What could be better than spending May bank holiday weekend on a three day camping/running adventure in the Lake District? Glorious scenery, convivial company, Spring sunshine, and good coffee. Perfect!
On Friday 28 April, I woke up early feeling excited and raring to go. The road was unusually quiet for a working morning – no cars, no birds. I opened the curtains and realised why. All I could see was white. There was snow everywhere. Not the gently falling kind either but full on blizzard. I shut the curtains again feeling decidedly less excited.
The Met Office mountain weather forecast for the Lake District predicted snow, snow and more snow…followed by wind and rain. Next stop the GL3D website, which had clearly not been updated because there was no mention of the event being called off due to the wintry conditions.
I rang Steph, knowing deep down that she was not going to give me the answer I wanted.
“Hi Steph, have you seen the weather outside?”
“Yes, I’ve packed an extra fleece.”
“Oh, OK, I’ll put an extra one in myself.”
“Great, see you later.”
On the way up the motorway, wedged in the back of Steph and Simon’s car between two large dry bags, a bait box, and a fishing rod, I tried not to pay too much attention to the fact that there was thick snow on the Rossendale hills, on the Bowland hills, on Beacon Fell, on the Pennines, on the Howgills, and on the Lakeland fells. As we drove into the Lakes along the A66 from Penrith, the sky went black and it started sleeting then hailing. Even Steph seemed subdued.
However as we drove north towards Bassenthwaite Lake, the weather improved. We drove out of the black cloud into sunshine and there, in front of us, was Skiddaw, shining like white crystal against a clear blue sky. Things were looking up.
The event centre, in a somewhat surreal departure from the usual rough and ready field, was in the middle of a static caravan park at the north end of Bassenthwaite Lake. Had the weather been warmer, the inhabitants of said caravans would have been able to sit on their little bit of decking on their side of the fence, sipping their gin and tonic whilst watching a bunch of runners pitching tiny one and two man tents, struggling with their tiny stoves and poring over the event map with their tiny head torches in the field on the other side. As it was, the static caravaners were nowhere to be seen. They had obviously read the same weather forecast as I had and stayed at home.
After a fine half pint of real ale and fabulous pie and chips at the Sun Inn in Bassenthwaite village, we retired to the campsite. The sun was dropping but the light had not yet all gone. Skiddaw loomed ghostly white above the lake as the last pink rays of sun reflected off the snow. Then suddenly it was dark and cold. Really, really cold. I huddled down in my sleeping bag wearing that extra fleece and crossed my fingers for the morning.
Saturday morning was glorious. Blue skies and sunshine, marred only by the frost on the ground and the ice on the tent. After the obligatory instant porridge for breakfast, Steph and I sorted out our kit, had our dry bags weighed to see if they complied with the 13kg limit (loads of weight to spare – we could have brought that bottle of Prosecco after all) and loaded onto the van. I was a bit worried about Simon. We were leaving him alone for three days with nothing to do but go fishing but he looked remarkably upbeat about the prospect.
Walking boots on, we headed for the bus stop.
I should perhaps explain at this point that the best bit of the GL3D is the option to choose a course which suits you. There is the Elite course which is frankly for the lunatics. There is the A course, again for the lunatics. There is the B course which is what Steph and I had originally planned on doing when we signed up many months earlier. And then there is the C course, fondly referred to as café class – which is what we ended up doing. In our case, the C stood for crocked. Steph had been hobbling round half marathons and ultra trails for the last year with a knackered Achilles tendon and had finally decided to see sense. I had been struggling with my glutes since the beginning of the year and was not supposed to run for more than 30 minutes every three days. We were in (old) crock class and grateful to be here at all.
The plan was for those doing the B and C courses to be dropped a little way down the road so that we did not have to run/walk as far as the lunatics. Unfortunately the coaches which the organisers had ordered did not materialise. Instead the bus company sent mini buses. That meant a lot of disgruntled runners hanging about waiting for the bus for an hour or so at the start of the first day. After a wait and a free coffee from the posh coffee van (which is another best bit about the GL3D), we were eventually driven down to Threkeld where we dibbed our dibber and set off on our adventure.
The first climb was Clough Head. Not my favourite fell but it did not seem as high or as steep as the last time I had been up there and we were bolstered by the fact that the other C course folk headed straight up the front of the fell thus missing and having to re-trace their steps for the first checkpoint, whilst Steph and I trudged round the bottom and climbed up the side, straight to where we needed to be.
There was a lot of snow so it was hard going along the ridge from Clough Head towards the Dodds, however the snow had been compacted over the past couple of hours by all those GL3D competitors who had got on the earlier buses so that made it a bit easier for us. It was cold but clear and the views across the snow covered fells of the Lake District were spectacular. We were passed by a runner and I commented on the marvellous view. He muttered something about not having time to look at the view and hared off into the distance. I was so glad we were walking not running so we could take the time to enjoy the privilege of being up on the tops on such an amazing day.
We trudged and slithered along the wide ridge, periodically plunging knee deep into a snow drift. As we neared the first checkpoint on the top of Raise, I had to admire the skill of a skier zig zagging down the slope over to the left of us. And then I had to stop, blink and look again. Why was there a skier zig zagging down the slope over to the left of us? And where had all those snow boarders come from? And was that really a tow lift running up the side of Raise? It turns out that this is the home of the Lake District Ski Club and what we were watching was its members having a bonus Spring day out on the piste!
After Raise, it was a short haul up to Helvellyn where again we took a moment to marvel at the winter wonderland spread out before us. Then it was a short hop over Nethermost Pike and up to Dollywaggon Pike, winner of the most charmingly named Lake District fell for the last 10 years running. Alas, the descent from Dollywaggon down to Grisedale Tarn was far from charming. The path was covered with a lethal cocktail of ice and snow drifts so it was slow going, sliding our way down. Eventually we made it to the tarn and from there, down into Grasmere.
Having spent the day walking in thick snow, freezing temperatures, and increasingly biting wind, arriving in Grasmere was like entering paradise. The sun was out, the air was warm, and the wind had turned into a gentle breeze. The campsite, in a field beyond the village, on the path towards Easedale Tarn, looked like a holiday camp, full of happy campers drinking cold beer in the sunshine.
Steph and I ate our free cake – as good as I remembered it from the last time – and had a nice cup of tea. I had a quick wash in the stream. Then it was up with the blow up tent, on with the camping stove, and soon we were tucking into a hot supper and watching the sun sink towards the skyline above us.
The weather forecast told us that Sunday would be wet - either drizzle or rain - but, sitting in the sunshine on Saturday evening, no one could quite believe it. The organisers certainly didn’t seem to. They announced that although the forecast was not great, they would not change to the wet weather course. When we woke early on Sunday morning, there was a hopeful 15 minute interlude when we thought that the Lake District had defied the weather forecast yet again. But it was not to be. The first rain drops hammered on the canvas at about 7.30am and it was most certainly not drizzle but full on rain.
If you go onto the GL3D website and look at the photos of the event, you will see that there are lots of photos of the Saturday, but strangely, not one photo (or even mention) of the Sunday or Monday. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, no one took any photos. There was so much water pouring out of the sky and splashing up from the ground that it would have been like trying to take a photo in a swimming pool. Secondly, the organisers promise that the weather for this event is “usually fine” and they clearly didn’t want to get prosecuted by the advertising standards regulator.
We packed the wet tent away in one of the “dry” bags and headed out of camp, destination Loweswater. The climb out of Grasmere was steep but straightforward however Grasmere Common had turned into a massive quagmire, and that set the scene for the rest of the day. The snow had all but disappeared, leaving ground which was absolutely sodden even before the rain started to fall. We found ourselves slipping on wet rocks, some of which still had a thin veneer of ice, then wading through swollen streams and sloshing down paths that had turned into streams. By the time we reached Stonethwaite we were cold, wet through, and really quite miserable. There was then a hideous trudge along the road, through Seatoller and up the Honister Pass to the slate mine. The rain kept lashing down and every time a car went past we were sprayed with yet more water. Steph started to gain ground on me and was soon a long way up the road in front of me. By the time I reached the track which made a short cut to the slate mine – and more to the point, the cafe, she was too far ahead on the road to call her back so I took the track thinking that I would meet up with her at the mine. Imagine my horror when I got there and she was nowhere to be seen. I walked back down the road, but no sign of her. I went back to the cafe and had another look around but could not see her. I walked down the road again and back up. This was a nightmare. All I wanted to do was to sit down and have something hot to drink but I had to find Steph. Eventually I realised that my need for a hot drink was more important than my friendship with Steph and I headed into the café to join the queue.
“Where’ve you been? I couldn’t wait any longer so I ordered some soup!”
There was Steph, sitting in the back corner of the café near the servery with a large bowl of steaming hot soup on the table in front of her. How had I not seen her? Well, I was looking out for someone wearing a distinctive light blue waterproof, and Steph had taken her waterproof off to dry out while she ate her soup.
The Honister café was without a doubt the highlight of the day. It was crammed full of GL3D participants, warming up and drying out over hot soup, hot pies, hot chocolate – anything hot really. There was even a bunch of runners standing in the entrance to the ladies toilets under an oasis of hot air which was billowing out from the heating system.
After our soup, we teamed up with a lovely lady from Stockholm called Kari, whose friend had decided to take the road down to Buttermere rather than going up to the next check point on Fleetwith Pike. I was pretty sure I had been over Fleetwith Pike before although I couldn’t remember much about it. The map showed a straightforward ascent from Honister and then a descent straight down the nose of the fell into Buttermere.
“Does it get this wet in Sweden?” we asked Kari as we headed up the pike.
“It rains a lot, but maybe not this wet.”
We dibbed in the checkpoint at the top and I pointed out to Kari the main features of the stunning view that she would have seen had we not been in thick mist. On the bright side, looking over the edge as we headed down the path towards Buttermere, we could see so many streams pouring down the side of the fell that it looked like a wide braided river.
The path turned out to be steep, slippery and exposed. I realised that the reason I had no memory of descending Fleetwith Pike was because my subconscious had blocked it out as unpleasant and unnecessary.
“The last time we came down this path, you said you were never going to do this again.” Steph said unhelpfully as I edged on my bum down a sheer rock face and landed shakily on the grass below. It took us ages to get down. Kari was slow and I was slower, but eventually we made it onto the safety of the tarmac.
“I’m never going to do that again,” I said.
We headed for the path at the side of Buttermere. Kari thanked us for our company and trotted on ahead and then it was just me and Steph, trudging in the rain along the wooded banks of the lake.
I won’t relate the tedious detail of our walk, along the full length of Buttermere, along part of Crummock Water, taking a path to the left too early and wading through endless bogs to find the path which runs along the back of Melbreak and into Loweswater. We got into camp nine and a half hours after we left Grasmere, tired, footsore, and very, very wet. It turned out that we were one of many people doing the C course that day – even half the lunatic Elite had seen sense and switched to the only course which went past a café! We were also one of only a relatively small number of people who had actually completed the C course by going over Fleetwith Pike.
Putting the tent up in the rain was horrible however we managed to dry out the inside of the tent with the towel which I had packed as a last minute afterthought, and then to keep the tent pretty dry inside. We found a corner of a table in the event marquee to cook our supper. The marquee was turning out to be far too small to accommodate all the people who wanted to stay dry. Those who had bagged a chair and a table space were not moving and those who came in later – the brave/foolhardy people who had done the Elite, A or B courses in spite of the weather, had to stand around clutching their cake and shivering with nowhere to put anything down let alone sit down. The ground in and around the marquee soon turned into a mud bath and no amount of straw thrown onto the ground could soak up the wet mud. Even so, the mood was remarkably cheerful. If an alien newly landed from Mars (or indeed a normal person just arrived from Manchester) had walked into the marquee, they would have thought they had walked into a madhouse - a bunch of nutters surrounded by dripping waterproofs, eating unspeakable re-hydrated food out of bags, chatting away ten to the dozen about the hideous day they had just had, and laughing and joking about the hideous day to come tomorrow, with the sound of pounding rain and howling wind as a backdrop to the jollity.
Things were much less jolly back in our tiny tent. I had picked the wrong side of the tent that night and found that every time a gust of wind hit, the blow up arch came crashing down onto my chest and then bounced back up again once the wind had passed. It did not make for a peaceful night. However in the morning we realised that we were lucky. Lots of people had found that when the wind hit their tent, the poles did not bounce back.
Monday morning and it was still raining, hard. At least there was no need to even try to keep the wet stuff dry as we would be going home at the end of the day. We loaded all the wet stuff into one bag and all the dry stuff into the other bag – guess which was the heavier bag.
The organisers had finally seen sense and decided to run a shortened course at every level. The C course had lost all its checkpoints. The mission was simply to get to the finish at Whinlatter visitor centre as quickly as possible. Part of me was disappointed not to be going over Grisedale Pike but only a very small part. Mostly I was just relieved. The downside of the revised course was that much of the way from Loweswater to Whinlatter seemed to be on road, however Steph and I identified a couple of footpaths we could take with only a small detour and decided to keep off road as much as we could.
So it was that about an hour later we found ourselves hopelessly lost in a forestry plantation. We could see where we were supposed to be but there was a barbed wire fence between us and our goal and no matter how far along the fence we went, there was no way through. I admit this was entirely my fault. I did not take a compass bearing or even concentrate on direction as we trudged along, safe in the knowledge that there was only one footpath on the map so we could not possibly go wrong. By the time we got back onto our route, all our fellow competitors, who had gone round the road, had disappeared and we were on our own.
As we wound our way along a path which skirted the bottom of Whiteside, we noticed that the rain had stopped and the sky was getting brighter. Ten minutes later and the sun came out in a patch of blue sky. Cheered by this unexpected turn in the weather, we had a delightful walk through the forest and arrived at Whinlatter Visitor Centre in good spirits. Unfortunately, we were in the minority. Our fellow C coursers, having taken a more direct route, had arrived while it was still raining and had not yet dried out. They were cold, miserable and right royally pissed off because, as on the first morning, the bus company had sent minibuses rather than coaches to do the pick up so there was a long wait for the lift back to Bassenthwaite. I am afraid I could not feel sorry for them. If they had been just a little more adventurous and got lost in the plantation like Steph and me, they would now be drier, warmer and happier. The person I did feel sorry for was the lady who had missed the announcement about the revised course and had battled over Grisedale Pike in rain and gale force winds.
Back at the event centre Simon was waiting for us, looking tired and dirty but strangely contented. His tent had flooded overnight and all his kit was wet but he did not seem to have noticed. The car was full of empty chocolate wrappers and there was a pike sized smile on his face. We stripped off our waterproofs, ate a last piece of the excellent fruit cake and headed home.
It was a fabulous weekend all in all – no really it was - and I have no doubt that we will be back. The event itself is a brilliant idea, allowing everyone from the elite runner to the keen walker to challenge themselves in a friendly and supportive environment. I hope that next time the weather will be kinder, the marquee will be bigger, and Steph and I will be fit enough to do the B course. Perhaps this article will tempt some of you to join us?
— Fiona Hamor
For information on the Great Lakeland 3Day™ and to enter the event, please visit http://www.greatlakeland3day.com/
Photo credit: Ian Corless/Great Lakeland 3Day™