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.
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.
It is northwards to Clyde and so northwards we went, leaving a warm and comfortable hut for the sea ice and our trusty tent once more. In good spirits and now both showing signs of good beard growth, things were looking up.
Growing facial hair has always been an issue for Benno so he has been delighted to start to show the signs of some serious progress on his chin and chops and I have been happy to see that his barb is also decidedly gingery in colour. It’s an odd phenomenon that neither of has another ginger hair on our body, we have thoroughly checked, apart from the area between clavicle and nose. So leaving the hut, with a dash of the fox about us, we were determined to make a coastal point some 20km away but with our now reloaded sleds weighing in at around 50kgs heavier, life moved at a slower rate. We were both taken by surprise at quite how much more effort we were now putting in to move the sleds and our dream destination for the evening seemed sure to elude us. That is until we saw the bears- it’s amazing what adrenaline will do for your daily mileage!
We had seen lots of tracks at the hut and criss-crossing our path for the past 6 hours, confidently announcing to each other that this was a male or here you could see a young mother and cub and that this track is clearly weeks old when Benno stopped and squinted at the horizon. “It’s a bear” I replied as soon as I followed his finger and saw a mother and two cubs around 600m away, ambling along towards us very bear like and pausing occasionally to stand on hind legs to smell us and get a better view. Having rapidly dumped harnesses and grabbed shotguns, we secured Tala, hid the marmalade and loaded our bear bangers. As we watched the mother trundle closer who should we suddenly see bolting towards the bear at full pelt but Tala, having slipped her lead and seeing this as a wonderful opportunity to get aquatinted with her polar cousin. As the queen bee of Battersea Park and used to lording it over the Cockapoos and French Bulldogs, Tala is not lacking in self confidence and despite us shouting and swearing at her, she wasn’t coming back for anyone. Benno and I watched in horrified silence both thinking this was going to end in one of two ways, neither happy. Tala would either get mauled or killed by the bear, very bad news meaning we would be left with only Colin who was trying his hardest to look in the other direction and pretend he couldn’t see the bear, or Tala would get close enough to severely piss the bear off and when she realised this wasn’t the big husky from the park and that maybe a play fight was out of the question she would run back towards us bringing an angry and irate mother bear with her. Tala however proved us wrong, she fully charged the bear, ears up, legs galloping, taking entirely airborne strides until the bear turned and with her cubs ran as fast as they could in the opposite direction. Tala chased her for around 600/700m, barked at the bear quite a lot as if to say ” and don’t come back” then turned round and strutted back to us looking very pleased with herself. Needless to say we weren’t shouting at her anymore and she received lots of attention and praise once she had sauntered back to our position, head held high and in expectation of some flapjack for her bravery.
As the light faded and we watched the bear and Cubs saunter off into the dusk we decided to push on to put some distance between us and this large and powerful creature. It is a strange experience being separated from a large, hungry, predator by only an open stretch of flat sea ice and in some ways it felt as if we were watching the whole experience on the most vivid wide screen imaginable, which I suppose in some ways we were. Still it’s nice to have a shotgun and a dog like Tala just in case you can’t find the remote to change channel fast enough when things get a bit too real.
So we made the Point that evening and set off for our next destination, Cape Henry Kater. Having poured over maps looking at this area for many weeks it is always gratifying to arrive at a large, much anticipated check point as it helps validate the miles you have already completed and allows you to settle on your next objective. Having followed our neatly marked map exactly (EXACTLY) to the spot where the Inuit hunters had told us to cross the Cape, we were a little taken aback by the scale of the river valley running down the land. We had been told to expect a ‘steep bit’ at the beginning but the ravine slicing its way down a considerable Munro sized peak was not what we expected. Optimistic as ever we assumed the valley must level out behind and so began the bastard task of lifting the sleds over the 100ms or so of rocky beach and dragging them uphill. After one particular stint of shuttling the sleds up an increasingly steep slope we decided that a quick recce was in order to scout the terrain ahead and if this was a feasible or ludicrous undertaking. After 30 minutes it became obvious that getting a skidoo up this slope, let alone a 140kg man powered sled, would be a tough task and that turning round was the only feasible option. We walked back down to the sleds, which from our new perspective were resting on a slope resembling a challenging red run and we both marveled that we managed to get them that far uphill without realising maybe this was not the right route. We needed some help and when you are pissed off, shattered and confused on Baffin Island the only people to call are the Qik RCMP. We spoke to Chris and John first assuring them that we were fine and hadn’t injured ourselves and asked that they tracked down Jaipotte for us, whose line on the map we had been diligently following. Thirty minutes later Jai was explaining to us that there is a hut to look for right by the valleys entrance and we were about 8km to the west of the position we needed and that our map was very hard to draw accurate lines on. We headed back down the slope as the sun began to fade, frustrated to have wasted a day, a huge amount of energy and our moods only briefly brightened when Colin managed to wrap Benno’s legs up and send him down the slope head first as we were descending. Well it brightened my day although I daren’t laugh as B looked like he was about to skin Colin on the spot. That night was definitely a brownie night and we gratefully ate the last of Celine’s excellent treats and enjoyed her final quote which was, once again, oddly fitting.
The next day we found the hut and valley and with the river frozen our progress and morale increased as the day brightened up with the sleds skimming lightly over the still river despite going uphill. This was not to last. After 7k the river poured into a large frozen lake which was also easy to cross, however with the fog creeping in and an alarming uphill section in front of us we call it a day and camped in a shallow saddle. The next morning was bright and clear which revealed to us in all its glory the task that lay ahead; an undulating hillside, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, dotted with incalculable rocks which poked menacingly through the snow. Jai’s sage advice to “just follow the land” seemed a little optimistic now and so we headed North as best we could, aiming for the lowest saddle on the horizon and hoping to find a path through. The going was harder than either of us thought possible and always tinged with the knowledge that we didn’t know if this was best course, having no map of a small enough scale to be of use for detailed navigation. The horrible small rocks sticking through the thin snow cover meant that we zigzagged constantly, often pulling for 5 or 6 metres for only 1 metre forward gained, all the while heading uphill. After 5 Hours of this we were both exhausted and beginning to feel cold despite the heavy work load, a sure sign we were running low on energy. Finally we crested the top of the saddle with the glorious sight of a flattish landscape ahead and in the distance the exit valley on the other side of the Cape clearly visible. Benno summed it up perfectly when he said “I feel a bit emotional”.
Not only could we see that the land beyond was tolerably flat we also had a direction to aim for in the form of a topographical feature large enough to be clear on our maps, which put an end to those nagging doubts we were heading into a range of mountains. We trudged off down the hill exhausted and feeling depressed by the reading on the GPS telling us that despite all of our back breaking hard work we had only covered 6km in a straight line. The next day showed no sign of a letup in work load. Pulling pulks on anything other than flat terrain is horrible, any change in gradient is instantly noticeable and made painfully obvious by the biting of the harness into your back and yet we covered some good ground so slept thinking we would be back on the sea ice tomorrow evening. Oh what fools! Those last 16km proved to be every bit as difficult as the first section, constant ups and downs, rocks everywhere and the previously very obvious valley and river system slowly becoming a large drainage area for the surrounding marshes with many false exits and non -draining lakes meaning finding the actual watercourse was sometimes impossible. Both knackered from the previous 3 days our paced slowed and despite eventually finding he main river channel we both realised that this Cape was going to be the gift that kept on giving as night and the temperature dropped. Waking the next morning to a fresh breeze and -38 on the thermometer did little to lift our spirits and we packed in silence and headed back to the river channel. The sea ice was tantalisingly close now, less than 3km away and yet we weren’t counting any chickens this time. The river had steepened into a ravine, obviously a powerful white water rapid during the spring melt, unlike the lovely little river we had pottered up on the other side this was steep, dotted with huge boulders and filled with deep snow. Despite going downhill we had to pull the sleds almost as hard as if we had been going uphill and on three occasions 20ft snow drifts filled the valley forcing us to do shuttle runs to get the sleds over the top. Finally we turned a meander in the river and there, spread before us was the ice, flat and inviting like a massive rink ready to be skated happily across.
I can now fully sympathise with a female turtle desperately hauling herself slowly and painfully up a beach to lay her eggs. Some things are meant to be on land, some things are not. Pulks, and the silly ginger bearded Brits pulling them, are definitely sea mammals and the relief and accomplishment we felt as we crossed the tide gap back onto the ice must be the same as the turtle as she slips gratefully back into the ocean. I do doubt that the turtle turns round to the land, gives it the finger and tells it to go f*$k itself, but it’s nice to think that maybe in her own way she does and after all, who could blame her.
So off we went again, ignoring the map and the drawn line that pointed us towards the next Cape and the recommended over-land crossing, instead heading belligerently for the sea ice and a coastal route beyond where we belong.
“Whatever you think you can do, or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, power and grace.” *Thanks Celine!!!
About 12 days ago we reached our first depot.
It has been a bit of a shock to the system being back on the trail after everything that has happened, however Jamie and I have been trudging away the miles. We have constantly been looking for that flat and smooth ice where we just effortlessly and gracefully fly over the surface. Sadly we haven’t found it, by any stretch of the imagination, and we now have first hand knowledge of what rough ice looks like. Our standards of what we can expect have almost certainly adjusted.
We had been advised the area we were heading through had very rough ice, the locals keep saying its the worst it has been in years and they have been skirting around it. This process is much quicker on a skidoo and for us the maths made the tougher route the unfortunate winner.
We made it to a large bay that we needed to cross but it was difficult to envisage the vastness of it due to the thick fog that hugged the surface of the ice and the setting sun. Waking the next morning we were met by beautiful blue skies, vast inlets, glorious mountains and ahead of us a rolling sea of broken ice. It was disheartening as our pace slowed to a crawl. It was like being in a constant scrummage with an opponent that lasted for the entire day plus part of the next. For every step won forward you could feel the energy being sapped out of you. Even at -30C we could feel ourselves breaking a sweat, something which we try our hardest to avoid as it clogs our clothes with ice. Being the slightly hotter team member, this comes from bitter experience as I squeezed myself into a ice crunching jacket the following morning.
Despite the tough ice we have been touched by glorious weather. Excluding one day where ourselves and our tent were rattled by the 30mph+ winds. We awoke far earlier in the morning than the usual 5 am. Although we stayed wrapped in our sleeping bags for as long as possible we soon had to depart this safety blanket and meet the day head on. The snow swirled round our feet all day. It was impossible to spot a reasonable path through it all. Despite the balmy temperatures in the mid -20’s the wind made the temperature plummet and every millimetre of skin needed to be covered. Despite our best efforts we would walk along constantly adjusting as the wind managed to squeeze its icy fingers into any gap. It also made the experience of going to the bathroom regardless of what it was, a very chilling and quick but necessary experience. There is only so long you can wait and unfortunately the weather doesn’t seem to correlate with toilet stops.
After all of that we finally made our way to our next stash of food and fuel! We are now sitting here appreciating some warmth from some left over fuel in a good friend Jaipotties hut. We are enjoying munching through some planned treats plus some of the surplus goodies that we have.
The next part of our journey sees us heading over the final stretch of Home Bay and then towards Clyde River. It’s still a fairly good chunk at around 200 km. Possibly more importantly it marks, to Qikiqtarjuaqs relief, the transition from being closer from one to the other. Chris and Halie can finally relax knowing that we aren’t going to spring up and crash in the police station. Thanks again for the awesome hospitality. We are forever grateful.
So now just to push further north.
In doggy news Colin and Tala are getting on incredibly well. Colin whines and pines after Tala when she goes about her wanderings each day. It does give us a slight headache but provides bears with a disincentive to approach. A win overall we have concluded. It might also explain why Talas trundling goes off into the distance until she appears to be a little speck before bounding back…particularly when she senses we are stopping for food. Her nuzzling Colin though suggests she does quite like him after all though.
As you are aware, Alex unfortunately picked up an injury to his head. I thought I would provide my own insight into the events that unfolded.
That night was completely unexpected. We had a great day skiing, the weather and conditions were amazing as well as spectacular. It just shows you how fast a situation can change. Lying in the tent, getting warm and with some hot chocolates being prepared. Bliss.
Myself and Jamie became aware of the growling coming from the normally high pitched and surprisingly melodic Colin.
With Alex outside and aware of the potential for bears we called out to him a few times to make sure he was ok. There was no response. I quickly put my boots on, picked up the shotgun and headed outside. It was eerily quiet. Of much more concern initially there was no sign of Alex. Looking over at the sleds there was a strange dim glow of a light. Heading over I saw Alex’s body sprawled on the floor, I called to Jamie for assistance as he was out cold on the snow. Shouting at him and checking he was still breathing, we lifted him into the tent. After following our first aid training, a wave of relief flowed through Jamie and I, as we revived him and got him into his sleeping bag to start warming him up. Our first thought and concern being hypothermia possibly due to fainting or a trip. We began piecing together what had happened with Alex complaining of a sore head and neck there was only one call to make. Fortunately my mum, who is a doctor back in Scotland, provided us with some much needed medical advice via sat phone.
It is safe to say it was not a easy nights rest and waking to an unsurprisingly still medically unfit Alex. Another call to our official expedition doc, Dr Alex Kumar as well as Informing the local Mounties of or situation we waited to see how Alex’s condition developed. Jamie and myself quickly made the call that we required assistance to be pulled back to where he could be monitored and treated by the local medical team. If need be he could also be flown to the nearest hospital. With the Skidoos on route it was just a waiting game till they arrived and a case of trying to stay warm as we packed up our equipment apart from our tent before they arrived.
Once they arrived, we soon had all our stuff including two of the three dogs on the komatiks (large sleds). Gemima despite being fed and following us for the entire trip she would not unfortunately come near enough to get her in as well. She would we hoped follow us back safely.
It was a beautiful evening as we zipped along under northern lights, despite my frozen goggles I managed to catch a glimpse when we slowed. What followed was the coldest journey that Jamie and myself have experienced. Alex rightly so had our emergency down trousers keeping him toasty warm, letting him get cold in his current state was not an option. The decision to hold onto the skidoo or alternatively warming our freezing knees, toes or any other parts of our body that felt cold by rubbing them with our hands, banging our feet or anything we could think of was a tough choice. I found squeezing my legs round the chassis seemed to do the trick! Respite came as the sled carrying the dogs broke off, giving us the opportunity to run about like headless chickens in a bid to get warmth flowing through us.
The final section of the journey felt like an age before the lights of Qik appeared on the horizon and we rolled into town. Rolling off the Skidoos in a semi frozen state. This was followed by me and Jamie piling into Chris and Halie’s house where we peeled off our frozen and icicle covered clothing before running, jumping, swinging our arms and rubbing our legs and toes till we could feel them getting hot again.
With Alex at the med centre and us warm, we could finally relax and start reflecting on the fact that we were back in Qik.
It was certainly a mixture of emotions, pleased we had made the right decision and got back safely (other than the obvious) but clearly disappointing and completely unexpected compared to just over 24 hours previously. The whole experience had certainly not sunk in completely.
I thought it would be appropriate to include an extract from Alex’s latest blog.
“You may be wondering why I am still in Qikiqtarjuaq and not long-since flown south or back on the route north. We’ve had cumulatively hours of consultation with both the few medical staff here, with two of our expedition doctors, Benno’s mother and in particular my friend Dr Alex Kumar, and thereafter with the medical team from my insurers. It took around twenty-four hours from the moment I, inexplicably, managed to trip on a line in the dark outside our tent and knock myself unconscious, through making the decision to withdraw, to getting medical attention. A judgment was made at that point that an emergency bleed on my brain was unlikely and so an immediate medevac by air was not necessary. You then enter a window of days or even weeks when the symptoms are severe enough to require medication and make a flight on a pressurised aircraft dangerous, but not bad enough to need immediate removal to a large hospital. I am currently in that window. It seems counter-intuitive at first, given the assumption that sooner is always better, but all doctors concur that a scan, most likely an MRI, at this stage is needed to assess the extent and type of brain injury, but that I need to have much-reduced symptoms first. The hope is for an uncomplicated brain bruise that simply needs time and rest to fix. In the meantime, I’m on the biff-train for the first time in around five years. Some of you might recognise that term and empathise with the sheer irritation that comes with it. Benno and Jamie, having done a sterling job on the ice bringing me round and back to Qik, are hitting the balance of making sure that tasks are being done with the increased participation I can manage each day.”
You can read the rest on the link below
Preparation, preparation preparation
Even more so compared to my previous races and expeditions this adventure has required far more planning and preparation. It’s remoteness, environmental conditions where temperatures drop to -40C as well as the 1800 mile distance to be skied make our decisions and actions critical long before we reach the start line. This has meant there has been a huge amount to learn and understand from the route, kit, nutrition and climate factors. As well as how all these will change as there is a huge shift in temperatures through the season of winter into spring. On top of this we have the physical and mental aspects.
To conquer this we have spent many a sunny and rainy evening sitting round a table covered in an array of maps, kit, food, electronics and other assorted goodies going through it all. This has resulted in a few odd looks as we tried out some face masks whilst in a warm london pub.
Many aspects to the trip are very similar to any other race, trip or expedition, the biggest difference is that a bit like in my Atlantic row there are no shops and the volume of kit is far higher. We will each be man hauling around 250kg worth of equipment at the start with everything we need for the entirety of the trip. For the 3 of us that is almost as much as the weight of our entire boat.
Getting ready to pull this has meant for all of us a large part of our time being spent doing exercise and more recently eating to gain the necessary weight to be in the best possible shape to pull this. I still enjoy being able to do a mixture of sports so my training has mixed cycling, running and the gym with climbing and whilst it was warmer stand up paddle boarding.
All of this will come together for the expedition as we begin our traverse across the frozen arctic sea.