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Tweet Friday 24th September 2021

Scottish 6-Day, Lochaber 2021 – reflections from a first timer

Report by Ric Gamble, Development Officer and Chair of Lagan Valley Orienteers


In the summer of 2019, I travelled for my first big orienteering competition at Kainuu in Finland, but I had yet to experience a large multi-day event in the UK and neither had my wife Sarah or son Peter. So when entries opened for the Scottish 6-Days at Lochaber we were quick to add our names, living in hope that lockdown restrictions would be lifted. Whether the event would go ahead at all certainly seemed 50/50 at times. The organising team did an amazing job negotiating all the ups and down, twists and turns and in the end it did turn out 50/50, the event was arranged into two separate groups so that competitors ran on half of the allocated 6 days.

We along with 20 others travelling over from Northern Ireland, mainly from Lagan Valley Orienteers, were arranged to run in Group A on Days 1, 2 and 5. It was a great idea from the organisers to keep the club atmosphere on these days and having the whole of Day 6 to travel down and catch the ferry home, took the pressure off on the last day. Going by some of the times out on the hill on earlier days this was appreciated – but more about that later!

Day 1 – Ardchattan (Sunday 1 August)

After a long day in the car travelling up to Fort William the day before, it wasn’t too early a start on the Sunday for the first race at Ardchattan – just as well, as it was a fair jaunt down towards Oban. The weather was beautiful and the views along the sea lochs of Linnhe, Creran and Etive were stunning and made the drive a joy.

Ardchattan was described in the Event Information as “an area of fast open moorland offering fine views over Loch Etive down to Connel Bridge and the Falls of Lora”. I don’t think I will ever know what fast means on moorland but at least I can appreciate fine views. To get to the start was an effort in itself but fortunately I gave myself enough time to catch my breath and take in the stunning views before adjusting my focus on the start. Entered for M45L, the C3 course which was down as 7.9km with 335m climb; I knew I was going to be out for a while, so I needed to pace myself. Planners Graham McIntyre & Mike Stewart (INT) ensured I wasn’t going to go out too quick, with a good climb up to control 1, thanks! The course heavily relied on keeping tabs on contour detail which I was happy with until things started unravel a little as I sped up going off the hill to the finish and my oxygen starved brain was even less alert than normal. But I got home, all controls visited in the correct order, job done!

Back to the field where the cars were parked, food and water and a good catch up with friends from the club and even some sun bathing (if an exhausted person lying in a heap in the heat can be classified as sunbathing).

Day 2 – Inverlochy (Monday 2 August)

No commute today, this course was situated just outside Fort William at the golf course with more fantastic views up towards the North and West faces of Ben Nevis, which was clear all the way to the summit.

So, a Middle-distance run on a golf course, can’t be that hard surely?! The planners Nick Hale & Dan Gooch (MAROC) I think had different ideas. The first half of the course took me up into steep, mixed wooded slopes. Although Peel Land Surveys produced an excellent map, especially the areas of bracken, I had errors galore and not quite the start I was hoping for. The move into the commercial forested area went a lot more smoothly and I relaxed a bit too much as I looked forward to getting into the easy golf club area - well, I shouldn’t have. I quickly proved that orienteering is a more frustrating sport than golf. It was heard that there were more lost golf balls found out there in the rough than controls.

A lovely undulating fairway provided a natural finish arena and allowed club members to catch up again after their runs and cheer on later finishers.

It was a fairway round that course. 

‘Rest’ Days (Tuesday 3 – Thursday 5 August)

Instead of the usual one we had three rest days in a row this year. You can’t go to an area like this and rest for three days, there is too much to see and do.

Many from Lagan Valley Orienteers club decided the first ‘rest’ day would involve a climb up Ben Nevis, others went to seek out some eagerly anticipated local beverage or do a MapRun of Fort William. The Gambles opted for a climb up past the Pap of Glencoe to the Munroe, Sgorr nam Fiannaidh for views along the Aonach Eagach ridge and south over to the Three Sisters. Afterwards we took the short Corran Ferry trip over to Ardgour to enjoy the evening with family.

The other two ‘rest’ days involved white-water rafting and at last some proper rest, a bit of sightseeing, shopping and coffee shop hopping.

Rest day option 1: Having Lunch with Ben – LVO top club in Scotland, literally. 
Rest day option 2: white-water rafting

Day 5 – Creag Dhubh (Friday 6 August)

We awoke on our third and final race day to look out on a grey and damp landscape, a markable change in the weather. As we drove to the venue the weather deteriorated further, the thunder storms fortunately did not materialise, but we felt for the early starters and hoped the weather would lift for our runs. I’m pleased to report it did, instead of getting wet from above the later starters got soaked from the bottom up by the saturated, oxter high bracken.

The venue was used the previous day by the other 1,000 odd competitors in Group B and was down as a World Ranking Event. In the event information, Creag Dhubh (pronounced Craig Doo, or alternatively pronounced badly by anyone not from Scotland), was described as “Rough open birch forest on fairly uniform slopes either side of a spur projecting from Creag Dhubh with longer courses out on rough open moorland. Boulder fields and areas of scree.  Bracken areas are generally navigable.  Slow runnability for the majority”. My course certainly didn’t disappoint, I had a good mix of all this varied terrain. This time I learnt from day 2 and didn’t rush off, allowing my head to get into the map. Unaware at the time, there were many first controls quite close together and in slightly different directions, so the elephant tracks made by yesterday’s runners could be very misleading. In fact, they did prove very misleading for a number of runners, losing great amounts of time before they hardly started. Having found my first three controls though challenging terrain, my next leg led me 195m straight up onto the open hill. The route choice may have been obvious for some, skirt round to the north of the boulder field and cliffs, but I once considering myself to be a keen climber, so I fancied a more exciting direct approach. On this lonely climb I was joined by a few hundred small, flying, buzzing things, like tiny vultures waiting for me to drop – unfortunately for them I didn’t. When I topped out there was enough of a breeze to blow away my climbing companions only to be replaced by fellow competitors who could have proved equally fierce and distracting if I had allowed. With the big climb out of the way and with more open terrain the course started to run more smoothly, until I got back into the bracken again. Only a few short controls off the finish and I lost my position on the map and stupidly ran along a wayward elephant track. Afraid of losing height, I ended up wandering around for 15 minutes about 20m above my control. Eventually the illusive control was located and a quick finish followed, happy to have completed all the courses over the three days.

Back at the car, soon joined by my son Peter, we got ourselves dried off and some much-needed sustenance. The car park was clearing and uncharacteristically, Sarah was not back, so we went over to chat with the download officials near the finish. With not long before the courses closed, there were half a dozen people still out on the hill. Looking up we could see a frenzy of activity in the vegetation above and they all streamed out, Sarah being the last back with seconds to spare. It turned out she was one of the many who lost a lot of time on the first control. But was Sarah the last out there? On Sarah’s run in, Peter and I were joined by our friend Denis from LVO and Richard Oxlade the event organising coordinator. Denis was looking for the driver of his lift home (who will remain anonymous) and Richard was also interested in a last runner out there. When Richard asked, “Is he the determined type?”, Denis answered, “He is not the type to let things beat him”. Richard pondered this and then asked, “Is he a good navigator”, Denis was less complimentary with his answer this time. Within a few minutes, Denis’ lift arrived and to the applause of those remaining, and not involved in dismantling the site, he managed even to skip to the finish.

Staying to the very last moment of our last day, I and Lagan Valley Orienteers made the most of our 6/3 days. Not all of the NI bunch had their full monies worth though, some ran round their courses more quickly - congratulations to those who performed really well overall: Richard McCourt LVO, M75S 2nd, Olivia Baxter LVO, W21S 2nd, Helen Baxter LVO W65S 1st and Teresa Finlay Fermo W70S 1st.

Thank you all involved in putting this great event together - coordinators, organisers, planners, mappers, landowners, army of helpers and volunteers. In the circumstances, I think everyone appreciates that this was a very challenging and stressful event to stage and you did a fantastic job, well done!

Lochaber no more...............Moray for more!


Have you attended any orienteering events for the first time this year which you would like to share with others?