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Racing up Middleton Fell

Racing up Middleton Fell

Ok, ok… so the title is a tad misleading. I can confirm I did not race, nor do I have any intention of racing, up the near-vertical slope that eventually leads to the cairn at 538m marking Castle Knott, on Middleton Fell.

Middleton Fell is a stone’s throw from where Jen and I reside. A casual Sunday afternoon drive along and down the A683 takes us to the ordinarily sleepy village of Barbon in the Yorkshire Dales…

No, no, you haven’t misread that… we do live in Cumbria, yet we can throw a stone almost as far as Lancashire and Yorkshire without leaving home. Small world that it is!

Barbondale, about two kilometres East of Barbon, turned into a fell runners’ Mecca for the afternoon a couple of weeks ago, when lots of Kendal Winter League runners gathered at the bottom of Middleton Fell. This particular hill is noticeable on the OS map due to the many contours squeezed together that represent its southern flank… so why would anyone want to run up it? Well, as a non-runner myself I would hate to insult these hardy folk for whom I have much respect. I’m aware that some may think me insane for hiking up mountains in the most appalling conditions, but quite frankly these beings are completely cuckoo even compared to me…

Initially, it had not been my intention to hike up the fell myself. I was simply there in a supportive capacity for Jen, who shares my mad enjoyment of hiking in difficult conditions but ups the “insanity” stakes by taking part in foolhardy endeavours like today’s. I had come here in Wellington boots, anticipating mucky conditions underfoot, but somehow I got caught up in the addictive atmosphere of the whole event. I watched junior runners ascending that glorious fellside under sunshine and blue sky (hmm, those clouds are moving rather fast though) and before I knew it, I was giving Jen a “good luck!” kiss and striding away with my sights set on the cairn before Castle Knott, at around 480 metres.

So I began the ascent, phone-camera in hand, slipping and sliding, hoping to soak up some more of that magical atmosphere of people pushing their boundaries while battling the elements… but wait… those elements were playing a trick on me! The blue sky was gone, replaced by low cloud, biting wind and horizontal hail, which was suddenly machine-gunning my face, showing no mercy. I looked down at the antlike spectators below and saw a couple of hundred individuals (junior and senior runners) looking up at me as though I was a target… and perhaps I was. Something to aim at and keep in sight while they climbed… yes, the second batch of juniors was about to head straight up this 1:2 gradient towards me fearlessly and at pace. I tell you, they are crackers!
Meanwhile, I was still clawing my way up in wellies, and I don’t mind admitting that this was a tricky ‘off-piste’ hike to do in such footwear. I must have involuntarily sat down several times on the way up. At one point I passed two individuals sitting on the fell side with cameras, and one commented: “That’s steeper than you think, mate – good luck!” A challenge, possibly intended to stop me in my tracks or at least rein in my ambitious ideas on how far I would go… but no! To the bloody top, thank you mate!

In the freezing wind and stinging snow I climbed, slipped, climbed and slipped, cursed my wellies and continued. There were just a few boulders on the way up, and then I wondered whether I had drifted into some weird kind of dream-like state, as I started to see children cowering behind rocks to try and stay out of the harsh weather. Then I got a proper look at the first of them, and realised that the next junior race was already well under way. Oh yes, even nowadays there exists a breed of British humans that, in their teen years, would rather be competing in this kind of insane body-punishing event on a bitterly cold Sunday than sitting in front of an X-Box or Facebook. Mad they may be, but I am absolutely brimming with respect for them!

Having endured the steep ascent they were now flying down the fellside with little heed for personal safety. I tried desperately to keep out of their way whilst progressing towards my own goal of the cairn. There I planned to sit and smoke a cool (and somewhat wet) pipe, and wait for Jen and her gutsy Dallam running club cohorts to turn up… well, that was the plan.

One can only sit in such conditions for so long, only smoke so many pipes before becoming a tad bored, agitated and VERY cold! A race steward joined me at the cairn and a radio message (some 10-15 mins after my arrival) signalled that due to a late race start, the leading senior runner was only halfway up the fell at the bottom of a small patch of scree. Knowing exactly where they meant, I decided to walk back down towards the seniors and catch them struggling (chortle) on the way up. The ascent was no easier than the descent for me, possibly even more treacherous. For a moment I wished I had on my own fell shoes, but this moment passed in an instant when I had an ingenious (self-proclaimed of course!) idea…

First, I caught the runners coming up the hill, took dozens of snaps and captured hordes of them on camera. The pain on some of their faces could have been bottled and sold to the Tower of London torture chamber shop – ermmm… that’s not the idea!

I waited, at a very precarious angle on the steep fell, and saw Jen scrambling up the hill. I seized a snapshot – mission accomplished for this intrepid photographer.

Now, Jen is a fine runner and I knew she could probably get to the cairn, then the next cairn, and back more quickly than I could descend this hill in wellies, so, wishing to grab another picture of her and her fellow Dallam runners at the finish, I improvised! I reckoned that by sitting on my backside and using my right wellie as a rudder, my butt as a hull and my left wellie as a less-than-efficient brake, I would slide a couple of yards down the hill at a time…

Of course I was wrong! This ingenious idea was even more efficient than I had imagined… the brakes less so. I have no idea what went through the mind of the steward I passed at breakneck speed. To quote that eminent philosopher, Pixar’s Buzz Lightyear: I wasn’t flying… I was “falling, with style”! But, I’m pleased to report that no injuries occurred and I got the money shot –

Jen dancing the Charleston as she approached the finish line on Middleton Fell…

That’s my gal! 😉

This post was edited by the lovely Jennifer Lyon whose travel blog can be found by clicking here.

Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…