Bobbing in December
Dec 11-17, 2022
Not technically a club trip but as Mark is our president and did this superb solo effort and accompanying write up that we have to share…
The MWIS forecast for the Lake District was for near perfect winter conditions – very cold, but minimal wind and no precipitation. My base for the week was a loft apartment in the centre of Keswick, 50 metres from Moot Hall. The plan was to start from there and do successive legs of the Bob Graham Round. For those not familiar with it, this is one of the great fell running challenges. I’m not a fell runner and there’s no way I could ever do this in 24 hours, but I could at least experience the route.
I arrived Saturday afternoon and duly popped into the Kong shop for the Pete Bland map of the round. The shop is easy to spot – a two storey tall King Kong figuring outside, seasonally dressed as Santa. Kong held their first ever mountain marathon on the Isle of Arran this year and as a participant, I felt I owed them some patronage.
Sunday: Keswick to Threlkeld
Early start at 7.30am on the steps of Moot Hall. Unsure of the conditions I took an axe. Setting out from the town centre was novel: micro navigation down alleyways, icy car parks and bridges, but Spoonygreen lane leading to the Skiddaw carpark is easily found. At 9am I was on top of Skiddaw.
A proper fell runner came past me on the descent. I couldn’t keep up, but his line was useful to follow. The path up Great Calva goes up from just after the stone bridge and was easy to see in the frosty conditions. I’d missed this previously. The map says follow the line of grouse butts. I’m not entirely sure what these look like, and don’t think I found any – but the line I followed was fine.
On the descent from Great Calva, I found Wainwright’s round sheepfold and the bridge for the Cumbrian way. I then spent almost an hour faffing trying to find a decent river crossing over the River Caldew. There isn’t one. I wasn’t keen to get wet when the temperature was -5C, but no option.
It was a long drag up Murgisdale common. In the snow I ended up following paths which took me a little further west than ideal. The route just requires you to hit Blencathra summit, not Foale Crag to the West.
The summit was surprisingly crowded, including 3 friendly jet-black springer spaniels out for a walk. The descent of Hall’s Fell is technically a scramble and was icy at the top. Spikes on and gingerly down. The farm tracks at the bottom were also suicidally icy.
A short wait for the hourly bus service to Keswick and I was back at the flat mid-afternoon.
Total time: 6 hours, but can save time on the river crossing, some opportunity for better nav, and a much faster descent to Threlkeld in summer.
Monday: Threlkeld to Dunmail Raise
My brother Dom accompanied me. He’s quicker than me on 5-10K distances. We put cars at either end of the route – paying £8 to park in Threlkeld! It’s possible to do this on the bus, but as the bus in only every 2 hours from Dunmail, and uncertainly about how we might fare on the route made the certainty of a car worthwhile.
We took the longer, less steep route up Clough Head, which is the biggest climb of this leg. We made good time, knocking off the Dodds quickly, and stopping to eat Regedd gourmet scotch eggs for lunch on the sunny side of the Hellvellyn wind break.
We encountered proper fell runners on Hellvellyn. One guy casually jogging up Helvellyn Little Man, and a young couple coming down from the summit – he was in shorts; she had a Santa hat, and I am sure I heard bells jangling. This is called taking the piss.
Off Dollywagon Pike, there is a choice. There is supposedly a good path down to stepping stones at the outflow of Grisedale Tarn, and then up Coffa Pike onto Fairfield. However, the path up the other side wasn’t obvious, the stepping stones were likely icy, and it was additional 60m descent. So, we opted for the brutal direct descent, and did Fairfield out and back.
The last ascent of this leg is Seat Sandal. It’s a bit of a sting, but also note the summit is not the big lump of rock you can see. Somewhere in my head is that any “Seat” is a rock, probably biased from Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh. I walked 300m past the summit and had to retrace.
I also cut off the summit to the north, to meet up with Dom, who decided to skip the last summit. The path down was narrow and icy, and after a few slips, we stopped and put spikes on.
At the road, there’s supposedly a footpath, but it didn’t work out. It’s a fast road, so I put a torch on to make sure cars could see us. Back in Keswick, we found the excellent Fellpack restaurant to recover.
Total time: 7h15.
A long day, but along good paths. I doubt I could ever get down to the map pace of 4 hours for this leg though.
Tuesday. Day Off
Had some work calls and needed to figure out how to do the next legs. There’s no viable way to Wasdale on public transport. An option was to do the legs out of sequence: Drive to Wasdale; Do Leg 4; Back to Keswick; Do Leg 3; Pick up car. But it didn’t feel right. I considered splitting the legs at Great End coming via back Seatoller but that left a monster 30K day, that I knew I wouldn’t get done in daylight.
So, I opted for a night at the Wasdale Head Inn. This meant having to carry a change of clothing and led to the purchase of something I thought I’ve never own: Down Camp slippers.
Wednesday: Dunmail Raise to Wasdale
I took the 7am bus to Dunmail Rise. As the bus driver let me off in the dark, he said “I hope you’ve got a decent torch mate”. I did and I figured I was quite likely to need it. This is the longest leg, including High Raise, the Langdale Pikes, Bowfell and the Scafell range.
The bus stop is just past the dual carriageway section, and the footpath stile is just a little way North from there. Dunmail Raise looks unassailable. The path up is brutal but after 200m of vertical you’re in a different world and Steel Fell approaches quickly.
Finding the peaks on the plateau isn’t hard but I somehow made a mistake and ended up on High Raise when aiming for Sergeant Man. And then somehow missed it again as I headed off for it, ending up on Thunacar Knott. It was very cold (-8C, I think the forecast said) and I decided not to backtrack and keep going.
From there, I think I was close to the correct route. Both the book and map have useful tips about how to get up onto Rossett Piike, and Bowfell, with Bowfell being perhaps more of a scramble than it should have been. From Bowfell, Great End is straightforward, and the Scafell plateau is relatively flat going along one of the most popular routes in England. At 2pm I was on the summit of Scafell Pike.
There are different choices to get to Scafell. The fastest is Broad Stand. It’s a rock climb, and I’ve only done it once before – in summer, with other people watching on, and when I was young enough not to know better. In winter, alone and recovering from hand surgery, it was a non-starter. From the distance Lord’s Rake glistened as a river of Ice. It was out too. I had spikes, but no axe.
So Foxes Tarn. At the best of times, this is a long way round, but somehow, I overshot the descent, and ended up scrambling around on the southwest ridge of Scafell. I made the summit at 15:20. I was cold and just wanted to get down.
The descent off Scafell was slippy. I stuck to the path till well over Rakehead Crag. Then found my way through stiles and gates, ushering sheep out of my way. And into the National Trust carpark, just in time to see the sunset over the lake shore at Wasdale shortly after 4pm.
It was a mile along the road to the Inn. The Inn itself is old, and its heating was struggling in the conditions. It took me a long time to warm up, but the Lamb Casserole was a big help, as well watching Morocco play France with all the other guests in the hotel (6 of them). Two brave souls were camping outside.
Thursday : Wasdale to Honister Pass
Many of the Inn staff live outside Wasdale, and it takes time to get there along the icy roads. Breakfast wasn’t until 8am and I wanted to be gone by then, so they gave me a packed lunch in lieu of breakfast. Starting the day with a smoked salmon and cream cheese was a touch of luxury.
They say there is no easy way out of Wasdale. That’s certainly true of the direct ascent of Yewbarrow. I followed meandering sheep tracks for a bit, but soon hit what I presume is the main runners’ trod up. 600m ascent in less than 1K.
From there, Red Pike was straightforward. I passed a photographer on the ridge to Scoat Fell who thanked me for not wearing a bright jacket. I guess he was waiting for the right light and was grateful for not having the chore of photoshopping me out.
The BGR summit is not Scoat Fell, but Steeple. This is a short out and back pinnacle, which doesn’t add much, but seems unnecessary, especially as Scoat Fell is higher. The optimum (which I know now) is to go west of the Scoat Fell summit.
Pillar and the top of the Black Sail pass quickly, and you’re under the shadow of Kirk Fell. I’d only ever come down this side of Kirk Fell before, and my recollection is the descent is down the ridge following iron fence posts. I couldn’t see it from the bottom. I followed the path up a small ridge, and quickly found myself in a series of gullies and cracks which eventually came out on the summit. I presume this is the Ennerdale race descent mentioned on the map.
Decades ago, I wild camped with friends beside the lake on the top of Kirk Fell. This time, I headed straight off to the right of the lake to miss the subsidiary summit, and down to Beck Head. Great Gable is another one of those hands and feet ascents, but easy enough. Someone had left a rose by the war memorial there – probably on remembrance today. The petals were still perfect in the frost.
The next few hills – Green Gable, Brandreth and Grey Knows are relatively gentle bumps. On the top of Green Gable I stopped to drink my coffee, and fed a Raven a bit of Snickers bar. I stopped again on Grey knots to text Pete, who had just arrived in Keswick from Manchester, and I’m pretty sure that same Raven was there waiting for me.
From Grey Knotts, I followed the fence a little way down to Honister, but I think I cut off too soon for the “grassy spur” mentioned on the map. This was marshier, now frozen, slippery marsh, so I am sure there is a better route and quite slow going.
Honister café was closed and the car park almost deserted. It was a long trudge down the road to Seatoller. I gave up with the Cumbrian way which meanders alongside it as it was just solid ice. It was a cold 40 minute wait for the bus. My only company was a Robin which I fed with crisps from my packed lunch. For most of the 20 minute ride back to Keswick, I was the sole passenger on the double decker bus. Amazingly this is a year-round hourly service.
Time: 6.5 hours
This is only an hour over the book time, and I wasn’t rushing. But then lots of this route isn’t very runnable. Many of the ascents and descents are rocky or over broken ground.
Friday : Honister Pass to Keswick
Pete drove me back to Honister about 1pm. We made good time up Dale Head – it’s a slog but along good paths. There are good contours out to Hindscarth and from there to Robinson. At 2.30, we parted ways. Pete returned to the car at Honister. I was bound for Keswick.
I made good time off the ridge and was back on roads inside 2 hours of starting. I didn’t feel like running along the hard icy roads in trail shoes, so meandered back on the footpaths, proudly walking into Keswick and up the steps of Moot Hall. Just as the market stalls were clearing up.
Time: 3.5 hours.
This was an amazing week. One of the best I’ve ever had in the hills. It was cold, but no rain, or sleet or snow, and crystal-clear visibility most of the time.
So, could I do a proper Bob Graham Round?
My initial reaction is No. All the legs are solid walking days. Some guides suggest splitting Leg 4 into 2 at Langdale. After each of the first 4 legs, I knew I’d had a good day out and was happy to stop.
I missed Sergeant Man and didn’t start in the exact same place in Day 2 as I finished on Day 1, so technically I’ve not done the full route. But I somehow covered an additional 20K of distance, so clearly there is room to improve the navigation.
It was winter, which is always slower – carrying more gear, more slippery ground, more care on descents, etc.
The moving time suggests I was only a couple of hours over, but 24 hours without a stop would be impossible. I had good recovery each night, and even had a rest day after Leg 2. That’s probably the real test – could I keep going for 24 hours?
Book (23 hr schedule)
Leg Distance Ascent Time
Keswick-Threlkeld 19.8 1610 04:00
Threlkeld-Dunmail 21.5 1800 04:00
Dunmail-Wasdale 24.0 2080 06:00
Wasdale-Honister 16.7 1880 05:35
Honister-Keswick 16.8 800 03:00
Leg Distance Ascent Time Moving Time
Keswick-Threlkeld 24.2 1637 05:53 04:53
Threlkeld-Dunmail 26.9 1860 07:16 05:43
Dunmail-Wasdale 30.0 2278 08:28 06:52
Wasdale-Honister 20.1 1941 06:30 05:08
Honister-Keswick 17.8 761 03:30 03:14
The next step would likely to try this over 2 or 3 days during the Summer…