The Angry Corrie 54: Jul-Aug 2002


Chris Pearson

WHEN I FIRST came across a copy of Alan Dawson's The Relative Hills of Britain in 1992, I was on a high from having recently completed (with 12 minutes to spare) the Bob Graham Round in the Lakes: 72 miles and 42 peaks with 25,000 feet of ascent in under 24 hours. I had also done the first Irish Munros coast-to-coast in under 24 hours, and the regular Three Peaks (Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis), with a rock climb up each, again within 24 hours. I was on a bit of a roll, so thoughts turned to wondering what sort of 24-hour challenge could be devised from these "new Marilyns". Twenty-four Marilyns in 24 hours sounded neat. The challenge was in finding the optimum combination of 24 hills - anywhere in Britain.

As things stood, the 24-hour Marilyn record belonged to Jon Broxap of Kendal with 19 - a by-product of his outstanding 28 (pre-1997) Munros in the Cluanie and Shiel hills in June 1988. This had involved 70 miles and 32,650ft of ascent. (See - Ed.)

Five years passed. Then...

Attempt 1: August 1997

A cycling and running link of Shropshire / mid-Wales Marilyns. Although "self-propelled", the three of us did have a friend in a car in support. We started on top of Long Mynd - with an immediate eye-watering zoom downhill. After five Marilyns, trouble with a bottom bracket caused Rob Small to pull out, and shortly after that Lesley Atchison decided that cycling like the clappers and running on jelly legs was silly. This left me to push on alone. I managed nine Marilyns in ten hours - already one hour over the schedule, casting doubt on the likely success. With darkness and rain approaching, and friends out of the running, a pub meal in Ludlow proved too tempting.

Attempt 2: May 2001

Western Isles. Complicated logistics involved pre-placed food dumps and several hidden bikes. Started with a lift across Loch Seaforth in a fish-farm boat to the Pairc hills, which gave swift progress northward (six Marilyns in four hours). Here the attempt was abandoned! Despite perfect weather, dry hills and minimal darkness, the realisation of a lack of hill-running fitness required for a big day/ night - blame foot and mouth - led to a radical change of plan. (As did a change of heart by Lesley, who wanted to continue running the hills rather than waste a day moving bikes around - understandable.)

Attempt 3: August 2001

Glenfinnan. Solo, with no support, food dumps or bicycles. Started on top of Aodann Chleireig and got as far as Braigh nan Uamhachan (six Marilyns). Very rough going meant that I couldn't run downhill: welcome to the west. I was soon behind schedule and started to look for excuses. There was a less than ideal forecast - squally showers - and the view of the 500m reascent to Streap was enough to put the lid on the attempt. Another early retirement.

Attempt 4: March 2002

Lakes. Newlands Hause at 0430. Parking not a problem. Robinson summit at 0500: time to slow down, going too fast on adrenaline. Jogging along the frosty ridge toward Dale Head, I could see for miles across the black solid shapes of fells bathed in moonlight. Best of all - out across the eastern sky - a growing band of daybreak. They don't sell that in garden centres.

Daylight arrived on the easy grass down to Honister, where the first of many sachets of Complan was mixed in the beck. My secret weapon proclaimed on the packet that it was "ideal for invalids and athletes". After the climb over Grey Knotts (is it quicker to go around?), enjoyably level running followed below the north-facing cliffs of Great Gable. The sun was slanting on to the top groove of the Engineer's Slabs.

Jogging back across the Kirk Fell plateau brought another wonderful early lighting effect: the low sun dazzling on the frost-covered moss, contrasting with the black shadows from every rock. A great time to be on the hill. Great Gable and Scafell Pike are not really runner's peaks - "nothing but rocks". I followed the Corridor Route, then found a direct way up shifting scree to the slippery summit rocks of England.

I guess most hillgoers have experienced being out in totally inappropriate footwear and praying that they don't have an accident because of all the tutting and bad press it would attract. This was such a moment, wearing running shoes and trying to run (ha!) across the sharp and ice-coated boulder field. (Minor really compared with walking down the Mer de Glace above Chamonix in rock boots after a farce when we had abseiled down the wrong crag. When anyone approached, we stood behind rocks so they couldn't see our feet.)

From Scafell Pike the next objective was Hard Knott - lost down in the vastness of upper Eskdale. Could I really get there in the scheduled 90 minutes? Slowly down via Mickledore and finally back on to grass. Bliss.

Down to the Great Moss (aka Great Swamp) and time for another Complan-and-blister control. T-shirt and shorts in warm sunshine now - tremendous for March. Some crafty weaving around bumps minimised the climb up Hard Knott - reached in the allocated/guessed time.

I stood on the road in six hours, six Marilyns done, bang on the requirement. My hidden mountain bike and food, placed the day before, remained undiscovered; I just had to remember the combination. (I was to use two bikes, having decided that an all-on-foot attempt was not for me.) First, though, I nipped up Harter Fell eating as many bananas as possible. The top was an outstanding viewpoint for the Scafells.

Back to the bike. More food and drink and a change into fresh clothing and dry shoes: a wonderful morale boost. I left the smelly, sweaty unwanted kit spread out in the sun to be collected next day. Now for the novelty of a bike ride. A super-fast brake-squealing descent of the one-in-four road left me frozen, but it was so nice to be sitting down, after a fashion, until the legs had to start doing strange round-and-round movements up Wrynose. I dumped the bike and sack and ran, uncluttered apart from a water bottle, on a direct line up Pike of Blisco. I had been here at New Year with a cloud inversion over Langdale. Today, people were sunning themselves on top.

A ten-minute run brought the bike and another finger-gripping zoom down and along before Lingmoor's brutal 250m climb through the still-dead bracken - an advantage of an Easter attempt. The next bit of my plan I liked: a link to little Holme Fell. Using a bike allowed a short cut through the woods and slate quarries: a beautiful, intricate place. The fell itself is an easy ascent, but I was hugely helped by having been here before, as paths wander all over. It was the first "mountain" I had taken my five-year-old nephew up, the bracken taller than him.

Loughrigg Fell looked a long way off, even with wheels. More rough tracks and a descent to Skelwith Bridge (ignoring the temptation of ice-cream), then a steep push/ride up Red Bank for the laser-direct path. Eleven Marilyns in 11 hours. So far so good (said the man falling with no parachute).

Same routine now: run down, unlock the bike from its fiddly combination, then zoom downhill, this time into Grasmere. Here the plan involved a café stop for a pot of tea and a jacket potato to try and refuel the body before part two: the long cold night.

Twelve hours in, I knew Seat Sandal was where I would have to dig into reserves: a 600m climb, 2000 feet in old money. Big either way. Easy grass at a steady angle - nothing untoward, just a long drag. I knew not to keep looking up, but couldn't help it. The sheep at the summit looked so small it might as well have been on the moon. The top finally came in 75 minutes: not bad going, but I was losing time. Hopes that something would "kick in" over Fairfield failed to materialise. Complan kept me going, but with little speed. A cold wind was rising as the sun started to set at 1900. I began to have doubts.

Mental calculations on options and timings followed. I wasn't carrying money for an impromptu B&B or taxi ride for nothing, and came up with a compromise plan - to reduce the attempt to 20 Marilyns within the 24 hours, missing out Red Screes, Baystones, Caudale Moor and High Street. Twenty would be nice. I could settle into comfortable-plod mode and the modified plan would be in the bag. Piece of cake. No problem.

Back into moonlight on St Sunday Crag with a screaming wind developing as the temperature plummeted. Cocooned in a down jacket (carried from the start as a last-minute thought) and feeling the pressure was off, I rather enjoyed walking down to Patterdale by moonlight, even chatting to two lads who were looking in vain for somewhere to camp on the steep hillside.

Somehow three whole hours passed between St Sunday and Place Fell, Marilyn 15. An hour went on the 300m climb from Boredale Hause as I needed to keep resting, weak with a combination of tiredness, the sapping cold and decreasing energy reserves. The routine was sit down / chocolate / swig of Complan / continue. I just had to get over Place Fell, then it would be down to the second bike and some small hills to finish.

From Place Fell a direct, steep descent through dead bracken brought the Boredale Head road-end. This brought a revival of spirits as I collected my bike and more goodies from behind a wall - but a loose wheel-nut could only be hand-tightened. With a lack of alternatives, I reasoned it should be OK if I cycled slowly, and the glide down the moonlit road to Martindale gave a welcome sit down. The wheel seemed fine. At St Peter's Church, I had just leant the bike against the graveyard wall when an eerie screeching broke out. A fox slunk away.

The easiest of ascents followed: Hallin Fell on well-walked grass for a midnight view of moonlight on the lake, then a stiff-legged jog down. I enjoyed the haul around Ullswater, with all sorts of noises going on in the hedges from nightlife that panicked away as my wheels swished past. I rested in Pooley Bridge for a chilled banana, but before starting to feel sorry for myself pushed on uphill for ages to below Little Mell Fell, craving sleep. I had planned for weariness and had a strategy to cope: to draw strength from comparing how cushy these slopes were to a forced Alpine bivvy which really does seem endless and with the added worry of being in a dangerous spot. But I still felt done in: a stop for soup would have been a better strategy.

It was 0300 as I cycled toward the black bulk of Great Mell Fell: my final Marilyn. Leaving the bike for the last time I drifted up through a Tolkien world of twisted trees and moon shadows. The top came at 0404 and I was back at the bike by half past after a slight navigational hiccup on descent.

Time up. Twenty-four hours since Newlands Hause. Eighteen Marilyns climbed. I had hoped to add High Rigg and Swinside and cycle back to Newlands Hause to complete a circuit, but no chance, not tonight. I had had quite enough, thank you very much - and, this being a self-supported outing, I still had 13 miles to cycle to my tent at Keswick. At least the main road was smooth and a lot of it downhill.

As I arrived, the sun reappeared to thaw the frozen earth. I was crawling into my tent when the campsite owner, after his money, greeted me with: "You're up early. Off out for a big day?"

"Er. No."

Attempt 5: June 2002

Bridge of Orchy / Glen Lyon. Too much wind. Too many bogs. Too much effort. I managed 16 all-on-foot Marilyns in 22 hours. All 24 would only have been 54 miles and 23,000 feet of up, less than the Bob Graham but rougher underfoot. (An interesting use of "only" - Ed.)

All went well for the first 12 Marilyns, done within 11 hours (10:52 to be precise), top to top. The route was Stuchd an Lochain, Sron a'Choire Chnapanich, Meall Buidhe, Beinns a'Chreachain, Achaladair, an Dothaidh, Mhanach, nam Fuaran, a'Chaisteil, Chaorach, then Cam Chreag and Creag Mhor. This looks good on paper, but I had already decided to miss two big climbs (Beinn Odhar, Ben Challum) due to having bashed into a wind for much of the day. I had had hopes of floating across hills in vest and shorts, not battering against a gale with cag on and hood up.

I made a meal of the craggy descent from Creag Mhor in the last of the daylight, and then the climb up Beinn Heasgarnich was really sapping. Reached the road to the west of Meall nan Subh at 0130, still on schedule (in theory) for a possible 22. Until here I had been supported by four friends either running or tucked into hill tops / valley crossings with refreshments. The next 14km over Meall nan Subh, Meall Ghaordaidh and Beinn nan Oighreag were to be on my own, before meeting my last support for breakfast and the (relatively) easier terrain of the six Lawers Marilyns.

I lost two-and-a-half hours floundering in the dark through heather and boulders between Meall nan Subh and Meall Ghaordaidh. Hamish Brown has described this section as very tough going, or something similar, and I had tried to be clever by dropping north to avoid the watershed bogs, but without finding much in the way of easy ground. As daylight returned, the clag closed in and it started to rain. A slow plod on a selection of bearings saw me finally splash across to the road and the support crew (Lesley, my girlfriend, peering anxiously out of a tent). I was two hours over schedule, tired and soggy. An all-out crawl might have added another two Marilyns within the 24-hour deadline, but I certainly couldn't do the three needed to equal the Broxap record of 19. So I called it a day.

The good news is that my knees were fine, there were no blisters (although trench foot seemed likely) and my support team are keen for another attempt, most likely back in the Lakes. So it will soon be time to get the bike out once again...

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