writing

Winners and Losers

I’m a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, which runs an annual awards ceremony. The Guild has some extremely experienced members and I find it useful to be a member myself, to ask advice and share information in a friendly, non competitive spirit.

Awards are competitive though, and I’m uncomfortable with blowing my own trumpet, not keen on celebrity and how it plays a part in outdoor culture. What matters is the work, always. But the squeaky wheel gets the oil, so I’m bound to show and tell as part of that work. I’m ambivalent about it.

I received two certificates this year. The first was a very bittersweet win in Digital Media, for a collaboration with Tim Parkin (of On Landscape magazine) for the Save Glen Etive website. Bittersweet because we won a gong from our peers despite losing (at least for now) the campaign to prevent environmentally damaging run-of-river Hydro schemes being built in the Glen. Tim deserves most if not all of the credit here, and is among the most professional people I’ve ever worked with. We built the entire thing from scratch over one weekend (he on the web design, myself on the text, including much discussion with the other team members of course), ahead of a deadline decision by the Highland Council.

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The second was a ‘highly commended’ (runner up) for a piece on Night Navigation in The Great Outdoors magazine. Again, this was notable as a collaboration with Heather Morning of Mountaineering Scotland, one of my own personal heroes. Heather lives 100% in meatspace. She’s not on social media at all, and is one of the realest people you’ll ever meet!

Both of these were journalistic pieces of work. The point of this work was and is to furnish others with the tools to make their own decisions… not to make us look good.

The winner in Technical Feature was for Jen Benson. I haven’t read her winning piece but I have read some of her other work. Take a look - I think this is wonderful.

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The lead photo used in my article might be of interest. The judges described the photos as ‘good, dark, muddy’ (!) Photography was obviously going to be extremely challenging: moving subjects in pitch black, lit only by head torches. I shot on the move at extremely high ISO’s and with the aperture wide open (F2.8). Autofocus was impossible in the dark and with spindrift everywhere, and so I was focusing manually. As conditions deteriorated further, the camera grew sluggish and was very slow to write shots to the card - I think my newer Sony A7R3 would fare better now, but as a rule mirrorless systems still struggle to match a DSLR in really severe weather, I think (and I’m a Sony user). Burst shooting was impossible. I had to be very calculated as the camera would ‘black out’ for several seconds after each shot .

Right from the beginning, I had a shot in mind. Talk about ‘previsualising’ can come off a bit elitist but I did have the foresight to bring some additional lighting with me. A regular flashgun was out of the question, it needed to be something that was small, but would withstand minus double digits and windspeeds gusting to 40-50mph. While the crew were orientating for the summit, I saw my chance to deploy a high powered, off road bike light, and ran around to backlight them for the photo above. I managed to push the shutter just as Heather moved into the light. I may feel a bit squeamish about awards and certificates, but I was pretty pleased with that shot!



Stories from the Rounds, 3: Above the Glen

Over the last few weeks I’ve shared stories from the 3 Rounds covered in my Big Rounds book.

This last one is a story I wrote for TGO magazine in 2016, called Above the Glen. It focuses on the Tranter Round, later expanded by Charlie for his own Ramsay Round.


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Above the Glen

However you cut your hillgoing cloth, the mountains that circle the Ben and its glen are spectacular country. On the south side of Glen Nevis; the Mamores, interspersed with some fairly magical lochans, on the north side; the Grey Corries, the Aonachs, the Ben Nevis itself. Linked by a wild and lonely watershed, these are high places that provoke challenge and ambition when taken in singly or in pairs. But join them together in a continuous walk and I’d argue there’s a beauty and elegance of line that can hold its own against any other in the world. There are 18 Munros here, 7 of them over 1100ms. Collectively they are known as the Tranter Round, after the author of the first continuous 24 hour round here, Philip Tranter. Even as a backpack taken over 3 or 4 days, it’s no mean feat.

This area has kept me busy in the years since moving north to live in Scotland, and there’s a TGO connection too. A fell runner called Charlie Ramsay got in touch a few years ago, after seeing a photo of mine from Knoydart in this magazine (TGO). Charlie used Knoydart as part of his training in order to extend Tranter’s round with an additional 5 Munros around Loch Treig to create his own Round. He was after my photo for an illustrated talk. So, we got talking, and I tried the Ramsay Round myself as a backpack. I failed the first time. To be honest I found it brutal, and simply ran out of time, energy and good weather. To be brutally honest I ran out of me. But my consolation in that failure was discovering the smaller, older Tranter Round for myself. For his fell running record, Charlie was going for 24 Munros in 24 hours, but should the ground rather than numbers be our governing logic, then Tranter’s Round is by far the more obvious, and perhaps even the more pleasing line.

Mick was waiting for me at the start of the route, or near enough – just up the road from the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. It was his first time on 1 or 2 of these hills, and my third or fourth for most. Approaching the route anticlockwise means beginning with the slightly gentler slopes of the Mamores at the beginning, leaving the biggest climbs - over the Aonachs and Nevis - until the end. For me, this is the only way to do the route justice. It’s the way that Tranter did his round, and Charlie did his. It’s not the way the majority of runners tackle the 24hour challenge, but if you’re carrying a backpack it probably makes sense. Especially if you are carrying as bag as big as Mick was.

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The first Munro, Mullach nan Coirean, is a boggy beginning, but once up on top, the height is maintained around a beautiful coire strewn with red screes. We were blessed with perfect conditions; clouds casting cooling, dramatic shadows across the plateau, a gentle breeze and no midges. We made slowly for the first of the two hills named Stob Ban on the Round, charmed by a layer cake trifle of pink granite, white quartzite, chocolate coloured earth, straw and lime coloured grass. Just these two Munros make a lovely circuit by themselves, but the joy of a big walk is in the scale of the thing. After day two, I begin to lose count… hills rise and fall and me with them, hypnotized by rhythm and repetition.

We weren’t in that groove yet, though. Stob Ban did rise and fall – but very slowly. I realised we wouldn’t make the ideal camp spot by the evening, so my plan B became plan A. We took a big drink at the Lochan Coire nam Miseach before schlepping up to the bealach for the first of two out-and-back spurs on the main ridge of the Mamores. For us it was a relief to take the backpacks off and weave our way along the thin crest. For the couple we meet on the Ring of Steall circuit (which includes this Munro), it felt exposed and a little edgy.

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A couple of hours later we made camp under that other spur – An Gearanach. There’s only 40ms of descent to collect water from the coire spring, but it was a tiring walk back to my shelter. Mick seemed similarly shattered after the hot, steep and loose ups and downs of An Bodach. As the sun set, the wind dropped, a chill in the still air just enough to keep the midges at bay. Ben Nevis cooled to a blue-black bruise in the shadows, and we slept.

By 8.30am we were picking our way up An Gearanach, and by 9 on the summit, already shedding layers in the heat. Back at the bags, today’s sun cream was applied to yesterday’s sunburn and water was collected, all watched over by a hind, herself in the shadow of our next objective. Na Gruagaichean was an exhausting and uncompromising slog for both of us, but the arête after lifted my spirits. This is one of my favourite sections of the round and a taste of the more dramatic ridges on the north side of the glen. We waited for a large group to pass on the summit of Binnein Mor before picking our way gingerly along the blocky ridge.

I could hear shouting, and then a crash below us. The group was throwing rocks into the coire. My hackles rising, I shouted as clearly and carefully as I could manage “Hey there. Please stop. It is dangerous. Thankyou”. I felt uncomfortable and bossy, but it seemed to work. Then, we contoured slowly and steeply to the lochans under Binnean Beag, a top we’d both done before and choose to forego this time.

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The beautiful stalker’s path to the foot of Sgùrr Eilde Mor wasn’t enough to prevent Mick deciding he’d had enough. His heavy load had caused a nascent back problem to flare up. It was wise to call it here – he could easily bail into Kinlochleven and then onto the West Highland Way back to Fort William. The last hour together had begun to feel a little funereal so I reminded him that he’d walked 8 Munros in a day and half – hardly a bad effort! The weather changed as we parted company, reflecting my own sombre mood as I dragged my heels up the screes of Sgùrr Eilde Mor to meet a freezing shower on the upper slopes. 3 steps forward, 2 steps back. Maybe I should call it a day, too?

Thankfully the shower soon passed and after a text home and a layer change I made speedy progress on the mossy lower slopes towards the Glen Nevis watershed in brightening sunshine. A short while later I felt fine; better than fine, in fact – great! Down, then up, rising and falling… I remember this from last time. This maybe familiar territory but it’s still a challenge, with it’s attendant mind games.

I reached the glen floor by 7pm and wasted a good deal of time finding the stalker’s path that handrails the brilliantly named Allt nam Fang. It was gone 9 by the time I reached the foot of the second Stob Ban on the route, which was time to call a halt. The first 300ms of grassy slope in the morning were fairly sluggish, but after that first top of the day, I climbed through a claustrophobic cloud inversion and was up on Stob Choire Claurigh by 10am. From here was downhill joy. For the first time, I had good visibility on the Grey Corries, with that dramatic inversion swirling at my heels until it burned off completely on the blocky and spectacular quartzite arête of Caisteil. I corrected previous mistakes I’d made on Stob Coire Easian in the past and dropped down into the coire, albeit a little too early. It was going well, but I knew the crux of the round awaited.

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After the shapely and straight forward Sgùrr Choinnich Mor, things become more complex. My way onto Stob Coire Bhealaich has always been by what runners know as ‘Spinks’ ridge’ (after the fell runner and double Bob Graham record holder Nicky Spinks) and this time was no different. The upper section  offers disorientating and incredible views of the most contorted geology on the Round. Exciting, yes… but the ground is increasingly eroded and very unnerving with a backpack. So much so, I was determined to find a better way. Topping out, I dropped my pack and headed down and around, exploring the slopes just to the north of Sgùrr a’ Bhuic for another hour or more, which confirmed to me that I’d been worrying myself unnecessarily all this time. Especially if you have a pack - go around to the south, not straight up!

By the time I was back on track, it was early evening. The path to Aonach Beag is always a slow grind, but easier today now the heat of the day was gone. I left Aonach Mòr to itself – I’ve been on it every year for the past 4, and that’s 3 too many for me! Finding the cairn, I descended carefully to the bealach on horribly loose ground and made a cold, late camp under the final big climb to Carn Mòr Dearg.

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I shalt say more about the CMD and it’s arête here, because more than enough has been said elsewhere, and because some wonders shouldn’t cease until you see them for yourself. A little mystery should be left intact, because along with the Skye Cuillin, it’s one of the most complete and satisfying alpine experiences a hill walker can have in the UK. Choose your weather window well, start early and take care – this time around, I was having so much fun hopping from boulder to boulder, at one point I almost lost my balance. It’s a cliché, but complacency really is when accidents happen. Once around the dogleg and at the cairn, only the very last, merciless drag up the enormous hunched shoulders of the Ben remains.

It’s always a surreal, rude return to twenty first century reality, the Ben summit via the CMD… and the path down to terra firma stranger still. This time: Hipsters in plimsolls, shirtless jocks, underprepared dads and exhausted kids, a stationary girl with partner in waiting, theirs a silent tableau. Huffing grandmas, thirsty dogs, hobbling, gear-heavy euro trekkers, Japanese teens weighed down with tripods and iphones… my now empty food bag slowly filling with other people’s rubbish. If I sound a little misanthropic, forgive me – to see so many, so quickly and in this otherworld of rock and snow was a jolt to the quieted headspace of a big walk. But once over that surreal surprise, it’s also heartening to see so many out on a beautiful day, making the effort. It’s always friendly here on the mountain, with a common goal in mind. People say hi, smile and ask, and I try to be truthful but gentle about how far it is to the top. As I finally reached the shade of the birch trees with my own set of grumbling knees, I thought again that the long path down from the UK’s highest mountain would be longer and duller still, without the company. Thankfully, it still takes all sorts. 

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It’s funny how these things develop until they become huge parts of our lives; the fragment of an idea, a random contact out of the blue, the pieces of a puzzle coming together not by design at all, but through some kind of synchronicity. It’s good to mark that, I think. These mountains are friends of sorts to me now, but I’m not so familiar that there aren’t always new things to learn. The Tranter Round has all the qualities of a through-hike in miniature - big ascents, high-level camps, long days and some interesting decision-making. It takes a tough, elegant line that makes complete sense topographically. It always challenges, but in different places each time. I’ve tried to let myself be open to it, and it’s given back again and again. I like that walking it has taught me to do just that - to be more open - very much indeed.

Thanks for reading. You can purchase your copy of The Big Rounds here





Stories from the Rounds, 2: Path to the Past

Over the next few weeks I’m sharing 3 stories, from the 3 Rounds covered in my Big Rounds book.

The second is a story I wrote for TGO magazine in 2017, called Path to the Past. It focuses on the remarkable Dinorwig Quarry, above Llanberis.


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Path to the Past

''I've been coming here for 10 years, and I still haven't got to the bottom of it. What I'm getting into now is the age of different parts of the quarry, working out which of the old spoils were disturbed by new digs. There's a transgender guy in the village who goes caving up here - brave stuff. I wouldn't climb in here myself - I've seen things move about on their own.''

These were the words of Daffyd, my accidental guide to the remarkable Dinorwig Quarry, as we stood high above the main workings in bright sunshine. This vast scar that stands above Llanberis on the flanks of Elidir Fach, was once the 2nd largest open cast slate mine in the world. At its busiest it employed over 3,000 men, but the nearby Penrhyn was even larger. The scale here is hard to fathom, like something from a Sebastian Selgado photograph… almost as monochrome but minus the fragile flesh.

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I’d noticed my namesake as I wandered through the lower sections of the ruins, watching as he and his dog climbed a ragged staircase hanging off the right hand edge of a giant hole in the mountain. That must be the way, I thought; it’s got to be the Foxes’ Path. So I followed him up.

This route won’t be familiar to many hill walkers, but to be fair this is not our usual territory. Paddy Buckley writes of it in the notes for his famous fell running round, but strictly speaking… well, we’re out of bounds here. When I caught up with Daffyd higher up, he explained to me that First Hydro Company, who now manage the land, had once tried to stop visitors exploring, but the local climbing community just laughed it off. Now, as back in the early days of it’s existence, the quarry is one of the chief reasons why Llanberis is such a busy little town. The main amphitheatre is now a world famous climbing venue. To reach the staircase to the lost world, you must first jump a gate, but the warning sign at the fence is more disclaimer than outright prohibition: Enter at your own risk… and don’t try to sue us if you do!

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The risk is ours to own and in that sense, it’s no different here to any hill, but in every other sense, Dinorwig is unusual. Our uplands are far from free of the hand of man of course, but up on the summits far above the treeline, they often feel so. They are where we head, when we want to escape. No such illusions are afforded here. Ruin is all around. This is a vainglorious landscape, a silent and shattered testament to the complete exploitation of place and people at the height of industrial capitalism. It’s a fractured, dissonant place being sucked back into nature; somewhere held together by memory, but only rarely witnessed. Here, we are both wholly present and completely absent. It might make you wonder at our guile, and wonder even more at our gullibility.  

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From the foot of the road, I took ‘the zigzags’ up to the tram winching shed, a narrow slate path flanked by high walls and surrounded by a vast field of slate spoil on either side. Those who did not stay at the quarry barracks would walk this way to and from work every day from the village. Rusty iron cabling thick as two fingers snaked flaccidly around the giant wooden drum that ferried trams full of finished slates from above to below. I followed the tramlines around and climbed the first smooth incline of many, past the barracks and then up to Matilda level, to be met by an enormous courtyard with the multi-storey shells of the storerooms still just about upright.

There, I left the camera groups and day-trippers behind and headed off the designated path to where the old coffin road intersects with the slag heaps and iron flotsam. At this point, more tramlines stretch up to the gods, but I was after the quarrymen’s footsteps. So following one man and his dog, I trod a long, crumbling flight of steps flanked by broken iron railings and a rusty pipe.

The path tops out to another set of buildings. There’s the remains of a huge cable crane or ‘Blondin’, and a few huts, the largest of which contains a quarryman’s coat, shoes and a teapot, carefully laid out on a bench at one end of the room in memoriam, a stove and much graffiti. This was the Caban, where the workers ate lunch and sat out the worst of the weather. It’s still used by climbers as an unofficial bothy, the rotting brickwork stuffed with bits of old tarpaulin for additional weather protection.

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I ambled up another incline to Australia level, and caught up with Daffyd again. He directed me out from the path, along to the sawmills, where the raw slate was cut and then dressed, ready for transport down the inclines I had been following. As the quarry became less profitable, moving the heavy metal proved too expensive and so the steam compressor, saws and trucks lie abandoned, oxidizing by degrees in the fresh air. Birdsong, blazing sun and quietened ‘industrial heritage’. It was hard to reconcile these three with somewhere purpose built for screaming destruction.

Dinorwig opened in 1797, and drew workers from all over Wales and Cumbria. It was apparently poorly organised, and its spoils progressively littered the site and slid into newer pits and galleries. You can see these everywhere as you move through, even today; not much has changed on the ground since about 1920. Production declined at the end of the 19th century, and the quarry eventually ground to a halt in 1969.

Conditions were harsh and dangerous, the quarrymen working high up in the open rather than underground, on wet and icy galleries exposed to the elements and to rockfall loosened by blasting. A crew was made of 2 rockmen, plus a splitter and a dresser, with the former freeing the rock from the hillside, for the splitter to break it into more manageable sections with hammer and chisel, and the dresser to cut into slates. The crew was paid monthly by the ‘bargain’, measured out in 6-metre blocks of rock - wages were decided by how many slates they could work from each of these bargains. However, they had to be careful; over production meant less money, not more. Crews would often reorganise distribution between them, to try and maintain wage rates and bonuses. Cunning meets cunning: In this chaos of exploitation, we see the beginnings of worker solidarity and the birth of the unions.

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I went higher still, passing more giant winches and a water tank for the compressor on Abyssinia level - so high that Abyssinia could allegedly be seen from it - to teeter on a steep, slate ramp. I turned slowly and carefully to look back down the valley, resisting a strong urge to drop to my hands and knees for security. It was an odd kind of vertigo here, perched halfway between the world of wild places, and another kind of wildness; a world ripped apart by money and machinery.

Having revealed all, the Foxes’ path ends here. I climbed up past the service road onto rock and grass, and the more familiar mountain territory of Elidir Fawr and Elidir Fach. I literally came up for air, something of a respite after all that fascinating intensity. The second hill felt almost Scottish with its crest of blocky talus pointing my way to Pen y Ole Wen across the Ogwen valley. All being well, I should be across there by the same time tomorrow.

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‘The Big Rounds’










 

 








Stories from the Rounds, 1: Rob's Bob

Over the next few weeks I’m sharing 3 stories, from the 3 Rounds covered in my Big Rounds book.

The first is Rob Bushby’s account of his Bob Graham Round, originally written up for a Running Log at Outward Bound Ullswater and slightly revised here. Rob finished in the time of 23:08, becoming club member 896. He’s generously supplied a few more photos from the day which we couldn’t manage to squeeze into the book.

Rob was hugely encouraging of my own paltry efforts on the Rounds, and on the book (however long I took on both) and this funny, humble account continues to inspire and make me smile.


Running the Bob Graham Round, 20th – 21st August 1994 - Rob Bushby

“Rather you than me!” was the common response to the mention of a Bob Graham Round attempt. This was quickly followed by a questioning approach to my mental state of health. Struggling up Kirk Fell, 34 Lakeland peaks still to overcome, I was inclined to agree with the sceptics. Having just jettisoned the Pasta Choice I’d been force-fed at Honister Pass I enquired of Brian, my veteran pacer: “Should I be feeling a bit tired by now?” “I suppose so”, he replied, “but chucking your guts up just then wasn’t a good sign. Have another Jelly Baby.”

It appeared to me that Bob Graham Round attempts fell into two camps: those who undergo months of focussed training, back-up planned with military precision; and those who wake up one morning, think “I fancy having a crack at that Bob Graham thing”, then go out and do it. Membership of the elusive, exclusive Club requires the traverse of 42 Lake District peaks, covering around 61 miles, within 24 hours. As such, the former strategy has much to commend it. Deciding on an attempt only one week previously meant that the ad hoc last minute approach was the one I adopted. 

I’d been intrigued by the notion (if not the reality) of doing the Bob Graham Round for a couple of years. A continuous circuit of the major mountain ranges of the Lake District had a strong aesthetic appeal, with its varied terrain and changing character being viewed in a kind of 24 hour omnibus edition. To see the distant outline of saddlebacked Blencathra and Skiddaw from Scafell, then proceed towards them for 12 hours or so, gives a perspective that combines panorama and intimacy, a fuller experience and closer relationship with the mountains.

Then there was the personal aspect. Was it beyond my running abilities? To what extent was it to be a mental rather than a physical challenge? Was I scared to make a commitment just because of the fear of failing? I knew that the answers would never be clear unless I gave it a go. After all, Mr. Graham himself had said: “Anybody should be able to do it – provided they’re fit enough” following his inaugural Round in 1932.

Mac’ n Cheese at Honister Pass

Mac’ n Cheese at Honister Pass

A weekend identified itself – work-free, full moon, and a few people around to help. There were lots of opt-out clauses: minimal training, long distance running inexperience, just having wrapped up a full-on Outward Bound Adult Challenge Course the day before, and feeling generally knackered…but none of them were sufficiently convincing.

All of the night-before preparation fell into place, with a skeletal support team forming. Scepticism was balanced with advice and words of support. “Drink and eat lots – Power Bars and Lucozade” …“Don’t run the uphill”…“Use the fenceposts on Great Calva’s East side to drag yourself up – you’ll need to by then!”

The words of Mr. Rogerson, legendary Bob Graham Club Administrator, stuck with me. “Take them one at a time and they’ll fall, lad, one by one. They’ll fall.”

As I arrived with Rachael at Keswick Moot Hall (the Round’s start and finish point), the whole experience seemed to be taking on an abstract sense, an isolated chapter removed from the everyday scheme of things. Local fell runner Mike Fanning appeared from round a corner accompanied by a friend’s dog, suffering from the after-effects of a Friday-night curry. Mike, not the dog. And with minimal fuss we were on our way, departing at the slightly incongruous time of 08.35.

We set a steady pace along the roads towards Newlands valley. The grey morning carried a humid edge which had me breaking sweat already. Never having run with Mike before, I tapped him for advice and was glad of his chat to take my mind off my amateur status for this endeavour and what lay ahead. We maintained a steady jog up the inclines beyond Littletown – wisely, I wondered? The first climb up to High Snab Bank pulled tautly on my calves. Jeez, how will the rest be? I dismissed doubts, wouldn’t let them linger. Several mist-laden false summits led to the top of Robinson. A skip of elation – first one down! And the time matched that of Paul Yardley, a BG graduate whose timesheet we’d brought for guidance. It was beginning to sink in that I was really doing it, here and now.

Hindscarth and Dalehead were quickly ticked off in refreshing light rain which afforded occasional glimpses of Great Gable and its neighbours. We slipped down to Honister Pass with confidence raised, to be met by a new pacing team. First stage over, and relatively painless too! I’d found a rhythm and shaken off the earlier sluggishness – I never was a morning person – and was looking forward to cracking on, one stage at a time.

Esk Hause

Esk Hause

Brian and Rich, colleagues from Outward Bound, readied themselves as Rachael smothered my feet with talc, changed my socks and fed me macaroni cheese. Mike bade a farewell with a promise to return that evening to see me over Helvellyn and the Dodds. Hurried from repose by the enthusiasm of my new team, a purposeful pace up Grey Knotts was a little too quick for comfort.

As Great Gable approached I entered a phase of physical and mental torment. Three elements – legs, midriff, head – became distinctly unsynchronised. My legs felt strong, but my stomach churned like a spin drier and my mind was unfocussed, lost and confused in abstract thoughts. I contemplated the Round as a pregnancy: I was in a prolonged labour stage, discomfort that would gradually degenerate into ongoing pain until, with accelerated panting and effort, the whole thing would finally be over. Yes, running can do strange things to the mind. I’d lost the pace and rhythm essential for covering distance, and became frustrated at the rugged terrain and my inability to run with anything other than stuttering steps. I thought of the infamous Colemanballs from a ‘70s Olympics: “Juanterino opens wide his legs and shows his class”. No chance of that – this section should be renamed the Bob Graham Scuttle.

An explosive chunder provided a timely cure, discarding the Pasta Choice and unifying my disparate faculties. Brian’s pessimistic assessment did nothing for my confidence so I sucked on a Jelly Baby and kept quiet. The day’s biggest challenge was trying to replace some of the lost energy by digesting a Snickers bar – it took half an hour and the whole of the ascent of Pillar. Then came a diversion to Steeple and a knee-jarring jog towards Yewbarrow. I was glad of its scrambling approach, and perked up at the simultaneous sight of another ‘Bobber’ and Wasdale Head. A steep and rapid descent, and we were at the end of Stage 2, right on schedule.

with Ann at Threlkeld, final leg, 3am

with Ann at Threlkeld, final leg, 3am

The two litres of water and bread roll input at Wasdale must have been pumped with adrenalin: Scafell was afforded little fear and conquered in sure and steady style within the hour. This was a welcome psychological boost. Sanity had returned and I was feeling strong. Brian was knackered by now though, and it was my turn to lend support. Better judgement steered us away from a dripping Broad Stand, and an elusive Lord’s Rake lost us half an hour on our escape from the clouded summit. Time wasn’t a big issue, though. We were virtually half way around, I felt good, and was enjoying the day. We scampered up Mickledore and caught up with Rachael on Scafell Pike, at 978 metres the highest point in England. It was a perfect time and place to top up supplies, Jelly Babies having run out on Scafell.

We detoured off the main drag to the summits of Broad Crag, Ill Crag and Great End, the weekend walkers largely oblivious to our undertaking. The occasional hiker recognised the tell-tale pairing of one runner carrying all the gear and the other looking slightly more ragged, and enquired “Bob Graham?...Good luck mate, keep it up.” Bright evening sunlight peeped through from underneath heavy, threatening cumulus, giving lovely conditions for a gentle run up Bowfell. Brian’s intuitive navigation helped us skirt above the southern flank of Angle Tarn to then take in the soggy, boggy approach towards the twin sentinels of the Langdale Pikes. The rocky climbs to Pike O’Stickle and Harrison Stickle gave a secure, firm respite from the previous peaty shite, but reminded my legs that they were almost 12 hours into the event. I was encouraged by the onset of the final two legs – the welcome, familiar sight of the rolling Dodds were getting closer. I’d worry about Blencathra later. Brian and I weren’t saying much; we didn’t need to. His initial doubts had dissolved and he transmitted a quiet confidence, nudging me along.

With the hills to ourselves, we reached Steel Fell at dusk. A tricky descent to Dunmail Raise in rapidly fading light followed, guided by the lights of an expanded support team below. I crossed the A591 at 9.30, skipping cockily to show off and say “Look, I’m still fresh and up for it”. Words of encouragement (and surprise!) at such positive progress became more purposeful as I lingered. Brian’s prior pacing contributions had been for failed attempts and he was determined that this one would reward his efforts with success. I couldn’t express my gratitude adequately as he departed for home. His role had been key in keeping me relaxed, confident, and on course – both navigationally and time-wise. The leg massage, foot rub and replenishment stop passed all too quickly.

started there… then over there…. coming off Skiddaw in the morning

started there… then over there…. coming off Skiddaw in the morning

Seat Sandal was a nightmare, a tortured 45 minutes. “A bit of a grunt, this”, understated Mike as he resumed his pacing duties. The legs had forgotten about long steep uphills, the last significant ascent having been 6 hours before. And Fairfield and Dollywagon to follow too! Their bark, in fact, was worse than their bite, their gradients seeming favourable after the front of Seat Sandal. A neat line from Cofa Pike saved time and by 12.30 we were on top of Helvellyn. A quick run of ticks now would keep morale up. The moon, full and brilliant, reminded us that it was there only as a favour, regularly dodging behind clouds.

Mike took his pathfinding responsibilities seriously, finding the most treacherous route across Sticks Pass and sinking up to his waist in bog. “Avoid this bit here, Rob” was his generous advice. The undulating paths of the Dodds are a runner’s dream: smooth, not too steep, and space, lots of open space. Mike looked after me like a dog on a lead, running ahead, then looking back to check I was keeping up. A drenching on Great Dodd didn’t dampen our spirits as we navigated intuitively towards Clough Head. The drop down to Threlkeld was arduous. My knees ached and my diaphragm felt bruised from all the jolting it had endured, making breathing difficult. As we neared the lights of Newsham Farm voices could be heard: “Is that you, Rob?” Who else would it be? Rachael had gathered a posse – Ann, fellow Outward Bound tutor and a couple of her mates from Ambleside. “Well the video wouldn’t work” seemed a fair excuse for turning out at 3 in the morning.

Hall’s Fell Ridge was longer than I’d remembered. After an hour of huffing and puffing, the summit of Blencathra came as a relief. By this stage energy conservation was a priority and conversation limited. I concentrated on nibbling at a Power Bar. Darkness was slowly lifting beyond Penrith as we encountered the long drag down Mungrisedale Common. Tussock and bog gave way to knee-deep heather, and the sting in the tail – Great Calva. Some poem from distant memory came to the fore: “Endure, endure, endure again, until endurance itself is beaten into joy”.  What bollocks, I thought. From first examination of the route, I’d always seen this as a masochistic detour, a view confirmed by the strenuous yomp around to the recommended path and fence stakes to aid a rhythmic plod to the top. 41 down, only one to go!

I was determined to ignore any time pressure there might be and ran purposefully until the obtuse tussocks reduced us to a stagger. Across Dead Beck and up the seemingly endless spur of Hare Crag, Ann and I matched each other stride for stride. The sun, fully risen now, cast a golden glow directly onto Skiddaw’s flanks, illuminating the lush purple heather. A warm sense of euphoria enveloped me as we made the final summit. Now, for the first time, I allowed myself the luxury of the knowledge that I was going to complete the Round. Rachael kept up her habit of popping up in odd places and woke from an hour of slumber in the summit cairn shelter as we arrived. A few hundred metres of stiff-legged stagger yielded to a more fluid stride, and by the time we rendezvoused with Mike at Latrigg we were cruising. It took exactly an hour to reach the Moot Hall from Skiddaw’s peak.

Done it! Moot Hall arrival

Done it! Moot Hall arrival

Most journeys end where they begin: I touched the steps at 7.43, completing in a respectable time of 23 hours and 8 minutes. This was cause for both celebration and relief – I’d dreaded the prospect of dragging myself to the finish in a desperate, ragged heap. To still be upright and finish in good style was a bonus.

Celebrations weren’t really necessary. I hobbled to the papershop and we adjourned to Mike’s place for a brew and a bacon butty. Mental and physical numbness were displaced by a tremendous sense of achievement. It had been the most enjoyable day I’d ever spent on the hill, shared with friends who’d given wonderful support. Before starting, I hadn’t appreciated the full part their assistance would play in making the day successful. In particular, my thanks are due to Mike Fanning, Brian Whitworth, Rachael Tring, Richard Chalmers and Ann Hurst, along with all those who offered words of advice and encouragement. It was very much a team effort rather than a solo endeavour, and I’m looking forward to continuing the tradition of assisting others in attempts to join the Bob Graham 24 Hour Club. It’s a club that’s exclusive, though not elite. To have followed, quite literally, in the footsteps of many respected runners and remarkable individuals and joined their club is a memorable and humbling experience. Whilst the aches and pains were short-lived, the inner sense of accomplishment will always be something to call on.


For more information and to purchase, see: The Big Rounds