Now I know what “en Hiver” means. It means cold, snow, ice, a serious challenge, personal responsibility, survival, new experiences, breathtaking views, slip-sliding descents, abrupt unplanned sit-downs, bruised elbows, running in dim monochromatic mountains by the light of the moon, frozen drink bottles, and enlivenment. THIS IS HARDCORE MOUNTAIN ULTRA-RUNNING.
The Tour de Helvellyn en Hiver (en hiver = in winter: French is all trendy these days in view of the popularity of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, followed by the Ultra Tour of the Lake District) provided a unique opportunity for me to join fellow Ultra junkies onto the Lake District fells on the shortest Saturday of the year. I would never have done it on my own. I have Ben’s thread in the FRA forums to thank for making me aware of it. I jumped at the chance of getting my final end-of-year Ultra fix to ease my guilt over the impending overindulgences of Christmas.
This inaugural running, organised by Joe Faulkner, was to be a low-key affair with minimal support, which I found refreshing. The older I get the more I dislike nanny state, feather-bedding H&S rules and regulations. Personal responsibility should be the name of the game. The strong element of self sufficiency adds to the excitement and sense of adventure. As it turned out, the unexpected early Saturday snowfall meant that the support was even more minimal than expected because vehicular access was not possible over the tops to the furthest manned checkpoint. The cold water station was therefore moved to the top of the lollipop stick, to give two refill points over the 37 miles.
“Lollipop stick?” I hear you ask. The route followed a lollipop shape with an out-and-back between Askham, Howtown/Martindale church, Boredale Hause and Patterdale, and an anticlockwise loop at the end that went around Helvellyn via Glenridding, Sticks Pass, Stanah, Dunmail Raise, Grisedale Tarn and Grisedale. The event followed a ‘time trial’ format, with everyone setting off at a time of their choosing over a 2-hour period, keeping in mind that the first manned checkpoint at 12.5 miles would not open until 10:30. I decided a start somewhere between 07:30 and 08:00 would get me to 12.5 miles by around 10:30. At 07:47 I set off in the pouring snow with Fraser Hirst and Gavin Stewart just as the first signs of daylight were beginning to turn the cloud cover a deep shade of violet. Although the temperature was well below freezing, there was no wind, so we were soon toasty warm as we ran out of the village up Askham Fell.
We just about managed without head torches as we soon left the lights of the village behind and followed compass bearings across the fell, rendered almost featureless by the covering of snow. At first there were two runners in front, whose footprints provided reassurance that they were on the right track (I already knew we were right ;-) Fraser quickly disappeared ahead with an early burst of energy, while yours truly got into ultra-plodding mode from the outset. The ice soon became a problem wherever the path doubled as a drainage channel. The snow covering disguised it well. I soon became adept at reading the warning signs and avoided a fall for many hours, but Gavin was not so lucky. Several falls on the descents were probably instrumental in his retiring at the first manned checkpoint. Bad luck, Gavin. We found ourselves lusting over the Kahtoola Microspikes that Shirley was wearing.
I jogged along carefully, trying to avoid slipping and falling. I found that the faster I went, the hotter I became, which forced me to slow down. However I wasn’t going to remove any layers because, even with the clothes I was wearing, I could feel myself chilling within 5 minutes of stopping at the very occasional checkpoint. Unsurprisingly, with all this clobber including rucksack about my person, running was more laboured than usual and I arrived at the 12.5-mile checkpoint a little after 10:30. Other runners, who had started later, had been overtaking me and would continue to do so throughout the day. Many brief conversations were enjoyed as they slowly passed.
With all this passing, the trail ahead became increasingly well-trodden by footprints in the bone-dry, crystalline snow. This was reassuring. I followed my Tracklogs map printouts to make sure they hadn’t all gone off course. They all seemed to be doing very well ;-)
The snow had stopped but the cloud closed in like a big grey veil on the climb towards the highest point of the route, Sticks Pass, 750 metres. As we approached the gloom, the sun lit up the distant fell behind through a gap in the clouds. At the top the wind was blowing, which had cleared the man-made path on the windward side of the hill. That meant we would have deeper drifts to cushion our steep descent towards Stanah on the leeward, western side.
After the Stanah self-clip came a left turn and an undulating path via the Sportsunday photographers all the way to Dunmail Raise. Memories here came flooding back of Clive King’s Bob Graham Round back in September. Steel Fell looked even more imposing in daylight and covered in snow.
Another left turn at Dunmail Raise took us up the valley between Dollywaggon Pike on our left and Seat Sandal on our right as we climbed the snow-and-ice features towards Grisedale Tarn. The cold breeze was beginning to make itself felt as we levelled out above the tarn. I and another runner suddenly had freezing hands and we had to do something about it, and quick. The gloves that had kept me warm so far were no longer doing the job and I could feel my hands freezing by the second. I just about had enough feeling left to open my rucksack and swap the gloves for a thicker, warmer pair. Getting them onto my numb appendages was a struggle as I rapidly chilled. The other runner made her swap much more quickly and was off out of sight in no time in her quest to generate some heat to warm up again.
I reverted involuntarily to survival mode as I stumbled clumsily along the trod above the tarn, fumbling with my water bottles and map to find a new way of holding them now that the thick gloves had all but banished any dexterity. I passed by a spectacular stalactite-and-stalagmite ice feature to my left, but getting warm again overrode any thoughts of taking pictures now. It was mid afternoon, there wasn’t much more than an hour of daylight left and the temperature had plummeted seriously. There was not a soul in sight. I was alone and in survival mode on a frigid, expansive Lakeland fell as I ran down that trod towards Grisedale. I had my first slips and falls, several times, as I came upon several slabs of frozen drainage water that were camouflaged by the snow. My rucksack provided a smooth landing every time. After a later double fall within two yards of each other, which may have elicited a touch of the “fiddlesticks” (or words to that effect), I noticed my maps were missing and nowhere about. I must have dropped them further back without realising. I walked back up the trail and found them a hundred yards back. If I hadn’t fallen at that point, I would not have realised I’d dropped them. What a blessing in disguise that final fall was!
At the bottom of Grisedale I came upon a mountain biker with camera, who turned out to be one of the event’s photographers. I’d been seeing mountain bike tracks during the day and wondered what mad nutter had made them. Now I knew who they belonged to and realised immediately that he was neither mad nor nutter, since he was ‘one of us’. His bike was very clean, dry and caked in white. He took some excellent pictures.
The almost full moon hung low in a clear, crisp sky as I approached the final manned checkpoint at Patterdale in the advancing dusk. I had been sucking slush and crunching on ice from my drink bottles for a few hours and I was ready for the plastic-flavoured liquid replenishment, which I obtained from the hole that I think had just appeared in the side of the checkpoint’s water container. Was it THAT cold? Hopefully it would last me for the final 10 miles. (I had been enjoying the Coke ‘slush puppy’ in my other bottle, I have to say.)
Within 5 minutes I was getting chilled, so with head torch now on my head and ready for action, I got moving towards the final big climb back up over Boredale Hause. I was soon toasty warm again. As I approached the top in the last remnants of dusk, someone waited for me. It turned out to be Fraser. We were both pleased to have company now that darkness was upon us. We retraced our steps down Boredale towards the first and last self clip at Martindale Church, catching three more runners as we went. We seemed to be going well. My drink bottles had now frozen and I could get no more out of them. The moon was so bright and the ground so reflective, we could see our entire surroundings in glorious, dimly lit monochrome. The surrounding snow-clad mountains stood out clearly in the watery light. I ran without my head torch turned on and could see perfectly clearly where I was treading. What a unique, magical experience.
The final section was just 6 miles and easy, undulating going compared to what we had done. On the wide expanse of Askham Moor we could see a couple of other groups far ahead by the pools of blue-white LED light they cast onto the snow. (I remained anonymous, however, since I was still running by the perfectly adequate moonlight.) The snow creaked loudly with each footstep, sending vibrations up my legs as we made good progress back down to Askham. We arrived back at the Village Hall just before 7pm, to be told that it was minus ten degrees Celsius outside; and there was I, too hot and sweating after the final downhill run to the finish. A first for me was to finish slowest (equal with Fraser) with a time of 11:05. The field must have been dominated by keen, fit, hardcore fell runners. The faster times were quite unbelievable. The winner, Alex Pilkington, finished in 7:23, with Pete Waywell a very close second in 7:27 and Peter Stobbs third in 8:15. How do they do it? Teleportation?
I must thank Joe and his small team of helpers for providing such an awesome opportunity. I’ve been at this ultra lark for 14 years and this was my 126th Ultra, yet this one provided unique, memorable experiences I have never had before. I think the ‘Hiver’ may have helped a bit in that department.
After a good feed and chat in the village hall with the final finishers, I wandered next door to my B & B at the Queen's Head pub for a shower. It was so cold the shower drain pipe froze, causing the water to back up. On Sunday morning I ate my ‘full English’ with frost on the INSIDES of the windows. My Diesel car only just spluttered into life and it took me well over half an hour to chip the ice off and get it defrosted for the drive home. As I left the village, driving very slowly along the snow-covered lane with amazing memories flooding my mind, barely ten yards ahead a deer emerged from the hedge on the left, galloped across the road and melted into the undergrowth on the right. Memories indeed.
I took quite a few pictures this time. It simply had to be done.