Last year, I noticed a race in the Lakes called Le Tour de Helvellyn. It’s a 38 miler that is held on the shortest Saturday of the year. I couldn’t do it last year as I couldn’t work out how to arrange the transport without it costing a small fortune. A little while ago when I was on the way back from the Yorkshire Dales I popped in to see my good friend David Miles. He said that he was doing it this year and that I should do it with him and come up the night before and stay at his place. Perfect, What a star! I didn’t need any more prompting. We both entered and I bought the relevant map and highlighted the route in. This race was totally unmarked and there would only be water out on the course so we would have to carry all our own food. A great deal of my big runs are unsupported anyway so this didn’t bother me at all. During the week the weather had at last turned pretty wintery and there had been some snow on the hills. There were due to be strong winds which could make it very interesting going over Stick Pass which is the highest point of the race. As the week raced by the forecast improved till it eventually reported much lower wind speeds and no snow. Even good visibility, which would be incredible.
As soon as Lou and I finished work on the Friday, we got into the hire car and begun the long journey up to Dave’s place in Parbold which is just off the M6. Over five hours later we arrived where we were warmly greeted by Dave and at the same time Jeanette, his wife and Jack his son returned from a karate class. I hadn’t seen Jeanette and Jack since JOGLE so it was great to see them again. We had an awesome lasagne that Dave had cooked and chatted lots about running and running and umm… running. We eventually got off to bed as we were planning to wake at around 5ish.
What seemed like minutes later we were wandering around eating breakfast and having some good strong coffee before getting in the car and driving to Askham which was just over an hour up the M6. When we arrived we parked in the village and had a 2 minute walk to the village hall which was serving as race HQ for the day. Jesus it was cold! I only had shorts on which I’m normally ok with but when I considered how strong the wind could be on top and how much colder it would be, my tights seemed like a good idea for the first time since the really cold weather last winter! The road was pretty slippy with a thin layer of ice. We registered and got a hot drink, before going back to the car to get our kit. The race didn’t have any single start time, instead there was a window of two hours. The people who were going to walk it should start at 7 and the mountain goats should go at 9. This would hopefully even it out a bit at the cp’s. Dave and I had planned to start around 8 and actually did end up leaving at around 0815. The first few hundred metres were on the road and it was quite difficult with the ice. We then got onto a Bridleway that I thought would be a little better but in fact was equally difficult. Eventually we were on the open fells and the footing improved. I had put on my tights and had two thermal tops on underneath my waterproof jacket with a fleece hat and gloves. I was toasty and knew that soon I would have to strip down a bit as I didn’t want to be getting kit wet with sweat when I might need it dry later on on the higher parts. We took a path that wasn’t quite right so I got the map out and did things properly by following the whole of the route as we progressed. We had really good visibility but could make out some heavy cloud over the tops of some of the hills in the distance. In the direction in which we were heading! Before we had set off we had overheard some people commenting on how much snow there was going over Sticks Pass. I imagine that with the high winds that we would probably experience up there it was certainly going to provide some entertainment!
We soon stopped and I stripped off one of my thermals and the fleece hat, replacing it with my cap. Much better! It was just up and over the shoulder of a hill and we were at Martindale where the first cp was situated. We clipped our sheets with the orienteering clippers and moved on quickly. All was good and the weather was stunning but still looked threatening high up on the tops where we would later be. The next leg would take us to Patterdale which was up a track which got steeper and rockier the higher you got. We climbed into the bottom of the snowline and when I turned while taking a breather I was rewarded with a stunning view of the green valley floor slowly turning white up the hillsides. We ran across the top in a couple of inches of snow before starting a long and fun descent down into Patterdale. When we arrived at the cp, Louise was already there which was a nice boost. We clipped our sheets, had a banana and moved on heading along the road to Glenridding. I had a quick look at the map and saw that we needed to cross one river before turning left up towards Sticks Pass. As we headed over a bridge, a runner behind informed us that we had just passed the turn. I checked my memory and realised that I wasn’t too sure whether we had already passed over a bridge or not and for some silly reason decided to go with the other runners judgement. Dave and I ploughed on up the hill. I was excited that we were nearing Sticks Pass. After around 10 minutes we got to a bridge and already doubt was creeping into my mind. I looked ahead up the valley and could see not another soul. I looked over the map, and, annoyed with myself, realised our error. We hadn’t gone over a bridge. I was right and should have trusted my own judgement. Never mind. It only added around 2km according to the GPS readout so not too bad. It would have been annoying had I been racing but today was all about being out in the hills with Dave. We soon go back onto the road and passed over the bridge we should have continued over before and soon came to the bridge at Glenridding where we took the correct path and slowly we started climbing. After a little way on the Greenside Road, we arrived at the Helvellyn youth hostel. The view was getting better and better as the hills got bigger and the angles got steeper and steeper. The snow capped tops were getting closer too! It was an awesome sight to behold! We now came off the path and headed straight up through the snow heading into the unknown as the tops were still shrouded in cloud. As we proceeded the going got steeper and steeper. I was feeling really good and was really enjoying the moment and was just itching to get up into the deeper stuff. I was surprised at just how many other people there were out climbing up the hill and I’m not sure why I was surprised, but almost everyone had skis with them. As we got closer to the high point of the trail we were using, we began to feel the force of the wind as it howled over the top and we first felt the massive extra drop this gave to the temperature. Once we were fully enveloped in the cloud we had a visibility of around 30 metres at the best and a virtual white out. It was lightly snowing, but the strong winds were blowing it into our eyes which was pretty painful. I kept my head down so the peak on my cap provided some protection. As I looked around at the sight of the spindrift blowing towards me over untouched virgin snow with no idea of the surrounding scenery or horizon due to the white out, it gave a slight Arctic feel to it. It was shear beauty that I had never experienced before.
It was also pretty bloody cold so we really needed to keep moving. I had to stop in a little gully that provided a little protection so that I could change my gloves into my large Goretex ski gloves as my hands were getting really cold.
After a little while I was grateful when we begun descending. Soon we’d be back out of the clouds. It was a fun descent which saw Dave take a few comedy slides on his backside down the muddy snow. Suddenly we popped out of the cloud and were rewarded with the most magical view of the bright green valley below us. We dropped down to the dry stone wall where the next cp was located. We clipped our cards and moved on following the wall down the valley. It was really pretty wet and slippery along the path we were following but it was a fun, technical trail to follow for a little while before we followed the wall around to the right towards some woodland where I could make out the red jacket of Louise at the next cp. As we approached we heard the sound of cow bells and soon were greeted with father Christmas who had volunteered his services at the cp and was dishing out hot drinks to those who wanted them. I was nice and warm now and Louise gave Dave and I a hunk of bread with a flask of chunky soup each. We greedily wolfed it down before saying thanks and goodbye and shooting off towards the entrance to the forest next to the car park. When I looked over the maps of the route beforehand, I hadn’t really checked the contours. We were both now learning that this part of the route was actually pretty lumpy and was far from a real break in the race. What it did provide though was some snow free, beautiful single track that snaked its way through the trees. We caught and passed a few other runners on this section. When we eventually came out of the opposite end of the forest we swung left and followed a wall up a gully on the long climb that took us the other side of Helvellyn that Sticks pass had crossed over. The climb was nowhere as severe as Sticks Pass and we seemed to be pretty sheltered in comparison. The question was, would the pass take us into the base of the clouds before beginning to descend, or not? Shortly after beginning to climb we had left the green valley below and were back above the snowline. I could see that we were getting closer and closer to the cloud, but at the same time as I looked ahead and saw some other runners I saw that they weren’t in it yet. Maybe we would not quite enter it this time and face the harsh weather it would provide. The path flattened out a little and soon we were shown the beautiful shining Grisedale Tarn surrounded by the white landscape. I knew that we had to work our way down past it keeping it on our right before descending below the snowline again towards Patterdale. The descent was long and quite difficult with much slipping and sliding on the snowy top part and with equally difficult footing on the rocky lower slopes, but it was all good fun. Dave took a rather comical fall right into the bed of a stream, unfortunately getting the inside of his gloves wet in the process which would take a while for him to re-warm. After this really long descent we were back on familiar territory and soon arrived at the cp where I noticed that Lou wasn’t there. I half expected her to be here. Never mind. We got a coffee each from the ace crew before leaning against a wall and eating some food. Next thing Dave tapped me on the shoulder and pointed towards a car coming into the car park. It was Lou. Ace! We chatted a bit before shooting off, keen to catch as much of the daylight as possible. We now were just back tracking the first section of the race so knew what was in store. The first section was a decent ascent that just about took us into the snowline for one last time before a nice drop back towards Martindale. Once we arrived at the Martindale cp, I stopped and put on a warm hat and my head-torch in anticipation for the prevailing darkness. We set off with the scent of home in our noses. I remembered reading that the organiser had cooked up a load of soup for the finish. I was really looking forward to a massive bowl with some chunks of bread. The last of the course was over moorland and was relatively flat(ish!). As we came out onto the open moorland, the darkness became too much and we switched our torches on. After a little error on the trail which meant a spell of wading through deep, freezing cold water and bracken. After finally getting back on track we only had a couple of km’s left before we arrived back at the village hall to finish in a time of 9hrs and 20 mins.
Not bad for a steady day out in the hills. I felt pretty good and was met by Lou who was waiting for us. The soup was as good as I had imagined. What a stunning day it had been.
This was my first real experience in the Lakes midwinter and I had been blown away by the beauty. Dave and I will most definitely be back again for this one. Whether I have it in my legs next year after Trans-Europe though is another question!
Next is Christmas. I plan to do nothing except for an attempt at the northern 96 miles of the Offa’s Dyke footpath which is a Trailblaze, supported by Lou. Could be fun!