Anti-Clockwise Tour of the Round
This is a chapter from 'A Tribute to the Round', a short book on the Bob Graham Round, written for charity and available here
Before 1932, all twentieth century rounds had been on anti-clockwise circuits, in particular, both Wakefield’s 1905 and Thomas’s 1922 record rounds began with Robinson and ended with Skiddaw. On the advice of George Abraham, Bob Graham chose to go clockwise. As Fred Rogerson noted, this meant Graham’s round was “all the more remarkable, because all other previous 24-hour records, of fewer peaks, had been done anti-clockwise, so he had no yardstick.”
Once Harry Griffin and the Heaton brothers rediscovered Graham’s round, the trend reverted to an anti-clockwise approach (even though the desire was to replicate Graham’s route wherever possible) and, by and large, these ‘reverse’ rounds were more popular until the mid-1980s. It is noteworthy that Billy and Gavin Bland went anti-clockwise when they undertook their walking round (following “careful study of the map” to reduce mileage). Billy is reported to have said that if you want to get round, go anti-clockwise; if you want to go fast, go clockwise.
Today, the clockwise round is significantly more popular, with fewer than one in ten contenders going the other way. The arguments for and against are well-rehearsed. In a sentence, the case for anti-clockwise begins with being able to start the round after a full night’s sleep, put the road section to bed quickly while legs are fresh, allow for the main rocky sections to be completed in daylight hours, leave the main grassy sections and the Helvellyn range for the dark and draw on the rejuvenating powers of dawn to aid the final three big climbs before stumbling down Skiddaw.
Horses for courses. People who work best on a full night’s sleep, do not enjoy rocks and who can make friends with big climbs may favour anti-clockwise. Those wanting to front-load ascent, get the night out the way and allow their pacers to wait for them at the pub go the other direction.
The remainder of this chapter describes each of the legs from an anti-clockwise perspective.
Leg One (clockwise Leg Five)
With fresh legs, the road run to Low High Snab will pass far quicker in reverse; indeed efficient road runners may be able to build an early time cushion.
For the climb of Robinson, do not discount a steadier trudge up through Little Dale as a measured way to wake up the calves: from the reservoir, it is possible to stay on the grass below the ridge, traversing up the slope to the summit plateau. Alternatively, going via High Snab Bank in effect splits the ascent into two chunks with a break in between.
From Robinson, there is a faint diagonal trod to the mid-point of Littledale Edge before cutting the corner to Hindscarth.
Leg Two (clockwise Leg Four)
Contenders with a preference for steps will take the path by the fence to Grey Knotts summit rather than the grassy trod. Powering up this line is the slightly more direct route.
Getting to Great Gable should pass without event, but knowing the best line to Beck Head can make a big difference given it is tricky ground in reverse.
The descent of Kirk Fell presents a choice. The steep Red Gully is likely the swiftest way down for scree-confident descenders, even though it is well-worn by decades of use. Kirkfell Crags are a slight scramble but perfectly manageable. Baysoar Slack offers a sheltered, grassy way down in bad weather.
From Red Pike, it is technically possible to take a direct line over Gosforth Crag Moss (on grassy lines all the way to the valley floor) and then directly up the western face of Yewbarrow. However, it would take severe idiosyncrasy to favour it over the standard way. (Ascent by Dore Head and Stirrup Crag was the way taken by the record-holders of the early twentieth century on their anti-clockwise rounds before Bob Graham.)
For the final descent from Yewbarrow, be sure to know the best line down to Wasdale; while much swifter than a clockwise ascent, it is still far from pleasant.
Leg Three (clockwise Leg Three)
Ascending England’s second-highest mountain is the single biggest climb of the round and will drain even the strong. This is the point when you need to remind yourself of the case for going anti-clockwise, as you may be seriously questioning the decision.
In reverse, a new route option presents itself: Lord’s Rake via Brown Tongue. No credible contender would choose to descend it at the end of a clockwise Leg Three, but it is a perfectly viable choice for the start of the leg (and the shortest in distance terms). For those wanting a steadier start, the full length of Green How beckons. The scree-filled and rock-filled gullies of Rakehead Crag are best avoided in ascent.
There is significant choice from Scafell to the Pike. A Broad Stand abseil is the swiftest option for the initiated. But it is not without obstacle: it is a blind approach, it is weather dependent and a large party of supporters can add significant time if the contender has to wait for all to descend.
Of the remaining routes, there is significant support for Foxes Tarn given the difficulties of downward scrambling on the Climber’s Traverse, Lord’s Rake and West Wall Traverse. The latter two are probably the quickest alternatives to Broad Stand, but they are a challenge when encountering others making an ascent at the same time.
From Bowfell, the vast majority will take the shelves in reverse; the small remainder who prefer not to scramble down (perhaps in poor weather) will take much longer to transition via Ore Gap to Rossett Pike.
From Rossett, either head down Black Crags (fine) and up Martcrag Moor (trudge), or swing around Langdale Combe – it all depends on appetite for distance versus ascent.
As with clockwise rounds, choosing between whether to summit High Raise or Sergeant Man first is simply a personal choice. Both routes are equally valid, although most contenders opt to visit High Raise first. This makes use of the good trail from Thunacar and Mere Beck poses no difficulty in descent (grassy options available on the left of the beck). But there is also good descending ground from High Raise to Calf Crag.
The classic line from Steel Fell is likely to be the best way to close out the leg, especially in dry conditions when the footholds give good grip. In the wet, alternative lines may be of greater interest, but there is probably little argument for a direct line from the summit to the dual carriageway.
Leg Four (clockwise Leg Two)
In theory, it makes perfect sense to set out in the morning so the Helvellyn ridge can be done in the dark. In good weather, a clear night and a dose of moonlight should compensate for mental fatigue. But in poor conditions this is a surprisingly tricky task, as many will attest.
From Dunmail, do not discount a counter-cultural ascent up Raise Beck when heading to Seat Sandal. While it is no friend in descent, some may prefer a stepped path over a trod and a steady gradient over a varying one. Turn south not long before the col. Else, follow the usual trod to the summit.
There is no debate on getting to Fairfield, but the transition to Dollywaggon Pike presents three credible routes involving a mix of paths and steep tracks. The first and most direct is to descend by one of the Cofa options and ascend by the pony track. The second is the tourist path down Fairfield and then the steep grass of the old fence line. The third and most forgiving is to take the tourist path down Fairfield, head anti-clockwise round the tarn and then up the Dollywaggon track.
Subject to navigation, the way along the ridge to Clough Head is clear. On the descent to Threlkeld, the direct trod is unlikely to be comfortable on tired legs and so the Threlkeld Knotts alternative is worthy of consideration (especially if Red Screes is utilised in descent).
Leg Five (clockwise Leg One)
By this point, dawn should be breaking, providing an important mental lift for the three big ascents left to come. The anti-clockwise round puts 20% of its ascent on the final leg, relative to less than 10% for a clockwise round.
Hall’s Fell must surely be the preference, not least because a scramble at the top may offer some distraction. Doddick is extra distance without extra speed. Nothing about the trials of this leg become easier through use of the Middle Tongue ‘parachute’ in ascent.
To Great Calva, the heather trod is the shortest route and hidden holes are less of a risk when going up. That said, it can be tricky to find and so the eastern fence may be a safer bet to avoid floundering in the heather. There is scant cause to go via Skiddaw House unless hostel respite is required (note: only open in summer months).
From Calva, the shortest line is to retrace the traditional route down to Dead Beck, over Candleseaves and up Blake Hill. But it is also possible to descend Calva by its highly runnable south-western shoulder, heading past Skiddaw House and then up the tracks of Sale How. This adds at least half a mile of distance but has the attraction of being on dry grass.
With over 60 miles in the legs, do all manner of 3,000-foot descents feel equally painful? If so, contenders with strong quads may prefer the shortest possible route back to Moot Hall, which involves a technical descent down Carl Side. While still a toil, the traditional way down Jenkin Hill may make for a more pleasant passage.