The Angry Corrie 59: Oct-Dec 2003

A fun day out on the fells

by Chris Upson

image from TAC59

BOB GRAHAM has a lot to answer for. In 1932, he made a name for himself by completing a round of 42 tops in the Lakes within 24 hours. The Bob Graham Round, or BGR, would not be repeated for 28 years, but has come to represent the benchmark 24-hour challenge for any reasonably fit hillrunner and has now seen around 1200 repeats.

The Scottish equivalent was established by Charlie Ramsay, who tackled 24 Munros around Glen Nevis in a time of 23 hours 58 minutes in 1978. The Ramsay Round drew on the earlier effort of Philip Tranter, who traversed the 18 Munros of the ridges on either side of the glen in the mid-1960s. The Ramsay covers far rougher terrain than does the BGR, and has only seen around 30 repeats inside 24 hours. Both the BGR and the Ramsay (and, presumably, the Tranter) started life by the question being asked: How many peaks can be climbed in 24 hours?

In the Lakes, this has been answered by extending the BGR to include ever more tops. The current record, 77, was achieved by Mark Hartell in 1997. In Scotland, the challenge has been to tackle the maximum number of Munros within 24 hours. Popular wisdom had Glen Nevis as the best place for this, and in 1987 Martin Stone extended the Ramsay by adding the two Munros south of Loch Ossian, thereby increasing the record to 26.

The following year, Jon Broxap plotted an audacious route around the Shiel/Affric Munros. Paced by top-calibre hillrunners including Mark Rigby and John Blair-Fish, Broxap climbed a phenomenal 28 Munros starting and finishing at the Cluanie Inn. Then, in 1991, Adrian Belton tried a further Ramsay extension towards the Ben Alder group. He managed an additional five hills while bypassing Beinn na Lap, thereby matching the Broxap tally of 28.

Has saturation point been reached? The Scottish Munro challenge has not progressed since Broxap and Belton: no one has managed to repeat or extend either round, although Colin Donnelly, with 26 Munros, came close to emulating Broxap in 1997. The answer to how many Munros can be climbed in 24 hours would appear to be a categorical 28. However, with the SMC around, things are never that simple.

In 1997, in a new edition of Munro's Tables, the SMC promoted eight tops to Munro status, including Sgurr na Carnach in Kintail. They also demoted Sgor an Iubhair (a Ramsay/Belton summit) in the Mamores, and this opened up clear water between Broxap and Belton without the former having to leave his armchair. The Broxap tally rose to 29, while Belton dropped to 27. (In fairness, the Broxap route is a considerably bigger undertaking, with at least 1200m more ascent over a similar distance.)

In the Lakes meanwhile, Joss Naylor extended the BGR to include 72 tops in 1975, before Hartell's 77-top effort in 1997. This will be tough to beat - but tops in the Lakes do not need any reascent qualification, so the list is somewhat arbitrary in terms of what warrants inclusion as a separate summit. For example, Coomb Height on the Hartell round has only three metres of reascent, and Watson's Dodd 10m. The Lakes record therefore includes a large number of fairly insignificant tops that help to boost the numbers.

All this arbitrariness and goalpost-shifting set me thinking about the maximum number of tops ever climbed in 24 hours with a given level of vertical independence, or drop. Clearly if 8000m is chosen as the drop factor then the maximum possible number is one. But what happens if you choose a drop figure of 150m?

AS READERS of this magazine will know, British hills with 150m of drop are called Marilyns and are listed in The Relative Hills of Britain, by Alan Dawson. If a hill does not meet the 150m drop criterion then tough, it's not a Marilyn. This immediately gets rid of any "soft touch" hills: the whole of the Dodds ridge north of Helvellyn is chucked out, for example.

Applying the 150m drop criterion to various big rounds gives the following totals:

Jon Broxap 19 Marilyns
Adrian Belton 18
Mark Hartell 16
Charlie Ramsay 15
Bob Graham 12

In other words, of Broxap's 29 Munros, only 19 have the full 150m drop. All these rounds pick up hills other than Marilyns, but I started wondering: on a route optimised to target only Marilyns, would it be possible to climb 24 in 24 hours?

I quickly discovered I wasn't the only person to think of this. Rob Woodall had looked at the problem in theory - discounting it as virtually impossible - while Chris Pearson had already made several unsuccessful attempts, with 18 Marilyns in 24 hours his best tally. (See TAC54, pp6-7.)

If I wanted to be the first person to do this, my only hope would be to get myself reasonably fit and to solve the non-trivial problem of working out a 24-hill route that might be linkable on foot within 24 hours.

I quickly whittled down the choices by selecting the Lake District, which has the advantage of good surfaces and plenty of paths. Eventually I found a route that felt just about possible for someone of my ability, but I was conscious that even this was still far bigger than anything I'd done before. So I kept telling myself that if it was only slightly longer than the BGR, then I should be OK.

Spring 2002 was spent reccying eight- or nine-hour sections with Kate Jenkins in heatwaves, rainstorms and deep snow. At the end of each stage I was shattered and couldn't imagine continuing for another 15 hours or so. It was during this time that two attempts were made at linking Pillar to High Stile before deciding this was a thoroughly bad and dangerous idea. These hills were deleted from my list and replaced with Baystones and the Eskdale Harter Fell - a switch which turned out to be the key to success.

Kate and I made an attempt at Lakes24, as I was now calling it, in June 2002. We started at 1am, but abandoned after just two hills in torrential rain, low cloud and zero visibility. This only made me more determined for next time.

I pulled a hamstring training for 2003 London Marathon, but managed to hobble round in 3hr 13min thinking the road miles and suffering would do me good. Two weeks later I did the Yorkshire Three Peaks race, followed by the Scottish Island Peaks race, the Jura race and the Duddon Long on consecutive weekends. If that's not enough mileage, I thought, I don't know what is.

MY DAD watched me disappear up Hallin Fell from Martindale Hause at 5am on 14 June 2003. It was cool clear weather, ideal for running: things looked more promising than the previous year. I made good progress over Place Fell, High Street and Stony Cove Pike, and was 90 minutes ahead of schedule at the A592. I was keen to build a healthy margin on the early sections, knowing I would need it later. After bagging the outlying Baystones, I jogged up the road to the Kirkstone Pass for the first food stop. It was 8:26am.

The next stretch was over Red Screes and Fairfield. It was a glorious morning and I was enjoying myself, jogging along deserted fells. St Sunday Crag made eight hills in five hours and I was pleased with how easy I was finding it - but I fell in a quagmire at the outflow of Grisedale Tarn and my shoes filled with slimy mud. The grit would later turn my feet to a mass of blisters.

I reached the top of Helvellyn at 11:07am. It was becoming warm, so I begged water and waved vaguely at hills in the distance to explain what I doing. I couldn't be bothered to explain what a Marilyn was. Over Seat Sandal, hill ten, then down to the Travellers Rest near Grasmere where I met my support team of Micky and Claire Ross for the first time. Feeling hot and frazzled, I made a mistake here: I should have changed socks, but preferred to keep going.

It was uncomfortably warm on the road towards Loughrigg, traffic roaring past. Hordes of ordinary walkers were sunning themselves and enjoying leisurely rambles. Descending Loughrigg my legs were hurting and felt slightly unstable for the first time - not a good sign. If my quads packed up then I would be finished.

At Elterwater the support car was waiting outside the Britannia Inn. The place was mobbed, crowds sitting out in the sun. I guzzled Lucozade and munched bananas, then shuffled on down the road. I was feeling ropy in the heat, but managed to catch some shade before breaking out into sunshine again on Lingmoor. The summit came one second before 2pm. Nine hours for 12 hills. So far so good. The descent was easy, the reverse of the Three Shires race route, and brought the nominal halfway point of Blea Tarn at 2:13pm. I was under no illusions that I was halfway in terms of effort, however. The second half had bigger climbs and rougher hills, not to mention fatigue and darkness later on.

Micky joined me for Pike of Blisco, and having company made the going easier and made me feel stronger. After Red Tarn there was a short climb across the shoulder of Cold Pike before a pleasant run down to Cockley Beck. Here I took my longest break so far: 12 minutes recovering in the shade before feeling fit to face Harter Fell.

An arrow of twigs left in March still marked a short cut I'd discovered through the forest, but it felt tough as the route was taking me southwest, the wrong direction. It was also the fourth time I'd been on this hill in 2003, and only two weeks since I'd checked out the link to Hard Knott during the Duddon Long race - so I was glad to see the back of it. I dropped Micky before the summit and cracked on to the Hard Knott road where Claire was waiting.

Here I slumped to my lowest ebb. The time was 5:15pm: I'd been going for just over 12 hours. The remaining eight hills seemed an impossible task. I was fairly sure I could reach Honister - but after that, I had no idea. The body was seizing up. I was slouching at the car, trying not to think of Scafell Pike, Great Gable, Kirk Fell. I was dangerously close to falling into a stupor. After 15 minutes of prevarication, I snapped out of it, shuffled eastward along the road for a few metres, then turned left, uphill.

Hard Knott summit came in 15 minutes - but led to the daunting approach to Scafell Pike, where the ground between Lingcove Beck and the Great Moss is a rollercoaster of hidden dips and rises. It was around 6:15pm when I crossed the Great Moss. Esk Buttress was still busy with climbers, but I didn't expect them to notice a lone runner plodding up the gully to the left of the crag. Worlds apart.

A spot of pacing wouldn't have gone amiss on the 600m slog up Scafell Pike. I was grinding to a halt, mind wandering. It was a relief when the angle eased and I could boulder-hop across to the summit of England. 7:27pm.

Now for the Corridor Route. Familiar ground, but today it was something else, with blisters causing pain on every footstrike. While passing some walkers I tried to up the tempo, so I wouldn't look like a complete cripple.

Climbing Great Gable, hill 17, didn't bother me. I'm always knackered here in the Borrowdale race, so it was no different. The descent was steep and awkward with plenty of scope for crocking myself. I looked back from Kirk Fell to see the evening light casting an orange glow across Gable's western flank. After Kirk Fell, Moses' Trod gave a fast runnable route to Honister - or would have done under normal circumstances. Blistered feet were now making running almost impossible.

I was falling off the pace. It was dark and midgy. Micky and Claire were concerned at my late arrival at Honister. I finally changed shoes and socks, but the damage was done. Micky joined me over Dale Head and Robinson. Again the company helped, but I can't say I was chatty. A red moon hung on the horizon, slowly turning orange then milky white. The sight of BGR headtorches in front spurred me on: I found I could run when there was something to chase. The descent from Robinson was steep but efficient, with a final grass precipice towards the headlights at Newlands Hause.

Here Micky dropped out and I was faced with a 600m ascent of Grasmoor in the dark with burning feet. I knew this was the crux: it was dark, I was tired, and I hadn't properly checked the route. And just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, I realised the hill was plastered in deep bracken.

After an awkward traverse to cross Sail Beck, the brutal slog up Wandope saw me losing all sense of time and perspective and grinding to a halt. The hill was so steep that the only way to keep any momentum was to adopt the child-going-upstairs all-fours technique.

image from TAC59

On Grasmoor I tried to up the tempo, but the feet were again making running difficult. I reached Grisedale Pike with only two hours 22 minutes left for the last two hills. I should be OK, I thought, so long as I don't do anything stupid - so I attacked the descent and did something stupid. On hitting the first forest track at Whinlatter I had a total mental block. Left then right? Right then left? No idea. Panic. I tried a short cut by a stream, but ended up thrashing through forest in the dark. Ten minutes were lost before I found the road.

I was so furious that I stormed up the hillside opposite without stopping for a drink, and promptly got confused in a labyrinth of paths and forest tracks. I reached the summit of Lord's Seat at 3:52am, but the safety margin had vanished.

The descent eastward brought some hideous bog before the track dropping steeply to the Swan Hotel. I had more or less given up: having been so far ahead, I'd blown it. I reached the road and told Micky that I'd had enough. My feet were agony and I thought it was about 4:30am. I had no intention of doing the final hill, Swinside, outside the 24 hours.

To my astonishment Micky was upbeat and encouraging, and said I could still do it. I thought he was kidding, but my watch showed it was only 4:14am. I couldn't believe it. A reprieve! I jettisoned the bumbag and started sprinting along the road towards Braithwaite.

My feet were forgotten. I focused on running technique and channelled energies for the closing moments. The road rolled by as I raced through the sleeping caravan park and reached the base of Swinside with 20 minutes in hand. A hurdle of the rusty fence, a thrash up through the undergrowth, and I was at the summit. The time? 23 hours 49 minutes 40 seconds.

Stats: 70 miles (112km), 29200 feet (8900m) of ascent.

Many thanks go to Micky and Claire for their support on the day, and to my dad for first taking me up Hallin Fell when I was five years old. To Rob Woodall for laying down the gauntlet as to whether 24 in 24 might be attainable, and to Kate for the long reccie runs of 2002. And most especially thanks to Chris Pearson. Without his enthusiastic efforts I might never have been spurred on to try my own Lakes24.

TAC 59 Index