It was Seamus Cunnane who said it best: “Graeme isn’t really the
outdoor type”. It’s a comment which always rankled, and that of
course is because it’s true. While others camped and hiked and
mountaineered, I was always one for a couple of hours run in the hills
then back to the warm and dry.
So though I’d supported a few Bob Graham’s I’d never given serious
thought to doing a 24hour “round”. But I knew what Olly and Jamie
were planning, and when their postponement undermined my cast-iron
excuse (James’ 6th birthday party) I was tempted. A quick phone call
on Tuesday night, and I was signed up for a Ramsay round – too short
notice for any training or recceing, but with a group of six how hard
could it be?
Indeed, I’d never even been to Glen Nevis, or up any of the mountains,
or run for anything like that long. With no experience or backup supporters
it was remarkably kind of the group to accept me at all.
Friday night was spent at Roger Boswell’s in Corpach. If you’ve never
been there, the house resembles a little hobbit hole: boxes of stuff
squirreled everywhere and the cheery, bouncy occupant merrily offering
tea to all and sundry. But Roger differs from a hobbit in the matter of footwear, as I was later to discover to my benefit.
Sunny Saturday, Mick James, Jamie Thin and I set off from PollDubh.
Olly Stephenson and Nick Watkins were to join us at the Youth hostel.
Up through the crowds on the Ben we trotted, meeting together at the
top. We got stuck in rocks descending to Carn Dearg arete, and then
my problems began. Outdoor types, it appears, do rock climbing, and
off they all danced along the arete leaving me scrambling, scrabbling
and straggling behind. Down the rocks from Carn Dearg they skipped,
while I snapped my compass, scraped my knees and battered my toes
getting myself down. At the bottom I had my first low point – only
two Munros done, and already I couldn’t keep up.
Luckily, they eased up on the climb, and by the time we dropped bags
on the plateau to run up Aonach Mor, we were back together. This set
the scene for the day, with me getting dropped on the descents, and
catching back on the climbs. Otherwise, it was a stunning day along
the Grey Corries, with the whole of the round laid out in the sunshine.
But by Loch Treig, the banging of toes against rocks had taken its
toll, my toenails were making a bid for freedom, and descending was
agony. I’d pretty much decided to stop, but during the 10 minute the
support team dragged out my change of shoes, stuck on some tape and
vaseline, and muttered about the next bit all being grassy
while I scoffed pasta. The pit crew were still in action when the
others left, but shoved me off back up the hill a couple of minutes behind.
The middle section is the least dramatic, and therefore easiest going.
Big grassy climbs up Sgriodain and Beinn na Lap, descending into the
glen at dusk and the long track run as night fell. By the time we got
to our second support stop at Loch Elide we’d gained 15mins on the
schedule, which we parlayed into extending the break from 7 to 12
minutes. By now my toes were less sore, and all was going well,
aside from the upcoming scrambling in the dark.
We tackled Sgurr Elide Mor and the Binneins in the dark and again my
lack of rock experience saw me struggling to keep up. On the scramble
up Binnean Mor I found myself alone again, and with low cloud on top
the map came out. But our support team were there with tea on Na Gruagaichean
to slow the others down, and as the sun rose we regrouped, still on schedule.
Everyone was in good spirits and good shape – what could go wrong now?
Those rocks again. Another stubbed toe, and the sole of my walsh torn
away, flapping from the heel. Olly offered tape, and ran on.
A minute’s repair job lasted 100m. I flapped along the An Gearanach
ridge, losing time at an alarming rate. Passing me on his way back,
Jamie had the answer: sock outside shoe! This held the shoe together
and made for some interesting scrambling on the ridge. Proper
hillwalkers in “outdoor type” clothing shook their heads at my vest,
shorts and sock inadequacy.
We’d agreed that if anyone looked like they wouldn’t make it, they’d
be left behind. I was left for dead, and Phil stayed to support me
getting home, and carry my bag. We both wanted to complete the ridge,
so we trotted on together in the mist, just avoiding a navigational
disaster finding Am Bodach. The urgency had gone now, we were just
enjoying the day, climbing above the cloud for views of Bidean in
Glencoe floating above the mist, waving at out brockenspectre selves
in a personal double rainbow, then, on Sgurr an Iubhair, the hobbit
“I hear you’ve lost a shoe” said Roger. “Why dont you have one of
mine?”. I was gobsmacked. Scotlands highest shoeshop. And me only
30mins behind a 23:30 schedule. A quick change, Roger hopped off down
the hill, and Phil and I set off with renewed purpose. Before long
the last Munro was in the bag with almost hour to get home. I was
getting pretty tired by now, and Willie Gibson and Nick MacDonald
appeared to shepherd me down the last descent. Despite my sore toes
and slow descending, they were comforting: “No problem, you’ve time
to spare, we know the way”. None of this was in fact true. As we
left the hill into the wood about 10 minutes was left, and Nick began
to urge me to speed up. By the track, everything was getting more
urgent. “I’m, er, not sure exactly how far it is” confessed Willie.
You’d better leg it.
Panic set in – should I try to get straight
down to the road and intercept yesterday’s route? But how to know
when I passed that point? If we were a minute late, should I race
down the road trying to beat yesterday’s time to Glen Nevis? It feel like
this is the fastest I’ve run all day: 23:56, 57, 58
and suddenly Willie’s yelling and Jamie’s yelling and
the carpark appears just in time.
And so the deed was done. The most incompetent, ill-prepared
hand-held, indoor-type Ramsay round in history was complete.
24 more ticks would have brought my Munro count to 100. But
the SMC don’t regard Sgurr an Iubhair as a mountain
any more: apparently it’s now a shoe shop.
Failing to get round to doing a BGR has always niggled, but as time went on I realised that work and home commitments meant I’d never get the specific training and recceing done. But how hard could it be? Even at 48 surely general fitness would suffice? But to be sure, I needed to assemble the best support team in the world. And so I did. Step forward Kate, Jane and James on support at Honister and Dunmail, JonX a central contact from home. Mike and Jamie on legs 1&3. The incomparable Kitch on leg 2-3, godders in the mist on 2, Murray racing ahead, finding peaks and leading us in at night, with Julian in the support role. Colin and hen-weekending Pippa finishing the tour starting at stupid o’clock.
The free weekend date was, June 25th. There was no alternative. – even as the weather forecast started to involve the word “phenomenal”, which the shipping forecast manage to say without excitement or inflection. At 9 am it was slinging it down in Keswick, so a short delay and soon after 9:30 off I went anticlockwise with Mike and Jamie on a 23 hour schedule.
The first leg is long and easy, five miles of road and a climb to Robinson. Overaware of the danger of starting too fast, we reached Robinson 12 mins down. Inauspicious. We picked up the pace, and stole the minutes back from the rest stop at Honister. Switching support to Kitch, godders and Kate, the rain started in earnest: zero visibility, cold, driving rain. Kitch led the way, unerringly through rocks with water cascading down. Particular magic on Steeple where, ignoring the descending path, we slipped round a bad step on the ridge and the top appeared in Harry-Potter like style. Despite the conditions, Kitch kept up the pace and I was beginning to struggle with both warmth and speed. An error in the mist off Yewbarrow cost a rocky km or so, but again the deficit in Wasdale was absorbed in the break. Mike and Jamie rejoined us, and we left godders to drive his car home – with a flat battery.
A nice climb to Scafell, then supposedly round by Foxes Tarn. Again kitch in control found the climber’s path, with the tarn presumably somewhere down in the cauldron of mist below. On Scafell Pike we finally saw other people: mountain rescuers and rescuees. On Broad Crag: “excuse me, is this Scafell Pike?” Oh dear. Given the visibility, it is possible that the other hills were awash with people as well as rain. But it’s not likely.
On through the rain, more time lost in the mist on Bowfell and Rossett Pike, but avoiding such is almost impossible: the astonishing accuracy of Kitch’s nav and pushing the pace keeping us on track. Then, as the leg end approached, we saw Calf Crag and Steel Fell, the first hills I’d seen all day. Again, some time had been lost, but recouped at the changeover. Night fell, Kitch and godders stepped out, Murray and Julian stepped up, with SGB helping to Fairfield. Still pushing hard in the wet, misty night we cracked the three climbs; at which point my quads collapsed on me. Forced to walk on the Helvellyn ridge, despite a gentle schedule, we began to haemorrage time, and another mist-inspired error walk-descending to Threlkeld brought us 25mins down. We shaved 2 mins off the stop, but it was now looking iffy. Back into the mist, for another rain-soaked rockclimb on Blencathra. Pushing hard now, but the slippery rockscrambling seemed to have set us back another 14 mins. In fact, the time had gone earlier, our Threlkeld stop being a km before the schedule’s.
Then, the miracle. A combination of ibuprofen and no-stress on the climb took some of the pain from the quads. Colin and Pippa found some great lines and we gained 2 mins. Again to Skiddaw, a grassy climb and 4 mins came back. The quads had gone again, but I was still shuffling forward on the near-flat. The issue became how big the loss on walking the descent would be. Answer: 20 mins, just enough to make it to the Moot Hall with 9 mins to spare. And in time for Pippa to scuttle back to her hen w/e B&B in time for breakfast.
Sunday night. I can barely stand, but I’m so happy. 42 peaks in 24 hours, I even saw two of them! One fewer thing to do in life.
BGR : Aftermath and Reflections
Note on mental toughness, giving up and the though of better things to come.
Having been constrained to this weekend, it was pretty disconcerting to watch the weather forecast.
Considered giving up many times – early in the week the forecast was so bad I should have binned it, but it improved slowly through the week and the uncertainty meant I stuck at it. Driving to Keswick in lashing rain Jane was encouraging me to jack, but at that stage the forecast was to clear later, people were waiting, so it seemed rude not to start. By Honister I was moving well, and had some hope the bad front had already come through.
By Kirkfell it all seemed impossible. While there was no reason to slow down I figured we’d stop is Wasdale and Dave’s car would bring us all back. An 8 hour run would be twice the longest I’d done this year: worth the trip down and I’d be in shape to do something the next day.
Down in Wasdale it was less epic than on the tops. Nobody mentioned jacking, and a kind of default continue happened.
On Rossett Pike Andy announced we were half way round. Unwelcome news, I was quite tired, cold and wet. Dropping out at Dunmail would give everyone a good night’s sleep.
But with only 10 hours gone surely it would be possible.
More positively I was thinking we’d make up time overnight, the schedule allowed for slowing at night in the dark, but the nav would be no harder than through the day. So I sat at Dunmail for a long time, contemplating quitting. I think Jane asked the question, but the weather had cleared up a bit now. Onwards.
Three climbs went well, and fresh pacers had a cheery attitude. At last I felt I’d cracked it. But then the quads went and everything was pain – tired I could fight, this meant I could do nothing but walk. The expected time gain as the weather improved slightly went into reverse. Suddenly the question flipped from “can I do it” to “Can I do it in 24″.
I think Julian and Murray thought I was finished by Threlkeld. I was confident that I could finish the round walking, but was it worth it? I convinced myself that a 25 hour round in these conditions would give me enough personal satisfaction to not be a fail. Colin and Pippa struck the cheery jokey note which didn’t quite work. I was now getting time-obsessed, and as we climbed strongly up Blencathra feeling positive again. But the top refused to come, and the 14 minute loss was a hammer blow – how could it be? I didn’t realise my stupidity, not checking where the scheduled and actual changeovers were. Of course, had I known how far down I really was at Threlkeld, I may never have left!
I got it into my head we needed to hit the schedule for the last three legs, which made me quite stressed. I knew descending Skiddaw would be grim. I couldn’t figure why Colin and Pippa seemed so unbothered about time – they seemed to think I be quick once we hit the path/road. I needed numbers and got jokes. Eventually Colin revealed his plan was to descend Carlside. Toys out the pram: no no no! But we were going well, good lines to hit the schedule at Great Calva, poor line coming off, but moving well. Only on Skiddaw did it finally penetrate my skull that the decent was scheduled for an hour, not 75mins, and my leeway was a plausible 25 mins.
Everyone confident descending Skiddaw, but I’m still having Ramsay flashbacks of the confident-seeming Carnethy guys who really had no idea. Colin and Pippa I trust, but this time I wont be able to run any 4min/kms if we’ve miscalculated. Do I need to push on now and risk the quads really going AWOL, or do I have time? Pippa and Colin say I have enough time: and they’re right.
Many, many times I thought of calling it off. Negative feedback would have killed it. But at every low point or decision point for me, the support team gave a positive appearance, despite their private thoughts. That made all the difference.
The person who really did the BGR was Andy Kitchin. Without Andy, there’s no doubt that I’d have enjoyed a pleasant Saturday evening in a Lakeland Pub. Thanks Andy. Here’s his viewpoint.
Supporting Graeme on his “Saturday looks free and I had better get it done before I clock up another decade” BG.
From Honister to Wasdale to Dunmail.
Honister was not too bad, the cloud was only down to about 2000 feet and it wasn’t raining.
Graeme arrived late, but then he set out early, so we left on time. We made decent progress up to Grey Knotts but arrived 8 minutes behind schedule!!. Better get on with it then, so I set off for Brandreth on what Kate referred to as a “cracking pace”, she wasn’t wrong but if we were going to stick to schedule even at this stage it appeared to be necessary and correct, we reached Brandreth and Green Gable each 20 seconds up, then Great Gable 90 seconds up. By now the rain was coming in sheets and half way down Gable it was all stop and put on the big coats, the next few hours would be exposed to this rain coming in on the wind. We said goodbye to Kate who returned to Honister via Moses Trod, and pressed on over Kirk Fell. All this in thick thick mist so I was pleased to hit the summit spot on, its pretty vague up there. Now for the long long haul up to Pillar, with 40 minutes to do it in ??! 43. On to Steeple, I’m sure this will go quicker then 25… 22:30. Move along, move along, nothing to see here, nothing but mist and certainly no chance of spotting the trod around Yewbarrow, though at about half way we pick it up and make a good split.
Now, getting off Yewbarrow. I’ve only ever done this going the other way, there are basically no distingushing features below the summit but you use your compass and get a bit of a feel and the summit appears. So going down its compass until we find the a faint trod. None of the features that aren’t there can be seen in the mist but there is no braoder picture to help either. So, that faint trod. Here we go, turn right, thats good. Now where has it gone ? trods do this in the mist, they peter out and you can’t see any distance to pick up the next bit or spot the fact that it has re-materialised 5 yards to your left. Ok back to compass, left, that fits my picture. Nothing, nothing, heather, scree, this isn’t on the menu. Compass. Graeme wants to know why we are not going down, so do I. Compass says not, trust it. Now we’re going down. heather, light scree, bilberries, where will we come out? At about 800 feet we drop out of the cloud and there is the intake wall, a big corner, a car park, we’re above Down in the Dale Bridge, it doesn’t make sense, but it does too, anyway there we are, get on with it. The ground is pretty good so we descend quickly to the bridge, Graeme gets ahead and turns the wrong way up the road, “oy!”. Despite the detour we reach the changeover on schedule. Its a crappy descent off Yewbarrow, which ever way you come.
Eat nuts, put on some trousers, drink some hot water, run off after Graeme, Mike and Jamie, wonder where they have gone… Half way up the intake they appear on my right, I was expecting them on the left. Before the intake wall we are back in the mist and then its a blind grind up trying to stay on the trod even though it keeps petering out and re-appearing elsewhere. Wasdale to Scafell the biggest most relentless slog in all of England, we do it in 75 minutes. I look at the schedule; 30 minutes to Scafell Pike – not likely, 10 to Broad Crag – ok, 20 to Ill Crag – silly, 13 to Great End – not quite as silly, but still silly. I conclude that these are rubbish splits and to be ingnored. I hit the turn down to Foxes Tarn with relief in the thick clag, visibility is about 10 meters at best. Down the scree, hear the stream, down the gully, turn left and hope the climber’s trod is there, if not we will be very stuck. Well, there is something, I follow it and pick a way across. below there is nothing, underfoot wet rock and moss. Just stay sharp, no risks. then we pick up the trod proper and I can be happy, though this is not a place to relax. Soon we are across and out onto the safety of the loose rock and scree below the massive overhangs of Scafell’s eastern butress. We progress through teh thick mist across the boulder strewn summit of England, greasy wet boulders don’t help the pace but we make good time, at least compared with what I think we should as opposed to the crazy splits on the piece of paper.
On Bowfell Graham says “Back the way we came?” – “yep” says I. Turning round in the mist is a dangerous game. Graham heads off 90 degrees wrong. I sense this and check my compass but given that I am mainly interested in not going headlong over the wet rock (Bowfell has some of the worst) I fluff it and tell him to vere right. we totter over the rocks, vere right, vere right, we totter. Once we reach some decent ground with a bit of grass between the boulders and are heading straight I check the compass. “Guys, this way” we turn 180. and head north. I’m a bit worried that we are west of the summit and heading for some big crags but the going is good and we move quickly over grass not rocks. It turns out we may have found a perfectly good route off Bowfell. Progress over the rocks was so slow and wobbly that we were barely off course. We hit the drop off for the rakes sooner than expected, find a good line down and are soon at Rosset Pike.
Graeme will not be allowed in the lead again.
Now for another miss. Off the back of Rosset in thick mist (nothing new) we cross over the trod we want and pick up a lower trod that brings us onto a path. By the time this registers we are probably past Little Gill so rather than climb up and wander about in 30m visibility the decision is simply to press on and follow the path right round Stake Pass. This is an option anyway on this leg, though one that nobody uses. Turns out to be quite a good option if you ask me, its at least 1km further, it only saves 70m climb but what a difference these make to the gradient you have to climb up to Martcrag Moor, it goes easy. I set a strong pace and we make Pike o’ Stickle 2 minutes under split.
Coming off Harrison Stickle I glance up just as a blackbird flies by, well, I say flies, actually it blows by , sort of sitting up tail first, back flapping with all its might to try and stop.
Ahhh Harison Stickle, no more boulder fields, from here its pretty much all soft ground all the way to Dunmail. Today its soggy. We make good progress round to Sergent Man then the quick descent to Broadstone Head and wh… wha… whats this ?!? Clear air ! A View! Calf Crag here we come.
On the way to Steel Fell Graeme asks me if I have the headtorch he is going to borrow. “Yes, Kate will have it in the car at Dunmail”
“Flippin’ ‘eck” he says. “You’re confident”.
“Well” I say. “We should have been fine, and I didn’t think about the fact that you set off half an hour late until after we started. So instead we had to keep on schedule”
So in the very, very last of the day’s light and with another slightly novel route (though again, no worse that the main) we reached Dunmail only about 8 minutes down on overall time. Not bad in the conditions.
Oh, and those crazy splits? They were way off. I don’t know whose they were but they weren’t Dave Harrison’s.
Graeme completed in 23:51