‘a high quality field in one of the toughest and most demanding cross country races of the year’…..why was I stood at the starting line then?
I was suffering from mixed emotions that morning, I had turned out in my techiest running apparel, for a race that was probably not going to last longer than 8 miles. This thought was echoed by my running partner who queried my choice to bring a race vest. We had done a few reccy runs for the first of the four stages of the steeple chase and I’d never needed the vest in the past, now surrounded by a field of very athletic looking competitors why had I decided I would be going further today?
I left the vest.
I felt very out of place surrounded by people who once again looked as though they run at least a couple of times a week, certainly enough to earn themselves team colours. I thought we had found ourselves a good starting position relatively close to the front. However as the starting pistol went I realised I had underestimated how many thin fell runners you can fit into a small space. I was in fact closer to the back than the front.
The first few hundred yards are some of the hardest running I’ve ever done even though there is little running actually being achieved. The course takes you from the road below Mam Tor straight up the steep side to the top of the ridge. This was hard when I was doing the practice runs it became even harder with that extra surge of adrenaline and racing 400 other people.
The ladies set off five minute after the gents, this didn’t stop the first lady overtaking me before the gate between Mam Tor and Hollins cross, that stung the pride which I now had to nurse all the way to Bamford. The route follows the ridge past Back Tor to Lose Hill from here there is a steep descent before climbing up to the plantation below Win Hill. I saw one take a tumble down Lose Hill but in the process gain about four places, luckily for me my Inov8 Trailrocs provided a decent amount of grip, enough to keep me upright.
We passed a checkpoint that showed your race position, but I didn’t understand it so carried on at the same slow pace, I was going to get evicted at the first knockout anyway, wasn’t I?
The path that skirts round the plantation is awful - barbed wire on one side and broken ground underfoot. I heard that one bloke had come a cropper into the fence but carried on, fair play to him! We then drop down to the reservoir and straight down the Thornhill trail, the home straight. I overtook someone, I felt like a champion, only for him and his mate to come past me about three minutes later. We turned left over the fields towards Bamford Mill, up to the Anglers Rest then, all the way back down the road to the playing field.
There it was, the first knockout, the end, I pulled up by the drinks table absolutely spent…..only to be told I’d made the cut and now had to head back up over Win hill….I can’t repeat what I said when I got this news but it was along the lines of ‘bugger’
The next stage was a lot slower, in fact I should really apologise to the guy who asked me to pace with him. He got about twenty yards before his new pacer had to start walking.
Luckily the second stage was only four miles, it was tough going on the way up but even harder on the way down. There was more staggering than running, I was doing well, and I only had to overtake 104 people to make it through to the next check point.
I was finally cut off at Hope feeling totally broken, but looking forward to the free food and drink at Castleton. It was a great event, very well organised and with a fantastic atmosphere.
I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a race manual or coach in the world that would advocate going deep into the red in the first 5 minutes of an endurance race, yet less than 5km into my first 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross race I was at 189bpm trying to maintain a half decent position in the morass of 650 riders surging towards the first off road section. My Garmin also reckons that my speed didn’t drop much below 40kph in that ‘neutralised’ road section, yet I still found myself much further back than I had anticipated by the time we neared Gill Garth. I had never really been sure whether the 3 Peaks was a running race that involved bikes, or a cycling race that needed a bit of footwork, but as a fully paid up cyclist I was pretty perturbed to be struggling so early, and we hadn’t even gone up any of the peaks yet!
The 3 Peaks is an annual event, starting and finishing in Helwith Bridge after a tour round and over the 3 Peaks of Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen Y Ghent, with 1600m of ascent in its short sounding 61km. Its been running for 52 years and is unique in that it requires contenders to be able to run, walk, ride, climb, carry and descend, sometimes on the bike and sometimes off it. I’m not quite sure why I thought entering it would be a good idea, except perhaps that it was the perfect excuse to buy a new bike as only drop handlebar, knobbly tyred cyclocross bikes are allowed.
I could already see a string of people heading up towards the notorious Simon Fell ahead of me by the time I turned offroad, and I got my first proper look at the slope. Simon Fell is on private land, so no recce had been possible, but I had seen enough photographs to know it wasn’t going to be easy. More than a kilometre of extremely steep, grassy hillside followed, and I soon joined the grim procession upwards, bike slung over one shoulder, the other hand being used to haul up on the convenient fence or pull on nearby clumps of grass. A brief, rideable respite followed by a rockier carry finally deposited me on top of Ingleborough , only the first of the day’s 3 peaks. Thankfully the boggy descent to Cold Cotes went without incident, and I settled into the road section, overtaking a few people as the bulk of Whernside loomed oppressively ahead. I couldn’t help but keep looking up at the summit, thinking how far away it looked, and how entirely unsuitable a place for a glorified road bike.
I had the first tickles of cramp in my calves as I repeated lifted one leg higher than the other up the Whernside staircase, I felt like Sisyphus as the never ending path teased us onwards in single, suffering, file, heartrate soaring and speed plummeting. However, 500 vertical metres and god knows how many rocky steps later me and the bike made it to the summit checkpoint. I knew from a running recce that the descent to the north was totally rideable, albeit quite rocky, technical and highly puncture prone. I hadn’t made a conscious decision as to whether to run or ride the tricky bits, but 65psi gave me some confidence in my tyres and soon enough I found myself at Ribblehead feeling battered but without any dismounts, planned or otherwise. This allowed me to overtake a few less confident riders who had to carry their bikes down some sections. Trail turned to tarmac, with Horton in Ribblesdale the next target, and few moments for gels and water .
Pen y Ghent lane sounds like quite a pretty, almost whimsical place; Heartbreak Hill would be a better description on the 3 Peaks I reckon, by the time it is reached at 45km body and sometimes spirit is broken – its lower slopes are much quicker ridden than walked, but riding is a tough, painful grind, with virtually no respite even with my gearing of 34-32. Concentration is needed too, despite being in short supply, as the skinny, rock hard tyres ping mercilessly off every stone and root. Eventually the path kicked up even more and everybody was off and walking, but the change in effort caused cramp to shoot up both my quads, alternating left and right as I hobbled upwards. Thankfully a friend had come to watch here and encouraged me on, and so despite my deepest desire just to lie down on the grass, I eventually crested the summit and pushed my bike up the last few hundred metres to the final checkpoint.
Of course at this point, as gravity turns from foe to friend, the race is back on and the responsibility shifts to the fingers on the brakes and to the mind, calculating constantly the fine line between speed and puncture, between success and failure.
I reached the road safely, uncurled my fingers from the brakes, and settled into the last few km on the road to the finish, still dicing with painful, but thankfully not terminal, cramp. I latched onto another rider and worked with him to the line, ensuring that we both scraped in under the 4 hour mark.
I never did really work out whether it was a fell race or a bike ride, but I’ll be back next year to try and find out again.
The Nine Edges race is a friendly jaunt around nine Peak District gritstone crags. You can choose to run, hike or climb (climbing entrants knock out a route at each of the crags). Being more running inclined, Outside’s Phil Parker chose to hot foot it round the 21 mile route last Saturday; with little breath left for full paragraphs, these are his thoughts:
1. 21 miles is really quite far.
2. Yet again, training would probably have been a good idea.
3. People with race vests are not necessarily fast.
4. People without race vests are not necessarily slow.
5. Shot Bloks are AMAZING – like a sort of uber-jellybaby.
6. Froggatt Edge is the worst.
7. Edale Mountain Rescue did an excellent job of organising and running the event – well done all.
8. If you’re running a longer distance than you have ever run before in your life, having a running buddy is a life saver – thanks Claire*!
9. All fell races should finish at a pub.
*Claire is fast becoming the favourite pacer for Outside staff!
It's been a funny old summer so far. It started wet, very wet, and rain in the Peak means climbing at Raven Tor. Maybe it was a blessing, as I went sport climbing way more than normal and actually got stronger. Brilliant, classic routes got ticked such as 'Obscene Gesture' (7c), 'Body Machine' (7c) and the not so classic 'The Green Alternative' (7c+). My first of the grade but, if you know it, I'm not sure it classes as a route - it's so short it would be a low ball boulder problem in Hueco! Either way this set me up well for trips to Wales, with ticks of more mega routes such as 'Hunger' (E5 6a), 'Rat Race' (E3 5c), 'Syringe' (E4 6a), 'True Grip' (E5 6a), 'Rimsky Korsakov' (E4/5 6a) and lots of other classics.
With confidence high we finally decided to get on the classic hard limestone of the Peak. Rediscovering from the dust 'The Golden Mile' (E5 6b) and the mighty 'Behemoth' (E5 6b) which, at the time of writing, has won the battle over Dave and I with some spectacular air time (it was wet, honest guv!). We will return to the fight soon.
The main aim of the summer was the Alps, dreams of the' Walker Spur' and other high peaks were completely destroyed by constant rain and snow during what turned out to be one of the worst seasons ever. It was, as Dad's always called it, "good beer drinking weather!". All that said, we went anyway. As Rich and I arrived in Chamonix the sun was blazing and it was HOT! Too hot, but this was all due to change the next afternoon. Thirty minutes in Cham and we had packed our kit and got the last Montenvers train heading for the Envers hut. The following day the forecast was good for the morning but as standard rain was due for the afternoon.
We woke early and headed straight for the classic crack climb 'Pedro Polar' (6b+). This proved to be amazing crack and slab climbing on perfect granite with a tricky crux pitch sporting only one bolt feeling somewhere near E3 5c. We finished the route off nice and early before midday and, with cloud building, we headed down.
Back in the Valley with rain falling we meet up with friends from home Adam Brown and Tom Le Fanu (Le Fan-what???). Beers were drunk and we decided to look at the well named 'Un-named 7B roof crack' the next day. We had hoped this may stay dry in the pouring rain that arrived, and it did. This crag is more famous for the awesome 8a+ offwidth of 'Thai Boxing' which Adam optimistically decided to have a go at, but came down saying "it will go with more big cams!". Hmmm? We will never know.
Both cracks are now trad as the bolts have been stripped and were just about dry in the rain. After a few attempts I managed to use some grit training, lank and lack of technique to gibber my way to the top of the 7b crack. Not a bad way to spend a wet day. More beer and bad weather forecasts meant more steep sheltered crags, this time we spent another wet day at the sport crag of Bionassy. Again, fun but we didn't drive to Chamonix for this!
That night we see hope in the forecast, a (semi) decent day was coming. We discussed, what dries quick and what do we really want to climb? 'État Du Choc', or as we named it 'Attack the Shark' was first on the list. This route is situated round on the Swiss side, reached from the Champex chair lift, and is on the most stunning Yosemite style granite I've seen in the Chamonix area, the spire of 'Petit Clocher du Portalet'. We caught the first chair up and walked up in brilliant sunshine and pitched our tent on a great spot high above the glacier. By the time we finally got to the route it was already the afternoon and cloud was rolling in. We made a couple of mistakes, the first being not bringing a topo as it looked like a straight crack system. The first couple of entry pitches where uninspiring but they led to the incredible cracks. Awesome hand and fist cracks led to a belay on a scary booming chockstone, above was the 7a offwidth which the route was famous for. I set off fully laden with cams, but soon my heart sank, it was wet! I tried to carry on and ended up fully in the back trying to squeeze up, after a struggle I realized i would never get out, so I slid down a little and found it was climbable in more classic arm bar and fighting way. I arrived exhausted and bloody at the belay, but without a topo I'd gone too far and some faff started. Rich finally fought his way up and led on up the next pitch.
This proved to be my favorite pitch of the trip, a steep jamming crack on the left and an offwidth on the right to shove my feet in. However, with my belay in the wrong place Rich had no idea where to belay and climbed into the wrong (very wet) groove. After some more faff he found the correct belay and I followed up, enjoying every metre. On the ledge thick mist and cloud surrounded us, with rain forecast we made the sensible yet gutting decision to head down as everyone else on the spire had bailed hours ago, it would not be a good place to be in a storm! A pitch and a half away from glory we descended but, frustratingly, it didn't rain until late into the night. Damn, we could have done it!
We had wondered if we could finish it off the next day, but the weather decided other wise. It was a long night in a tiny tent when you're both 6'4 and it pours with rain. We packed up in the morning between more showers. Down in the valley we found WiFi and food so we could decide what to do next. It was a very mixed forecast and was hard to commit to anything, then Rich got a bad case of UFO (Unjustified F*%#£%$ Optimism). He stated "Right lads, if we drive RIGHT NOW we can be in Andermatt by 6pm (3.5 hours away), then walk into the Salbit before night fall for the West Ridge the next day before the rain". This seemed unlikely, the West Ridge is 33 pitches, 1000m of granite long and it was raining today and due to storm the next afternoon. However, you can't say no to that level of psyche, so 45 mins after getting down we drove off to the incredible granite towers of The Salbit in Switzerland.
The drive took more like 4.5 hours, it rained a lot, but we carried on with plan A and made it to the bivi hut under a cloud covered and drizzly 'Westgrat' just before dark. We awoke at 4.30am and set off under a starry sky with a trad 6b (E2 5c?) pitch for breakfast by headtorch, yummy. We were off. Rich and I led off first and Adam and Tom followed. Even though they were stronger they described us as "fast, but simple!". The climbing was great and the first tower went well, just before the second tower we were overtaken by 2 fast Germans moving together. This reassured me, they must have seen a good forecast, so I asked them. One of them said "NO! the forecast is very bad, storms by 4pm, maybe 2!". They simply decided to go really fast to avoid the storms, this didn't settle my nerves especially as cloud was building. It wasn't until around pitch 20 that I relaxed a little as it cleared and didn't look like rain at all, we dropped the pace and started to enjoy it.
Pitch after pitch of pure class with climbing maybe up to E2, loads of great cracks and abseils off all the towers to start the next. On pitch 29 or 30 the huge bulk of granite of the West ridge turns to an arete sharper than 'Archangel'. You layback it with 500 metres of exposure either side and the bolt disappearing below, breath taking. We arrive at the spikey summit (only room for one at a time) at 4.30pm with the sun shining. Mega. All there was to do was to write the normal comment in the summit log book, "Good, but not as good as Stoney" and head to the hut for a well deserved pint!!
After the beer it was a long slog to the van and finally the rain arrived, later than forecast. Awesome, well done Rich for the optimism to risk it, and get the tick of the holiday!
We headed back to Chamonix as Tom had to head home, what a great way to end his trip. The forecast was poor again and with a big tick under our belt we did the obvious thing, get drunk! Us Northerners can't climb 8a, but we definitely out-drank the London team!
After a couple of days of hangovers and poor weather there was a slight break, and we headed to the Aiguille de Blaitière where Adam had teamed up with the unstoppable Ginger Ben. A lot of the routes were wet, and with a poor guide book we climbed the only line that looked dry. I still don't know what it was but it was great! As we abbed down in the mist we could see Adam and Ben heading up the last few pitches of the incredible 'L'Eau Rance D'Arabie' (6b+). When we reached the bottom it seemed the rest of the climbers in Chamonix had followed their path (as it was one of the only dry routes). We decided to get involved too and did the first 3 pitches, awesome climbing and another fun day.
Again the running theme of rain continued and the next dry day was the day we had to start driving home in the afternoon, so we chose the brilliant and accessible Brévent. This turned out to be a sociable crag, climbing with Ben and Rich and meeting loads of others. We climbed the classic trad corner of 'Ex Libris' (6b) to start and then we moved onto the tricky but amazing corner/crack climb of 'Premier de Corvée' 7a?). This was the final route of the holiday and was one of my favorite, it is a semi bolted route that definately need some trad gear and feels around E4. The first pitch is an awesome finger crack/face climbing 7a pitch and then the next few are steep corner cracks at 6c+ with a final amazing crack up the obvious head wall. What a way to end the trip and as soon as we finished we began the hideous journey all the way back to Sheffield with traffic jams and exploding tyres!
Everyone in the UK had been telling us about the incredible weather while we had been away, but we bought the rain back with us, sorry everyone. It was a great trip but as normal very frustrating due to the weather and the big mountain ticks still keep me up at night!
But returning home to the peak is always great and got back to business by ticking the classic 'Tales of Yankee Power' (E5 6a) at High Tor, not quite the Walker Spur but not bad!
“The what Mountains of where?” was most people’s response to my informing them of where I was off to in July.
KE Adventure Travel, for whom I was leading a trek around the range crossing its high passes, describe it thus.
"The southern edge of the Central Asian republics is defined by the rocky barrier of the Pamirs which includes the little-visited Fann Mountains. This spectacular range has numerous snow-capped 5000 metre peaks and the potential for brilliant trekking, through rocky valleys and across high passes. Accessed through the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe, the sensational 12-day trek makes a comprehensive tour of this rugged and picturesque landscape, where Tajik shepherds graze their flocks on remote upland pastures. Climbing to many high passes and viewpoints, including the dramatic Mazalat Pass (4133m) and enjoying a succession of superb lakeside camping places, this is a truly memorable trek. After the trek, we travel into neighbouring Uzbekistan, where we visit the stunning Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Tashkent. More than 2500 years old and known as the 'Gem of the East', Samarkand is one of the wonders of the world, with mosaic-clad monuments that are guaranteed to take your breath away. This is Central Asia at its best!"
Chimtarga (5489 m) is the highest peak in the Fann Mountains. It is located near the Mutnye Lakes, or as I called them due to glacial outflow and my poor Russian, Murky Lakes. We camped at the Murky Lakes towards the end of our circumnavigation and climbed the scree and snow Mazalat Pass above. It is the highest of the seven major passes on the route. Nearby Chimtarga on the other hand has no trek-up route to the summit. The ascent routes start either directly from the Lakes or by crossing over the even higher and more technical 4750 m high Chimtarga Pass, which lies between the peaks Energia (5120 m) and Chimtarga.
The established climbing routes on it vary from Russian grade 2 to 6 on both rock and ice. The known routes were all first climbed by Russians between 1936 and 1984. The potential for new lines both here and across the whole range is almost unlimited. We saw very few other people throughout the trip. There are two former Soviet Mountaineering Schools in the valleys and we met three or four small climbing groups in the Chimtarga area and one trekking group. On a distant and low rock ridge I saw a group on a multi pitch climb. It was definitely, ahem, peak season.
We had a friendly local guide, cook and an interpreter with us and the gear was carried on donkeys supervised by 7 donkeymen. The food was traditional Tajik including lots of fresh veg and strangely loads of melon. On behalf of the group I declined the customary bottle of vodka on the dinner table every night!
Access to and from the mountains was by four wheel drive vehicle, although at the end of the trek even they could not get up the newly “improved” road up the narrow Bodhona Ravine to reach our final campsite, so we had to walk out. This was probably a considerably less scary finish to an amazing trip.
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