Friday, May 22, 2020

Covid Crawl, 7 May 2019

60 miles, 17,900 feet, 23 hours 45 mins

Detailed Route Map

Social distancing is easy in Longsleddale. There's few people, lots of space and lots of open ground with few gates or stiles to contaminate or be contaminated by.  I count myself fortunate to live here in such a time as this, especially given the immaculate weather that the virus seems to have heralded.  Days of unbroken sunshine, skies clear of vapour trails and fells empty of people, have been the one escape from the depressing limitations of lockdown.  But I know these fells well and the instinct to explore meant longer and longer outings from the house.  First, the 20 mile round of Longsleddale over Ulgraves, Brunt Knott and the rough environs of Skeggles Water to the more trodden higher fells and the whaleback ridge of Capplebarrow and pointy summit of Whiteside Pike.  Then additions over the Shap fells and down to Haweswater and over to Kidsty Pike and back along the Ill Bell Ridge.  Finding somewhere 'new' was getting increasingly arduous, eventually extending the Longsleddale round to a 45 mile yomp adding over High Street to Glenridding and over Sheffield Pike to Stybarrow Dodd and Helvellyn.  On the long way back, I ran out of water, failing to find any flowing streams on the baked earth on the high ridges of Fairfield, Stony Cove Pike and Ill Bell.  In all these excursions I never met more than a handful of people in an eerily empty landscape.

Sunrise on Ulgraves (click image to view)

I thought I might leave it at that, as 'running' is a bit of a misnomer for me these days. Age has not been kind, with acute stiffness and non-proverbial pains in the backside, but an idea had formed in my mind and the thought got the better of me.  I like staring at maps and an aesthetically pleasing loop presented itself, running all the way from the house over the Kentmere, Fairfield and Helvellyn fells to Pooley Bridge, and back again over the long High Street and Longsleddale ridges - a sort of extended Ullswater Horseshoe.  The route kept high so very few gate crossings, hardly any people and easy ground, making it a low risk enterprise.  If I did suffer an injury, I'd crawl off rather than call the rescue.  With no travel involved, I considered it a Covid compliant outing, albeit stretching the definition of 'local'.

Early morning light approaching Brunt Knott (click image to view)

So ten days later at 5am, I find myself once more pounding the hard earth up Ulgraves, to be greeted by sunrise on the summit.  I feel weary but mellow, and unlike in former years when I would have eased over such ground on fresh legs, I shuffle along with heavy legs.  I've learnt to adapt to this slower pace which has its advantages.  It allows time to fully imbibe the heady brew of birdsong, golden rays of sunshine on frosted ground and the freedom of open space.  In any case, it's too nice a morning to hurry, so I saunter over the familiar ground to Brunt Knott and onwards to Kentmere.  It's still early and there's little sign of activity beyond the cacophony of chirrupping birds and baaing lambs.  I had learnt my lesson from the previous Helvellyn excursion and fill up the water bottles before the climb to Yoke, for there would be precious little before the distant Dockray.

Looking to the head of Kentmere (click image to view)

Early morning grogginess wears off on the rollercoaster ride over Ill Bell and Froswick, and by Kirkstone I had seen no-one.  The car park is strangely deserted with not one car parked.  I pass a lady on the ascent of Red Screes, but she had walked from Ambleside and I am soon alone once more.  The high fells of the Lake District are a very different place when devoid of people - an empty quarter above the life of the valleys.  After weeks without rain, the land is parched and dried up; the greenery turned an ochre brown.  Yet this time I manage to find water near Scandale Pass and come upon the familiar face of Ben Abdelnoor, trying to sort out the mysteries of his iphone.  Our socially distanced chat is soon over and my day on the bare mountain  resumes.  Stone, earth and sky meets in an empty land.  No water, no people, little life. The tops pass silently - Dove Crag, Hart Crag, Fairfield, Seat Sandal, Dollywagon, Nethermost and finally Helvellyn where the reverie is broken by a few fellow escapees.  The summit is mine to savour alone, so I sit on the edge of the headwall to eat my lunch, legs above the last remaining vestiges of winter.

Post-lunch lethargy sets in for the romp over Raise to Stybarrow Dodd, leading to the unfamiliar tussocky slopes of Hartside and Common Fell. By Dockray I'm flagging, but what a place to flake out.  The shade of the rivcr provides a welcome relief from the intense sun, the burbling brook a rhythmic calm.  Fortified by afternoon tea, Gowbarrow comes and goes, then (for me) a road less travelled leads over Great and Little Meldrum to the grassy dome of Little Mell Fell.  As the haze of the day disappates to the softer shares of evening, a mellowness follows, amplified by the shady lanes leading to Pooley Bridge. Cyclists are in abundance, enjoying the balm of the evening and the gently lapping waves on the shores of Ullswater.  Hobbling along, I'm asked if I am okay, so I must look in pain, but I'm determined to make Pooley Bridge before stopping for tea.  I had discovered that the footbridge was closed whilst the crane was lifting the new bride in place, but to my relief, I am late enough to be able to cross and hobble my way through the village.  I am at the furthest reach of my journey and a longer than hoped for night beckons.

Last vestiges of light on Blencathra (click image to view)

A summer's evening is my favourite time of day when the harshness of midday is replaced by the richer tones of the golden hour.  At such a time, the flanks of the fjord-like Ullswater are a delight, and so it is with renewed vigour that I made the gradual ascent over Arthur's Pike to Loadpot Hill and thence to Wether Hill where darkness descends. With darkness, a fresh wind  has developed and with it a gripping chill.  I am ill-equipped for the cold which drove me onwards over the long, lonely miles to the windswept summit of High Street, and beyond that the homely dome of Harter Fell.  A full moon shines brightly from a clear sky, transforming the familiar to something quite magical - a world of silvery shadows and soft folds.  Time speeds up or more likely, I slow down, but time doesn't matter. I'm on no schedule, I just need to keep going, one foot after another, pole after pole.  The softness of the moonlight is replicated by the fuzziness of my thinking in the wee small hours.  I stumble onwards over the tussocks.  All I need to do is to keep moving and the end will draw nearer.   Night passes to day on Whiteside Pike and birdsong greets the new day.  The circle of the day is almost complete as I reach home.  Its as if nothing has changed, except me.  The journey has reached its end.

And the end of all expoloring will be to arrive where we started
 and know the place for the first time (TS Eliot - Little Gidding)

Monday, June 11, 2018

Assynt Traverse, 27-28 May 2018

50 miles, 21,000 feet, 27 hours

The wilds of Assynt hold a special place in many mountain lovers’ hearts and I am one of them.  Boasting only two solitary Munros, the lack of lofty mountains is more than compensated by a complex landscape of rocky knolls, a myriad of lochans, rivers and pools and shapely mountains that rise above, with the Western sea shimmering on those precious days of sun.  So when Tony Wimbush reported his inaugural Assynt Traverse in 2010, a seed was sown, and opportunity, resolve and a weather window finally came together eight years later in May 2018.

Whilst not the longest mountain run, at under 50 miles, the Assynt Traverse packs a punch that belies bare statistics.  For the most part it is trackless and rhythmless – a heady cocktail of sandstone towers, ankle twisting tussocks, angular stones, committing river crossings and heather bashing – but lest this description deter you, it is also a mountain connoisseur’s delight of sharp ridges, geologic history and lonely places.  So after 8 years, I finally headed North to have a go.

Story of My Traverse
Images from The Traverse
Route Details (Gofar web site)

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Strathfarrar Watershed, 27 February - 1 March 2017

A remote and committing round of the complete watershed of Strathfarrar in deep snow - 99 km, 7600m ascent, 50 hours 

The Strathfarrar Watershed

I love maps. My wife, Alison, will tell you that they are a staple of my bedtime reading, a doorway to new adventures that begin in the mind and some of which end in the reality of epic days and nights.  The Strathfarrar Watershed was borne of such bedtime perusing, nurtured over a few years but never realised until time, opportunity and motivation finally came together in February 2017.So it is that I found myself contemplating the first long winter journey for some time on a fair, breezy morning at the lowest reaches of one of Scotland’s longest glens.  I have the unaccustomed pleasure of my friend Tomas to send me on my way, but then I am on my own for the lonely miles to one of the most remote places in Britain, as I trace the watershed of Strathfarrar.   Read more

GPX File
OS Map

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Cuillin Round, 4-5 June 2016

The 'super traverse' of the Cuillin taking in the Red and Black Cuillin, 34 miles, 23,000 feet, 29 hours

The infamous Inn Pinn
Most outdoors people have heard of the Cuillin Ridge, and possibly the Greater Traverse extending this to Blaven and Clach Glas, but a much lesser known round is the "Cuillin Round". There's a reason for this -its much harder!  This is a circuit from Sligachan or Coruisk that takes in the Red Cuillin, Black Cuillin outliers, Sgurr na Stri and Sgurr Hain, as well as little extras on the Main Ridge. As of May 2016, there had only been two completions by bagger extraordinaire, Rob Woodall, and mountain goat, Yiannis Tridimas. The last of these was back in 1999, so after a short trip to Skye in May, the fire was kindled and I thought it was time I had a go.

On Sgurr Sgumain as the sun sets
It is completely different to any other 24 hour round, since it includes considerable sections of hard scrambling and easy climbing and requires an unroped approach to move at the necessary speed. The statistics are modest for a 24 hour round at 34 miles and 23-24,000 feet of ascent, but don't be fooled - the nature of the ground makes this very challenging.   It appealed to me because of the Alpine nature of the route and the high scrambling content. I had decided that I would prefer a more relaxed approach and a bivvy part way along, and in any case would be doing it solo and with very little if any support. I secured a lift to Skye and back courtesy of Guy but would have to be largely independent.

Near the end looking back at the ridge
I ended up completing nearly all of the Main Ridge as a recce on the Thursday during which I had a nasty injury to my leg, slept badly and lay around aching on the Friday, before attempting the round on the Saturday and Sunday. You can read my account below but I can summarise it as being one of my most memorable excursions and one to be treasured in my dotage.  Highlights included the turquoise sea at Coruisk, the ball of red fire setting from Sgurr Alasdair, climbing down the Inn Pinn by torchlight, the jagged silhouette of the ridge in the night, the testing direct descent from Blaven and the fine Knights Peak.  The heat reduced me to a wobbling wreck at times, meaning that I took 29 hours, but the attraction of shortening my time to do it in less than 24 hours is not sufficient to make me want to repeat the exercise in more favourable conditions and with the benefit of hindsight. I'll just treasure the experience.

Account of my Round


Detailed Information on the Round

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Torridon Ridges 11 March 2014

An Alpine day out on Liathach, Ben Alligin, Beinn Dearg and Beinn Eighe, 27 miles, 14,500 feet, 17 hours

After a winter of continuous gales, at last a high pressure window seemed to be merging, so having reserved the time, I drove the long miles to Torridon in anticipation of sun and snow.  I was disappointed to see that much of the heavy snow had disappeared, especially on Southern slopes, but the forecast wasn't wrong.  My planned night of relaxation at Kinlochewe bunkhouse didn't turn out to be quite as restful as I'd hoped, with just me and 4 builders in residence.  The hotel was shut and there's no common room, and not having much in common with 4 burly builders from Glasgow, the evening was not one of gazing into a fire dreaming of the day to come.  The snoring lived up to the potential implied their physique and I was glad to get up at 5:30 am after a very poor night indeed.

Spidean a Coire Leith
The wind was gusting strongly as I left the car at 6:15 am, but a vivid red sky lit up the hillside as I clambered up the path to the Eastern top.  I felt groggy and the rucksack seemed heavy, laden with cameras, kit and food for the day.  The lenticular clouds were testament to the breezy conditions but the snow was hard and I looked to be in for a good bracing day.  I had the Alpine crest of the sandstone fortress to myself and I was in no rush.  I did the out-and-back to the Eastern top, donning crampons for the graceful snowy crest that lay ahead.  I didn't feel like rushing and stopped frequently to savour the privilege of being in such a place, alone and blessed by blue skies.  The crest over Spidean a Coire Leith was a true Alpine crest followed by a relatively snow-less passage over Am Fasarinen, where frustrating mist began to blow in and out, obscuring the view and requiring some patience to capture photos of the claw-like cornices drooping over the depths below.  I got as close as I dared to the crack line, peering out through holes and back at the enticingly beautiful but deadly line of cornices.  The Northern Pinnacles looked particularly alluring with an untrodden mantle of curvaceous snow, but not for me today.  I jogged off to the West, arriving at the Coire Mhic Nobuil car park at 11:25 am.

Cornices leading up to Mullach an Rathain
I ate an early lunch in the shelter of the trees before resuming my journey up Tom na Gruagaich.  By the time I made the summit, the clouds had lifted and I saw the first people of the day.  They turned back at the summit where an icy stretch required spikes, but within 50 metres, they were rendered redundant.  The snow had been stripped on these seaward mountains, leaving just patches on the ridge.  I met a couple of Frenchmen near the gash and from then on saw just one other person - the hills were mine for the day.

Sgurr Mhor came and went and the sun resumed its ascendancy, banishing the clouds for another day.  I kept to the path off the Horns until I'd descended the steeper part, then headed off across the moor to the impending bulk of Beinn Dearg.  Fortified by a slab of Christmas cake, I laboured up the unrelenting slopes.  This is a brute of a hill, with no easy means of ascent.  I was glad of a sandwich behind the summit rocks, before scrambling down the broken ridge.

Liathach from Beinn Dearg
Someone had clearly abseiled the short step having left a loop of cord which I retrieved and pocketed.  With a glorious view of the Northern corries of Liathach, the descent was a joy and in the rich light of later afternoon, even the heathery moor failed to spoil a deep sense of well-being.  The sun beat down as I reached the set-stone path leading to Coire Mhic Fhearchair, drawing out the pink of the sandstone.  I even managed a jog once on the path, but that was soon ended by the steep scree leading up to Morrisons Gully.  I was still a little wary of potential avalanche and collapsing cornice risk, but the Gully seemed not to be overhung by a curtain of death, so I ate my last sandwich, put my crampons on and headed upwards.  Within a few minutes alarming fragments of ice started to whizz by - probably just a few bits off the side walls.  Another 50m up and the ice bullets became a bit more worrying, especially without a helmet, but I didn't fancy retreating all the way down.  I kept to the side and things quietened down which was just as well because the front-pointing was placing great demands on my feet and calves.  On my fellrunning shoes, the crampons just bent upwards as the angle steepened, placing a huge strain on my slipping feet.  There was nothing to ease the growing torture with nowhere to rest and just one axe for security.  I came across a bucket seat that a previous party had cut but that only gave temporary relief.  For the next 300m of vertical ascent I huffed and puffed up the ice, my lightweight axe failing to penetrate without an energetic thrust.  My legs and feet were screaming, I was all in, but I had to keep going.  Nightfall was now impending and the headwall was undeniably gloomy.  Grade I it might be, but 300m of calf and foot burning kicking and hearty thwacking with a featherweight axe was reducing me to a quivering jelly.  At the headwall, I traversed out to the right on ice but to my delight there was no cornice.  The beaming moon greeted me as I gratefully emerged from the confines of the gully.  It was 7pm.

I think that I was so relieved to escape from the gully that I continued to amble slowly along in the moonlight, legs still floppy sticks of jelly.  I was also dehydrated having consumed little more than 750ml of liquid all day, but I was now enjoying the day again, scrambling up the snow covered rocks to Coinneach Mor.  I didn't see the point of heading over to Ruadh Stac Mor.  It's a dull trog in the dark and  there was little merit in an unnecessary out-and-back.  I therefore set course for the long ridge toward Kinlochewe.  The snow had by now mostly refrozen, even on the crest and a three quarter moon negated the need for a torch.  There is little finer than a snowy crest under moonlight and with no schedule to meet I just went at a (slow) pace that my tormented legs could deal with.

The Black Carls the next morning
The pinnacles of the Black Carls were magnificent.  The sharp drop off the first pinnacle looked intimidating in the dark, but despite being more testing than anything on Liathach, was straightforward.  In the moonlight it was truly Alpine and an exhilarating finale to the traverse.  At 11:15pm I arrived back at the bunkhouse to be greeted by a cacophony of snoring builders.  Back to the real world!

More Images