The Bob Graham round hadn’t seemed real in London – a dot-to-dot run of Wainwrights, starting and finishing at The Moot Hall in Keswick. As we drove west along the A66 towards Keswick in darkness, rain and wind, the prospect became glaringly apparent. We were passing through Threlkeld, the end of the first of five legs of the BG, the highlight of which is 931-metre Skiddaw. We had been discussing the prospects of a runner who had been planning to start her attempt a few hours earlier.
Cocooned in a warm car, we looked north, hoping to see the light of a head torch descending the fells above Threlkeld. Nothing. Only the inky black, the driving rain and the swirling wind. I desperately pitied the woman. Conquering 42 Wainwrights in under 24 hours, covering 66 miles and scaling the equivalent height of Mount Everest, is hard enough without Mother Nature throwing a further obstacle into her lonely path.
After a night of sleep disrupted by relentless rain, we set off into the fells from Seathwaite. There were five of us: Robin, Duncan, Andy, Adam and I. The others are planning to tackle the BG in mid-July. I have two excuses for not joining them. One, while I’m aerobically fit from six months of marathon training, my body is unused to the demanding rigour of mountain endurance; over 24 hours, the fells, I’m sure, would find me out. And two, the day of their attempt clashes with a stag do, which, as it is my own, is tricky to get out of. The purpose of the weekend was to reconnaissance the BG fells, to memorise their complications and peculiarities, to locate shortcuts and to test endurance.
We climbed gently at first, Grains Gill on our right, the hills in the far distance cloaked in mist, until we crossed humpbacked Stockley Bridge, and our companion was Styhead Gill. We were soon passing Styhead Tarn and then Sty Head pass, where the wonderful vista of Wasdale revealed itself. A joyous run down a path of scree brought us into the valley.
An hour in, we weren’t even on the BG route. We were to join it in Wasdale, where the route reaches the valley road following a long descent from Sca Fell. Yewbarrow, a hill feared by those attempting the BG, was our first objective. It is not the hill’s height, nor its appearance that strikes fear into the heart of runners, rather it is Yewbarrow’s unkind position on the round.
Put yourself in the shoes of a BG runner. You’ve run continuously for 12 hours over 30 peaks, including the nine highest summits in England, when you are faced with Yewbarrow – the third longest ascent of the entire route. The sight of its steep sides is enough to make even the hardiest mountain goat throw in the towel. And that’s exactly what many do. The aforementioned woman would become one of those unfortunate souls, we learned later.
Yewbarrow posed few problems for us; we were fresh. What if I had been running for a half-a-day, I kept asking myself. How would I feel then? We skirted Yewbarrow’s north top and descended swiftly to Dore Head, from where we began a steady, methodical plod to Red Pike. The weather was closing in, Red Pike was smothered by mist. Even so, our progress remained quick. After a few moments of confusion atop Little Scoat Fell (not on the round), we located Steeple (on the round) and trotted across the out-and-back ridge in the mist to touch the top of the iconic summit.
I pulled on a waterproof on the way to summit number four, Pillar, just in time. We were blasted by hail and a furious wind as we approached the trig pillar. I was cold now. Worse still, I knew I had now way of regaining warmth. I had forgotten to put my kit in a plastic bag in my rucksack, meaning my spare clothes were saturated. Shortly below the summit, a man ascending smiled, saying: ‘It’s gone a little bit wrong, hasn’t it?’ His words were a classic case of English understatement.
We pressed on to Black Sail Pass; I thought of nothing but the cold. Coupled with the knowledge that we still had Kirkfell and Great Gable to climb, I now pitied myself. None of us were eating enough. Navigation had fallen by the wayside too, meaning we overshot the true summit of Kirkfell. None of us had the heart to go back to the top, with the others vowing not to make the same mistake on the BG.
I craved the ascents, for they heralded the opportunity to warm up, and I proceeded up Great Gable with gusto. The summit was grey and boulder-strewn, the red poppies by the war memorial the only hint of colour in a lifeless landscape. The hail returned as we dropped off what was our highest point of the day. Wind Gap, the narrow defile between Great Gable and Green Gable, lived up to its name, with a fantastic wind thrashing at our tiring bodies as we angled into the blast to reach the top of the lower hill. Green Gable looked a lovely place but we paused there only fleetingly, the mist spoiling any view there may have been.
Brandreth and Grey Knotts remained, two anonymous bumps that seemed only on the BG route because they offered the most logical passage to Honister. The absence of significant ascent and continued squalls of sleet made me feel the cold further. It ate away at me, clawing at my confidence and motivation, with my hands the worst affected.
Then, a marvellous sight: the slate workings of Honister, We had completed leg four of the BG in four hours – one hour and 35 minutes faster than the projected time for a 23-hour round. We sought shelter in the mine museum. Shivering uncontrollably, I found the gents and toasted my hands on the dryer. I shouldn’t have given in to the temptation – the brief luxury made it all the more painful to step outside again. The long run back to the campsite at Grange gave me time to contemplate my own BG ambitions. Despite the cold and the rain, I was hooked. In 24 hours – the time it takes to run a BG – I had gone from an outsider to an insider. The idea quickly crystallised in my mind: Bob Graham 2012.