Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Lakes 10 Peaks

I didn't think I would get around to this event this year, but I felt fine after a (rather slow) West Highland Way Race the previous weekend, and I had already paid the entrance fee (43 years married to a Yorkshire lass has ensured I now subscribe to that county's ethic of getting value for money), so I decided to go up and give it a shot. I could take it easy and if things didn't quite work out it would still be a good day out.

The Cliff Lakes 10 Peaks has been run for 3 years now I think. The Classic "Long" Course which I had entered takes in, as it says on the tin, the ten highest tops in the district  -  Helvellyn, Bow Fell, Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag, Scafell Pike, Sca Fell, Great Gable, Pillar and Skiddaw. Starting from Swirls car park by Thirlmere the tops have to be taken in this order (Gable and Pillar may be reversed but we'll come to that later on), with a number of intermediate checkpoints and finishing at the football club in Keswick's Fitz Park. It's a mountain event rather than a trail race, which means (a) you can choose your own route so long as you turn up at the right places in the right order, and (b) you have to be able to navigate because no-one will come to find you if you get lost  -  other than the Mountain Rescue if you really get it wrong! A "Short" course is available for those favouring a more leisurely day, which misses out the three most far-flung summits (Sca Fell, Pillar and Skiddaw) but adds in three more amenable ones (High Raise, Esk Pike and Dale Head) to maintain the "10 Peaks" idea. Finally, introduced this year for the more hardcore is the "Extreme" version which extends the plan to a complete circle from Keswick covering 20 tops and over 70 miles - not quite a Bob Graham in tops but probably just as tough in effort required due to some of the low-lying compulsory checkpoints (like having to climb Blencathra and Skiddaw separately from Keswick...)

The long course was billed as 45 miles and 18,500 ft of ascent (but we'll come to that later as well) with a 24 hour time limit.

The Scottish midges would have been proud of their Cumbrian cousins at 4.45am in Swirls car park on Saturday morning on what was clearly going to be a lovely day  -  when it got going. The assembled company, covering up as much skin as possible with buffs, scarves and any other spare clothing to hand looked more like a guerilla army than a bunch of runners out for a day on the fells. But at 5am sharp we were away, trying to shake off the biting hordes as we gained a bit of height. I was amazed at the speed at which the field took off  -  it's a good path up Helvellyn from here but it does gain 2000ft in the first mile or so  -  I definitely had some feelings of being a bit out of my league amongst the heavy breathing, so I played my own game at the back and let them go.

There was a bit of early morning mist on the top, but the summit appeared out of the gloom after about an hour and I found the first of the unmanned "dibber" stations which would be on each of the 10 objective peaks. Taking a bit of care in the mist to find the turn-off for Wythburn rather than end up at Grizedale Tarn, I was soon down out of the mist, passed three or four runners on the way down to the church, then it was a quick scoot round the southern end of the lake to the first mandatory checkpoint at Steel End. The marshals were taking a breather here  - almost all the Long Course runners had been through and they were waiting for the mass of the Short Course field which was setting off from Swirls an hour after us.

A long, occasionally boggy hike followed all the way up Wythburn to Greenup Edge. I started to see more competitors and after about half way the first of the Short Course guys came speeding past. There's a reasonably well defined path for most of the way up here nowadays, but the half mile before the final rise up to the col is mainly trackless swamp, you just pick a likely looking line and go with it. It was interesting looking back from the start of the rise to see runners scattered pretty well all over. No way of getting to Greenup with dry feet!

After Greenup the ground improves and it's just an easy steady climb up to High Raise. This is not one of the "10 Peaks" on the Long Course but is a mandatory checkpoint so you can't skirt around it  -  debatable whether that would help much anyway. The next objective is Bow Fell and it was nice to have some downhill to get a bit of speed up after the long uphill valley. Conventional wisdom is to head from High Raise towards the Langdale Pikes for a few hundred yards before cutting down to Stake Pass, but at this point I was with two or three other runners and we agreed that as all this ground is similar under foot and we could see the Stake Pass tarn, we might as well head directly for it. The reward for this was that after a short distance we picked up a pretty good developing trod which led all the way to the pass. I'm speculating that this could be the result of increasing numbers of people attempting the Joss Naylor Challenge which passes this way.

I was slightly faster than the guys I was with, so I then picked up the traversing path which goes around the back of Rossett Pike to Angle Tarn. I was progressing well enough, walking all the ups and jogging or shambling the downs, feeling pretty comfortable, and by now it had turned into a perfect day for running in the hills, dry, great visibility but with some cloud cover to keep the temperatures down a bit. 

After Angle Tarn the terrain changes from grassy and typically wet fells to rocky hills with stony paths and frequent boulder fields, awkward greasy territory in the wet but today was dry and the going easy. Up to Ore Gap then the short out-and-back to Bow Fell; I got to the top of "peak 2" over four hours after "peak 1"  - I really needed them to get closer together! Back to the gap, over Esk Pike (another mandatory "dib") but not one of "our" peaks, then down to the second manned checkpoint at Esk Hause, which I reached in just under six hours after the start. I had reasoned beforehand that if I looked upon this first fifteen miles or so as the "warm up", and got to the Hause in around six hours feeling strong then I was probably on for a finish. So far so good; this was a great psychological boost and I set off up Great End in good spirits.

The game really got good from here, not only was the going dry, but all this ground is interesting and the peaks come along very quickly. An hour after leaving Esk Hause I had picked up Great End, Ill Crag and Broad Crag and was standing on the summit of Scafell Pike. Six peaks down with barely seven hours on the clock. But I do know this area; Sca Fell would come quickly but the final three would need a lot of work.

The first decision was how to get to Sca Fell. Broad Stand is out of bounds in this event so the choice is Lord's Rake or Foxes Tarn. I had mentioned my preference for Foxes Tarn to several "regulars" over the past few hours, and all stressed that it was a lot of height to lose and the Rake was much faster. But when I arrived at Mickledore I could see the Rake was completely full of runners who in those crowds wouldn't be having a great experience, so I dropped off down to the left instead. An added bonus of the Tarn route is that there is flowing water in the approach gulley; in events of this nature the marshals at the mountain checkpoints will never be able to provide enough water for everyone's needs, so it pays to fill up whenever you get an opportunity. It's a straightforward descent and an easy climb back up, and I was pleased to see the same people just arriving on Sca Fell that I had left on Mickledore so there can't be that much difference in time, not in our bit of the field at least, about 45 minutes from leaving the Pike for me.

The big decision of the day needed to be made now. From Sca Fell you can tick Pillar and Gable in either order. Either back to Mickledore, round the Corridor to Sty Head, over Gable to Beck Head then a long, long out-and-back to Pillar, or straight down to Wasdale, up Pillar then pick up Gable on the way home. The latter route is slightly shorter and I think both more elegant and better psychologically as avoids covering a lot of ground twice  -  the disadvantage of course is that it's the best part of 3000 feet down to Wasdale and the same again back up to Pillar. I hadn't made a decision even as I left Sca Fell top, but as soon as I was off the summit mound I turned left, lost a hundred feet rapidly, and was committed to Wasdale.

After the first few hundred feet of scree which is wearing a bit thin now, it's grass all the way to the bottom, steep, easy and fast. I was making good progress at a steady jog when I was passed by Nicky Spinks who was flying down, on her way to an outright win on the Extreme Course. There was an Extreme Course checkpoint at the bottom, and although I explained I was just an eccentric Long Course runner (most people had gone the other way) they were keen to get my number as I went by. An impressive feature of the event was that all the manned checkpoints took your number and time as you went through, then sent this information by radio back to the Race Headquarters in Keswick, so they knew pretty well where everyone was in areas where phone and internet coverage is almost non-existent.

Anyway, all that was required now was to get back up to Wind Gap and on to Pillar. I'd done the ascent a few weeks ago and knew what it was like  -  a wander up the Black Sail path to the big cairn, a few hundred more yards of level, then about 1000ft of steep grass and the same again of even steeper scree, topped off by a steepish rocky ascent to Pillar summit. I had to whack through some quite deep bracken on the last level bit and I was glad I had gone for tights rather than shorts as I hadn't brought a tick tool with me. Then it steepened  up and I took it steadily but easily, finding a better line on the grass than on my earlier ascent and remembering to keep well to left to use odd bits of rock and grass to make the scree slope easier. It's still a pull, and it took me well over three hours from Sca Fell to Pillar, but I arrived happy in the knowledge that it was now mostly downhill to Honister.

Pillar to Black Sail Pass, then Black Sail to Beck Head always seem to take longer than you expect in either direction, and I was glad that I'd chosen to cover this ground only once, in a mostly downhill direction, so another hour saw me from Pillar down to Beck Head, passing many runners who had gone for the other route option along the way. I arrived at Beck Head out of water, I should have filled up at Black Sail Beck but didn't. The marshal said he could only let me have half a litre, because he was still expecting around 90 runners to come through, but that was fine as I hadn't much ground to cover now to Honister. I had to go up Great Gable of course, but from this side it's quite a short climb and done in half an hour. After the up, the scrambly bit down to Windy Gap was a bit tedious because with now tiring legs I wasn't skipping down the rocks as confidently as I had earlier in the day, but it didn't take long. When I came round here a few weeks ago I had gone down the nasty stone shoot from the gap to the Moses Trod path, which then seemed to be uphill for a lot of the way to Honister, so this time I elected to put in a last bit of fast height gain to the top of Green Gable, then down and round the shoulder of Brandreth to pick up the Honister path much later on, which turned out a far better idea. As I hit the old tramway track for the last few minutes to Honister, the clouds blew away and we had a beautiful sunny evening. I arrived at the Honister checkpoint 14 hours after leaving the start.

At the YHA this was the only indoor checkpoint, and you could send a drop bag there also. The first luxuries were a clean shirt and dry socks, then plate of pasta bolognese and a cup of tea. This was a real pick you up and get you going again place, magic. I loitered for maybe twenty minutes in all but time was marching on and so should I.

Most people were heading up the short climb to Dale Head Tarn then over and down the Newlands valley to the next checkpoint at Nichol End Marina at the north west corner of Derwent Water. I chose Borrowdale - it was a bit further in miles but I could start with a downhill while dinner went down! A couple of hundred yards down the road I picked up the Coast-to-Coast track, which then leads to a lovely undulating bridleway round the back of Castle Crag to Grange  -  I knew of this because it is taken by the Scafell Pike Trail Marathon which I ran last year. At the high point just before Castle Crag I found I had a good signal so called Jan at home, just to let her know that I was doing OK and should finish sometime during the night. I told her that we'd had wonderful weather to which she replied that it had been raining in Chester. I maybe shouldn't have said that because almost as soon as I put the phone away a light drizzle started which accompanied me for the next few miles.

But it had stopped by the time I reached Nichol End. Outside and again niggled by midges in the fading light, the marshals were welcoming as ever, and another cup of tea was available and gratefully accepted.

One climb to go. A bit cruel that the biggest single height gain of the trip should come right at the end, but we always knew it was there, can't take a joke, shouldn't have joined sort of idea. Two or three miles of field paths and minor road lead from Nichol End to Millbeck village. It was now about 10.30pm and time to prepare for the night. Hat and gloves out, head torch on. From Millbeck to the Skiddaw summit ridge the track rises 2800 ft in just under 2 miles. I wasn't fast, but apart from a brief pause to put on a jacket as the evening wind got colder and fiercer, I took it without  a break. I kept thinking this was a good exercise for bringing the Lakeland 100 climbs down to size  -  come on then Fusedale, is that the best you've got? At around the 2000ft mark the mist closed in and visibility shrank to a few yards. On reaching the summit I was amazed to find it manned by a marshal - what a hero!  He was by his tent inside the stone shelter wall, and it was going to be a long night for him as the last of the Extreme Course runners was not likely to be through until after 8am.  I asked where the dibber was and he told me it was on the trig point, except that you couldn't see it from where we were standing  -  a distance of a dozen yards.

So, last uphill done, I set off down. This is not a dangerous place, and ridiculously easy to see where you're going in good visibility; however under these conditions a bit of care was needed with the navigation at the top to avoid coming down the wrong side of the hill and ending up with a long walk back. Typically, visibility improved at just about the same point as the track became better defined with two edges to see. After that, it was just a gentle jog back to Keswick. I lost two places at the finish by forgetting that there was a back way into the football ground and treating myself to a lap of the hospital and the car park, but in the grand scheme of things a resigned chuckle seemed more appropriate than real annoyance at the end of a rewarding day. It was nice to get into the warm of the football club, sit down in the knowledge that legs were finished with for the day, and be served tea and pizza by the Race Director himself.

I finished in 21 hours and 24 minutes, in 53rd place out of I think 91 starters. Without this year's injuries, with time for some proper training (and possibly without a 95 mile race a week before), I think I should be able to get this closer to about 18 hours, but it's still difficult to take in that the winner got round in under 11 hours - an impressive run. My Garmin recorded 48 miles and just under 20,000ft of ascent for my trip.

It was a superbly organised event and a great day out. I've already signed up for a sister challenge, the "Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks" on the first weekend of September.


Sarah said...

I really enjoy reading your blog posts, and opening this entry I thought I would skim-read it while I finished my lunch at work - as it happened, I got so pulled in to this write-up of your race, that the sandwich sat completely untouched 'til I'd finished reading the whole post! Just brilliant - but a week after WHW race? Mad. Completely, impressively, undoubtedly, wonderfully mad. :-) Well done!!

Andy Cole said...

Thanks Sarah, glad you liked the story. Not mad though, just too old to know any better.......

Nick Stafford said...

A good read Andy - I finished in 54th about 25 minutes behind you (I stayed 45 minutes at Honister - way too long but worth it to see my 4 year old son). I took the opposite route from Scafell and although I enjoyed the corridor route, heading out to Pillar and back was a little tiresome so next time I think I will opt for Wasdale too. I also opted for Borrowdale and didn't see anyone else until Nichol End - I can't understand why not as it is much the superior route. The weather deteriorated on Skiddaw and the Marshall on the summit deserves a medal. Well done and good luck with the Brecon course - I'm going to give that a miss and do the OMM lite with a friend that hasn't done a MM before.

flanker said...

Good write up Andy. Might be one for net year, although if I'm not back at Lakeland again it might have to be the Extreme! Good luck for UTLD; see you there.