Losing my innocence on Wainwrights’ fells

It was a late-October day in 2003 when I climbed my first Wainwright fell. Not that I knew at the time. Not that I cared. I was among a group of five university friends, who – without the benefit of a map – had crawled up the side of Lingmell. I forged ahead and summited alone, unwittingly claiming fell number one. I gained a second minutes later, Scafell Pike, the roof of England. I remember turning at the sound of a great roar, glimpsing a jet flashing through Wasdale far beneath my feet. That night, after thundering south along the M6, I painted my face green and celebrated Hallowe’en in Preston.

What has happened since?

I have become a fell-bagging monster, that’s what.

What started out as pure, innocent and innocuous, and an excuse to miss lectures, has become a determined pursuit to conquer each of Wainwright’s 214 arbitrary bumps.

After two months of teetering nervously on 98, I became a centurion on Bonscale Pike, an attractive hill overlooking Ullswater that I had not heard of 24 hours prior to cresting. Nor – in all likelihood – would I ever have gone there were it not for the taint of Wainwright. Thereafter, a run south over the High Street ridge on one of those astonishingly beautiful Lake District days took my total to 105. I’ve come too far to turn back; I will complete. And because running in the fells means 10 or more can be bagged easily on a single excursion, if I put my mind and body to it, I won’t have to wait too long.

The numbers do not tell the full story, however; I cannot escape the feeling that I am missing something. Pausing on High Raise, I looked across at the hills of the Kentmere Horseshoe and the less-dignified summits to the east. I had run over these in February, yet the names escaped me. It was only when I looked at the map (I know, I’m even carrying a map these days), I recalled Branstree, Selside Pike and Harter Fell. I had been to these places in body but clearly not in spirit. Once visited, I had simply forgotten them, cast them off, turning my eyes to another summit, another tick.

I continued to the highest point of the day and proceeded along the path that skirts the very top of High Street, several metres below the trig pillar. It didn’t occur to me to summit. Sitting here now, in London, I’m bemused by my behaviour. I’d been here in February and in previous years; I’d no need to visit again. That was my ill-sighted logic. I went to the zenith of Stony Cove Pike, of course; it was my first visit. Another mental tick. As I descended Hartsop Dodd, I wasn’t reflecting on what I’d done, more on what I hadn’t. There were still six Far Eastern Fells missing from my resume, with Place Fell the most conspicuous. The fell-bagging monster was planning the next run before the current one had been concluded. What would Wainwright have thought? I’d even used Wikipedia to assist in the identification of the top of Bonscale Pike.

I miss the days when I knew nothing and every summit was a moment of pleasure, a glistening achievement, not just a tick on a list.






Bob Graham – 52 hours and counting

My Bob Graham Round attempt is almost upon me. In around 52 hours, at 1am on Sunday, I will set off from Moot Hall in Keswick, before proceeding up the moonlit (hopefully) slopes of Skiddaw. And thereafter? Some 60-plus miles, 42 summits, 27,000ft of ascent and descent, returning to Keswick by dusk that evening. The prospect is tremendously exciting.

There are umpteen variables that will ultimately lead to success or failure, a swift round or a pedestrian one. But there are two key variables in my mind: one, the elements; two, injury. The former looks a safe bet: no rain, high clouds, not too warm, negligible wind. Conditions don’t get more ideal.

And so to injury. My final visit to a physio was on Wednesday. I told her my left ankle was tight after just 20 minutes of running, with the surrounding tendons then becoming disconcertingly crunchy. She dismissed my concerns, saying that 20 minutes was scarcely time to get into a run, let alone adequately warm up. Her gung-ho attitude was a revelation. She massaged the ankle area, then the calf. ‘You’re fine,’ she said. After weeks of mithering, it was impossible to accept her words without grave doubt. My brain has now, finally, processed her vital information: it really is going to be fine.

Preparing to meet Bob

I am taking Askwithian advice when it comes to training for my Bob Graham round (pencilled in for spring 2012): ‘The only regimes that work are those that you can accommodate in your life.’ The question is, how much can I physically (and emotionally) accommodate? It is a gruelling undertaking training for a 70-mile run that involves thousands of metres of ascent wherever one lives; in the relative flatlands of south London, it is near-impossible. This was my week (or, essentially, my attempt at accommodating Bob – and everything else).

MONDAY: A 7.5-mile ‘recovery’ run – recovery from a 12-hour day at school, recovery from a 15-mile run the day before. The 60-metre or so ascent of South Norwood Hill? Imagine the climb’s equivalent, the height gain between Broad End and Ill Crag, I told myself. It is very hard to imagine, admittedly; the contrast could not have been greater. A final 15-metre climb to home? Well, that’s like Great Dodd to Watson Dodd three times. Home, food, another two hours of report-writing. Bed at 11pm. Tired. And it is only Monday.

TUESDAY: To the track. Warm-up, a classic session – six repetitions of 800 metres, broken by 200-metre recovery jogs. There is that word again. A succession of 2,41s, with a final 2,35. A 6-mile night in all. Oh, and a 15-mile cycling round-trip – the return in a monsoon.

WEDNESDAY: Merciful rest. Or nearly – 15 miles cycling.

THURSDAY: A social event at school; I leave at 8.30pm. ‘Are you really running home?’ a fourth or fifth incredulous colleague asks. ‘In this? Why don’t you get the tram?’ They have a fair point. ‘This’ is a mucky night: rain and wind. I run all the same, even adding an additional 1.5 miles to the typical 7.5 miles it takes to reach home, and throwing in a couple of short, sharp hills at the end. South Norwood Hill conquered – again.

FRIDAY: A gentle run with students. No more than 4 miles, but a worthwhile stretch of the legs. No suicidal road crossings. It sets a bad example to children, apparently. Another 15 miles on the bicycle.

SATURDAY: To Box Hill. A 13.5-mile up-and-down run around Denbies vineyard, then onto the hill itself, following the course (albeit haphazardly) of the Box Hill fell race. The ground was sodden, causing me to slip and slide. A marvellous two hours, nonetheless , particularly when the alternative – and the easy option – would have been a ‘hilly’ run on far more stable ground around Crystal Palace. I arrived home to find an email from a friend suggesting two pre-BG preparation events: one, The Pilgrim Challenge, a 66-mile, three-day ultra on the North Downs; and two, The Thames Trot Ultra, a 50-mile jaunt between Oxford and Henley along the river. The thought of either filled me with horror. I filled in an entry form for Box Hill, which made me feel a little better.

SUNDAY:  A 30th birthday party meant I could not join the usual club run today, thus robbing me of a two-hour effort. Nor could I run the Pirie 10 on Farthing Down. A brisk 5 miles around Streatham and Tooting Bec commons sufficed. Perhaps wise. Illness is on the way, I am convinced. There are odd pains in my right ankle too. They have 24 hours to go away before the next Monday ‘recovery’ run. So, a 47-mile week, with an acceptable amount of those hill-specific. Bob has been accommodated. Just about. Only 30 weeks of this to go.

 Box Hill. Not quite Lakeland. Definitely not London.

Bob Graham musings

After emerging unscathed (and just a little bit weary) from the Lakeland Trails Marathon, I had the rest of the week to focus my athletic endeavours on the Bob Graham round. Not doing it, of course, but running the rule over various sections of the 60-odd mile route – and ultimately deciding whether such an undertaking is within my capabilities.

I started proceedings by finally purchasing the Harvey map of the round. I swiftly became extremely attached to this map: the smell (not quite like an old man, but something I can’t put my finger on); the no-nonsense advice (‘if time is tight, don’t stop’) and even the spelling gaffes (referring to Richard Askwith, he of Feet in the Clouds fame, as ‘Asquith’ is my favourite). I therefore spent an inordinate amount of time staring at this map, entranced by the fluorescent yellow line that marches over the tops, showing the way. It almost makes the Bob Graham seem easy.

Almost. Because when I was grinding up Clough Head from Thelkeld on a reconnaissance of leg two, I wished I’d never bought the bloody map. I cursed that Bob Graham, cursed the day that a passing interest became a compulsion. The climb was very hard-going, boggy at first, steep at end. I was elated to summit, some 45 minutes after leaving the A66.

And so onward – Great Dodd, Watson’s Dodd (a Wainwright, really?), Stybarrow Dodd, Raise, White Side and Helvellyn Lower Man (not a Wainwright). Bob Graham folk know the routine all too well. I paused on Helvellyn, England’s third highest lump of rock, to eat jelly babies and chat to a DoE assessor, before plunging downhill towards Nethermost Pike and Dollywaggon Pike.

Here on, things became a little tricky. Problem one: I overshot Dollywaggon Pike, forcing me to retrace my steps – no disaster, but nevertheless frustrating when you’ve been on the go for almost three hours. Problem two: I descended to the outflow of Grisedale Tarn, rather than heading directly to Grisedale Hause. This decision taken, I was committed to a longer, harder and steeper (arguably) ascent of that brute of a mountain, Fairfield. Yet for all its brutishness, the top was an anticlimax – no soaring peak, just a bouldery plateau. Such landscapes complicate navigation, especially when you don’t bother to look at the  map. That will be the reason why I descended south for half-a-mile, before realising that I was very much going the wrong way. I turned around, cursing myself this time.

Problem three: after gaining Seat Sandal, I saw it as a personal challenge to culminate the end of the leg – at Dunmail Raise – in under four hours. I began a needless race against no-one, only my watch. In my rush, I took what I deemed to be the fastest way down, rather than considering what might actually be the fastest way down, which, needless to say, wasn’t the way I had chosen. I floundered through a boulder field overgrown with bracken, which slowed progress markedly. The minutes were ticking by. Upon reaching Dunmail Raise, I looked back to see an obvious track leading runners off Seat Sandal – one that in my haste I had been oblivious to. I stopped my watch: four hours and four minutes.

Looking across Dunmail Raise, I gazed upwards to Steel Fell, contemplating its steep eastern haunch (a ‘hands on knees climb’, according to the Harvey map). I imagined arriving here in the real thing, seven hours into the round (much of it in darkness), with possibly 17 hours to go, Scafell Pike, Yewbarrow, Great Gable and the rest ahead. Who wouldn’t feel daunted?

Clough Head, with Blencathra beyond

Looking south from Raise

The view from Helvellyn Lower Man

St Sunday Crag (left) and Fairfield (right) from Seat Sandal summit

Dunmail Raise: journey’s end



Bob Graham round recce – day 2

My right ankle began hurting in the Borrowdale Hotel as we recovered (and rehydrated) from our six-hour effort in the fells. By the following morning, the pain had magnified. Something felt badly damaged. We were all in a similarly sorry state, comparing sore ankles, feet, knees and quads. Sensibly, we took the day off running, the miserable morning weather confirming the logic of our decision.

Resting was boring, so the next day we were raring to go, regardless of injury. This time we ran north from Grange at a brisk pace, all of us curry-powered from the night before, around the ramparts of Cat Bells. My ankle was fragile, the pain spreading to my heel. I thought about turning back, but decided to press on, hoping, somehow, the pain would disappear. As the injury loosened, the pain became bearable.

We briefly ran the rule over a stretch of the final few predominately road miles of the BG as the route drops to Keswick, before romping up Cat Bells. On the stony summit, even in mizzle, the view was magnificent: Skiddaw to the north, Grisedale Pike and Grasmoor to the west, the still depths of Derwent Water to the east. We ran on, making swift progress now over Maiden Moor (our second Wainwright of the day), with the path steepening to gain the cairn on Blea Crag.

After bounding down grassy, spongy slopes, we reconvened on the lip of a perilously steep drop, at the bottom of which – far below – was our campsite. Negotiating a gully, I dislodged a head-sized boulder and watched it bounce close to two runners ahead, then plunge downhill over scree, gaining speed and ferocity until it finally came to a shuddering halt in undergrowth.

Next was the scree slope, reminiscent of the terrain in Coire Lagan on Skye or a Pap on Jura. We surfed downhill on a conveyor belt of rolling rocks, before being spat out onto a narrow path that snaked downhill through ferns. Seconds later, I was through a gate and bursting across the campsite, looking back with pride at the formidable slope we had just descended. As for my foot, I had forgotten all about it. It was painless, miraculously. Such are the rejuvenating powers of the fells.

Bob Graham round recce – day 1

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.