This is a very long post. The principle reason for that, is that I'm trying to clear my head a little after this weekend's attempt and working on this 'project' for such a long time. Good luck making it to the end....
Every Bob Graham Round blog post starts with a description of what it is, so I'll keep it simple and just say it's a long distance fell run in the Lake District, originally created, attempted and completed by a guest-house owner from Keswick, Bob Graham, back in 1932. Here is the offical club website if you want to know a bit more. To call it a challenge is to miss the point really. To be successful you need to immerse yourself in the route and to get to know the land, the weather and how those things interact with one another.
You can't really put numbers on it, because everyone's route is different, the only hard and fast being that you need to make it back to Keswick, having crossed the 42 named peaks within 24hrs. That's how Bob did it so that's how I wanted to do it. Having put together the pieces of the jigsaw over previous recce's and using this weekends data, it's about 68 miles with about 27,000 feet of climb. This doesn't really tell the full story, because the ground underfoot is so hard in places that it really does have to be seen to be believed. Running is a real impossibility for very large parts of the route, some sections closer to climbing. It's much more about fell experience/ speed, which is something which can only really be worked on, on the fells.
I wanted to run the BGR as an official attempt ie. within the rules of the club, which deem you must have a witness to each summit reached. We had a crack team of 6 for this effort. I was the one doing the running, but the team were going to make it happen. Drew Sheffield, Claire Shelley, Louise Ayling, Paul Navesey and Jason Lewis were along for the ride.
The plan was to start out from Moot Hall in Keswick Town Centre at 0100 on Saturday morning. Paul Navesey and I would run Leg 1, then pick up supplies from our sponsors Lyon Equipment in Threlkeld. Or rather Corin who runs the social media side was kind enough to leave a bag of milk, cheese and sausage rolls for us on his back wall.
We arrived in the Lakes late Friday afternoon and after various failed attempts to get any sleep, I gave up. Drew and Claire drove us down to Keswick and we got straight off at 0043. Paul and I ran up to the car park at the bottom of Skiddaw, and ran/ hiked our way up the first climb of the day, 3000 feet. It was dark, but clear and a few people had messaged saying it was a perfect night and good luck. But as we got to the bottom of the summit ridge, the hill fog (this is called clag in t'north so I'm going to call it that from now on) suddenly blew in on a reasonable wind and brough the visibility down to about 10 metres.
We knew the climb well so found the summit easily enough, 69 minutes gone and a good start, but made our first big error coming off this very first peak. Like a couple of southern lads up trying to mix it on the fells, we navigated ourselves straight off of the wrong side of the mountain. Those who are experienced enough to call themselves fell runners will already have their heads in their hands. After 10 minutes of trying to work out what had gone wrong, we started trying to make our way back across to the path, and found ourselves getting further and further apart in height terms, trying to negotiate a bigger and bigger drop off what was clearly a substantial crag. I looked up a few minutes later and Paul was a long way above me, shouting that he felt we shouldn't go any further. Paul is not normally concerned by considerable drops off of rock clefts, but his words were 'mate it's pretty steep over here' which confirmed what I was finding. We back tracked the way we'd come and made our way back over the top of the crag with the help of the map, and finally found our way back to the fence line we needed.
On to Peak number 2, Great Calva. We found the now well trodden track down to Hare Crag and just as soon as we slapped each other on the back for making right again, we found ourselves in piles of knee deep heather. We should have just gotten on with it, because that path is new anyway and a simple bearing is enough, but instead we zigzagged back and forth all the way down to the bog at the bottom, never finding the path, until we eventually crossed the main track right at the foot of Calva. We'd now wasted two significant chunks of time. Solid.
The next section to Blencathra was good. Finally we got something right. We dropped down and crossed through the thick scratchy heather and over the river before setting up on the mind numbing hike up the steep grassy slope to what we've come to know as Mung Bog (Mungrisdale Common, actually a Wainwright top).
Paul on a recce making it through the heather underneath Blencathra
From there we climbed on to Blencathra hitting our planned split. We'd reached it in 3hrs15 total, so although we'd had a shocker, with a nice descent in to Threlkeld in a generous 30 minutes we'd still be off leg one in good time. Like a couple of total charlie's we started descending Doddick Fell, a good more runnable alternative to Halls Fell which would have been sketchy at best in the greasy rocks and thick fog, and promptly ended up descending Scales Fell instead.
Paul coming off Hall's Fell in training
This is miles east of where we wanted to be and once we were on that path there was no easy way to cut back over again. So we committed to it and ended up spending 45 minutes getting to threlkeld and shedding another 20 minutes off the plan in the process. The Bob isn't the sort of thing where you have bags of time to throw about, particularly if you have to map read much of it on the fly, but we still had enough to play with.
At Threlkeld we picked up some supplies and made our way to the foot of the climb up on to the ridge, Clough Daddy (Head). Clough Daddy is a grunt. We were soon up however and were greeted once again by our old friend, thick clag. Because it was 5am and I'd been up since the previous morning, I started feeling a bit woozey so down went the first couple of Pro Plus of the day.
We couldn't see anything so out came the map and on we made our way to Great Dodd. This section passed uneventfully, but then things started to unravel again. The Dodds, on a clear day, are visibile from one another and it's the best and easiest running of the entire BGR. When you can't see 20 feet in front of you, it's a confusing area of non-distinct open grass. We'd done leg one in the dark, specifically so we could run leg two in daylight and see the lines, but that plan was thwarted. We ran on to Watsons Dodd, going completely the wrong direction at first, then running past it, then running around in a circle trying to locate the summit cairn.
On to Stybarrow Dodd, standing around with the map trying to orientate ourselves both on to it, and off of it and on to Raise, wasting more time in doing so. The peaks on leg 2 continue to be really runnable and relatively very easy going, and in fact we did well over Helvellyn Lower Man, Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike and Dollywagon Pike, the next run of tops. We dropped down the steep grassy slope to Grisedale Tarn and out of the cloud for the first time since the start of the leg. I was now feeling decidly woozey with general sleepiness and my power on the climbs/ control on the descents showed the first signs of deserting me.
The end of leg 2 is a bit of a kicker, with a short but steep out and back climb up Fairfield, over Seat Sandal and on down to Dunmail Raise.
The Fairfield out and back climb on the shouler of the fell is visible up through the grass and then scree. Taken from Seat Sandal, the next peak in the round and the last on leg 2.
I slogged it up and down Fairfield, dragged up Seat Sandal and finally we had some good fortune as we stumbled on to the path off the front side of Seat Sandal giving us the best route off of there possible. I reached the road at the end of Leg 2 in a total time of 8:25, 1hr55 off of my ETA and bang on the money for the 24hr schedule ie. there was now no spare time to lose on any leg. As I knew I would have to map read leg 3 on the fly I was starting to get concerned.
Leg 3 of the BGR is basically a series of three plateaus, each one ascending in height to the heighest point in the country, before the biggest descent of the round, to Wasdale Head. To gain the first plateau, you have to climb Steel Fell. Steel Fell is short and anywhere else but on the BGR would be deemed stupid steep. Jason was now in pacing and he and I grunted our way up there and I did start to feel a little better. Once up Steel Fell it's straight forward running over Calf Crag, before a climb up to plateau number two containing a lot of fairly runnable sections between stunning peaks like Harrison Stickle and Pike O'Stickle, but each peak tends to be a bit of a rocky scramble.
The path up Harrison Stickle from below
You then have a long run around a pretty average bog called Martcrag Moor, before a boulder ascent up to Rossett Pike, roughly the mid way point of leg 3. We took a horrible line to Rossett and lost 20 mins covering ground we needn't have gone over. Looking across at the climb to Bowfell from Rossett Pike, well, I had to face the other way while I had my 2 minute break there. It is one intimidating looking hulk of a mountain from that side. I was moving badly, my legs felt good but I was in that woozey state that now 32 hours without sleep, will induce, and I just had no real power to get moving quickly. Every peak we'd take a slightly roundabout route shedding time like confetti. I was navigating on the fly a lot of the time because of our lack of knowledge, I'd been up there only once and Jason not at all. But we were still in the game and in with a chance, despite things stacking up against us. To make matters worse now we reached Bowfell, I was relying on my studying of the maps/ research in the lead up. To my surprise we nailed the ascent to Bowfell. This was a massive confidence boost, as in my head, this was one of the two final remaining crux points to this leg. We even hit it on the schedule I'd guesstimated from various plans. Bowfell is what I think of as the third plateau. This is now the run of the highest peaks as the BGR takes you up to Esk Pike, Great End then on to two crags - Ill and Broad - before you haul yourself up to the top of Scafell Pike, Englands highest point at 978m.
This section went well. Despite having never seen it before, my research and the good visibility plus clear paths made it straight foward enough. Underfoot, it's another world, it's like someone has picked up all the rocks in England and just thrown them in massive piles. Heading up to the peaks, it's not really running or hiking, it's more jumping. The top of Scafell Pike was teeming with people but we just tagged it and moved on, to the second major crux of leg 3 and the one that held potentially the biggest problem.
Sca Fell is the very slightly lower sibling of Scafell Pike. As if being slightly lower wasn't enough to tempting visitors not to bother going, it's really difficult to reach. At best it's tricky and off putting scramble including a big drop and a big climb again. There are three options. The first, and by far the fastest, is a rock climb up Broad Stand. The long and short of Broad Stand is that it is actual climbing requiring a level of skill, exposed and the penalty for a fall would most like be fatal. As such, to get up it you really need to be top roped by people that know what they are doing. We didn't have someone top roping. So the other two options present. Firstly, you can drop to the left all the way down to Foxes Tarn and back up again which costs bag loads of time. Or you can negotiate the famous Lord's Rake. A sort of 'middle ground'. We went for option 3.
We descended to Mickledore, the ridge between the two and went for it.
Mickeldore. Broad Stand is the climb directly ahead. Foxes Tarn drop to the left, Lord's Rake drop to the right
The drop in to Lord's Rake is pretty steep and loose. We took a poor line and made it worse, but we got around and in to the bottom of it ok.
It looks really steep, but it's not quite as bad as it looks. If you pick the right hand side of the gully, you can climb it, ensuring that if you slip on the rocks then you're got two other points of contact. There weren't any points I felt it was safe to let go of the rock wall of the gully however, so needless to say if you don't like heights and or climbing, then don't bother getting in to the rake. At the top is a chock stone, once a pinnacle on Sca Fell, that snapped off in 2001 and lodged itself right above the entrance. It hasn't moved since, about the size of a van, it's being held there by an A4 sized surface connection between it and the rock wall. So whilst it's been there for 13 years, having it looming over you does ensure a certain lack of hesitation in negotiating the gully. The Rake then drops and climbs twice more which we negotiated easily enough before we made our way slowly on to the summit of Sca Fell. The descent off of the other side and down to Wasdale equates to 2900 feet in 2 miles and to be honest, it's just a killer. I was way too slow coming off here again, suffering from prior knowledge of the route and an almost drunken stupour from lack of sleep.
We arrived down to the end of Leg 3 in a total time of 16hrs. That leg had taken us 7 hours 30 minutes and we hadn't stopped for more than a couple of minutes anywhere. 90 minutes behind the 'slowest' schedule. It was really a combination of poor navigation, lack of route knowledge and some less than average running from me that took the time away. Each peak, we were losing 10 - 15% on the planned time. The problem with navigating on the fly is that you inevitably start picking up a lot of small chunks of extra climb and descent on route to the next peak. Direct lines are rarely possible and as such you need to know where you are headed, beyond just reading the map. A minute here or 2 minutes there combines over and over again to reach insurmountable levels.
Arriving at Wasdale, I was now 3hrs down on my schedule, and 40 minutes behind the 24hr schedule. With the way I was moving, I knew it was now out of our hands. I could crack on and finish the round, but not within the 24hrs that Bob originally set as the bench mark. Worse, I wasn't doing it the way I wanted to do it. I'd had a great day and learned so much, the better option than to capitulate at the end of Leg 4, or reach Moot Hall after the 'alloted' time, was to pick myself up and give it another crack with that knowledge gained.
So that's what we did. I think I'm in a position now to lay down a few things that might help others with attempting the Bob. It's easy for me to blame navigation, but I'd run pretty poorly too. For me, the major learnings were: I should have picked a start time that allowed me to get some sleep before hand. 7hrs in and I'd already been up for 24 hrs, with the prospect of another 16 on the run and simply put you really need to concentrate on the navigation every step of the way. Had I known we would be wrapped up in the clouds for the entire of the first 2 legs, I simply would have delayed the attempt. The forecast didn't match the conditions on the ground and we were out of our depth on the navigation side in those conditions, losing 90 minutes or so in the first 2 legs. Those 90 minutes would have ginve me the time to finish. I also learned that you simply have to know the route better than we did, or rely on pacers who do. To nav this on the fly or with only one or no priod viewing, you need to be better at it than I was.
So, another attempt is scheduled for the near future and I look forward to boring you all to death again with a report from that effort. A massive thank you to the crew of 5 that made this attempt a reality and to my wife for letting me keep heading off to the Lake District to indulge myself in the fells so often.