I love mountains. I have loved mountains since I was a young lad when I first saw them on holidays with my grandparents even though I didn’t really know where we were. I do remember a holiday in Scotland and as my grandfather drove I could see nothing but the mountains in all directions – it was the greatest feeling ever and my imagination went crazy. I imagined old Scottish clans hiding away or running free. I saw ghosts and beasts of myth and legend and they ran unhindered through my mind.
The Boys’ Brigade later grooved in this love despite me twice being carried off a mountainside with a twisted ankle; once by my officers and once by mountain rescue – I remain grateful to this day. But nothing could diminish my love of the high environs. Or so I thought.
As life went on, I made bad choices. I enjoyed a less active lifestyle with an unchecked diet and a taste for real ale left me drinking in unmeasured binges. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t unhappy. Many of us who change our lives think we went from a period of deep sadness and into a kind of Nirvana. It wasn’t like that for me. I was happy living the way I did but eventually I realised I could be happier still. And it started again on a mountain.
When one of my twin sons asked me about the mountains he had just gone 11. So I started telling him the stories. We got out some old maps and books and he asked if I could take him. Within the hour I had booked us into a youth hostel for the following weekend and we had started to plan.
Some of you will have heard of Alfred Wainwright the author of the most iconic Lake District guidebooks and the man for whom 214 mountains have been collectively named; the Wainwright’s! I identified that the smallest of these, Castle Crag, was in the Borrowdale valley and that this would be a great place to start again. I knew I wasn’t fit and I was certainly overweight at just under 15 stone and 5’ 8” (over 3 stone overweight actually) but this particular small mountain would be a cake walk.
We drove up on a Friday evening, checked in and I drank a number of pints of best bitter by a beautiful log fire in the hostel and talked to the staff about Castle Crag. They told us of an ongoing challenge in which, from the very bar I was sat at, fell runners would head off and stop the clock on the top of the mountain. At that point the record was held by an athlete called Ricky Lightfoot and his time was set at well under 12 minutes. Now this was obviously a great achievement but it told me one thing – this hill would be easy at a steady walk even if I wasn’t in the best shape of my life. So I ordered another pint.
My son and I awoke full of excitement and eagerness the next morning and went down to our full English in order to fuel our hike. A few rounds of toast followed the sausage and its friends all washed down with bottomless apple juice and coffee. And a view of mountains from the window. Now I really was in heaven.
After clearing away our dishes and taking a moment for a comfort break we put our walking boots on, put a few snacks and some water into our backpack which I agreed to carry and after a quick check of the map, we headed off into the sunshine.
The walk began along the river and a sunny day was promised. We were both full of high spirits and I was telling my lad about other mountains I had climbed previously and he was taking it all in. For the next ten minutes I thought I was in my element.
We continued on at steady pace until we reached the gate that would take us away from the river and into the higher ground and we took the path that would lead us to the top. From here we had could get an idea of what lay ahead; a nice steady climb with a couple of steep albeit short sections. It was still fun.
As we headed uphill I could immediately tell that I was going to have to take this next bit very steadily as my lungs began to react, my chest tightened and the heart rate went through the roof. But we were in no rush so no real problem. Five minutes later I was retching, leaning on a tree stump and considering turning around and going back. Let me remind you in case it is needed that this was the smallest Wainwright fell in the Lakes.
Once I had regained my composure and took on some water we decided to head off again, even more slowly this time but I didn’t get another five minutes before I was gasping again and letting the rucksack fall to the floor to allow for easier breathing. We decided to take a breather and sat down for ten minutes.
As we sat my son said he wanted to take the rucksack for the next section and I knew he was worried that we might not make it. He was feeling fine and didn’t want to risk not ticking off his first fell. So I agreed and we headed off again. We had actually nearly got to the top when this happened and a quick hop over a style and a scramble up a slate path saw us on the peak and the reward of the view into Keswick across Derwent Water. We enjoyed the view and some snacks, drank a can of Coke, chatted to a man who appeared shortly after us who was on a much longer walk and then headed back to the hostel full of questions about the state of my health.
That evening, with another pint in front of me, I took stock of the situation and chatted with son number two. Despite my shortcomings I had lit a fire in me once again and needed to get into the mountains a lot more. He had really loved it and wanted to know what we could climb the day after and I resolved to get out again no matter how difficult I was going to find it but if we were going to do a lot of this I would have to get fitter. And I did. There are moments that I think this was the day Waetugo was born even though I didn’t know it at the time. I resolved to make changes and to use everything I knew about psychology to get me there.
Last week I was part of a group that climbed Helvellyn, the third highest mountain in England. My son was with us too. Whilst I found it strenuous there was no gasping for air, dropping of rucksacks or thoughts of retreat. My pack was much heavier than the one I carried those few short years ago as I now take the responsibility of carrying safety equipment for the group despite walking with much fitter and younger men yet I climbed it with a steady ease. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t racing but I was fit enough to have a great time. And what I haven’t told you is that we were frequently knee deep in strength sapping snow.
Figure 1 My heart rate on the day of climbing Helvellyn.
In those intervening years, I haven’t become super fit but I have become functionally fit for the tasks I enjoy. Following Helvellyn we walked far and high for two more days needing no recovery.
Is there a moral to this story? I hope so. I hope these few words identify that from even a very poor baseline, with the right motivation and healthy choices we can move forward significantly. Realistic goals are steadily achieved and goals achieved can fuel more motivation.
Mountains and fells might not be for you but that doesn’t matter. It might be Sunday football or badminton with your friends. What have you stopped doing that you enjoyed that required a modicum of fitness and good health?
Let us know in the comments below.
All the best.