Bob Graham Round attempt by Chris Lloyd on 24 June 2006
I first heard of the Bob Graham Round in 1981 after a successful attempt by a Gorphwysfa club member, John Middleton. It also came to my attention in the following year when his brother Andy managed a successful attempt. My only experience of fell running at the time was the mountaineers’ class of the Welsh 1000 Metre Peaks Race and the Snowdon Race, both of which I had entered most years from a relatively young age. I remember Andy stating that the Bob Graham Round was roughly equivalent to doing the Welsh 1000 metres three times non-stop. Having just completed the 1000 metres and not feeling at my best, at that time the chance of completing the Bob Graham seemed well beyond my capabilities. This remained the case for many years.
In 1993 I moved to Wigan with my partner (and wife to be) Tash and we joined a small running club called Newburgh Nomads. Newburgh Nomads has approximately twenty members, all of whom are keen fell runners. After this I started to enter some races in the Lake District, North Wales and the Pennines and was soon to find that I got a lot of enjoyment out of fell running, despite it being a sport at which I did not excel; I always finish way down the field in a race. A few of the Newburgh Nomads runners had completed BG rounds in the 1990s and there was occasional talk about it in the pub after a Tuesday night club run, but there was still no urge to attempt it myself.
This changed in 2005 when we were accepted into the Achille Ratti Climbing Club. Achille Ratti is a climbing club based in the North West which is intended primarily for Catholic mountaineers. With Tash being a Catholic we were accepted into the club immediately on application and avoided the waiting period that non catholic applicants often have to endure. As well as being a climbing club, Achille Ratti has a strong fell running section and its members have a long tradition of completing the Bob Graham Round.
Up until joining Achille Ratti my experience of the Lake District was limited to the occasional fell race and the occasional camping weekend with friends, despite having lived only 75 minutes drive from Ambleside for twelve years prior to this. Once we had joined Achille Ratti this was to change; we now regularly visit their hut at Langdale where Tash, Emma, Jack and I can stay in the comfortable family quarters for £13 pounds a night – cheaper than camping!!
It was whilst on an Achille Ratti meet in May 2005 that the idea of doing the Bob Graham Round first came to my mind. The meet in question was their annual ‘long walk’ which involved a day of approximately 35 miles, with 12000ft of ascent, starting and finishing at Langdale. I ran/walked around this with a group of others and we completed in just over nine hours. During this walk I was given accounts of various people who had completed the BG and started to wonder whether it was within my capabilities after all.
By November 2005 the idea of attempting the BG was firmly set in my mind and it was then that I first suggested it to Tash. Without her support it would have been impossible because there was no doubt that she, who is also a keen fell runner, would have to sacrifice some of her time on the hills in order for me to train the amount that would be necessary. Fortunately Tash agreed for me to have a go and just before Christmas the provisional date of 24 June was set.
A fellow Newburgh Nomads member Wally Coppelov had also been thinking about doing the Round for some time and once he heard that I was going for it he decided that he would as well. This brought some problems; with Newburgh Nomads being a small club it was unlikely that we would be able to find enough people to help us both from within the club. The Round is done in five sections and it is normal to have at least two helpers on each section, one being a navigator and the other being a water, food and clothes carrier. My only hope was that some friends/contacts that I had outside the club would be able to help me, thereby leaving most of the Newburgh people to help Wally.
Training started in earnest in January and my first run was a trip round the Kentmere Horseshoe with Tash and Dave Reynolds (a friend from Newburgh). This run did nothing for my confidence whatsoever. I was recovering from an upset stomach and felt hopeless as I watched Tash and Dave run off into the distance. Following that fairly regular trips were made to the Lake District either on my own or with anyone else who I could drag along and over the next few months my fitness seemed to improve. Long runs included the Wuthering Hike in March – a 31 mile run in Yorkshire which Wally and I finished in 5hrs and 15 minutes. The 2006 Achille Ratti long walk was based at the Bethesda hut and involved doing the welsh 15 3000ers starting and finishing at Bethesda – a trip of approximately 40 miles with 15000ft of ascent. Finally, five weeks before the planned big day, Wally and I did the Old County Tops fell race. This event is organised by Achille Ratti and goes over Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and Coniston Old Man, with the start and finish being at Langdale – a total distance of 37 miles with 10000ft of ascent.
Unfortunately as the time got closer I picked up a couple of niggling injuries and was unable to run for a couple of weeks at the end of May and early June – a time that I thought it was pretty important to run in order to maintain the level of fitness that I had gained. This did nothing to inspire my confidence. However a couple of weeks rest seemed to do the trick and I was soon fully recovered.
As time grew closer we confirmed the date of 24 June with a midnight start and Wally and I set about organising support teams. Pretty much as we had planned, Wally managed to find his helpers mainly from within Newburgh Nomads and most of my helpers came from contacts I had outside the club. A bit of a problem arose four days before the start when Phil Hodgson, who had offered to do leg 1 with me, phoned up to say he was ill. Fortunately others were flexible and everything came together in the end. I ended up with a group of very able people helping me, including some ‘superstars’ from the fell running world who I had got to know through the Saab Salomon adventure race team that is managed by my brother Tim.
We got a schedule together which, if we managed to keep to, would involve completing the round in 23 hrs 33 mins, thereby giving us half an hour breathing space for any mishaps. The Round is completed in five sections and it is usual to have a support team with food and drink at each of the four road crossings.
My confidence was boosted slightly when a fellow Achille Ratti member Martin Kirkman completed the round in 24 hrs 56 mins one week before I was due to go, though he did have perfect conditions – clear but slightly overcast. Unfortunately any increase in confidence that I gained from this was soon to be lost when the weather took a turn for the worse during the following week. The thought of starting off in bad weather did not appeal. However, by Thursday 22nd June the forecast for the weekend was slightly more promising – light showers – so everything looked to be on again.
I took the Friday off work to prepare and Tash and I spent most of the day sorting food and gear and packing it into the car. By half past three we were ready to collect the children from school and the journey up to the Achille Ratti hut at Langdale began. On arrival we settled in, made some tea and I tried to get some sleep. This was clearly not going to happen, so I soon gave up trying.
My dad (Harvey) and Frances Richardson arrived some time during the evening which was lucky since they had the torches that I planned to use on leg 1. Harvey and Frances had offered to help Tash with the road crossings and very importantly had agreed to look after Emma and Jack during leg 4 so that Tash could come along as my support.
At 10.30 pm Harvey gave me a lift down the road to Chapel Stile where the Newburgh gang were staying and Alex Miller gave me a lift to Keswick. We arrived there at 11.30 pm and met up with Wally and Dave Reynolds, who was to be Wally’s helper for the first leg. Soon Jim Davies, who was to be my helper, arrived having left his car at Threlkeld and run to Keswick. We chatted, changed, sorted out some torches and eventually made our way to the Moot Hall. The nerves were beginning to tell by that stage.
At midnight we set off through Keswick, through Fitz Park and onto the main tourist path up Skiddaw. It was a nice clear evening and the forecast for the following day was reasonable so spirits were quite high. Once past the street lights torches went on – we were fortunate enough to have some good bright torches which my brother had loaned to us. Because of the weight of the batteries these were carried by Dave and Jim. Wally and I had lighter head torches.
We had planned to stay together for much of leg 1 and Jim, being a far better runner than the rest of us and with local knowledge of the fells, took the lead for most of the leg. We arrived at the summit of Skiddaw 81 minutes after leaving Keswick, which was 4 minutes ahead of our schedule. The run off Skiddaw went OK, though we did not find the quad bike track which Dave had checked up on sometime before. We still hit the main path at the bottom at the correct place and were happy that the chosen descent route had not cost us any time.
The track was crossed and we headed off up Great Calva, the summit of which was reached 47 minutes after Skiddaw, once again 4 minutes faster than the scheduled time. The descent off Great Calva can be a nightmare, especially in the dark, as it is easy to get caught up in very thick heather. However, Jim chose a route which was more runable than I expected, and involved only a short stretch of heather bashing at the end.
Jim and I pulled slightly ahead of Wally and Dave on the ascent up Blencathra, arriving there at 03:17 hrs, still well ahead of our Schedule. The descent of Blencathra is down the Halls Fell ridge. The upper section of this is quite rocky and some care is required, especially in the dark. I followed Jim who had the brighter torch and the descent seemed to go fairly well.
The support team of Brian Kennedy and Judith Reynolds was waiting at the planned spot in Threlkeld, as was Ben Bardsley who was to accompany me on the next leg. Food included some egg sandwiches and fruit cake which was fine, though I was a bit jealous when I saw Wally getting stuck into a rather large bowl of porridge.
Ben was loaded up with food and drink and we set off at 03:57 hrs. Ben, as with Jim, is one of the best fell runners in the country and has local knowledge of the fells. The climb up Clough Head was taken at a steady pace and we soon found that Wally and his helpers were gaining a bit on us – only being about one hundred metres behind at the summit. We made the summit in 55 minutes from Threlkeld, once again several minutes ahead of the planned schedule.
The next section of leg 2 involves following a well defined footpath over several tops and by now it was light. These tops include Great Dodd, Watson Dodd, Stybarrow Dodd, Raise, Whiteside and Helvellyn Low Man. Helvellyn was reached at 06:24 hrs, 24 minutes ahead of the planned time. The weather was starting to turn by this stage – we were in thick mist and it was drizzling. Because of the poor visibility we lost all contact with Wally and the others.
Nethermost Pike and Dollywagon Pike were found without any problems. I was getting a bit worried by this stage because I had suggested that my Dunmail support team (Tash, Harvey and Frances) leave the hut at Langdale by seven thirty in order to get to Dunmail by about 08:00 hrs. At the pace I was going I was likely to get to Dunmail pretty close to eight and to get there before them would have been a disaster.
The leg was completed by ascents of Fairfield and Seat Sandal and my worries were calmed somewhat with my first sight of the car when I ran over the end of Seat Sandal and looked down to the road just before eight o’clock in the morning.
Leg 2/3 changeover is at Dunmail Raise, where we arrived at 08:05 hrs. It turned out that it was quite a close thing. Tash, Harvey and Frances had only been there for about 10 minutes. The porridge that I had planned was not ready and I ended up drinking oats that were floating in milk. Half way through I dropped this and it went all over Ben and the clean socks that he was putting on me. The kettle hadn’t boiled so there was no hot tea and the bacon was not cooked. Eventually I was given a bacon roll which when I was planning my food seemed to be a really good idea. Unfortunately it didn’t quite turn out that way. I took one bite of the bacon roll I was given and instantly regretted it. The bite I took and a fair amount of the undercooked porridge that I had just eaten were soon to reappear. My stomach had been feeling a bit dodgy during the last leg and this didn’t do much to help things.
Soon after this I managed to compose myself and set off on leg 3 with Alan Kenny and Helene Diamantides. Alan is an experienced fell runner who I met through the Achille Ratti. Helene is one of the best female fell runners in the country, who over the years has excelled at endurance events. She is now married to Jonathon Whitaker, a friend of mine from university.
The weather for the first section of leg 3 was reasonable and we made steady progress up Steel Fell, which is a very steep, but not too long, climb. The summit was reached 27 minutes after leaving Dunmail and we continued onto Calf Crag. By the time we reached Calf Crag (09:05 hrs) we were back in the mist and we really started to appreciate Alan’s knowledge of these hills. Sergeant Man was found thanks to a very brief clearing in the mist and we then continued on the relatively easy section over High Raise, Thunacar Knott, Harrison Stickle and Pike of Stickle. By now the weather had deteriorated some more; we were in thick mist and it was raining quite heavily. The section between Pike of Stickle and Rossett Crag is not one that I enjoy in good weather, so I was not looking forward to it under these conditions. Alan took us along a route that was slightly different to the one I had used when training. Alan’s route involved losing less height and seemed far less painful. Rossett Crag was reached at 11:02 hrs, 42 minutes ahead of the scheduled time. Having completed that section 4 minutes quicker than was scheduled, I was feeling really good and felt that I was going quite well.
Arthur Daniels, who is the Langdale Achille Ratti Hut warden, had said that he would bring us a flask of tea up to Rossett Pike. He wasn’t there when we got to the top; it seemed that he had either been put off by the weather or we had beaten him there. An arrangement had been made for us to leave a plastic bag under a rock if Arthur wasn’t there when we got to the top. Unfortunately Alan had left the plastic bag at Dunmail. Anyway we couldn’t hang around, so just had to hope that Arthur had been put off by the weather, otherwise he would have ended up hanging around with us never to appear. Soon after leaving the summit we saw a very wet person in the distance heading towards the top. Alan shouted “Arthur” and got a response. Arthur had come along despite the conditions and his efforts were not wasted. We ran down to him, where he had a flask of tea and a flask of soup. I was still having problems eating and couldn’t face the soup, but quickly gulped down a hot cup of tea, as did the others. After a couple of minutes we said our thankyous, Arthur gave me a piece of fruit bread and we headed off up Bowfell. My confidence was increased even more when Helene commented on how strong I was climbing. We gained the summit of Bowfell at 11:35 hrs, once again knocking a couple of minutes off the schedule time.
The section from Bowfell to Wasdale is probably the roughest bit of the round and it is particularly unpleasant when wet. There are a lot of boulders to cross and they become very slippery. Fortunately this terrain doesn’t slow me down too much and we managed to make reasonable progress over Esk Pike, Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag and onto Scafell Pike, which we reached at 13:02 hrs. I was a bit worried about the next section to Scafell, which involves climbing Broad Stand. What should be a relatively easy scramble becomes far more serious in the wet. Wally and I had arranged for Alex Miller and Rick Ackrill to be there with a rope, but given that we were almost forty five minutes ahead of our schedule time, there was a chance that they hadn’t arrived. I was extremely pleased to see Alex’s head leaning over the top when we got down to the col between the Scafells. I think we caught him a bit by surprise, but fortunately he had managed to set up his belay.
The start of Broad Stand involves squeezing through a narrow gap between two slabs. This is followed by some exposed but easy scrambling onto a large ledge which is where we intended to rope up. I opted to climb up the corner, it being the least exposed route and Alan gave me a bit of a lift to reach a large handhold on the top. However, this wasn’t enough as the dripping rock provided no purchase whatsoever for my feet. On Alan’s advice I moved further to the left and the climbing proved easier there. Once over the top I scrambled up to where Alex was belayed and untied the rope. Helene was next to tie on and when she reached the belay we carried on, leaving Alan to catch us up. Since he was the one that knew the way, we ended up waiting for him and together we made for the summit. We arrived there having lost a few minutes because of the struggle up Broad Stand, but we were all extremely thankful for the assistance of the rope, without which I don’t think we would have been able to continue.
The descent from Scafell down to Wasdale passed without incident and on our way down we passed another BGer and his support team, who had set off two hours before me – it wasn’t looking too good for him. I think he had twisted his knee and was descending very slowly. I later heard that he retired at Wasdale.
We arrived at Wasdale at 14:16 hrs. Unfortunately I didn’t find eating any easier, but did manage to get through a reasonable amount of rice pudding and some fruit salad. I couldn’t face my other planned food which was instant noodles and sandwiches. I was getting worried about whether I was eating enough, the only thing that was going down whilst I was on the hill was energy gels and ideally these should be supplemented with something more substantial.
After a short time at Wasdale and forty five minutes ahead of the scheduled time I set off with Tash (my wife) and Jonathan Whitaker (Helene’s husband). Jonny was to be the navigator for leg 4 and Tash was to try and encourage me to eat and drink.
Yewbarrow, which is the first hill after Wasdale, is one of the toughest ascents of the Round. I kept up my steady climbing pace and we reached the top a couple of minutes quicker than the schedule time.
The weather was still bad, with very low visibility and quite heavy rain. I was beginning to find that my descending was being affected by the conditions. The combination of the slippery rocks and the tired legs meant that it would have been very easy to twist an ankle and this would have ended it all. Jonny did a good job of navigating over Red Pike and Steeple. We missed the best line between Steeple and Pillar and had to traverse a few steep scree slopes to regain it, losing a bit of time. Another eight minutes were lost between Pillar and Kirkfell; I was a bit surprised by this because I felt OK. The climb up Great Gable went fine; once again I was feeling a lot happier on the ascents than on the descents.
My legs began to tire on the final section of the leg which included Green Gable, Brandreth and Grey Knotts and a bit more time was lost on the descent from Grey Knots to the top of Honister Pass, where Harvey, Frances, Emma and Jack were waiting. We got there at 19:54 hrs, which was 24 minutes ahead of the schedule time.
Once again I managed to eat some rice pudding and at 20:00 hrs I set off with Dave Reynolds and Andy Quickfall, both from Newburgh Nomads. By now I was fairly confident that I would finish within the 24 hours and there was even the possibility of a 23 hour finish, since the schedule time for the final leg is 3 hours. However, my legs were suffering and I think the difficulties that I had been having with eating were beginning to tell. We got up Dalehead in thirty six minutes, three minutes slower than Schedule. I was slow on the rocky descent off Dalehead and hence lost more time on the way to the penultimate hill – Hindscarth. On the way up Robinson (hill number 42) Andy decided to take a short cut which involved cutting the corner, making the climb shorter but steewer. About half way up this I wished that we had stuck to the path because the climb seemed never ending. I almost got depressed when I looked up after we had been going for what seemed like ages and saw that the top still seemed to be miles away. We reached the final summit at 21:35 hrs, with this last uphill section having taken 10 minutes longer than it should have. This was more time than I had lost on any of the other climbs.
The descent off Robinson was painful. By now my feet and knees were very sore and progress was slow. This was really brought home to me when I was struggling to keep up with Dave and Andy whilst they were walking and I was doing what I thought was running. We eventually reached the road, where Harvey, Frances, Tash, Helene, Jonny and the Newburgh crowd were waiting. I changed shoes and socks and attempted to run along the final road section with Debbie Campbell. On any slight incline the run was immediately changed to a walk.
Eventually we arrived at Portinscale from where there is only a short flat section back to the centre of Keswick and the Moot Hall. Dave came to meet us, having checked out the route. We hit the main road in Keswick where we were met by Tash, Emma and Jack. Emma and Jack were waving sparklers in the air – it almost seemed like a party. My legs seemed to have made a bit of a recovery by this point and I was running reasonably well. Tash and the kids started running with me and all I could hear was Emma and Jack complaining that they couldn’t keep up. That wasn’t enough to stop me and before I knew it I had touched the Moot Hall. I stopped my watch at 23 hrs 30 minutes and 36 seconds – what a long day.
I hadn’t seen Wally since Dunmail and I had been told that he was an hour behind me at Wasdale. All I could do now was hope that he would also make it. I sent Dave back up the road to offer him some more encouragement since we all felt that if he was going to make it he was going to be pretty close. Some time later I heard some noise down the road and saw a group of runners coming towards the Moot Hall. It was Wally and his support team and he touched the Hall at 23 hrs 50 minutes – he had got round with 10 minutes to spare. That was thanks mainly to a very strong last leg; where I had faded badly he had managed to find some reserves.
There was a large amount of cheering and congratulating followed by some photographs and that was the end to a very successful and enjoyable day in the Lakeland fells. Achille Ratti tradition is to go to the New Dungeon Ghyll after a successful BG attempt. I couldn’t face this and headed straight to bed.
The Bob Graham Round is an amazing day out and one that I will never forget. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys running and long days out in the hills. There is no doubt that I succeeded thanks to an excellent support team, all of whom I cannot thank enough. I am now looking forward to helping Tash and Dave Reynolds with their attempts sometime next year.