Tested on the fells
There are few things as exhilarating as pushing yourself to your limits. As T.S Eliot wrote, “if you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”
For me, fell running is a great way to test those limits. Plan a route that’s going to test you in a way that you’ve not been tested before and go for it. I love the feeling of locking the car door, looking up at the mountains, and getting a healthy sense of awe at the size of the challenge ahead.
When I was first getting interested in fell running a friend bought me the classic Feet in the clouds by Richard Askwith. It’s like reading of myths and legends. Giants stride across the landscape with names like Iron Joss, and the challenges those giants rise to are the great rounds.
Giants stride across the landscape with names like Iron Joss…
Perhaps the most famous, drenched in mythos and romance, is the Bob Graham round. Touch the doors of the Moot Hall in Keswick and return, within 24 hours, having touched 42 peaks and ran over 66 miles. Scotland has the Ramsay round, Wales the Buckley, and then there are smaller rounds that are ran for local pride.
Looking to test my limits this week I settled on the Abraham’s Tea Round. I know I’m not Bob Graham fit – probably never will be – but the Abraham’s offers a good alternative and entry to the world of fell running rounds. The premise is simple, you leave the doors of George Fisher in Keswick and summit every hill that is visible from the windows of Abraham’s Tea Room.
I know I’m not Bob Graham fit – probably never will be – but the Abraham’s offers a good alternative and entry to the world of fell running rounds.
The most common route is a clockwise round of about thirty miles, with ten summits and over 12,000ft of climbing. As I sat looking at my map, I couldn’t resist putting my own spin on it. Guided by the ghost of Alfred Wainwright, encouraging me to touch as many of his fell tops as I could, I decided on a route change. While you conventionally drop off Catbells and cross the valley to climb Robinson, I decided to follow the Newlands Horseshoe.
My route added a few miles and a bit of extra climbing but gave four extra Wainwrights that I’d been looking to climb for a while.
George Fisher in Keswick, the starting point of the Abraham’s Tea Round
Sat in my hotel room the night before, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the weather report on MWIS. There was torrential rain through the night followed by low cloud and gusty winds of 60mph: “Walking ardous much of the day across the fells, in places in morning. Some powerful gusts will run downslope.” Well, walking might be difficult but it didn’t say anything about running, right? Anyway, they build us tough up north.
The morning started well, leaving Fisher’s at 7:45 for an easy run out of Keswick through Portinscale. The calves were a little tight but nothing to worry about and I enjoyed the views afforded on the way up Catbells. It was to be the last view I saw for a while as I disappeared into the blanket of cloud that hung low over the hills.
Catbells viewed from Hope Park
Visibility became worse and the wind and precipitation started to batter me. I ticked off Maiden Moor and High Spy, with a little help from a trusty OS Map and compass to make sure I was on course, before dropping down to Dale Head Tarn.
It was here that things started to get interesting. The deluges of the past few days had made it hard to tell where the tarn started and ended. It’s fringes were clag and puddles and navigating was tough. There’s a straightforward path from the tarn to the summit but try as I might I couldn’t find it. It seems my paper map has a prominent path to the south of the tarn while it’s actually to the north.
There’s a straightforward path from the tarn to the summit but try as I might I couldn’t find it.
Giving up on the path, I attacked the grassy slopes with ardour. It was steep and unrelenting stuff but satisfying to reach the top and touch the cairn. From Dale Head it’s an easy out and back to the shelter on Hindscarth. At this point I relented on the paper map and used GPS, visibility was down to about twenty feet and I wanted to make sure of my location. A quick climb up Robinson followed but by now I was aware I was falling behind schedule.
After Robinson I made a big error, retreading my path unthinkingly when I should have peeled off to the west to descend. By the time I realised I didn’t much fancy the run back to the summit to correct it and so decided to cut across the crags. This meant the descent became technical for a time before leaving me to wade waist deep through ferns. By the time I finally reached Honister Pass I’d been out for 3:45 and was not a happy runner.
I started my way up High Stile with sluggish legs. The waterfalls on Comb Beck were raging and it took a few attempts to find a place to cross that wouldn’t see me swept down into Buttermere. As the climb steepened I started to doubt my ability to continue. There was only one answer: I sat down with a Fry’s Peppermint Cream and gave myself a talking to.
As the climb steepened I started to doubt my ability to continue. There was only one answer: I sat down with a Fry’s Peppermint Cream and gave myself a talking to.
It was hard to see how I could finish the round, I was way behind schedule, tired, dispirited, and the weather wasn’t playing ball. I wasn’t, however, going to quit half way up a hill. There was a summit waiting somewhere above my head. After a few minutes I was able to carry on. Again visibility dropped as I entered the clouds and the way became tricky. I couldn’t see a path or trod and so found myself scrambling up wet crags.
The summit was confusing without being able to see much, there’s stones and rocks everywhere and it was hard to find the right cairn. Two walkers were having similar fun and we stopped to commiserate before continuing. Having touched the cairn I started across to Red Pike. The climb had sapped me and the technical nature of much of the terrain, paired with the weather, had taken it’s toll on morale. I resolved to get down to Buttermere and then call it a day.
I dropped onto the red path towards Bleaberry Tarn but my pace didn’t recover. The wind that had been attacking me from the south on Robinson now somehow seemed to mount a full on assault from the north. Visibility was still poor even at the tarn and it was some while after that I finally dropped out of the clouds and saw Buttermere glistening below.
The wind that had been attacking me from the south on Robinson now somehow seemed to mount a full on assault from the north.
There’s stone steps most of the way down the path, though some sections were running so thick with water that at times it was unclear if I was on a path or in a stream. It was too slippy to make decent time and by the time I arrived at the bottom and saw that the bridge had been swept away I was out of both patience and luck.
As I stared across at the climb up towards Grisedale Pike I started to wonder if I should continue anyway. The weather was fine, once you weren’t in the clouds, and while I’d lost hours of time I could surely drag myself around if I got a second wind? I debated for a little while but could see that the cloud showed no sign of lifting. It could be risky to end up on Grisedale Pike or scrambling Eel Crags tired and with no visibility. I stopped my watch at the Fish Inn and joined the queue of tourists waiting for the Keswick bus. After 19 miles and over 2,200m of climb, my attempt was over.
I’d added eight peaks to my growing list of Wainwrights but it was deflating to have to quit. The weather was a massive factor, it made hard work of everything over 500m and navigating in it was hard. In the circumstances, attempting my extended route via Maiden Moor and Hindscarth Ridge was a mistake. I’m left with the frustration of not knowing if I’d have finished had the weather been better.
To go back to the quote I started with, yesterday I got in over my head to find out how tall I was. The answer, surprisingly for such a tall man, was not quite tall enough – yet.