Four Lakeland Passes (and some epic weather!)

I have wanted to take part in this event ever since it was revived by Ascend Events (having originally been organised for many years by Borrowdale Youth Hostel). It is a classic route of around 19 miles that takes in four of the Lake District’s most beautiful valleys (Borrowdale, Wasdale, Ennerdale and Buttermere) by linking the iconic passes between them at Sty Head, Black Sail, Scarth Gap and Honister. Although my legs were still not fully recovered from the Hardmoors 60 four weeks previously, I was really excited about this race and looking forward to a scenic day out.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with the Lake District, the weather hadn’t read the script! The morning dawned with rain, low cloud and strong winds and this was to be the theme throughout the day. I had a smooth drive over and should have arrived at the start in Rosthwaite at half past eight as planned, leaving an hour to get myself ready for the start. However, about a mile out of Rosthwaite I drove up behind the local farmer who had chosen this moment to herd his large flock of Herdwick sheep very slowly along the road and through the village. As a result I didn’t arrive at the village hall until about 9am, with just time to register and get myself organised before the race brief.

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Leaving Rosthwaite at the start

In no time at all we were off up the lane and heading across the fields, before the entire race ground to a halt in a queue to get through a narrow kissing gate; if I’d known it was there I could have just walked up the lane! It was not a day to be worrying about times and PBs though, so everyone patiently waited their turn, before picking up the pace again. The first few miles involved some pleasant running through fields along the valley, interspersed with occasional scrambling on tricky rocky sections to remind us of the challenge to come! I was feeling a bit hot with my waterproof on, but was cautious about the conditions and didn’t want to start the day wet so kept it on.

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Heading along the valley to Seathwaite (photo by Paul Wilson)

We soon reached Seathwaite and it was great to see plenty of supportive spectators and some friendly marshals at the start of the first big climb up to Sty Head. Everywhere was incredibly wet from the recent rain and the swollen waterfalls were an amazing sight. The conditions were tricky, with low cloud and strong winds and the rocky paths were extremely wet and slippery. I settled into a good rhythm on the climb, before picking my way quickly through the awkward boulder field near the top. There was a strong headwind as I reached the pass, so I quickly gave my number to the marshals who were hiding behind the mountain rescue stretcher box and began the descent down to Wasdale.

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Up in the clouds at Sty Head (photo by Addi Man)

This descent was probably the most difficult of the day, with quite a lot of scrambling required on very greasy rocks and some fairly wild weather on the exposed flank of Great Gable. It was strangely thrilling though, and I was having a brilliant time until I stepped on a treacherous rock made extremely slippery by a waterfall thundering across the path. My feet flew sideways and I came down hard on my knees. I picked myself up feeling very shaky and with a bruised and sore right knee. For a few minutes I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to continue, but as I started to hobble more slowly down the mountain, my knee began to ease and as the gradient lessened I was able to break into a run and move freely again. We were soon running into Wasdale, and although my knee felt a bit bruised, I knew it would be fine to keep going.

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Descending to Wasdale (photo by Addi Man)

The first main checkpoint of the race was in Wasdale and I took a couple of minutes to have some coke and flapjack, before heading on again. I knew the next two climbs well as they form part of the Lakeland 100 route and my head was full of memories from my 2016 experience as I headed up the climb to Black Sail Pass. The crossing of Gatherstone Beck was quite different today though, as the heavy rains had made it a significant river crossing that had to be negotiated with care and I was glad to be with a few other runners so we could keep an eye out for each other.

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Runners crossing Gatherstone Beck (photo by Andy Hale)

The climb seemed to go on forever as usual, particularly as there were no views to be seen in the swirling clouds, and it was a relief to reach the pass and get the legs moving into a run again for the descent. It was definitely useful to be familiar with the best line down here in the poor visibility and I led a small group of runners down, taking great care on the slippery rocks. This didn’t stop me taking another tumble on the wet grassy section towards the end of the descent, but thankfully this was just soft and boggy and resulted in nothing worse than a muddy bottom!

Black Sail Hut looked very warm and welcoming as we joined the head of the Ennerdale valley. It was very tempting to stop and join a couple of other runners having a cup of tea inside, but other than a brief pause to enjoy the luxury of the inside toilet, I carried straight on and up towards Scarth Gap. This climb seemed to go very quickly in comparison to the monster that is Black Sail Pass and I was soon at the top. The weather at Scarth Gap Pass was probably the worst of the day, with the wind whipping through the gap; the safety marshal at the pass looked a bit cold, but commented on how happy all the runners looked despite the conditions!

I picked my way carefully down the tricky boulder field at the top of the descent, being careful to get the line right so I hit the gap in the wall. From here the path down into Buttermere becomes clearer and more runnable and I made good progress, encouraged by the fact that as I came down out of the clouds I could see Gatesgarth Farm which was the location of the next checkpoint.

At Gatesgarth Farm I got the route description out of my bag as I wasn’t familiar with the next section of the course. Leaving the checkpoint we followed a lovely runnable bridleway that led round the back of Fleetwith Pike, but all the while we could see the ominous sight of the head of the valley and the climb that would be required to make our way out.

My legs started to feel a bit tired on the way up, but I was still climbing strongly. Unfortunately I had convinced myself (for no rational reason) that this would be quite a short climb and so I started to feel frustrated as we went up and up with no end in sight! Finally I reached the old miners’ bothy which the route instructions informed me was near the top of the pass and joined the old tramway route which leads to Honister Slate Mine. We were still going up though and it seemed the top of the pass would never arrive! Thankfully of course the ground eventually levelled out, before heading down again and after a relatively short descent we reached the Slate Mine for a final safety check.

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Returning to Rosthwaite

From here it was an enjoyable descent following the Coast to Coast route down towards Rosthwaite, before rejoining our outbound route for the final mile or so. The ground was much more runnable and I enjoyed picking up the pace a bit. There was one more scramble to be negotiated back across rocks above the river, before some easy running through the fields into Rosthwaite. I reached the finish in just under six hours to a great welcome from the organisers and some much appreciated hot stew.

Both the route and the organisation completely lived up to expectations and the sense of camaraderie among the runners in difficult conditions created a great atmosphere. I have been fortunate to have participated in some classic and beautiful UK races in the last few years, but if you were to ask me to list my favourites, then Four Lakeland Passes would certainly be very high on the list.P1050468

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One thought on “Four Lakeland Passes (and some epic weather!)

  1. Lovely write up. I’d forgotten your little tumble on that descent. And a photo of both of us racing for the finish! What a brilliant day. I did it in 2011 in March sunshine so a very different day out 😃👍

    Liked by 1 person

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