Hooray, a mountain marathon in the Lake District! At night. In January. With a weather warning. What could possibly go wrong?

Marmot Dark Mountains 2016

Written by Haydn Williams

Hooray, a mountain marathon in the Lake District! At night. In January. With a weather warning. What could possibly go wrong?

Event centre, Mungrisdale. © Haydn Williams 2016
Event centre, Mungrisdale. © Haydn Williams 2016

OK, so a weather warning from both the Met Office and the organisers probably wasn’t the best start, but Greg and I were committed by this point so there was no turning back. Dark Mountains entails carrying all of the usual mountain marathon gear, along with a two-person shelter just in case you get so cold that you can’t actually put the tent up. Sounds promising. We’d entered C class for 35km and 1,900m of ascent (assuming no major navigational mishaps) between 10PM and whenever we finished the next morning. This course also had easier navigation than the more hardcore classes, which was fine by me.

We arrived nice and early on Saturday night, registered, had our mandatory GPS tracker attached to Greg’s bag, and then had mug-shots taken, presumably so our frozen bodies could be identified by whoever eventually found us. Things suddenly seemed very serious amongst fit-looking racing snakes, with the odd shower of snow falling outside. Teams on the longer course started climbing up the hill behind us as we got ready, their lights looking rather feeble as they crawled higher.

Four competitors on a very dark hillside above the lights of Mungrisdale as we kit up. © Haydn Williams 2016
Four competitors on a very dark hillside above the lights of Mungrisdale as we kit up. © Haydn Williams 2016

We set off at the appropriate time under a dark sky. The first challenge was to bypass a section of path which had been washed away in the recent bad weather, but then it was big wide paths until just north of the craggy edges of Blencathra. From here we moved into ‘cross-country’ territory, and the first bearings of the day (night?) came in to play. Weather at this point was bitterly cold wind, but otherwise fairly amenable. We headed south-west to tick another control, then north to Skiddaw House. This was control number five of 14, and already I was trying to convince myself we were nearly halfway there.

Greg and I somewhere in the Northern Fell. © Steve Ashworth www.movieit.co.uk
Greg and I somewhere in the Northern Fells. © Steve Ashworth 2016 www.movieit.co.uk

The next section to Great Calva was a repeat of a walk I’d done last year, so posed no problems. The navigationally safe route from there to Knott seemed to involve a large drop and climb, but we took it anyway in the interests of not getting lost. That worked well, although everyone else seemed to manage the higher-level route we thought might be tricky. By now the snow was definitely falling. Between here and Lowthwaite Fell we took the wrong path for a couple of hundred yards, but the slope aspect soon looked all wrong, so we back-tracked and got ourselves sorted out. The trudge to control 9 wasn’t bad, but as we followed Long Grain up towards the Lingy Hut the snow got really serious. Breaking out of the shelter and onto the top exposed us to the full force, and it was definitely quite gnarly for a while in the wind. Fortunately we didn’t have any trouble finding the path to the hut, which eventually loomed out of the darkness with a smiling marshall to bolster our spirits.

This pretty much sums up the night. © Steve Ashworth www.movieit.co.uk
This pretty much sums up the night. © Steve Ashworth 2016 www.movieit.co.uk

From here it was homeward-bound past the old mine workings at Grainsgill Beck. Here we turned south-west, again following the route from the MPS reunion last year. Next we had to cross the same river, although it was much higher this time. I didn’t care by this point though; we punched control 11 shortly after, and I knew we were almost home.

Having been awake for 24 hours at this point, and running for eight, I neglected to pay close enough attention to the map to realise that the ‘short’ climb over Bowscale Fell was actually around 300m of ascent. This was definitely the low point for me, as I cursed the course planner for doing something so horrific on what had otherwise been an almost-perfect course. In fairness though, the snowy descent down into Bannerdale was almost certainly the best part of the day – we gradually dropped out of the cloud in spectacular scenery as dawn broke, each of us occasionally taking the opportunity to bum-slide down hill to relieve tired legs.

By now it had stopped snowing, but as we approached Mungrisdale the hills behind us had a good covering and looked pretty fantastic. We eventually finished in 10 hours and 16 minutes. Our strategy this time was slow and steady, which worked fairly well since it resulted in no navigational cock-ups.

Aah, finally. © Haydn Williams 2016
Aah, finally. © Haydn Williams 2016

Having returned home, we got to check out the results. Out of 24 teams starting in C class, 11 retired. We were eighth out of the remaining 13, a mere 1m 30s away from getting a prize for first male team! Curses. What is absolutely brilliant is being able to check your GPS trace – although it’s used for safety reasons by the organisers in real-time during the event, the tracks are available afterwards so you can compare your route to everyone else’s. Check it out here: http://live.marmot-dark-mountains.com  The race director’s report is also available here.

C class controls in red, and our route in blue. Not too shabby. © Haydn Williams 2016
C class controls in red, and our route in blue. Not too shabby. © Haydn Williams 2016

I do think the event organisers, Ourea Events, deserve a special mention here. I’ve done a few of their events now, and this – like the others – was impeccably organised. There was an amazing breakfast at the event centre on finishing, and all of the helpers, marshalls, etc. were incredibly friendly. Let’s face it, this is a pretty niche event, so it’s great to see it run so well and at a reasonable price. Unfortunately entries are already open for next year, and I rather suspect I might have to go back again for more!

Lessons learned:

  1. However many layers you think you need, add one more.
  2. Just because one sheepfold is on the map, that doesn’t mean they all are. Check you’re at the right one!
  3. Just because one cairn is on the map, that doesn’t mean they all are. Check you’re at the right one!
  4. Your body clock will be messed up for days afterwards.
  5. Nothing tastes appetising at 3am.
  6. Compass bearings work. You should definitely trust them, even when they don’t feel right.
  7. Joey’s Coffee do a mean hot chocolate.
Looking towards the Dodds on the way home; less snow than the Northern Fells. © Haydn Williams 2016
Looking towards the Dodds on the way home; less snow than the Northern Fells. © Haydn Williams 2016

Comments: 2

  1. Good blog, and a good result, well done. Maybe see you next year too, we were on the C course as well.

    • Thanks. Great blog post, and well done on your result! I think it’s interesting how many of the blogs about Dark Mountains have “this is what we learned” sections at the end – probably shows how it’s more than just your ‘average’ mountain marathon even to those with plenty of experience. Hopefully see you next year (but I may avoid the cake and guacamole sandwiches).

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