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The Mystery of the Dark Peak Challenges

Photo credit: Dan Stinton

The Mystery of the Dark Peak Challenges

03-Sep-20

Last updated: 03-Sep-20

By Dan Stinton

Grinah Stones. East of Bleaklow. I’ve rarely felt more at peace anywhere: in the heart of the Dark Peak, away from any evidence of civilisation, you can sit confidently in the knowledge that nothing will happen.  Nestling between the numerous rocky outcrops you can look west over the rather barren Alport Moor towards Higher Shelf Stones.  On a very clear day you can just about see the sunlight glistening off a few cars parked at Snake Pass.

Given the current global pandemic and a lack of races pretty much anywhere, many fell runners have been looking for other challenges.  Most of us are aware of the “UK Big 3”; Bob Graham (England), Charlie Ramsay (Scotland) and Paddy Buckley (Wales), but I’ve been taking a look at other challenges out there and, living in Derbyshire on the edge of the Peak District, I’ve focused on what’s right here on my doorstep.

As you delve deeper, this is a world of hand-drawn maps, word-of-mouth and sparse route instructions.  The Dark Peak Fell Runners (DPFR) website has a wealth of information suggesting potential training routes for their annual Bob Graham attempt with routes that “get you to parts of the Peak that you might not otherwise visit. Knowledge of many of these challenges has been passed on verbally with only sporadic recording.”

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Here are the details on a few of the routes.

Kinder Dozen / Kinder Killer

 

The Kinder Dozen was devised by Ken Jones in 1997/98.  As the name suggests it involves 12 ascents/descents of the Kinder Plateau with 10,000ft (3,048m) of climbing over 24 miles (39km).  The website reminds you that this was measured long before GPS and is not to be corrected.  Ken also created the more brutally named Kinder Killer which covers 33 miles (53km) and 9,000ft (2,743m) but with less ascents/descents. But which is tougher?

Tom Saville (DPFR) should know as, until recently, he held the fastest known times for both challenges.  Earlier this year, clubmate Oli Johnson took the Killer record from him with a quad-quivering time of 5:37:57.   Tom’s record for the Dozen stands at 4:42:20 and with only a few minutes between them on both routes it looks like there is some high-quality rivalry between club-mates. 

I asked Tom about his experiences on the routes:

"As far as comparisons go, I found the Killer the hardest but not necessarily because of the route. I only planned to recce half of it but decided to go for it after doing 3 climbs and feeling good. Unfortunately, I only took one gel and a flapjack with me, so I suffered towards the end!  I’d say the hardest route is the Dozen."

What about the highs and lows of each route?

Dozen: "One of the highlights is Kinder’s north edge where you feel so remote and get some great off-path running in. The Descent from Sandy Heys Trig to the River Ashop is pretty awesome. A low was the run up to Seal Stones, that's where it got tough! Also, the last 3 or so climbs were particularly hard, they are steep on rough terrain and I was really feeling it at this point."

Killer: "Easily the best part of the Killer is running up the river to near the base of Kinder Downfall before peeling off and scrambling up the cliffs to the right.  The north edge path seems to drag on forever, and is surprisingly undulating and quite peaty, so really saps the legs. Apart from that rationing food was pretty grim but that was poor planning on my part. The Grindslow Knoll climb is a tough one to finish with!"

Heart of Darkness

 

Sounding like a death metal classic, next up is “The Heart of Darkness” developed by Mike Browell “in response to a competition devised by John Myers to find the toughest ‘pure line’ 15-mile route in the Peak”.  The idea seems simple, starting at the southern end of the Dark Peak you follow grid line 13 (OS Explorer OL1) as faithfully as possible north until you arrive at Grinah stones, head one kilometre east, and then follow grid line 14 south.  It’s been described as “Awful, largely un-runnable, but it’s purity is undeniable”.  Check out the beautifully written route description and route map HERE

Dark Peak 15 Trigs

 

If you fancy pushing things even further in to ultra-territory then you could consider the Dark Peak 15 Trigs, which unsurprisingly visits 15 trigs on the Dark Peak map, described on GoFar as “Part of Dark Peak folklore for well over a quarter of a century, and with access restrictions lifted, this little gem has finally emerged from the swirling mists of time ready to tease and torment a new generation of fell runners!”. 

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At 55 miles (88.5km) this one will test out your hill-legs but with a time limit of 15 hours you have a “comfortable” one-hour per trig. Tom Saville again holds the record in 8:52:25 and describes it as “Another classic, showing off what the Dark Peak has to offer. A great mix of paths and open fell taking you to some lesser visited locations. A brilliantly planned route with a nearly artistic symmetry of a 15-hour standard time as a benchmark”.

We’re not all record breakers though, and when Ian Crutchley of Glossopdale Harriers took on the challenge the 15-hour limit became a real threat and he recounts the last few miles here:

“The last couple of hours have been hell, the slowing of my progress, directly proportional to the worsening of my condition. Long since unable to eat, dehydrated, and making silly navigational errors on ground I know well, my mind is fluctuating between glory and failure. I realise I am uncomfortably close to the 15-hour limit, but now tantalisingly close to the end. Still I continue on until finally, all that stands between me and glory is a short sharp climb of about 100m, then 400m of trail to the end. The problem however, is that my watch tells me I have just 4 minutes to do it, or else I would fail. Unthinkable, so it was all or nothing time.

I ditch my bag, fight up the hill, and somehow manage 4min/km pace along the trail. I round the corner outside the Royal Oak pub in Glossop, and immediately collapse to the floor. A group of confused drinkers look on, wondering what is happening. I had started out from this exact point 15 hours earlier, solo and unsupported, but determined. And, what an incredible route! Going anti-clockwise, I’d visited some real gems of the Peak District area, including Kinder Scout, Win Hill, Stanage, Derwent and Howden Edges, Alport Moor and Bleaklow.

Back to the present, my wife scoops me off the pavement and deposits me in the car. I did it, by the skin of my teeth and in true Hollywood style, with 10 seconds remaining of the 15 hours.

Dark Peak Stones (Extended)

 

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“Which Stones are these then?” I said. Again. The ever-patient Ian and Mark answered every time, but it was easy to forget which one of the numerous rock formations we’d just ticked off.  The Dark Peak stones route covers 32 miles (51.5km) with 4000ft (1,200m) of ascent with the aim of visiting 28 Dark Peak stones.

Whilst writing this article, it soon became apparent that I was going to have to run one of these routes myself so I tagged along with some fellow Glossopdale Harriers on The Dark Peak Stones (Extended). Starting at Snake Summit, a few miles east of Glossop, it concludes at the Sportsman in Lodge Moor, the headquarters / watering hole of the Dark Peak Fell Runners.  As with any unsupported linear route there was a bit of messing around to make sure cars were in the right place so that we could get home and, knowing it was going to be a very hot day, we stashed some water at Cutthroat bridge the previous evening.

The day started beautifully with the cloud below us at Higher Shelf Stones and, this being our local area, we knew what to expect.  As we continued along the route the terrain dictated that we slow to walking pace and we seemed to battle with man-high ferns, calf-slashing heather, ankle-twisting tussocks and, if we were lucky, foot-cooling bogs.

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We didn’t see a soul for the first half of the route but as we progressed closer to Stanage it became much more populous with walkers, backpackers, climbers and other runners scattered along the edge.  We made a much-needed pit-stop at an ice cream van and then pushed on to the final stone, Head Stone, followed by celebratory refreshments at the Sportsman.

It was a challenging route and the stones varied in grandeur: from the rather unimpressive Glory Stones, to the almost awkward-looking, sprawling Rocking Stones. By the end, we were all self-proclaimed stone experts scrutinising the quality of the formations in front of us.

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Part of the beauty of these challenges is the isolation.  Without the usual conveyor belt of ultra runners you find at organised events, you’ll most likely be unsupported and will need to keep focused on navigation and fuelling for a long day in the hills.  You may sporadically see other hill walkers and runners, but almost certainly no-one will be doing the same route as you.

Whilst discussing these routes with various people I’ve also been tipped-off about some bottles of whiskey strategically hidden out there in the Dark Peak to give a fell runner a warming glow.  Whilst I’d love to give some clues as to where, sometimes things are best kept a secret…

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