Tuesday, 9 August 2016

A place to run

Passing through Hebden Bridge recently, I was reminded of a day in Spring - a day snatched between work and weather, in the first real warmth of the year with the first of the curlew on the moors above. Driving through the narrow streets already shadowed by the steep hills among which the town nestles, I wondered as I often have about my own feelings for the place. It is a town of character and one in which there is a sense of community long since lost in all too many places, and when the sun is out, it is vibrant, full of life and colour. It also reminds me of places I climbed in the winter, in Norway, in which celebrations are held each year on the first day that the sun reaches the town centre...Like many such places, feelings run high among those who favour the area, indeed if you were to listen to many local mountain-bikers, you might be forgiven for thinking there was nowhere else on the planet worth riding. But for me it has always been a place to run...
...among the wooded valleys...
...and up onto the moors among the lapwing and curlew...
...past the boulders...
...and crags I know so well from years ago...
...and across the rivers - a natural bridge the result of last winter's storms. Already there is a sense of Autumn in the air - perhaps it is worth another visit before Spring comes round again.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Forty-two

Towards of the end of May 2015, sitting above the rough track which traverses Hanging Knotts to approach the summit of Bowfell from Rosset Pike I awaited the arrival of friends attempting the Bob Graham - the 66 mile round of the 42 highest summits in The Lake District. It also involves some 27,000ft of ascent, Bob Graham first completing the round in 1932 at the age of 42. Gazing out over the Langdale Pikes, I was struck by the enormity of the challenge. They had left Keswick as I settled into a warm camp the night before beside Wastwater, and had been running for the intervening 10 hours. Blencathra was clearly visible in the distance - it would have been the third of 23 summits to reach the hollow in which I was waiting, sheltering from a cold breeze. I waited for some time, accepting eventually that something had gone wrong, before continuing alone to complete a fine run over the Wasdale fells. 
But before I started up for the summit of Bowfell, my thoughts had turned to an attempt of my own. It seemed so far beyond what I felt capable of then, but as the months passed the idea took hold until by early Spring this year, I found I had somehow committed myself to an attempt early in 2017. And with such a commitment comes the question of training.
The problem is that I have never seriously trained for anything in my life. In the climbing years, we would spend at least three nights a week at the wall if not the crag, in between the real trips. It was good training in many ways building strength and fitness, but was never viewed as such. In the run up to longer paddling trips, I may have focused a little more on technique or rolling, playing in the races, but that was what it was: play. I'll just do it, being the prevailing mentality.
And so far, it has been little different on the fells. Now I know much of the route already, perhaps more than many when they first decide to take on the Bob Graham. I still think of the Cumbrian fells as home and I have run or walked almost all of the route as part of other things. But I have never thought of myself as a real fell runner, never mind a so called 'ultra-fell runner'. It seemed about time to start taking things a little more seriously. So began a week of running, culminating with the first two legs of the BG round, starting in Keswick and finishing at Dunmail Raise - albeit omitting Fairfield and Seat Sandal, the routes over these being familiar in any case. It would make for a day of approximately 25 miles and 10,000 ft of ascent. But before that, came something completely different. 
An unrelated commitment required a trip south, to Devon, and with that came the opportunity to run sections of the South West Coastal Path, which despite the lack of fells, provides some lengthy climbs as it contours the cliffs above the Bristol Channel.
In three days, we covered most of the coast between Woolacombe and Glenthorne Plantation a little east of Lynmouth...
...the most enjoyable perhaps being the more gentle section approaching Woolacombe, with long views towards Lundy.
Travelling north to more familiar hills there was a certain sense of apprehension, and with the bulk of Skiddaw looming above our camp, I simply avoided thinking too much about route ahead.
Starting with the ascent of Latrigg, having reluctantly left the camera behind, we were on the summit of Skiddaw by 8am and made what felt like reasonable progress over Great Calva and on, via a bog or three to Blencathra. Descending via Hall's Fell ridge, I was pleased to note we were almost an hour up on the schedule for a 23hr finishing time. 
But this was also part of the experiment - to try and gauge the pace so as not to burn out in the later stages. As for the time - I am under no illusions and will be happy with anything within the 24hr limit.
The climb from Threlkeld, towards and over Clough Head was tough. Steep and unrelenting, it ends abruptly with long views across the summits stretching south and with the last major climb for the day complete, there followed an enjoyable hour or so ticking off the summits before finally beginning the descent to Grizedale Tarn and from there, to Dunmail Raise. We reached the top of the pass some seven and half hours after leaving Keswick, one hour ahead of schedule despite a 30 minute stop in Threlkeld.
After so many months of contemplation, there was real satisfaction in putting the first two legs of the route together and no small amount of relief in feeling able to continue at the end. And so, until next year, when I too will be 42, the 'training' continues.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Rubha Reidh: Slaggan Bay to Poolewe

Landing and setting camp had been a tortuous affair - chilled, wet and a little tired after nearly eight hours on the water, the midges gave no quarter. And so it was with no small sense of relief that I woke to the rustling of the tent and a light offshore breeze. In fact stronger winds were forecast that day, that being in part the reason for paddling the route we had, making best use of the calm seas the day before and leaving less than 20km to paddle into the shelter of Loch Ewe from the camp.
Eventually and reluctantly we carried the boats back to the water, keen to at least minimise the distance we would have to push into the fresh headwinds forecast.
Turning into Loch Ewe, the Torridon mountains providing a dramatic back drop and high level cloud indicating the change in weather to follow.
Less than an hour later the wind shifted and very suddenly picked up. Taking a few images in the first moments as the breeze went from F2 to F5/6 in seconds, I soon put the camera away. With a constant F5/6 on the beam and some much stronger gusts, it was a reminder just how quickly things change on the water and an exhilarating run into Poolewe.
Sunset, from a more sheltered and blissfully midge free beach that night.

Friday, 24 June 2016

The best and worst of the north-west coast: Rubha Reidh

Of the major headlands on Scotland's mainland coast, Ardnamurchan Point is perhaps the best known, marking a traditional divide between more sheltered waters to the south and the exposed north-west. But to my mind at least, it is Rubha Reidh which marks a more significant divide, the seas north of here losing the protection afforded by the Hebrides, from the Atlantic. As the Yachtsman's Pilot notes: Rubha Reidh and the Point of Stoer are notorious for heavy seas...but the coastline itself changes too, Torridonian sandstone forming many of the features which in part at least, are the reason I have been returning for so long.
Leaving Loch Gairloch beneath heavy skies, the sea was flat, as calm as I have ever seen it in these parts.
After passing along the west coast of Longa Island, we headed in directly to the cliffs south of Port Erradale, paddling through the first arch of many moments later.
These cliffs are riddled with caves - a low entrance to one leading to a large chamber and further cleft running approx 100m further still, opening through a narrow slot into the bay beyond. The exit was no more than a few inches wide, forcing a retreat, palming off the smooth walls to either side there being no space to paddle.
A perfect and almost entirely deserted beach further north...
...sea thrift blending with the smooth sandstone cobbles. And Just out of sight while we enjoyed the sun ashore, two nudists happily waved as paddled on, a rare sighting so far north.
Approaching the lighthouse built in 1912...
...after which the cliffs grow in stature, taking on an altogether more imposing atmosphere...
...towering stacks guarding narrow passages beyond which lies the exceptional Camas Mor - having spent far longer than anticipated exploring the caves and coves of this intricate coastline, we did not land, pushing on toward our intended camp in an effort to beat the rain rolling in slowly from the north.
Passing through the islands at the eastern end of the headland with the unmistakable bulk of Suilven clearly visible ahead, though it was gone moments later...
...and with it our chance to set camp in Slaggan Bay before the rain began. If a picture speaks a thousand words, this one says nothing of the lamentable combination of evening calm, rain and midges. If we had seen the west coast at it's best a little earlier, then this was perhaps its worst. Neither of us moved from the tents that night...
...waking slowly to a different world.