One dark night, as the blizzards swirled, the gales howled and most Cambridge students hid in their rooms, working studiously and keeping out of the cold, an assortment of intrepid orienteers embarked on a long car journey to somewhere distinctly hillier. Our destination was a bunkhouse in the Lake District, surrounded on all sides by contours, trees and snow, a cosy haven from the unknown which awaited us in the dark outside.
This morning we awoke to view the landscape around us properly for the first time, and set off after an industrial-sized vat of porridge to Whinlatter/ Lose Former. The drive to training took us through deep valleys between orange, snow-topped hills, past forests and around dark lakes. We tested two routes: “Long” and “Gated-with-Sheep”, and decided collectively that we preferred the former. Fiona, although absent at this stage, clearly hadn’t thought that the forested hillside terrain would be challenge enough, and had removed significant parts of the map to create corridor training and Donut-O. The courses went both through the forest and up on the exposed hilltop, where we found ourselves wading through a thigh-deep mix of heather and snow. Varying amounts of confusion and much fun was had by all; we were, however, getting rather cold by lunch and we did a speedy 45 minutes of clock relay before hurrying back down the track.
It seemed that gates were not to be our friends, as several people seemed to struggle with the mechanics of getting in and out of the bunkhouse car park. Once finally in, however, we discovered the merits of the small but fantastically effective drying cupboard, and dug into last night’s pasta, which we microwaved beneath half a tonne of grated cheese. Unfortunately, disaster struck when the time came to prepare dinner and the new oven failed to cooperate. Kicks and curses achieved nothing, so we used our initiative and created a macro pizza by cooking sliced bread under the grill, which was just as filling, nourishing, and cheesy as anything we could have cooked in the main oven.
We were briefed before bed, making full use of the whiteboard for which the bunkhouse was picked. Joe has decreed that all instructions are to go on the whiteboard and anyone with a question will be sent to check it before receiving a verbal answer. Another main attribute of the bunkhouse is the beams in the upstairs room, which look promising for some MicrO climbing. Bunkhouse failures include the oven, the deceptive number of bathrooms suggesting that five people can shower at once without the water running cold, and the chill room. Mainly the oven.
The day dawned cheerfully grey and drizzly and we set out enthusiastically to Eel Tarn, an open bit of hill with some nice contours and rock features. Rain, cold and darkness could not bother CUOCers, although we did have to will away the threatening thunder.
Wishing seemed to work, and we had some nice running over the hills and round the small lakes, getting in some good practice with contours and bearings. The weather did gradually worsen, though, and it was once again a case of doing the afternoon’s activity as fast as possible/ before hypothermia set in or somebody blew away in the wind. This particular activity, a peg relay planned by Joe, happened to be printed on some microscopic maps, which were further reduced in size and utility as the rain dissolved the not-very-waterproof paper. We staggered off the hill towards the promise of squishy squash to warm us up.
Back at the bunkhouse, we cheesed and microwaved last night’s potatoes. The weather got fiercer as the sky grew darker and gales kept blowing the door open. We locked the weather out and replanned the AlcO in.
The AlcO consisted of four rounds of competitors and many rows of beer, vodka, blue stuff, wine and cider; or, for those non-drinkers among us, multiple measures of dodgy Asda energy drink someone found in one of the cupboards. Josh was advised not to drink it all; a wise proposal, as we were grateful only to have to scrape him off the walls and not the ceiling. The controls themselves did, at times, reach the ceiling, as of course we made full use of the climbing facilities provided in the upstairs bunkroom, including the faintly moaning lump thoughtfully created by Andrew in his sleeping bag. Obstruction of other competitors was apparently allowed, as long as it took the form of strength exercises, and so was “originality” in getting rid of drink. Scottish accents and utensil/human cross-species relationships were also permissible. AlcO was followed by MicrO; no accidents occurred as many agile if slightly inebriated orienteers crashed around the building, and Matthew sat in his happy place in the corner, in charge of the splits. Instructions went on the whiteboard as usual, the “finishing time” having progressed each evening from “When cold/tired” to “When cold/ tired/ hungry/ SoBEr”.
Training today was slopes and relocation exercises at the lovely lakeside Wasdale/ Will-be-hill. Carrie’s contouring exercises challenged us well, especially since we had the disadvantage of evenly-lengthed legs, unlike the haggises we patiently described to Stan. We then had fun getting each other lost, in a pairs exercise in which each person had a slightly different course. It was marginally less cold, although several orienteers nearly blew off the hill and we almost lost Josh in the lake twice. After training, we had a tour photo jumping on the rocks at the water’s edge, but sadly no swimming took place, though we have braved cooler waters in the past.
Tonight was to be the great Christmas feast, so, after the grated-cheese-on-leftovers ritual, George and James set about exploring the various orifices of the turkey. We eventually established which end was which, plus what bits needed to come out and where the stuffing should go in. Rory had decided that we simply weren’t getting enough exercise this week, so with the turkey in the oven (thankfully working today) he led circuit training for anyone not pretending to be asleep. The slightly unorthodox circuits involved jumping on sofa cushions and singing an exercise-themed version of The Twelve Days of Christmas. Matthew arrived in time to join the last round of the song with a certain degree of bafflement, and direct kitchen proceedings. Second-in-command was a “hangry” Jess, who took control of the vegetable production line. Slacking was eliminated and the job was done in record time.
The feast was a success, bar the omission of the sprouts, and preceded by some mulled wine. A wooden spoon was adopted tonight, but it must sadly be reported that not all utensils are being treated with the same degree of love and respect. After dinner, one of Santa’s elves retrieved the Sinterklaas sack and distributed delightful treats and some very interesting poems to all. Fiona, who had coordinated the scheme, was unfortunately not present. She arrived later in her private carriage, after the trains had proved to be less hardy than the orienteers in withstanding the weather.
Thursday’s adventuring took us to Setmurthy, a varied forest, for a change of scenery. We were reminded that we were still in the mountains, though, by Ben’s “Wheeee!” activity, which required volume as well as the speed and precision we have been practising all week. The other courses focused on attack points and catching features. The forest was a little more sheltered and we were even warm enough to be prepared to stay out for a night race. We killed a couple of hours in Keswick, a town delightfully full of hillwalkers and runners but nowhere to feed them tea. Joe, it seemed, had not been suitably exhausted by the training so far, and bounced off the walls until he crashed through the door of the only open tea shop in Keswick. Warmed and sustained by scones, we then drove to the night race at Lodore, which was a lovely woodland with the added excitement of some very black and uncrossable cliffs. Casualties were avoided on this occasion and we all made it back to the bunkhouse to thaw out and grate cheese.
Fiona’s arrival has heralded the start of a Christmas crafts course; tonight’s activity entailed sticking cloves in oranges, to be tied up with ribbons around the bunkhouse. It might be said that Fiona is trying to make up for having forgotten to put half the map in the first day’s training. It may be too little too late, however, as a revenge is already in the making.
Today was designated rest day, so naturally we consulted our maps to decide on various fell running, walking and hiking routes. Our numbers were sorely depleted yesterday (we lost Ben, Jess, James and Matei to the pull of normal life), but we had enough for a one-man walk, seven fellrunners braving the hills directly behind the bunkhouse and a two-man hike a little further afield. As altitude increased, we entered a mountainous winter wonderland of dynamic snow clouds and white-coated peaks. Several people were pleased to note the runnability of the snow underfoot, which did not require wading through as on previous days. We ran/ walked/ jogged happily up to our final summit, Red Pike, and found an angry blizzard. We staggered off the mountain, in the right direction somehow, and down into a strangely technicolour valley. We then jogged back along the side of the lake, which was picturesque if boringly hospitable, and back to the bunkhouse to boil the kettle and grate the cheese.
This evening’s craft class with Fiona found us making origami stars to hang on threads from the ceiling. With an unlimited supply of paper maps, the bunkhouse is sure to be well decorated by the time we leave.
Fiona and Rory went off in search of an Extra Surprise control, left as a treat for Fiona by James, to repay her for her kind courses on Monday. Sadly, it seems to have been a trap, leading them into the Tour Champs embargoed area, and whatever perils lie therein. We are unlikely ever to see either of them again.
Today’s training took place at Lorton Fell, an open hilltop with lots more snow to plough through (and even some falling from the sky). Fiona led a warmup, involving a sort of follow-mother-hen mime over the snowy heather, until the chicks started falling over. Helen had planned route choice exercises going back and forth over the top of the hill, and making vague use of some not-terribly-obvious reentrants. Once again, training ended as we sensed the limits of people’s thermoregulation capacities, and we zipped over the mountain a final time to collect kites before jogging back to the cars.
Dinner was the traditional CUOC veggie chilli, coordinated by Fiona, followed by a Pancake-O and ice cream cut into geometrical shapes. Following the minutes of a previous Pancake-O meeting, CUOC has revised and sharpened certain rules in order to allow competitors a fairer and more precisely defined experience:
The Pancake-O was a success, with everybody managing to find three suitable toppings amongst the leftover turkey and tomato purée. Stan did return with flour instead of sugar, and there was at least one decidedly damp pancake among those who used the sugar from the shower head. Joe’s bed, which he stupidly left lying under the syrup, required some cleaning after the race. More importantly, valuable map memory training was gained by all.
The ice cream was cut into geometrical cuboids as promised. Dessert was followed by Tour Awards, painstakingly engraved onto plates by the organiser, Joe. Notable awards included the Tom Leach Prize for Sleeping Ability (Andrew), the 2nd Annual “Homeless guy who turns up at mealtimes” award (Matthew) and the “What are we hanging this morning (where’s my lunch?)” award (Ben).
The day of the Tour Champs arrived. A final vat of porridge was consumed and competitors prepared themselves. Matthew had planned some brilliant fell/forest courses, making use of two bits of open hillside and a forest in between. There was plenty of scope for fastest splits awards for Demon Descender, King of the Mountain and Sprint Finisher. Butterfly loops helped to scatter people as well as confuse them, and the weather battered us senseless one last time.
Everyone made it off the mountain having had an enjoyable race. We took care of our stuff, the bunkhouse and as much of the food as we possibly could. Any kitchen utensils that had found their way to the bunkrooms were returned with fond farewells to the appropriate shelves and racks. Matthew was presented with a sample of CUOC’s finest bakery as a thank you. The prizegiving got rid of the rest of the food, and everyone was particularly appreciative of a nourishing onion to sustain them on the journey ahead. CUOC was then tragically fragmented and vacuum-packed into separate cars, surrounded by sleeping bags, rucksacks, onions and odd socks, and whisked away from the bunkhouse into the dark unknown once more.