26 April 2017 by Simon Barnett
This spring, I’m going to attempt to climb all the 214 Wainwright fells in one continuous route.
During the challenge, if all goes to plan, I’ll cover around 320 miles and ascend over 35,000 metres. To put that into context, that’s the equivalent of 12 marathons whilst climbing nearly four times the height of Everest.
And I’m trying to do this all within 15 days.
So why have I taken on this ‘uphill’ task? A question I get asked all the time. And here’s my honest answer. Quite simply, I love spending time outside - especially the sense of freedom and absolute pleasure that comes from being on foot.
I find solace in forgetting my cares, whether that's due to the concentrated effort of simply putting one foot in front of another, or the concentration associated with navigating across challenging terrain.
I love to wander, looking for a feature as obvious as a large granite outcrop or something as nebulous and nondescript as a reentrant or a 'large knoll' amongst a myriad of very similar sized knolls.
There’s so much pleasure to be found in knowing that I am experiencing a precious moment - one, that as its happening, I know will stay with me forever, in the form of a mental photograph that captures an eternal split second in time. And then there are those moments of rediscovering a view that I've not enjoyed for years or that was obscured previously by low clouds covering the fells. Or even better, the sense of satisfaction that comes from introducing that view to someone else for the first time.
To me, delight comes in exploring somewhere new, the excitement of turning a corner or cresting a ridge and not knowing what to expect, and knowing that beyond that corner is another corner and another corner, just as long as I can keep going. Or beyond that summit with its fantastic vista is another summit with another vista, just as long as I can keep going.
The concept of keeping going was instilled at an early age. I have no memory of it, but aged 3, family folklore has it that I self-propelled myself from Pen y Pass to the top of Snowdon and back. Whether it happened exactly like that is neither here nor there, but those early years laid the foundation of a love of being outside.
This was reinforced by long family holidays spent in the highlands of Scotland, scrambling over evocatively named features in the Torridonian mountains such as the Pinnacles, the Horns and the Black Carls.
The drama of the wild lands of Scotland was complemented in my teenage years by the remoteness of my local National Park - Dartmoor. Most weekends from January through to May would be spent there, getting lost and then unlost on the high parts of the moor, accompanied by the endless song of the Skylarks.
This training culminated every year in the annual Ten Tors expedition. Organised by the army, around 2,500 teenagers in teams of six would set out to tick-off ‘ten tors’. Over the course of a weekend each team was self-sufficient and followed a course of 35, 45 or 55 miles – as long as we didn’t get lost of course!
And so, in these formative years, the concept of walking long distance and ticking achievements off lists became part of who I am and what I like to do. It’s changed a bit, but the basic principles have never gone away. And neither are they likely to.
Throughout childhood I had dabbled at various sports – most definitely being a jack of all trades and master of none. I had always enjoyed running, and running long-distances – certainly part of the tiny minority of people who looked forward to cross-country at school! After having moved to the south east of England, and settling in Tring, it wasn’t long before I had joined the local running club. Here, I was exposed to a something I hadn’t come across before: fell running. I quickly learnt that this was something that combined many of the things I enjoy – not least being a challenge and being outside in awe-inspiring landscapes.
Part of this learning included reading a book titled ‘Joss Naylor was Here’. It is the account of a Lake District sheep farmer who ran around all the Wainwrights in a week. At that moment, about 10 years ago the dye was set. My fire was fuelled in 2014 when another accomplished Lake District fell runner, Steve Birkinshaw, tried to go even faster than Joss Naylor.
So despite the daunting statistics and despite the physical battles I’ll no doubt encounter, I look forward to my challenge with mounting excitement.
I’ll keep walking, running, and as needs be shuffling, for the views; to find out what’s around the next corner; to lose myself in concerted concentration; to battle the weather and to battle myself; and to enjoy my own company and the company of others.
I’m driven in knowing that at the end of it all I’ll have some deeply precious memories, a list of fells with 214 ticks on it, and blisters. A whole lot of blisters…
Just keep walking!