An account of a post lockdown Lakeland long traverse by Simon and Loz…
What it’s about – Simon
The Joss Naylor Challenge is a route conjured up by Joss in 1990 when he was 54. It traverses 30 summits on its way from Pooley Bridge to Joss’ village in Greendale (in Wasdale). This is about 67km and 5000m of ascent or 48 miles/17000’ in old money. The route has become known as the ‘old man’s Bob Graham’ and this had probably put me off the idea for a while as memories of how hard I’d found the BG 30 odd years ago still run deep. But then after Loz and I had run the Lakes in a Day ultra a couple of times, we realised that the JNC should be not much harder. It’s a bit shorter but with more climb, although, unlike the LIAD, the climbing is loaded towards the end of the route over most of the big Wasdale fells. The other factor that – unusually – worked in our favour is being relatively ancient. The time limit for completing the challenge is on a sliding, age-dependent scale so at 50 you only have 12 hours but this increases to 15 hours at 55, 18 hours at 60 and a leisurely 24 hours at 65. So for us that gave 18 hours which seemed like a viable challenge, at least from the comfort of an Excel spreadsheet at the kitchen table.
The route is divided into four obvious legs: From the start along the High Street range to Kirkstone Pass; crossing the Fairfield group over to Dunmail Raise; a longish hack up to Bowfell and over Great End to Styhead and then the final leg over the high fells around the head of Wasdale to the finish at Greendale Bridge. A very cold recce last November with Roger over the first two legs suggested the required pace was OK – at least over 7 hours or so. But then of course lockdown brought a halt to anything that wasn’t out of the back door.
Once Boris allowed us to venture a bit further afield Loz and I did a 9 hour recce of the last half of the route from Dunmail Raise to the finish. The logistics of this are a bit tricky as you end up a long way from your car. Luckily Tom Oxley had just got his provisional driving licence and was easily conned into the idea that driving Hilary over Wrynose and Hardknott to pick us up would be good driving practice. Gill was also there to meet us and asked how we’d feel about turning round and doing another half of the route. We looked at her like she was crazy and, as always, we felt we really needed to get fitter to take on the full Challenge.
However, looking at diaries and family holiday plans suggested that the long summer days could easily slip by without an attempt being fitted in. So we’d better just get a grip and do it. By mid-July the brilliant weather of the early summer had turned into unstable squally stuff but a good weather window was forecast for a few days’ time on Sunday. Roger was keen to join in (as a leisurely recce to see where the hours would be knocked off on his ‘proper’ attempt later on) but was unavailable that day so we assembled a small team of supporters at short notice for a low-key traverse with a 4am start from Pooley Bridge.
Leg 1 – Loz
I’m not one for early starts. In fact, if this start had been any earlier, I’d have just made a late night of it, the evening before. I hate the restless hours in bed, in a funk over how horribly soon I have to get up. Once up though, it was a nice pre-dawn, T shirts and shorts even at 3:30. Just light enough not to need our head torches, which was as well, since they were in Mark’s bag to meet us much later. It’s a slightly odd start through a large static caravan park but then you’re soon on the fell. First peak: Arthur’s Pike, crossing the route of the Lakeland 50 en route.
The sun popped up just before 5:00, just as we were keeping our fingers crossed that a stream we thought we remembered was there. If not, we’d be going thirsty. We carried our own kit throughout, so kept water to the bare minimum needed to get to the next source. Filling up and a few dawn pics lost us 6 mins on the schedule. Incidentally, Simon’s computations (spanning many spreadsheets and furrowed brows) had come up with the strikingly precise projection of 17h 9 m for arrival time at Wasdale. We pushed on. At this stage of an ultra it’s good to keep the pedal off the metal, and move efficiently, rather than to risk early flame-out. We were back on schedule by Kidsty and then saved another 6 mins by Kirkstone. The wind was a bit fresh and cool from the west, but only my hands were cold: unlike my sensible companion, I hadn’t brought gloves.
The section had been enlivened by a fox on Arthur’s Pike and couple of Bambi-style fauns on Raven Howe. Other than that and a couple of tents, we’d seen no sign of life. Dropping towards Kirkstone, I spotted a couple of people on a knoll and to my surprise, they got up and ran towards us. Turned out to be Becky and Tom. That was nice but even better was to follow when they offered chocolate pancakes straight out of the pan. Now that was definitely a first, and very enjoyable too – thanks guys! That little burst of energy helped us get the ideal line down to Kirkstone and our first support.
Leg 2 – Simon
Jude and Dominic Spracklen had readily volunteered for a 7:45am rendezvous at Kirkstone where a mini rave seemed to have been going on over night. Rejuvenated by the smell of weed wafting over the fell-side we started the grind up Red Screes. Tom and Becky had also managed to pack up their pancake kitchen and joined us for the climb before peeling off somewhere near the top. Across Scandale Loz and Dom seemed to be deep in conversation about the economics of biomass power generation while Jude kept me entertained by drip feeding raspberry flapjacks – more my level at this point. We seemed to be making good progress though across the Fairfield section and were 18 minutes up on the schedule at Grisedale Hause. Here Jude and Dom ducked off down to Grisedale Tarn and Loz and I last had sight of them swimming around 500’ below as we climbed over Seat Sandal. The BG descent route is a quick way down to Dunmail Raise but you’re constantly aware of your immediate destiny up the apparently vertical face of Steel Fell dead ahead. Hilary’s impressive picnic table greeted us at the road – the last road crossing on the route and the lowest point between the start and finish. This is pretty much the half way point in distance but with most of the climbing still to do.
Leg 3 – Loz
If Fairfield and Hart Crag had reminded me of Lakes in a Day, a blurred Dunmail feeding frenzy followed by trudging off up a horribly steep fellside was pure BG throwback. Thanks to Hilary though for all the cakes! Martin Holroyd was with us from here, and he did sterling work to Sty Head. Steep Steel Fell came and went. High Raise is a bit of a plod too. Happily, Joss took pity on his followers around here, and let us off the intervening Calf Crag and Sergeant Man. After that bit, it’s a good downhill to cross just below Stake Pass and into the rockier terrain of the western half of the route.
On Rossett Pike, we got the right line after our recce a few weeks earlier. Then the third water stop on this leg (which is well provided with streams compared to the rest), at the foot of Bowfell. That big steep climb up Hanging Knotts was a struggle for me. I had a roll I was trying to eat (and eating gets harder the longer you run); I had my two poles to carry and I was trying to grab a drink as well. Coupled with needing to touch rocks to balance up the steeper bits, I felt like an octopus missing half its tentacles. Eventually I emerged onto the plateau feeling like my legs were spiralled together. The others seemed to be packing away their almost-finished copies of War and Peace by the time I staggered up to the summit. Politely, they pointed out the direction of Esk Pike and I managed to redeem myself a little by finding the racing line which I’d re-discovered on an earlier recce. It’s the way the Langdale comes (going the other way), but my brain on that occasion had been deep into oxygen starvation by that stage, so I’d remembered nothing.
Esk Pike is a fine hill and I was almost managing to keep the others in sight ahead going from there to Great End. Martin kept musing about turning back – he had to reverse most of the route back to Dunmail – but then he would “just come along one more top” with us, and so ended up dropping down the very rough descent to Sty Head (the slowest bit of the whole route) to complete the whole section with us. A heart-felt thanks to Martin, you really helped us keep moving.
Leg 4 – Simon
We’d been on the go for over 11 hours and were half an hour up on our target time here and so had 90 minutes in hand on the 18 hour schedule. Although nothing was said out loud, it seemed to me that barring disasters we should make it round fine and this allows you to relax a bit and enjoy the trip.
Mark Wildsmith had kindly made the big commitment to drive all the way round to Wasdale Head and met us at Styhead. His preparation for supporting us on leg 4 had been a 250km off-road bike ride the previous day – he rightly assumed we wouldn’t be pushing him too hard at this stage. The final leg is about 18km and 1500m with an immediate start-as-you-mean-to-go-on brutal bash up Great Gable. This was about the only place on the route we saw many other people but we were quickly down the other side and up onto Kirkfell. There’s a handy stream outlet from one of the summit tarns here – pretty much the last water before close to the finish. I think we carried about a litre and a half each from here.
Joss’s Gully is a rough but quick way down to Black Sail pass and we were then on the long slog up Pillar. In my mind this is the final crux and it seems sort of downhill after Pillar – psychologically rather than literally. It was somewhere here though that I suddenly felt light-headed and wobbly as Loz and Mark pulled ahead over the rocks. The sure sign of an incoming bonk – so I stuffed down a Mars Bar, quickly followed by a Snickers. On the whole I think we’d done very well on nutrition – eating pretty continuously and mostly proper food like sandwiches and pizza rather than fistfuls of Jelly Babies. But on these long runs you always seem to be not too far from hypoglycaemia so the emergency Mr Mars is a useful tool for me and I was fine again in 5 minutes.
After Pillar there’s a cunning traverse to avoid an unnecessary top and you’re on Scoat Fell. Confusingly Little Scoat Fell is higher than Great Scoat Fell and in between the two there’s the out-and-back to Steeple where we had great views across Ennerdale in the late afternoon sunshine.
Three hills to go now and Haycock doesn’t seem bad. There’s a choice of descent routes here and we opted for the fast scree shoot that we’d found on our recce a few weeks previously. There aren’t many runnable scree descents left in the Lakes so this one’s a bit of a surprise. Whatever time we made up here though was probably lost in the palaver of emptying small stones out the shoes at the bottom.
Seatallan was a grind but Middle Fell beckons as the final climb and is a great view point. This included a view of our parked vans down below in Greendale. Gill, Hilary and Tom had been swimming in Greendale Tarn but were there to greet us – although only briefly as we sped through the parking area on our way to the ‘true finish’ on Greendale Bridge 16 and a half hours after setting off.
Final thoughts – Loz
It was nice to finish and satisfying to have at least beaten Joss’s benchmark time. He must have been feeling generous towards the elderly when he set that one. It had been a brilliant day on the hills, as they usually are once you get going. We’d been lucky with the weather which was only cold a couple of times. And we’d had some very kind support given generously.
The route does have the feel of a real mountain route as opposed to a trail-type ultra. That makes it very worthwhile. I am glad we did it whilst still (just) able to put one foot in front of the other for long enough, and I’d recommend any other ageing runners to give it a whirl while they can.