Monday, 27 January 2014

Marmot Dark Mountains - 25 to 26/01/2014

So, Marmot Dark Mountains. Probably the ultimate test of fell running navigation, this event is two day mountain marathon rolled into one night, and just to make it a little more tricky, it's in January.

I’d entered Zoe and myself as a mixed pair in the short score class after hearing about the first edition of the event. We knew it would be a big challenge and had spent a couple of months getting fit (or at least fitter) and doing some navigation practise. My objectives were:

1.       Survive;
2.       Stay out for the full time (or near enough);
3.       Get a reasonable placing (top half in our class).

...but much more importantly to learn a bit more about route planning and also executing navigational legs. I’m a kind of learn by doing (and mostly by making mistakes) person, so most of my preparation was mental practise of the navigation – selecting a leg on a previous event and asking myself how I would navigate it, in poor weather and visibility and in the dark. Really this boils down to what handles (linear features like fences, paths, streams, escarpment edges) I would use to get close to the control, and how I would select my attack points (the feature at which you leave the handle to head off on a compass bearing to the control). Generally this stood me in good stead, although there were controls without decent attack points on the course.

I didn’t do enough route planning practise beforehand. This is specific to score courses and adds an additional layer of complexity to the event. Each checkpoint is assigned a score on the map, and you need to be able to identify a rough route around (some of) the various controls on offer to maximise your score over the event. For Dark Mountains the controls ranged in value from 5 to 40 points. We were warned that the high value checkpoints were high scoring for a reason – remoteness, horrible terrain, or navigational difficulty. Generally on a night event or in poor visibility (or both, as we had for an hour or two) it’s wise to avoid controls which are point features (say a small pond or an isolated building, maybe a cairn in a relatively featureless flat area).

Anyway the event map was handed to us as we started at 22:02, and we went straight to somewhere sheltered to plan our route. There were basically two routes options from the start and these would be the options for the return to the finish too. We opted for the northern option, visiting low scoring controls in an abandoned quarry area which would lead us round to the Pennine Way path north of Bleaklow. We could then use this path to guide us over the summit via another couple of low scoring checkpoints and into an area of mid-scoring controls east of the summit of Snake Pass. The plan was then to cross the Snake Road and head into the valley of Ashop Clough, visiting two mid scoring checkpoints on the north side, or, if there was time, three or four higher scoring checkpoints on the northern edge of Kinder Scout before finishing via the Pennine Way back to Snake Pass and down Doctor’s Gate to the start. This plan survived intact for about the first third of the event!

We reached the checkpoints in the quarry easily enough, walking steadily up the hills and walk/jogging the flatter sections, and got to PK with 25 points in the bag after 1:09, and no navigational errors. We descended NE from the control to pick up the Pennine Way, but had a minor delay as we saw something we thought was the path but turned out to be a track to some grouse butts about 100 yards short of the main path. This was probably the main story of the night for me navigationally – I just kept coming up short, thinking we’d covered more ground than we had. I think it was a combination of the terrain, our pace over it, and the darkness, but we just weren’t making the distance we usually do per stride. Anyway we rached the Pnnine Way and I realised we could take in an extra control, RE, for only an extra 200m of distance by diverting off the path at an obvious fenceline, crossing Torside Clough, and heading for the fence on the ridge just north west of the control. This worked out ok if a bit rough, but we’d climbed into thick mist at around the 550m contour.

I wasn’t too worried by the mist because if we followed our fence about a kilometre we’d meet the Pennine Way again which would take us right to the next control at the 633m summit of Bleaklow Head. We reached the point where the fence should have been adjacent to the Pennine Way, but I couldn’t identify the path. The visibility was around 5m to 10m and we just couldn’t positively ID the path. Instead I got the best fix I could on our location by checking the alignment of the curving fence and set a bearing which should take us straight to Bleaklow summit (the “summit” might be difficult to find as it’s actually just the highest point of a area of land about 2km x 1km all above 615m). This should have been safe as the paths shown approach from NW and NE in a “V” – if we missed the summit but reached a path I could check its direction quickly and identify which way to turn along it. From the map I thought it was around 300m to the control so we paced out 350 paces, then 400. 500 then 600 passed and I started to think we’d overshot. There as a slight clearing in the mist which revealed torches in front of and above us, and so we continued on in the hope these were close to the CP – it’s the highest point after all so going uphill did make some sense. We came out about 50m south of the summit, realised it was that way to the control from the voices around us in the mist, and made it. I have no idea even now, having checked the GPS track, why it seemed so far from the fence to the control. As we came back we met two teams on the B course who were looking for our next control, SR. They’d been looking for a considerable amount of time...

We now had 40 points and had been going for 2hr40. I was pretty shaken by the experience really. We headed south along the Pennine Way which should take us within 150m of the next control, SR, which was at Wain Stones, a location I’ve visited before. The map didn’t show an awful lot of detail for an attack point but it seemed that if we headed around 600m along the Pennine Way there would be a sharp left turn on the path which we could use. We spent a lot of time here walking slowly and trying to ensure we were still on the path – it’s very clear and well defined in daylight, but in very poor visibility in the dark all you can see is peat and heather. We reached what we thought was the attack point and took a bearing to the control, heartened when we heard celebrations from the direction we were headed. But there was no control and Zoe thought she heard the voices say it was a false alarm. We quickly decided we weren’t going to spend lots of time searching for a 5 point control and that orienteering in the mist was almost impossible. Checking the GPS we’d come up short again, turning off the Pennine Way about 200m before we should have.

We now headed down SE on the Pennine Way, stopping frequently to check we were still on the path. We met another pair and checked our locations. I was more sure than they were, and I was right, soon enough we met the Hern Clough stream and then climbed away from it to a knoll at 578m. This was on my map and was my attack point for control PT. It was clearer but still not great visibility here. I was shaken by the difficulty of hitting even low scoring point controls on Bleaklow. This was probably the only point at which I made a genuinely poor decision. We finally accurately knew exactly where we were again 40 minutes after leaving Bleaklow summit. But the checkpoint I was aiming for, PT, was a small pond 750m away. There was only a boundary with a couple of slight angles shown on the map to use as an attack point. What if the mist closed in again? What if the boundary was a broken wall and we walked straight through it? I knew the Pennine Way path got more distinct further down, and that we could access the mid-scoring controls on the north edge of Kinder via Snake Pass and another very distinct section of Pennine Way. And I thought we could extend if we had time, or run up the Snake Road if we were in danger of being late. But from where we were this would mean doing a figure-8 with very little in the way of points along the fast running section of the Pennine Way, or on the run-in.

Anyway we finally got a bit of momentum, dropped down out of the mist and reached control BA (5 more points taking our total to a massive 45!) which was at the crossing point of our figure-8. We stopped for a moment to finalise the re-plan. We’d used nearly half of our time so we’d need to get a shufty on but we could run to Mill Hill, control KM, then along the northern edges as I’d thought up at the knoll (GQ – HK – AQ) and then down from Fairbrook Naze to the river junction between Ashop Clough and Lady Clough (control DY on the footbridge over Lady Clough), with a short section of forest to bring us to the support point, control AI. From there I planned to either pick up PJ and PT and drop into Doctor’s Gate and the final control FE to finish, or to head up the A57 road to the Doctor’s Gate path if we were short of time to speed up the finish.

Progress on the slabs across Featherbed Moss to Mill Hill was fairly quick, although Zoe and I both put our feet between slabs a couple of times where the gaps were hidden by black peaty standing water. Zoe took a nasty tumble at one point and battered her knee. We reached Mill Hill easily enough and dibbed the control, then had a rapid ascent to the next checkpoint, a knoll with boulders at the 600m contour on the extreme NW corner of the Kinder Plateau. Zoe located the control quickly and we moved on having claimed our first 20 pointer of the night, a mere 4hr36 after starting. We were going to have to move quickly now, but the terrain was sapping – there was a generally obvious path, but it ran through peaty hags and there were frequent rocky steps too. Zoe was struggling a little, her confidence dented a bit by her earlier fall and the difficulty of the ground.

We were now aiming for control HK, a stream junction about 100m SE of the Edge, just before an obvious nose contour feature. I guessed 20 minutes of running from the boulders – it was about 2km. We found the stream, there seemed to be a nose. The stream seemed to flow over the Edge in the right direction. We headed upstream to find the control – first 100m then 200m with no joy. It couldn’t be this far in. We came across a little dam of stones across one of the tiny tributaries. We’d been warned to stay off the plateau as there are 600 new dams as part of a National Trust restoration project. They are re-wetting the plateau to help re-establish vegetation lost through years of over-grazing, but for runners in the dark, the bogs this has created could be extremely hazardous. So we went carefully back down the stream and checked another tributary. No control here either. I went back to the very lip of the Edge and realised that the direction of the gully I’d noted earlier had been an illusion. It headed north, not northwest. We were at the wrong stream. Again my distance estimation, this time based on travel time, had proved wrong. We were looking in Upper Red Brook and the control was in Nether Red Brook. There were other clues on the map too, if I’d taken more time to look at it and less time running around searching for the control. When we got to the right stream,, having wasted probably 25 minutes at the wrong one, the control was obvious and exactly as shown.

I checked the time, knowing we were down on where I’d wanted to be. We did have my final ace in the hole – a very rapid in route from the support point – 2.5km of road and 5.5km of easy path. 8km. Even tired and with hills we should be able to make that in just over an hour. I figured we’d need another ten minutes to divert to and find control FE (off the path on the way in) for an easy five points. So we needed to be at AI, the support point, with an hour and a half to go. We were short of time, but not desperate. Any chance of either looping to FY or doing PJ and PT had evaporated though – it was pretty much a race to the line.

We ran as hard as we could for another km along the Edge to control AQ (finally a high scoring 25 pointer!). Now we had 110 points, but we only had 2hr14 left. We hunted for the way off the cliffs of Fairbrook Naze for a couple of minutes, back and fore, before I saw the start of the trod. A little scrambling and we were running down steep ground on a muddy track. It was a bit faint, and it bent to the NE just as shown. We persevered as the path faded just as the map promised, then I set a bearing for 100m W (left) of the river junction we were aiming for. There was a flatter section of moor covered in deep heather and cut by several deep drainage channels we had to scramble in and out of, then the very aptly name “Rough Bank” down to the river.

Zoe came up trumps here, battered by another fall and very tired, but she just waded in and crossed with no real qualms. The control was on the footbridge 100m downstream just as expected. There were taped markers on the next leg up through the forest to the support point. We ran most of this. It would have been pretty under other circumstances but now we were on a mission. We reached the checkpoint and the welcome sight of several marshalls with 6hr26 on our clock. We could make it to the finish without having to push too hard! Somewhere deep in my subconscious though, I had a doubt. I check with the marshall that we could use the road, and was crestfallen to hear the reply – he pointed out the clearly marked uncrossable boundary. The forest itself wasn’t marked out of bounds, but no, if we used the road we’d cross a “barrier” and we’d be DQ’ed. I’d wondered why there was a control at JW, just a hundred metres (and 60m of climbing) north of the support point. Now I knew why – it was to ensure that folks heading north left the forest by the correct route. My heart fell as I tried to explain to Zoe that we’d have to climb to JW (only 5 extra points) and then contour along the edge of the forest and drop back down onto the road. No fast running!

And it was horrible. The climb wasn’t too bad, in fact we gained ground on a pair in front of us, but the traverse was dreadful. There was a faint trod, probably just what had been levelled by the forestry workers erecting the fence. But we were off balance, forced into the side slope by the barbed wire fence. The hillside was rough and tussock and no better further up. This was a dreadful 1.5km, and all the time we knew we needed to push. Eventually it was over. Zoe had another fall heading down to the road and I could tell she was pretty much done in. I didn’t feel much better. To cap it all it was around 4:45, the time when I feel lowest on my overnight runs. We got on the road. Zoe speeded up a bit, as I’d expected. Suddenly I was the one who couldn’t keep up. We dragged ourselves the kilometre up the road to the point we’d divert onto the Doctor’s Gate path which would take us the remaining 6.5km to the finish. We had about 50 minutes. We weren’t going to make it.

We passed control BA at the top of the path, not dibbing as we’d done that three hours earlier before the Kinder loop. Almost straightaway I knew we were really in trouble. I could run this path, but Zoe’s legs were shot. We played tag with another couple of pairs on the way down the steep, rough, boggy track. Eventually they headed off to visit control FE, but for us there was no time.

When we reached the valley bottom we had 3km to cover on better paths but only 16 minutes left. We could travel side by side here, so I let Zoe catch up and started to jog, then run. I didn’t need to tell her how far we had to go or how much time there was, we were going as fast as we possibly could. Through a couple of gates, over a stile. A smoother section of track, and then I could see the factory and the lights around the finish area. We passed two photographers. Then I could see the finish tent.

Finally we had made it in. I checked the watch. Were we on time? Maybe. Maybe a minute or so over, but there wouldn’t be a huge penalty at least. We’d put two 8:30 miles together on a rough farm track, carrying five to ten kilos of kit at the end of an eight hour run. It’d have to do.

The finish staff were brilliant: hot sugary tea pressed into my hand, a brief interview into an iPhone, offers of biscuits and sympathy. Ten minutes to gather myself and then a walk back to the event centre. Zoe seemed more composed and more ready to get back there.

At the event centre, we were greeted by both the course planner and the event organiser. We handed over our dibbers and got the download print out. We'd finished in 8:01:13 and lost 6 points for being just over a minute late! Despite this at the time of our download 119 points was good enough for 3rd of the 12 who finished. 

Equipped with tickets for a free cooked breakfast at Glossop Cafeteria (very nice), we dossed down in a squash court for 45 minutes. Breakfast was good. We stayed for the presentation where Adrian Moir and Ellie Salisbury took the mixed pairs prize (but we got a Marmot hat each), then said our goodbyes and headed off.

Results went up on SPORTident later in the day and we found to our delight we'd finished fifth of the twenty teams, and second mixed pair.

This was a great event and is highly recommended for experienced mountain marathoners. You need to know how to look after yourself in the hills and to have an almost bombproof ability to navigate and to relocate.

Next year I'll be back, and I'll find a better route option and have sussed out the distance estimation... Half an hour with the map in the warm and the dry today identified a 240 point route which was 1km shorter than our 125 pointer. If we'd got even close to that we'd have won.

A big thank you to Shane Ohly and all his team. I'm looking forward to the Marmot 24 already, and I'll hopefully be back for Dark Mountains 2015.

[Pics, map and results to follow…]

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