Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Dark Peak - Marmot Dark Mountains

Just a week after The Spine, I was back out in the darkness but this time competing in the Marmot Dark Mountains event.  It was good to be able get out and have some fun as a competitor, and the courses were going to be tough and technical in The Dark Peak.

Fortunately, underfoot conditions were a lot better than last year's event, when shin deep snow required some very committed effort to keep moving forward never mind finishing.  Once again my race partner was Sharon McDonald, who is very determined and talented, and eager to get involved in some gnarly navigation madness.

Sharon and myself before the start

An unsettled weather forecast and some new equipment choices created a certain amount of faff from me, with 'Captain Sharon' quietly and patiently waiting whilst I decide what to wear and carry, especially as the weather seemed a lot more settled and warmer than forecast. It was the first time that I would be using glasses in competition.  These Vapro Sport Reading Glasses with bi-focal inserts give me a fighting chance to see small map detail as well as some protection from the wind and cold. I've been using these glasses for a while, but I not in wet and dark conditions, and not in an event. 

The other big choice was footwear. Last year I had very battered toes, not just because of the cold conditions but from squeezing waterproof socks and woolly liners into a pair of overly-snug Inov-8 315s. This winter I have been testing out Sealskins socks in a 'a size too big pair' of Inov-8 295s, having found the toe box to be much roomier than the 315.  However, although the Sealskins do a reasonable job on a bike, they just get too waterlogged and heavy in a Lake District or Peak District bog so I reverted to an old pair of Berghaus stretchy Goretex oversocks with just a thin pair of Smartwool socks underneath. I topped these off with a pair of Inov-8 DebriGaiters and so my feet were perfect this year.  (damp and warm - but never dry!)

The third and final new choice of equipment was a head torch; my choice being a new Petzl Tikka RXP which has the reactive technology. I was lucky enough to borrow a Petzl Nao for a few months last Summer and used this Tikka during Safety Cover duties during The Spine. I'm now convinced of the Reactive Techno-benefits  ...  but more of this to come in the next blog post ...

To Finish First - First You Have to Finish

Overall, Sharon and myself had a great time and quite a laugh; just taking it steadily and navigating well which is our forte.  I'm not known for my speed, and both of us suffer with bad backs and ageing knees, me more so than Captain Shazza, of course.   It took a while to tune into the map detail and to get a feel for the ground, so I wasn't surprised when Bruce Duncan and Lucy Harris caught us up on the relatively easy run out up the valley and onto the moors.  'Team Brucy-Lucy' are both excellent navigators and much younger and faster than us but we enjoyed running a few hundred metres along the Peninne Way with them, before watching them bound off over the rough tussocks, with a 'See you at No.2...'  

And so we did! Even the very best navigtors get it wrong some time and the approach to No.2 was tough and probably the most technical of all controls on the course. I did think at the time that Brucy-Lucy had gone too far rightwards. Hence, we stay more central and then had the advantage of seeing their headtorches sweeping back leftwards so we arrived at the control together.  I have learnt to run my own lines over the years, but also to take note of those around you, especially good navigators like Bruce and Lucy.

After that they were quickly gone but for the next hour or so we became good at spotting the occasional, and very reassuring,  'Brucy-Big-Foot' and 'Lucy-Light-Foot' footprints on the run around Kinder Scout.   Incidently, Lucy's blog is a great read. It's very imformative and contains a lot more local information and route details than I can.    The eventual winners, Tom Gibbs and Steve Birkenshaw,  and I assume one or two other teams, took a direct line down and across one large re-entrant rather than the run around the Edges like Bruce and Lucy and ourselves..  At some point I think we were passed by Jim Mann and Stuart Walker, and then Dave Troman and Simon Patton (one of them more than once!) but visibility was very poor at times and it's difficult to tell who is who when you all have head torches on.  We met Russ Ladkin and Paul Dickens on the steep down and back up climb in Grinsbrook and expected them to catch us up later but they retired at The Snake Pass thinking they were going too slowly.  Other than that, we saw some pairs in different classes, but it was far from processional and great to be out on such a night, being generally mild and clear.

It was a long night, but an interesting one;  I was really inpressed with the Petzl Tikka RXP, all my gear and our steady perfromance.   The weather stayed very kind to us until dawn, then it quickly became cold and wet with increasing wind and rain turning to sleet.  We stopped once to put on an exta layer of clothing, including overtrousers and gloves. Eventually, with several centimetres of snow settling all around the short but very steep sided re-entrants started to sap any running strength remaining in my legs.

The last few legs were spent over Bleaklow in increasing amounts of snow, with the wind picking up considerably.  Just as we were pondering a long route choice, Jim and Stuart came passed us (I'm not sure where they had been) and then another couple pair appeared in the murk and we jogged and walked together for a while on the rough track that is the Pennine Way.  It felt a little strange being in such a group after a long night but it was good to have a bit of new company, and to check each other was OK.

Being much faster than us, Jim and Stuart pushed on ahead and then we dropped the other pair (who we latter met in the cafe and learnt they were on a different course)  The wind increased significantly to such a point that navigation was becoming a real chore. I was wearing waterproof over-mitts and didn't want to lose the map by fumbling in the wind, but needed to re-fold it to check the control descriptions. Conversation between us was difficult and we made progress by 'running' from one bit of shelter to another, and then regrouping and comparing thoughts.  Latterly, we found out that Jim and Stuart had mis-punched Control No.19 so our cautious nature was well worth it.  We had a very strong head wind for the last three controls, all sited on technical terrain in some dis-used quarries and pits.  We were reduced to moving very carefully, and only when the wind and terrain made it safe to do so, to avoid being blown over onto rocky ground, with walls, very steep slopes and small crags around us. 

But as per last year and our epic battle to finish,  we were the first to start in the Elite class and also the last to finish so overall we were out for quite a long time!  But, we retained our 100% finishers reputation, won the Mixed Veterans trophy and placed fifth overall.  Having reviewed our routes with the trackers of the leading pairs, we seem to have taken very good lines betwen all controls. 

All good fun, and good training for bigger things, of course!  I think the wind cost us an extra hour or two and I so wish I could run better on rough technical terrain....but age and experience does have it's adventages.

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