Like all trips away this one started with a journey, but in this case this was not a fast start. While not quite the eleven hour epic I'd heard one poor soul had to endure earlier this year heading from Norwich to Wales this was a healthy nine hours. At half-time I was regretting hanging around at home for a lazy morning as making last orders looked increasingly unlikely. Eventually the Lake district presented itself and after a bit of navigating in the dark with maps firmly in teeth the YMCA shone out of the darkness as welcome as the valley of Moses. After last year's none event it was good to see that the numbers were looking healthy, even better to see that the alcohol was being cracked open with purpose.
With four clear days before New Years eve only monumental faffing would prevent us getting out on the hills. Even the weather tried to lend a hand in persuading us to stay indoors but to no avail. Our first day was spent wondering around the Kentmere horse shoe. The potential for faffing with such a large group was seized upon and Andy would have been proud to see faff stop 4.7.6 before lunch. Having failed to achieve anything like a racing snake pace there was talk, and even a few steps, of heading off the ridge early and running for home; the stiff upper lip attitude came to the rescue and despite poor weather, marginal amounts of day light and a warm hut waiting for us we pressed on. Reaching the top of the valley seemed like a good place for a break where we met a couple of mountain bikers, well kitted out for the weather, sufficiently so to spark some debate about whether the smaller of the two was a teenage lad or a lass. Having not thought to ask at the time this one had the potential to run and run. Which incidentally is what another debate of the day did. To our collective shame, when the navigating got (I would say tough but lets face it we were no where near that) marginally tricky, rather than relying on the hard earned skills of navigation built on years of mountaineering (or at least the knack of following the right sheep trail...), no less than three GPS units appeared as if by magic. I remember the days when these gadgets were considered to be the akin to playing poker with the devil himself, perhaps coincidentally when we also couldn't afford them. Herein lies the debate, Steve maintained that it was possible to get OS co-ordinates out of Hugh's GPS, while Hugh felt he should know his equipment better than most and was sure this wasn't the case. Thus another titanium spoon bet was laid on the table, and it must be said that perhaps the poker would have been the better option. Several hours later Steve discovered that you could get global latitude, longitude co-ordinates out of the bloody thing (well of course said Hugh), which Steve proved that with the aid of a map and a straight edge could be converted into OS co-ordinates (but only with more effort than proper navigation said Hugh). Hugh correctly pointed out that this wasn't quite getting OS co-ordinates directly from his GPS and Steve, also correctly, pointed out that if you were in a 'situation' looking for your paddle you would give it a go and be happy to know it could be done. Another almost inevitable no score draw, which seemed a waste of the side debate of the quality of the spoon that would be given to the winner, which the last I heard was to be at least the size of a ladle if not the world. GPS aside, the rest of the walk went well with the pace picking up as the light started to fail. We weren't to worry however as we had Fiona's impossibly radiant buff to light the way.
With the weather still as dismal as English cricket mountain biking at Grizdale forest was the activity of choice for the next day, with bargain bikes to be hired for only a tenner. The more hardcore group biked over to the forest and after a short interrogation by Hugh I persuaded him with the twin arguments that a) I was giving people a lift there and b) had no bike that I wasn't simply being soft for not biking there as well. This point straightened out we were off and soon Steve Archer was demonstrating why he really needs the GPS in his pocket. Other than the North Face trail all routes around the forest are suitable for all and soon we left the hard core group to wave their willies at each other and set off. After a while Fiona, Steve Archer and myself broke away from the pack and headed out into increasingly damp conditions; for a forest there seemed to be surprisingly little cover. Having satisfied ourselves that we could point a bike at a 12 foot wide track we dipped into a couple of sections of the North Face trail with mixed success. While the single track didn't give us much trouble nerves were jangled by the wooden boards laid out over sections. That is wooden boards made slick with rain, on which touching your brakes seemed to be synonymous with throwing yourself off your bike. Having made it across without incident and seen Fiona walk her bike over the first drop I pondered for a second about what Chipper would say at a moment like this; something encouraging perhaps? Having thought about this a moment longer I dispatched the abuse that the metaphorical Chipper was trying to get off his chest but I am gutted that I turned away and missed Fiona falling at the next available opportunity. Apparently while falling she still had the instincts to glance behind her to see if Steve A had witnessed the fall but it seemed the embellishments were safe as he was tumbling to the ground in a stern show of solidarity. Back at the car park from the first loop Steve A declared himself too wet to carry on, I assume he was talking about the rain and not a statement of his physical stature but with the required ribbing we let him go and headed off for another loop on the other side of the valley. Later we were pleased to find that the 'hard core' group met Steve, having finished their day, so we were the last two out (excluding the small matter of the bike home for some!). The second loop turned out to be entirely uphill. While this might not strictly be the truth it certainly felt like it, and if it wasn't for the heaven sent pork pie to pick me up things would have looked a bit grim. When meeting the hardcore group it turned out that Jeff had taken a tumble trying to keep up with everyone on the down hill and Chipper a slice of exhaustion trying to keep up with Jeff on the uphill.
That evening a few of us headed over to Ambleside for gear shopping which wouldn't normally make much of a story except that on the return journey we decided to pop into Hawkshead on a hunt for gravy granules to compliment our feast of bangers and mash. With rain falling out the sky like it was heading for a 'we're singing in the rain' set we missed the turning into the center. With me at the wheel of my very not boy racer-ish Punto we swung back and headed in. Another slight navigational error (where is the GPS that has 'nearest gravy shop' option?) had me looking for another place to U turn. Thinking I had spotted a mini-round about I headed left, around what turned out to be a circular seat in a very well kept patch of grass. Well kept no longer. Having got that far I thought it best to maintain my respect with the hoodies and go the whole lap, much to Jeff's amusement. In exchange for the entertainment Jeff promised to become a six sigma solution man and find some gravy. After asking around a couple of pubs he found one suitably customer focused and willing to loss lead to give him some gravy granules for free. Success! Break through team performance if ever I saw it in action.
I'd like to say that the next day the weather brightened up and we all topped up our suntan while drying out out boots at the same time, but clearly I'd be lying so we had to settle for another walk into high winds and occasional rain. Our target was the Fairfield horse shoe from Rydal, and the best laid plan lasted about 20 minutes with two cars spurning local knowledge and finding an alternative place to park, eventually rectified with the miracle of mobile phones (what did we do without them?). Once again the faff factor ensured that we didn't make world beating time on the way up, but did stop for a lovely tea break in a spot I had been weighing up as an outdoor urinal, hopefully previous walkers hadn't had the same thought. As we approached the top we were distracted from the possibility of finishing in the dark by the wind determined to knock someone down. A little navigation at the top saw us on the right path down (yes, with real maps!). Towards the end during a little off the beaten track short cut Jeff surprised us by leaping forward on sprinting legs. What had roused him so? The site of Kate triumphantly picking the sheep horn off a dead carcass, who seemed somehow surprised that it smelt a bit. The day was rounded off with a quick game of basket ball before dinner. While the rules of the game were established for ignoring later we picked sides and kicked off (?!?). Ash surprised us all by his Jordan like sinking of the three pointers, with everyone else putting in a competitive performance. The open game won by one side, it seemed only fitting to let them win the less valued shoot out at the end.
With the time line of the previous few days straight, we move onto the big day itself