Sunday, May 1, 2016

Winter Bob Graham

A winter Bob Graham appealed to me, as did the idea of a minimally-supported and unpublicized round. I knew that, for me, this would be a real challenge, with no guarantee of success, and that was part of the attraction. But it was also about the freedom of it, retaining the sense of spontaneity that running in the mountains brings, and enjoying it without any pressure to succeed. 

Thus, we set off at midnight on Friday (February 12th), after a busy day at work and a 3-hour drive from Edinburgh, including a minor detour at the start to collect a forgotten rucksack (I still managed to pick up the wrong one, prompting some inventive ice axe attachment strategies at the last minute). Having 'slept' for 2 hours, I can’t say I was feeling very inspired when the alarm clock went off at 23.15, but the arrival of my mum (road support extraordinaire) and Jim Mann (leg 1 and finish company) did much to raise the spirits. 

It was a clear night, but dark, and rather milder than expected. The ascent of Skiddaw passed quickly, and soon we were dropping off the summit. The snow conditions were better than last time (yes, we had tried once before in January, on a ridiculous weekend when the snow was so deep that we waded for an hour on this descent), but not ideal, and navigation was obviously harder in the absence of visible trods. Consequently, we went slightly off-route, necessitating some clambering through heather upstream (in the process of which I fell in a waist-deep hole) to reach the path leading to Great Calva. 

On the way up Sergeant Man
The snowline was probably somewhere between 400 and 600m; below that the ground was sodden, and bogs were unavoidable. Above that the snow was generally manageable in terms of depth, but not fully consolidated, mostly with a crust which had a 40% chance of holding. As a result, we did a lot of walking, as getting any kind of rhythm running was impossible and quickly became tiring. Every now and again we came across an area exposed to the wind where there was a hard crust of ice. Micro-spikes proved their worth time and time again; we couldn’t have made it around without them. Blencathra’s summit was cold, windy and in cloud; not a place to hang around. We descended quickly via Halls Fell, which was banked-out and no problem, and left Threlkeld 30 minutes up on our 24-hour schedule. 

The second leg was probably the most miserable (competing with the last leg, but that was shorter and at the end). We ran in cloud all the way along the ridge until sunrise, which came at Dollywaggon Pike. In contrast to the deceptive calm of the valleys, there was a moderate wind on the tops, blowing the snow up in waves, and limiting our window of visibility to a few yards of whiteness. Any previous tracks had been blown away, and so we (or more accurately, Konrad, I can claim no credit) had to do a lot of map and compass work to stay on line. We wandered off-route a few times, but luckily didn’t go too far wrong (our nearest miss being after Helvellyn, when we were drifting towards the valley). Our reward for the night’s toils was a beautiful sunrise, starting with a faint glow on Nethermost Pike, and unfolding into a fabulous display of pink and orange over the summits of Fairfield and Seat Sandal. 

Not surprisingly, we hadn’t made up any time on this leg, and left Dunmail still 30 minutes up on schedule. Leg 3 was all on snow from Calf Crag up until the descent to Wasdale. We were reasonably lucky with the weather and had fabulous views for much of the leg, which helped with morale on the tougher sections; of which there were several. Between Sergeant Man and Pike O'Stickle the snow was infuriatingly fickle, holding for two strides and then giving way at the third, making for frustratingly slow progress over relatively flat terrain. Adding to this, I was feeling tired, and a bit sick, and (rarely for me) didn’t want to eat. Things cheered up on the climb of the ramps to Bowfell, and I amused myself by scouting out the set of old filled-in footsteps showing the line. It was really heavy going over the Scafell ridge as the masses had churned the snow on the path up rather than consolidating it, creating something akin to a ‘snow bog’. We climbed the Pike via Foxes Tarn, and then descended to excellent soup, cake and cocoa (thanks mum!) at Wasdale. 

Konrad and the Scafells
We set off on leg 4 about 50 minutes up on schedule. Prepared for the infamous ‘Yewbarrow climb’ I counted steps, and munched a cheese sandwich, only allowing myself to look up every 100 paces, and in no time we were at the summit. We reached the snow again on the ascent of Red Pike, but thankfully the going was now easier as most of the snow was hard, or had blown off leaving an ice/neve crust. The sun set as we topped Pillar - a spectacular array of orange, gold and red. There was a fellow hill-walker standing at the summit, a complete stranger, and yet, at that moment in time, witnessing something so special, it felt like we were all connected. Really, it was one of those moments to treasure forever. 
Sunset of Pillar
And then it got dark of course, and I had a bit of a wobble on Kirk Fell as I’d not been eating enough (the situation was rescued with 4 bars in a row). We were amused to see a tent at the base of the climb up Great Gable (“someone’s idea of a nice Valentine’s weekend is even odder than ours”). Coming off the summit, we dropped too far right, and suddenly ended up on some rather icy steep ground without spikes on - not a comfortable moment. 

We left Honnister about an hour up on schedule. Jim climbed up Dale Head with us, and then headed back down to get his car and drive around to Newlands. As soon as he had left us, the weather deteriorated; it started snowing and the wind picked up significantly. We had a hard time deciding where the summit of Hindscarth was (although visiting multiple summit cairns was actually standard procedure for us by then anyway), and then wandered off-line on the descent from Robinson. We were pretty glad to get down into the valley, however less so to be in sleet and on the road. The final few miles passed with ‘heads down’ and at last we were running up that final square to Moot Hall. Amazing how one can run fast at the end, and yet within a few minutes one’s legs have turned to jelly and one can barely speak. The fact that several people offered me a seat in the pub probably indicates I looked a bit tired. Half pints were more than sufficient, and then it was time for a glorious, oh so glorious and warm bed. 

And so we got around, fairly comfortably in 22:28. Big thanks to mum for the road support (and the rest of the family on the earlier, snowed-out attempt!), and to Jim for his company. The adventure was quite hard (at times I even questioned my prior reasoning that this, as a long run, would be more enjoyable than Carnethy 5), and it struck me that it would probably be significantly easier in summer (even just the time spent removing/putting on gloves, coats, and microspikes was considerable). Still, I’m very glad we did it, and am already looking forward to the next adventure (maybe after a weekend off). 

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