Archive for February, 2013

It was a dark and stormy night…

Monday, February 11th, 2013

"A new mountain marathon", announced my Inbox.
Excellent, tell me more.
"It's in January".
No problem, keep going.
"At night".

A completely bonkers idea, so of course I was immediately hooked. Carmen didn't take much persuasion, and ignoring the warnings of others ("it's far too dangerous, you'll all die in a freezing bog") we signed up.

There were 4 linear courses – Elite, A, B, C – but we opted for Score (8 hours to visit as many controls as possible). Mostly because that's what we usually do, but also because it gave the option of cutting it short if things got too grim.

As the time got closer, things changed from mild and rainy, to cold and icy, and then a couple of weeks before the event it started snowing. We managed one night time training session, in deep powder snow across unseen (but very much felt) bogs, when we averaged a feeble 1.8 mph. Things can only get better, we thought. Ha.

A couple of days before the start, the clear blue skies disappeared and it snowed. A lot. The organisers announced bad weather courses would be used, and shortened ours to 7 hours. It duly snowed some more, and the last controls were put out on skis. If it had stayed that way, however, it would have been too easy. So they arranged for the temperatures to climb, the wind to pick up, and the rain to fall.

The event centre was at Muncaster Castle, near Ravenglass in the south west Lake District, so we stopped off at Eskdale Green on the way over for a last supper. The drive from there to the Castle took us along a road that we'd briefly follow during the event. It was under 2 inches of water.

A brief word about kit.

Obviously the normal MM kit of "as little as possible" was out of the question, so after much indecision we ended up going for the "far too much" option instead. I had 2 pairs of trousers + over-trousers, thick base layer plus fleece plus waterproof, 3 different hats and enough pairs of gloves for a Himalayan expedition. Plus 2 spare tops and even a spare waterproof (I'd just reproofed my thick one and wasn't sure how waterproof it would be). Carmen had similar (top tip – Paramo trousers are ideal).

Now for the race.

At the start we were given an extra bit of safety kit – the maps were so big they could easily serve as an emergency blanket. Luckily the scale was 1:25K, but even so it was clear that we could ignore most of it as we'd never get to the edge of the map and back in the time allowed.

My first big problem was seeing anything. Glasses were out, contacts meant I could see distance but not the map, so I took the risk and removed one lens – one eye for close up and one for route finding. It sort of worked, though next time I'll go for the naked eye option – not much distance vision needed when it's dark.

We started, along with everyone else, with a selection of controls on Muncaster Fell. Intermittent patches of ice made running too risky – first bruise to Carmen – so we walked most of it from here on. Brief loss of concentration lost us a few minutes ("it's only worth 10 points, how hard can it be"), lesson learned, nothing's easy at night.

A brief study of the map gave us a vague game plan. Almost all the closer controls were worth just 5 or 10 points, but there was a small cluster of 30-pointers that looked like it might just be achievable. So we decided to take as direct a line as we could for those, ignoring anything that involved much of a detour.

After a brief stop to change into some dry clothes (my "waterproof" jacket wasn't) we battled our way into the wind to reach the control on the summit of the aptly named Water Crag. A descent to Devoke Water was followed by a rising traverse towards the next control, interrupted briefly by a short patch of ice that left me 20 feet further down the hill with a bruised arse.

By now the snow was deep and wet. We both had waterproof socks, but even my thick merino ones had no effect on the cold – being permanently encased in slush puppies is probably a challenge too far for any sock.

The distant head torches that had kept us company up to now gradually disappeared, as their owners saw sense and headed for home. No quitting for us though – this was serious fun!

At the next control, on White Pike, the wind was so ferocious we were on our hands and knees to reach the top, even though it was just 442m above sea level (and still only worth 10 points!). The planned continuation along the watershed was obviously not going to happen, so we dropped down instead and contoured below the ridge line.

By now it was clear that we'd not be able to reach the group of 30-pointers, but we wanted to at least manage one that scored over 10, so headed south towards the 20-pointer at Holehouse Tarn. A handy fence gave us something to haul ourselves up the steep hill through knee-deep snow; we found the control but not the tarn, presumably it was buried. At last we could turn back north and have the wind behind us!

A short delay failing to find an "easy" 5-pointer at a stream junction (not so easy when the whole hillside is one big snowy stream) was followed immediately afterwards by finding the missing control a few metres further down the hill – the stream junction had become the middle of a small river. Then up into the lowering clag for a final 10-pointer, down the other side to hoover up a final clutch of 5-pointers, and all that remained was a marked route across boggy tussocks (or was it tussocky bogs) to finish with 20 minutes to spare.

We'd averaged just 1.7 mph, but despite the usual collection of "what-ifs" that could have gained a few extra points, we were happy with our meagre haul of 105 points. Even more so when we found that we were the first mixed team, and 4th overall! Over 100 points behind 3rd place, but if we'd had the fitness for an extra couple of miles then we'd have had access to another 150 points, so not as big a gap as it seemed.

But winning and losing were largely irrelevant, just finishing (or even starting!) in those conditions took some effort. As a measure of how tough things were, only half a dozen teams on the linear courses completed (none at all on B or C), everyone else missing controls and heading for home.

My toes were slightly numb for a couple of days (frost nip?). Chilblains lasted a week. Three weeks on, the bruise on my hip is finally fading. But the memories will last a life time.

Would I do it again? Just try and stop me!


Some photos here

Results here

Event website here


Nant Peris Burns

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

A very popular meet to the excellent London MC hut just above the pub in Nant Peris saw a collection of new and old members venturing out onto the hills in interesting conditions. Mike M managed to squeeze a trip into his parental duties (congrats), Bob and Liz first hut meet and Chris and John (2nd meet- less beer more breakfast!) Gill were joined by some regulars. Should have been even more old timers there, but Annie, Donal and Richard R didn't like the idea of camping on the M62 overnight in the nasty weather (lightweights).

Paul and I had crammed into Jamies GTI convertible with suspect handbrake and petrol consumption of a jumbo jet (the ideal winter climbing car!) on Thursday night and scampered over to grab an extra day. Imagine our surprise when approaching Ogwen car park (it's free during the rebuilding) we heard Prof Karl Claxton in best plummy Radio 4 voice debating with some Frenchie (not our Leni and he didn't say knackerrrrrred once) on the Today programme. Abusive text duly sent, we headed up into Cwm Idwal to look at the stream (II/III). We were first there and chose to follow up the stream bed from where it crosses the path, not too well frozen to start, quite fun but slow. After about 200m (guess) it opens into an amphitheater and you follow a sequence of lovely ice falls on the right (some 15m high) up to a gully/ridge which leads onto the plateau. Jamie's first time on ice(?), new tools in his and Paul's hands it was a learning expereince and fun at that. We soloed most of it, I dropped a rope at one point.

Weather was mixed but we were getting wet as we headed down through the Devil's Kitchen whr ethe ice was spectacular with everything formed including the Devil's Appendix (wishing I was fitter as it's a dream route of mine and rarely in such good nick). We passed some people top roping The Curtain (IV,4)and chatted to a lad having a great time on The Screen (IV, 4). Paul and I decided to romp up this whilst many teams were on The Ramp (II/III), all of these start very close to the path. Jamie took loads of pix then retreated to the warmth of the car. The ice was soft and a bit wet amd easy to climb but not so good screws. I quickly ran out all 50m of rope (60m is MUCH BETTER!) and brought Paul up. We were soon back in the fug of the GTi and heading back to find Mike parked up and Bob & Liz out on the hill / tea shop.

Eventually most people turned up (no Pete B or aforementioned Yorkies). Sat was the laziest start I have ever known on a YAC meet with Pete B arriving at the hut whilst we were still getting up/breakfast! Bob, Liz and Mike headed for Moel Siabod, Jamie and Paul for Tryfan North Ridge and the rest of us for the Glyders (some complex car sharing was arranged).

The weather deteriorated during the day and team M.S. never quite summited, J&P summited but decided against Bristly Ridge and us walkers battled on but ultimately called short the day. We had some adventures at the Cantilever and navigating in poor conditions. John & Chris managed to blood their new shiny crampons while one of Dave D's 'poons decided to make a break for it and head for the scrap heap half way across the plateau — but we managed to recapture it. A good long snow slope meant axes out and we descended back to the valley before dark. The drying room was hard pressed that night but came up trumps.

A monster meal staring with a great soup from Jamie, haggis supper and enough apple pie and custard to keep Simon C quiete for ages (had he been there not running around overnight in the lakes (see his blog)) we also seem to have drunk quite a lot and laugh far too much for Liz on a full stomach!

Sunday was raining and most people headed home, a few did a walk around the quarries, 4 of us cleaned the hut and we all set off early.

Great trip, great hut, great place, great company – let's do it again !