A winter Bob Graham Round has always appealed to me, as has the idea of doing it unpublicised (or, to coin a phrase from Ben Abdelnoor, ‘under the radar’) and with minimal support. I knew that to run the 66-mile circuit over 42 of England’s highest summits, including 27,000ft of elevation gain, in less than 24 winter hours would be a real challenge, with no guarantee of success… but that was part of the attraction. As was the freedom of it – retaining the sense of spontaneity that running in the mountains brings and enjoying it without any pressure.
Thus after a busy day at work and a three-hour drive south from Edinburgh, including a minor detour to collect a forgotten rucksack (I still managed to pick up the wrong one, prompting some inventive last-minute ice axe attachment strategies) my fiancé Konrad and I set off from Moot Hall, Keswick at midnight on Friday. Having ‘slept’ for two hours, I can’t say I was feeling very inspired when the alarm clock went off at 11.15pm, but the arrival of my mum (road support extraordinaire) and friend Jim Mann (who provided company on leg 1 and near the finish) did much to raise the spirits.
Bob Graham Leg 1: Keswick to Threlkeld (3 summits)
It was a clear, dark night and milder than expected. The first ascent of Skiddaw passed quickly and soon we were dropping off the summit. The snow conditions were better than last time (yes, we had tried a Bob Graham Round in January, on a ridiculous weekend when the snow was so deep that we waded for an hour on this same descent), but still not ideal. Navigation was obviously hard given the absence of any visible paths or trods in the snow and consequently we drifted off-route. At one point, while seeking to reach the path leading to Great Calva, we were forced into some upstream clambering through heather… and then it happened… I fell into a waist-deep hole! Thankfully no serious damage was incurred.
The snowline was at around 400-600m. Below that height the ground was sodden and bogs were unavoidable, while above it the snow was at a manageable depth but not fully consolidated (the crust had a 40% chance of holding). As a result, we did a lot of walking, as getting any kind of running rhythm was not only energy-sapping but, to be honest, almost impossible. Every now and again we came across an area exposed to wind where there was a hard crust of ice. The micro-spikes we stretched over our Mudclaw 300 shoes definitely proved their worth.
By the time we reached the cloud-engulfed top of Blencathra (summit number 3) the conditions were cold and windy. This was not a place to hang around! We descended quickly down Hall’s Fell ridge, which was banked-out and caused us no problems. Soon we were down in Threlkeld at the first road-support crossing, which we left 30 minutes up on our 24-hour Bob Graham Round schedule.
Bob Graham Leg 2: Threlkeld to Dunmail (12 summits)
The second leg was probably the most miserable. We ran through cloud all the way along the ridge from Clough Head until sunrise, which came as we crested Dollywaggon Pike (summit number 13). In contrast to the deceptive calm of the valleys, there was a moderate wind on the tops, blowing the snow up in waves and limiting our window of visibility to a few yards of whiteness. Any previous tracks had been blown away and so we (or more accurately Konrad, I can claim no credit) had to do a lot of map and compass work just to keep us on the right line.
We wandered off-route a few times but fortunately didn’t go too far wrong (our nearest miss being after Helvellyn, when we were drifting towards the valley). Our reward for a night of real toil was a beautiful sunrise, starting with a faint glow on Nethermost Pike and unfolding into a fabulous display of pink and orange over the summits of Fairfield and Seat Sandal. Unsurprisingly we didn’t make up any time on leg 2 and left Dunmail Raise (road-support crossing number 2) still 30 minutes up on schedule.
Bob Graham Leg 3: Dunmail to Wasdale (15 summits)
Leg 3 was almost all on snow, from Calf Crag (summit number 17) up until the descent into Wasdale. We were reasonably lucky with the weather and had fabulous views for much of the leg, which helped with morale on the tougher sections; of which there were several. Between Sergeant Man and Pike O’Stickle the snow was infuriatingly fickle. It would hold for two strides and then give way at the third, making for frustratingly slow progress over relatively flat terrain. Adding to this, I was feeling tired, a bit sick, and (rarely for me) didn’t want to eat. Things improved on the climb up to Bowfell, and I amused myself by scouting out a set of old filled-in footsteps showing the line. After that the going was really heavy all the way to Scafell Pike (summit number 29 and the highest point in England) as the tourist masses had churned up the snow rather than consolidating it, creating something akin to a ‘snow bog’. We climbed Scafell via Foxes Tarn and then descended to excellent soup, cake and cocoa (thanks mum) at Wasdale.
Bob Graham Leg 4: Wasdale to Honister (9 summits)
We set off on leg 4 about 50 minutes up on schedule. Getting stuck into for the infamously steep Yewbarrow climb, I concentrated on just counting steps and munching my way through a cheese sandwich, only allowing myself to look up every 100 paces. It worked, and in what seemed like no time we were at the summit. The ascent of Red Pike took us back into the snow but thankfully the going was now easier as most of the white stuff was hard or had blown off leaving an ice crust.
The sun set as we topped Pillar (summit number 34), displaying a spectacular array of orange, gold and red. There was a hill-walker standing on the summit, a complete stranger, and yet at that moment in time, witnessing something so special, it felt like we were all connected. Really, it was one of those Bob Graham moments to treasure forever.
And then, of course, it got dark! I had a bit of a wobble on Kirkfell as I’d not eaten enough since the cheese sandwich but quickly rescued the situation by scoffing four cereal bars in a row. We were amused to see a tent at the base of the climb up to Great Gable… “Someone’s idea of a nice Valentine’s weekend is even odder than ours!” I said to Konrad. There was a dicey moment coming off Great Gable when we veered too far right, but apart from that we made good time on the run to the next road-support crossing at Honister.
Bob Graham Leg 5: Honister to Keswick (3 summits)
Now an hour up on our Bob Graham Round schedule, we climbed Dale Head (summit number 40) with Jim for company. He then headed back down to get his car and drive around to Newlands. As soon as he had left us, the weather deteriorated; it started snowing and the wind picked up significantly. We had a really hard time locating the exact summit of Hindscarth (although visiting multiple summit cairns just to be sure was now actually standard procedure for us!) Next came the final summit, Robinson, followed by a long descent, which again saw us wandering off line. To be honest, we were pretty glad to get down into the valley… only to then find that the final road section back to Keswick was covered in sleet! We put our heads down and got on with it.
Running up the final street back towards Moot Hall was amazing. I couldn’t believe how fast and strong I felt… and then, within a few minutes of touching the hall, my legs turned to jelly and I was barely able to speak. The fact that several people offered me a seat in the pub probably indicates that I looked more than just a bit tired. Half pints, on this occasion, were more than sufficient and soon it was time for a glorious, oh so glorious, warm bed.
And so we got round, fairly comfortably in 22 hours and 28 minutes. Big thanks to my mum for the road support (plus the rest of the family on the earlier, snowed-out attempt) and to Jim for his company. The adventure was a tough one and at times I questioned my prior reasoning that this, as a long run, would be more enjoyable than racing the Carnethy 5 Hill Race that same weekend. And then it struck me that it really would have been significantly easier attempting the Bob Graham Round in the summer (if just to cut down the amount of time spent putting on and then removing gloves, coats, and micro-spikes). Still, I’m very glad we did it and already looking forward to the next adventure… maybe after a weekend off.
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Watch the full film of Nicky Spinks’ record-breaking Bob Graham run.