to paraglider lines. Not only that, the field appeared to be a Deer farm with about 200 of them swarming around and a 7 foot high fence which was impossible to climb over. It took me about half an hour to get my wing clear of bracken and packed away.
At this point I reached a new low. I heard radio chatter from Warwick who said that “Some of the guys are halfway to goal already”!
What?! It’s only 11 o’clock!! I think what he meant to say was they were half way to TP2. Which turned out to be about right.
Now I’m genuinely thinking of giving up. I’m going to be last in this race and there’s still 75km ahead of me!
I eventually found a way out of the deer field and plodded down to a single track road hopping over electrified fences on the way. Once on the road my frustration had calmed down somewhat and my rational brain kicked into gear. I may have bombed out early but there is still one thing I can do….
It may have been a marathon distance ahead of me but what am I here for anyway? Let’s do this!
I headed down to the A9 and reasoned that this would actually be easy running compared to the others that were possibly trudging through swamp and heather up on the hills. My pack was heavy with all the VolBiv kit, about 14kg, but I was still able to run at a slow pace.
On the spotwalla site I could see Mike Jardine a short distance ahead of me, no doubt, moving at a similar speed and he became my target and kept me focussed on the long slog to TP2. I knew Mike was a capable hike and fly pilot with good fitness and we were both very close in terms of scores on the Scottish Hike and Fly League.
A couple of hours in and I was beginning to find my “zone” despite the hot weather. It was going to be a long day but the goal for me was to reach A’Bhuidheanach Bheag. Finally, by about 6pm, I arrived at the base of the mountain and I was comfortable that I could climb it before the mandatory rest period at 9pm. However, to get through the night, I knew I needed 2 litres of water to make my dinner and stay hydrated, so I filled by Platypus bag with river water (I also use a Sawyer water filter) and slotted it into the side pocket of my backpack. After 6 hours of hiking, an extra 2kg of dead weight was a little hard to bear, but I knew it was essential.
Meanwhile, on Telegram, the news came through. Bud had won already! Closely following by Dougie. It’s astonishing to think that these guys actually flew the whole task in less than a day.
I still hadn’t caught up with Mike, but I suspected he would also be aiming to camp at the top of TP2. My suspicion was proved correct when, after a 2 hour climb, there he was sitting at the top eating his cold pasta out of a bag. I was nearly done by this time and we sat down and chatted at the Cairn for a while before checking in with the Organisers on Telegram that we intended to stay at the summit overnight.
We found a fairly flat and soft area of grass near the top and I set up my 3F UL tent ready to make dinner. I enquired about Mike’s tent, and he said he just had a Bivvi bag. Slightly conscience of the risk of weather changing in the night I asked if it was the type with a hood? “I can’t remember” was the response…
So as I set up my solid fuel stove and poured in the filtered water, Mike began to arrange his bivvi-bag for the night ahead.
Although I try to make my VolBiv kit as light as possible, I believe that there is some weight which is just essential and after a full 12 hours hiking and flying I knew I would need a psychological lift as well as a high calorie meal. So I had packed a freeze dried Chicken Korma (1000 calories) and a Chocolate pudding (450 calories), not forgetting the Cappuccino sachets I had stashed in my flight deck.
I offered Mike a cappuccino if he could provide his own cup, but he declined and seemed happy enough bedding down for the night in his bivvi-bag. I just really hope the smell of my Chicken Korma and Chocolate Pudding wasn’t wafting in his direction as I sat in my tent and tucked in…
Sleep came easy that night. After 12 hours of hiking/running/climbing in hot conditions the body just wants to rest and by 10:30 I was wrapped up in my Gin Yeti and dozing off not really caring what the weather might bring in the night. As luck would have it by 1am the rain was pelting against my tent and woke me from a deep sleep. My first thoughts were for Mike and how he was coping with his thin Bivvi-bag. I could hear him stirring a few feet away, clearly trying to arrange his kit in a better way to give more shelter. Unfortunately, there was nothing to do but wait for morning and the restart time of 7am.
I popped my head out of the tent at 6am and I could see Mike beginning to move and try to warm up. He had got soaked to the skin in the relentless rain and described the experience as “Type 3 Fun”! By 6:30am the rain had all but stopped and I guess I could have fired up my stove and made my freeze dried pack of Scrambled Eggs and Caramelised Onion with a coffee, but after Mike’s suffering I thought, maybe not.
7am came and Mike was off sharp, not only to get warmed up, but there was also a race on, and we had work to do. I packed my tent quickly and followed about half an hour later. It’s amazing what some food and a good night’s sleep can do for you. I felt as good as new and even started running along the ridge moving North looking for an appropriate launch point.
The wind was still strong but easing all the time and possibly soarable by 10:00. I knew Tosh was in the area somewhere and I fully expected him to be off quickly and setting a determined pace to TP3.
My “virtual coach” Greg Hamerton had come off the hills a few kilometres ahead of me last night heading for the A9 and, no doubt, spent a comfortable evening in his Campervan with Supporter Courtney.
As I progressed north I managed a launch from Carn na Caim but, again, Mike Jardine pulled ahead and became my “rabbit” as he moved swiftly and nimbly across the hills with a momentum that most Alpine pilots would admire. He seems to have a good technique of hiking at speed, launching quickly, ridge soaring and then repacking quickly. Looking at the spotwalla map, I could see that he had caught up with Greg and was now soaring on Stac Meall Chuaich about 3km from my position.
I landed in rough air on a spur near A’Mharconaich and spent way too long getting going again as I ground handled my wing up the slope. The thermic gusts were very strong by this time and at the top I was nearly pulled off my feet trying to control the wing when the wind picked up and blew beyond my glider’s trim speed! I finally relaunched and got a little height but only enough to leap to the next gully.
Once landed I called out, “X-Scotia paraglider radio check” on the 2m radio. Greg answered to say that he was sitting on top waiting for the wind to drop and confirmed that the cycles were uncomfortably strong for soaring. If it was too strong for Greg, then that meant hiking time for me. I radioed back to say that I would climb up and be there in about 30 minutes.
Time was beginning to run out. The race ends at 3pm and I was still approximately 30km from goal. If I was going to make any distance it would have to be in the air. Once at the top of Stac Meall Chuaich I had a look around for Greg but couldn’t find him, so I carried on setting up my wing. The wind had dropped slightly now and it felt ok for a safe launch. Just as I was getting into my harness, there he was, soaring out in front. He waved and pointed to where the lift was working on the hill as he gained height. Before long I was in the air searching for it myself and starting to climb.
I managed a little altitude over the ridge at this point, but figured that it was time to go. I could use the tail wind to get along to the next hill and gain a few kilometres. It sort of worked, and I ended up low over a spur and had to turn tight to slope land into wind, but I had only covered about 5km and, unfortunately, so far from civilisation that I was very much “in the boonies”.
I pinged a message on Telegram that I had landed safely and was heading to the A9. Time was running out now and there was little chance of making goal, so the next hour was spent clambering through bog’s, heather and deer fences.
Had there been an extra two hours in the race I think I could have made it the last 30km, even on foot. But for now I was happy to just message for a retrieve as I wandered past a couple of seemingly deserted farm houses with strange bird sculptures in the driveway.
Before long I could see a silver car making it’s way up the single track approach road to the houses. I walked down the road wondering if this was the landowner.
To my delight, as the car approached I could see Bud’s face through the windscreen giving me an excited Thumbs-Up!
“Am I glad to see you guys!”, was all I could say. Tired and desperately in need of a shower I just slumped in the back of Bud’s hire car enjoying the feel of sitting in a cushioned seat once again! We drove back to the Race HQ after checking that everyone else was either retrieved or about to be picked up.
Back in the field the weather was still beautiful, warm and dry, and as competitors started to return, the stories of hiking through rough countryside and bivvi-ing on mountains started to flow. Most notable was Dougie’s epic Commando-style yomp through unbelievably dense swamp, forest and bush making for the finish line by the shortest possible route. He arrived in a respectable second place, with 12 ticks on him along with cuts and scratches from conifer trees and gorse bushes.
Huge thanks must go to Warwick Lister-Kaye, Ben Johnson, Neil Rollings and Mark Bradley for taking on this project. The event was a unique “point in time” and the fact there were only 12 chosen to take part made it even more special. I am so grateful to have been a part of it.
In the end I didn’t quite make goal, but after an 81km tracklog, 60km hiking/running on road and rough hillside and a series of short ridge runs, I was mostly happy with what I did. The body held up well and my training routine served it’s purpose with no injuries and good energy levels throughout.
Every Hike and Fly event I do is a big learning process, so here’s what I gained from the X-Scotia 2021…
What worked and what didn’t work!
|Solid Fuel Hexamine tablets boil water well.||In sunny conditions trying to see a map on a mobile |
phone screen is very difficult. ViewRanger was specifically bad.
XCTrack not so bad. An e-ink display would be better.
|Sleeping in my wing is warm and dry||Launching with too much haste.|
|Running 4 times a week in training||Landing in bracken!|
|Expedition Foods Chicken Korma is awesome!|
|Bringing a fresh shirt and socks|