Fastpacking in the Cheviots: A baptism of fire (and rain)
12 minute read
When Cress Allwood was seeking a new challenge during lockdown, she called a friend, hoping she’d be up for an adventure. Having to resort to their Plan B, that adventure was fastpacking the Montane Cheviot Goat, a brutal 55-mile recce.
Plan A: To walk/run Hadrian’s Wall. I’d been given Cicerone's Fastpacking as a present and was feeling inspired.
Having looked at the map and agreed appropriate distances per day, my friend offered to do further research re: accommodation. Angela called a few days later. Bad news - with so few sites open, this trip would have to wait. Our desire to camp and fastpack meant a change of tack…
Plan B: Reccying an ultra-run event Angela had entered, the Montane Cheviot Goat. The new adventure appealed and seemed easy to arrange, with a clear purpose. Having not visited Northumberland, it was an exciting option: new ground, a do-able two days away. Yes! So how did it go…
I’m anxious. I’m about to do two new things: walk 55 miles over 2 days, when I’ve done no walks over 10 miles for almost a year and certainly no back-to-back walking. Carrying all my kit, including camping and cooking equipment while wearing fell shoes will be a first.
I have two days to complete a route that’s only 5 miles longer than my previous ultra-run. Hmmm. In preparation for Lakes in a Day, I recced it in four sections, familiarising myself over a period of months, building up slowly and progressively. Stamina, strength and confidence grew, little by little. A sensible, planned approach, pre-injury in 2020: a lifetime ago.
Plus, I’m walking with the guru who is the Guinness LEJOG World Record Holder, Angela White.
Imposter syndrome pervades. Having named said anxiety, I feel marginally more at ease.
I have years of trekking under my belt, so I’m not overly worried about walking with my backpack. Thing is, Angela has expressed a hope to do 3 miles per hour; given the hilly terrain and potentially boggy ground this may be challenging.
I also have 20-plus years’ experience of camping, so pitching a tent when exhausted will be familiar. Angela has no such experiences. Maybe I have an edge!
We devised the trip together; I know she’s happy to have me alongside. Still nervous, though. I don’t want to let her down. I have ongoing niggles with my left ankle/tendons. Minor weaknesses that I need to hold in perspective. At 53, with a lifetime of adventures, this is to be expected. Perspective, Allwood.
I’m excited to be having a trip away. A mini adventure has become more of a big adventure, in the absence of overseas expeditions. No Silk Route trek for me; the longed-for Tien Shan mountain trip in Kyrgyzstan will have to be another year. Instead, I’m exploring a part of the UK that I wouldn’t have considered.
As the route is a known running event, we figured it would be OK underfoot. The hills are endlessly rolling and not as steep or high as the Lakes – sounds straightforward. An idyll of walk/running formed: a perfect escape!
The weight aspect
The main difference between this and previous adventures is the weight aspect. For decades, I’ve packed kit and not bothered to weigh anything. I know what I need and don’t take extras – (I usually sneak in a luxury, completely impractical item, just cos. A small psychological gesture of defiance – sticking two fingers up to being uber practical, as expedition leader. A Chanel lipstick, a tiny perfume sample, a silver token from a friend – items that ground me and remind me in a more holistic sense of who I am.) I genuinely wish to travel light and may have to forgo this habit.
I decided to pack in advance (unheard of for me), wanting to get this chore out of the way.) The process of weighing everything was enlightening, nerdily practical and informed better decision making. It was not, however, joyful: there are endless ways I’d prefer to have spent my Friday evening.
My partner helped – being one who relishes spreadsheets, he was happy to support and a few hours later, we’d produced meticulous lists with items categorised. Such attention to detail IS necessary if you’re serious about saving weight (sigh!).
If the thought of this makes your heart sink, enlist a friend or find ways to make it fun/rewarding. I had no idea that my waterproof trousers were so heavy, or that certain running tights were going to be ditched in favour of lighter ones.
I’d read in Fastpacking that one should aim for a packed weight of 7-8kg. This sounded realistic and I was happy with my 7.5kg, which included 1.2l of water. Angela and I had decided not to share the weight of any camping kit, wanting to understand how it would feel, travelling independently with everything we needed on our backs.
I added a few last-minute items in a panic due to the horrific weather (heavier weight rain jacket and more food.) My hand-held, mini weighing scales came in handy as we weighed both packs just before leaving the following Wednesday morning:
(My ancient Lowe Alpine pack weighing .69g was much lighter than Angela’s Osprey pack -consciously selected, offering her more integral back support.)
Now back from Northumberland, and having had time to recover, I can offer a few top tips – things I wish I’d done before setting out.
1. Speed and terrain. We did an excellent job of being overly optimistic about our average speed; 3mph is fine in the Lake District hills, but we didn’t come close in the Cheviots. The bog slowed us down to under 2mph for unexpected and significant periods. By 2.30pm, with brief stops to fill water and retrieve food to eat on the go, we’d travelled a mere 12 miles in 5 hours!
The trig point at Bloodybush Hill was an obvious place to make a decision. Knowing that we’d run out of daylight, we agreed on a shortcut to the campsite. Another 5+ miles seemed much more civilised: pitching tents in daylight was a motivating factor. This was a recce and night-time walking wasn’t on the agenda. Cutting the intended 25 miles to 17+ was mildly disappointing yet felt OK: neither of us shirk hard work and we’d been doing our best.
2. Weather. The two days saw us experiencing fog, poor visibility, rain, wind and occasional blue skies. Seeking safe places to cross swollen rivers also slowed our pace. We knew it had been pouring down yet neither considered this obvious aspect in advance. (As a Mountain Leader I clearly spend too much time office bound.) The morning rains did little to encourage early starts: 9.30am departures were relished and I didn’t complain. I take pleasure in not being too sensible: I’m on holiday!
3. Route finding. Adopting a supportive role, I’d taken little responsibility for the route. Angela had downloaded the route onto a Garmin plus Viewfinder on her mobile. I had a self-laminated 1:25,000 OS map, compass and faith in my navigation skills. We figured this combination would suffice and it did.
We rarely needed to double check each other’s route-finding decisions. Places where errors could be made were noted. Making poor decisions in the dark in December needed to be avoided. Successfully and safely negotiating the bog without sinking up to one’s knees or more would be enough of a challenge, without going off piste.
4. Campsite assumptions. Creating fantasies around the campsite facilities was a welcome distraction from the endless rain. The suggestion of a dry, covered space in which to cook was a soothing one, after a sodden, slow day. Arriving at Barrowburn, the reality of the site burst any such bubbles. Pitching our tents on soft, yet uneven ground, we had forgotten about the onslaught of midges.
The lack of running drinking water was a surprise. A grim determination took hold: hmm. Sometimes you just have to make the best of it. Life can always be harder and it wasn’t long before we enjoyed a brew, having pitched both tents. Bring midge spray next time!
5. Food. Telling myself I should probably save the remaining three spinach and feta parcels for the following day, I promptly snaffled one at camp. The remaining two disappearing shortly after. I’d worry about tomorrow’s food intake later.
Being tired and hungry, I was looking forward to my hot meal. Knowing that I’d taken time to select a nutritious dinner added to my senses of anticipation; salmon with pasta and pesto was going to be delicious! I hadn’t planned to place the hot bag of food inside my walking trousers, to warm my tummy up, while waiting for it to cook.
Angela had recommended it and I appreciated the immediate rise in body temperature. I went inside my tent to eat out of the rain. Sitting down, I felt a clammy sensation on my body. Uh oh – the dry mid layer and gilet I’d recently put on felt strangely damp and warm. A brief inspection brought enlightenment: my food bag wasn’t fully sealed.
Pasta source covered my core and had eased its way up my body and down one sleeve. ‘Boll***s!’ Momentarily I felt I could have cried. Instead I left the tent to clean up, selecting the tiny ‘closed’ yet unlocked shower room over the toilet. With no wet wipes, I used some loo roll to soak the green pesto from my clothes.
It could’ve been worse – I could be cleaning up tents filled with vomiting children, I reflected.
With no spare clothes, I put my jackets back on and ate my food in the gloomy shelter, recalling former, far more depressing expedition experiences. It was one night. I’d just learnt a big lesson. Thank goodness the food was tasty: I didn’t leave a morsel.
6. Water. With so much rain, I assumed I’d not have a problem re-filling my 700ml Katadyn hydrapac. Wrong! The still, peaty pools that often surrounded us didn’t appeal and running streams was unexpectedly elusive. We were both dehydrated (Angela went into Camel mode) while I refilled once a day. I understood why the event has seven water stations.
7. Electronics. Selecting a heavier weight charger (my trusty Slope Angel) with a higher capacity of 10,000mAh, I was confident I’d have enough power to charge both iPhone and my Garmin Fenix 5 watch. Top tip – press ‘on’ once you’ve inserted the usb cable overnight. Needless to say, my Garmin died on Day 2. I returned with a little used power-bank.
8. Kit. Apart from a first aid kit I used everything and ate all food bar an emergency ‘add hot water’ dessert. (Frankly, I wasn’t going to stop to find the required water.) I gratefully accepted a pair of spare waterproof socks to start day 2 with dry feet (thanks, Angela.)
As expected, plastic bags over dry socks did the trick at the campsite. My biggest fear was snapping or losing the tent poles, which stuck out awkwardly from my pack. Having borrowed a beautifully light Terra Nova Laser (1.2kg) I was surprised the two ‘end’ poles didn’t pack down smaller.
Upon return, I read race reviews – ah yes! They all mentioned the bog. If I were a different person, I may have done so beforehand and been better informed. I prefer to find out as I go – this feels more adventurous and exciting. But then, I’m unlikely to cut my toothbrush in half (I can’t bring myself to do it) or come in the top 2/3rds of a race. Each to their own.
Angela asked – did I want to enter the ‘Goat’? Er – no, thank you! I’ll stick to marshalling and hopefully completing a few ultras in 2021. I take my hat off to all competitors in the winter event.
Will I be back? Of course! We have yet to complete the route. Next time, we’ll cheat and sleep in the van, reverting to race-day weights on our backs. If the weather’s bad, I’ll take headphones. A good night’s sleep isn’t guaranteed when you feel you’re in the middle of the Ted Hughes poem ‘Wind’. Music may ease anxieties about the van being blown over! In the autumn, we’ll have no choice but to depart earlier and take headtorches. I may wear gaitors and will take treats – having fun will be a higher priority!
As for Fastpacking – I have learnt there is value in weighing kit. Making good decisions based on weather, terrain, one’s fitness etc comes with experience and effective planning. I had agreed to do a challenging route in fairly dire weather. If I can get through that, others will be far easier.
I have since purchased new waterproof trousers – not the ultralight (which to be frank, felt like pulling a bin liner over my legs) but half the weight of my others. I like the feel of them, can put them on/off easily over my fell shoes and they pack down small. Be perfect for longer forays. Hopefully to the Alps where, if I’m lucky, I’ll feel the warmth of the Swiss/Italian sun next year.
This fantasy will keep me going for months. And in the meantime, I’ll jointly plot more UK based adventures. I’ve realised: I enjoy supporting others. Oh – I may check out the terrain a little bit more carefully in future. Bog avoidance will be lurking in the back of my mind. Beware the perils of fastpacking fantasies!
Route start/ finish: Ingram Café (good coffee, food, loos etc)
Distance travelled: Day 1: 17.5 miles, Day 2: 18 miles
Campsite: Barrowburn £7 a night – running water from sink potentially needs boiling. (With limited gas supplies we asked for bottles of tap water from the farm.)
Hills walked: Lots!
People seen: 5 in 2 days excluding camp
Gear wish list: new ultralight backpack and different tent poles
Would I recommend this route? It’s not for beginners; if you like a challenge, definitely! Go for it!
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