A Mid-winter, Solo and Unsupported Bob Graham Round

I’ve had the idea of running a mid-winter solo unsupported Bob Graham round for a few years now and had two attempts, one far more successful than the other. Solo and unsupported is as pure as it gets. Just myself and the hills in the simplest sense but far more complex when you factor everything in and that it is down to yourself. Carrying all your food and equipment, planning where to eat and collect water, navigating, pacing and mentally staying in the right place are all elements which make running long distances solo and unsupported what it is. I like that.
Mid-winter? Well why not, I’m not too fussed about the weather and I get super bad hayfever in the summer anyway.
The additional incentive was that only one person had ever completed the Bob Graham in mid-winter solo and unsupported, and that was Martin Stone in 1987, so it would be quite the challenge.

Unsupported ‘rules’ can be quite particular. For example dropping food for yourself to collect would count as support, even if you drop it yourself prior to starting. This would be classed as self supported. Planning to see anyone on the hill or at road crossings would also count as support, even if they didn’t pass you anything then there would still be some moral and mental support in seeing someone familiar. Obviously, bumping into people on the hill is sometimes inevitable but I wouldn’t take anything from them. This isn’t a big problem towards the end of December and I think I maybe saw only a handful of people throughout the whole round.
So basically, no outside or premeditated aid whatsoever.
People had asked if I was going to use a GPS in order to navigate. I saw this as aid and so would only use a GPS device for safety or recording purposes, e.g. a watch to record the route and a tracker for safety. If I were to use any device other than map and compass for navigating then the round would be void. So I was only going to use my phone or watch (to navigate) in an emergency situation. 

My plan has always been to go on the shortest day as I see this as the middle of winter and gives the least amount of daylight to work with. Just setting a date also means I don’t faff around waiting for the perfect weather, and besides, facing whatever weather is part of a winter round surely? Though you can guarantee it won’t be shorts weather. So the start was set for Sunday the 20th at 20:00. This meant I would run into and through the shortest day, the 21st, where I would only get 7 hours 15 minutes daylight before running back into the night again.
I had escape plans for each leg just in case things took a turn for the worst. I could then make my own way back to Keswick or call on friends or my dad for a lift. As a safety precaution I also carried a tracker.

I bailed at Wasdale during my 2019 attempt as I had lost a lot of time on the high fells from Bow Fell to Sca Fell. This was mainly due to a very sketchy ascent of Sca Fell via Lord’s Rake, West Wall Traverse and Deep Gill in a lot of snow. It also transpired that I’d missed the summit of Harrison Stickle in the fog. This partial round was an experience I learnt from and helped me on this winter’s attempt. 

December 2020 came round and the lakeland weather didn’t disappoint with weekly cycles of snow and ice, heavy rain and strong winds. This made the conditions on the 20th/21st anyone’s guess.
As I was starting in the evening I had a very easy day of eating, drinking, dawdling around the park and preparing kit. I also had a very close eye on the weather. The tops were snow free apart from the odd sheltered patches but the previous few days had been consistent rain making the ground sodden and the rivers pretty swollen. I was a bit worried about Leg 1 and if I would be able to cross the River Caldew safely between Great Calva and Blencathra, but I decided I’d cross that bridge when I got to it, and maybe quite literally as if the river was too high then I’d have to run up to the closest bridge near Skiddaw House. About an hour before the start the temperature must have dropped and there were a few hail showers so I made sure I packed my safety glasses. 

The Moot Hall was eerily quiet with only my dad, sister and a couple of friends to see me off and as I headed over the A66 the reality set in, I was on my own. Aware of not setting off too fast I took to walking up most of Skiddaw but still managed to be up on my rough 23:30 schedule by the top. I’d only marked a few time checks on my map so as to not get distracted. The top of Skiddaw was awful and the safety glasses really proved their worth protecting my eyes from the sideways hail. The rest of leg 1 is best described as a slog. The marshy ground was hard work and the wind on the tops always seemed to be against me, but I did manage to cross the Caldew on the direct line. I was nicely up on schedule through Threlkeld. 

A stiff but sheltered climb up Clough Head saw me summit at about midnight. I knew from experience that leg 2 was going to be tough. It is really exposed with little respite from the wind and weather. It did not disappoint and was particularly severe from Great Dodd until Dollywaggon Pike (Yes, that’s most of leg 2!). Again the safety glasses proved they were worth their weight in gold as the precipitation switched between icy rain and hail. After summiting Great Dodd I ran along to the shelter cairn to get more clothes on. I donned my waterproof trousers and Gore-Tex mitts. The temperature would continue to drop as it got towards the coldest part of the night and also as I ascended towards Helvellyn. My hands were happy inside my mitts but taking them out to eat on the go in the high wind was numbing. Also, the risk of losing a mitt in the strong wind was very high so I employed a new tactic of stopping periodically to eat. I would find shelter behind a rock or cairn and shove as many sweets in my mouth before replacing my mitts and running off again chewing on the sweets stored in my cheeks like a hamster. It doesn’t sound like a great method but it worked. I was aware it was all sugar and so managed to get some proper food down me when climbing Fairfield. A steak bake was perfect. As is customary on a Bob Graham I went to at least three different cairns on Fairfield to be sure I could say I’d visited the summit. I wandered around looking for the top of Seats Sandal before dropping out of the worst of it into Dunmail. I was about an hour up on schedule and felt pretty good. 

The steep climb up Steel Fell gave me a chance to eat before I was exposed to the elements again. It was still very dark and I knew the navigation was going to be a challenge across the first half of this leg. I got off to a shaky start going up a few mounds before finding the Dead Pike summit post. The next summit I found even harder. I followed the fence line as much as I could and started to peel off round to Calf Crag. It was still raining but was notably warmer than leg 2, not tropical but my hands were of more use, which was good because I really needed my map and compass. This didn’t stop me from getting completely disorientated going up several knolls and doing a few double backs and circles. Eventually I managed to find Calf Crag and got back on track. I lost a fair bit of time but was still ahead of schedule. I made sure to stay focused and keep eating and ticked off High Raise and Thunacar Knott in a similar zig-zag fashion. The Langdale Pikes went fairly smooth and Martcrag Moor was even more boggy than usual. The rain eased and I picked my way up Black Crags and onwards to Bow Fell. It was just about getting light on the ascent up Bow Fell and so I decided to pack away my torch. There was a layer of snow across the high fells and I remember seeing two walkers on Esk Pike. It was properly light by now but there was no sunrise, It just gradually got lighter like a dimmer switch was turned up but not all the way. I went to both summits of Great End (to be safe) and scrambled haphazardly up Ill Crag and Broad Crag. Scafell Pike wasn’t busy at all and I continued to Mickledore where I took advantage of the shelter to get out of the wind and unpack food to be more accessible. Lord’s Rake, West Wall Traverse and Deep Gill were much nicer than the previous year and I continued to slip and slide into Wasdale. I avoided Lingmell Gill as it may have proved difficult to cross with all the rain. I was about half an hour up on schedule and although my legs were feeling it I was in good spirits and focused on breaking leg 4. 

Up Yewbarrow was hard work as usual and the rest of the leg was steady away. Red Pike was a drag and I found it took a fair bit of concentration to get on the right paths and trods round to Black Sail Pass. The weather was a bit better on this leg. I was in and out of the cloud but it wasn’t raining. This was nice to be able to make the most out of the available daylight and get as far as I could before dark. My schedule said I would lose the light just after Kirk Fell but I pushed on and to my surprise managed to get just past Honister before getting my torch out. I remember it being dusky and misty coming off of Grey Knotts down to Honister but was quite happy to find a decent line down. I was still up on schedule and leg 5 shouldn’t be too difficult but you never know what is going to happen.

I made sure to eat plenty climbing Dale Head, which seemed to take forever! It was properly dark descending off Dale Head and I was really worried about missing the turn off to Hindscarth. I was convinced I’d gone too far but then again I was moving quite slow due to fatigue and because I kept walking to check my map. It seemed to take ages to get to the summit cairn and as soon as I saw it I was frantically checking my map. The cairn looked like the one on Robinson (I remember this one very well from supporting Stu Walker’s double BG where he stood in the shelter convinced he was captaining a ship). I checked my map more and doubled back on myself to find the sweeping trod that should go off towards Robinson. I soon found the trod which was a relief but all the way to the next summit I kept doubting myself and thinking was there any way I was just fitting the terrain to where I thought I was and running off in the wrong direction somehow. Checking my compass, a lot, paid off and I finally summited the last peak. I felt great and all I had to do was get myself down the hill and not get lost on the roads into Keswick. It was nice to get running again as the wind had picked up and temperature dropped. Unfortunately there was no nice view of the Keswick lights this time, just the inside of a cloud. Despite concentrating on navigating I’d still been eating quite regularly and so when down to the road I could move at a half decent pace. I don’t particularly like the road section and so just moved as fast as I could. Mentally I knew I’d done it. I had plenty of time and just had to keep going until I was back at the Moot Hall.

I don’t know why I expected Keswick to be busy but it definitely wasn’t. I ran up to the Moot Hall where Rachel, Tom, my dad and sister welcomed me in. I stopped my watch and slumped on the steps with relief that I’d finally done it, and in a time way faster than any expectations I had. A mid-winter solo and unsupported Bob Graham round in 22 hours 10 minutes! It was all too good to be true though…

I think my dad said something like “Amazing, well done.” followed by “But you missed Bow Fell”. 

I don’t really know how I felt but it wasn’t great.
I had a few navigational challenges but I didn’t count Bow Fell as one of them. I was sure I went to the top. I remember being on a bearing, summiting a super rocky mound and not being able to go any further as it just dropped off. I racked my brain, but with the fatigue it wasn’t really working very well and decided to get myself sorted and have a sleep instead of thinking too much.

A day or two later I took a closer look at my GPS traces. My watch was set to 10 second recording intervals to ensure the battery lasted long enough in the cold, and so as a result the accuracy is awful. This trace cut a lot of corners off and even shows a direct line from Hindscarth to Robinson, which I definitely didn’t take! The Open Tracking GPS trace was much more accurate and did show I was about 250m short of the summit of Bow Fell. There were a few points the GPS was a bit off but not by this much. I must have summited Bowfell Buttress instead, which in the low light and mist is a very similar rocky knoll. 

After a further few days of mulling things over and looking back at my GPS traces I spoke to Martin Stone about my round. Martin had noticed soon after me passing Esk Pike that I hadn’t properly visited the summit of Bow Fell as he was one of the few people I shared the Open Tracking link with. He contacted my dad who was on hand in the Lakes if anything was to go wrong and was also planning on being in Wasdale to watch me run through (from a long distance away through some binoculars. Unsupported remember.) Knowing that I’d missed a summit my dad had a very difficult decision to make, stop me and tell me what has happened, or leave me to carry on as normal. He knew from this point on that it was no longer a Bob Graham round but if he stopped me to tell me I wouldn’t be able to carry on as the unsupported part of the round would be void. He couldn’t contact me and It would also be too late to go back to Bow Fell from Wasdale. I was blissfully unaware of everything going on ‘in the real world’ and was watched as I climbed out of Wasdale with about 7 hours of running left to go. I’m glad my dad left me to get on with the job in hand. I was in a good place mentally at the time and by finishing in the time I did I really proved to myself what I could do. If he would have stopped me I wouldn’t know if the whole idea of this type of round was even possible for me to do. I later emailed the Bob Graham Club to ask about the validity of my round. I think I knew the answer before I even asked, but a definitive decision would at least put the ifs and maybes to rest. I was convinced I went to the summit at the time and thought nothing of it. If I knew I was in the wrong place I would have persisted to find the summit like I did on High Raise and Calf Crag. Was I close enough to count basically, with what was a genuine mistake with no intention of gaining an advantage? The answer was that I essentially didn’t summit all the hills of the Bob Graham round and therefore it cannot be counted as a successful round. As I said, I already knew this but the confirmation was really what I needed. I don’t think I would have felt right knowing that I didn’t quite go up Bow Fell and I wouldn’t have liked the shadow hanging over my round.

I now know what I can do and the round itself was a great experience and adventure. I want to have another go at a mid-winter solo unsupported round but I will have to see what the future holds. I don’t want to run it for the wrong reasons.


Finally a big thank you to al that helped before and after the round, and also to Normal Walsh for the continued support.

Comments are closed.