Photographer Henry Iddon writes about a day out in the Lakes with Katy Forrester, a high level climber, and Meg Whyte, a competitive downhill and enduro mountain biker. The women swapped skills and combined biking and bouldering to create a multi-discipline enchaînement...
In late spring of 2018, I went to the Cairngorms to go eMTB-accessed steep skiing on a sunny weekend. It was perfect. Bikes, mountains and skis - which for me is the Holy Trinity. But hey, I appreciate that there are those who'd swap the skis for crampons or rock boots. Cycling to the hill or crag isn't new. The late Goran Kropp cycled to Everest with all his kit (he summited without supplementary oxygen) then cycled part way home to Sweden in 1996. Regardless of what you think of the Everest 'circus', that's got to take top spot for cycling to the hill!
Then there's the Sufferfest films featuring Cedar Wright and Alex Honnold, who in 2013 cycled between and climbed the 15 highest peaks in California. In 2014 they pedalled their way around 45 of South West America's iconic towers in the hilarious 'Sufferfest 2', in which Honnold mutters the immortal lines "The thing about suffering is, you don't really need to train to suffer. You just do it."
Suffering with a bike over unlikely terrain has a history. One of the most well known escapades was Walter 'Wayfarer' Robinson's traverse of the snow covered Nant Rhyd Wilym Pass across the Berwyn Mountains in Wales in March 1919. It was written up in his classic article 'Over the Top' for Cycling magazine. Freewheel to 1955 and The Rough Stuff Fellowship was formed, a club which has united those who enjoy 'the byways and tracks'. Or as one member put it "I never go for a walk without my bike."
The point I'm making is that bikes have often played a part in mountaineering, climbing and general outdoor adventures. And it's not exclusively a man thing. The excellent and recently published 'Rough Stuff Archive' book shows women carting bikes over the most implausible terrain in the UK, Alps, and Norway in the 1950s and '60s.
One of the classic off-road rides in the Lake District involves the four passes: Honister / Warnscale, Scarth Gap, Black Sail and Styhead. Aware that there was a new Lake District Bouldering guide out, it made me wonder how feasible it would be to link up a big day's bouldering by bike. A bike 'chainement, if you will. Looking through the guide there were certainly possibilities in Borrowdale, the Buttermere side of Honister, Ennerdale and Wasdale. As it happened I'd also recently interviewed World Cup MTB downhill racer Adam Brayton, and it transpired that his girlfriend Meg Whyte, who also raced MTBs, was a keen climber. The germ of an idea was coming together. So what about a skills swap; if Meg was primarily a top class rider who climbed, what if she teamed up with someone who was more noted for climbing than riding? I ran the idea past Lakes-based Katy Forrester, who's headpointed E7s and bouldered at V6 since becoming a Mum three years ago, but hasn't done much mountain biking. In fact, she hadn't cycled much for years and didn't own a mountain bike. No matter, and with a loan of a Nukeproof from Adam she was in.
After some discussion on dates, the last Thursday in August was slated for the big day out, getting it in before Katy went back to teaching and when it slotted in with Meg's racing schedule and day job at Alf Jones Cycles near Wrexham. The plan was that Adam would ride an eMTB with a small bouldering mat, while I carried cameras with Meg and Katy having rock boots, food etc. Alas, that plan crash-landed when Adam broke his collarbone training for the last World Cup of the season.
Meeting at the Bowderstone National Trust carpark at 8am we were greeted with a heavy shower, but thankfully it was forecast to dry up. But get windy. Gusting on the tops to 40+ mph. The Bowderstone itself is sheltered and steep enough to not be affected by the rain - so onwards. You'd have to be either very new to the sport or have no idea whatsoever about Lakes climbing to not have heard of the Bowderstone: a huge 2000 ton block, 90 feet in circumference, that toppled off the nearby Bowder Crag sometime in the distant past. It has been a tourist attraction since 1798 when Joseph Pocklington purchased the site, fenced it off, erected a ladder and eventually employed a guide to charge visitors to ascend to the top, where there was standing room for 6 and a seat for two. Up until the late 1800s three of the four 'guides' were women.
Being first thing, damp and chilly, the first boulder of the day was all about getting warmed up. It was also the first time Meg had climbed outdoors for several years. After a broken ankle she'd kept to indoor walls as mountain biking had taken over as her main sport, with the results to prove it with regular podiums at national downhill series events and enduros.
Being local Katy is a Bowderstone regular, and flashed various moves on The Crack 6c ** and Picnic Sarcastic 7a+ *, while avoiding any dampness caused by the wind and rain, much to Meg's approval. The compliments would be reversed as 'The Great Whyte' floated down some of the technical descents later in the day.
With one eye on the time and miles to cover we saddled up and rode down Borrowdale and engaged low gears, and feet, to weave up the 1 in 4 sections of Honister Pass that tops out at 1167 feet. The plan had been to ride with one bouldering mat, but with the high winds we decided it would be to dangerous descending Honister, and on the technical riding that was coming later in the day it could become an MTB and flight mission! So Adam took a couple round in the van and met us at Honister Boulders. This smart little area is half a mile down the pass towards Buttermere and features three roadside boulders, named North, Plateau and Beefcake with a collection of smaller blocks, High Rocks, 10 minutes walk up above from the eastern side of the pass. It's the sort of spot you could take a family, have a picnic, do some problems and paddle in the beck. The latter has the harder starred problems: Fallen Angel 7a *, Occam's Razer 7c ** and An Honist Man 8a *. As we were on a big day out we opted for Beefcake, and with the wind now funnelling down the valley at enough velocity to blow the mats away Meg and Katy entertained themselves on the 6c+ Low Traverse, with Katy passing on various tips and suggestions to Meg. When not taking it in turns to chase down the mats!
As the sunny spells ended it was time to head down to Gatesgarth at the head of Buttermere and start the ascent of Scarth Gap Pass. On an eMTB you'd have a reasonable chance of riding the lower sections, but apart from the mid section on a standard machine you've to resort to hike-a-bike. Either push or carry, or any combination to suit. With little MTB experience this was Katy's first experience of a cycling sufferfest, and it's safe to say Meg isn't a huge fan of hike-a-bike (yet). It's a gradual climb, on a good path, that gives great views down to Buttermere and across towards Whiteside and Grasmoor. Scarth Gap at 1460ft is the col that separates Haystacks and Seat, as well as Buttermere from Ennerdale, and most visitors pass through ticking off the two Wainwright fells. We were heading down into Ennerdale, where the top of the pass is a gentle-angled grassy track, with occasional boggy sections, before turning into steeped ground that has been stone-armoured by the path preservation brigade. All the trails we rode are classed as bridalways, so are open to bikers, hikers and riders. There's no doubt that the stone armour approach benefits hikers the most - it's certainly not the smoothest ride, and could result in loosing any loose fillings as you give the bike's suspension a good work out.
Meg floated down, as you'd expect of a top downhill and enduro rider, while Katy mixed up walking and riding sections as her confidence and ability improved. The great frustration is that these trails could be fantastic to ride, given some more thought and appreciation of all users, not just hikers. The ridiculous wide drainage channels being particularly dangerous to ride over. But that's a whole other debate.
Arriving in the valley, we turned right down the access track that links Black Sail Hostel with the road at the end of the valley. Ennerdale is possibly the only Lake District valley that has a real sense of remoteness; it has no road running the length of it and for the last 15+ years has been managed by a partnership of The National Trust, United Utilities, Forestry England and Natural England. With a stiff wind and dark clouds looming above us there was a real sense of being in a wild landscape - you certainly felt far removed from the Lakes honeypot areas and popular crags. Dropping onto a little-used path we crossed the River Liza on a bridge rebuilt in 1959 in memory of Fell and Rock members who died in WW2. It didn't seem to have seen much traffic since. While limited compared to other areas, the Ennerdale bouldering offers some great climbing in a unique location, pioneered in the early 2000s by Paul 'Pil' Lockley. With limited time, we were heading to Trackside / Tom's Boulder, which hosts four starred problems between 6c and 7c, but there are also Troll Hunter Boulder, Hinterland Boulders, Pine Hug Boulder, Forest Boulders and The Grinding Mind Boulder, which has four problems all with stars, most notably 'The Grinding Mind' 7b+ ***. According to the new guidebook the latter is a big tick for Lakes bouldering aficionados.
There's no doubt that this is an area at its best in early summer the day after a dry spell. With a strong wind and dark clouds looming, the snacks in our packs were as enticing as any boulder problems.
But Meg gave her MTB shoes, complete with cleats, an edge and friction test on the 5a arête problem closest to the road while Katy sampled the higher moves of the starred Majik Powers 6c+ and Instinctive Logic 7a+.
Wasdale beckoned, with the opportunity of some refreshment at the Wasdale Head Inn, so it was back over the river and eastwards down the track towards the Black Sail Hostel en route to the pass of the same name. Some American hikers who were doing the coast to coast hike were rather bemused when we told them where we'd come from and where we going to.
The climb of Black Sail is more hike-a-bike sufferfest, which gradually steepens to the col below Kirk Fell. It was also the highpoint of the day at 1788 feet. The wind made forward progress somewhat challenging with a bike on your shoulders. Who knows what it would have been like at Windy Gap on the other side of Mosedale. It wasn't the place to hang around, so we headed down into the valley over more stone-armoured bridleway. As the angle eased, the riding became more flowy amongst the bracken on what was the best best downhill of the whole day. Katy grinned from ear to ear as the mountain bike bug began to bite, and she exclaimed with pride that some technical sections had been ridden. The benefits of riding with and getting tips from Meg were becoming apparent.
Mosedale itself contains the Stirrup Stones boulders, higher up on the slopes of Yewbarrow, with problems in the mid to high grades, but downhill trumped uphill stomping, so we carried on down to adjourn to the pub for jacket potatoes and hot drinks. Wasdale's place in climbing history is well documented, from the buildering of the barn door traverse and early bouldering on Y Boulder to the activities on the higher crags. More recently, the tucked-away Overbeck Boulder has seen development, and is a favourite spot of Craig Naylor, grandson of fell running legend Joss. Situated in an idyllic spot by an emerald green beck on a grassy ledge, this impressive block is only 15 minutes walk from the small car park where Overbeck flows into Wastwater. Adam had driven round to Wasdale Head and with the bikes stashed and armed with the bouldering mats he'd brought we headed up to the boulder. To date there are only 9 problems on it, but five have stars including Technical Wall 7a *** and Overbeck Arete 6c+***. All the problems are big, eye-catching lines and worthy of at least a couple of pads, but with solid rock and grassy landings it makes for a great spot. Plus, the beck has a couple of pools should you wish to cool off - something we weren't concerned about! It seemed to be everyone's favourite spot of the day and had several lines ticked, with Katy enjoying Overbeck Arête and Meg, having got used to climbing outdoors again, making short work of the 6a Right Hand Direct.
The original plan had been to ride back to Borrowdale via Styhead, but by now it was getting late, the wind would have been ferocious on the high fells and there were dark clouds building. Any notion of a few problems at Kern Knotts boulders with some late evening sunshine for company was certainly off the agenda. We'd still packed a lot into the day, covering 16 miles, three passes and four bouldering spots. Katy's smart watch was informing her that 4000+ calories had been burned, so it was all aboard Adam's van for the drive back round to the Bowderstone car park to collect our vehicles. Conversation fluctuated between climbing, bouldering and the mountain bike scene, as well as the benefits of cross training; Meg being of the opinion that climbing definitely benefited her grip strength on long downhills.
The weather had thwarted carrying a bouldering mat, and the shortening days of early September hadn't helped, but I've no doubt that it was a template for a big bike ride and bouldering day out.
Looking through the Lakes guide, it would be feasible to do other bike 'chainments, using bridleways and the road. Wasdale and Eskdale could provide a circuit via Burntmoor Tarn. The Borrowdale Bash need not only be an MTB ride but could be adapted to link up the Bowderstone, Langstrath, and the boulders around Sour Milk Gill. With the new guidebook, a map and some imagination there are numerous options to do something different and throw up a challenge. Remember, if you want a sufferfest then you don't really need to train, you just do it.
- Spots of Time: The Experience 3 Jun, 2008