Richard Mclellan has become the first Brit – and only the second person in the world – to complete the Core European Ultras, the 98 mountains in Europe with a prominence of at least 1500m.
Richard, 61, of Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands, first heard about
the ultras in 2006, soon after a world list (1539 summits) was produced.
He said: “I was attracted to the feat of reaching the summits of this
group of large prominent mountains on an international scale because they
offered huge variation in character and challenge.
“They span political, geographical and cultural divides, some frequently
visited and some no doubt as yet unclimbed.
“The appeal is the interest and excitement of travelling and climbing in
new regions, researching the mountain and area and developing a plan on the
most cost-effective way of reaching the summit.
“Many take you to little visited places and into new environments with
new challenges and adventures.”
On his recent completion of Store Lenangstind (1652m) in arctic Norway, he said: “I am quite pleased although a position in a list is just relative to time. I get much more satisfaction from the memories of the trips and having visited the summit of each of the mountains.”
Norwegian Petter Bjorstad was the first to finish the Core European Ultras in 2014. In third place in the running to finish is well-known and prolific British hill bagger, Rob Woodall. However, due to the political situation in Crimea, where one of the ultras is located, Rob will not be able to complete in the foreseeable future.
The fourth person is Richard’s wife, Denise, who will not be able to complete either because one of the ultras is Atos, which is located within a Greek Orthodox monastery area and only accessible to males.
Richard and Denise have summited many ultra together. Richard says: “Before
I met Denise, who is now my wife, I was happily working my way through the
European 4000m peaks.
“However, the alpine starts, altitude, boisterous nature of Alpine huts and
the pre-dawn clanking of gear and enthusiastic chatter over bowls of black
coffee and chunks of dry bread did not prove to be to her liking. This led me
to search for more compatible alternatives.”
What is an Ultra Mountain?
The term “ultras’ is believed to have been defined in the 1990s by a
group of Americans. They were debating the objective criteria to define a
mountain and went on to develop the concept of prominence – the difference in
height between adjoining peaks.
Based on American and European maps, they produced a list of mountains
with a 1500m of prominence in the US and Europe. It was the mapping of the Earth’s
surface by NASA, the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (STRM), which provided
the raw data to enable mountain prominence for the complete world to be
A group of enthusiasts wrote programmes and built computer networks –
cutting-edge computing at the time – to analyse the data to determine mountain
prominence and compared the results with conventional maps to both confirm
their findings and determine the peak’s name.
The worldwide list of Ultra Mountains was thus generated.
The notion of topographic
prominence, or relativity, has gained acceptance across mountaineers
worldwide as a useful and consistent definition of a mountain than solely height
above sea level.
Richard adds: “Why the 1500m prominence figure was chosen, I don’t know,
but there is a sort of satisfaction and neatness that there are around 1500
mountains in the world with a 1500m prominence. Whatever, it makes for a good
Core European Ultras
The Core European set comprises 98 mountains. (The total is 99 if you
include the marginal Cima Brenta, which has a 1496m of prominence, but the
accuracy of this figure is debated. Richard adds: “I have climbed it anyway.”)
The Core European list does not include the Ultras in Western Russia,
Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.
Richard’s first and last Core European Ultras
In September 1980, on his first trip to the Alps with a group of friends,
Richard climbed Ortles in Italy (3905m with a “prominence” P1953m). He says: “I’ve
always looked to climb the highest mountain in an area but at the time I didn’t
know that Ortles would be later classified as an Ultra.”
The retired engineer’s final Core European Ultra was Store Lenangstind (1625m,
P1575m) in Arctic Norway on August 18, 2019.
Richard’s top Ultras
In the Core European set, Sarek (20189m, P1519m) in Sweden is high on Richard’s
top Ultras list. He says: “It’s a three-day trip on skis into a remote mountain
area where we enjoyed superb weather of blue skies and bright sunshine.”
Mount Athos (Agion Oros) (2030m, P2012m) in Greece was also memorable.
He says: “Not only because of the fine views and sunset from the mountain but also
for the hospitality provided by the Orthodox Christian community in their huge
stone built Monasteries that dot the peninsula.”
The Ultras of Albania are favourites, too. Richard says: “At the time we visited, their base was reachable only on 4×4 tracks of dirt and rocks. Groups of sheep grazed the hillsides watched over by shepherds and guarded from wolves, bears and strangers by huge ferocious dogs with cartoon like spiked metal collars. Here, it’s definitely the case of meet the shepherd before the dog!”
Richard has added Roman Kosh (1545m, P 1541m) in the Crimea to his list.
He says: “I was lucky to climb this one before the recent political changes. Currently
there’s no easy access to it.”
Richard has had many memorable moments during his pursuit of the Ultras.
- One time I ended up
having to find my way out of a river gorge in darkness on a Greek Ultra.
- I witnessed subsistence
farming, harvesting with scythes in eastern Europe as it gradually moves into
the 20th century.
- Picking our way
through fields of Hashish in Morocco.
- Being protected
from banditos and escorted by heavily armed police up Volcan de San Vicente in
- A chance meeting
with an elderly Japanese man on a flight to Osaka who on hearing of our Ultra
objectives was enthusiastic to drive us to one of the mountains and accompany
us to the summit, one he had never before visited.
Richard also recounts one of the most challenging climbs of the Ultras. He says: “My last ultra, Store Lenangstind, was technically fairly challenging with several miles of unstable boulder fields to reach the glacier, a difficult bergschrund to overcome, several hundred metres of 60/70 degree hard snow/ice and finally a scramble up frost shattered rocky ridge to the summit.
“We had expected to make the ascent in one-and-a-half days but route
finding difficulties on our first attempt resulted in three nights on the
mountain instead of the one planned.
“By the third night ‘dinner’ was fairly meagre pickings of a chocolate
biscuit and a mug of black tea.”
Other mountain lists
Richard has also completed the Munros, Corbetts, Marilyns and Nuttalls
(as originally published).
He is still working his way through the HuMPs (hills of any height with a drop of 100 metres or more on all sides) and TuMPs (hills of any height with a drop of 30m). When he get the chance, Richard visits the Country high points and British islands.
Richard and Denise are also pursing world ultras but there are more than
1539 of these, of which only 645 have recorded ascents.