With the start of the Agoge, came the mind games. Charles Piso started to tell us how Agoge was changing, and introduced us to the concept of self-selection. “Never leave a fallen comrade behind”, it says in the Warrior Ethos, but not before “Always put the mission first”. It was apparently time to self select, as he told us our first task would be to make our way over the daunting Cullin Hills, including the Cullin Ridge, that dominated the sky line in front of us. “If you’re not 100% sure you can make it over those hills,” Charles said, gesturing to the dominating figures ahead “turn around now and go home, because once you’re on that boat, the only way is forward over those mountains”. Joe would then chip in, “you might as well quit now, as no one is going to finish this event anyway”. We’d hear that a lot in the next few days. The warnings of self selection (selecting yourself to quit), Joe’s taunting, and the epic task that faced us across the loch, only got me more excited for the day, and finally woke me up to the incredible adventure that we were being treated to.
We huddled together for warmth on the boat as we finally left Elgol for the Cullins. The Agoge bell had already been rung (signifying you quitting the event) and we were leaving a few participants behind – the cold too much for them already. Also, some who had passed the tests, hadn’t arrived at the jetty. As we approached the other side of the peninsula, spirits were high as we passed sea lions and gazed at the incredible scenery around us, including those increasingly large mountains.
The rain had eased and the weather was being kind, which in Scotland means one thing: midges. I pulled my buff over my face as they swarmed around us constantly. We were instructed to tie ourselves together using our rope, utilising our newly learnt knot-skills. Led by Roots Adventures’ Matt Talbot, we weaved through the valley towards the highest peaks of the Black Cullins, with Loch Coruisk to our right.
We navigated rocky peaks and troughs as well as bogs including a few Vicar of Dibly ‘jumps into puddle’ moments (see Youtube below if you need enlightening) leaving me waist deep in water, the Americans in front and behind me didn’t get the reference unfortunately.
All this while tied to the person in front and behind you, meaning teamwork and communication were vital. If one person fell (which was often), it was up to those around them to shout and signal to those in front to stop. Or if people near the back had a particularly technical section of terrain to cover, then the whole group had to slow down to stop them from being dragged down the crags. With almost 40 people in a line, the scramble up was very slow going, but we had to try and keep the pace to try and make it up to the ridge and over the top while the weather was kind.
The views from the top were unforgettable, and made all the tug and pulls of the journey to get there, worth it. I’ll always be grateful to the Spartan staff who hiked with us for their knowledge and experience that meant we could make this incredible expedition. I really felt very lucky to be there.
We were gifted a break at the summit to quickly eat some of our MREs (Meal-Ready-to-Eat, aka military ration packs which were the approved nutrition for the Agoge). It was a windy spot for a break but it was worth it for some much needed energy.
Across the other side, we could now see the famous Skye ‘Fairy Pools’ – waterfalls and streams that dotted across the plateau at the foot of the Black Cullins. To get there, we had to navigate part of the Cullin Ridge and ascend down.
The route was steep and rocky, meaning the only way safely down was on your bottom, sliding as best as you could. Rocks would sometimes fall, leading to shouts of ‘ROCK’ across the group, warning those below. After hours of scrambling, we finally left the more treacherous terrain behind us, and could actually walk along a trail again. We could see the Spartan staff’s vehicles in the far distance, past the Fairy Pools. I knew we were late, and I dared to ask Krypteia Dom how late…. “very late” was the response. Joe would be waiting for us, and none of us (I believe, including the Krypteia) knew what was in store. I knew that this experience had been a treat, and that the real struggle was going to begin soon. As our destination edged closer, Matt encouraged us to ‘shuffle’ i.e. run. “Half an hour of effort and you’ll all be there”, and off we went. Pulling and tugging again, with falls and crys of ‘halt!’, ‘slow!’ and ‘go!’ as we navigated again as a team (as best as we could) until we finally arrived. It had taken us 14 hours.
I’ll be honest and say the next few hours are quite a blur. This was now Joe-time. We started with Joe instructing us to complete 1000 burpees in unison, led by Agoge-veteren Danielle Rieck. Joe then upped it to 1250, then 1500, then 2000.
He offered hamburgers, hotels and free entry for us all to the Iceland Spartan Ultra in exchange for 5 quitters. We maybe did around 50-100 until Joe got bored. People began to drop like flies, exhausted from the hike, and facing an impossible task ahead: find a whisky barrel in the Fairy Pools and then carry it back across the route we had just taken 14 hours to complete. We didn’t know whether he was serious but we played along, at least for now.
Once we found the barrel, Joe sent us into a waterfall to fill it up. David (Joe’s right hand man) made us sit in the waterfall, the water crashing over us. Drenched through, I wondered if I’d re-waterproofed my ruck well enough. During the hike, we only had very short breaks, and so you quickly had to grab whatever you needed out of your ruck, and then re-pack. Night had fallen and if my gear was wet, I was out of the event. It occurred to me that maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It was chaos – head torches dotting the ground with patches of light, and all I could see were feet slipping in the mud, carrying this ridiculous barrel. How long could this carry on for? Fortunately the notion of carrying the barrel back across the Black Cullins had seemed to be forgotten about, and we were sent back to the car park with the barrel, and it was propped on its side. Lifted onto it was Karl’s 7 year old daughter, and we were now at her mercy. 50 burpees she said. I was the idiot who asked if that was with our packs on. Karl looked at me, “now you’ve asked the question, it’s packs on”. Press Ups. Squats. Sit ups. But at least we warmed up, with our body heat drying our clothes slightly.
That is, until we were sent back to the Fairy Pools for more burpees in the water. It seemed relentless and I’ll be honest and say that quitting was on my mind. Finally, we were allowed a break.
At the initial meeting, we were shown 10 types of Scottish tartan and told their names; we had hurriedly written them down where we could (scrawled across arms, MREs, maps – whatever surface could be found). Now was our first test, and we could win back some of our kit that had been taken at kit check, in order to help us carry the barrel. This was important, as the barrel was now part of our team, and had to stay with us for the remainder of the event, not touching the floor unless instructed by staff. Fortunately, we answered correctly, and a few of the more engineering-inclined set to work to create a harness to help us carry the barrel using our new webbing. The rest of us took the opportunity to finally eat, hydrate and deliberate over whether to change into dry clothes. I had one set of trousers, two fleeces and a t-shirt, but no remaining dry socks left. Despite nailing the submersion test, I hadn’t repacked my spare socks properly and they had ended up a victim of the waterfall. Not that there’s great benefit to dry socks in wet boots (and we were sent through streams and lochs often enough that things would never stay dry anyway), but now I knew for sure that I would have wet feet for the remainder of the event. It felt like a bad idea to change into my only remaining dry clothes, still technically on day one of the event, but I couldn’t see how I would make it through the night without doing so. While we both changed, I asked Danielle (who had taken part in all the Agoges so far) if this is what they were normally like. She looked at me, looking slightly upset even, and shook her head, “no, it’s never been like this”. She too, had nothing else dry left.
We were promised some refuge at our next grid reference. I think even the Krypteia felt sorry for us. They said we would be making a fire and shelter, and we may even be allowed to sleep. We carried the barrel up to a camping ground, and started to forage for firewood and kindling. Krypteia Dom reassured us that this was our down-time, and that they were here to help us, and that Joe had gone. True to their word, we were taught about making shelter by US Kypteia Frannie Steele, and in teams we built our own. We built fires and had time to organise our packs and other admin. We settled down into our bivvys to sleep – we would be allowed about 45minutes to an hour. There were 5 of us to an 8×8 tarp on uneven ground; I had to curl up to fit on and even then someone had to hold my legs to stop me from rolling off into a small ditch nearby. Every time I moved to try and get comfortable, I accidently smothered Danielle’s head. We also had a snorer amongst us. I knew I had little chance of getting to sleep but I at least had to get comfortable and stretch out, so I let myself roll in my bivvy down into the small ditch nearby, pulling the plastic over my head in case it started to rain. I was later told these small ditches had been used by other wild-campers as toilets. Great.
Originally written for Obstacle Race Magazine. Part 3 in Obstacle Race Magazine this month.