Sunday 9 September 2018

Edinburgh's Seven Hills

Perusing a map of Edinburgh a few years ago I realised that Edinburgh is built on seven hills. The famous three in the centre: Castle Rock, Calton Hill, Arthur's Seat; then four more round the outskirts: Corstorphine Hill, Braid Hills, Blackford Hill, and the Craiglockhart Hills (of which there are two... so maybe there are eight hills of Edinburgh).

Idly I drew a route between them all - and was excited to see that it was roughly a half-marathon in distance. I wanted to run it!

route map

Then I discovered the Seven Hills of Edinburgh race, which has been going since 1980. But I had no interest in the race. Like the now defunct Caledonian Challenge (a race along the West Highland Way for corporate teams) and TGO Challenge (a self-guided route between the west and east coasts of Highland Scotland), doing the route on a set day within set parameters seemed a bit too organised and restrictive. I just wanted to discover the route in my own pace and time.

So I did.

The official race starts and ends on Calton Hill, but we were doing the route we wanted, so started and ended at my friend's house in Newington on an overcast, humid morning. The obvious first hill is Arthur's Seat: get that done while the legs are fresh. From the top all the hills can be seen. Corstorphine a fair distance, Calton Hill just a leap away across the valley of Holyrood Park, the unknown territory of Craiglockhart and Braid overshadowed by the distant Pentlands.

Arthurs Seat

A slippery descent from Arthur's Seat on loose gravel, ravens and adventurous tourists at the summit, then Regent Road and Calton Hill which was thronged with Chinese tourists taking photos of Princes St. 8.30 in the morning and this was the busiest part of the whole route: up North Bridge and on to Castle Hill, moving well, the Castle Esplanade blocked by tattoo works so down to Johnston Terrace, round the base of Castle Rock and the fountain on Princes St Gardens.

heading up the Royal Mile

We talked of families and holidays as we took the easy drag up Ravelston Dykes; steepening for Corstorphine Hill then a moment of confusion. Where is the top? Corstorphine Hill is a level, tree-lined ridge so we couldn't tell. I had intended to take to a road down the west side of Corstorphine Hill in descent, but signs indicating the John Muir Way were too tempting so we followed them, getting lost in brambly undergrowth then arguing over the best way forward. "My auntie lives in Slateford, I know the way," said my friend, who turned out to be right.

By now the weekend traffic was in full flow, and climbing towards Craiglockhart Hill on busy streets was the least enjoyable part of the route: but it did not take long to reach Napier University, and a farcical detour into the campus which saw us clambering over a wall and through more undergrowth to reach a path on Craiglockhart Hill West. This is the higher of the two Craiglockhart Hills. I don't know why the official route doesn't go over it (chosing Craiglockhart East instead), but as we debouched onto a golf course with games in full swing it became apparent we may have made our approach from the wrong direction. A dash across the golf course and we were accosted by two dog-walking ladies, one of whom ordered us "stick to the paths, this is a site of special scientific interest." The perils of urban orienteering.


After Craiglockhart the Braid Hills looked high but went easy enough after dropping to walking pace before the summit, navigation fortunately on point despite this being my first ever visit. Just one more hill to go and another golf course to negotiate. Bramble pickers out in force - the brambles have ripened early this year - and happiness in simple movement across the landscape. But oh! I think I went the long way round to get up Blackford Hill. But no mind... I had a cunning plan to head straight down... but came a cropper as I ended up nearly back where I started up Blackford Hill on Midmar Drive.

This route definitely repays local knowledge!

On Blackford Hill

My friend had had to bale out after Craiglockhart to get home in time for child-minding duties, and I popped round to say hello and relay the official stats. According the seven hills website the shortest route is 14.3 miles with 2,200ft of ascent. According to my tracker we did 17 miles (2.7 miles further than the shortest possible route!) in 3 hours and 8 minutes of running time, plus another 21 minutes of hanging around on the tops taking selfies, buying lucozade from shops, arguing over which way to go next, etc.

I am going to do this route again. It was an absolute blast.

Saturday 1 September 2018

Climbing Kirkjufell

Four years ago we saw this mountain and that was it for my friend.

He dreamed of its stepped precipices and airy apex. It had to be climbed some day. This is Kirkjufell, church hill, shaped like a steeply pitched roof or old-fashioned tent. It is possibly the most-climbed hill in Iceland. It is certainly the most photographed. It isn’t particularly easy. But if like my friend you are lured by its distinctive shape, tempted by its easy road access and modest height of 468m… and you intend to visit Iceland some day... read on.

Bog cotton waved in the breeze as we set off at 6am, following an obvious path alongside a fence from the top of the road. Behind us a car park for Kirkjufellsfoss, the local beauty spot, a new path around a small but excessively picturesque waterfall. Ahead of us a young German couple in matching orange coats who would eventually — possibly wisely — refuse the final ascent. We would have done the same if there had been a bit of wind, some ice, or poor visibility. The path was clear: accounts I had read from eight years ago said it was not. This increase in erosion suggests climbing Kirkjufell has gained in popularity in the Instagram age.

We weaved up this volcanic ziggurat on exposed grass terraces until after about an hour the path stopped in front of a cliff. A rope dangled over it, silently daring us on. Dryness gripped my throat as I calculated the chances of survival should one of us slip. A woman died here last year. Two things — no, three — pushed me on. The first was that my companion went first and encouraged me up. The second was that two girls in the campsite the night before had told us they had climbed Kirkjufell. If they did it then dammed if I couldn’t. And the third was plain old YOLO.

We reached the top of the rope. We were committed now. A fulmar glided past, eyeballing us. Ravens croaked.

"I'm not looking forward to coming back down that."

"Me neither."

 There were two more ropes. A group of three Czechs were making a meal of descending the top one. Would you like to see a picture of the top rope? OK, here you go:

Shall we take a closer look?

Gaaah! I refused to use the rope.

"I might not do this," I told my companion, who went first again then coaxed me up. And we had done it! A fine viewpoint.

Well, we had half done it. We still had to get back down. But the roped sections were easier in descent, for me at least — I had to help my companion down one of them.

At the bottom we saw a solo European marching up with a large rucksack. Was there a path? How did you get up? What was it like? she wanted to know, seeming enthusiastic if a bit clueless. We recommended leaving her pack at the bottom of the first rope and on she merrily went. “Do you think she’ll be alright?” asked my companion.

“She looks more hardcore than us,” I replied, thinking of how much more easily scared we get by stuff like this as we age. “I think she will be fine.”

Descending Kirkjufell: