Conventional wisdom says that to complete a Bob Graham Round you have to fully immerse yourself in it. So what happens when you just turn up and have a bash? Fell-fearing Damian Hall finds out…
Not for the first time in my life, I’m doing what I’ve been told not to do. And that usually ends one way… in pain.
After the National Three Peaks Challenge, the Bob Graham Round (BG) is probably the country’s best known mountain challenge. But it’s many times tougher. Named after the Keswick hotelier who conceived it in 1932, a BG is a 66-mile circuit over 42 Lake District summits, with 27,000 feet of ascent, that must be completed in under 24 hours. It’s thought less than half of those who start it, finish it.
I’m not a fell runner. Fell runners cartwheel their way down mountains during snowstorms wearing vests. I’m frightened of mountains. And cartwheels. And vests. A BG is seriously daunting. Twenty seven thousand feet of gradient is only 2,000 feet less than Everest from sea level. But my inner idiot just can’t resist the allure of a big challenge.
However, in the fell running bible Feet In The Clouds author Richard Askwith is advised that to complete a BG Round you must fully immerse yourself in it: study it (Askwith had maps and schedules on his walls), reccie it (it’s a year-long project for some, often longer), develop “mountain legs” (you know, like goats) and what’s known colloquially as “SMJ” (Sound Mountain Judgement), and have mental toughness which in the end was the deciding factor in Askwith’s successful completion. Even then, it took him four attempts.
Indeed nothing seems to irritate locals more than us clueless southerners popping up and having a crack at a BG on spec. And usually coming unstuck. Indeed, I don’t know my Dollywaggon Pike from my Pike o’ Stickle and I’m aware I’m trying to shortcut the system. Even if my impatient actions don’t fully respect the BG, my mind does. It’s terrified me for years.
But I have a secret weapon: my good friend Charlie Sproson. He’s a navigation expert, course planner and mountain guide, born and bred in the Lakes and his company, Mountain Run, has started offering guided trips on the Bob Graham Round. I feel like a fraud having a go at a BG without any real groundwork. But that’s tempered slightly by the fact that, instead of a huge entourage of supporters, we’ll have no real help except at road crossings. We have no one carrying our bags, doing our nav or pacing us, unlike most BG attempts. Instead Charlie’s doing the nav and I’m meant to be doing the pacing. Gulp.
After obsessively watching weather forecasts for a week, on Sunday night we agree our best bet is, er… Monday night. So I hastily chuck bundles of random kit in the car and spend nine hours in motorway traffic. Finally, seeing the hallowed blue door of Keswick’s Moot Hall is proper exciting though. I’ve seen so many photos of BG legends triumphant in front of it, not least Jasmin Paris and Nicky Spinks recently.
We start at 8.06pm, with a 23-hour schedule. There’s an odd contrast between people leisurely wandering about town, and Charlie and I dashing through them, on our heroic quest. Or perhaps two grown men dressed as five year olds, going off to get muddy in the mountains all night.
The first of 42 is Skiddaw, which towers menacingly over Keswick. I’d already had a severe disagreement with this monster at the Dark Mountains mountain marathon in January, when savage winds on the snowy summit made me feel less than brave in the dark. It is however today more benign in the golden glow of dusk.
Charlie and I have plenty to catch up on and the chit-chat passes the time nicely. In a long boggy section the setting sun pierces through the clouds spreading orange across the fellsides ahead. The descent from Blencathra is a bit dicky and I pause on some steep wet rock, perhaps looking a bit, er, ponderous. Not for the last time Charlie turns back to calmly advise me on foot placements. If he hadn’t, Hall’s Fell might have been renamed Where Hall Fell.
After three and a half hours we tumble down to the first road crossing at Threlkeld, the end of leg one, and see photographer Mick Kenyon from Racing Snakes, who’s kindly doubling as road support, and Charlie’s mate James Harris.
As we start the long climb up Clough Head, James, who has the sort of annoyingly muscular legs you only get from regular fell running, admits to an “unhealthily obsession with the Bob Graham Round”. Over the next few hours he’ll regale us with countless tales of BG support runs and local fell races. If there was a Bob Graham University, he’d have a PhD from it. However, Charlie’s adamant James doesn’t help us with nav or carrying anything. He’s purely company. Over the next few summits, in the dark and the clag, Charlie’s nav expertise really comes to the fore.
Everything looks the same to me: long wet grass on steep slopes, few paths, little visibility, then suddenly a cairn to tag. I’d be a long time lost up here without him. When the clag disperses though, it’s a beautiful night and the perfect temperature, even if I sheepishly stick a jacket on occasionally – the tougher local boys don’t bother. Most of the summits seem to be called Dodd and I remember not especially warming to Fairfield (number 14). I struggle to keep up with them on the descents.
In no time there’s light on the horizon and the vague shapes of long lakes and many mountainous peaks emerge from the darkness. After a steep descent through bracken on Seat Sandal we meet Mick again at Dunmail Raise at around 4.30am. We say goodbye to James, who will cycle back to his van, then go straight to work without sleep. What a legend.
Steel Fell is a slog, but it’s getting lighter all the time and it’s a lovely run round to the aptly named Calf Crag. I’ve no idea now how many summits we’ve bagged. I just know leg three is probably the toughest and as Mick can’t meet us at Wasdale we won’t see the van again till late afternoon.
The sun is up now, showcasing the big mountains all around us. There are flipping loads of ‘em. Surely we don’t have to summit all of them? Oh. We do. Cripes. Along here summits are called Pikes and Stickles. I like Pike of Stickle – it sticks up like a swollen thumb. Less so Scafell Pike, and a gang of other mean-looking lofty things ahead.
There’s no one else about. It’s blissful, though perhaps not the steep clamber up Bowfell. It’s a lot rockier along here too, and though Charlie skips effortlessly across the loose stones, it slows me down. Especially when I kick rocks. We’re 10-20 minutes ahead of our 23-hour schedule most of the time, but we’d secretly love a faster time and we’re struggling to get any further ahead.
Passing Angle Tarn brings memories of a bivvy out here once. It’s my first time up Scafell Pike, England’s highest summit, without getting a soaking. I can see how the crossing to Scafell via a testing scramble on Broad Stand could be stressful, but with Charlie’s calm guidance it goes smoothly.
The endless descent to Wasdale is a few metres shy of a full 1,000. Then I spy the horrible-looking 600-metre climb up the other side. “Yewbarrow is one of the key moments of the Round,” says Charlie. “You can see how you could talk yourself out of carrying on here.” Oh, I can certainly see how you would. I get my poles out.
Leg 3 is behind us, but there are still some right old barbarians in front, plus the monstrous Great Gable, which we’ve been circling for some time now. I’ve been dreading asking Charlie whether we have to go up it. I think I know the answer…
The Yewbarrow climb is the worst of the lot and takes nearly an hour of puffing, panting and cursing. But the view at the top is immense. The Lake District fells really are huge. And, bar the occasional rambler, we still have them to ourselves.
We’re up on the 23-hour schedule, but neither of us are chatty now. My legs feel heavy. My feet are sore. And I’m weary. Steeple is another sneaky one. A cruelly deceptive out and back. Groan. Pillar is a slog. Kirk Fell even more so. “How many are left Charlie?” I ask, “Three or four?” “Seven,” he says. Oh. The novelty of going, up, up, up, only to then go down, down, down, has long-since worn off. I can feel the BG gods mocking me, a shandy-drinking southerner dashing up for a quick BG, failing miserably… I’m in “Let’s just get this done” mode, also known as “Why the ken oath did I think this was a good idea?” mode. Great Gable is the biggest monster of them all. A steep scramble slog with barely a path amidst the rocks.
There’s a rare spell of good running terrain though before our tumble down to Honister and Mick’s mobile tuck shop. My feet have been wet for 15 hours, are sore and whingey, so I change socks and shoes, and scoff more of Charlie’s delicious tofu stir-fry. Baring disaster, with only three summits left, we will finish under 24 hours. Sub-22 hours is an outside chance… The climb up Dale Head isn’t so bad, knowing it’s the last big one. However, our bodies decide this is the best time for repeated toilet breaks. It looks like we’ll miss sub 22 hours for the sake of a little sit down.
The last three summits are comparatively friendly and we’re soon dropping sharply down the valley side, for a beautiful run in down a picturesque valley. There are five miles of road to finish and it’s a novelty at first, enabling us to power along… till I need one more toilet break. Twenty-two hours looks unlikely now.
Each mile feels like three. But we finally reach the edge of Keswick “We’ve still got a chance of sub 22 you know,” says Charlie excitedly. We up the pace.
I look at my Suunto every 10 seconds, calling out the time.
“Hold back,” says Charlie, “Not yet,” trying to prevent us blowing up “Okay. Now!”
It’s been a long day, my feet are sore, legs are stiff, arms ache from pole use, my buttocks howl from all the climbing. But we leg it. Down the high street. Up the pedestrianised section. Towards Moot Hall… And we tag the famous blue wooden door.
21:57. We’ve done it by three minutes. We hug and I flood with the familiar sweet sensation of exhaustion and euphoria. I’ve sneaked a BGR without any reccies, and with minimal support. Though I owe almost all the achievement to Charlie and his impressive mountain nous.
The resultant fish and chips are the best I’ve ever tasted. The enjoyment of them dampened only temporarily when James texts to tell us we missed a summit. After a moment of panic, we verbally tick them off again, feel assured it’s wicked banter, and send him some abuse. The fibbing git.
We’ve just become bona fide members of the Bob Graham Club. It’s a mighty fine feeling.
Pictures: Mick Kenyon (Racing Snakes)
Lake District-based Mountain Run offer navigation courses, natural running workshops and guided running, including Bob Graham Rounds and reccies over three, two or one days.