When I announced that Guinness World Records had verified my record last year, UKHillwalking got in touch for an interview. After I answered their questions, I never heard from them again and to my knowledge it has never been published. I certainly can’t find it on the internet. So, rather than let that go to waste, here’s the interview. If I’m being slightly pessimistic, there’s a little undertone of “well it wasn’t that hard was it” in the questions – so I’m not surprised they didn’t use it. Which is fine. Although, that could well be self-doubt talking. Still, I hope you appreciate my honest answers 🙂
A Fairly Long Q&A About my Guinness World Record
Actually, before we start, here’s one I did with MPora and a quick one on the blog too. Anyway, now we’ll actually get into it!
1. What gave you the idea of 3000-ers and why the Sierra Nevada in particular?
It began something like this. What shall I do with my annual leave next year? How about doing a Guinness World Record? That might be fun. Then I did some research into how it all worked and started searching the database for thing I thought I could do (aka records mostly involving mountains, walking or cycling). Once I’d narrowed it down to a few titles, I started looking for places or conditions that would help me out. A GWR is hard enough – you may as well make your attempt as easy as possible! I settled on the Sierra Nevadas as a place with a high density of 3000m mountains that were snow-free and non-technical in summer.
2. The previous record of 7 doesn’t sound like a lot: was that apparent achievability a motivating factor?
Yes, you might say that. It’s pretty mad to go into something like that without thinking you might be able to beat it! Although you don’t get the full set of guidelines and rules until after you start applying for the record. So I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself in for, but more than one peak a day did sound very do-able.
3. Was it as achievable in practise as it might have looked in advance?!
Haha well, not quite! I mean I didn’t see the pandemic coming for starters. I guess I tried to keep everything as straightforward as possible. There were obviously unforseen challenges. I went in thinking I could do 25, but binned that idea on day 1 because of the heat and lack of water. I’m sure it could be done if you were supported and didn’t have to carry kit or worry about the nuts and bolts of an expedition. But that wasn’t the kind of trip I wanted to do.
4. Some people climb a lot of mountains, and many won’t have even heard of the Guinness World Records: to qualify as the official record holder, do you have to submit something to them?
Oh yes. In fact, the record keeping and admin behind a GWR is at least half of the challenge. You basically have to prove to GWR beyond reasonable doubt that the record was achieved – and that it was you who did it. Again, maybe that’s straight forward enough with a support crew but it’s a significant level of faff when you’re alone. For example, just one type of evidence, I had to take video footage of an altimeter at the start and end of each climb – to prove that the device and I were both there, in that place at that altitude, at the same time.
5. How are records like this verified?
After you submit the evidence to GWR their team review it and get back to you. You’d have to ask them for the exact process but it takes several months – and even then they might come back and ask for more evidence if they’re not 100% convinced.
6. To be honest, knowing the Sierra Nevada, even 13 in a week doesn’t sound like loads since you can stay high and bag peak after peak: so what qualifies as a separate 3000-er for the purposes of the GWR?
You have to submit a list of proposed peaks before the attempt for GWR’s team to approve. I don’t know what the exact criteria are, but presumably things like being recognised as a named summit on maps/guides, some sort of prominence criteria – and of course being over 3000m!
7. How much descent and re-ascent between peaks was needed for the record?
The rule was you had to do at least 500m of vertical ascent on each mountain (alongside several other very specific rules). Unfortunately that means a pretty significant walk down into a valley that’s low enough to start your ascent from. And of course that 500m needs to be recorded, so you have to take into account the precision error on your GPS tracker which makes it lower. Then Spanish maps can’t seem to agree on the actual height of their mountains, so that’s lower still, just in case. You don’t want to ascend a mountain only to discover it doesn’t count because of a technical error.
8. How did it feel to constantly have to drop height?
At first it was all just part of the game, but it really began to drag towards the end. Particularly in places where I had to go up and down basically the same line to gain access to a peak. Although it did make the few scrambling routes I did (one by accident!) feel all the more interesting. It was good to break up the monotony of plodding up and downhill.
9. The ridge between the peaks of the SN is often straightforward, but the flanks can be steep and rocky – did you struggle at all with route finding on your GWR-mandated height losses?
It was a bit of a challenge, yes, but that was all part of the puzzle. Finding a route that could work involved a lot of research and planning beforehand. But there’s only so much you can gain without actually seeing it. And you’re right, there are a lot of very steep slopes and very loose, enormous scree flanks that can feel like you’re walking up sand… or ankle-breaking mega-scree.
10. How heavy was your pack?
It was something like 17kg plus water. All the evidence recording equipment contributed to that – and of course 8 days’ worth of food in a fox-proof container. But I’m more of an ox (tortoise?!) when it comes to expeditions. Rather than meticulously measuring and considering every gramme, I just saddle up and deal with it. Of course, I try my best not to be silly. But, for example, I’d rather carry a bit more weight and get a good night’s sleep in a decent tent, than pack an ultralight bin bag! The only reason I weighed it was to check it would go on the aeroplane.
(Anyone interested can see my full kit list here.)
11. Did you enjoy the solitude?
Yes, for the most part. I’m used to solo expeditions and there’s something beautifully simple when it’s just you and a tent and the mountains. It was even more isolating than I’d expected because almost none of the Spanish people I met spoke any English at all. Naïve on my part, but my decade-old GCSE Spanish served me well enough!
I didn’t pack any books or podcasts or anything like that. It’s good to completely switch off from the world sometimes. One evening I’ll particularly remember is sitting in the shadow of Mulhacen, the highest mountain in Spain, alone on the hillside. I was there for several hours waiting for it to get close enough to sunset to pitch my tent. The only thing that broke the silence was tiny flurries of rockfall every half an hour or so. It struck me that I was watching slowly the mountain fall down.
12. Any decent camping spots? A lot of it is stony and/or windy!
Ha, quite. I learnt that the hard way. But many of the common camping places have little dry-stone shelters made for you to pitch inside out the wind. (Some more successful than others.) The ground is very hard or rocky, but you can use stones to peg the tent out with – and I made sure mine was free-standing. Camping at Laguna de Mosca was particularly beautiful. You’re in a bowl between huge black, craggy mountains with a pool of water that stretches right to the edge of a drop to the valley. The mountain sunset reflects in the still water.
13. How about favourite summits?
You know, I really like Pico Juego de Bolos which is a tiny little nobble (in 3000m terms!) off the main ridgeline. Most people skip it off on their Integral because it’s out the way and as grand as the other mountains nearby (like Mulhacen and Alcazaba). But I thought it was lovely: like being on a platform above the huge drop down into the valley below. Also Puntal de Varaces and the ridge up towards Alcazaba was fantastic. Doing it at sunrise with the moon above the ridge probably helped that assessment.
14. Would you go back another time to traverse the SN without having to put yourself through the strictures of the GWR rules?
Absolutely. I was constantly looking along the ridge thinking, “That looks so damn good.” Then turning once again and heading down some rocky slope only to come back up again a bit further along. It looks like a wonderful route and I’d definitely go back for it. You’d only need a few days to do it. Although, to be fair, when I first applied to the record, I didn’t know about the ascent rules. I just imagined myself jogging along the length of the ridge with the peak count racking up (think like Super Mario!) and then heading on to another area to bag some more peaks, like Tiede or the Pyrenees. I should have realised that that would be too easy to be allowed!
15. Tell us more about the hot weather – did you feel the lack of shade and was it ever a struggle to source water?
Yes, it was horrendous at times. All my research said to expect about 20 degrees C high in the mountains, but it was consistently 30 + degrees at 3000m. I’m very fair skinned, so I spent my days under a thick layer of extreme factor 50 suncream. Which was fine until I started sweating it off – I guess it’s not waterproof from the inside out. By the end I had so much indelible suncream smeared on my sunglasses that I had to take them off to really be able to see properly.
In terms of heat, I tried to be smart and start the next days’ ascent in the cool of the evening. I’d always try to find shade if I stopped, particularly during the heat of the day, but there wasn’t much of it. The SNs are very barren. Also sourcing water became the defining feature of the trip. I had to completely rewrite my route in the field based around having enough water each day. Again, it became like a game. Less water carried on each ascent meant less weight and an easier climb, but too little water could become very dangerous very quickly at those heats. So the strategy element was huge. But I was also let down a few times by even rivers that appeared substantial on the map being dry. At one point I walked across the middle of a completely dry lake because I thought it would look funny on the tracker – and one laguna was more like a green puddle by the time I got to it. But you just kind of make the best of these situations and roll with it. That’s all part of the challenge.