We set off walking and immediately got stuck behind slow moving traffic, not unlike the roundabout approaching Birstall’s IKEA which narrows into one lane for all those planning on purchasing self-assembly beds. ‘(Ahem), excuse me, please… Could I just… Would you mind if…’ I asked one, and then another steady ambler who seemed to have settled into the idea of queuing to hike up a mountain. How very British! My repeated apologies and embarrassed coughs grew in frequency, and were mostly met with a sudden shuffle of walking poles and then a step to the left, akin to a Rocky Horror Show dance move.
The landscape was littered with people. People and poles; people with poles. Many, many poles. I sped up, and almost began a slow trot. Not that I harboured any burning ambition for achieving a time of glory, but just to escape from the relentless stream of bodies… and poles. I looked behind, and Gav was stuck. Wedged between a group of tired looking teenagers and a bleary-eyed corporate crew who appeared to have woken up only seconds earlier. Push past them, Gav. Make a bid for freedom! I telepathically transmitted to him, wondering if we would ever see past the parody on the hillside before us. Shit. He’s too polite, I concluded, as he remained jammed in between Cool 6th Former and Corporate Ken. Is this what Wainwright envisioned? I wondered, as the snake of bodies trundled slowly onwards and up Pen-Y-Ghent as though in some never-ending Starbuck’s queue.
Nearing the top of Pen-Y-Ghent, the steep, rocky climb became ever more difficult courtesy of the unanticipated human congestion. A mother waited patiently to climb further up the ragged rock face with her young daughter in hand – perhaps 7 or 8 years old – no more. The girl stood alongside her mum looking completely unflustered by the wind pummelling her little body against the now fully exposed hillside. Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman clung on desperately to a jagged, jutting edge and wept in terror as she wailed, ‘I can’t move. I CAN’T MOVE!’ I looked down, and couldn’t blame her, not being one for heights myself. Wanting to get the hell away from the juxtaposed climbers, I took the advice of a kind chap who was volunteering to help Wailing Woman overcome her frozen fear. ‘Just barge past people love,’ he instructed me. ‘Move round them. You’ll get hypothermia otherwise!’ I took his advice and circumvented the queue, gulping hard whilst my heart raced in the knowledge that I was going ever so slightly ‘off piste’.
Shortly afterwards, I reached the top where thankfully, the congestion had eased. A well-built marshall who was tasked with ticking us off a laminated list came immediately into view. He was digging about to retrieve his sheet, whilst at the same time wrestling one arm into a wind-battered hi-vis. ‘You’re the first here. That’s pretty fast, to be honest,’ he said with a smile and one brow slightly raised. I waited a few minutes, and then, like a meerkat poking his head out of an underground burrow, Gav appeared.
We spent a few minutes chatting to brick shit-house Marshall Man, who confidently informed us, ‘You’ll be able to run the ten miles across to Whernside, no problem.’ Perhaps – naively – we took him at his word. I was desperate to run, away from people and poles, and down the hillside on the long trek across to peak number 2: Whernside. No sooner did we begin to descend the opposing side of Pen-Y-Ghent than it became very clear that we wouldn’t have the easy, flowing, downhill section we’d dreamed of (there is a reason why I love tarmac.) This quickly began to feel like a long, technical cross country run. Loose, rocky paths meant that our eyes were fixed only on the few metres in front of us. Gav – with only one remaining tendon supporting his left ankle – did his best to navigate his way down the rough terrain. Off road, we surmised, is perhaps not our bag. Meanwhile, I was terrified of tripping over my own feet and impaling myself on a sharp, dislodged Russian doll Tupperware lid. Could there be any worse way to go? All that aside, we did manage to do a fair amount of running, and people were dissipating. For that reason alone, I would happily continue attempting to run down the rocky, scree-covered path.
Halfway between Pen-Y-Ghent & Whernside, our support van came into view. We were the first there, by their reckoning. Offering us top-ups of water and chalk-like protein bars, the three crew members kept us chatting for slightly too long, giving us additional ‘challenges’ that we could choose to undertake over the remaining 14-or-so miles (and two peaks) that we yet had to tackle. That they even considered we might be looking for any ‘additional’ challenges over and above getting our arses around the 3 peaks and back to our car safely remains a complete mystery. But we were simply too polite to say, ‘Thanks, but no fucking chance!’ This cost us a good few minutes, but typically, British etiquette and courteous chit-chat prevailed.
Just around the corner, and the majestic Ribblehead viaduct came gloriously into view. We’d ticked off around ten miles by now, and it was a welcome sight. How the hell did people build that?’ I wondered, comparing the toil and workmanship of yesteryear to the IKEA and self-assembly of modern day. Just before I felt my heart sink with what we’ve all become, I rallied myself for more running as the paths became easier underfoot. There was still a long way to go.
The Whernside climb started off gently. Initially, it didn’t feel like a climb – more of a long, meandering path barely rising at all. That said, I felt like a mountain goat. Having got a definite second wind from somewhere, I powered along the footpath onwards, and upwards; onwards, and upwards. Gav’s second wind hadn’t arrived yet, and instead he was on a mini slump, not enjoying the trudge. I kept looking behind for him, and as the meandering road turned into a steeper climb, the mist descended. To accompany this, the wind picked up massively. I secured a buff over my Inov8 cap to make sure it stayed in place.
I passed one hi-vis marshall, but he was waiting for another group. Is this the top? I couldn’t tell. Wind and mist encircled us as I kept up a good pace despite being unable to see anything at all for the fog. I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me. Where’s Gav? I looked behind. No idea. It was flat on the top, with no discernible summit. Have I passed it? Should I wait for him? How far back is he? I decided to sit down and shelter by a wall and wait for him. A good few minutes passed. ‘Are you ok?’ a couple of walkers asked me as I sat down, having only just stridden confidently past them moments earlier. ‘Yes! I’m fine! Just waiting for my other half…’
Eventually, he showed, like a scene from Guerrillas in the Mist. We continued together to the summit where the lady marshall was just arriving and setting up, putting on her hi vis with KUTA OUTDOORS thankfully emblazoned on it. We recognised the logo and so were the first to be ticked off her laminated list. It was now around 12pm, and I asked how long she was likely to have to wait up there, at the summit of Whernside. ‘Probably until well after 3pm,’ she replied. I noticed a droplet of snot about to fall from the end of her nose. Bloody hell.
Whernside was a horrible descent. Steep scree; random rocks; and large indecipherable steps. A couple of dogs ran around wildly, being hollered at by frightened owners. One woman stood on a dog’s toe. It yelped. For one who isn’t great with heights, and with an unhealthy fear of falling, this couldn’t be any worse. We couldn’t run any of it, and our pace dropped to that of terrified snails as we nervously inched our way down the worst descent. Some braver folk flew past, whilst we continued to tip-toe down like toddlers on a polished spiral staircase.
Towards the bottom it levelled out, and became runnable again. Paths were chopped into chunks with a series of never-ending cattle grids. Signs on display evidenced the opportunistic rural community cashing in on tired trekkers: ‘500m to fresh orange juice with ice.’ … and further down the path… ‘250m to cold juice with ice…’ Before long, our support vehicle and crew came into view again. The well-built marshall tasked with checking people off his list at Pen-Y-Ghent was in action once more, this time preparing to climb Ingleborough for his second laminated list duty of the day. But he hadn’t set off, yet. The Organiser bloke asked, ‘Do you think you can get there before him?’ We knew we would – or we hoped we could.
The Ingleborough climb felt like an extended cardio session on a travellator / Jacob’s ladder machine – climbing massive chunks of stone carefully laid out all the way up the sheer hillside. This was a cardiovascular workout. It felt vertical as there was no meandering this time; just up. Thick fog began to set in again. A slow-moving older guy said, ‘Nice legs but I bet they’re getting cold!’ as I marched past. They weren’t. Getting to the top, it was unclear where the summit was. I felt my entire upper body now soaked in sweat, but my hands were cold – with sealskin gloves on… in June. A couple of weathered old-timers directed us to the summit. There was no sign of Well-Built marshall. No laminated sheet to be ticked off. ‘Will we still be counted as completing it?’ I asked Gav, stupidly. We took a selfie at the summit as photographic evidence, just in case (it’s the legal training.)
As we headed back down Ingleborough, a bloke had lost his dog’s ball. ‘Someone’s nicked off with it. Must be a bloody southerner!’ the Yorkshireman shouted. We laughed. 3 peaks were now done, but the journey wasn’t over. Feeling tired and disappointed with what seemed to be so many un-runnable non-paths, we tried to run wherever we could. We’d also lost everyone. At times, there was now only me and Gav. At some points, we stopped in our tracks, wondering where the path even was. In one earlier, more positive moment, we had considered the possibility of going for sub-7 hours, but this seemed increasingly unlikely as large grass-covered boulders stuck out of the land like a badly-fitting carpet. We hopped over bogs and grassy mounds trying not to lose Gav’s one remaining ankle ligament through sheer carelessness. But we were getting tired, and increasingly clumsy.
20 miles seemed to take forever to come. Gav’s Garmin lost battery. He kept asking me how far we’d gone, and didn’t believe the miles were going so slowly. ‘Are we at 21 yet, Rach?’ ‘NO,’ I barked back. He didn’t believe me. I wrestled with my own frustration with tired legs and simply broke away, willing myself home like Dorothy clicking together the heels of her red shoes.
A family was approaching from the bottom of Horton-in-Ribblesdale, just setting off on their Saturday afternoon walk. ‘Please tell me the village isn’t far,’ I desperately asked the glamorous-looking mum with her kids hopping about on the hillside like spring lambs. ‘No, not at all. It’s taken us lot half an hour to get here at our snail’s pace,’ she replied, smiling. ‘Only down the hill now.’
The field came into view, and I legged it. I could see the banners marked both ‘START’ and ‘FINISH’. I was home.
The KUTA crew were ambling about, only just starting to put out bottles of water and boxes of salty crisps / chalky protein bars. No one rushed over, as time – it appeared – was not of the essence. I stopped my Suunto. 6 Hrs 54 mins. Still no one came over, and so I asked for a bottle of water and helped myself to a bar of chalk. A guy dressed in what appeared to be faded military gear came over to congratulate me. ‘Only one runner has come in ahead of you… in 5 hours. You’re the first back from the FMN group. Bloody good time!’ he said.
Gav arrived shortly afterwards, and we headed off to the Pen-Y-Ghent café where we’d clocked in at 7.25am that morning.
‘We’re in the Three Yorkshire Peaks Club, Gav!’ I said to him, as we sat and drank our pints of hot sweet tea. ‘Under 7 hours. Is that any good?’ I quizzed. How do you measure these things? I had no idea other than the clear evidence of my own exhaustion, plus my recollection of 8 years earlier when I’d completed it in well over 10 hours. I guess in the 8 years since, being three stones lighter and three hours faster isn’t a bad effort…
‘Are you going to order a Three Yorkshire Peaks Club silk tie?’ I asked Gav as we pondered over our souvenir options. He said he wasn’t fussed for one of those, strangely.
‘Nah. I’ll go with a sew-on badge. What a weekend. Happy birthday, Rach!’