Going into this I was nervous. Until a few days beforehand I’d had someone to run with, then all of a sudden I didn’t. (People who have Real Jobs that they can’t sack off on a whim to go hill running make unreliable partners.) On the one hand this was great; for me, a solo, unsupported, unrecced round at a shitty time of year represents a stylistic high-water mark. And yet, if I let myself think for long enough about being on my own in the dark for 16 hours, or the possibility of getting lost or hurt, on my own, in the hills, in the middle of the night, in December, I’d need to hold on to something to stop that other hand from shaking.
I was looking for reasons not go. First thing Saturday morning my landlord said I sounded like I had a cold. Perfect! Second thing Saturday morning I came off my road bike; holes in my tights, jacket, gloves, elbow, knee, hip. Perfecter!!!
(Enter stage left, Barry, occasional training partner and amateur sports psychologist.)
In layman’s terms, Barry pulled my head out of my arse. A scabby hip and a sniffle, real or otherwise, were not going to stop me going for a jog. If I didn’t go it was because I was scared.
Driving south, Desert Island Discs, Captain Beefheart – Yellow Brick Road. Keep on walkin’ and don’t look back…
Legs 1 and 2 were reassuringly undramatic. Mild euphoria took over as I ran out of Keswick, constantly looking over my shoulder to watch the light falling from the sky in the west; ecstatic once more an hour or two later on the climb up Great Calva as the much hyped Supermoon made its grand entrance from behind the clouds (Tom Waits – Grapefruit Moon). These highs were tempered by the frustration of climbing into the only bit of cloud in the Lake District on top of Skiddaw and by the choppy seas of heather and bog between there and Great Calva; hip deep in shite and sunrise still 14 hours away. What a load of balls.
Under a street light in Threlkeld I changed and binned my socks, ate a honey and peanut butter sandwich (I call it the Beardie Plus) and ran through a post match analysis of leg 1.
Onwards, over the easy running on the first half of leg 2, ducking in and out of waves of clag, comforted by the company of the Megamoon, overwhelmed by the towering, Himalayan splendour of Watson’s Dodd. I ticked off all the relevant tops of Helvellyn, plus a few irrelevant ones for good measure, before descending to Grisedale Tarn and into a bit of a motivational slump. (The Gaslight Anthem – Bring it On (The night just got too cold…)) Plodding out and back to Fairfield, I was unsure if it was cold, hunger or just loneliness. Up onto Seat Sandal and flashing lights towards the summit hauled me back from my lightweight pityfest. It was way too early to be hallucinating so either I was about to come to the aid of a stricken walker, be anally probed by Little Green Men or. . .Tim!
A few years back I ran the first two legs of Tim Miller’s second attempt at an anti-clockwise Bob Graham. With 40mph winds and constant rain, things didn’t go all that well. Tim’s previous attempt was a winter round which had been scuppered by, among other things, wind blindness. For someone who maintains that he wants to complete the BG he is oddly predisposed to going out in dreadful conditions. Before setting off I’d mentioned that I was in the neighbourhood and would be keen to go for a celebratory pint in Keswick pending his availability and my continued existence. Rather than a pub in Keswick, Tim opted for a rendezvous on Seat Sandal.
There are no doubt sticklers who will maintain that Tim’s company on the descent to Dunmail and the cup of tea and raspberry yoghurt that I got from the back of his van invalidate any claim to being solo and unsupported. I’m probably one of those sticklers. But if someone drags themselves up a hill at midnight in December, unprompted, just to chum you down and make you a cup of tea, and all you do is moan about hill running aesthetics then you’re probably a self-absorbed, ungrateful arsehole.
Up Steel Fell, the moon in my eyes, Tim’s horn in my ears, nose full of farts that would sink in a swimming pool.
I fucked up, as you might expect, on leg 3. It’s the longest, has the highest, most technical ground and the most complex terrain. Steel Fell and Calf Crag came and went easily enough but Sergeant Man never came at all. In hindsight I know exactly why. Looking at the map, even the 1:40k Harvey’s one I was using, you can see that the ground around Sergeant Man is covered in little ring contours; bumps and mini summits and piles of rocks. I came to the top of one of these which had a cairn on it and thought Fine, this must be it.
What the Harvey’s map doesn’t show especially clearly, possibly because they are obscured by the red rings around the summits and the highlighted BG line, are the burn and the two small tarns that you would pass between Codale Head and Sergeant Man. Presumably I saw these as I was looking around from the top of Codale Head but just didn’t register them as significant. Partly because they’re not that clear on the map, partly because it was 2 or 3 in the morning, I’d been on the go for 10 or 11 hours and my head was up my arse again. Plus, in the boggy ground up there there are dozens of small bodies of water that don’t make it onto the map, using them for navigation can be a waste of time.
Even worse than missing the tarns, and the thing I really kick myself for, was the peak that I could see in the distance but couldn’t identify. It wasn’t on quite the right bearing to be Harrison Stickle, it had too much prominence to be the top of Pavey Ark. I considered that maybe this was Sergeant Man and I hadn’t yet gone far enough, but it seemed much too far away for that.
On paper this sounds like an incomprehensible gaff. I’m the first to admit, it’s a total howler, but I know why it happened. Among the things most compromised when you’re in the hills at night, even in good visibility, are your sense of scale and your depth perception. One numerous occasions on the round I would see a towering peak up ahead, only to arrive thirty seconds later at a waist high boulder. If I had lost a trod, I would be casting around in the darkness and think I’d seen a cairn in the distance, only to take two steps and trip over an ankle high, cairn shaped rock. The hills at night are a two dimensional world, built from horizons, outlines and silhouettes.
And this is what stopped me from seeing Sergeant Man for what it was. My eyes told me it was a summit a couple miles away, dropping off several hundred metres on all sides, when I actual fact it was actually a stubby lump two hundred metres away with a prominence no greater than most people’s houses.
But the mistakes and bad decisions don’t end there. I took a bearing between Sergeant Man and High Raise and headed off into the gathering clag, the Enormomoon’s usefulness exhausted. I got to a cairn. Whoopee, another summit down. I set off from there on a trod in roughly the right direction only to find myself going uphill and shortly arriving at a larger, higher cairn. Oh, ok. Whoopee part 2.
There is a very clear line of reasoning here which shows I was definitely wrong in thinking I’d been up Sergeant Man. I took a bearing for High Raise, followed it and ended up a couple of hundred metres west of the summit. Therefore, I must have started a couple of hundred metres west of Sergeant Man. That isn’t even a navigation error, that’s just geometry. Yet I discarded that idea. I hadn’t been running with my eyes glued to the compass, it was entirely feasible that I’d picked up the wrong trod and strayed from the bearing. There’s a little irony in the fact that my conviction that I was a bampot who had made a silly mistake minutes before prevented me from seeing that I was a bampot who was making a silly mistake right now. A mistake with a lineage, the latest in a series of similar, related mistakes.
Regardless, off I trotted to Thunacar Knott.
Although the coffin of my BG attempt was, unbeknownst to me, now firmly nailed shut, my leg 3 nightmare was far from over; I triumphantly climbed a number of false summits and piles of rocks, mistaking them for the top of Harrison Stickle; my stomach dropped to my socks as I dropped the map and it danced away into the mist; I added a bonus ascent of Loft Crag, thinking it was Pike of Stickle. All the hallmarks of an experienced, competent hill runner…
As the rain set in I found a line onto Bowfell. I’ve no idea if it was the line, but it was one which, although it maybe had the potential to do so, didn’t ultimately kill me. More gill scrambling than mountaineering, I hauled myself up over loose, mossy boulders, making careful foot placements to avoid the cracks, corners and scoops which were full of water ice.
Progress over the high fells section was consistent but frustratingly slow. In the dark, surrounded by misty rain, your headtorch beam bounces back from the moisture in the air; you’re lucky if you can see the ground at your feet, let alone follow the path through the rocks.
Although everything I was wearing was soaking wet, I never slowed down enough to get properly cold. Even on my second gill scramble up to Foxes Tarn, throwing blocks of ice over my head and with water trickling down to my armpits I managed to maintain some level of comfort. I skipped the direct line off Scafell, opting for the safe option of the punter path into Wasdale. Predictably, I made a mess of that too, ending up too far left then too far right, finally picking my way through slimey scree, fences and sheep.
An ignominious end to a torrid leg.
Legs 4 and 5 went much like legs 1 and 2. A few inefficient lines, some hesitant navigation, but just far enough under a 23 hour schedule to get me back to Keswick in under 24 hours. Not that it mattered by now.
* * * * *
Clearly, this is frustrating. Maddening even. Reliving the half hour or so that I spent around Sergeant Man, Codale Head and High Raise is upsetting. There were one or two times when I really should have recognised what was going on. It was staring me in the face, waving its arms around and I just didn’t see it. Or rather, I saw it, but ignored it. I’ll always kick myself for that.
And yet, stepping back a little and thinking of my run more broadly, I’m satisfied. In Bob Graham completion terms it was a failure, but it wasn’t the BG tick itself that was most important. Rather, it was the process that I would have to go through to get it. As much as it scared me, I wanted to be out there on my own with no-one to bail me out. Doing things this way creates a much more intense experience, one which is rewarding in and of itself. Although ultimately a failure, as a lesson in headspace and self management in trying circumstances, the outing was a success.
Here’s the important part; if I could go back and add a handheld GPS to my kit, I wouldn’t do it. Having a technological get out of jail free card would have undermined what I was trying to do. Even if I hadn’t used it, the presence of such a safety net would have been a massive psychological crutch. If that compromise is the price of a successful round then, on this occasion, I’ll take my near miss.
Finally, I think there is a certain romance in such a marginal failure. Endeavours like this are pointless. To borrow a phrase from mountaineering, it is the conquest of the useless. Take the conquest away and only the uselessness remains. Days of anxiety, miles of driving, 24 hours of physical slog, and for what? I have nothing to show for it all, not even a certificate to hang above the mantelpiece. I think that’s great.
Rough leg times (23hr schedule)
Leg 1 – 3:43 (4:00)
Leg 2 – 4:21 (4:25)
Leg 3 – 7:47 (6:00)
Leg 4 – 5:10 (5:25)
Leg 5 – 2:41 (3:00)
I’m aware that convention states that anything from the start of December to the end of February counts as winter, but I don’t consider my run a winter round. Yes, it was dark for a really fucking long time, and the ground was frozen in places and there were big chunks of ice on the climb to Foxes Tarn and I got chilly toes at some points, but the conditions of my run were far closer to summer conditions than to Proper Winter Conditions (whatever those are). My main problems were low cloud and rain, factors which are certainly more exacerbated by the dark but which can occur at any time of year. It was a waste of my time carrying microspikes; as navigation aids they’re useless.