The mini ‘mountains’ of England’s Lake District inspired Gordy Oliver of Air Ventures paragliding school to create the inaugural X- Lakes competition in 2008. This was a race to the summit of a couple of the highest Lake District peaks, Skiddaw and Scafell, using the paraglider as a rapid descent tool. It was won by the late Steve Nash, who was rapidly reaching his own peak as a top-class endurance mountain athlete, and who later went on to represent Britain in the 2015 X-Alps, supported by UK Airsport’s Richard Bungay.
In 2018 the world-renowned paragliding guide and coach, Jocky Sanderson, brought the race back to life with a creative idea that would make the competition as much about ‘brain’ as ‘brawn’. Still centred on Keswick, the arena was expanded to include all 214 Wainwright peaks, and the goal: to bag as many of them by foot and air in a weekend, and get back to Keswick by 4pm on Sunday. Alfred Wainwright wrote a 7-volume definitive guide of the Lakeland Fells, dividing them in to 7 corresponding geographical areas. In the competition all peaks in an area were worth the same number of points, with areas further from Keswick yielding more points-per-peak. The key to success now lay in choosing a route which balanced the forecast weather with the pilot’s own flying and running abilities. While spending large amounts of time abroad coaching and guiding paragliding pilots through his business ‘Escape’, Jocky is incredibly passionate about the place he chooses to live and is keen to encourage pilots of all ability to experience the English Lake District as an unbeatable air-sports playground.
The bank holiday weekend of May 2018 delivered beautiful skies but extremely strong and unrelenting winds. Only Andy Smith chose to carry flying gear, while Rod Welford – supported by James Allcock – travelled light and drew on his strong local fell-running experience to pound-out a win after collecting 39 summits in over 70 miles of hard slog.
Rod , Jocky, and James were determined to develop the race, and in 2019 a new set of rules were created to make route selection even more critical. The three Wainwright regions closest to the Flight Park held peaks that yielded ten points each, while the Wainwrights in the groups further afield would each count for 15 or even 25 points. Further bonus points were added at a rate of 5 per kilometre for the distance between the two most distant Wainwrights collected over the course of the race. The X-Lakes makes no reward for the height of the peaks. Simply tagging the 400 metre radius turn-points by foot or in the air is sufficient.
In addition to the full weekend event, a one-day race was also planned, being potentially more accessible to those who didn’t feel up to tearing round the Lake District for two days. All entrants arrived on the Friday evening determined to spend their weekend out on the fells and to get in the air as often as possible.
The Saturday morning safety briefing at Jocky’s ‘Flight Park’ near Keswick , revealed much better conditions than expected and the competitors trotted off to cheers of encouragement from the small posse of supporters and organisers at the Flight Park.
Immediately the group split, with Rod Welford, Andy Smith and John Westall following the same north-westerly route that Rod had chosen the previous year. Their plan was to use the lower, but steep-sided Wainwright peaks to the north of Whinlatter pass to gradually gain some height, then traverse west towards the north-westerly ridge west of the Buttermere and Crummock Water valley. John Westall was first to launch but had insufficient height to grab the 400-metre cylinder for Kirk Fell to the north-east of Low Lorton. Rod stayed high before gliding across to the floor of the Lorton Valley. Meanwhile Andy Smith had headed south to the Swinside ridge, but his landing put him on the wrong side of the river Cocker and he missed the northerly Wainwright, ‘Fellbarrow’, on the Low Fell range.
Meanwhile the balance of the field had split, with Ben Abell and Paul Summers marching through Keswick and along the east shores of Derwent Water before climbing the westerly aspect of the central fells, clipping Walla Crag then travelling south towards Watendlath.
The remaining athletes had pounded straight up the higher peaks immediately west of Braithwaite, with Italian, Francesco Cordisco, and the Spanish pairing climbing to the summit of Grasmoor which, at 852 meters, is the highest peak in the western fells.
Andy Read and Greg Hamerton quickly converted height from the lower fells into distance as they glided south immediately towards the higher scoring southern fells.
As Rod landed after his second flight from Low Fell to Loweswater he could see the powerful Spanish pairing, David Polo and Mathias Vane, gliding fast from Grasmoor to Mellbreak on their heavily loaded Advance Pi Bi tandem wing. Francesco took a similar line and managed one the first thermic flights of the day at the southern end of the Buttermere valley. Reaching cloudbase over Grey Knotts, he landed close to Green Gable before confusing fans who were following his Flymaster Livetracker by flying directly down the centre of Seathwaite valley, missing a few potential lucrative peaks on the way, before landing at the ‘jaws’ of Borrowdale. It turned out he was in dire need of food and water , and had to meet up with his supporter, Luigi Falco; a crucial lesson as he had been in a podium position up until then.
As the day developed, several other pilots managed some interesting distance by air, with thermic conditions delivering unexpected opportunities to collect a few extra peaks as they pushed south along their chosen routes.
Flybubble’s Greg Hamerton, used his extensive hike and fly experience to push quickly into the big mountains of the central Lakeland fells. Launching from Kirk Fell, patience and commitment saw Greg scratching up the steep and intimidating northerly slopes of Scafell and then touch down close to the summit of Great End before running over the col and quickly launching again onto the steep westerly slopes of Bowfell. A final flight late in the day saw Greg setting up camp on the quiet but cold summit of Wrynose pass. He was now the pilot who had travelled furthest south from the start.
By this time Rod was close on his heels, having launched from High Crag and finding a climb on the westerly aspect of Wainwright’s favourite peak, Haystacks. Flying his prize from the previous year’s X-Lakes – the Ozone Ultralite 4, he took sufficient height to grab several waypoints before landing close to Grey Knotts at 697 meters. Rod’s tactic was now to stay high and collect the high scoring central fell waypoints as he headed towards Great Langdale, over-taking the ever-cheerful Spanish pair en-route.
The 8pm hard cut-off time was a challenge for many pilots as the evening was generous with sunlight, and the winds were light enough to coax a last flight from many of the competitors. The Spaniards hunkered down northwest of the Langdale Pikes and Andy Read found himself close to Sergeant Man high above Grasmere village. John Westall couldn’t resist the lure of the pub at Wasdale Head, while after a couple of brave and committed flights from Pavey Arc over Stickle tarn, Rod achieved his own goal to get low, anticipating the early cloud that would restrict flight opportunity on Sunday morning. Andy Smith was another pilot who chose to stay high, near to High Crag.
Thick low cloud left pilots pretty damp at the start of the race on Sunday morning, with those who had rendezvoused with their supporters in the valleys benefitting from a decent night’s sleep and an opportunity to push out some distance before the low cloud started to rise.
Ben and Paul, travelling together as a team, were able to use the tourist route to the summit of Helvellyn from their overnight campervan pitstop at the southern tip of Thirlmere. From Helvellyn they pushed north by foot, arriving in Keswick in time to buy an ice cream and wander into HQ a few minutes after first competitor home, Andy Read.
South of them on the Helvellyn ridge line, Rod had grabbed a few extra Wainwrights with Greg and the Spanish pair having to work hard to climb up to the ridge that would lead them back into the northerly district. They were counting on some flying opportunities to get back to The Flight Park in Keswick before the race ended at 4pm.
Sunday afternoon delivered some truly exciting racing conditions. Rod was forced to race by foot as the elevation of the Helvellyn ridge kept him stuck in cloud. A short flight became possible as thermals started to work in the much brighter skies to the north of the racing playground. As the same airmass worked south a few hours later, both Greg and the Spanish tandem pair were able to launch with Greg pulling off a tremendous flight on his Sigma 10 that took him to within 4 kilometers of the finish line. He arrived at The Flight Park just over 20 minutes late, collecting 20 penalty points.
The tandem team took a very brave line over the eastern shores of Thirlmere before crushing the last few miles at pace, despite Mathias sporting the true athlete’s footwear, a pair of flip-flops!
In the final analysis the late arrival penalty points didn’t influence Greg’s final position. He took second place to Rod, having collected 28 Wainwright peaks, many of which were the high scoring peaks of the southern fells.
Newcomer, Andy Read, was delighted to take third place with the same number of peaks in total as Greg but with fewer of the high-scoring summits and a shorter distance between the two most distant peaks. Andy was flying an Air Design Vita superlight and had stuck to a route he had selected several days before the race. It involved 56 km of hiking and 13 km of flying over four flights. Andy’s strategy was to plan a route that he thought was achievable on foot. For him, any flying was simply a bonus.
For Paul Summers and Ben Abell the whole event was a spectacular adventure with Paul confessing that before the event he had never even flown cross country! Local pilot, John Westall, was the only pilot to land back in The Flight Park, having worked his way home from the summit of Scafell Pike and having an entertaining last thermic flight from Maiden Moor and Cat Bells.
For the second year running local pilot and part time fell runner, Rod Welford, took first position and a magnificent bespoke trophy kindly created and donated by Chris Scammell of Map Sculptures. Rod had collected 43 Wainwrights in the two-day race and his distance bonus was based on two peaks, 28 kilometres apart. Local knowledge definitely proved a factor and the organisers hope that more local pilots might get involved with future editions to help support and welcome entrants from outside the area.
Other prizes included a hike and fly harness donated by Escape paragliding and some donated by local paragliding school, Air Ventures. UK Airsports also generously assisted in providing technical guru, Richard Bungay for the entire weekend and Gus Charnell gave up his time to help Richard with collating scores and in running the HQ safety control room.
Scottish paragliding photographer and guide, Kieran Campbell, put in a huge shift, touring the fells throughout the race and spending the night out on Wrynose pass with Rod and Greg. He even got airborne on Sunday afternoon and was able to bag some fantastic and memorable event photographs.
Notorious for unpredictable and fickle weather, the Lake District served up some excellent mixed conditions for the 2019 edition of the X- Lakes. It’s a tremendous arena for challenging navigation and technical flying. A local running challenge is the ‘Bob Graham round’, involving 27,000 feet of ascent over a 66-mile circuit of 42 of the highest peaks. For over 30 years the fastest man to run this circuit was local shepherd, Billy Bland. Rod feels that Billy neatly summarised what the Lake District means to him when he was once heard to say, “I don’t own one square inch of this Lake District, but it’s ALL MINE!”
Greg Hamerton: “I think the event was perfect. My strategy was basically to go South all day and to then play pacman and try to fly myself out of the ridiculous situation I’d got myself into!”
Mathias Vane: “I enjoyed each minute with you all and the race. I don’t care what rules you use I will be happy to come back. Regarding the race strategy, I have my idea for next time… not to lose sight of Rod!”
Paul Summers: “I don’t need a virtual rerun. Last weekend will be permanently etched on my brain for years to come (in a good way!) Still barely able to function properly in the day job, head still in the clouds. A tremendous weekend.”
Andy Smith: “The beauty of this event is that its more of an adventure than a race or comp. I think that you sometimes have to switch off to what everyone else is doing and enjoy doing your own thing. This probably makes it safer than a comp as you choose your own route and the challenges that go with it.”