High on High Pike

by Natalie Hawkrigg

I live with the Cumbrian Fells right on my doorstep. Straight out my gate onto the fell. It’s not luck that I live where I live, it was hard work and choice. 

I started fell running 15 years ago, short runs from the house up the track. When I started I slowly increased my elevation and distance and it wasn’t long before I was running up and over my local fells on a regular basis. High Pike and Carrock Fell are my immediate neighbours. On a normal week pre-Covid I might run up High Pike 2-3 times. 

In 2020 when the Covid pandemic arrived, I was very fortunate that I could continue to access the fells on my doorstep. The message was clear – Stay at home. Exercise locally. This meant that I only visited High Pike and Carrock Fell, both less than 3 miles from my front door.

As a local GP and working for the NHS, the stress of the Covid pandemic started to have its effect on me. When I get stressed I have an odd coping mechanism. I become OCD. I quickly became obsessed with summiting High Pike and Carrock. If you remember the first lockdown it was glorious weather, maintaining my obsession wasn’t too hard. I became obsessed with sunrises, waking up earlier and earlier so I could be on the summits for the sunrise.

This all seemed to help make the stress of work more manageable. The early morning sunrise on High Pike could stay with me all day whilst I was cooped up in PPE Covid world. 

My next door neighbour who is also a fell runner, threw in the extra challenge of seeing who could summit High Pike the most in the year, making it a friendly neighbourly competition. The Game was on!! By the end of 2020, I had summited High Pike 220* times and Carrock 120 times. My neighbour managed 100 High Pikes.

*220 purposely for 2020

New Year 2021. I was meant to be resting my body, it was tired after a series of hard long distance running challenges squeezed at the end of the year. Here comes the 1st of January – got to go up High Pike on New Years day. 2nd of January – my birthday, got to go up High Pike on my ‘birthday run’ to Helvellyn. 3rd January – should be resting, but somehow find myself walking up High Pike. 4th January – day off work, so went up High Pike. January 5th LOCKDOWN! Another national full lockdown. I hadn’t seen this coming. Stress levels rise. OCD emerges, and so that was it, I decided I would summit High Pike everyday of Lockdown 3.

To add to the OCD element every time I summited I had to take a photo from the same spot. I kept a private Facebook diary of all my ascents. 

I just can’t do running in the evenings. So I have to go every morning. I work 4 days per week and start at 7.30 am. So in order to achieve a High Pike before work it means I am up at 5.30 on work days. In January it is very cold and very dark at this early hour. 

I quickly become mesmerised with the head torch narrow world in front of me. I start to enjoy its cocoon. I feel safe in that cocoon of light and breath. My thoughts whirl around my head for the first 10 mins then somehow they disappear into the darkness. Only the important things stay, the rest of the rubbish in my head ebbs away. 

I start to recognise every inch of the route. If I close my eyes I could tell which part of the ascent I am on simply by the feel of the ground, a rock or gradient. 

January brings with it extreme weather. I was undeterred. I started running in a Patagonia vertex down jacket under my waterproof. Spikes on my feet a daily feature. Two notable ascents were best described as epic. One was in a full snow blizzard in complete darkness. I could only see 1m in front of my googles. I became disorientated very low down before the start of west fell, and found myself already way off route. At this point I should have turned around and given up, but no, the OCD is now extreme. I make it to the Cumbria way track, but miss the usual ascent area, there are no paths, the snow is thigh deep and I have no sense of direction only up. I somehow find the summit area only by continuing to choose the gradient, all landmarks are obsolete. On the descent I reach the Cumbria way at some random place that I don’t recognise. I can not find my usual descent route. All I can see is swirling snow in front of my face. I make it home.

In mid February the wind and rain had arrived in the form of Storm Bella. Side ways horizontal freezing rain, with frozen ground and patches of snow and ice all around. I could not stand up right from the shear effort of forcing my body forward into the wind. The cocoon of the torch light was completely spoilt by sideways frozen hail. The hail hitting the side of my face stinging painfully. Drenched at the summit, I had to kneel to take the photo, and quickly scurry the camera away before it was ruined. When I turned around I could not take a step without being blown forward in frozen gusts of wind, with perilous ice sheets beneath my feet. 

One particular ascent started as a sledging outing from the house with my son Jonty. Before we knew it I was towing him all the way up with the intention of sledging back down. On the descent the sledge got away from us.  It carried on down all the way to the river (1 mile bellow us) before it crashed to a stop. I had to descend to retrieve it, leaving my son up high. I then retrace my steps back just so he could sledge again. I don’t think either of us will ever forget that day. 

Saturday mornings have been my High Pike treat. I meet my friend Liz Wilson and she joins me for a covid safe run. I also get to have a lie in until 6.30 am. She is an early bird like me and we never see any other runners. In fact in all the summits of High Pike I have done early I have never seen another single soul. When we run together we natter away our worries and our week. We share the head torch world, brace whatever the weather throws at us. We have shared some amazing sunrises and wonder.

Next up a shared virtual sunrise with my friend Angela Wilson. She lives in Carlisle and she has been confined to the local area near where she lives for her runs during lockdown. Angela loves a sunrise too, and she has become obsessed with Rockliffe on the river Eden. I can see Rockliffe from High Pike and Carrock. We watched the same sunrise together from 2 different spots at the same time.

February 25th and a memorable ascent – Skylarks. The summit is dark blue instead of black and when I turn around it is twilight and no longer pitch dark. Spring is arriving. Soon I will be enjoying the sunrise again on the summit before I go to work. March the 1st heralds the start of a dry weather spell. A taste of things to come. I meet my friend Clare Regan on the summit of High Pike at 6 am. She is the first ever person I have met at this break of the day. The moon is smiling down at us and the sunrise warms our spirits. She drags me other Knott, Great Scafell and Brae and I feel the lift from a different vista and her company. 

When do I decide when this lockdown challenge ends? My body is tired, my mind is fatigued from work, my body fatigued from the antidote of running. How will I feel if I miss a day? How can I make this stop? This must stop because it is not now healthy. There are many things I want to do this year other than run up High Pike. This now feels like ground-hog day. Yet I love it still. It is my blanket of safety, my happy place even when it is so hard on me. When the whole of my world is uncertain, it is my one certainty. Order in the chaos.

Where are you going to High Pike?

 Please don’t go away,

I want you at least, to stay.

 Solid, present, do you pray?

 To the gods, the wind, the earth, everyday.

 You let my thoughts ebb away,

 Where, where they they go to today?

 After we are gone you will be there, 

We a small fragment of your care.

 Lost in a trance, each footstep a dance, 

A trance, a trance, a trance!

 Ghostly visions that were once here. 

They leave, and leave no fear. 

Come here, come here, come here. 

Where are you going, my dear.

 ( Run Everyday High Pike #lockdownlife January 2021)

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2 Responses

  1. angela locke says:

    Just brilliant writing. Quite breathtaking and so vivid and evocative. Thank you. I was spellbound.
    Have you thought of joining the Society of Medical Writers (SOMW)? Mostly they DON’T write about medicine! They would totally resonate with this piece. Makes my walking down from Sandale obsessively look a bit tame! wow!

  2. Robert Kenning says:

    Natalie, that is a lovely summary and I felt that I was with you for at least 100 of those ascents even though we never passed each other! It became apparent quite early on that your obsession was in a different league to mine and I was thoroughly defeated in our challenge despite having my own, very personal, relationship with the Pike in 2020. xxxx your neighbour Rob

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