Steve Nash had won the X-Scotia hike and fly race a few weeks before the 2008 X-Lakes and was to go on to compete in many endurance races, including the X-Alps in 2011 and 2015 (when he was the oldest in the field, at 52).
Tragically murdered on a hike and fly trip in Mongolia in 2016 he is still greatly missed but fondly remembered by all who knew him.
This is his account of the 2008 X-Lakes.
The alarm on my phone woke me at 05:00 on the Saturday morning. As I ate my breakfast of Weetabix and bananas in my tent, even our two dogs considered it was too early to stir just yet. The race start was scheduled for 06:00, so I had more than enough time to check that all the gear that I would need for the day was in my Salomon rucksack.
At about 05:45, I emerged from the tent to see a number of my competitors milling around waiting to be weighed in. The paraglider bags generally weighed much less than those carried during the similar X‐Scotia event some two months before. I hopped up on the scales to reveal a 9.2kg load, at this point it included a reserve.
As the wind rocked the huge trees in Keswick’s Fitz Park, it was almost enough to convince me that the chance of flying any of this course was slim to none. However, the clouds that were skipping over the nearby peak called Catbells were not moving too fast. So this was my first decision of the race, take the reserve or ditch it now; the organiser, Gordie Oliver had stated that the lightweight rule was in place due to the less than promising weather forecast, this meant we could drop the reserve and airbag if we wanted. Five minutes to go the reserve was out of the bag, but with just two minutes to go it was back in.
The race started just after 06:00, with us all departing from the start line in three different directions; some headed back towards Skiddaw (931m), some headed off in the direction is Scafell (977m) and a few went straight for Helvellyn (950m). I had already decided to head for Scafell via the west side of the Derwent Water lake, along the foot of Catbells. This route gave me the option to fly, but as I ran through Portinscale the swaying trees were suggesting that this was unlikely. A little further down the track as I started to climb towards the higher ground of Catbells, I noticed a buzzard that was happily soaring along the steep face. I quickly looked at the map and found a path that went diagonally up this face, thinking it was worth a go! The sky at this point was partially overcast with some clouds touching the top of the mountains; it looked like the forecast rain would materialise pretty soon, so if I was going to fly it was now or never. I struggled to find a place on the hill that was not covered in ferns, but eventually I laid the tiny IBEX out on a rocky clearing that was just wide enough. The lake in front of me had white trails that indicated the wind was crack east, but on the hill it also had some south in it. I clicked the buckle on my helmet, switched on the mini vario and lifted the wing above my head. At first, I was able to soar the hill just like the buzzard was, so I gained some height then headed to the south end of the lake. I realised that the wind above the tops was moving much quicker than the air I was in just below them, so I pushed into the centre of the valley so as not to gain too much height. Then as I tried to push further south through the gap at Borrowdale, I really noticed the windspeed increasing as it sped through this natural venturi. This gap that hemmed in the bottom of the lake was completely covered in trees, and where there weren’t trees there was a road and a river!
The closer I got to the gap the nastier the air became, as it rolled sideways off the Castle crags. I moved further into the valley, but this made no difference. Then I looked above my left shoulder to see a buzzard (not sure if it was the same one) with his wings swept back and still not making much progress, second decision made; time to land. Landing as close as I did to the gap was risky, but eventually I landed without drama and quickly packed the IBEX and was back on the footpath. Another 5km of running brought me to my first liaison point with my wife Shirl. With the smoothness of a relay runner, I grabbed the two drinks bottles in exchange for a Skylight reserve (as the weather made it impossible to fly on the next leg). I’d already taken the decision to use the Esk Hause route up Scafell, as I had expected it to clag in and this way was easier to route find. As it happened though route finding was not a problem to the top of Scafell, as it was clear of cloud, my problem was seeing Roger Fowkes coming down from the summit as I was still ascending the last part of the climb. “Eh up Roger, I shouted!” and he replied “see you on Helvellyn”……. I mentally marked the position that we had crossed and by the time that I had got to the trig point on the summit, snapped a couple of photos then got back to the same place I was down 15 minutes. I then spent the run downhill wondering if it was the delay in unpacking / repacking for my 2.5km flight or was Roger that much quicker over the ground. I assumed that his lead had come from him taking the Corridor Route up to the summit and then tried to make ground wherever I could. All the time that I crossed this leg, I was thinking that even the slightest mistake in navigation could cost me dear.
Having run down from the summit of Scafell via High Raise, through to Wythburn in the pouring rain, I was lifted to see Gordie running the other way with his infectious smile. Shirl said I looked rather pale and tired when she met me in the Church car park to fuel me up. Immediately I asked “when did Roger go through?” she estimated 10 minutes. Having taken on board a mouthful of Jelly Babies, I set off up the steep but easy to navigate path to the Helvellyn summit. Before I broke out of the trees, Chris Little raced past the other way, saying how much he was enjoying the weather. About 20 minutes later I glanced up and saw Roger above me in his red‐sleeved T‐shirt and cut‐off pants. At the first opportunity, I clocked him going past a large stone cairn; it was 12:34. I was now reinvigorated and hauled myself up to the same cairn as my watch showed 12:42, eight minutes behind and I knew I was catching him.
Shortly after this we both disappeared into the cloud, which was getting thick at about 600 metres. The path on Helvellyn leads directly to the summit, where again a quick photo was followed by as quick a descent as I could muster over the wet and slippy rocks that make up the manufactured paths. Just as I came out of cloud, I made out Roger’s bright red T‐shirt as he crossed a small bridge lower down. Again, I clocked him to the same point and was really boosted to see that it had lowered my deficit further to 6 minutes. In an attempt to claw back any time, I was running the grassy bits as the path twisted down the mountain side, but it wasn’t too long before my pace led me to trip and land face first sliding on the palms of both hands; like a sliding press‐up I thought at the time! Once I reached the bottom it was a short run along a path and onto the main road, where it was now unpleasant to run in the face of cars that were producing plumes of spray. One of the cars that came past was Pete Logan’s supporter Noel, he pipped and waved enthusiastically at me. My route to Skiddaw took me off the main road, using small lanes and footpaths that crossed fields. My decision to take this route was to get onto the easier shoulder that leads to Skiddaw via Latrigg and Jenkin, rather than the harder direct path up from Keswick.
I had no idea which way Roger had opted for, so I just kept my head down and kept running. As I passed Legburthwaite, I noticed a long line of green Portaloos in a field with lots of empty cars parked in front of them, it turned out to be the Saunders Mountain Marathon. This explained why there were so many other Gore-tex clad runners clasping maps and looking for checkpoints on Helvellyn. My route was along footpaths that hadn’t seen much use recently, as one gate to a farm track was so overgrown with wall‐high nettles that I had to do a sideways treading shuffle to beat them into submission to be allowed through.
Another couple of kms along small tracks led me to my final meeting point with Shirl, the problem was that I had beaten my estimated time by 75 minutes, so I wondered if she would be there or not. I needn’t have doubted, as her grey Polo was waiting on the corner as planned. We exchanged bottles for the last time and I offloaded my Gore-tex pants with her. I dived over the embankment down to the main road, crossed a small bridge, and then started my final ascent. It takes a while to readjust from moving along or down to a reasonable pace uphill, I find that if you start off too quick you can suffer half way up. The image of Roger in my mind kept a good stride in my step as I constantly wondered where he was.
As I cleared Latrigg, I could see the long path up the side of Jenkin, but there were so many walkers out that even spotting Roger’s distinctive T‐shirt was not possible. Taking the old path at this point, again to save seconds, I had to play mental games to keep up the pace. I told myself that I could have 3 sips of carb drink at 400 metres, then a carb gel at 500 metres, another 3 sips at 600 metres and so on. By the time that I had cleared 800 metres, I was able to run again, as the terrain flattened right off. Skiddaw summit I had got my GPS out of my bag at about 1500 metres away from the summit, this was more to record that I had been there, than for navigation. However, it was good to see the ‘distance to next waypoint’ decreasing all the time.
Having slowed my pace, I glanced down at the GPS screen, 650 metres to go, and then I was shocked to see Roger running towards me out of the mist shouting “Geezer”, having already bagged the summit. It felt like I had hit the ‘turbo’ button, sprinting to the trig point like a scalded cat! Out with the camera, holding it in at arms-length with the summit behind me, I pressed the button. Nothing happened! I tried again before realising that it had somehow switched to a ’10 second delay’. Damm! After fiddling with the camera settings and hastily taking a couple of photos, I chased after Roger. I was descending as quickly as I could, with him now clearly in my sights. He reached a small saddle, where I had planned to take a left onto a steep scree path, instead Roger continued uphill on the other side.
By the time that he had gone out of sight above me, I was already racing down the scree. All the way down I was struggling to concentrate on the constantly moving rocks beneath my feet, as I wondered if he would maybe fly down. The wind had dropped a little, but it was still easterly, which was the same direction that we needed to go in to get back to the finish at Fitz Park. I carried on running as fast as I could, until I reached a grassy track, which became a footpath, which became a small road. This then led to a T‐junction where I saw Roger flash past from right to left. I was now less than a minute behind and knew I could catch him, but who would have enough energy left in the tanks? Having now locked onto Roger like a slow‐moving missile, I reeled him in. As much as I was gaining psychologically from this, Roger seemed to fade with repeated over the shoulder glances to see where I was. Eventually, with less than 2 km to go he slowed to a walking pace and I quickly caught up. Roger dejectedly exclaimed “you’ve got me, man, I’ve got nothing left!” Then he asked if I had any water. I handed him my drinks bottle with the last of my carb drink in it.
Then I said “come on, there are still others out on the course” and with that I continued to run. I replied to a last shout from Roger about how to get into the park, and then I was on the home straight. I had enough left to run all the way to the tents at the finish line, where the small gathering of organisers and supporters were applauding. I told them to expect Roger in pretty soon. In fact, he ran in less than 2 minutes behind me to make it over the finish line in 11 hours exact. We then enjoyed sitting still and I was happy to just consume 5 cups of tea before third place man Nick Ogden arrived having completed Skiddaw in a rather frightening thunderstorm. The competing organiser Gordie came in 4th, followed 30 minutes later by Chris Little who made 5th. The rest of the field either continued into the night or returned to Keswick to retire. David Lowe set off up Skiddaw at 07:00 to complete the course. Gordon Allison was the final finisher, walking over the line at 14:30 on Sunday afternoon; he showed a steely determination to complete the course and deservedly received a huge round of applause.
All in all a top effort from all those that took part. Thanks to Gordie and his team for putting the event together and here’s hoping that the weather allows a little bit more flying at next year’s event.
62.5 km run/walk
2.5 km fly !!
3610 m ascent
pack weight at start – 9.2 kgs
time ‐ 10hrs 58mins