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Kelli Roberts sets new Cuillin Traverse Female FKT

Written by Fiona

September 01 2020

record breaking cuillin traverse

Kelli Roberts has set a new Cuillin Traverse female FKT (Fastest Known Time) in five hours 56 minutes and 46 seconds.

She said: “It’s a great achievement and I feel very proud of it. However an FKT has a funny draw to it. It’s not like a race and I think I will only feel happy once I know I have given it my best shot.” (This means she will be giving it another go!)

The previous FKT was achieved by British climber Anna Wells in six hours 34 minutes. Anna also set a female FKT of 12 hours for a winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. 

Finlay Wild holds the summer record of 2:59:22. Read about the record in my blog from 2013. Scot Uisdean Hawthorn recorded a fastest winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge in 2018 in 4:57:7.

Cuillin Ridge, seen from Bla Bheinn. Credit:  Copyright Bob Pringle 

What is a Cuillin Traverse?

The Cuillin Traverse record is set on a ridge from first summit of Gars-bheinn to the final summit of Sgurr nan Gillean.

The length is around 12km with some 3000m of ascent. It is an Alpine-style rock climbing route with scrambling over exposed terrain of grades I, II and III.

The “rules” include:

  • Visit all 11 Munro summits plus the Sgurr Thearlaich and Bidien tops.
  • Negotiate the four main climbing and abseil sections without ropes or help from any bystander
    (solo). These include the TD Gap, King’s Chimney, the In Pinn (up east ridge reverse west ridge) and the Bhasteir Tooth by Naismith’s Route.
  • Feeders and pacers can be used.
  • Timing should be to the nearest second.

Note: This is different from the route you might take if you are “simply” summiting all 11 Cuillin Munros. The time to ascend to the ridge and descend at the end is also not included.

record breaking cuillin traverse
Kelli on King’s Chimney.

Who is Kelli Roberts?

Kellie, 34, (she was 33 when she set the record time) is from Ambleside, Cumbria. The Early Years teacher has always been a keen outdoors fan.

She said: “I used to run competitively during secondary school but this was a bit short-lived. Climbing became my sport during university. I started with trad climbing and this led me to bouldering and Scottish winter climbing.

“I was drawn to the mountains and began taking trips to the Alps for big mountaineering days. After university, I took the chance to travel and climb in Europe, which meant a lot of sport climbing.

“I love the athleticism in sport climbing. It’s great being able to push yourself on the rock without the fear of falling and ripping gear. I managed my hardest sport grade on this trip (7c).”

Returning to the UK required a bit of adjustment for Kelli. She said: “I found it hard to readjust to trad climbing and I slowly turned my focus back to running on the fells.

“These days, I absolutely love running in the fells. It feels so free when you are on the tops taking in the views as you speed along.

“Since I started fell running again I have – somehow! – managed to become the English Champion twice in 2018 and 2019 and also British champion in 2019.”

record breaking cuillin traverse
Kelli focusing on King’s Chimney.

Focusing on the Cuillin Ridge

Kelli often climbs with her partner, Pete. They first attempted the ridge in April last year. They recced the climbing parts (excluding Naismith’s route) and then did it in one go on the same trip.

She said: “We were roped up for the climbing parts and we managed it in 7.5 hours.

“After that I was in awe of Finlay Wild’s record [sub three hours] having tried it ourselves and soloing it was a hot topic on the drive back home from Skye. I managed to convince myself that it could be possible.”

This summer’s record bid was last-minute. Kellie said: “I knew I wanted to give it a go over the summer but thought I had missed the weather window due to commitments at the start of August.

“In addition, Pete had issues with his back so I thought it was game over. We only decided to head up the same morning that we set off. We didn’t know how long the weather would last so we did two days of recceing the climbs and then gave it a go after a rest day.”

record breaking cuillin traverse
Kelli during her record-setting traverse on the Cuillin Ridge.

Kelli’s traverse

Kelli and Pete set off early at 7:20am and reached Gars-bheinn just before 10am. She said: “After a banana, I retied my shoelaces and off we went. We made pretty good time to the TD Gap (1hr 15 mins).

“This is the first technical part and I knew this would be a test of my mental strength. To my surprise, I felt incredibly calm and I cruised the down-climb into the gap.

“This gave me a lot of confidence and I set off up the other side feeling good. I got a bit stuck just leaving the crack, where it is a little awkward, but I knew this was one of the moves I didn’t like so I just dealt with it and moved on.”

The King’s Chimney was next. Again, Kelli says that she felt great climbing up the corner. She added: “I knew I was in control and focused. By this point, I knew I would be able to complete the ridge if we just kept going.”

Kelli headed up and down the In Pinn quickly. They had been going for about 2 hour 30 minutes by this point.

She said: “It was great to know we had most of the technical climbing done and I was eager to push on, however, by this point we were beginning to get low on water.

“We spent some time searching for some water that a guide has told us about but we didn’t succeed. We almost ended up heading down the wrong part of the ridge.”

record breaking cuillin traverse
Kelli and Pete on the final summit.

The challenge really starts

This is when it started to become more challenging for Kelli. She said: “My bad planning meant I had no water during the hottest part of the day. It was also the most runnable part, which meant we lost some time as we were forced to walk most of the middle section.

“We had a few gels to keep us going but the heat was relentless. Thankfully, some walkers were happy to support our attempt and willingly gave us some water to keep us going.”

Eventually, Kellie and Pete made it to Naismith’s Route. By this point, they had been traversing for 5 hours 20 minutes.

Kelli began to doubt if she would set a record time.

She said: “Thankfully, however, the extra water and some fruit jellies gave me a second wind. I waited whilst Pete went up Naismith’s route then quickly followed him to the top.

“I was super happy to be at the top of the last bit of climbing and apologised to Pete as I left him behind while I raced to the top.”

Again, Kelli was grateful to another group of climbers for extra water. She said: “On the way up the final chimney on Sgurr nan Gillean, some climbers gave me some water. I saved this to relish on the top.

“I had one last push to get to the top in under six hours and fortunately the last summit was closer than it appeared. I made it in 5 hours 56 minutes 46 seconds.”

Highs and lows for the Cuillin Traverse

Kelli reveals that the climbs were the highlight. She said: “I had spent a long time thinking about them over and over. I knew that if anything was going to put a stop to my attempt, it would be my head getting the better of me and refusing to solo up/down something.

“The fact they all came so easily was exhilarating. To move up the rock quickly and confidently was a great feeling.

The trickiest part of the traverse was a lack of water. Kelli said: “It was so hot up there and we were out during the middle of the day. It was a bit disheartening knowing I could have been moving a bit quicker over the ‘runnable’ terrain if I had just carried a bit more water.”

I asked Kelli if she worried that one mis-placed step could be fatal. She said: “This is a hard question to answer. Yes, while practising the climbs and thinking about the ridge prior to my attempt, I was thinking about it all the time. I think it’s a process you have to go through.

“No one would ever complete the ridge if they let those thoughts rule their head. It can be a slow process but ultimately you have to be confident in yourself and your ability.

“Once I was on the ridge those kind of thoughts didn’t even enter my head. There is no room for them.”

Setting the new record

Kelli believes she can go faster. She said: “The great thing about the ridge is that there is always something you can learn for next time. This time I had to concentrate on getting the climbs dialled. Next time I can focus more on the actual route itself.

“The ridge is so complex, I often found myself off the ‘path’ and retracing my steps because I had found myself at a big drop.

“I will know when I have run it my fastest because it will feel seamless, but that doesn’t happen without getting to know the ridge really well. That is something that could take years.”

Kelli says it’s the combination of running and steady climbing that she also enjoys on a Cuillin Traverse. She said: “Since I started running again I spend a lot of time moving through the mountains with a fast and light approach. It’s a great way to explore.

“The Cullin Ridge throws in that extra element of exposure and the climbs spice up the running a bit. It makes it an exciting and absorbing challenge.

“Overall is was a brilliant day out with Pete. It was great to have him close by, even if he did slow me down a bit!”

Read about my much slower and much more terrified half traverse on the Cuillin Ridge.

Written by Fiona September 01 2020 Please support this website Buy me a glass of wine

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