Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Big 3 in One Winter

 Ramsay Round 22nd Jan 2017 (anticlockwise)

It's around 3am and Jon Ascroft is leading me across Devils Ridge in the Mamores in near perfect conditions. Graham Nash has stopped at the end of the ridge so he has time to fill our water bottles from the lochan outflow to save time. There is a little snow collected in gullies but not much on the path and although the sub zero temperatures have left a thick layer of frost on all the rocks its not verglas or particularly slippery. We're doing a Ramsay Round and are already well ahead of schedule but this is the Highlands in the middle of winter and sure enough it'll get more interesting before we are done. Over the next couple of hours it starts to snow, the nav gets difficult, ice axes come out, we have to use crampons for the first time to descend a steep frozen snow bank and all in all it's got a whole lot more interesting. It's not full on classic Scottish winter conditions, but we certainly know it's winter. By the end of the leg we have slipped from being 20 minutes up on our 22hr schedule to being 26 minutes down but it's daylight now and the frozen ground means we should be able to move fast on leg 2.

Towards the end of the leg 1 I start to play back just how on earth I ended up here. It wasn't planned that is for sure. So how exactly do you end up doing a winter Ramsay by mistake!? Flashback to Thursday, just over 48 hours ago and I was looking for something to do at the weekend. The weather in Wales looked good so I was considering a Paddy Buckley Round. I dropped Konrad Rawlik and Jasmin Paris an email to see if they fancied a day out. The reply was basically, 'We'd love to but we have a race in Scotland on Saturday so Wales is a bit too far but if I wanted to get out in the hills in Scotland on Sunday they would come along'. I'd never considered a winter Ramsay but looked up the Fort William weather forecast out of daftness and there was a band of high pressure there too. An idea was forming. A few emails later and things were out of control, several top runners were up for it and there was no going back. I was going to attempt a winter Ramsay on the eve of my 40th birthday. Trepidation rapidly changed to excitement and before I knew it we were off.

The first we saw of Konrad and Jasmin, my leg 2 support, was a head torch pointed up the hill through the twilight at us so we knew where to aim for which was a huge help. Leg 2 takes in the three hills to the east of Loch Treig. We were fortunate that the boggy ground was generally frozen and just had a light coating of snow over it so we could move fast. I drank the coffee and ate the pasta they had brought in for me on the move and we set to trying to recover the time deficit. It was great fun and the time seemed to pass really quickly. The wind was still and we were mostly below the clouds. We gained 1hour and 10 minutes against the schedule in this section and as a result were 40 minutes ahead of the 22hr schedule by the end of the leg and I was still eating well and feeling good.

As we came down into Fersit Konrad went ahead to hand gear on to the leg 3 support but as Jasmin and I got closer we realised that there was no one there. Maybe they were out of sight? No, they had been caught out by the pace we were moving and were late (or rather we were early). There was no fuss, Jasmin set off to find them and Konrad and I set of on leg 3. Sure enough within a few minutes Shane Ohly, Alex McVey and John Ryan were chasing us up the hill to be greeted by a friendly shout of “worst support ever!” from Konrad and a suitable response from Shane. Kit was exchanged and for the next couple of hours we continued to get further ahead of the schedule and at one point were an hour and 10 minutes up. However, we still had the big hills ahead of us and from the mornings experience in the Mamores I suspected that it might not be easy there. Jon Gay was waiting for us before the Aonachs where he had cut some steps to help us ascend the frozen snow in Charlie's Gully. I was starting to tire a little by this point and had layered up a bit more to stay warm but we were still climbing really well. It was just the delicate foot placement on the exposed ridges that was becoming more challenging as my muscles tired. Not surprisingly the Aonachs and CMD proved to be the most difficult part of the round with us back in darkness, lots of consolidated snow, sections of ice and a fresh albeit thin layer of snow hiding the condition of the ground beneath.

We lost a lot of time against the schedule over this final section using up the entire buffer and some on our way back to the youth hostel but finished in a time of 22 hours and 23 minutes. I was delighted to be only the third person to complete a sub 24hr winter Ramsay Round and am very pleased that its a new fastest winter time. That said there is still no doubt that the benchmark and best winter round remains Jon Gay's phenomenal 23 hour 18 minute solo round in classic winter conditions.

It was my best ever birthday party and I can honestly say I can't think of a way I would have preferred to see out my 30's than in big hills with great friends. It was a very special day.

Paddy Buckley Round 11th February 2017 (Clockwise – Starting from Capel Curig)
The temptation of  trying to hold all of the Big 3 fastest winter times at once (I set the BG fastest time of 18 hours 18minutes in December 2013) was just too much and as I started to recover from the Ramsay I began watching the Snowdonia forecast.

I'd first seen the weather window on the 14 day forecast. Flat calm and no precipitation forecast for  a 72 hour gap. It was perfect and the fact that it was still there with 7 days to go indicated some stability to the forecast so even if the window narrowed a little I should still get the 24 hours I wanted. Happy days.

Another amazing set of support was all lined up and a bunkhouse arranged to base from so we were good to go.

We started at midnight and by the time we got to the end of leg 3 we were an hour up on the 19.45 schedule and getting back to Capel in time for the salsa band at the Siabod cafe at 8pm was looking like a distinct possibility.

It hadn't been easy by any means. The promised weather window had not just narrowed but had firmly slammed shut and was forecast to deteriorate further with even higher winds and snow but the sooner we got done the more of it we would avoid. The first leg with Andy Berry had been uneventful, in a good way, as the wind was mainly behind us despite it snowing lightly from early on. As we turned briefly into the wind in the Moelwyns and got the full force of the weather into our faces for the first time it was clear that unless something changed for the better it was going to be a long, tough day.

Leg 2 was more interesting as a combination of factors (our early arrival being the main one) resulted in only Nic Barber being on the leg and my food and kit remaining behind. I was suffering a real low as we fought our way directly against the wind into the first of many blizzards on to the top of Moel Hebog. No food, little water, no extra layers, deteriorating weather, no spare headtorch and my headtorch flashing to say it would shut down soon conspired to make me feel pretty miserable. Eventually I voiced my concerns to Nic. It turned out that he had food for two legs, enough spare kit to last out the winter up there and was confident that we could manage with one headtorch between two if needs be and pointed out that regardless “it would get light soon”. So we were good. I cheered up and we pressed on sharing his cream cheese and salsa sandwiches (yes I know, but honestly they are so much better than they sound!) We got round without any real excitement, collected some pasta, a cup of coffee and Jasmin Paris from Pont Caer Gors and headed off to find Snowdon.

Ant Bethell was waiting for us on the approach to Snowdon and we cracked on well for the leg. Snow was still falling and the wind was picking up more but we were in the lee of the hills for parts of the leg so it never felt too bad.

Very soon we were in Llanberis where Nic and Ant left having done a cracking job and Konrad Rawlik and Jo Zakrzewski joined Jasmin and I for leg 4. This is the leg that concerned me most before setting out and it turned out not without good reason – it was really brutal. We battled through dreadful weather for the entire leg holding roughly to schedule until the Glyders and then losing a full hour of time over the final three summits in thick clag, high winds and a combination of new and drifting snow.

I was battered by the end of it but decided to stick with the plan of running straight through the road crossings to complete the relatively short leg 5 now with quite a posse composed of Konrad, continuing on, Andy, back for more, Carol Morgan, clearly recovering well from her record breaking Spine run, Dave Harrison and Liz Barker. I like the Carneddau leg as it's nice, fast, easy running so you can relax and enjoy it or at least that's how I used to feel about it. It was really dreadful weather for this section. Darkness closed in around us just before the top of Pen y Ole Wen and with the wind now making forward movement hard, whipping snow into our faces and at times making it hard to stay upright I'd be hard pushed to say I was enjoying myself. I just fell in line and followed trying to make the most of the post holes that whoever I was following at any given time was creating. It's pretty impressive that despite the conditions we only made a couple of small nav wobbles before heading down toward Capel. We had lost a lot of time but we were going to get round and a new fastest winter time was still on the cards although we were going to be late for salsa dancing which had become somewhat less appealing in the last 20 hours.

We eventually returned to Capel in 21 hour and 37 minutes which I am delighted with in the conditions. It was another fantastic day out, a lot of fun (some of it type 2) and again it was a fastest time to give me the fastest times for all the Big 3 in winter but already ambition creep was setting in...

Bob Graham round, 20th / 21st February 2017 (Clockwise)

Having completed my 'accidental' Ramsay round and then a Paddy both in the same winter it seemed natural to try and complete the big 3 in one winter which has never been done before but it wasn't straight forward. The Paddy was complete on the 12th of February leaving me with just 16 days before the end of winter to fit in a BG. However I was already committed to a fast High Peak Marathon team for the 3rd of March and would need as much recovery time as possible for that so I had to go as soon after the Paddy as I dared if I wasn't to let the HPM team down. After a week my legs were returning to a reasonable state and I started watching the weather. I needed a gap that would leave me a minimum of 6 clear days before the HPM if I was going to do it.

There was really no weather window at all with sustained upland gales forecast except for what looked like an 8 – 12 hour lull (where the wind would drop to 15-30mph winds) in the early hours of the morning of Tuesday the 21st. I would need that 'calm' ideally on the Scafell ridge which meant I would have to run through high winds for other parts of the round. It was a long shot but as I figured this would be the only chance I would ever have to run the 3 in one winter so I took it.

A crack team was rapidly scrambled the weekend before and without time to dwell on what I was about to do we were off on a 6pm start. 6 pm is a dreadful time to start in winter. Instead of making the best use of the daylight you are maximising the night time and where I normally try and split the daylight to make it easier mentally it would be one long block and furthermore we would have to do the Scafell ridge in the dark. As long as the clag didn't come in and the rocks didn't verglas that should be possible.

Within minutes of setting off I started to get concerned; the wind was very strong and my legs felt heavy even on the first climb but I was determined to give it a decent try. As we neared the top of Skiddaw the group split with Bill Williamson and Jo Zakrzewski dropping back together after Jo was blown over and Jonny Mally continuing with me to Great Calva. Jo and Bill headed onto Blencathra to give me much needed food. The leg was completed in good time and I was handed over to the very capable team of Jasmin Paris, Steve Birkenshaw, Konrad Rawlik and James Harris for leg 2. The wind remained strong but was largely from the side so although I felt like I was taking a beating we were making good time. I was desperately hoping it would drop as predicted before the Scafell ridge. By Dunmail Raise we were 30 minutes up on the 21hr schedule so I took a rare break to eat the pasta and drink the coffee that Martin Stone had prepared. Martin had volunteered himself as road support through to Wasdale and it was a massive help as well as a psychological lift.

Leg 3 was always going to be really tough but with the time buffer I was feeling confident. Shane Ohly and Jeff Powell-Davies were pacing me and are both really good navigators but a thick clag came in that was to test us all to our limits as we tried to keep to the best line but we were often losing even good paths. On Great End we passed within 6 feet of the cairn and missed it only to be brought to a halt by the rather pronounced capture feature (large cliff) and we circled back to collect it. The clag, wind and long night made it really tough but when it finally started to get light on the descent into Wasdale and we hadn't lost too much time I knew we would make it and took a little bit of time to eat and chat before heading off onto leg 4 with Carol Morgan, Mick Allen and Dave Harrison. There would be no records today but that wasn't the goal – sub 24 hours would be just fine and would limit fatigue before the High Peak Marathon. Leg 4 was not too windy and was great fun as we enjoyed the daylight and ticked off the last big hills. At Honister Andy Blackett joined us and Dave and Carol continued onto leg 5 too.

Somewhere on the way up Dale Head the predicted return to upland gales started and it came in really fast. I had a fair bit left in reserve still so put the hammer down to get off the fells as fast as possible and then relaxed once we had dropped into the relative shelter of Newlands valley for the run home. Moot hall soon came into view and we finished in a respectable 20:26 to complete the Big 3 in 1 winter.

Huge thanks to all of the following for their help and support on the 3 rounds (in order of appearance): Jon Ascroft, Graham Nash, Jasmin Paris, Konrad Rawlik, Shane Ohly, Alex McVey, John Ryan, Jon Gay, Andrew Berry, Nic Barber, Carol Morgan, Dave Harrison, Clive King, Liz Barker, Ant Bethell, Jo Zakrzewski, Paul Hodges and all at the Siabod Cafe, Bill Williamson, Jonny Mally, Martin Stone, Steve Birkenshaw, James Harris, Jeff Powell-Davies, Mick Allen and Andy Blackett.

Special thanks to Margarita Grigoriadi who has got me in such good shape and helped me manage my recovery and for the support from Hangar 18, Start Fitness, Inov8, & OMM.

I have been asked a lot about what kit I used and when I thought about it there were six items I simply wouldn't want to set out without:
1.     inov8 X-Talon 190 shoes – My usual shoe is the Mudclaw but I used the same pair of X-Talons for all 3 rounds and found that they were really good on all surfaces even ice and verglas where the Muclaw can be a bit flighty.
2.     Hangar 18 leggings – I don't know what fabric they are using but these are amazing, they shed water fast, stay warm and are comfortable. I wore the same pair for all 3 rounds and through deep snow, blizzards, rain etc I didn't once have to put waterproof trousers over the top.
3.     OMM Aether Smock – I have only had this a couple of months. Its really light, breaths well and really keeps the weather out.
4.     Sealskin socks – they are sold as waterproof although clearly if you are crossing streams your feet will get wet, but crucially they do always keep my feet warm.
5.     Goretex over mits – keeping hands warm is really important and I've found that overmits are far better than any other gloves or glove combination. My pair are a generic ebay purchase.
6.     Camp Corsa Ice axe – I use a 50cm. Its only 200g so its light enough that you don't think twice about carrying it.

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