Tour de Helvellyn: A Tale of Two Spectators, Lake District, Saturday, December 15, 2018

Our route: 17 miles, a few thousand ft of ascent, 3 coffee shops, 30 miles bus travel

Nina Mason

It was Brownies that taught me to always carry emergency money. The 2p piece for the telephone box has now been replaced by my credit card, a crumpled fiver, and my phone….and I was glad of the 40-yr old lesson last Saturday.

I’d heard about the Tour a couple of years ago, but it wasn’t until this year that I’d thought it might be achievable for me to complete. I want to enter the race in 2019, giving me time to build up the mileage required, practise navigation, running in the dark etc. Having done an out-and-back recce of the first and last 12 miles of the route, I wanted to recce the ‘loop’ at the end of this ‘stick’, parking at Patterdale and following the course round Helvellyn

And what better day to do it? On the day of the race itself, with Mum for company, at an easy jog/walk pace, experiencing the weather the competitors would get. I’d checked the forecast and we knew it would be a tough day out, so kitted up with everything we needed. We would go in the opposite direction to the runners and hoped to surprise the hardy group of Striders that were competing (Aaron, Elaine, Geoff, Juliet, and Patricia) with chocolate and jelly babies half way up a hill. I’d worked out their approximate split times, aiming to bump into them between their checkpoints 3 and 4, probably on our way up to Sticks Pass.

Well, that was the plan…..

The day started well. Up at 4.30, drive and park up at Patterdale. Then a 7 am start up to Grisedale Tarn. In hindsight, this was the best bit of the day. Despite the freezing temperature and a bit of breeze, we soon got warmed up, jog-walking up the track, head torches on. It was pitch dark when we set off, and the mountains slowly appeared around us as we headed up the hill – a stunning experience that I will never forget.

It was quite breezy at Grisedale Tarn but nothing we couldn’t manage, followed by a very icy (so fairly slow) descent down Raise Beck. The next section – a long forest track by the side of Thirlmere – was straightforward. We stopped briefly for second (maybe third!) breakfast, and I think we were lulled into a false sense of security by the breeze – nothing alarming – being at our backs.

We reached Stanah (the runners’ checkpoint 4) at 11 am. I’d been expecting to see runners coming towards us by now, but there was no-one visible. Maybe they were just on their way…

What happened next justified some of the precautions that we are all told to take when we head up the hills – appropriate clothing, map and compass, spare food…yes, all that of course, it goes without saying. But equally important – an ‘escape route’ and (Brownie) bus fare home.

As we headed up the steep path to Sticks Pass the wind was in our faces. After a couple of hundred metres of ascent, we were struggling. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced wind like it – literally, every step required effort and a pause to rebalance and ‘pin’ ourselves two-footed to the ground. The wind was relentless, and every now and then a stronger gust would mean we had to stand still, leaning into it, preparing to drop to the ground if it knocked us down. Whilst we were just about warm enough in our clothing, the bits of exposed skin around our eyes (the only bit showing between hat, hood, and buff) was freezing, it was so bitterly cold.

So when mum got knocked off her feet the second time by the wind (quite literally blown off her feet) we knew it was time to quit. I’ve only ever bailed out once before – in similar conditions out walking with Leigh when she was young (also in the Lakes). If I had been alone I might have continued, but I always tell Tony I’ll bring Mum home in one piece, and it just suddenly felt too dangerous – so we hunkered down, backs to the wind, and looked at our options. Back down the hill to Stanah first.

We then considered a long jog/walk back to Patterdale via the Old Coach Road and Dockray, but the mileage looked a bit much, particularly as it was starting to rain fairly heavily by now, and the wind would have been in our faces for much of it.

From there then, an easy, though long, finish to the day. Coffee shop then jogged along to Threlkeld, half hour wait; bus to Penrith, over an hour wait and two more coffee shops (pretty cold and sick by this time); bus to Patterdale, and then a drive home in appalling conditions via the A69 (the 66 unsurprisingly being shut). Home at 8 pm desperate for a shower and bed.

I think Mum enjoyed herself – the early start took a bit of convincing, but she agreed it paid off. I think she too will remember the experiences of the day. And – she had the foresight to bring her bus pass! (hmmm, I must ask if she went to Brownies….)

We found out later that the race went ahead, but a shorter route – to CP3 and back. We had missed the runners by about a mile and a half – in my opinion, the wildest, windiest mile and a half in the country that day! Well done to Aaron, Elaine, Geoff, Juliet, and Patricia on the day – we were thinking about you even if you didn’t get the shouts and sweet treats!

After a day like this, I tend to reflect. What did I learn?
I want to experience more darkness and dawns amongst the hills.
I am definitely planning to do the Tour next year.
The life-skills learned at Brownies will remain with me forever (laugh if you want, but we played a game involving the order you wash your dishes, and that also remains with me).
And I obviously have more ballast than mum.

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3 thoughts on “Tour de Helvellyn: A Tale of Two Spectators

  1. I’ve been tracing your route on the map and struck by how quickly a good plan can unravel. Turning back on Sticks Pass when, as Will Horsley used to say, ‘you can almost smell the finish’, must have been hard, but absolutely the right thing to do. I applaud the development of ‘plastic’ bank notes and contactless payments. Very handy for emergencies like this.

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