Gary Tompsett and Max Cousins are believed to be the first mountain bikers to complete one of Scotland’s classic mountain rounds, a Tranter’s Round.
What is the Tranter’s Round?
Tranter’s Round was inaugurated by Philip Tranter in 1964. It is an elegant round of the “Lochaber Munros” starting and finishing at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel.
In total, there are 18 Munros, but 19 mountains (one Mamore was reclassified as a Corbett in 1997). Four of the mountains are 4000fters.
The route extends to 36 miles (58km) and 20,600ft (6279m) of ascent.
For many people, the goal is a sub 24-hour time to walk or run Tranter’s.
Hill running athleticism being what it is, in 1978 Charlie Ramsay completed his now famous Ramsay’s Round of 24 Munros in 24-hours. Ramsay’s is an extension of Tranter’s.
Yet until last month, no one had completed Tranter’s on a mountain bike.
Gary and Max finished the Tranter’s Round (clockwise) in 31 hours and 50 minutes, from June 5 to 6, 2021.
Gary says: “We believe we are the first to do this. In the early 1990s, Paul Tattersall completed all the Munros on a mountain bike over a few months. This is a monumental and unrepeated endeavour.”
The idea for Tranter’s by mountain bike
Gary and Max have known each other since 2010 but they had not ridden together until this year. They report that “somehow we knew that we were compatible”.
The idea for a Tranter’s Round by mountain bike came about as Covid lockdown restriction started to ease. Gary says: “There was a rash of outdoor adventures, inaugurations and FKTs (Fastest Known Times) from those starved of events when access to the countryside and hills opened up again.
“Our adventure was no different in that context, except that this was to be a merging of traditional hill-walking, modern bike-packing and, arguably, cutting edge all-mountain/enduro mountain biking, which was made more achievable by a special piece of kit called the Hookabike.”
Gary had already completed various endurance traverses in the Lochaber mountains, including, for a short while holding the record for the Ramsay Round in winter.
He says: “I was comfortable with the idea of attempting Tranter’s on a mountain bike. Foolishly comfortable, though.
“The terrain is very stern; sometimes highly consequential and with paths – and sometimes no paths – that are always rocky and gratuitously steep in ascent and descent.”
Despite the terrain, the friends had agreed not to reconnoitre any of the route segments, in part so that it gave us them an “even bigger adventure”.
For Max the idea to ride the Tranter’s sounded “mental”. But he was up for it.
Bike choice for Tranter’s
Gary’s bike: Salsa Bucksaw; carbon, full-suspension and general purpose fat bike.
Max’s bike: Kona Process; aluminium, full-suspension enduro bike with downhill tyres.
Both bikes had tubeless tyre set-ups.
Another key part was the use of the Hookabikes. This device allows mountain bikers to carry their bikes more easily when they need to hike. The Hookabike comprises a slotted cradle that fits to the upper area of rucksack straps and into which you lower the mating spigot attachment of the bike.
Gary adds: “The bike has to be flipped upside down to mount it into the Hookabike. That was 15kg of bike lifted and flipped over our heads, about 100 times, we figured, and so it proved.”
Other key elements for the Tranter’s adventure
For Gary, there needs to be a methodology for successfully completing such a challenging route. He says: “It was to be extraordinary, outrageous, sometimes excruciating, but also liberating, unifying, a team effort, and therefore, immensely worthwhile.”
The first step in the methodology was team selection. Gary says: “With a like-minded, equally capable person you are likely to go well. As life-long mountain bikers, we were unlikely to have bike woes, and we know how to ride with minimum, if any, fails (crashes).
“We knew what kit would work, what tools and survival gear to take, and what to eat, and we could discuss this fluently and with a good listening ear.”
The second step – and the one matter that was harder to control – was drinking water availability, as the route is mainly on ridges.
Gary says: “The answer was to recruit two episodes of water support high on the ridges. We threw into that some treats of cola and savoury snacks and, during the challenge, we intercepted these friends and stashes and we were perfectly satiated and entertained.
“They had no other equipment for us – just fluid and food. “
The pair also carried water in hydration bladders in their packs (rather than in bike water bottles, to reduce bike carriage weight) and they were able to refill at some occasional and meagre clean sources.
The third step was “positivity”. Gary says: “I wouldn’t allow it any other way. Section by section we would progress around the route, irrespective of any departure in expectation from the schedule.
“I had devised a 24-hour schedule, knowing that it was not likely possible to complete in that time. Any delay, long rest or sleep, would likely make us too cold to proceed and force a bail. We did take equipment with us to bivvy, but that was for emergencies and not in the plan.”
Tranter’s Round by mountain bike
Gary and Max started at 5am on Saturday, June 5. Max describes the feeling of setting off. He says: “It was such a good feeling to be at the hostel for the start with all the planning and preparation now behind us.
“All we had was what we needed for the ride. I had no idea how long it was going to take but with 60km and more than 6000m of ascent I thought that it might perhaps take 24 hours. We simply set off away from worries and towards adventure.”
Heading up Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain, the first few hours were obviously going to be tough. Gary describes this as “delightfully arduous” but they put the Ben and the Carn Mor Dearg arete behind them with no issues.
Some five hours into the challenge, Max describes his thoughts. He says: “We had been riding continuously and I got the chance to rest for five minutes at the col at the head of Coire Giubhsachan. I had a lie down and I tried to force down a cheese wrap.
“My body was not keen on accepting food during that level of effort. I live and ride in the Lake District in Cumbria. Here, if you want to ride the hills, carrying is just a fact of life and the best mountain paths require a level of dedication to access.
“We were five hours into our adventure and I’m pretty sure I’d already equalled the amount of carrying of a normal hard day. Looking up from the col, the west face of Aonach Mor rose sharply, a wall of grass and crag some 500 metres high.”
The men set off again, hooking their bikes to their backs – helping and checking each other to make sure they were secure – and started to head up the slope.
Max continues: “It was a severe slope and the energy output was maximum. This early into the trip and the body was not yet numbed to the required effort, but the mind was beginning to get it.
“Plod, plod – using hands and feet – the steepest non-scramble path that I could imagine. Although, I was thinking we are lucky it was so dry because the slope would have presented a problem if not.
“Yet, we were in a wonderful place and the mind started to detach from the effort. Plod, plod – we could see the Mamores to the south, framed by the valley. Plod, plod – we would be seeing them more closely much later.
“Finally, the slope relented to the plateau of Aonach Beag. Then we took our bikes off our backs and the freewheel clicked sarcastically. ‘Riding yet?’ it seemed to say. ‘No, not yet’, I retorted.”
Cramps and doubt creep in
Max also suffered with the on-set of cramps. He says: “We’d finished the Aonachs and safely reached the slopes of Sgurr Choinnich Beag. I could feel my muscles starting to let me know that something’ was up. It was a slight tightness that usually signals the onset of cramp if I don’t do something soon.
“We chatted. In fact, we’d been chatting all the way. I chatted about the impending cramp and I stopped to take in plenty of food and water. This seemed to help but the cramp had sown some doubt in my mind.
“I knew that we were far from the half-way point and our 24-hour skeleton plan needed revising upwards. The going felt hard and my legs were complaining. I worried whether I would be able to make the journey.
“As Gary would say, ‘I am experiencing a weakness’.”
It was at this stage that Gary and Max reached their first support. A friend Gavin Miles had come to meet them.
Max was able to take on more food, water and cola and then Gary suggested an effervescent electrolyte hydration tablet. Max chewed on it while drinking water.
He says: “It was foaming and I shut my mouth hoping the foam would find somewhere to go. I managed not to throw up, I drank more water and swallowed the lot. Gary and Gav were grinning at me. I grinned back.
“It’ was done and the pre-cramp seemed to be behaving. Thought to myself that perhaps the journey was possible after all.”
Half-way, well not really!
At what was loosely described / thought of as halfway by Max, the friends rode across a river and had a short rest.
Max says: “The river seemed like a good place to rest and mentally it seemed like half way. I was keener for a rest than Gary. I ate thoughtfully.
“I then said to Gary, ‘I’m not sure that I’m going to make it around the second half.’ I wasn’t quite ready to quit but I was exceedingly aware how hard the first half had been.
“We had been out for over 12 hours and I wanted to talk things through honestly, to avoid the situation of my body giving up, in the dark, high in the Mamores, with the minimum of shelter equipment.”
Gary reveals that he can barely recall the seriousness of this conversation. He says: “We had also deliberately never discussed a ‘separation strategy/protocol’ and were happy to take decisions on the hoof. And, anyway, I was in no mood for quitting.”
In the end, Gary’s solution was to simply break down the task. He said to Max to take a look at the map and he pointed to the Coire an Lochan col further on, where there was a chance for a fast escape to Kinlochleven if needed.
Max says: “Bingo. This worked a treat and before long we were off again plodding up the slopes of Sgurr Eilde Mor. Just for the record, the river was far from being half way.”
Dusk, nightfall and a fast finish
At dusk, amid the myriad eastern Mamores, the weather closed in and the riders faced rainy squalls. Gary says: “The weather kept us awake. Indeed, the terrain under foot and tyre kept us awake and when it was steep, loose and precipitous, it needed our full attention.”
In the night, they intercepted their second support stash. Gary says: “Wedged behind a shallow cairn, sheltering from the wind and rain, pitch black, we enjoyed cola, cheese and pickle rolls and two litres of water each.
“Donald MacLean drove more than 250 miles to make this remote support plan a reality. Both of our supporters could monitor our progress – and lateness – by consulting the online Open Tracking GPS live link.”
Heading into the night, Gary recalls a highlight as the sunset glowed. He says: “The showers had passed and we were alone on the Mamores by night. But it wasn’t quite dark.
“To the north the glow of the sunset had changed, becoming more subtle and it was swinging east.
“The glow outlined the peaks of the north where we’d already journeyed, including Ben Nevis, distinctive Carn Mor Dearg, the Aonachs, the Choinnichs and the Grey Corries. We pushed on again. The Mamores was a tough place to be with a bike and we were 20 hours in.”
Dawn came and immediately went again. There was another period of squalls although the weather improved for the final part of the round.
Gary says: “The Mamores section includes two out-and-backs to reach Munros that are usually assembled as the Ring of Steall route. These sections contained some of the more problematic and slowest ground.
“I would say that at about three-quarters of the way round, muscle soreness was evident. The bikes felt heavy and this affects your shoulders, neck and chest. I found I needed occasional adjustments to stay comfortable.
“Our legs were suffering, too, and sore from stepping down steeply. Generally, the riding sections were a great relief and always exciting.”
But finally they were closing in on the finish. Max describes the fire road descent at the end of the Tranter’s Round. He says: “It felt so very fast. And I was thinking to myself: ‘We’ve fucking done it. I can’t believe it’s over.’
“We pushed hard on the pedals, cycling legs fresh from underuse. Every fire road lip was like a jump and everything was amazing.
“Skidding through the forest gate we hit the tarmac and rode briskly to the hostel.
“It was done and over, except for memories and stories.”
While Max has vividly narrated the Tranter’s challenge, Gary described his mountain biking friend as an unflappable adventure partner. He also said Max’s easy-going nature brought a sense of calm and steadiness to the journey.
Gary adds: “With Max involved there was no room for stress. His ability to coolly ride and scramble the rock-jumbled terrain gave us the confident pace that we needed for strong forward progress.”
For Gary, in the end, the overall time didn’t matter. He says: “We had never rushed anywhere. It wasn’t so much a race against time, it was a reliability trial.
“It was a race against fortune, perhaps, and that is the race that we won, together.”