There was no fanfare – no friends, no balloons, no champagne bottles. I stood alone, cold and wet and tired, being battered by howling winds and driving hail.
But I was filled with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction to have experienced this “better world”.
Gazing out over Ullswater
I had just completed the journey of a lifetime, reaching the summit of Slight Side and finishing my final climb of the famous Lakeland Fells.
For three and a half years, walking the Wainwrights – a list of 214 mountains featured in the seven pictorial guides by Alfred Wainwright – had been an obsession.
Looking up Grisedale Pike
It was a passion that pushed me to wild camp in sub-zero temperatures, to head out despite torrential downpours and to skip Friday night pub sessions in favour of a 200-mile drive north for a weekend in the Lakes.
And I’ve never regretted those decisions one bit.
On the plateau top of Mellbreak with views to snowy summits
Every walk has been time well spent - time for wilderness and solitude, for self-reflection and quiet, for escapism and nature. Every fell has brought me boundless happiness.
To non-believers this might seem a sentimental exaggeration but many outdoor enthusiasts across the UK and the world feel the same. Being in the mountains is good for the soul.
Near summit of Great Scafell - looking down to Meal Fell and Great Cockup
I find it difficult to explain why or how in a succinct manner but, where my creativity fails, the words of the great fell walker Alfred Wainwright do not.
“I was to find a spiritual and physical satisfaction in climbing mountains – and a tranquil mind upon reaching their summits, as though I had escaped from the disappointments and unkindnesses of life and emerged above them into a new world, a better world.”
Looking down to Wastwater, Lake District
This poetic turn of phrase encapsulates perfectly what the mountains have given me - and there have been many highlights.
An adrenaline-fuelled scramble up Blencathra via Narrow Edge, a climb to the summit of Pillar in snowy conditions and an hour enjoying the evening views atop Hopegill Head are moments that particularly stick in my mind. Coming face-to-face with a deer in woodland on the shores of Derwentwater and watching the sunset from my wild camping spot on Thornthwaite Crag were similarly memorable.
A more traumatic incident was being woken at 3am by a chilling cry of “is anybody there?” from a mountain rescue search party, while the most bizarre was stumbling across a hilltop beacon party celebrating the Queen's diamond jubilee.
Climbing the ridge to Steeple
These amazing experiences of walking the Wainwrights make me a vocal advocate of the Lake District.
Visiting will bring you adventure, nature, beautiful landscapes and fresh air and – best of all – you don’t need to be a mountaineering master or a fitness freak to dip into the Wainwrights.
The pictorial guides, which split the Lake District into seven geographical areas and provide detailed routes, hand-drawn pictures and insightful commentary on each fell, offer an excellent starting point for an amateur’s explorations.
Taking a break to enjoy the views on Jack's Rake
Naturally an element of fitness, navigational skill and experience in the outdoors is required, but it is not all giant peaks, knife-edge arêtes or tricky scrambles. Many of the fells are small mountains which are easily accessible, have good paths and can be climbed in a matter of hours. Loughrigg Fell, Latrigg and Castle Crag are a few classic examples.
Hartsop Dodd and views of Ullswater
Alfred Wainwright said of the latter:
“If a visitor to Lakeland has only two or three hours to spare, poor fellow, yet desperately wants to reach a summit and take back an enduring memory of the beauty and atmosphere of the district…let him climb Castle Crag.”
Gazing at Pillar Rock from Pillar
As the rush to book summer get-aways begins, I would therefore encourage you to shun a week-in-the-sun holiday and instead cast your eye to the Lakes.
There won’t be a sun lounger, tacky bar or Pina Colada in sight, but I can think of 214 fantastic reasons to give it a try.
James completed the Wainwrights in 2015. He was so inspired by the Lake District fells he moved from Birmingham to Cumbria in 2017.