Ahh the Saunders. My yearly pilgrimage to the lakes which regularly ends in dropping out. To be fair, in general this has not been at my instigation. I’ve always struggled to find a partner for mountain marathons and thus have desperately tried to blag a friend into doing it. Last year I had a cracking time with Chris Gorbutt, but sadly the undertaking was a touch too much when training has been in Sevenoaks… kinda lacks decent hills. So when I met Martin last year and we tried the Rab I knew at last I had somebody that could not only put up with me for two days, but could also take the distance and hills in his stride… time for the toughest class then eh!
The SLMM classes are named after fells. The toughest two person team class being Scafell. Given that this year the event was taking place in Wasdale we always knew we’d be near the largest mountain in England. In search of a good night of sleep we requested a later start time so we could leave at a reasonable hour rather than head up the night before. Whilst it would have been great to camp, the weather was and had been pretty shocking and by the time we would have got there and pitched the test we’d have had less sleep than staying at home and would have missed our beds… were we too soft for this under taking?
We arrived, ate, faffed, faffed, faffed, did a bit of faffing, then finally went to get started. The weather was stunning so I bought myself an Inov8 rain peak cap – the obvious choice given that moments previous I had been slapping on the factor 30 hoping that it wouldn’t sweat off too quickly! The forecast had been for torrential rain all day, but as the week had progressed the weather front moved through quicker than expected so we just hit it perfectly.
Fatal mistake number 1: Never ask the kit check people where something is unless you have plenty of time. It’s 25 to 10, our start time is 4 minutes to 10 and there is a 20 minute walk to the start. The start is meant to be completed by 10am; i.e., everybody on the fells by then. Kit check people are sunning themselves. “Excuse me can you tell me where the water is please?”, “ahh yes, it’s just around the back… can I see your torch and spare top?” Now I’m all for the kit check usually, the guys are only doing their job by ensuring that people have got the full kit, but some kit check people seem to see it as a power play and delight in being awkward whilst giving you the impression they are doing it just to aggravate you. The lady doing the check then criticised the content of our bags and knew full well it would make us very late for the start. I’ve never been able to stand jobs-worths or power trippers so it was an unfortunate start. Kit check over we were now very late, but we made it on time and were ready to rock.
For those of you that don’t know the format of a Mountain Marathon it is pretty simple. It’s essentially orienteering on a massive scale. Typically held over two days, the competitors must race in teams of two and carry all kit required for the experience. Going through the start box we get given a slip of paper to go with our custom Harveys map (I love these maps!) The slip of paper holds six figure grid references for the check points (CPs) and to help narrow down the location within the 100m square box that a 6 figure grid reference denotes, there is also a clue to the location of the CP; i.e., re-entrant or stream junction, etc.
A few moments spent plotting the CPs and a quick look at how to get to CP1 and we were off up the Black sail pass. Mountain marathons success hinges on the ability of the navigator; after all, if you can’t find the boxes it doesn’t matter how fast you are. It’s critical that the navigator(s) can make good macro route choices and then be quick and precise at micro navigation once the attack point has been reached. An attack point is an easily identified location that you can navigate to and know where you are on the map with absolute accuracy, from there the micro navigation takes over to guide in the final few hundred metres.
The SLMM is not a score class which meant we had to visit the CPs in a particular order. In the more popular classes this mean on a clear day they can turn into a procession. If you do choose to follow others you always have to be careful not to assume that the people you are following are in your class otherwise the day can end in despair. Fortunately for us we didn’t have that option as so few people attempt the Scafell class so since one of my objectives for the weekend was to have a really good test of my navigation skills we were certainly going to get that!
Other objectives for the weekend were just to have fun and finish. Martin and I have no delusions of winning an event like the Saunders – we don’t make enough sacrifices on the comfort side to pack light enough, we’re not quick enough in the fells and navigation is not a strength… apart from that we’re top of the list!
My first route choice was going well and I was confident until I noticed that we were totally on our own. Nobody had followed and nobody was in front and we could see 30 minutes ahead of us. This concerned me. Too many times I have been out in the hills wondering why people could make such an obvious mistake only to find it was me that had made the mistake! Not this time, my Nav’ took us straight to CP1, even if I did have a wobble when a fence appeared (I just hadn’t noticed it on the map).
Just getting to the first CP had been a decent effort. We were sweating cobs by this stage and my hat had come in hand already by keeping the water in and on my head as I took a refreshing cap full of water from each stream. My Nav was precise enough and I tried to ignore the other competitors that were zig-zagging across our trail to take us directly to the saddle between Great Gable and . Surprising some tourists we crossed east of the tarn and up directly to the second CP. Hey, I’m getting good at this.
Now for the long one. The corridor route looked the obvious choice and it lead to Scafell. Knowing this section from the Bob Graham, or at least thinking I did for some reason I saw foxes Tarn and thought, I know where that is, brilliant! Sadly I had not paid enough attention and it wasn’t until we were at the top of Scafell Pike that something wasn’t quite right. I lost my bearings for a minute and panicked a bit as a result it took me 15-20 minutes to re-pinpoint where we needed to be and where visually around us that was.
Now my brain doesn’t work so well I do find myself getting very confused. Like a ball of headphone wire my thoughts get tangled by themselves and if I try to quickly untangle them they just get worse. Not good when you want to be navigating fast and making quick decisions. Martin doesn’t do any navigation so I have nobody to bounce plans off and my earlier snap decision regarding the macro route choice had lead us into a situation where we had to go over Scafell. Not ideal, but at least it gave us the bragging rights J
Up and over we were back on track and hit CP3 without any issues. CP4 was straight forward too as we discussed the finer points of drug cheats and the Olympics – guaranteed to result in strong opinions! As we hit CP4 we met our first competitors. They had clearly been looking around for the CP which I took us straight too so my confidence was pretty high. They had also started off an hour or so before us so we felt pretty good about that too. Heading for CP5 we were a little North and so in the effort to trek a little less height over what looked like boggy ground we headed for clear navigational handrails of a wood and had the joy of a great run-able path to get us there.
At the top of the wood I had us pinpointed on the map, although sadly I hadn’t banked on the wood having been chopped down so we stumbled over all the debris crossed a stream and headed up into the ferns only to find it packed full of gorse! Nightmare. We’d been largely “route 1-ing it”; i.e., just going straight and in the true Onoda* spirit we decided this was the only honourable thing to do. Picking our way through the Gorse wasted time and energy, but at the time we didn’t really have much choice. Dig in, head down and crack on.
We came out a little wide of the mark but easily found CP5 before being treated to a bit of flat ground which we shuffled over pitifully. Three CPs to go and the next two were incorrectly sighted. The first of the two was easy to find due to a fantastic sheepfold, but the next Nav decision and the lack of Altimeter lost us a lot of time that we didn’t have.
CP7 seemed simple, straight over the top until we hit the stream, then follow it down until we get to the junction and it should be there. What I didn’t count on was being too high for the stream. We must have missed it by metres in the end, but when you are convinced you are one place on the map and then find you aren’t but you’re at something similar then you convince yourself you are right. This is what the course designers pray for (as well as the slower and more accurate navigators J). We easily lost 40 minutes on this and more in morale. By the time we found it (at the wrong stream junction, it should have been at the lower stream junction which mean we descended rather than ascended wasting more time… not bitter) we were running out of time to get to camp before it shut!
Looking at the map it was a simple descent then one of the easiest navigational challenges ever seen due to a massive walled field to act as a handrail. It was flat, only a couple of KM and this is what Martin and I are built for… what the map didn’t show us was the diabolical terrain. Huge tussock and bog stood before us. It was a cruel was to finish the day, but probably pretty fitting. Genuinely concerned we battled through as quickly as possible and managed to make it into camp with 15 minutes to spare. Phew!
One thing was for certain… we weren’t going to trouble the leaders! But it wasn’t what we were there for. We had enjoyed an epic random day out on the fells, great company and I’d got to practice my navigation. We’d completed almost all of it with a smile on out faces and… well, just enjoyed every minute of it really!
Camp is always great. Putting up a tent whilst the rain inevitably starts to spit just to panic you is always a nice relaxing experience… especially when you through in random cramping just as you’re getting a tent peg in. We just happened to have picked a spot near some Helsby runners so it was great to lift the spirits and share some stories from the day.
Tent up, hot food in (thanks jet boil! A little heavier, but sooooo quick!), changed into dry clothes and feeling like a new man I went for a walk to stretch the legs and see if I could spot anybody else. A look at the results and the planners route put a smile on my face as my macro choices had not been as bad as I thought. The two lead teams were separated by just over 1 minute which is incredible given the distances and navigation involved. All that was left was to catch up with some likeminded people then off to bed… I didn’t need any rocking!
Despite the queue for the toilets we got away from camp at a reasonable time and had a totally different experience from the get go. We could see other people for a start, although you never know if they are on your course. We started well and I took us a safe route to the first CP without too much trouble. A shin deep stream crossing at the start set the tone for the day, but this wasn’t going to dampen our spirits.
Crossing paths with a couple of other Scafell teams was great for me to build more confidence in my Nav and we really got to kick on. CP3 was cruel as the placing of the box didn’t match the description and it was the most faded box so far so it was camouflaged. Five minutes wasted we cracked on chatting all the way as the tussock/ bog just never ended.
Way off to the higher ground we could see another team who, frankly, looked like they were on motor bikes as they ascended. We resigned ourselves to continuing like we had done the day before and go solo. Much to my delight we hit our attack point with ease so it was then just down to finding a 2 metre high cairn. Following the compass was the order of the day, but when the cairn didn’t appear I started to doubt. Forcing myself to trust the compass I kept going and bingo! It suddenly appeared, along with the motorbike boys in sight.
I have to confess that if it wasn’t for the motor bike boys we’d have gone a far longer and harder route, but there was a clear trod and we made ground. Martin started rabbit hunting and given that neither of us wanted to admit we were knackered and struggling with the pace we eventually caught the motor bike boys. Desperately competitive, the first words were to question us as to where we’d come the day before. It’s a tough class this Scafell one!
Against my worse judgement we took a direct up and over route rather than my navigationally safe route. It was far better and following a pure Onoda* “route one” line, which we just had to put our heads down and push over, we hit the stream and descended to the CP.
At this point I was feeling pretty damn pleased with myself. We’d hit every single CP spot on and the remaining CPs looked navigationally simple in comparison. Ahh… what is it they say about pride coming before a fall?
Parallel errors are what course designers aim for and I walked right into one. Faced with an up and over route along the BG route (but a still climb to get there) or a nice straight downhill run between two large tarns I thought we had it made. Sadly I didn’t take a bearing though and there was a small lump we should have gone over first before descending. Doh!
Buoyed by our success, over confident and blissfully unaware we headed down the valley. I became increasingly alarmed to see nobody was following us and increasingly confused by the view in front of me which didn’t match with the map. Realising we had to climb over the crags I swallowed hard as I realised I’d have to break the news to Martin.
It’s difficult to take on the Nav on your own as any small mistake and extra time spent running be it over scafell, through gorse or over crags only to find that your partner suffers from vertigo places quite a burden. Once over and in the right place I then made a further error which had us lose another 10 minutes by heading too far up stream. Martin is very forgiving, but I could tell he was cheesed off. I did have great news for him though, the only honourable way back to camp was to literally go up and over Yewbarrow. Ridiculous.
Ridiculous as it was we got our heads down and crashed over the screes to the finish. We’d lost about 45 minutes to my Nav errors which were frustrating given the precision earlier in the day – there is a lesson in there somewhere! Dashing back to the car Martin made us supersonic and we were home in time to put the children to bed. A perfect end to a simply fantastic weekend. Very much looking forward to returning to have another crack!
Results: we were 10th team which may sound great but only 11 finished! 24 had signed up, 14 had started out and only 11 finished. Considering it is an elite field I was pretty damn pleased with that. A few tweaks and more Nav practice and we could go well at one of these…. that said I won’t tell you how many hours ahead the winners were!