With trail and ultra running ever growing in the UK it was only a question of time before the sky running series made its way to our shores. Big in the Alps the race formats are normally marathon plus distances in the mountains with the aim of taking in peaks and ridges along the way.
At one extreme you have the Salomon sky run along the Aeonach ridge, a grade 3 scramble to others which are much less technical. This weekend was much less technical in comparison but with 29 miles and 2000m of ascent it wasn’t to be sniffed at. Especially when this height gain to distance ratio puts it in a slightly more aggressive category than UTMB or the Lakeland 100. Admittedly despite that fact being floated about, those races are a much more incredible feat of human determination and endurance.
A short recce the day before took me to the top of the first climb, Solomons Temple near Buxton with great views over the course of the following day. A final bit of race preparation was enjoying an incredible meal at the Samuel Fox inn, potentially a tad much for a pre-race meal but with this being my first outing back into ultra racing for a couple of years my aim was to enjoy the day and start getting back into it.
Wondering amongst the competitors it was great to chat and hear stories of competitions completed and planned for the coming year. From quick dash fell runs to the rather more brutal races such as King Offas Dyke 185 mile race or the 268 mile Spine race in January along the pennine way.
The race commenced and we made our way quickly up to Solomons Temple with short pauses as we were funnelled onto single track. Despite the forecast being of overcast conditions I was glad I had packed some sunglasses for the day with the sun beaming down on us. As we rounded the temple with a bagpiper playing up top we began to spread out as we started our decent already. This was going to set the stage for the day with every ascent marked soon afterwards by a descent and slightly demoralisingly loosing all the height just gained.
The route took a course along ridges, through moorland, bogs and of course up a number of hills.
With a well marked course we could concentrate on the running and getting our feet in the right spot. With plenty of opportunities for twisted ankles amongst the rocky tracks being light on our feet and an emphasis on twinkle toes was the name of the game.
The only slight mistake came when chatting to another competitor about his up coming race in Oman. Taking the wrong turn we led out towards a farm building only to realise we had gone half a mile in the wrong direction. Slightly devastating as was the sight of maybe 20 odd runners who had followed on behind us. Quickly making up the ground we had lost we all made our way back into the course and meandered back down the hill side.
Running through one boggy area I came across a pair of Oakley sunglasses that had clearly dropped off one of the runners in front and were gently perched on some long grass. Picking them up I handed them into a later checkpoint. You never know when you might be in a similar situation. I didn’t have to wait long!
About 10 mins later the course was incredibly beautiful and one I would have certainly wanted to capture more of it wasn’t for the fact I dropped my phone. Fortunately it was picked up by one of the other competitors not far behind me. A quick snap and with it firmly packed away for the remainder of the race after learning my lesson and not fancying a repeat before heading on.
The course meandered on and my pace ebbed and flowed as the terrain and distance took its toll. The three food and drink checkpoints on the route hit the spot every time. With the opportunity to refuel on chunks of banana, succulent orange slices, flapjack, soreen and of course a wide array of other goodies. I try to make these as quick as possible and continue to eat as I walk along out of the checkpoint. Partly this is to not get too comfortable and I would much prefer to finish sooner.
Chatting with some of the fell runners it was great to see them descend in front of me. I still don’t understand how they did it so quickly other than through a bit of experience and raw tenacity to descend quickly! I envisaged face planting a rock face first if I tired the same so clearly an area I can improve on.
The route went past quiet a few climbing and bouldering spots with chalk marks on some and people clambering about in the sunshine on others. Unfortunately it would have to be for another time.
As the day wore on I went over on my ankle. With my run going well this was pretty disappointing but deciding to walk it off for a bit I soon managed to break into a trot again. Some of the rocky ground though became much trickier to negotiate as my ankle seemed to get twisted on even the smallest of stones.
Finally the town of buxton came back into sight. I was delighted despite not being able to increase my pace a huge amount. One guy asked if we were to have a sprint finish. As much as I wanted to my legs and ankles had run out of juice. I was happy to finish the race at a plod.
Within moments of crossing the finish line I was welcome by a flat coke, my trainers coming off and my wife looking at me in a slightly sorry and apparently “grey” looking state.
Despite the ankle it was awesome getting back into the running again having been out of ultra running for a couple of years. I was remembering all the elements i had learnt about through training runs, competitions and chats with numerous runners and trainers. I finished middle of the pack which may not have been my best result ever but it was one I will certainly remember. I would certainly recommend checking out the sky running series with a greta mix of terrain and distances.
With a weekend of spectacular weather on the cards and a wide range of walks across the Yorkshire moors, Dales or the Lake District to choose from we were certainly spoilt choice. After much debating over these options and gaining some local knowledge we set our sights on Helvelyn in the Lake District.
With a choice of routes to go up Helvellyn including the famous striding edge it was set to be a fantastic outing.
Waking the next morning and rushing for the curtains I was welcomed to a view of low cloud and overcast hills. Not quite what we expected. Stepping outside the cool weather was perfect for walking and so I began filling a couple of flasks with hot water in preparation for some cooler ascents.
As we headed out along the a66 with awesome views over the Pennines the cloud began to lift. As we drove down onto the western side of the pennines we were greeted to glorious sunshine. The temperature began rising and the thought of no sun cream along with the hot flasks of water all began to seem like daft ideas.
Arriving in Glenridding the car parks were jam packed with rucksack and map carrying hikers. Brilliant to see but dashing our thoughts of being in the wilderness. Gathering a few final essential supplies including the sun cream and chocolate bars we were ready to begin. The chocolate unfortunately did not make the journey as it was eaten in advance before we started.
We headed on up the valley.
Wondering along side the stream that flowed through the village. Huge chunks of it were missing and the foundations of some houses completely exposed showed just how powerful this meandering stream had become in the floods over the winter. There was still a decent amount of work to be done before everything was back in order. Still evident from the number of trucks, diggers and reinforcements being put in place.
The route up was a path that carved its way up the hillside with only a short detour taking us away from the swathes of groups heading up the hill. In front and behind of us were a steady stream of harden walker to enthusiastic opportunist, young and old, tourist and local as well as a few dogs thrown in for good measure.
As we reached a small plateau in front of us we could see striding edge with the silhouette of walkers making their way across it. The sun was beaming down on us and it’s safe to say the sweat was beginning to stream off me at least.
The edge itself was great fun, certainly in this weather. Despite being occasionally exposed it wasn’t like tryfan or crib goch in Wales and in this dry and sunny weather it made for a great outing. Despite this you there were reminders to tougher times with a memorial to Mr Dixon who fell off it in 1858 whilst running with hounds, as well as the occasional scrape from crampons left over from a previous winters. It would certainly be a challenge in cold, wet and icy conditions. One for another day! Darting over the rocks we paused occasionally to soak up the views and let some of the blockages on route ease up. The final chimney proved to be the biggest pinch point of the ridge yet despite this we watched as one guy virtually ran along the length of the ridge swerving round people while a rather elderly looking gentleman made this chimney look a piece of cake. There were of course many others for whom this was not quite so simple but seeing the elation and satisfaction from everyone on conquering striding edge was awesome to see.
Making the final ascent up to the summit which flattens into a great plateau we reached the top. To beautiful views over the surrounding valleys. Sitting down with our feet dangling over one of the slopes we munched on some sandwiches as we watched the start of some fell runners coming up from the other side looking remarkably fresh. We briefly joined the throng of supporters cheering on the competitors before they made their descent.
Surveying the surrounding routes we opted to not go for the well trodden path up Catstye Cam but to meander round along a flat ridge line. The sights and smells brought back memories from many a previous trip up into the hills.
On reaching what we thought would be our final summit, with us both still feeling pretty fresh and the day still young we set our sights on a further peak and ridge line. Passing school groups and walkers relaxing on the slopes whilst soaking up the afternoon rays of sunshine. It was definitely far too hot for the still steaming bottles of hot water I had packed in the cool yorkshire morning.
We made our way along a final ridge with hardly a soul about. It felt much more like the walk we had both expected being slightly more out in the wilderness. With the sun beaming down on us the occasional sip on cool stream water was incredibly satisfying.
The final descent into town was through a field packed full of blue bells lit by the soft evening sunshine. It was a pretty spectacular find for the end of the day, especially as this bit had been an unplanned extension to the day. Before the final descent into town.
Sitting down to a plate of chips and a pint of coke was a delight. We could relax enjoying the evening and the feeling you get from being outdoors all day. A mix of tiredness and satisfaction at what has been achieved. All that was left to do was get some flip flops on, essential after any walking trip and head back to yorkshire for the night.
After much deliberating over the last few years I finally took the a spur of the moment to get some ski skins after chatting to one of the team at a local ski and mountaineering shop in Perth. For those who haven’t heard of these, it is a material where all the hairs lie in one direction so when stuck to the base of the ski they allow the ski to slide in one direction but hold in the other. Along with a touring binding the whole setup allows your foot to pivot up and down so you can trek up hill.
The first trial trip was just at the end of a beautiful days skiing at glenshee however this coincided with the wind picking up. With the temperature plummeting and the skins flapping around I learnt a lot about the equipment and using it in poor conditions. Some of which I should have checked in the warmth of the house! The short notice of good conditions in the hills meant for a quicker trip and slightly rushed prep as I cut the skins to shape at midnight the evening before heading off.
After the initial delay I was off. Gliding along the snow, over snow drifts, heather, ice and rock. I was rewarded with views from the high point across the valley. You could see the snow line across the valleys and the winding road up to glenshee. The nearby stream gleaming in the sunlight. All topped off by a great ski down. The little bit of effort rewarded with untouched Scottish powder, not quite the depths of the alps or further afield but powder nonetheless. I passed a couple making a similar journey up the hills.
The second outing was much better with perfect weather and the snow was due to be good in bits despite the recent warmer conditions. Being in the hills covered in snow is a beautiful sight as was meeting a few like minded people up there. I stopped to discuss route options and snow conditions with a fellow ski tourer. It also gave me the chance to cool down despite the cool breeze I was vastly over dressed for the constant trekking and “warm” weather. If it had been the arctic I would have definitely been sweating far too much. As it brought back memories of the tougher days we had whilst trying to minimise any sweating to an absolute minimum in order to prevent our clothes from freezing.
Some of the more exposed slopes were quite icey. I don’t mind skiing down ice but skinning up hill in a zig zag fashion makes the turns quite interesting. Still perfecting my technique I slid back occasionally on the turns as I shifted round.
It was slightly gutting every time about the loss in hard won height despite it only being a tiny difference. Once at a decent height it was time to head down hill. Skins off, realising I had forgotten the gauze that makes them easier to pull apart, I packed them away eager to hit some fresh snow. Heading down into some of the bowls the skiing improved and I could carve out some turns down the hill between clumps of heather. Before slowly making my way back to the car.
It was a great experience learning a new skill but there is the greater satisfaction knowing you put in the hard graft to experience and reach the area you wanted to ski in. I learnt about how using normal ski boots although does work is not only much heavier but you don’t have nearly as much flex in the ankle which ended up giving me a couple of blisters.
End of a good day
Despite skiing in Scotland being a bit of an experience compared to the likes of the alps. It often involves some rock, streams and heather avoidance. Its close, you can get some incredible conditions particularly if your willing to put some effort in and I will certainly be doing it again! Skiing and ski touring in particular in Scotland is certainly on the increase with the snow lasting well past spring if your willing to go away from the ski areas. As well as allowing you to visit areas with potentially more snow and certainly a lot less skied on gives that adventure and exploration experience.
If you have some ski or other touring experiences why not share the story or the pictures here or on Instagram #Mytour
2015 can only be summed up as a year of some serious highs and lows. It began with an incredible expedition which at points had some interesting ups and downs. Despite that Jamie and myself had learnt a great deal, saw some amazing sites and experienced the Arctic in all its harsh beauty. Although it wasn’t a trip that broke records and I’m not sure if we were or weren’t the first people to ski up the east coast of Baffin Island the experience humbled us. It showed what was important in an expedition; seeing new places, meeting new people from different cultures and pushing our comfort zones. We were helped by a huge number of people back in the UK and all across Canada and particularly on Baffin Island
On getting back to the UK I felt raring to go. I had a game plan of what I wanted to do for the remainder of the year. First up and even I would admit a rather bizarre one which was a desire to make croissants from scratch. This came about part the way through the trip in a rather random train of thinking during a ski session and it had stuck.
There was then a huge curve ball. One that has continued to make me think deeply about family, friends and loved ones. My dad was diagnosed with a stage four brain tumour. It was one of those things that you don’t see coming, there had been no signs just one day after work a call from my mum. It has changed my perspective on, well everything.
Time seems to have gone incredibly quickly since we left our depot on the final section of the expedition as we continued our trudge north. We had been informed by the skidoo riders we met at the hut as well as from Shari, one of our friends from Clyde River, who’s husband Jake along with Sarah and Boomer who were making their way with their dog sled teams to Pond Inlet to expect some bad ice. Every time we came towards a spot or closer to a headland where it tends to accumulate we wondered if it was going to hit. We knew roughly where it might be but without knowing it’s exact start point we kept wondering if we had passed it or if not how much would it slow us down. With both our finite number of supplies as well as having to start finalising departure plans from Pond inlet we were watching our daily mileage carefully.
Rounding a headland our route options split. The faint outline of the dog teams trail hugged the shoreline through the “rough” ice where as a skidoo trail from the hunters we had bumped into headed out into the frozen sea of Baffin Bay. Maybe this was the start. After a day of trudging through it it didn’t seem that bad and if this was as bad as it got then we could cope with that. Camping up we felt pleasantly surprised and satisfied with the situation as well as our mileage for the day. Falling asleep thinking was this as bad as it would get? We both hoped so. Dreams of the perfect ice kept floating through our minds. Depending on your thinking spending your nights dreaming as well as physically walking across ice during the day could be bliss or a nightmare, it all depended on how smooth the journey was.
The next day we rounded a point and our questions were answered. The ice resembled a mountain range shrunken down to the scale of car sized peaks. This picture went as far as the eye could see. Basically our worst nightmare. On top of this the wind was blowing into our faces. Meaning that despite the hot work we had to wear face masks and goggles that steamed up before ice froze on the inside during our breaks. With no sign of an obvious path there was nothing for it but to get stuck in.
For the remainder of the day we spent it happily dragging our sleds up, down and around this field of ice debris. With sleds rolling over, dogs getting tangled and skis crossed there was a lot of huffing, puffing and a number of choice words being used. It had only reached 3pm with a couple of sessions still to go and it felt like we had gone 8 rounds in a boxing match. Our backs ached, legs burned and our minds hurt from having to constantly look for the best route with only a multitude of bad options.
With the wind picking up we found a beautiful iceberg to pitch our tent behind. It didn’t cut all the wind out but certainly made a difference.
Standing on top of the iceberg it was difficult to see with the swirling snow but one thing for sure the next day would certainly involve more of the same. The views were spectacular though, being able to get a different perspective with the extra height allowed us to see above all the debris which stretched out all the way to the horizon. Collapsing into the tent we checked out the maps to try and hazard a guess at what was causing it and where it might end. Despite our up beat thinking we were still estimating it could continue for another 30km for all we knew. As I checked our position and distance covered for the day it had hit us hard but given the start of the day had been ok conditions it meant it was not as bad as it could be at a whopping 12km over 8 hours. About 6 to 8 km shorter than we had been averaging for the trip but it still beat the 4km we managed over the moraine earlier in our voyage, which took a day and a half.
We both agreed that the conditions were a recipe for a tough few days as we curled up in our sleeping bags munching down our dinner and strategically placing our hot Nalgene bottles on our aching muscles. The day had certainly quickly developed to type 3 fun!
Waking the next morning ready to take on the world or as Jamie has started singing “welcome to paradise” as he rubs the sleep from his eyes and his old body creaks up from a morning doze. The tent door was opened to a scene of flat light. This was far from ideal!
Within minutes of starting we had one sled tip over as the continuation of bumping along over the ice began for another day like we had never stopped. This is always a good sign of what the day has install. We soon found ourselves back on the trail of the dog sled team with the occasional pee mark from the dogs making it feel like something out of Hansel and Gretel. Then a skidoo track appeared this was great news as it showed there would have to be a half decent route out. The Inuits are not going to completely trash a skidoo simply to find a route through some bad ice when there might be the option to go round. However we soon lost both due to the flat light and a pause in pee marks, shame it wasn’t bread crumbs or even better chocolate buttons. We continued on making our own fresh tracks through this unforgiving terrain. For a brief period of time we were even treated to a spot of sunshine which revealed that we were coming to the end of the bad ice or at least a larger section of ok ice. In the distance we could see the point we were aiming for however it was slowly being shrouded in a vail of fog.
First snow began to fall but as we continued on the wind speed began to increase and for a second night in a row we headed instinctively towards an iceberg. We had been incredibly fortuitous to have this in what is otherwise an incredibly exposed channel. With our initial thoughts of getting our ice breakers back on, which we had taken off earlier in the day due to the balmy -20c temperatures, our thoughts soon turned to the fact we probably need to get the tent up with the wind speed rising.
With a couple of attempts at finding a large enough spot for our tent tipi we finally settled on one. The downside of our tent for 2 people is that it is monstrous in width and more importantly height. Despite it’s strong construction this represents a real challenge in rough ice and strong winds as you try to find somewhere flat enough to sleep as well as with enough of a wind break to naturally block it or with enough snow to create your own wall. Pitching it up we had all the guy lines out pinning it to the ground with the majestic grey and blue iceberg behind it. As much as I would like to stand on top of this one we would need ice axes and crampons to make it up.
Our daily mileage was again disappointing at just over 10km due to it being a couple of sessions short. But with no protection past this iceberg it was our best option. Day soon turned to night and conditions improved. That was until about 3am when we were awoken to roaring winds. By 4 we decided a snow wall was now required as well.
Kitted up with not a millimetre of skin showing we went outside where we were almost blown off our feet. We stumbled about for about an hour getting a wall together along with tightening down the guy lines. None of this was helped by the fact that the wind had turned through 90 degrees. Although we still had a natural wind break there too it just wasn’t quite big enough. By 5am we were back in the tent with breakfast being served far earlier than normal before heading back into the sleeping bags for a duvet day. Just without the same level of comfort or films on show.
Throughout the day we lay there eating, drinking hot chocolate and watching as the one central pole vibrated and bent in the wind as the high sides of the tent acted like small sails billowing in the breeze. It was unnerving not knowing how much the wind might increase or how much more the tent could take. We made the occasional trip outside to adjust guy lines, to redo bits that had loosened and build up the snow round it’s base as the tent took a battering from the wind and snow. There was the occasional lull, which gave us some hope before kicking back in with greater ferocity. Falling asleep that night we hoped not to be woken in the early hours nor that it would be blowing still the next day.
Waking to not a sound was incredible there was hardly a breathe on the tent, we could hear ourselves rather than shouting across to one another despite being only a meter apart.
The next few days ticked by incredibly quickly as we made good progress, keen to get away from the area that had pinned us down for almost 2 days. With this calm came a period where we could admire Bylot Island which although felt incredibly close was actually still 20km away. It’s picture perfect peaks, ridges, bowls and glaciers covered the horizon. It was an incredible sight and together with the region we were passing through looked incredible for a ski trip, downhill as apposed to the cross country we were currently doing.
Camping up for the final time we finished slightly earlier than usual. We could see the houses in Pond Inlet up on the hillside which felt strange being so close but yet not quite there. We had planned this so that the next day would be short but not too short plus it would give us a chance to take some more photos assuming we had good conditions. We relaxed eating left over chocolate, biltong and hot chocolates until a couple of celebratory cigars came out. Although it was slightly early the last few days had been windy and the chances of us being able to smoke them as we skied along through face mask and goggles was not likely!
It was amazing to think that 70 days previously we had left Qik and about 100 days since we had left the shores of the UK. We were almost at the end of the journey……
The morning started like any other with the normal rituals of life in the arctic, which after 3 months were running pretty slickly. We were getting the final part of the tent away when I heard an almighty noise. Looking up I realised it was just Jamie sneezing. You forget how quite and soundless the arctic region is. The only sounds we hear are that of our group, the wind on the tent and the odd raven that fly’s past. I had only just started sorting out my sled when a small noise from erupted from Colin’s direction. This could have been a bark or, and probably far my likely, a sudden release of air from one of his other orifices. Jamie looked round. The next word I heard in normal situations wouldn’t make me bat an eyelid in this environment however it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up while your pulse rises rapidly as adrenaline shoots into your veins.
Looking round I immediately see the ambling cream coloured figure of a bear. There was a momentary pause, as you think wow look at that. Then the far more urgent one that this bear was only 30 – 40 m away, which was close enough for us to need to do something about it. Within moments I had my shotgun as did Jamie. We had discussed and run through our plan for this kind of situation particularly after our last encounter, our rapid reaction force known only as Tala was released. Colin was kept by our side partly for security but mainly because he is more likely to run in the opposite direction. Tala chased down her target, barking aggressively until she was closer to the bear.
Tala had clearly expected the same reaction as with the mother and her cubs, which ran quickly off into the distance. She returned victorious arriving back to a hero’s welcome of belly rubs and food. Being a lonesome young male bear it had other ideas and held his ground. At which point there was a stand off between the two of them. The bear was still obviously trying to work out what we all were and what we were doing in his back garden. They approach down wind lifting his nose in the air to get a better whiff of us and occasionally getting higher on his back legs to see and smell us better. Irritated and distracted by tala he made a little run forward but she kept him at bay. He was only testing the water but the move had Jamie and me on edge.
With tala keeping him busy this gave Jamie and I time to load up a few bear bangers to fire at him. The guns are kept with live ammunition as the first option so we have to assess the situation before using bangers. With a loud crack and flash of light they started going off around his feet and one bouncing off him. They took effect immediately on both dog and bear as they paused mid stand off each unsure of what these explosions of noise were. These first few didn’t unfortunately budge him much as he only wondered off a few steps and certainly not far enough away. Before beginning a slow shuffle back in our direction.
Time seemed to go incredibly slowly. Other than a couple of bangers we kept my shotgun on live rounds as a very last resort. There was the incessant barking from Tala, I had joined in shouting at the bear, Colin well I will come on to that while Jamie loaded up more bangers. This second round of explosions and with everything else he turned on his heels and routed, clearly deciding this was not worth the effort. Tala continued to follow him with continued aggression until we called her back.
As he wondered off he clearly heard a noise from a seal. Rising on his hind legs he dived into the ice. Nothing, he was not having a good start to the day. We stood watching carefully as he then continued his long walk into the distance. Now that he was further away we could appreciate the sight of this magnificent animal as he meander about icebergs with the sun rising behind him. It was a beautiful sight seeing a polar bear in it’s natural environment. They are certainly an animal to both admire but also respect incredibly highly.
Surveying the scene in front of us, it had been quite an experience, we had fired 8 bangers which later when we walked over to see his foot prints you could see the small blast radius’s left as they had exploded about him. Looking from his perspective highlighted just how close he had come. Despite only being 9.30 in the morning we both felt like we had been up and moved a considerable distance already. You don’t appreciate how being on edge even for a short period of time takes it’s toll on the mind and body.
Finally with some decent distance between us we felt comfortable enough to finish the remainder of the packing and make a quick get away onto whiter pastures.
Now throughout this entire fiasco Colin who had raised his small alarm had made one of two decisions. Either the situation was all under control and didn’t need his assistance or in one final last stand of pleasure he would look the other way and lick his bollocks. We were both delighted that Colin was the first to highlight the bears presence but then incredibly frustrated that the dog selected for his polar up bringing and likely handling of a polar bear had come so short of the mark. Despite this though he has certainly grown on us particularly over the last few weeks as he still shakes off the effects of 2 years of a harsh upbringing and his lifetime experience where human contact was limited at best. He now nudges me at each break with his nose and licks his lips in hope of receiving some flapjack, which as long as it isn’t cappuccino flavour or ginger choc chip if he has gone to Jamie, he gets some. His confidence does seem to be improving with him now slowly reaching up with mouth opening round and in the direction of the flapjack that we are about to eat ourselves. He is incredibly gentle though feeding him by hand he eases it away from you as if it were a delicate relic from centuries ago rather than the semi frozen block of food that it is. We have resorted to warming them up in our chest pocket before hand to stop some flavours breaking our teeth. Tala on the other hand has been trained under the careful watch of Jamie and the occasional addition by myself to balance food on the end of her nose, having her leave it for a few seconds as drool dribbles from her mouth before flicking it up with her nose and grabbing in her mouth. It is then munched down with such a ravenous tenacity that you would think the flapjack is about to come alive.