Pre-race kit check: Goggles, knife, sleeping bag, bivvy, windproof lighter – in here somewhere, 3000 calories, trowel, blister popping needles – all OK, just 8 items of a long list of 8 kilogrammes of kit that must be carried.
Race number, 581, then time for a café stop before race briefing and tracker fitting.
A cruel 6.10pm start from a damp field in Hardraw, immediately uphill into the snow on Great Shunner Fell. Enthusiastic jogging up the track then hands on knees up the flagstone path to the summit. A few red lights attached to backpacks visible ahead, a couple already way ahead and a long trail of head torches snaking up the hill behind. Deep snow on the northern flank allowed a relatively fast and fun descent to Thwaite then across the fields and through the limestone blocks towards Keld. All alone now, a few lights visible a 100m back and no one in sight in front. The skies were clear, it was only moderately cold, I was feeling surprisingly good and confident (at least on this section) that I knew where I was going. The gaudy lights of Tan Hill beckoned across the moor – I arrived in 5th place (Whoops- the initial plan had been to start conservatively).
Over the morass of Sleightholme Moor in perfect visibility with GPS out for reassurance (box fresh and never been used in anger – a bit of pre-race familiarisation would have been useful). Moors, saturated moors, icy moors, snow covered moors and various combinations of all three before a steep descent into Middleton in Teesdale and arrival at the checkpoint around 3am in 8th place (the downward trajectory I expected).
Some of the earlier arrivals were already leaving but I opted for sleep (I’d had little the night before; picking Ange up at 3am from the Spine Sprint and heading over to Hebden Bridge). The ‘plan’ (already a very flexible and fluid one) was to leave early enough to get to Cross Fell by dusk. Sweet tea, stew, more tea, a good 2 hours sleep, porridge then, after looking at the weather forecast opted for big coat and Hoka boots before setting off about 7am into light snow along the Tees.
Low Force and High Force in spate, snow and ice on Falcon Clints, up the side of Cauldron Snout, picking off a few early starters, and a beautiful wintry ascent to High Cup Nick revealing a snow-covered panorama of the Lakeland fells. A long runnable descent to Dufton village hall (30 minutes maximum stop) with more tea before the relentlessly boggy track to the foot of Knock Fell.
False summit after false summit, light snow cover beginning to thicken and the wind strengthening. Clouds were building over Cross Fell and the sun was disappearing behind the Lakeland Fells – I should have left an hour earlier. Deep snow now, footprints of those ahead diverging and reconverging, taking various lines on the way to Great Dunn Fell. A fun snowy descent to the road to the radar station then suddenly into darkness and slow progress in deep snow to Little Dunn and the seemingly endless plateau of Cross Fell.
I waited briefly at the top for two head-torches to catch me up for company on the descent to the oasis of Gregg’s Hut. John Bamber and co. supplied tea and the legendary chilli noodles while we defrosted in front of the woodburner and laughed at the pear-shaped ice blocks on the tips of the running poles, giving them the appearance of glass blowers’ tubes.
Water bottles de-iced and a splash of boiling water added to delay refreezing, then back out into the clearest star filled sky imaginable for the undulating descent to Garrigil to be welcomed with hot soup and yet more tea at an unofficial support point. Tricky field navigation, far too many stiles and woodland tracks to Alston YHA (arrival just before 11pm, 16 hours on the trail), where the checkpoint staff thawed the ice on our laces with hot water so we could remove our shoes. Checkpoint ‘admin’: charge phone, charge light, charge GPS, pop and tape blister (only one so far) then tea, warming stew and formulate a plan – off Hadrian’s Wall before dark so a couple of hours sleep permitted.
A 4am start (I think, it’s a bit of a blur) with GPS in hand across numerous fields and moors for the long slog towards Greenhead. Lost the path on Hartleyburn Common, blindly following a quad bike track for 1km in the wrong direction. Tired and disorientated but sorted it out embarrassingly wondering who would be watching the tracker.
Met Chris 549, who I’d past earlier that morning (obviously no nav errors on his part), on the way into Greenhead and decided company was the sensible option for the remainder of the day. Unexpected and welcome support from Chris and Anne before an inspiring 7/8 miles along the innumerable ascents and descents of the wall. Sycamore Gap, the vertical drop to Crag Lough then off the wall before Housesteads and into the woods just as the sun was setting.
A noticeable drop in temperature before an enforced diversion along icy forest roads then boggy fields to Horneystead Farm and Helen’s wonderful soup. We arrived at Bellingham (No, it’s not pronounced like that) at 10.25pm -almost 19 hours after departing. James K was setting off as we arrived, straight in and straight out, but again, sleep seemed like the best option. Chris and I had formulated a joint plan – a 6pm finish (3 days) would require a 2:30am start.
‘Admin’, sausage casserole (the sweetcorn soup had been renamed ‘corn chowder’ to the amusement of one of the volunteers), hot sweet tea and a quick check of Facebook left me feeling encouraged by the many messages of support.
The floor of the adventure centre was hard and the temperature similar to outside so sleep didn’t come easily and it required an effort to get out of the sleeping bag at 1:45am. Breakfast and a full kit-check prior to navigating the streets out of Bellingham to the frozen fields above and into the woods for the twenty plus miles to Byrness. Solid progress made easier with company and the confidence of two people sharing the ‘nav’.
A welcome 30-minute stop in Byrness with hot food before back-tracking to re-join the Pennine Way for the climb up to the Cheviots. 9 miles to Hut 1, another 9 to Hut 2 then 7.5 miles down to the finish – 6pm was looking possible. A perfect mountain day: crisp snow, clear skies, the ditches of the Roman fort clearly out lined in the snow and nearly ‘home’. I was feeling confident and lucky to have the opportunity to be out there.
On to the tops and the snow deepened, the path became obscured by drifts and the narrow trod of the trail blazed by those ahead became a jumble of deep foot holes. The preferred route was on top of the heather at the sides of the path but staying on the line wasn’t easy and frequent plunges through seemingly hard packed snow to knee and occasionally thigh depth sapped the energy.
Hut 1 brought welcome relief and a rationed 200ml of warm water to unfreeze the frappuccino like consistency of soft flasks. 16 miles left. 9 interminable miles of drifting snow to Hut 2 in increasingly cold conditions. We could see Fiona and Dave ahead and the inevitable approach of Damian and Jack (Leading the full Spine Race) behind. Reassuringly it took them several miles to catch us, progress was slow for all, and when they did, they joined the ‘train’ as we forged on together in darkness through the snow. On the final summit before the descent towards Hut 2 they disappeared into the wind and were gone in an instant.
James K and Berend left Hut 2 as we arrived. More hot water for the flasks and extra layers. Fiona and Dave stayed to cook but Chris and I left for the final ascent of the Schil. One last check of the GPS in the lee of ‘a hut’ on the ridge. Chris had carried on and his torch was out of sight. I turned and the hallucinatory hut had disappeared – it was obviously never there. I was exhausted and disorientated and it took what seemed like an age to work out where I was. The fence appeared and I headed right to re-join Chris. The Schil was finally conquered and we began the long runnable descent to the farm at the head of the valley road. No headtorches visible behind, no red lights ahead so we opted for a relaxed stroll along the last mile of flat icy tarmac before the final half-mile climb to the village. We broke into a jog just before the green, crossed the finish and kissed the wall of the Border Hotel where I was met by Tom W and Darren. 75 hours and 9th place.
I can’t remember a harder day in the hills, but that’s what the Spine is supposed to be like. It is ‘brutal’ and strangely, that’s the attraction – roll on next year (?)
Rob Gittins (2023)
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