Sometimes the Pennine Way must seem like a bad joke. One of those times must be the Cumbria section where the route climbs steadily from Teesdale to cross the watershed at High Cup Nick. From there the route drops 400 metres to Dufton, then climbs 670 metres back up to the watershed at Great Dun Fell – that’s fine if you’ve booked a B&B at Dufton, but not so good if you’re cold, knackered and running ‘The Spine’ race.
The route from Great Dun Fell over Cross Fell is the highest and potentially the most dangerous part of the Pennine Way and “The Spine” race – the Cross Fell Plateau is big, and a navigation error here can send you spinning off into a wild and empty wilderness! The only shelter for miles is the mountain bothy, Greg’s Hut. Normally cold and damp, the bothy became a haven of warmth for the four surviving competitors in ‘The Spine’.
John Bamber and I had been warned to expect Gary Morrison and Steve Thompson after 0300hrs on Wednesday morning. As we were running out of tall tales, and there wasn’t much on the ‘telly’ we decided to get our heads down for a few hours. At 0215hrs I woke up, aware that someone was outside (I sleep very lightly, probably a throwback to my days in the Royal Marines). It was Gary and Steve, earlier than expected.
Whilst John fed them noodles and coffee, I was weighing up their gear, specialist lightweight clothing designed for adventure racing. As we talked it became apparent that the correct management of several thin layers was vital, not only for success but also for safety. This was demonstrated quite graphically when they left us. Gary needed a pee, and in the 30 seconds delay standing about, Steve went beyond cold – he was HURTING!!
The ability to keep moving to generate heat was a vital part of their strategy, and any incident that caused them to stop on high, exposed ground could have had serious consequences. Adventure racing isn’t just about long distances and being tired – the ability to risk assess through constantly changing conditions is also vital. I was glad for both of them as they finally set off from the hut in thick mist, heading downhill.
Downhill? – I suddenly realised! The track they should have been on was level, not downhill! I moved to where their headlamps had disappeared, and was relieved to see them heading back up towards me – at least the exertion would warm them up! I led them to a couple of markers on the track, and saw them off in the right direction. Having done that I turned back to the hut,
I couldn’t see the hut!
The mist was so thick that my Petzl Myo RXP headtorch on full beam couldn’t pick it out, even though it was only 50 metres away. I was dressed for sitting in a bothy, not roaming the hills in sub-zero conditions, so getting back to the hut became fairly important. I knew the general direction, and a flash of black and white as my Border Collie ‘Mist’ ran between me and the hut confirmed that it was the right way. I was about five metres from the hut before I saw it.
Our next visitor was to be Mark Caldwell, due at 1600hrs. The foul weather of the morning had improved, so I took ‘Mist’ up the track towards Cross Fell – she was ready for a run after almost a day cooped up in Greg’s Hut. There was no sign of Mark, so I returned to the bothy, followed soon after by Mark at 1635hrs. His kit was an interesting contrast to Gary and Steve’s, more or less standard mountaineering kit, heavier to carry but offering better protection from the elements. Mark was very strong, even at this stage – if he had run into a problem he would probably have been able, literally, to weather the storm. He set off not long after arriving into the dying light of the afternoon.
Last to arrive was Andy Collister, who arrived at 1935hrs. He gladly polished off two helpings of noodles, and didn’t even complain that John had forgotten to add the flavour sachet to the first one! The wind had picked up yet again, and it was bitterly cold outside. I asked Andy what Cross Fell had been like. He replied, “Rough”, but I briefly saw in his eyes an expression between pain and fear! He had completed the Cross Fell leg alone, and in conditions almost as bad as those that Gary and Steve had endured, but it had taken a lot out of him – he set off about 1hr 15mins after arriving, still very determined.
The next morning (Thursday) was the end of my involvement in “The Spine” – I had a prior commitment to honour, and there were sufficient staff to monitor the remaining four runners. A bumpy ride down the track in Phil’s 4X4 proved the old adage that second class riding was far better than first class walking – certainly more fun!
John continued with the team to Bellingham, where Andy arrived at “something silly o’clock”. His feet were in shreds, and his speed had dropped to 1 kph (yes, that’s kilometres not mph!) The medical team reluctantly pulled him out of the race. That left three. Gary and Steve eventually came in first to the finish line, after 152 hours and 2 minutes. Their experience and personal management had made them a very strong team. Mark followed soon after with a time of 158 hours and 55 minutes, running on a huge amount of self discipline and determination.
The grit and determination showed by all the competitors, but especially by Gary, Steve, Mark and Andy, will remain in our memories for some time, and will set a high standard for “The Spine 2013”. To sum up the event, I’ll leave the final word with fellow Mountain Leader, Stuart Westfield –
“The lasting impression of the race will be the team spirit and camaraderie of everyone involved, whether they were runners or staff. The winner’s escort into Kirk Yetholm, given by the Borders Mountain Rescue Team was another great moment, but for me the greatest satisfaction was walking the final kilometres with Mark Caldwell, knowing that the last man was safely off the hill”.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock and John Bamber
p.s. This account is a snapshot of my involvement in “The Spine”, and so misses out much of the hard work carried out by the other members of the support staff, and the grit, courage and determination of the competitors battling with cold and fatigue. For more stories about “The Spine” visit the website at http://thespinerace.com/ If you have been inspired to have a go the site will soon be accepting entries for the 2013 race.