I'd been chasing the 5-star weather in the Scottish Highlands since 24th April with a pop-up crew of itinerant pilots. Monday/ Tuesday from White Corries and Wednesday from Creag Meagaidh (Loch Lagan). The flights had been stunningly scenic but not the distance I was hoping. The Wednesday evening forecast review showed increasing showers in the Highlands for the rest of the week, however, the Lake District looked great for Thursday and Friday.
Such is the life of an XC junkie that forecast was enough to hit the road. It would've been after midnight to reach the Lakes so we, Dean Crosby and Joe Dart were also tempted, laid up overnight at Abington leaving ourselves 1.5hrs drive in the morning.
Thursday dawned clear but clouded over again. We climbed to the top of Blease Fell and waited in the cold under 8/8 cover. We'd all but given up on the day when the sky opened up a little and we enjoyed a 2.5 hour/ 28km triangle with an impromptu SIV session in the sea breeze thrown in for free!
Enjoying a cup of tea after the flight on Thursday, the Friday forecast looked like a 5-star light (<10kph) easterly. I hit the road to Coniston Old Man (COM) whilst Dean headed back home for a good night's kip and would decide in the morning whether to come out to play.
Driving slowly, stopping for a natter with Geoff Crossley regarding other triangle start point options. It was about 19:10 when I came to a road closure on the A593 about 3 miles east of my destination at Coniston village. "Drat" I thought to myself (OK, drat might not have been the exact phrase) "if only I hadn't stopped for that chat with Geoff I'd have managed to get through". As it turned out that enforced detour was serendipitous.
The delay saw me arrive in Coniston village around 8pm and I bumped into Keith "Bud" Patterson and John "Westie" Westall having a debrief after hike and fly training. As I shared my thoughts on the Friday forecast their eyes lit up. Bud was up for it but needed to get time off work, Westie had work commitments in the morning so would be out later in the day.
Wednesday evening the messaging apps were furiously pinging. Half a dozen of the regular crew I fly with were planning to be out; the West Yorkshire lot were coming to COM, the North Yorks gang heading for Model ridge/ Cringle Crags. Jake sketched out a 66k COM based triangle, I stretched it to 70k which, when declared, achieves 200 points in the XC League.
Geoff joins the chat and reports the largest non-declared Lakes triangle is 75.51 by Chris Scammell back in 2011 with the largest declared at 75.01 by Mike Cav in 2017. The gauntlet was thrown down, I picked it up and proposed a 78.4k triangle to beat both records. (Declared triangle have 2.4k subtracted covering turnpoint cylinders; I learned the hard way by missing out my first 200pt triangle last year. )
Thursday night was cold, Friday morning dawned clear and still down by Coniston Water. But the forecast was showing stronger wind, possibly too strong for a triangle, I reckon more than 10kph and you're better off with a down winder. The phone starts pinging; the West Yorks lads are to join with the NY contingent heading to Cringle Crags for a down wind blast towards Liverpool. It was a good plan, had I been nearer I would have joined them.
Bud messaged that he'd got the day off work then reports came through that Mike Cav was going for a 100km triangle from Cautley Spout in the Howgills. I reached out to Mike but Chinese whispers were at play; he was thinking of 100k from Cautley but an out and return rather than triangle. That made all the difference, Bud and I committed to COM, the drive to Cautley didn't seem like it was worth it.
Looking at the convergence forecast, I tweaked the shape of our triangle to move TP1 from east of Grasmoor to Boathow Crag south of Ennerdale Water. To keep the FAI shape/ distance TP2 had to move about 5km NNW and was placed one km north of High Street to the west of Haweswater Reservoir. I don't have vast experience of flying the Lakes so I overlay previous flights to identify where I've climbed; TP2 moved from where I'd had a good climb previously to an unkwown.
There's a video on Youtube which runs through my planning for this flight and in the description I've listed the web sites I use.
My camper van isn't suitable for driving to the Walna Scar car park so I had 30 mins walk from the village plus the usual walk up the hill. It was my first visit to COM in 2022 and I had in mind a long and arduous climb but was pleasantly surprised to find myself at the launch above the old quarry in 50 mins at 10:30. And that's with a 28kg pack, no lightweight hike n fly kit for me, no sirree.
At launch I took a few minutes to cool down, relax and enjoy the fabulous views across Coniston Water and the southern Lakeland fells. The sky was still blue with a few wispy Cu's beginning to form to the east. Wind seemed bob on, light if anything, with regular thermal strengthening.
Meanwhile, Bud had caught up with another group of pilots walking up the southern face. A minor mis-communication saw him go all the way to the top (a further 120m vertical) by 11:00. There seemed no great rush until a cheery "Hello" from a Skywalk pilot soaring overhead showing that it was already working.
Launching straight into some nicely lifting air, and the start cylinder, at 11:30 gaining 1,000' and clear of the summit inside three minutes. Bud launched around 11:45. The air was lifty but we were topping out about 3,300', around COM it was still blue whilst to the north wispy Cu's were starting to form. XCTrack was reporting wind at 14kph at 100o - bit stronger than I would have liked. From previous flights I've realised that COM is slow to start and when the Skywalk led out and showed Swirl How was working to the north we followed.
The Skywalk led out again, crossing in front (east) of Wrynose but didn't connect with any lift and was last seen low in Little Langdale. I've been stuck on Wrynose and the Pike of Blisco before and had in mind to climb higher on Swirl How to enable an easy crossing to Crinkle Crags. Bud led out from below 3,000' and showed we could make it straight across but despite that, I stopped in a weak climb for a couple of turns halfway, probably making the crossing more difficult.
We both climbed to around 3,000' on Crinkle and then to 4,000' on Bowfell then tracking around the ridge to Scafell Pike where I found a 1ms climb. It was obviously weak and wind was now showing as 20kph but the drift was directly on course line with the massive Yewbarrow bathed in sunshine within an easy glide so I stuck with it for a few turns. It wasn't good enough for Bud who hung around Scafell Pike until something stronger came. I could see him climbing much better but there was little point me trying to push into wind and join him. And that's how we became separated, we were never in sync from that point on.
As it happens I didn't find anything as I cruised 1,700' over Yewbarrow but got back to 3,9 from Red Pike and at 12:50 up to 4,500' on Scoat Fell in the eastern fringe of the convergence which was setting up almost exactly as RASP had forecast along the ridge to the south of Ennerdale Water. The convergence led directly to TP1 which I bagged at 4,300'. Turning tail, I should have paid more attention to track back precisely and re-connect with the convergence but I still managed to get back to Scoat Fell with 500' AGL. The day was beginning to pick up nicely as a 2.5ms climb (20 second average) took me to 5,300', it's 13:16, I've been flying 1:45 with 28.3km to TP2, 50km to goal and wind is 10kph at 119o - not the fastest ever but pretty reasonable speed for me.
There were now some nicely formed Cu running west to east through the central Lakes just a couple of km north of my position. I headed that way following the high ground to connect with the cloud street. The next 45 minutes were straight forward; the course line and the cloud street aligned, I was gliding down to 3,800', climb back to 5-5,500' and pushing on. It was working like clockwork, I'm enjoying this rhythm.
On the stroke of 2 o'clock it nearly went to pieces.
I was in race mode; when in the top third (4 - 5,500' today) I was pushing on when the climbs were less than the best I'd already had. Over two and half minutes the glide averaged 3:1 which took me from 4,100' to 2,200' wind now showing as 16kph at 80o. Disregarding conventional wisdom, to change down the gears and take anything when you're low, I pressed on convinced that some parcel of air must be rocketing up to balance all that sinking air. The low point was 200' below the ridge tops at Pike of Garrs, just 300' above the Easedale Gill valley floor.
Quarter past two and I found the boomer. Starting at 1-1.5ms it accelerated to 4ms as it detached the ground, I rode it to 6,100' leaving a few hundred feet below cloudbase. Crossing the A591 on to the Helvellyn range I passed south of Seat Sandal and climbed up the side of the clouds to 7,100' weaving along the northern edge the right hand wing tip occasionally brushing the wispies.
The cloud street didn't quite lead all the way to TP2, the final 1.5km was in to a blue hole with 10kph at 140o cross head wind. I repeated my mistake from earlier and did not backtrack directly under the cloud street instead pushing a little south to the sunny side. This move did put me back over known territory which gave me small comfort. A couple of other gliders were working weak climbs, heading their way I stumbled into a 1ms above Heron Pike. Wind was showing as 20kph @ 122o which drifted me over the A591 north of Grasmere. It's 15:30 there's 13.5km to goal, XCTrack helpfully reports altitude over goal as -3,000' and required glide of 14:1.
I was beginning to feel positive about achieving the task. I've scrabbled my way back from here before and even if I do go down it won't be a massive walk back. It'll be a cross head-wind to get in but that easterly component may help me soar some slopes if necessary.
Coming in to Easedale Tarn at 3,400' I find a 1.5ms climb which strengthens to 2ms as I ride it for 12 minutes to 5,900' above High Raise. Distance to goal is now 11.5km almost due south with altitude over goal improved to -1,000'. Another top up back to six grand from Loft Crag in the Langdale valley put me positive for goal with required glide of 6.7:1. Altitude over goal continued to click up as I cruised south on two thirds bar over Pike of Blisco, Wrynose and Swirl How.
Crossing the goal cylinder back at Coniston with two thousand feet to spare I was delighted and used the altitude to push south extending the triangle to 81km before coming in to land at Coniston village.
As I packed away Joe Dart came to congratulate me, he'd had a day on the kayaks with his partner trying to enjoy himself whilst looking wistfully at the sky he was missing. Bud landed a couple of km outside of Coniston a few minutes later and we debriefed over a brew back at the van.
Answers to a few questions I've been asked.
Could you have gone bigger?
Yes for the undeclared/ no for the declared based on the forecast and actual weather on the day.
For the undeclared, I could have climbed on Swirl How and Coniston using that additional altitude to push another couple of km SW from COM and back.
For the declare it's not immediately obvious how I could. Start is fixed by geography (could have pushed out maybe 500m from launch). Clockwise direction dictated by sea breeze (later in day). Placement of west TP dictated by the position of the convergence when I expected to get there. With leg 1 fixed I was near the maximum FAI possible.
Given the right conditions I suspect a 100km triangle could be flown from Coniston.
What did you learn?
When under a working cloud street it's worth taking weak lift to stay in the "working zone" rather than dropping out and having to do a bigger climb up/ running the risk of not getting up.
Backtrack to reconnect with a lift line/ cloud street.
Do you have contingency plan(s)?
Yes. I had in mind to either shorten the triangle or turn it in to an out and return if one or other of the turn points was not achievable.
How flexible are you if the day is different to the forecast?
This is an area I struggle with, my nature is to focus on the plan at hand and I'm not particularly good at making up new plans on the hoof. On a small scale I'm prepared to deviate from plan (e. G. If there's a blocker on course line) but on the bigger scale I tend to struggle. I was pleased with myself for extending the flight at the end rather than just burning it off in wingovers as is my normal habit.
How difficult was that flight and what was the key?
It depends on your definition of difficult. For me, scrabbling around low, soaring close to rock faces or battling turbulence is difficult. There were only a few minutes during this flight which were in that category; the one time I got really low. Fortunately my Thursday flight had acclimatised me to sea breeze turbulence so it didn't feel particularly rough.
The key to the flight was the cloud street which set up west to east through the central high fells. Otherwise pushing 33km into a 10-20kph head wind would have been very difficult. Although RASP hadn't forecast a convergence line on that axis it felt that way to me, particularly as I surfed the northern side of it to the east of the Helvellyn range.
How important is planning in achieving big XC flights?
Planning is a huge part of achieving big XC flights, probably 50% for me, but for the real record breakers it's probably 75+% of their game. Selecting a good start point and route taking account of airspace, terrain, macro and micro weather systems - it's complicated!
I dream of a 100km triangle in the Lakes.