Sunday, 21 December 2008

The shortest day

Another Sunday cycling down the road towards Windermere. I was being buffeted by the wind and sideways rain that lashed at me. I'd already got soaked to the skin by Burneside, only 5 minutes by bike from my house, and it hadn't stopped raining since then. Splash! Wet pants. Sploosh! Soggy shoes and shins. Pitter patter pitter patter, on and on, getting wet from the top down for good measure.

I had, it had to be admitted, not managed to think of anything fun to do with a dank, dark solstice Sunday, and had also felt rather ill and so decided to go road biking in the rain. After a while, I realised I was grimly enjoying the experience. I was also probably enjoying the thought of the faces of the people driving past, imagining a mixture of pity and incredulity.

I turned off at Ings, on to the gated roads, and wended my way up the twisting road throught the craglets, the puddles getting ever bigger, and my front wheel ever wobblier.

I waterfalled down to the Crook road and then, for some reason across to Underbarrow, rather than back towards Kendal. Suddenly, Scout Scar loomed out of the fog, looking far higher than it should have. I slogged my way up and up and up and up, determined not to get off and push, barely managing to overtake a dripping goretexed walker near the top. All downhill from there, over the bypass, back into Kenda, only just stopping enough to turn to High Tenterfell, and back to Windermere Road. It was, of course, still raining.

I stabled the bike, strew wet gear across my flat and then got hot aches in my feet in the shower.

And today is the shortest day - it can only get lighter from here.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Seasons change

It's been a funny few weeks since the OMM, really.

The other Saturday, I was climbing in glorious sunshine at Clifton Crag near Dumfries, having elected to head north rather than south to the Roaches on Saturday morning. Instead of icy wind, cold rock and hoards of top-roping freshers, the crag (near Dumfries) was sun-warmed granite, with only one other pair of climbers who left quite early, and views of a sun-glinted rippling Solway Firth one way and golden granite and brown green tree flecked rolling hills of Galloway the other. After shedding a reasonable amount of skin, headed for home, happy and chip filled, in time to head to a party in Lancaster. However, as I wandered out of the shower, the phone rang, my mum to say that my grandma had died that day. Not unexpected, but still.

The funeral was held the following Tuesday, a blustery, leaf swept Autumn day, and was notable for some comedy moments from my Grandad, especially when the coffin of my tiny, frail Grandma was being carried into the crematorium, whilst everyone milled around the entrance watching:

Uncle: "I hope the coffin doesn't blow away"
Grandad: "What coffin?!?"

In the meantime, the world had changed, through the gathering gloom of November (actual and metaphorical), a chink of hope and joy: Barack Obama was elected president, something I hardly dared hope would happen, however good the polls looked.

But for now, autumn continues towards winter and climbing seems to be giving way to ineptly mountain biking through drifts of crushed leaves and bogs, dis-orientatedly orienteering on hail-swept high commons and that inevitable end of year activity, drinking.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

With the benefit of hindsight...

Now, I haven't got ill in months, but over the last week I seemed to have developed a interesting range of ailments culminating in an 'orrible cold. I think it might've been stress related - I have been quite busy in and out of work, and also contemplating the OMM this weekend. Did I have the right stuff? Would the weather be relatively ok? Would we manage to run 'B' class? Could I be bothered to get up at silly o'clock on Saturday morning to travel to the event?

The answer to the last question turned out to be 'yes', although, with the benefit of hindsight the answer may be should have been 'no', and, Joanne having turned up at 6am, we headed into the Lakes. Only to find signs saying that the A591 was closed round Thirlmere. We U turned at Troutbeck Bridge, and headed back through Kendal, up Shap Road, and to the A6, being grateful that we had already heard the start line was to be moved nearer to the event centre (it was originally to be 45mins walk!).

The roads in Borrowdale looked damp, and the lake and rivers a bit higher than normal, but nothing too out of the ordinary. We queued down the road to Seathwaite, while people found extra parking spaces on the grass verge (which I'm sure they wished they hadn't done, with hindsight!). We were directed into a spot on the already muddying field, and with 8 minutes to go til our start time of 8:14, grabbed our bags, ran to registration and then charged to the start line, just getting there as 8:15 starts were called! We punched, and then were away.

I was completely running on nervous energy at this point, amazed we'd made it past the start! I found it really hard to keep a steady pace up to the first checkpoint on the top of Seathwaite Fell. Up the top, we started to appreciate how strong the wind was. I love a bit of wind, though, and we ran down toward Sty Head whooping and singing.

As we traversed round to the flanks of Lingmell, the rain started, and at Piers Ghyll we pulled on waterproof trousers. Round, up, beep, down and then up and up and up the long ridge of Great Gable above Gable Beck, into the clag. Up high, the wind proved entertaining, with a some of the gusts providing 'crouch down and hang on' moments. To the next check point, situated at the confluence of two rapidly filling streams for extra interest. From here on, on to Grey Knotts, things did get a little grim - we both started to get really quite cold from the combined effects of wind and by now heavy, continuous rain. I was feeling quite odd.

At this point, I started to question whether this was all worth it, and really just wanted to get down and out of the wind - especially as we couldn't stop to work out exactly where we were. Joanne was determined, though and eventually managed to find the next check point in a ruin in an old slate mine. From here on, it was down all the way, but by no means plain sailing. Warnscale Beck was like nothing else I've ever seen before; in fact, the whole valley just seemed full of water. The paths had become fast moving streams, and the streams had become fully fledged waterfalls; crossing one or two of them proved quite hairy. The sound of the water was incredible and the sight of that much water crashing down to the valley truly impressive.

As we rounded the corner towards Gatescarth and the overnight camp, I wondered where we were going to camp. Buttermere seemed to have doubled in size, and there were a few portaloos sited only 10 metres from the now edge of the lake. I wasn't relishing spending 18 hours in a tent there (it was only 1:35pm), but we'd made it (although even though the weather was hard work, we didn't feel like we'd covered much distance).

However, as we ran the last few metres, we started to meet bedraggled competitors telling us 'its been cancelled'. Not sure whether to believe them, we were then met by one of the organising team confirming the news and telling us to check in with the team there and then make our own way over the Honister Pass back to Borrowdale.

Obediently, we checked in, then turned round and started the trudge over the pass. Water was sluicing down the road and the wind was still gusting strongly. We tried hitching, more for the hell of it than anything else, but then our luck was in! Two other women ahead of us attracted the attention of a passing farm landrover, and we jumped in after them. It turned out the landrover belonged to the owners of Gatescarth Farm in Buttermere, and they very kindly gave us a lift back over Honister to Stonethwaite. I have to admit to feeling somewhat guilty as we rattled along, passing scores of teams slogging their way up the road, wading through floods and being knocked about by squalls.

At Stonethwaite, we began the wade back to the event centre. The floods went from ankle-deep to knee-deep, and we realised we were not going to be driving out of the valley that day. Eventually we were pushing through waist-deep water, against the force of the river - scary and hard work. The road was lined with cars up to the top of the gear sticks in water, and feeling for the owners, I started to worry about whether my own car would be awash, especially as the weather seemed to dictate that sleeping in it that night was the most practical option. It was with much relief, then, that Seathwaite Farm appeared, on higher ground, with most of the event centre fields no worse than a bit soggy at that point. We handed in our dibbers, partook in tea and then the obligatory but earlier than planned Wilf's chili and flapjack (in a rather flooded, slightly scary marquee), then headed back to the car at about 3:30pm. And didn't leave the car until 7:30am (GMT) next morning. With the benefit of hindsight, I should probably have gone to the loo first...

So, we sat in the car until it got dark, refusing to leave, as the rain continued to lash down and the streams swell and the wind blow. I started to worry about the field we were parked in flooding, as water seemed to be making its way into the field. I predicted that, based on the weather forecast, it should stop raining at 6pm. 6pm came and went, and still it rained, and it got dark. 7pm, still raining. Got into sleeping bag in back of car (being glad I bought a car big enough for me to sleep in comfortably - not that that means much!). 2am (GMT) it started to stop raining. By 5am it had, amazingly, stopped raining. At 6:30 was getting light, and I emerged from the car.

The next hour or so was spent in an entertaining car-pushing session. By 7:30, I'd got fed up of waiting for the guys in front of us to move (we were boxed in) and with some unlikely maneuvering, given the amount of mud, managed to make a break for the road (covering some of my car-pushers in mud, for which I am sorry!). Joanne jumped in, and so did a couple of lads who needed a lift to Penrith.

We made our way down the now-miraculously dry Seathwaite road, and on to the main Borrowdale road, which was still only just passable in places. As we drove past the Lodore Falls hotel, they were shifting sandbags (possibly prematurely) and the whole valley was awash.

I was heartily glad to reach Keswick, and then Penrith, where we dropped our the hitchers and picked up Rob. We stopped for breakfast in the Tebay services, 75% of the clientele of which were wearing mud spattered thermal leggings, duvet jackets and making reassuring calls to anxious friends and relatives whilst eating bacon butties and drinking tea. All that remained was to sploosh back to Kendal (luckily managing to pick some of the few open, non-flooded roads to do so), and to start drying out and brewing up.

With the benefit of hindsight, I'd do it all again. But just maybe not next year!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

An obesity epidemic waiting to happen

Well, only 3 days til the OMM. So it must be time to have a look at the weather forecasts. Here's MWIS:

Wind: Southerly 50-65mph, gusts 70 to
Very difficult conditions even
at relatively low level, with any
mobility widely difficult on
higher areas. Significant wind

Widespread rain, later torrential
Prolonged rain, especially
western and southern fells.

Cloud on Hills: Very widespread
Typical cloud base 300-650m,
lowest south Lakes and
northwestern fells.

Pure poetry.

Nonetheless, I have just been to Asda and bought 3 packs of chewy bars, oaty bake bars, jelly babies, custart, cashew nuts, hot chocolate twixes... I felt somewhat self-conscious in the checkout queue unti I realised that my trolley didn't look any different to that of my fellow shoppers, except for the omission of a large slab of tins of lager.


Saturday, 18 October 2008

Like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer...

An early start, getting wet, cold, aching, eating nothing but jelly babies... and that's just the training. Next week it's the OMM and we've signed up to run in the B class. A perfect example of 'seemed like a good idea at the time'.

Drive to Keswick through the Lakes, hoping that it'll be less wet over the other side of Dunmail Raise that it was in Kendal. It's not. Now, I know we should see this as excellent practice for next week's misery-fest, but actually, starting the day piss wet through really doesn't appeal somehow, so we have a poke around Lakeland Pedlar and then a sneaky coffee, as we're sure it'll stop raining soon.

It doesn't, and running out of excuses, we head through rain sodden Portinscale and Braithwaite, passing lots of walkers cowering under their waterproof hoods, and finally find somewhere to park beneath Catbells.

Catbells is my favourite hill in the Lakes* but all I could think on the way up*** is that training is a bit like purposely hitting yourself on the head with a hammer, and hoping it'll hurt less the next time you do it. This thought runs back and forward through my head as we stagger up Catbells and Maiden Moor past streams of suprised and soggy walkers, and then get assaulted by horizontal rain as the wind picks up as we run through bogs up to High Spy. By Dale Head round to Robinson, I'm getting sick tacking through the wind and of random asides from walkers (one concernedly tells Joanne to be wary of the rocky steps coming down from Robinson. We mock him, but later we mutter down them with sketching fell shoes failing to grip the sodden slimy rock).

The clouds start to lift and break, though, and we stagger down to the valley, past tiny Newland's Church, through Littletown**** and up and over the nose of Catbells down and up and down the road to the car, dry clothes, Ambleside, gear shopping and home.

Of course, next Saturday should be the same but more so, with dried pasta, cold, wet and a very long night in an overly small tent to 'look forward' to. As much as hitting oneself on the head with a hammer.

*Primarily because it was one of the first I ever walked up, but also because Mrs Tiggywinkle lived there**

**I have shared this fascinating fact with a number of other people who have strangely not found it as exciting as I do and in fact seem quite annoyed that I mentioned it. People can be so prickly sometimes.

***Other than 'why the hell did I grab that bracken stem on our inital off route scramble up? And when is the resulting cut on my finger going to stop bleeding?'

****Where Lucy, implicated somehow in the Mrs Tiggywinkle tale lived. Fascinating, no?

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Whatever you do, don't look back...

I seem to recall a story from Greek mythology and other assorted tales I heard in my childhood* which included the dire warning 'not to look back'.**

This occurred to me this morning as I unwillingly turned left at Plumgarths roundabout, away from the Lakes, and caught a glimpse of the fells around Kentmere washed in gorgeous golden autumn light.

I then proceeded to drive eastwards along the A591 stealling glances every few seconds in the rear view mirror at the hills. How I made it to work without ending up on someone else's back parcel-shelf I'll never know.

Such are the perils of living on the edge of the Lakes!

*You know, the sort of stories you hear/read when you're young and then they get confused into one in your head, but they were probably actually lumped into that scary Jason and the Argonauts film we used to watch every year at Christmas at Primary School, the one with the scary dancing skeletons which terrified me for years.

** A quick bit of googling would suggest it's Orpheus I'm thinking of...

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Fairy Steps

My mother said I never should,
Play with the fairies in the wood.

The autumn goldening sun shines outside the wood, but only slants through chinks in the lattice work of branches that bend over the ancient path through the woodland. Bramble bushes line the way, pale pink petals still clinging on, small fruit ripening. The blackberries aren't good this year; too much rain, although the paths now are dry. Slowly up and up, on and on and then a clearing where wild flowers poke through the tangle of low lying brambles. A look to the left, and yellow rock flashes through the ash trees, caught by the sun - Whin Scar. The crag builds up in height and I turn left into the clearing by the Fairy Steps. Along, and then up, on polish and jugs, the end of summer so I almost move nimbly, pulling and twisting, and then onto the top and swing back down the tree. Up again, next route, and ape back down. Repeat, explore, driven by the beat of the hammering of a woodpecker somewhere overhead. More routes, less climbed, starting through brambles which catch tear at my thin trousers and draw blood, and topping out into a covering of prickles, of holly and bramble and pine.

A scramble to the top, to watch the sun quickly vanish behind the Cartmel fells, a pink grapefruit sky and the rock drips orange as I descend the corpse route Fairy Steps.

Time to go now, before the woodland changes and the spirits emerge, before the trees bind together and the brambles snake over the paths and the holly bushes dance to shed their spikey leaves. Away, away!

North Wales

A last minute trip to Snowdonia for the weekend. Drifted home from work on Friday, didn't leave Kendal til gone 8:30, then hurtled down from the drizzly Lakes to the clearer skies of North Wales. A three quarter moon hung over the valley as we abandoned the car in the campsite, and ran across the fields to the pub to make last orders.

An early start on Saturday and somehow we were on the crag by quarter to 9, only the third car in the layby under Clogwyn y Grochan. Clambered up to the base of Nea, the bottom of the route resembling a ghyll scramble. I led the first pitch, and then shouts from George below that I still had plenty of rope encouraged me to continue up the staircase of the second pitch. All my gear was gone, placed in the too-tempting well-worn white nut scars that ran up the crag. I continued to finish the top pitch, a step left and up, sudden steepness and exposure, but not for long. We abbed off the gnarled, sling-strewn oak tree down to a very busy crag bottom, with the queues already starting for the route.

Across to Brant, George leads the first pitch, and I teeter across afterwards, swinging out on the loose flake and across the steep face up to the ledge. Not far enough, so I squirm up through a holly tree and shuffle across the ledge and under an overhang, smug for once at my lack of height to the infamous crack which I'd watched friends squirm up from the valley bottom on several occasions. "Thrutchy" the guidebook says. Up two moves, place two nuts, back two moves. Stall, remove coat. Up two moves, bridge out left, spot another foothold out right... and I'm up, some imitation of technique thankfully saving thrutching. Another pitch, George leads, and we regret not having abbed off sooner.

To Dinas Mot, now, somehow not too cold. We climb West Rib, and then back to the Grochan as the light dims, as George wants to do Kaisergeberge Wall. I want to go back to the campsite; tea, beer and bed beckon. Neil and Tanya head off. I am hoisted up the wall, plucking gear out until I pop out at the top as the sun sets, filtering up the Pass and making the crag walls red.

The Vaynol that night is heaving, Welsh and English voices mingling, farty beer flowing, band playing. We perch on the edge of stools until we can claim seats, and eye up the guidebook for the next day. To Idwal Slabs, with Tanya and Neil. It is quiet as we walk up the well made path that leads up gently to Llyn Idwal, though when we arrive the virtuous routes are already knitting up nicely. Up Tennis Shoe, my first ever proper climb, nearly 10 years ago. Tanya starts it, and I finish, popping up on top of the block, and running the rope around, wondering if I'll be the one to unbalance it and send it toboggoning down the crag. We weave our the warps and point up Javelin Buttress. Neil zooms off up, and Tanya and I balance up after. We eye up Gray Slabs, but instead decend down rock and moss and scree and wetness back down the neverendingdecent over and under and round Suicide Wall. A Gogarth-gone George is picked up in Bethesda, and then a traffic jam is sat in for longer than the whole weekend together as we crawl to Conway for kebabs then the long hurtle home.