I'm not sure what I was really expecting going into this obscure, yet not so obscure challenge known as the Bob Graham Round. Having never visited the Lake District before or really run in the fells, I knew nothing of the terrain and quite honestly hadn't given the run a great deal of thought prior to my arrival in the UK, so I was pretty much taking a stab in the dark with this one. Two days later, I'm sitting here feeling like I've come away with one of the most memorable mountain experiences of my year, earning a humbling appreciation for the Lake District terrain, while also gaining an understanding of the deep passion that the local community has for the British fells and the longstanding culture of racing, running and hiking in them.
For those in the US not familiar with the uniquely British activity known as fellrunning, then you should be thinking steep rugged hills on low-lying terrain, likelihood of crap weather and nasty underfoot conditions, trails optional, with maps and compasses very much required. To describe it as the British equivalent of US trail running would be misleading, as it is more of an orientering, mountain running hybrid than it is a trail running experience in the traditional sense of defined and well-flagged courses.
From what I could make out during my three days in the Lakes, the sport of fellrunning is centered on two main activities: Races and rounds. The tradition of the 'round' could be loosely compared to the emerging obsession in US trail running circles of the FKT. The round is a self-timed, honor-based undertaking done for personal challenge and the joy of an aesthetic line through challenging, scenic terrain, and typically undertaken with the help of a bunch of like-minded individuals all hoping to help you get through it in one piece.
The three 'classic' British rounds are based on bagging a pre-determined number of peaks in a looped fashion in under 24 hours. The Bob Graham (42 peaks) is generally considered the easiest round, with the Paddy Buckley in Snowdonia (Wales) conducted on rougher terrain, and the Ramsay Round in the Munros of Scotland (55 miles, 30,000' ascent) run in much more remote and committing terrain than the other two. But make no mistake, the Bob Graham is no walk in the park, especially when done in winter conditions.
A Bob Graham is not typically something that is done solo, especially for those who have never set foot in the Lakes before. And quite frankly, I think I was blessed with perhaps the best crew and hosts a newcomer to the fells could possibly have asked for. Dana, Stella and I were hosted by Wynn Cliff who, while not a runner herself, may well be one of the most passionate members of the running community I have ever met. If ever there was a person that epitomized the spirit of the Bob Graham Round, it is Wynn. She has crewed hundreds of Bob Graham aspirants in the 25 years that she's been involved with fell running, while also managing a successful local race with her husband Steve for the last 17 years.
For my attempt, not only did she create a movable and scrumptious support banquet, but she and Morgan Williams also managed to pull together a cast of unbelievable characters and adventurers from the fellrunning community. All of these people came out to support me - some bloke they had never met before - through god-awful weather in the middle of the night on a weekday a few days before Christmas. I am gob-smacked at the support I received from the community and have a heavy debt to repay.
While not by design, I had chosen the shortest day of the year to get myself around the 42-peak loop, eponymously named after the Keswick flop-house landlord who had originally scouted and completed it some 80 years previously. My start time was scheduled for 2:00 am, with first light coming up around 8:00 am and darkness redescending at 4:00 pm. As it turned out, I wouldn't see the sun all day.
I tried to grab some sleep before my 2:00 am launch, but with my daughter still on Colorado time and my mind racing, there was little point, so I whiled away the time playing with Stella who was quite convinced that late evening was in fact early afternoon. It was reminiscent of waiting for the delayed start of UTMB in August: tick tock.
We did eventually make our way down to Moot Hall in Keswick, the start and end point of the loop. In attendance were Wynn; Ian Roberts, crew member extraordinaire and teller of fell running lore; Yiannis Tridimas, a Greek expat who in his mid-sixties is still knocking out incredible feats of mountain endurance that would make many runners half his age envious; John Fleetwood, probably the toughest and craziest mountaineer I have ever met; and Huw Price, who was volunteered a few hours prior by his wife to come carry my gear for five hours through the night before heading off for his day's work.
As Huw, John and I ascended the 2,500 feet up our first summit of the day, I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about. Yes it was raining and we had very poor visibility, but there was no wind to speak of, very little snow and a gorgeous double-track trail to follow. And the grade really wasn't that steep either. Are these northerners a bit soft in the head? And then we approached Skiddaw ridge ... and all hell broke loose.
John and I had lost Huw on the way up, but because the fog was so heavy there was no way to know if he was ten meters or two miles behind. John assured me that Huw had a map and compass and would be fine. We had already been moving through a fair bit of snow and ice by the time the wind started picking up, and once we gained the summit ridge it became ferocious. Visibility was down to a few feet, the sleet was pummeling us, the rocks were covered in treacherous ice and I was beginning to wonder what in hell's name I had been thinking in signing up for this gig.
Had I been alone I would have been hopelessly lost and probably pretty desperate, but I knew that John was a very experienced mountaineer, so I just made sure to stay close. After gaining the summit, I followed John off the ridge onto a very, very steep and loose hillside. I wanted no part of this route, especially in the dire weather we were experiencing, and thankfully we ended up traversing a bit after the hillside appeared to cliff-off. Eventually we found the fence line we had been looking for and began dropping down a steep and wet snowfield into the boggy mess awaiting us below. I've rarely been more thankful to be off a summit.
The Bob Graham Round has become so popular since Richard Asquith penned Feet in the Clouds (which is to fell running as Born to Run is to ultrarunning) that with all the recce'ing and attempts that have been going on in recent years 'trods' have been worn into many parts of the route. Given the snow cover, we would have none of that advantage.
We slopped through the heather and bogs before re-ascending a couple thousand feet to our second peak (Great Calva): A mercifully cheap tag when compared to the hell that had been the top of Skiddaw. John's stories of being lost for 10 hours in knee-deep snow on a 50-hour mid-winter Munro round made me realise that things could of course be worse. And if his feats weren't impressive enough, then how about his 10-year-old son who at the age of six had completed every top in the Lake District and at the age of 10 had become the youngest ever to complete all the Munros? Astonishing and inspirational stuff.
After another long and wet snow-filled descent, we needed to cross a river in order to gain the northwest flanks of our third and final top of the first leg: Blencathra. However, given all the recent snow and now milder temperatures, there was a rapid thaw ongoing, which of course meant the water was flowing hard and deep. Bugger. Not wanting to get swept downriver, John and I spent a good half hour looking for a safe place to ford, finally finding an old fence line to hang on to for safety. Our trip upriver meant a bit of extra work getting back on course before the slog was back on through the snow on our way up and around Blencathra, where once again the wind was howling with abandon.
The slogging I could deal with, but the wind cutting through waterlogged clothing was downright miserable. I was ready to quit after this second major pummeling and was trying desperately to think of a believable excuse, but there was no way - not when so many people had given up their time and energy to try and get me through this misery. Waiting at the top of Blencathra was Yiannis who was to guide us down the 'parachute drop,' a gully descent that Yiannis had scouted a few years back as a quicker alternative to the traditional rocky descent off Hall's Fell Ridge. As the name suggests, the route is extraordinarily steep. On the wet snow I spent a good portion of it on my arse, but we did finally get down to the waiting crew in Threlkeld for some much needed warm calories, a change of clothes and a pep talk. Seeing Ian Barnes, my second navigator, bundled up and eager to go, I knew there was no way I could bring up my thoughts on dropping out.
Despite already being an hour behind the 24-hour schedule, I was assured that all was well and we would make up time from here on in. John and I did seem to have been dealt a particularly nasty hand on leg one, so perhaps things would get better with daylight. The way up Clough Head was entirely free of snow so Ian and I were able to make quick work of it. The wind was still blowing hard, but the precipitation had all but stopped by this point, making the going bearable. While day didn't really break, things did get lighter as we made our way up Clough Head, so I assume the sun did emerge somewhere high above the fog at the time it was scheduled to.
Ian, being the sociable chap that he is, was full of banter as we made our way up to the long ridge that we would be negotiating for the best part of the second leg. Like John, Ian has an intimate familiarity with the fells of the Lake District, although largely from a climbing background rather than a running background. I had to chuckle to myself when Ian described the visibility that we were dealing with as 'decent.' Sure, it was better than it had been through much of the night, but we were still talking 30 meters of visibility at best once we were on the ridge. I asked about electrical storms, but he assured me that wasn't a concern in the Lakes.
After picking up just three peaks in five hours on the first leg, we were rattling them off machine gun style on leg two. Gaining the ridge and the Clough Head top was definitely some work, but once up, the tops were coming for the price of no more than a few hundred feet of climbing and a half mile of running per bag. The conditions were decent on the ridge, but by no means good - the wind continued to rip; the footing was a mix of snow, slush and ice, the visibility sucked (sorry, was 'decent'); and my feet were in a state of permafrost - but at least we were taking down peaks.
I'm told that the navigation can be tricky up there on the ridge, but with a guy like Ian on your side, you just follow heels. The three Dodds came and went painlessly, we crossed the Sticks Pass four-way which gave access to the two valleys on either side of us (very scenic I was assured), tagged a handsome knoll of a summit called Raise, avoided some heavy cornices off to our left as the ridge tightened up, while gathering in the tops of White Side, Hellvellyn Lower Man, Hellvellyn proper, Nethermost Pike and Dollywagon Pike.
After Dollywagon we found the 'famous fence post' and dropped down a wet snowfield to the shores of Grisedale Tarn, my first body-of-water sighting on the day. We traversed around the eastern slopes of Seat Sandal fell, post-holing the whole way before heading due west and 900 feet straight up for the out and back on Fairfield fell. Barnsie was dropping off the pace a touch here, so I forged on and tagged the summit and then proceeded to miss him in the mist on the way back down. Fortunately I picked up his tracks in the snow, realised that we had missed each other and waited for a bit shivering in the wind while he made his way back down. No harm no foul. Back down to the valley and then straight up the other side onto Seat Sandal for the final top of the leg and a 1,600 foot descent to Dunmail and food.
By this point, I was pretty beaten down. My right knee on the inside tendon was giving me some serious gyp from all the snow work and manic descents, and my feet were of course still frozen. I tried to sell the knee issue to Ian as we descended into Dunmail to see if I might get some sympathy and a possible pass at bailing when we got to the support vehicles. He was having none of it, and I knew nobody else would either.
I mumbled something about a sore knee and poor pitiful me when I assumed the seated position at the side of the A591, but I've never been a very good salesman and I didn't even believe my pitch. However, I knew the next leg was very committing at 16 miles and 6 hours and I also knew that it would take me back into the gloomy dark of night - a place I hadn't much enjoyed just three and a half hours earlier.
Wynn's provisions were outstanding and a massive boost to the system. I think I put away three cups of leek and potato soup, a bunch of chocolate sponge cake, some pasta and a bunch of other fantastically awesome goodness. Ten minutes after stopping, I was ready to let rip. Barnsie had helped me pick up 20 minutes on the clock, I had fresh enthusiasm in the form of Billbo Williamson (navigator) and Richard (carrier) Davies and I could see clear up to the top of our next ridgeline 1,000 feet above. A view, finally! It really is quite amazing what a view can do for the spirits.
Steel Fell top was 1,000' of ascent in about three-quarters of a mile, which is pretty standard stuff in the Lakes. You just go straight up the hillside. I still had plenty of power left so was able to make quick work of the climb before proceeding to enjoy an unparalleled period of actual running. The two and half hours that we spent picking up Steel Fell, Calf Crag, High Raise, Sergeant Man (slight navigational error in heavy fog here), Thunacar Knott, Harrison Stickle, Pike of Stickle and Rossett Pike were far and away my favorite hours of the run. We would get short periods of visibility up to maybe half a mile where I was actually able to take in my surroundings and feed from them.
During this period, I truly thought for the first time since Skiddaw that I was actually going to get around. Standing on top of Harrison Stickle I was treated to a glorious view of (Lake) Windemere down the valley. Whereas previously I had unemotionally been tagging piles of rocks as a formality of the round, I found myself standing on top of Harrison Stickle breathing in the sweet air and basking in the visual feast below me. And wait a minute was that a ray of light poking through the clouds and the sound of angels playing sweet harpsichords to my left? There were reds, deep browns, lush greens and verdant blues - what else had I been missing? This one moment might just have been worth the previous 10 hours of foggy, boggy, soggy torture.
Pike of Stickle stood out like a camel's hump across the ghyll from Harrison, and we got some hands on rock scrambling up to the summit before unleashing an awesomely fun descent into the marshes of Martcrag Moor on our way to Rossett Pike. Yes we still had snow, slush and boggy mush to contend with but at least it was all largely runnable and more importantly, visible.
Of course it didn't last long and by the time we'd made our way around to Rossett Pike we were once again in the clouds and dealing with heavy snow cover. Richard made the executive decision to bail at the Langdale trail junction, assuring us that he would find a way to get back to his car. John (from leg 1) had said that he would meet us there - pretty much the halfway point of the leg - with some hot tea, but he was nowhere to be seen, so Billbo and I forged on, headed for the steep northeastern flanks of Bowfell. And then just like that the slog was back on.
The hillside was absolutely buried in nasty, wet snow. Nonetheless we were able to kick in good steps and despite the hands and feet climbing we were able to make steady, if slow, progress up the mountain. We would intermittently pick up stud tracks and I had my suspicions that John was going to be waiting for us on top of (a very blustery) Bowfell. And indeed by the time we finally got there, he was waiting with a couple of slices of Wynn's chocolate cake and a thermos of hot tea. Awesome.
Bill and I stopped for a few minutes to chat with John and discuss the route a bit. Bowfell had been no fun in the wind, and John was predicting worse on Scafell (the final ascent of the leg). I had already raked both shins numerous times on hidden boulders under snowy thigh-deep sink holes, but worse - much worse - was lying in wait on Scafell. However, before we got to what would be my last test of patience on the day, we had to trudge through the soft snow to pick up Esk Pike, Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag and Scafell Pike. I think we lost daylight somewhere in the middle of that section.
By this point, Bill was beginning to drag a bit but he was doing such an excellent job with the navigation that I was sure that we were still well ahead of schedule for this leg. Of course the wind was still howling, visibility was crap and my feet were frozen, but I was still positive about getting the job done. And then we dropped off Scafell Pike into the nastiest snow I've ever had the displeasure of moving over. I am guessing that the ground underneath was largely rock strewn as there was a heavy melt occurring from both the bottom and the top with up to probably three feet of not-quite slush in between.
Coming down off the Pike, Bill poked through up to his waist and let out a massive scream. I was sure he had broken his leg, but was hugely relieved to learn that it was just a severe calf cramp brought on by all the post-holing. We got some electrolytes down him and forged on...slowly. This was not a cushy carpet of pow pow that could be ripped down with careless abandon, it was a dangerous freaking minefield where one wrong step could spell disaster.
It was pitch black out and I was completely disoriented, but I had total faith in Bill's ability to navigate us out of this mess. We traversed across one very steep and particularly sketchy looking gully that was laden with snow. I had thoughts of avalanche just before Bill voiced similar concern. As wet as the snow was, the danger was probably very low, but I was still very relieved to get across that one in search of the gully that we would eventually climb up to get on top of Scafell.
I can't remember the name of our gully, but I do remember vividly how wet, steep and generally sketchy it was. The melt was in full effect and we were climbing up rocky waterfalls, punching through snow up to our waists every fifth kick-in, before the final straw came for me as I dropped through a snow bridge into a snowmelt creek up to my shoulders in snow.
That was it, I was done. This last peak was taking us hours and was quickly becoming quite dangerous. I wanted no more to do with this undertaking. I hauled myself out of my hole, caught up with Bill and re-began the treacherous trudge to the Scafell summit ridge. Finally we got out of our nasty little gully and the going opened up to a steep snowfield with far less melt on it. Now it was just a matter of kicking in the steps and getting up without sliding back down. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally gained the ridge, I tagged the summit block and then we got the hell out of dodge. I can't imagine we ascended much more than a thousand feet to get up Scafell, but I wouldn't be surprised if it took us an hour and half with the descent from the Pike.
The 3,000 foot, 1.5 mile descent over rocky ground to the vehicles at Wasdale was torture on my frozen stumps, but at least I knew that the end was nigh. Nobody was going to talk me into going on, besides we were now an hour back and I was convinced that we couldn't make that time back up, even if I had the will to go on. After 16.5 hours, 40 miles, 30 peaks and close to 20,000 feet of vertical gain I felt like I had put in a day's work that I could be proud of. No, I didn't complete the round, but that's okay. I know that with the right mindset I could have gone on and gotten it done, but I just wasn't mentally committed enough to the round to potentially go through another round of Scafell-type action unfortunately.
I had a fantastic time meeting an incredible cast of characters and really couldn't be more grateful to Bob Graham Club Secretary Morgan Williams for helping put together the contacts that made the experience possible. It's a bummer that we didn't get a chance to run the fifth and final leg together, but there will be other opportunities (in the summer).
I learned after I got home to Canterbury that two mountain rescue guys set out the night after I started and did indeed manage to get the job done just under the cut-off. Huge props to those guys, as I know exactly what they were dealing with. A successful Bob Graham Round done in true winter conditions is definitely more of a mountaineering experience than it is a running one, and therein lies the difference between my failed attempt and the successful one by those lads, I would surmise.
The Lakes may not have the altitude of some of the stuff we play on over in the Mountain West, but believe me they more than compensate in attitude. The British fells and the guys and gals who run on them are tough little buggers.