Planning and Preparation
Article by John Westall
To say this has been an interesting year to fly would be an understatement of some magnitude. I’m sure other pilots would agree. So, to try and focus on a hike and fly (H&F) challenge was going to be extremely tough, but this is exactly what myself and Bud (Keith Patterson) decided to do.
My journey started a year ago when I took part in my first H&F challenge – the 2019 X Lakes. The rules were simple; collect as many Wainwright summits as possible over two days. These are then added together and scored.
The format to do this is pretty flexible. You can fell run with limited weight or hike with a lightweight wing. This would allow you to repeatedly fly down saving energy and of course your legs. To fly with a normal wing and harness and keep the weight down as much as possible would require a good weather window and guaranteed flying. All these modes required a support team to function most effectively, which I didn’t have.
I chose to H&F with full volbiv kit weighing in at 22kg and walking, flying and camping unsupported. What could be more rewarding! To be honest I had an extremely enjoyable experience, finishing within the time parameters and collecting many Wainwrights.
You cannot of course be competitive with 22kg on your back. The 2019 winner was Rod Welford who carried 8.5kg and subsequently scored twice the number of Wainwrights.
Armed with the knowledge and experience from 2019, I aimed to take part again in 2020 with the intention of being competitive. I realised my first job was to recruit a support team; this, as with most endeavours is crucial and not always appreciated.
The support members would require flying and mountaineering experience, a thorough understanding of the local mountains and weather systems and much more. Ed Cleasby, Paul Redman and Steve Kirby all had an abundance of these requirements and were soon drafted into the challenge.
While discussing plans for the event with a good friend of mine, he very casually asked if he could join the team, probably not realising the significance of the task ahead. I agreed immediately and Bud joined the crew. Bud, AKA Keith Paterson, completed the team.
Preparations were going well and we quickly got into a good routine of training through the cold winter months. When the weather improved, we started on foot exploring potential routes and corridors around the Wainwrights and the most efficient ways to tag them.
We set about learning the path systems in the lower valleys, on the higher ridges and any potential shortcuts, which could save us time. We talked in detail about the different wind directions and the best way to fly them in certain areas of the Lakes. Finally, we spent some hours flying in different valleys, though nowhere near as much as we wanted to. However, we had the same old flying challenges, plus a virus and lockdown to manage.
We decided there were three different scenarios to plan for.
- Hiking only (total weather washout conditions, with a pack weight of 4-5kg)
- H&F (semi flyable with a pack weight of 8-9kg)
- Flying with competitive wing and harness. (pack weight of 16-18kg)
Many thanks to Mike Cav and Steve Thwaites for the loan of their lightweight wings for the duration of the competition. We also invested in some new equipment; namely Ozone ultra-light harnesses, lightweight mountaineering rucksacks and good mountain footwear.
I could talk in much more detail on the planning and preparation side, but perhaps another time. This however gives you a rough schematic of the process.
The Evening Before
It’s Friday evening and we all meet at the Flight Park to confirm attendance and receive our initial briefings. We pass pleasantries with fellow competitors and catch up with old friends.
Conditions look promising for a two-day flying window, which suits our race. After Jockey’s and Richard Bungay’s briefings, we move aside and start to look at the maps placed on the car bonnet. Ed gives his thoughts on how the weather windows will unfold for the weekend and possible areas to head to. Pretty soon we have a plan and decide on a route.
We set ourselves an impossible task for day one, however if either one of us achieves it, it’ll set him up for day two and put him in a formidable position to win the individual event, and of course help with the team event.
The support team of Paul and Steve, who will be following us around the mountains in the admin vehicle, are equipped with radios and tracking details, ready to help us at any given time. They also have our overnight equipment and high carb food prepared by Sarah, packed carefully in their rucksacks in the event we were stuck on the mountaintops at the end of play.
We all break off and do our final kit checks before heading to bed with thoughts of flying that perfect race.
Race Day 1
There’s a quiet nervousness in the air and my stomach is turning with excitement. The atmosphere is electric and everyone is eager to get going.
GPS trackers are issued. I notice there are many different pack sizes, from very small (perhaps 6-8 kgs) to full volbiv size, which makes me smile. Everyone’s focused on their own plans. Bud and I were at about 16-18kgs including food and water. I was concerned about the very hot conditions forecasted and our water resupply so I carried my filter system in addition.
We all lined up and Jocky with his trademark smile sets us off at 08:15. We make our way out of the FP waved on by spectators. I see Jackie Knights and punch my walking sticks in the air relieved to be on my way. From here we all go our own ways. It must be fascinating to watch on the tracking system as we snake out from the Flight Park (FP), through the valleys, and on to the ridges of our Lake District mountains.
Bud and I head off together, quietly confident that our plan is good. We have a very fast start, soon tagging seven turn points on the way up to Grasmoor. We assess the wind conditions on top and the lay out the wings ready for the first flight at 10:37. We plan to cross the Buttermere Valley over Crummock Water and onto Mellbreak and see if we can hop onto Hen Comb.
Bud leads and then I launch. Wow! This is why we do this, I think to myself, a breathtaking glide across the valley. My eyes were treated to spectacular views in every direction. Adrenaline is pumping through my body.
The glide is much better than anticipated and Bud makes the call to land on Mellbreak 100 feet off the summit and I follow. We ball up the wings and walk a little higher before re-launching at 11:12.
We discover that the southeast side of the ridge is working pretty well and soon hook up to some tight punchy thermals in which we spend some time yo-yoing up and down until we hook in. Unfortunately, only one of us gets it. Bud finds himself on the deck as I float back towards Hen Comb. There’s disappointment in Buds voice so I remind him “It’s a marathon not a sprint. Stay focused, mate”. He packs his wing away ready for a hard slog up.
Meanwhile I tag Hen Comb and Great Borne then top land. I’m in great shape. It’s 11:52. I re-launch full of confidence and head towards the main Buttermere valley where I scratch over trees and crags, boulders and bracken, streams and Lakeland walls, hunting out that illusive thermal to take me to cloud base. This is no place for the faint hearted. My concentration levels are dialled up as my eyes scan every little detail.
Bud is now in full recovery mode and walking up and he reminds me to send a landing text over our tracking system, as I forgot to do so on my last flight. I apologize and quickly re-focus.
To my despair I slowly creep closer and closer to the valley bottom with no sign of a thermal. I land next to Crummock Water and quickly pack up. By now, Bud was getting ready to re-launch off a low ridge. I caution him to hold out and walk up to the higher ridges, which he does reluctantly.
Speaking to my support team on route options, I head up, only stopping briefly to refill my water reservoir at a waterfall. Although as tough going as it was, I appreciated the outstandingly beautiful views, enhanced with amazing Lakeland aromas, trees, bracken, heather and wild flowers. I dunk my head in a cold stream to help cool off and continue. I see Bud set out ready to re-launch.
Laying out quickly, we launch at 13:51 and along the ridge we tag Red Pike, High Stile, High Crag and Hay Stacks. The sun is blisteringly hot. There’s a hive of activity on the roads and tracks below; holidaymakers I guess, all bustling for a part of Buttermere. The support team, who are struggling to make progress through the tourists, confirm this.
It’s great to be flying together again in one of my favourite places in the Lakes, however this wasn’t to last as Bud rolls back on a weak thermal off Hay Stacks. I decide to wait for a better opportunity, having been lower and closer to the ground.
Scratching around for what seemed like an eternity, while watching your partner climb out is soul destroying. Bud disappeared around Great Gable and I didn’t see him again until nightfall.
I make my way over to the Ennerdale valley and it seems like Bud has just slipped through a closing door, as the sea breeze appears to be blowing up the valley. Spending some time here, I eventually have an opportunity to escape and find a rocket thermal with the energy of a small nuclear explosion. I commit with brutal aggression to match, to hook in and hold on!
Perfect I think, but notice it’s rapidly heading leeward to the side of Great Gable. In this situation you have a fraction of a second to make a decision while holding onto an upward spiralling rollercoaster. I believe I made the wrong call here, influenced by a safety-first mentality. Perhaps with more experience I would have stuck with it. Instead, I agonisingly bail out.
Landing at the foot of Great Gable (Ennerdale side) in a small boulder field, having just suffered some nasty collapses in rough air, I spend the next 30 minutes carefully unpicking my lines out from under razor sharp rocks. This only adds to my disappointment and frustration.
Eventually I make my way through windy gap at 16:30. There’s no chance of a cheeky glide down as the air was mixing from every direction. I walk towards Great End, meeting lots of walkers, some of whom were navigationally embarrassed. I quickly help and move on.
Continuing to collect Wainwrights on foot, I had an opportunity to rest my shoulders. I drop my pack and grab my GPS systems and jog to tag the waypoint just off track, a couple of hundred metres away. I realised some days later these waypoints hadn’t been scored? Another schoolboy error – I hadn’t taken the competition tracker!! In my defence, I had travelled some distance in the blistering heat and was fatigued.
Realising there was a small opportunity to catch a flight off a northeast bowl on Bow Fell, I scour the rocky terrain for a clear area. However, launching options here are at a premium. Eventually I find a small narrow place no larger than a hallway with a sheer cliff face at one end. I lay out carefully at 18:15. Waiting for the perfect time to launch, I snap it up knowing the margin for error was tight, look up and push hard from the hips. I’m committed. My heart’s in my mouth for a moment, then experience a reassuring drop and rush of air as the wing begins to do its magic.
My flight was short lived and disappointingly I slope land knowing I would be on foot from now on. The wind seemed to be strong and coming straight up the valley; again, I seemed to have missed a closing door. To add insult to the injury, the slope was like a quagmire and this made packing up problematic!
Tagging Cringle Crags, Cold Pike and Pike O’Blisco, I make my way onto Wrynose Pass and find a bivy area for the night whilst waiting for the support team to arrive. I send my ALL OK message to exercise control at 21:00 and think about all the dramas of the day and the ups and downs. I feel pretty good considering the amount of walking completed which gives me real hope for tomorrow.
It’s great to see the team again and we swap stories while setting up camp and eating. I was amazed to hear how well Bud did as he recounted his journey. He achieved the impossible. What a pilot. He’s now in a perfect place to attack tomorrow. On reflection, I had done well too, but needed to perform well tomorrow to give us a good shot in the team category.
Race Day 2
Reveille is at 05:30 and for the next hour there’s plenty of activity; breaking camp, breakfast, checking kit, checking battery levels, looking at the weather forecast and discussing routes. Bud departed to his last position at the end of play last night, I wait anxiously and primed ready to go.
At 07:00, feeling surprisingly strong, I burst into a jog and head towards my first objective – Lingmoor Fell. It’s an iconic Lakeland morning and the air is cold and sharp. I jog down a rough rocky path with bracken brushing my legs; small streams run over it and I jump to avoid them. A stile breaks my rhythm. It slams shut behind me, the path widens and a small tarn appears with sneaky wild campers waking. I say hello but don’t stop. They look at me with their confused tired eyes as they try and process what they are seeing. There’s a low mist sitting patiently on the tarn, waiting for the sun to rise.
Climbing my first Wainwright, I assess the launch area on top of Lingmoor. It’s not good. There’s bracken, rocks and heather all around. Laying out on a swampy area free of snags, I prepare myself for an alpine launch. It’s a small runway and a sharp drop. The launch was interestingly funny as I try and generate enough speed through the bog without losing my boots. Yet another jaw dropping sight as I float over the Great Langdale valley at 07:55. I have a surprisingly good glide watched by my support team and land in a small boggy patch free of bracken.
I tag my second waypoint, Silver How and make my way into Grasmere where the support team are waiting. I speak to Bud on top of Fairfield and he tells me it’s not flyable as the wind is far too strong. I’m so disappointed as now I need to reassess my route. I realise I could be on foot from now on. My original plan was to head up Heron Pike and onto Fairfield. I still felt pretty strong. Alternatively, I would be cutting it very fine if I couldn’t get a flight in. I spend the next 20 minutes discussing it with Paul and Steve. They realise that I was biting off more than I could chew and advise me to reconsider, suggesting a quicker and shorter route up to the Helvellyn ridge.
I accept their advice and head off to tag Seat Sandal and then Dollywaggon. I see Bud has launched so start to assess the wind. It’s very strong – gusting 30mph plus. I pause just short of the Helvellyn ridge to get a true feel for the conditions. It feels like 20mph and then… 30-40mph gusts blows through. I’m thinking Bud has slipped through another closing door because this is crazy just now.
Then like a surreal dream, I see Dave Ashcroft float by. I’m confused and think about laying my wing out. He moves slowly across the ridge and over to Striding Edge, oscillating severely back and forth, left to right. It’s paragliding right on the extreme. He gets a massive symmetrical collapse. Then his wing folds up like a crisp packet and dives. Dave responded quickly, my heart is in my mouth and on-lookers gasp as he returns to normal flight. He continues down the ridge low and suffers another collapse, this time an asymmetrical and he spins round 180 degrees. He controls it with razor sharp reactions and re-establishes normal flight. He’s very close to the ridge now but continues nonchalantly. My decision is made; I’ll be walking from here on in.
Helvellyn is very busy and a couple of young girls enquire where Swirral Edge is, having strayed off track slightly. I quickly help and move on. It’s pretty easy from here on in; walking, jogging, sipping water, nibbling on food, checking my position on the map and tagging Wainwrights.
At the foot of Clough Head, I check the time. It’s not good as my GPS is telling me I’ll be over 37 minutes late. (This means losing 37 points from my score). I decide to run and reduce the deficit. The support team meet me at the Keswick Stone Circle and resupply me with food and water. They are confused as to why I’m in such a rush. They reassure me I have enough time and to calm down. I guess my brain is struggling to process information just now. Thanks guys!
Paul walks the final few miles with me, which is nice; you get tired of talking to yourself during the day. I meet Sarah and Molly outside the FP and they cheer me on. It’s a lovely atmosphere with people clapping, cheering and taking pictures to mark my arrival at 15:42.
Bud is already here and comes over to congratulate me, it seems fitting to run in together, we both have wide grins and exchange stories. After signing in I sit down at the table and Ed congratulates us both. Jocky grabs us a beer and we all talk for a while. Looking around you try and process the bustling energy coming from everyone and the personal stories exchanged in detail about the highs and lows.
To end the drama and making it in on time, Dave Ashcroft spirals down and lands in spectacular fashion with everyone cheering and clapping. What an experience, what a journey, what a race.
I’m now reflecting on our journey and the sacrifices we have made; the hours spent running and nursing blisters, many miles on foot walking with our packs cutting into the shoulders, the tired and sore bodies after a couple of days volbiving with a bruising 22kg of weight. I hear you ask “was it worth it?”. Of course; it’s an experience I will cherish.
I would like to thank all the competitors and support teams because without them it’s not a race. I would like to thank all the staff involved in organising the event for their hard work and making the event possible.
Finally, I would like to dedicate this article to a fellow brother who can’t be here with us today – Patty. He’s waiting for us at the final RV with a beer and no doubt wanting to tell his brother Bud how he would have done better!