Wednesday, 21 July 2010

D. N. F.

After plucking my waterproof smock and gloves from my backpack and packing away the now out-of-its-depth thin windstopper at the top of Scafell pike I danced awkwardly over the rocks and boulders that litter this summit. I got my bearings in the whiteout of the all-consuming cloud and left the throng of hikers "milling" around the top intending to get down the hill and away from the strong cold wind as soon as I could. Starting the final descent of the Wasdale Fell race route I skipped down the rocky summit approach as quickly as I could on overworked legs. Passing the conveyor belt of those about to summit and those that had and now seeked the same lower-level more clement conditions that I did. I stopped for a quick chat with the one group of passers-by - who I genuinely believed didn't think I was insane - and was asked with curiousity how long it had took me to get up here as they'd seen me pushing hard up.

As I set off again the cloud around seemed to lift by a few hundred feet and all of a sudden I had stunning views around from 2500ft+ Something I thought I was destined to be without today. neighouring valleys and lakes were visible and down beyond Wastwater the flatter coastal land, the sea and at the limits of sight the outline of large mountains. Could this be Snowdonia!? I'd heard it was visible from up here. Whatever it was it was big and a long way off - I don't think I've ever gazed so far. I descended steadily and then steadily ventured off the rocky "tourist" path navigating from map and GPS to get over to the route of the Fell run descent.

On a much more pleasant, grassy and often springy, damp, little trod I bounced down the hill with a gaining momentum, checking left around the south of Lingmell Fell, beneath the rocks to join the ridge down to Wasdale Head. The ridge rose high above the tourist path up Brown Tongue on my left and a deep drop to my right. It rose perfectly up and was crowned by the path I was now on which dropped down with the ridge. I stopped briefly after Lingmell fell to take the pictures below. Then I was off, initially steady as the the slightly sunken dust path twisted around a few ruts and stones. But then it was brakes off time, the path pretty much dropping straight and at fairly consist angle down the crown of the ridge all the way back down to lake-level.

It was that most marvellous of things, over 2000ft of totally runnable descent. As I sped down, leaning forward as much as I dared to make use of gravity, I had to wonder if my legs could actually handle such a long descent at speed. As I gained momentum I warmed up as my leg turnover rate hit maximum trying to keep up with my fall to earth. I was working hard, but it was the most increadible thing, I was totally alive, endorphin overload and being worked out on every level. My eyes and brain having to work at a fast pace and in harmony to make sure my footfalls kept me upright and away from danger.

Towards the bottom I could see a couple of walkers up ahead joining the path from Brown Tongue. They scoped me and made sure they were well out of my way on the wide path, obviously sensing I wasn't going to stop or slow down. I managed a hello between breaths as I stampeded past.

Then, in almost no time it was over, it felt like less than five minutes since I started the last hair-raising descent, but I suspect it had been longer. Either way, it had been a truly excellent five minutes or more. Getting up Scafell pike is a decent achievement, but this descent was the real highlight. As I rejoined the main tourist path and crossed the bridge the end of the fell race was in sight I entered the field, but was not cheered by race finishers and spectators. I didn't cross a marked finishing line, get my number checked or "dib" to register my completion. Why you ask? Well because the race had finished yesterday. Today was Sunday and due to yesterdays unusual turn of events I'd decided to climb and descend Scafell Pike in isolation a day late.

rewind..... to Saturday - race day

I was up with the larks to begin my long drive to Wasdale. Less than six hours sleep meant a caffiene stop at the A1 services was both desired and necessary. Otherwise though, I felt fine and ready to take on what I'd built up in my mind as the toughest race..... ney challenge, I'd ever taken on. The pleasent sunny 21c of 7am in East Yorkshire, degraded back into the teens as I approached greyer skies near to Manchester. As I headed up the M6 the windscreen wipers came on. As I turned off and navigated around the south of the Lakes and onto the narrow roads into Wasdale, todays conditions were very apparent. The cloud hung low over the lake, and rain showers and wind turned the air cool. As I got to the race I saw Mark was already there and making good use of the full body waterproof cover the race regs required. His lad Lucas was making it know he was less than thrilled with the weather.

I was glad to have my OMM Kamelieka smock on as I queud to collect my number and was buffeted with rain coming in from the clouds hanging close above. Safety was obviously a major consideration as I was given not just a number, but a dibber and a plastic ring with numbered bread tags on to give in at CP. I kept the smock on for the race start as the rain blew into the assemled racers faces. At the off I assumed a position near the back of the field with Mark. We were quite content just to get around, no heroics today. However, I soon realised being near the back would have been a reality either way as the field ran or walked hard up the first hill.

This first climb was to the two lowest peaks on route, but from lake level it certainly wasn't childsplay. Robbed of any views by the whiteout of the cloud we were enveloped in, we just pushed up and up for at least a couple of miles. This first peak was Illgill head - 609m - (pictured left) and I honestly couldn't tell you the route over, I had no idea how close we were to the steep drop down to the southern edge of Wast Water.

Descending off here I was having to push quite hard just to keep the runner ahead in view. Sorry to say, but I wasn't really navigating up here in the unfamiliar lanscape and whiteout. So keeping in touch with a few others gave me some comfort that somebody else may know exactly where they were going. I did recall from the studying the map that I should be going downhill here, so that also offered reassurance. We climbed again and passed the first CP, number check, dib, bread tag in bucket and off - no LDWA challenge-style foodpoints today!

The descent from Whin Rigg wasn't exactly fun, steep, and the grass and rocks were slippy from the downpour. I'd opted to run in Roclites, the competition being my Mudclaws. Comfort had won over grip, due to the length of the event and what I'd heard about hard ground. But it was so wet, the ground had plenty of give and Mudclaws would have been ideal - first lesson learned for next time. Mark and I were down safely though and on the rare flat section as we crossed Greendale my thoughts turned to regaining a few positions we'd lost through our tentative descent. The rain had now stopped and at lower level and current effort rate it was plenty warm enough for the Somck to come off. Below it I was soaked, not from the rain, but from my own perspiration. It seems no matter how good a sports waterproof you always sacrifice breathability at high exertion.

There was an unexpected drinks stop at a road crossing. Then somebody caught my eye.... is it?..... could it be? Star-struck I didn't ask the identity of the man I believed to be Joss Naylor. A lovely and very much down-to-earth guy I'm sure, but what would I say to a true legend, where is composure when you need it.

We were soon returning to the hills. Competitive fell run style we ate on the ascent. Or maybe it isn't fell run style as I'm sure most of the runners had far too small a pack to be carrying food surely! The GPS also came out here as I suspected we'd end up alone in the murk at some point very soon. We climbed past the raging torrent of a Gill on our left, how long had it been raining here? Though I suspect this may not be abnormal. Back into clouds, the trudge up Seatallan was pretty much all walked. I tried to keep other competitors in sight ahead with limited success. Slightly worrying was that Mark had almost disappeared from sight behind me. Something must be up as this was a role reversal on the usual state of things. I found out at the top that Mark was struggling a bit and had been ever since the first climb. No particular reason for it, perhaps he was suffering a bit with the effects of heavy training like I had been a fortnight ago when we'd had to shorten our 3rd Lakeland 100 recce.

We checked in at the wind blasted 693m summit and were off again, a few runners who had been ahead came past us the other way having missed the peak CP. I think we'd only found it through following the route line on GPS, there weren't many features to navigate from in the white-grey murk and it was mostly unpathed up here. I was soon to learn that even GPS didn't help much if the "plank" using it wasn't constantly vigilant.

Down steeply to the Pots of Ashness and then it was the hard slog up and up to a few intermediate higher peaks and CP3 at Pillar (892m). We weren't far along the way before we were too far down a slope and had to eventually scramble up a loose rocky scree. On higher ground we found quite a substantial boulder field in our path. We pushed though it for awhile but then tried to seek ways around as many of the rocks were sharp edged and some quite slippy in our trail shoes. We found a wall and a path, bliss, after stopping for a quick bite we pushed on along this path which followed the GPS route nicely. After around a mile of good, if windblown, progress the route took us off down the hill and we soon lost any semblence of path as we came to a fast-flowing gill. We found a path close to route and pushed onwards, contouring around a muddy hillside.

Looking at the GPS mileage left to go, I was starting to feel something wasn't right. Not long after this I zoomed the GPS route out figuring we must be somewhere near Pillar by now. My route had CP's named along the bread-trail line we were trying to follow. A named CP came onto the route screen about 1m ahead, but it wasn't Pillar......

"Damn, bugger, I don't believe it........ were going the wrong way!!"

....or something to that effect was what I uttered. We'd somehow started heading back the wrong way along the route - the CP up ahead was Seatallan. It took me the entire backtrack to the boulder field... probably 2.5 to 3m to figure out my error. We'd approached the boulder-field after being a few hundred yards off-route, disorientated by trying to pick through rocks and the blasting wind. When we stopped in the shelter of the wall to eat we'd set off again after following the path in the wrong direction. As we were now on route - which we hadn't been the other way - I hadn't noticed the error. It wasn't obvious how to get across the boulder field either, we picked a route down the ridge off this peak which eventually became an obvious path leading us to the rocky scramble up the last few hundred feet of Pillar.

There was nobody manning a CP up there and a hiker who must have been up there a while - probably seeking solitude in such a wild and desolate place as it was today - said he'd seen no other people up there barring runners as recently as about 20 mins ago. This suprised us a bit as we were well over an hour - maybe two - over the cut-off after our detour and we'd figured everybody would have been through a long time ago. We'd already decided to call it a day before Pillar as Mark had his family waiting back at the finish for the tent to be put up. We were also a bit concerned that we didn't want to worry the organisers too much and would feel bad if Mountain Rescue were to be called out for us. Without these concerns I was feeling good enough to complete the course, if a bit miffed by the idiocy of my navving error, even with the benefit of a map and GPS technology.

We peeled off the hills at a path that joined the main path from Black Sail pass (the way back into Wasdale pictured right). No Great Gable or Scafell Pike for us. I felt a bit gutted about this, but to balance this I felt I'd learned an important lesson. Maybe one that could assist me in the upcoming Lakeland 100 (UTLD). The recce days for UTLD had been in such glorious weather that I'd probably established an irrational belief that navigation wouldn't be an issue. Now I was all too aware I needed to be more careful, for all its obvious tourist paths, UTLD does have a few high-level moorland crossings which could be tricky in conditions like these.

Coming out of the cloud down the hill was awesome, my vision filled with greens and browns and other non-grey shades I'd not set eye's upon in hours! We got back to the start via Wasdale Head village about six and a half hours after the race had started. There was no fuss about our withdrawal, we just dibbed in and placed our bread tags in a "withdrawals" bucket. We learned later that there had been over 40 in our gang of non-completers. 121 had finished, a few way after our arrival back. This race really was living up to its credentials. Other statistics that bouyed me a bit were that the winners time was well down on last year (45mins, a lot, even though 2009 had been a championship year) and we had still managed nearly the same distance as the 21m race during our outing. We'd missed the two biggest peaks but still recorded well over 7000" ascent and descent.

The rest of the weekend was far more relaxed and enjoyable (in a deifferent, less challenging way).... I didn't wake during the night screaming so it can't have bothered me that much. After getting the tents up on Saturday I enjoyed Pasta, tomato sauce and parmesan with Mark, Joanne and Lucas. Then a few beers and relaxing in to the evening. It rained all night.....

Back to Sunday..... and the bit before the start

Conveniently the rain had pretty much stopped by time I awoke. A walk after breakfast to look around the hills and mountains of the valley presented the prospect of a better day, if still a little windy. Once the breakfast had digested I put to action my plan I'd hatched for the evening before. I was in Wasdale so just had to do take on the biggest beast in view... well partially at least. So I put the backpack back on, donned the mudclaws I wish I'd used yesterday and I was off.

Up the stoney path behind the campsite and I joined the rocky step path which lead me up into the gloom where England's tallest peak lurked. I passed a steady stream of peiople as I headed up. Not exactly running up, but I put in a hard effort whether walking or clambering. Things got interesting at a plateau about 2000ft up where the path splits. There was the popular walk up route - longer, but easier - and "route 1", up into a cloud-shrowded approach to a notch in the skyline between Scafell and Scafell Pike. The picture - left - of the "notch" in the skyline was taken on the way down when the cloud had lifted just a bitThe two peaks are off-picture and still in cloud.

I took route 1 up jagged, wet and often loose rocks. Much closer to climbing due to the steepness and pace. At the top of this intimidating rock-face was Mickeldore, a pass between Eskdale and Wasdale and also a narrow ridge between Scafell Pike and Scafell. I turned left to head up to Scafell Pike, following the crowd I suppose, but it had to be done. After tramping over rocks and boulders littering the summit trying to find the peak in whiteout I soon heard hikers from the main path up and headed the way they were going. I soon summited. Though to be honest I felt a little unfulfilled. So many people were up here, even in todays wind and murk, that I couldn't even find good shelter from the wind to sit a minute. Thankfully, as you read at the start, I soon found the joy was in the descent from this one. The day finished with good grub and micro-brewery beer in a pub in Nether Wasdale. Overall, another great lakes weekend.

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