Tried a Winter Bob Graham...

So, my winter BG plan didn't quite come off as I'd hoped... but it tested my feelings about running and I can confirm I'm still in love.

I've been keen to have a go at a winter BG for a long time, and this season seems to have been popular for attempts, possibly inspired by Jim Mann's completion of all three rounds last winter. This deservedly won him the FRA Long Distance award - congratulations Jim. Among others this winter has seen Kim Collison complete a fast round in 20:36, and Ally Beavan attempting (and getting so close to completing!) a solo unsupported round a few weeks ago.

It is this solo unsupported on-your-own approach that appeals to me. One of the things I like about long-distance running is the feeling of being out somewhere on your own, possibly in the dark, probably with some weather, and almost certainly lost (if you're me) but remaining in control. In a world of constant interaction with other people I like that rare moment of "It's disgusting up here, something has gone a bit wrong and no-one is coming to get me, but I'm fine, here's what I'm going to do..."

On your own, on your own, on your own....

Anyway, so I decided to have a go at a solo unsupported Bob Graham round. The original plan was to go between Christmas and New Year, but I was diagnosed with the worst bout of manflu ever known and was lucky to pull through. Fortunately I did, and after a fantastic little New Year trip taper to Scotland felt ready to go.

Beautiful relaxing Scotland
Lorna dropped me off in Keswick on her way back home to Sheffield. I left my kit at Rhys' house, got changed, and wandered off to the Moot Hall.

Leg 1:
Relative to what I'd expected, it was a beautiful evening. I'd left Rhys' in shorts and a long sleeved T-shirt but in the cool outside I soon put my waterproof trousers and top on, where they remained for 24 hours. I have yet to find a pair of running tights I get on with so shorts and waterproofs is best for me in the cold.

Ey up moon!

The big moon meant that I didn't really need a torch on the slopes of Skiddaw, which I loved. I cracked out the poles (Mountain King), having got them specifically for this adventure and some others on the horizon. They are great - light, easy to erect (teehee) and sturdy enough to actually work.

The descent to the foot of Calva was no problem, but the ground was absolutely sodden. I was also impressed with my waterproof socks, which I'd taken a risk and worn without my normal Injinjis underneath, but despite a dog-chewed hole they kept me little toesies warm all day long.

I deliberately didn't check my watch as I climbed Calva on the trod, then messed up the descent and crossed Wiley Gill as well as the River Caldew, just to make sure I got REALLY wet feet.

Not really the right way (pt 1)

Blencathra was windy. Really windy. But I was feeling good and enjoying myself. The top seemed to arrive without too much effort, and I prepared myself mentally for Halls Fell Ridge. I knew this was somewhere I'd need to take care - the Parachute Drop was out of the question (especially as I don't know how to find it) so I made my way slowishly down the main ridge. It was still a decent evening. The top 200m or so were pretty sketchy with hard ice covering the rocks, but just doable without Microspikes. After that it was just slippy wet rock. I landed in Threlkeld in one piece and was pleased and surprised to see 3:45 on the watch. I dug out my phone and sent a text to Lorna, Rhys and Stu Hale as I set off up the road towards Clough Head...

Leg 2:
I like leg 2. It feels nice and productive once you get on the Helvellyn range and start ticking the tops off. It was still bloody windy, and I now had waterproof gloves and a hat and Buff on too. With little drop between the tops and the omnipresent wind on this leg I got pretty cold. I particularly remember Raise as the first time I was actually blown off my feet!


Despite that I was ticking off tops and still running well. Again, I didn't check my watch till the end of the leg, but once I got down to Dunmail I was chuffed to still be up - 8:20 total this time, so about 4 and a half for the leg. It was half 2 in the morning so no text messages... I ate a mini pie (AMAZING) and filled up my jacket pockets with various other foods from my bag.

Small pies

Leg 3:
As we all know, leg 3 is the crux of the BG. 27km or so over the central fells from Dunmail to Wasdale. Get through it in one piece within 15 or 16 hours and you're looking good for a completion. I left Dunmail feeling good and enjoyed the occasional return of the moon as I climbed Steel Fell.


Things were now a bit grim... It was cold, still very windy, icy on the ground, and I still had a single line from a Proclaimers song stuck in my head. But I had that feeling I mentioned earlier and was enjoying being in control. I made my way over Calf Crag, then did some lovely pirouettes around Sergeant Man and a small dance around High Raise.

I am the Sergeant of circles.
I made a better job of Thunacar Knott and Harrison Stickle, and made my way towards Rossett Pike and Bowfell. Get ready for this one, it's a goodun...

Not really the right way (pt 2 & 3)
From Pike o'Stickle I dropped down into Stake Gill rather than contouring round Martcrag Moor, then had to clamber a long way up Stake Gill and Black Crags. This was a highly sub-optimal route, and it probably cost me half an hour at least. From there things didn't improve much. I'm really not sure what I was doing on the way to Bowfell!

Conditions were now getting really tough with snow and ice reducing me to a plod from Bowfell to Esk Pike, Great End, Ill Crag and Broad Crag. By the time I got to Scafell Pike I'd been going for 15:45, with Scafell still to go before the descent to Wasdale.

Scafell Pike
I opted for the Foxes Tarn route up Scafell, which given the Whiteout conditions was probably the only safe option. The weather was now probably best described as "driving hail", as this little video shows...


It was a relief to be descending. I got to Wasdale in about 18 hours, just over 2 hours after I really needed to be there after an epic 10 hour leg 3! Just above Wasdale I saw four people and a dog in the distance - the only people I saw all day.

I considered stopping but once I was out of the weather I actually still felt pretty good. My legs felt reasonable, I had no blisters or anything, and I was still eating well. I was a bit chilly but I still had my down jacket trump card to play. I had a celebratory poo in a Wasdale portaloo, loaded up the pockets with more tastiness and send myself up Yewbarrow.

Leg 4:
Yewbarrow is always a bit of a bugger, but once you accept and expect this it's sometimes not too bad. It was also a relief to be off the icy death crags of the previous leg and back on some grass. 24 hours was now not likely to happen, but I made a reasonable job of the first few climbs on leg 4, getting to Red Pike in 19:40 and Steeple in about 20 hours. It had been light for hours, but it took until Steeple for there to actually be a hint of sun as the wind blew a gap in the clouds. The ridge from Scoat Fell is very cool and I was grinning from ear to ear as I tiptoed along the edge.

Somewhere (maybe Kirk Fell)
I found my way to Pillar, and cursed my way up the never-ending climb to Kirk Fell. It was now raining, which made me cold. I decided I should swap my long sleeved top for the down jacket I'd been carrying. This would be a tricky operation... I hid behind the leeward side of a rock, took one glove off and tried to unzip my waterproof. After not very far the zip stuck, and after a few minutes of trying I gave up and managed to force it off over my head. I swapped the top for the down and then had a fight to get the waterproof back on top. This meant the down got a bit wet but it would probably still be warmer.

I realise it's nothing like it really, but this little episode reminded me of the stories you hear in mountaineering books, where the simplest trivial little thing, once taking place up a mountain, can have disastrous consequences. I still felt in control, but at this point I was aware that there was not a lot of slack in my situation for many things to go wrong.

Lovely Lancashire-ian engineering from Hope

It was dark again now so I clicked the headtorch back on. I was on my second of two large batteries, the first having lasted most of legs 1 and 2. I was using a Hope R4+ generously lent to me by Tom Saville and his Dad - it had been great, I'd barely needed to use it above its minimum setting up to now. The battery packs I was using should've been enough for about 16 hours of darkness in total, but just after Great Gable (23:05), as I was looking for the line under the crags to Green Gable, the second battery decided it had had enough. The torch went into emergency low power mode (very dim with the occasional flash).

Bugger. I stopped for a second and realised there was no other option - I was done and needed to get out of here as fast as possible, while I could still see something. The BG attempt ended there, fittingly after 23:20, the exact time I'd hoped to be back into Keswick.

The descent:
From Green Gable I followed my footprints back to Great Gable, then took a bearing SE to Styhead Pass. I found the stretcher box relatively easily and before the torch had died, then turned NE to follow Styhead Gill. The path was wet, and even at the top was frequently swamped by the river. After a few hundred metres down the path the torch fully died and I was plunged into darkness. There was no helpful moon this time, but it was possible to stumble along slowly by the little light around, but after one particularly painful and wet faceplant I decided it was time to deploy the secret weapon (a.k.a. only remaining option)...

Not a torch for the fells.
To its credit, my phone torch got me down. It killed it, but it did it.

As I descended, the path along the edge of Styhead Gill became more and more sketchy due to the river being a huge flooded torrent. It was now raining heavily and even with the phone in a plastic bag I knew it was getting soaked (not least because I kept falling over and it would be the first thing to hit the ground... which was made mostly of water).

The lower stretches of Styhead Gill were spectacular, I could just about make out a moving white mass of water visually, but there was no need to see it - there was no mistaking the scary thundering sound off to my right! Eventually I saw the lights of Seathwaite and after climbing a couple of deer fences (sorry) and wading through some flooded fields I popped out in the yard of Seathwaite farm. There was now a tiny bit of moon and I reckoned I could manage without a light back to Keswick, so I got the phone out to try to text my friends again. There was no signal, my fingers were too cold to operate the touch screen, and after a minute or two it gave up and shut down.




I set off jogging back to Keswick and reflected on an eventful 24 (now 26) hours as I ate some soggy M&Ms...
  • I'm glad I tried
  • I think I have a successful one in me
  • Respect to Jim, Kim, Ally, and Martin Stone (still the only sub-24 solo winter?)
  • I should've taken a spare torch
  • I do love long distance running after all
The end:
I stuck my thumb out the first time I heard a car approaching and was given a lift back to Keswick by a lovely lady. She was a hillwalker and her husband had done a summer BG so we had a lovely chat. I appreciated the lift as it was now getting late and I had not been in touch with anyone for a while. As I walked towards Rhys' house I heard a voice - he was outside on the phone checking people would be able to to go up to Newlands and look for me if necessary. He fed me tea, phoned Lorna for me, made me hot food and we shared a beer. I'm lucky to have friends like this man!

Thanks Rhys, Wil and Lucy and anyone I don't know who would've been ready to help out. Thanks Tom and Kev for the torch, Scott for the great Supertrac RC, Stu Hale and the team for encouragement and support, and apologies to Lorna and my parents for worrying you...

5 days later...
I ran 5km yesterday and 10 today. I still have a huge bruise on my arse from falling on my ice axe so many times, and have decided to give my phone a full viking burial.

Comments

  1. Hi Stu, Thanks for the great read. I was wondering if you could provide more details on what type of food and how much of it did you take for your attempt? I did a supported summer round, but I'm not confident in my food selection to be able to pack for a unsupported 24hr run. Did you do food drops?

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  2. Bloody brilliant read and even more brilliant effort! Thoughts and prayers re. the phone. A noble friend.

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