On the coldest, windiest weekend I can remember in a very long time, I headed to a midday car park rendezvous on the side of Blencathra to join the good folk of Trail Running York (TRY) on their very first Lakeland adventure. Working with Kathryn, their regular leader, the plan was to combine a weekend of fell-running with a stay in ‘The Loneliest House in England’, the wonderfully remote YHA Skiddaw House.
For many of the group, walking the - mountainside track to the hostel with a backpack was quite an adventure itself, and in my role as back marker, I was a source of both encouragement and advice. Pacing, rucksack strap adjustment, foot placement on boggy terrain and temperature regulation were among the topics covered as we headed up and round to our mountain home for the weekend.
Once settled in our cosy hostel, we headed out for a sunset run. Knowing it would become dark fairly soon, we opted for an easy-to-follow track rather than the open fellside; everyone in the group had some previous trail-running under their belt. As the sun set, the skies cleared and glorious views opened out before us at the night fell. Our out-and-back route headed downhill steeply as we neared the turn, and so conversation at the back turned to uphill running technique as we regained over 700ft of height; coaching on the go! Sweeping up the back markers, we returned to the warmth of the log burner for a mountain-hut style evening of food, drink and frivolity.
Waking up to a full day of temperatures below minus 5 and winds of over 40mph, with 70mph gusts, as well as a coating of snow and visibility limited to the wall 10m in front of the hostel, it was immediately evident that Plan A (ie the fell-running we had come to do!) would not be possible. Safety comes first, and even the most experienced of fell-runners would have struggled to stay upright in those conditions. So Plan B was put into action, involving the careful choosing of a valley-side route in the lee of the wind, and lots and lots of layers. Most walked nearly 6 miles in the end, no mean feat with that wind-chill, and most of us were eternally grateful of the many layers we wore. I’ve been out in some pretty awful conditions over the years, but this was the first time I have worn a balaclava, thick hat and a hood over the top and still had a cold head! Keeping people moving was key, and whilst it was very tempting to huddle under the cover of our emergency shelters, the standing around required whilst we got them out would have been just too risky.
Back and warm in our hostel home, as conditions showed no sign of improving, Plan C was put into operation for the afternoon. As coaches and leaders we wanted participants to gain as much as possible from their experience in the mountains, and, whilst we were sure some of the group would welcome the chance to further perfect their Jenga skills, an afternoon of alternative indoor physical and mental activity was put into action. Doing yoga on a cold stone floor was a first for many, and I think for the warden too, given the expression on his face as he walked through just as everyone was doing Downward Dog. Loosened up and furniture put back in place, a mammoth navigation quiz was put into action. We questioned the teams on everything from 6 figure grid references to cols and route planning and much more, leading to lots of learning and a plenty of fun too.
Waking on our final morning, it soon became apparent that although much of the snow had melted,the rest had turned to ice, and the wind had not dropped at all. Our chances of doing a run before leaving were pretty much scuppered. With a cuppa, a map and an uninterrupted half hour, we put together a plan to salvage what we could of the weekend, returning participants and their backpacks safely to their cars. By taking a longer route to Keswick along the leeward side of Skiddaw, we’d avoid some of the wind and add a little adventure for everyone, rather than being blown off our feet by heading straight to the cars. A rather complex car-shuttling plan was then put into place to conclude the weekend and send everyone off on their journeys home – only to find they were stuck behind snow ploughs for miles!
So a fell-running weekend turned into a rather different adventure than planned. But that is the joy of the mountains and the reason why adaptability is probably number one on any coach/leader/organiser’s list of desired qualities! A fabulous time was had by all, and everyone returned home safe and sound, which all that really matters in the end.