“It’s mizzling” I say as I stick my head out of the Friday night tent in the field next to Seathwaite Farm. “Mizzling?” responds Dave still tucked up in his sleeping bag. “Yeah, you know, like sticking your head in a cloud, being wet without actually raining.” It’s six in the morning and it’s still dark but the forecast downpour and hurricane strength winds hadn’t arrived, yet.
One cup of tea and a bowl of porridge with sliced banana and dried fruit later and we’re getting ready in the car and waiting for daylight to arrive. Our bags are packed at a hefty 10kg/23lbs each (how do the elite runners get all their kit in those lunchbox sized rucksacs?). We’ve got all the compulsory kit, including the tiny spare gas cylinder having been disqualified in the Brecon Beacons KIMM for not finishing with spare gas (a then new rule we hadn’t spotted) and enough energy gels and bars to power a small city. We’d seen the weather forecast the night before, namely hurricane force winds and heavy rain so we didn’t skimp on any kit. As a veteran (and finisher) of the ‘Howling Howgills’ KIMM I knew what to expect.
Daylight duly arrives revealing the clouds skimming the higher hills but not depositing their contents. With 20 minutes to go to our 9:05 start we go and drop off the car keys at the event HQ then walk up to the starting gates. We can see a trail of earlier starters working their way up the side of Glaramara.
We arrive bang on time as the marshal calls “9 0 5” and walk through to the first gate. The gate marshal then informs us that we will be using the Bad Weather courses with controls 2,3 and 4 deleted. “So it’s a Very Bad Weather course then” we quip prophetically . One minute later and we move up to the next gate to receive our maps. Back in the good old days these maps were untreated paper which we then copied the controls onto. Attempts to keep them dry were useless as they slowly turned to mush. How we ever finished a course I can’t remember. Nowadays they are preprinted with the course details and laminated with a thin plastic coating. Luxury. As we’d been told, three controls had been crossed off the course details. Some poor booger has had to manually amend the course details on 2,500 maps. One more minute and we’re off up the track.
A quick look at the course and I could see it was nearly identical to that of my first mountain marathon, the 1997 (I think) Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon, Kirkfell class. We weren’t destined for Glaramara. That must be some other class. Control 1 was up Styhead Gill then left up to the tarns on the top. Halfway up the rain started accompanied by an increase in the wind to a light gale force. As in 1997 Dave leads the way. As much as I love climbing hills my power to weight ratio leaves a lot to be desired and I struggle on climbs compared to other runners, not that anyone was running up this one.
At the top the wind introduces itself driving the rain into our faces like tiny needles of ice. We hunker down behind a rock to take a bearing to the control then it’s up into the wind. “Jesus” is whipped away from our mouths as we stoop into the wind. The peaks on our caps make good face shelters. Up and over the few low rocky outcrops on the top and we find the right tarn and control 1. Dave does the honours with his dibber and we’re off to control 5, thankful in this weather that we didn’t have to visit 2 to 4 which lay in a big arc round Scafell, over past Bowfell, across that soggy quagmire known as Great Moss (what must that have been like today I dread to think) and across the tops above Wasdale Head.
“North Western Wall Bend” was the description for control 5. That particular wall starts across the river from Wasdale Head and runs straight up 550m and over Lingmell heading in the direction of Broad Crag. The control sat on the 375m contour. So, how to get there? A straight line was out as it took us over the cliffs of The Band and Spouthead Grag. So it was down to Styhead Pass being blasted by the wind funnelling up the valley, to shelter behind the Mountain Rescue box.
The wind was fierce.
Having been in the AirKix freefall tunnel recently I reckon if Dave had tied a rope round my waist and I’d spread-eagled into the wind he could have flown me like a kite. Needless to say we didn't try that particular trick.
Time for a bit of route choice. We had two options, either drop down the Wasdale path then climb up the heavily contoured hillside or contour round the valley head then along the side without losing too much height. A real swings and roundabouts choice this one. The advantage of the fast path to Wasdale was negated by the headwind, two step forward one back. The countouring option had a few gills to cross, most worryingly Spouthead and Greta, as well as a fair amount of scree. I knew what the gills were like further up (uncrossable) but not down at this level. Not wanting to lose the height plus the potential of a bit of shelter on the north facing slope we go for the contours.
Back out into the wind we drop down across the head of the valley staggering like a pair of drunks as the wind plays with us. Luckily the gills didn’t present too much of a problem but contouring across what was mostly open scree or scree covered in a bit of grass was slow work. As hoped the wind wasn’t too bad here. Towards the end of our traverse we cross five smaller gills, all bursting at the seams with water, and round the curve of Lingmell back into the wind where we see other competitors ascending or descending the hill.
We’d come out a bit low due to avoiding as much scree as possible so it was a stiff and slippery climb up the very steep side of Lingmell to control 5. Going up was bad enough but coming down was a nightmare. The surface was so waterlogged it had turned into mush. There was no traction to be had (note to self: get some proper studded shoes next time). Every ten seconds we were flat on our backsides. It was too steep and rocky to slide down. Dave maintained his position as champion bogtrotter by finding the goopiest bits to fall into. As we approached the bottom I was thinking “thank god was didn’t land on any rocks when we slipped” when, right on cue, I do just that, right on my arse. A minute later my feet shoot from underneath me and I land on my rucksack snapping my waistband in the process. Good excuse for a new one.
Down in Wasdale Head the call of Wasdale Hotel wasn't strong enough (what I'd have paid for a bit of hindsight) to pull us off our course. So it was off to control 6, up and over the western shoulder of Great Gable (rather slowly on my part), past Windy Gap (I bet it was) and round Moses Trod to Tongue Beck (before it drops down into Ennerdale on its way to the Irish Sea). This control was manned by a radio marshal. He was ensconced in his little one man tent (complete with a couple of eggs (presumably hard boiled) that had rolled out onto the grass) in a very dodgy looking spot that looked like it would be very soon under water. He must have heard us trying to communicate over the howl of the wind as a hand appeared from the tent pointing at the control five yards away. We’d already seen it but were debating where to cross the raging stream between us and it. I’ve got a fear of these things after having to cross a swollen river in the aforementioned Howgills KIMM. That was an experience I never want to repeat. So Dave jumps it while I go upstream to where it splits and jump the two smaller streams. As I turned to do this the wind caught me and dumped me unceremoniously on the ground. Having bagged that one it began to feel like we were on the homeward stretch.
Control 7 was in a ruin below the old mining track running southwest from Honister Mines but first we had to find the track. Rather than follow the path marked on the map we took a bearing and cut the corner off by heading over the scree covered shoulder of Brandreth. Just as we reached the top of this the wind decided to get serious and Dave and I had to grab each other to stop being blown away. Even then it slid us along the ground. “Let’s get off this sodding mountain!” I screamed in Dave’s ear. So, it's over the fence and down onto the path. As we approach the mine track I looked over to the north and could see a waterfall over on the side of Dale Head. The water was falling half way down the hillside then it turned in a perfect U shape and rose back up before being dispersed in the wind. I’d seen this in the Howgills but this one was a beaut. Guess who forgot to take a photo.
We found the track easy enough and headed down looking for signs of the ruin. As far as I was concerned at this point, if it wasn’t obvious I was just going to keep on going down to the finish. As it was a couple of other teams were also looking for it so we veered off the track and found it down the hillside. Back onto the track and heading down to Buttermere alongside an extremely angry looking river cutting its way down through the rocks below Fleetwith Crag. It was frighteningly awesome in a take no prisoners sort of way. I hope to God no one falls in there I thought, especially me.
We’d come down this path in the Saunders back in the 90’s but it was unrecognisable. The whole hillside was writhing in rivers as it shed the month’s worth of rain being dumped on it. We had to abandon the path as it turned into a river and take to the rocks and bracken either side of it.
As we rounded the bend we could see the valley bottom. The Saunders campsite that we’d used back then was under several feet of water and even worse there were runners on the other, the wrong, side of the river. Down there it wasn’t the raging monster we’d seen but it was still fast flowing and unpredictable. We could see the tops of the handrails belonging to the footbridge across the river but now the river extended 20 feet either side of the bridge. As we watched groups of eight or so runners would form a human chain and help each other over to the bridge then across to safety on the other side. I was fully expecting the bridge to be washed away with people on it.
So, it was along the path, pick up the last control just off to the side then down to the finish. The fields to our left were flooded and we could just see the tapes for the finish funnel sticking up out of the water. So, quietly ignoring the official finsih line we continued along the track. We met a marshal as we reached the road. “Just wait for those others to catch up so I only have to say this once” she said. The others caught up. “The event’s been cancelled. Go down to the farm for some soup then go back over Honister to the event HQ” she instructed us.
And that’s when it all went tits up.