Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Lakes in a Day 2018 - making the call.

Nearly all the reportage I've seen so far about this year's LIAD has been about water  -  torrential rain and wading through streams, lakes and puddles, and of getting cold. Well, being as contrary as I'm sure my regular readers now expect, I have a different view of the world.

I love the LIAD event. I did the first three then was unable to make the start last year because of the embarrassment of a double puncture on the way to Cartmel, so was looking forward to another run down the course. My last time in the near perfect conditions of 2016 was a few seconds over 15 hours, but having had a fairly busy year of events and with another couple of years on the clock and a somewhat problematic weather forecast, I decided I would shoot for somewhere in the 18-20 hour bracket and made plans accordingly.

The rain was not as bad as forecast over the first leg to Threlkeld, and the Caldew crossing, secured by a rope kindly set up by the marshals, was shallower than I expected being barely knee-deep. The wet state of the ground made the ascent of Blencathra a pretty long, slow squelch, but it was good to see Joe and Stuart at the top as usual, though the Hall's Fell Ridge descent was also slower than usual because a bit of care was required in the conditions, the rocks running with water in places.  I was happy to get down to Threlkeld in a bit over four hours and out again in four and a half after a solid breakfast to see me through the long section which comes next.

I was overtaken by two runners as I loped slowly along the railway track, but once back on the fells at Newsham, although I was travelling steadily rather than with any speed, I passed runners at regular intervals from there on, maybe gaining about 30 places by Helvellyn. The conditions were worse along this section but by no means extreme. We were treated to a few heavy rain showers with easings in between, visibility was between 100 and 200 yards in general so navigation was straightforward and there was an increasing but not too troublesome south westerly wind all the way from the top of Clough Head. One saving grace was that the air temperature was fairly warm so I think you would have had to have been in pretty lightweight clothing to feel cold. I had decided from the forecast that it was not a day for lightweight jackets, so I had left my OMM Kameleika at home and gone with the Montane Alpine Pro as I didn't foresee taking it off all day. I had also worn some lightweight overtrousers (which I don't normally bother with) right from the start, on the basis that being continuously warm and wet is a better deal than being cold and wet. Under the jacket I just had a merino vest and was happy. I didn't feel the need to wear gloves or a hat (other than a baseball cap to keep the rain out of my eyes) all day.

I got to Helvellyn at around 4pm, that is about 8 hours after the start.  Another hour max would put me on Fairfield which from my previous completions I knew was about half way in time for me, so an 18 hour finish looked on (I didn't know at this point of course how bad the flooding was on the Ambleside to Finsthwaite stretch, which I think cost many people a lot of time). I caught up with another runner at the Helvellyn shelter, where I stopped a minute for something to eat and drink. He said he was struggling and would may be call it a day, but could he tag along for a bit. We continued on a short way to the point where the Wythburn path splits off down to the right, and I told him that if he wanted to go down, this was an easy way, or else he could carry on to Grisedale Tarn and make a decision there. He chose to go down. We were with another lady runner at that point but I didn't see her again, so either she went slower than me along the next bit or turned back herself.

From this point, in the half hour it took me to get from here to Grisedale Hause, the whole nature of the event changed for me. The wind increased in strength quite markedly and became very gusty rather than steady. In a few hundred yards it had reached a strength where I felt I could be blown off my feet so I guess it was gusting in the 60-70mph range. I'm eleven stone and that speed seems to be critical for me, heavier people would probably feel secure in this, lighter ones maybe more worried. I was once blown off my feet on the broken ground between Carnedd Dafydd and Pen yr Oleu Wen in Wales; I landed 10 yards away in a pile of rocks. The result was cuts and bruises, but also a realisation that this sort of incident could also end in broken bones, a crack on the head or an involuntary excursion over a cliff if there happened to be one handy. Since then I have had a healthy respect for the power of strong wind, probably one of our most serious objective dangers in UK hills because it is the one you can do least about other than trying to get out of it. It's not about being blown over, it's all about where you are likely end up if it happens.

Where the path follows the scarp edge between Nethermost Pike and Dollywagon I took a line about 10 yards down the hillside to the right to stay clear of the drop. On reaching the solitary fencepost marker I was tempted to go down the Bob Graham trod to the west end of Grisedale Tarn to lose height rapidly down safe grassy ground, but we had already been told this would be an offence in the "extremely naughty" category so I carried on along the main path in the hope that the conditions might be localised and the wind lower down would be significantly less. The zigzag path down to the tarn was quite tricky; the wind was no less strong and I had to stop and crouch frequently to withstand the stronger gusts, which was making progress pretty slow. I still passed two pairs of runners on the way down, both of whom were hanging on to each other at times (I'm not sure whether the physics of this suggests more or less likelihood of lift-off  -  maybe it's psychologically good anyway). The tarn outflow was a bit of a wade and I still had to pause frequently on the path up to the hause. There was a group of four or five runners stopped there, a few yards up the path to Fairfield, and another one continuing upwards a bit higher up.

The wind was not significantly less down here than on Dollywagon. My appraisal of the situation was that I was not likely to get blown off if I continued over Fairfield, but the possibility was not insignificant, and I had an escape if I chose to use it. My concern was the broken ground over Hart Crag and Dove Crag; without that I would have carried on, with the knowledge of it I decided that for me, the risk at that moment was one that I did not choose to take. I shouted to the others that it was too windy for me and that I was going down.

I first tried the slabbed path down Tongue Gill but the stream crossing wasn't feasible so I contoured round to the Coast to Coast  route down Little Tongue Gill which was fine. I walked back along the road to the Ambleside checkpoint which I reached at about 7.30pm. I was in good shape and had more than enough time left to complete the course, but having missed out about five miles including some major summits that clearly wasn't possible, so I handed in my tracker and went home.

I have huge admiration for the way James Thurlow and whole Open Adventure team kept the entire course open for this event. It's a fine line at times but it was clearly the right thing to do and they worked tirelessly in the face of what were at times quite trying conditions. I took part in a 50 mile event in Snowdonia three weeks ago, when a loop over Lliwedd was omitted once the race had begun because there was an hour or two of sleety rain on an otherwise pretty fine day, so not all RD's take the same line, but maybe we need both types of event. The flip side of the Open Adventure policy is that you are going into territory and conditions where your safety cannot be guaranteed so I think it is up to each participant to take responsibility for looking after themselves.

I have thought about the decision I made on Saturday over the past day or two and am still content that faced with the same set of options again I would make the same call. It was right for me, it may not have been right for others and I certainly wouldn't criticise anyone who had a different view. A slight change in circumstances may have swayed me the other way. If the wind had not increased in force until maybe 30 or 45 minutes later I would have already committed to Fairfield and carried on. If there had not been a ready escape route from Grisedale Hause (or if I did not know that ground from previous experience), that may also have tipped the balance.

And there are always other personal factors that influence our decision making. I have been a mountaineer for over 50 years, and started in an age where, as one American climber famously put it at the height of the HIV crisis, "sex was safe and climbing was dangerous". You generally paid a high price for mistakes, and rescue was either not available or far more limited than it is now. The rule was that you got yourself out of anything you had got yourself into, which made us (those of us that survived, at least) maybe a bit more conservative over the years. And I have to admit the opprobrium to be faced by a 70 year old grandfather with dodgy knees getting himself into a mess on a Cumbrian hillside on a rainy and windy day is likely to be somewhat more pointed than that for a more conventionally athletic participant with probably a greater perceived right to be there. All this baggage influences our decisions. Whatever, we are who we are.

I'll be back next year.

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