2009: “We didn’t get in” said the voice on the phone. I tried my best not to sound like I was smiling.
2010: “We didn’t get in again”. Oh well, never mind, ha ha, ho ho. Excellente!
2011: “WE – ARE – IN!” … Oh, b*gg*r.
After enduring seventeen hours of hell beyond even Dante’s imagination in 2008 as the Extra Jumpers, we were going back. And this time without Coach Brice to guide us. Mind you, this time I had ensnared an unwitting Houston into the team instead. Ha ha ha. Many years ago I had texted insults to him from the top of High Exposure, one of the best VS climbs in the USA but also one of the most exposed (what’s in a route name?), which he had sandbagged me onto by his talking it up before we went. Dragging him around the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon in 2010 had been payback Well, this one was going to be revenge for Shockley’s Ceiling! Jugs over the roof, eh? B*st*rd! I had been done twice in one trip from several thousand miles away by the sandbagger extraordinaire. So now there he was too, one of the The Unaccounted Four.
And there I was again too, in Edale Village Hall, on the first Friday evening in March, with Tim Tapper, Nick Marr and Rob. This is the biggest S&M party this side of Amsterdam, with two hundred masochists waiting to be whipped around the Derwent Watershed all night by young men and women from Sheffield’s High Peak Club. They know how to give a bunch of southern boys a good time up there. (Have you seen Deliverance?) Unlike mountain marathons, on which you don’t know where you’re going until they hand out the control points just before you set off (actually, you may not know where you are going even once you are away), the HPM route is the same each year: forty-three tortuous miles and six thousand painful feet of ascent around the complete watershed for the head of the Derwent, and which therefore takes in the ridge south of Edale, along Stanage to the road at Moscar, north past Dovestones Tor, west to Bleaklow, south to the Snake Pass then Kinder, and back along the ridge to Mam Tor, then back to Edale. Pick any one of Edale to Moscar, Moscar to Snake, Snake to Edale and you are talking about a pretty good day walk. Add the three together, start at 11pm at night, in winter, and you are looking at a right royal knees-up.
The fact that the route does not vary from year to year adds a certain stark brutality. It’s a simple concept, haul yourself around the same horrific line each time, try to beat others, try to beat your previous time, try to beat your own weakness. The only variables will be how bad the weather is and how bad conditions underfoot will be.
The ‘walking’ teams (who will run where they can) had set off between 10pm and ten past. The ‘running’ teams (who in the main will still walk a large amount, a lot of the route being simply unrunnable) started on a seeded basis every minute from 11pm through to before midnight. Clearly the organisers knew their stuff as the most rubbish team, starting at exactly 11pm, were a rabble called the Unaccounted Four.
Out of the door, into the night, down the road, onto the hill. A couple of teams took us, but we held our own up hill and down dale through to Stanage. The weather was cool and settled, for hours I wore only a couple of t-shirts, cycling shorts and thin over-trousers. It was also clear, and looking back groups of four bright lights could be seen surreally strung out behind us, piercing the night sky like something out of Doctor Who.
We were at Moscar in 2:45, well over half an hour within the Extra Jumpers 2008 time. We filled ourselves with energy from the vats of tea, crates of sandwiches and piles of flapjack, served by the students who gamely stay up all night. Though quite a few more teams came through us on the next section, by our tapping along on the tail of the peloton on what were still paths, we kept a very respectable pace all the way through to Outer Edge, which we reached at around 4am. Nick navigated superbly (for the whole night for that matter). The wheels came off slightly then, as first the bog monster got us as the path disappeared, and then Tim’s shoes fell apart. As running repairs with climber’s cord, duct tape, and good old British ingenuity were attempted (futilely so it turned out), ahead of us the next team’s lights faded away into the gloom, and we were cut adrift. The next few hours were challenging, as we worked to bearings, tramped through the clag and the sludge, and fought hard to stay on track through Bleaklow en route to the Pennine Way. It’s like an alien world up there. No, it IS an alien world. But we knew that once we were on the Pennine Way, the nav would largely take care of itself.
As night became day, we made a couple of ticklish errors, lost a bit of time and even worse ourselves, and finally ended up hitting a dribble of a path square-on. Was this the Pennine Way? And even if it was, were we north or south of the checkpoint? It was vital to get this right. Another team were in the same spot, asking the same questions. They could not agree, and I am not going to imply that was because they were an all-women team. We on the other hand agreed that we had dipped down the wrong side of the watershed, which meant we should head south, and we left them to their debate. As they receded into the mist, it sounded like they were going to haed in the other direction …
A couple of minutes later, Nick yelped a cry of delight – he knew where we were! We had chosen correctly, we were back on track, and it was time to tab to the Snake Pass. We hoped – for their sakes – that the girls were on our tail, and not heading north into oblivion …
It hurt a little to run but we felt strong and by the time we were through Snake we knew that the seventeen hour time of the Extra Jumpers team in 2008 was going to be smashed. Two and a half hours from here back to Edale? Finishing time thirteen and a half hours? It seemed feasible, and we texted through to base, hoping that the message would percolate through to all concerned.
After feeling so good, the next few miles rapidly turned into a struggle for me. Now we were on the flags, Houston, who was armed with poles, did his amazing kangaroo impression that I had first witnessed on the Saunders. Tim had more in him, and Nick was typically fresh as a daisy. Whereas I suddenly felt battered. We ran down a couple of teams, but anything we gained here I feel sure we lost later as it took what little I had left in my legs away. I crept up onto Kinder, regained a bit of spirit by preventing a huge navigational error at a tricky ninety degree turn, and soon we descended from the plateau.
As the morning wore on, strangely the temperature dropped, and our own did too. Rushup Edge seemed especially inaptly named, and I cooled and slowed. This stretch returns to being more bog-like for a while, and is heart- (and leg-) breaking. I needed to put my spare warm layer on, but lacked the oomph to stop to do this. It’s easy to see how things spiral out of control in the big mountains … Out of the blue, Rob fessed up to not being able to feel anything in his hands, and I realised that I was not alone. Quite unannounced Rob, Tim and myself had all been taken over by cold, wetness, exhaustion and hunger. Nick however looked like he had just popped out for a stroll. Amazing! A stop saw the rest of us put clothes on, I ate something (wondering why I had not eaten since Snake) and in a trice and my beautiful Buffalo tech shirt I felt a whole lot better.
We crossed the road at Mam Tor – Bricey was there to offer encouragement before heading down to organise the troops – and soon we were coming off the ridge. As we hit the road, we were met by a rousing cheer from around the corner – I think they knew we were nearly there because they could hear my knees rattling. And soon we were met by Tappers, and Pickins, and Bricey and Macmenamin, and dogs, and cats, and the Pied Piper of Hamlin (things were a little hazy by then) who ran into the finish with us. This was great, except I was nearly overtaken by a pair of three year-olds. But soon we had finished, were in the hall again, full of joy, happy as proverbial larries, and gorging ourselves on stew, tea and anything else that was put in front of us.
We took three hours off 2008, finishing in just over fourteen hours. Thirteen seems within reach.
The winners were in at breakfast time in less than nine hours.
The weary all-girl team arrived an hour after us.