Photoshoot: Mountains' mental maze

Words,Photographs Rob Howard
Friday 15 May 1998 23:02

AT the start of the Lowe Alpine Western Isles Challenge last week, 24 kayaks left the isle of Barra to cross to South Uist, the next island north. On a stormy morning, rain squalls swept between the mountainous islands, catching the paddlers in open water. The rising wind drove them off course, waves broke over the tiny, struggling craft, and fast rescue boats assisted those who capsized in the turbulent, freezing waters. Three were pulled from the water and the rest made it ashore.

For most this would be excitement enough, but this was just the start of one of the world's great adventure races, involving three days of kayaking, mountain running and cycling, on a race through the Outer Hebrides, taking in the summits of 13 mountains along the way. To reach the finish at the Butt of Lewis lighthouse 200 miles away, would require 50 miles of paddling and climbing 20,000 feet.

In total 18 teams of four set off carrying a kilt pin as a baton, and adding small squares of tartan tweed to it at each checkpoint. The other six competitors climbed out of their boats and on to bikes for the individual category, which is only a little shorter than the full race.

As showers chased rainbows around the skies, cyclists and runners made their way up the coastal dunes and on to the first of the big mountains of the day, Beinn Mhor.

In the constant cold wind that sweeps the islands, they raced over deep, demoralising miles of bog, described by Ross Munro of the appropriately named "Bogstormers" as "like running across miles of sponges". Soon runners were climbing Eaval, a mountain rising abruptly from sea level, reached by picking a way through a complex maze of lochs.

Back at sea level most teams used bikes to move to the next canoe leg, but Mark Seddon, of Team Lowe Alpine, took the direct route by swimming a tidal loch. At the end of the day everyone took the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to move on to South Harris, the next link in the island chain, with the exception of a team of Royal Marines. A day that began with their paddler being rescued, ended with them unable to keep up and missing the boat.

At the cycling start on day two, half the teams set off one way, and half the other, as the route to the checkpoints was left open. It is this that inspires the race organiser, Ian Callaghan, a hotelier on Harris, to devise ever more complex courses.

"It is the mental aspect of the race that really appeals to me", he said. "Teams need to work together on detailed logistical planning, have exceptional navigation skills, and incredible endurance and sporting expertise to complete the challenge."

The weather is part of the test and heavy cloud and snow flurries on Clisham, the highest peak in the isles, and one with precipitous cliffs, was to give Callaghan a few troubled hours, as lost teams failed to find radio checkpoints. Eventually they turned up and continued on to the finish on the isle of Great Bernera, from where day three began with the canoeists setting off for the standing stones at Callanish on Lewis.

Next came the longest and fastest cycling section, with riders exceeding 45 miles per hour, despite their aching legs, then the paddlers took over again in strong cross winds and a powerful surf, before setting runners off for the last checkpoint, set in the middle of miles of treacherous bog. Then it was the cyclists again for the glory leg to the welcoming beacon of the lighthouse, perched on cliff tops at the very north-west edge of Europe.

First to arrive was Marc Laithwaite, a sports science teacher at St Helens College, and the individual winner in a total time of 24 hours 19 minutes. The winning team was Sula Sgeir.

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