Two Weekends One Summer

­This is a bleak tale of British weather, it describes incredible highs and desperate lows, Tells of how grown men can be reduced to tears by conditions totally out of their control, it shows just how cruel the elements can be in the high mountains where we choose to play our games, how months of training can be undone in just a few ­moments, how split second decisions, made under the most intense pressure in life threatening conditions, can make or break your destiny.­

Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon on Saturday 19th June 2004.  I was competing with Gill Harris on day 1 of the “A” Course at Glen Carron in Scotland; the weather forecast said it would be colder than normal! occasional showers, some heavy and prolonged in the afternoon. As we waited for the start at 9am the first drops of rain began to fall, we donned our waterproof tops; we marked our maps and set off still wearing our waterproof tops. From the start we gained height quickly, it was one of those days where one second you were hot and sweaty the next an icy blast would hit you and chill you to the bone.

We successfully navigated our way past the first few Check Points, clear visibility, intermittent rain, even a glint of brightness for a few moments. As we closed in on Check Point 3 the weather began to change, unbelievably snow was beginning to fall, and kept falling. We clipped in at Check Point 3 and headed back the way we had come, the wind had begun to pick up, blowing into our face, visibility deteriorated quickly. Our route to the next Check Point required us to cross a high ridge close to the summit of Sgurr Choinnich at 999m.

The obvious line took us up the western spur, conditions forcing us to rethink. We started to chase a more sheltered line, we moved round the corner crossing scree slopes and boulder fields, taking a near vertical line up the south west face of the mountain, snow blowing hard around us and beginning to gather in small drifts round rocks and on every clump of grass, we climbed over a 1000ft in less than a mile, but still the icy cold bit. Once on the top it was even worse, we were exposed to the full power of the elements, there was no hiding place, no shelter, visibility was down to a few hundred feet. We needed to get off the top quickly but our priority was to find the check point on the other side of the ridge, first we must orientate ourselves, a mistake
here could be costly in terms of time, even survival. I started to recognised the first signs of exposure within myself, my body temperature was falling, I could no longer feel my hands or my arms, ‘mustn’t panic,’ I thought. we took a best estimate on our location, with numb fingers I clumsily I took a rough bearing, Gill agreed with the direction so off we set into the murk. Down we dropped on a steep grassy slope, slipping and sliding my legs felt like they did not belong to me, every fall was into soaking wet ground. It felt like there was no end to it. Just then visibility began to improve, we could see the stream system where the Check Point should be, here we should be able to find shelter and chance to change into warmer kit.

In Mountain Marathons your kit is cut down to the minimum. I carried two spare tops but one had to be kept dry for the overnight camp. I took off my waterproof and my pertex, put on my second thermal but with cold fingers could not redo my zips, no matter how hard I tried I could not coordinate my fingers and pull the zipper up, in the end Gill had to help me, I left my pertex open and just did up the waterproof, added to this I put on waterproof trousers, took in some food and tried to set off.

The obvious route choice for our next CP took us high again, but with the weather still set in and my strength low we decided on a low level option, a much longer, but safer option, I felt ill. I wanted to lie down and sleep, I wanted to stop and retire, but I kept pushing on. I’d retired before and didn’t like that, pain only lasts for a while, retiring lasts for ever, besides we were miles from anywhere and I couldn’t see any Taxis, we pushed on.

An hour later I started to pick up, we even caught up a team in front, the next CP eventually arrived, an inspired route choice over the top a 996m Munro, Carn nam Fiaclan, and we were back feeling good. The last few check points were soon found, 8hrs 12min’s after we’d started we were safely back at the overnight camp, to our surprise we had finished in the top 15 and were the leading mixed pair by the smallest of margins.

The next day inspired by our feeling of success we pushed on to an even better position, eventually ending up in 12th position and winning the mixed pairs by over 20 minutes.

One Week Later

Andy Davies attempted Bob Graham Round; I had joined Andy’s support crew with just a small bit part to play, keen for a run of some sort but not expecting to be able to keep up any sort of pace after the efforts of the previous week. I had agreed to run up Langdale to Rosset Gill with extra water supplies for Andy and his pacers, the plan was to tag along at the back then drop off when I had had enough.

Andy had started out in perfect weather over Skiddaw at 3am, but there was a storm forecast for the following afternoon. The first signs of a change in the weather hit the runners as they cross the Dodd’s towards Helvellyn, as stage three started from Dunmail Raise rain began to fall but everyone was still very positive and hopeful conditions would remain OK for Andy to complete his round.

Three hours later we met at our rendezvous point near Angle Tarn, joining the group we headed into the clouds in search of Bowfell. I bumbled along at their sides, I hadn’t got my map at hand, it was deep down in my rucsac. I had little time to change and sort my gear out when I saw the runners approach, neither did I have any idea of the exact route, but there again I didn’t need to, I was only there for a bit of fun and Andy had two of Mercia’s best navigators looking after him in Paul Cadman and Ian Cowie.

Andy ticked off the next few summits easily enough but the weather was worsening, visibility was grim, the rocks slippy and treacherous, the wind and rain relentless. Paul decided to drop off at Esk Hause leaving just the three of us, Ian map and compass in hand guiding us, I ran with Andy, trying everything to help, feeding him drinks, holding his feet steady on tricky rock steps, shielding him from the worst of the wind the best I could. However the pace was slowing, the weather taking its toll, I was starting to get cold; I needed to stop and put on more clothes, the problem was I didn’t feel I could, I didn’t know where I was, not a clue, if the two left me by more than 20 metres I would never find them again, surely it could not be long now, ‘I’ll just have to keep going,’ I thought, ‘we should be getting near Scafell Pike soon.’

Everywhere looked the same, black wet rocks, swirling clouds, rain, lots of rain, lashing into us in the gale force winds and the noise it was making preventing any real communication. It seemed like an age afterwards we reached a top with a large wind shelter, this must be it I thought, we pushed on, Ian and Andy tried to converse, but in our exposed position with the wind, the rain and everything it’s not surprising what happened next. We began to descend steeply, we went down and down for what seemed ages, eventually we dropped out of the cloud and we could see where we were going, but what was in front was not Mickledore, instead we found Lingmell Nose, in the pressure of the moment, in our hast to get off the top and out of those horrid conditions, a small misunderstanding about which cairns to follow resulted in a massive mistake, we had taken the wrong path completely.

To get back on course we had to traverse about 1.5 km round to Brown Tongue then climb up to Mickledore, at least that managed to warm me up a bit. We then struggled to find the start of the rock pitch, eventually finding Phil Harris who had been tied to his belay point on Broadstand for over 2 hours. We were now back in black swirling clouds, the rain still pouring down, the rock face had turned into a waterfall most of it descending down on top of Phil. He was dressed from head to foot in dark waterproofs, hood pulled up to keep out the worst of the weather completely covering his face, for all the world he looked like the Grim Reaper come to collect his rewards.

I tied Andy onto the rope, then Ian. The two disappeared into the murk in search of Scafell. More time was lost in their attempt to find a safe route through the bands of rock.

All was not lost though, Andy’s schedule gave him lots of time in hand if all he wanted to do was break 24hours, but as he descended into Wasdale you could sense he had had enough, the weather had taken its toll, feeling weary from fighting the wind and rain, stomach churning unable to eat, the difficulties under foot, the problems in navigation had all combined together and enough was enough.

It was with great disappointment to us all that Andy was forced to call it a day, he and the whole team had put in so much effort, and there is no doubt that he was more than capable of completing the round if only the weather had been kinder.

For the second time in a week I had found myself coming down off the fell dressed in full waterproofs having experienced some of the most hostile weather conditions imaginable, conditions that I have rarely had to endure in the depths of winter, and this was supposed to be our summer. Mountain Craft is an important part of our sport, bad weather can turn our paradise into a living hell, when it happens like this the only safe decisions can be to go down and seek more sheltered ground, sometimes we must even give up entirely, because the place we choose to
play our games can be a deadly, as one of Britain’s Top Mountain Marathon runners once said to me, “People die out there”.