At All Women All Trails, our dream is to inspire and motivate women to go after whatever adventure excites them. We plan to feature interviews with diverse adventurers from all backgrounds tackling all size of challenges. Enjoy!
I met Englishwoman Irene (with her husband Peter, above) in the Wasdale Head Pub in the Lakes District National Park, England, on September 17. I was having celebratory drinks with my team after finishing a big 5-day hike. Irene, her husband Peter, and a friend sat down in the booth next to us and we all got to talking. When we heard about what she had just completed (and which Peter had completed the year before), we ordered a couple of bottles of champagne and poured drinks all around.
Irene had just that day completed hiking the Wainwrights, a huge accomplishment that fewer than 1000 people can boast. Completing the Wainwrights is a form of “peak bagging” – going after all of the items on a checklist, sometimes with the intention of being the fastest person to tick them all off, or just having a lifetime goal to return to again and again. There are 214 official Wainwright “fells” (hills and mountains), originally organized by Alfred Wainwright in a series of seven guidebooks published between 1955 and 1966.
The peaks range from Scafell Pike – at 3,209 feet (978m), England’s tallest mountain – to Castle Crag, 978 feet (298m). Often the challenge is not necessarily the height, but the remoteness of the peak – you can’t just drive to the base of each fell as it may be in the middle of the Lake District National Park and require several miles of walking just to start. In addition, I learned first-hand how tricky many of the summits can be, often featuring very rocky, technical scrambles or scree slopes. There are usually several paths to choose from up each fell, not always well established and hardly every marked or signed, so you also have to be prepared for some route-finding. Finally, the near-constant rain and fog mean you often can’t see where you’re headed, including the peak you’re currently trying to climb.
When I emailed Irene to invite her to be interviewed for the website, I though I’d get Q&A style responses of the facts of her hikes. I hope you’ll be as moved as I was by her responses, which are thoughtful and beautiful and so much more than just basic “how and why” information- I’ve done almost no editing, choosing to include her poetic and emotional answers in full.
I believe you said it took 20 years to climb all of the Wainwrights. When did you start and why? When you started, was it your intention from the beginning to climb all of them?
Fueled by his youthful ambition and our desire to help our 14-year-old son Tim train for forthcoming army cadet adventures, my husband Peter and I set off with him to climb our first Lakeland fell. Prior to this auspicious day in October 1988 for years we had only gazed up in awe, lusting for a closer relationship with these handsome giants as we passed them on our way to visit Peter’s frail grandparents who lived in the area. Now we were free to visit this group of peaks which had always been an inviting prospect. Now we would get up close and experience their many moods and characters.
The day had dawned to find three intrepid explorers pulling on boots and re-checking backpacks for the essential items enumerated by the mountain rescue experts. Helvellyn, 3118 feet high, was our destination, “Helvellyn By The Edges” our route. It was packed with surprises or should I say shocks. On our approach to Striding Edge every cell of my being lit up, heart pounding, knee trembling mind blowing amazement. Were we really, really going to navigate this narrow sharp fanged stony ridge suspended between steep and rocky buttresses? We were!
The traverse was most terrible – all 300 yards of it, but most wonderful having safely negotiated the awkward chimney that culminates in a final steep and crumbly climb on to the summit. A most magnificent summit encircled by a glorious panorama of fells. I had never felt so alive before. Breathless, speechless and hooked.
For the next seventeen years we spent a couple of weeks and the occasional weekend each year enjoying low level exploration of this gorgeous countryside with the occasional high peak climb to add spice.
In September 2005, to celebrate our retirement, we took a long anticipated holiday to Canada, crossing the country by train from Toronto to the Rockies. It was in Stanley Park, Vancouver that we chanced upon Pam and Rodney who were also on our tour. They too were steeped in the love and culture of mountains. Keen walkers and climbers par excellence who actually lived in the Lake District. They took great delight in telling us that they had actually climbed all the Wainwrights – twice. So, we enquired, what are the Wainwrights and how many of them are there?
Wainwrights are fells (mountains) that have been explored from every aspect, drawn and documented in seven hand written books by Alfred Wainwright between 1955 and 1966. There are two hundred and fourteen Wainwright fells. Then the inevitable question came “how many have you climbed?” Oh a few, but not sure how many – we do have them documented somewhere was our response.
Peter was enthralled and so enthused he vowed he would climb them all before he reached the age of 70, he would have to average eighteen each year.
Pam and Rod took us in hand and guided our increasingly frequent expeditions to include ridge routes, sometimes visiting several summits on each walk. They always had the appropriate Wainwright book to hand as an additional guide. Always an invaluable aid as they included escape routes in case of challenging weather, certain features to look for, explanations of names, summaries of the ancient industries and people who inhabited these mountains from the Stone Age to Romans then copper and lead, silver and gold miners. Also, ubiquitous to the fells are the hard working farmers, shepherds and their flocks of sheep.
I never had the same driving ambition to climb all the fells as Peter but was more than happy to go along for the sheer joy of it all.
Was there a peak that was hardest? Most memorable? Favorite?
In hindsight I hold fond memories of each and every fell, though three or four are tinged with the darker shade of nightmare. The most memorable and treasured of all will always be Helvellyn, our first ever climb. It was the steepest learning curve of my life – facing up to such austere majesty, fear, mystery and the vast rocky scale of the challenge.
Not to mention the relief of a safe descent.
Tim bounded off in advance of his slower companions, undaunted by this awesome, beautiful giant at his feet. He now competes in races up and down the stairs of tall tower blocks in Singapore whilst we continue to plod upwards at a more sedate pace.
And then there was Steeple, at 2687 feet, not such a great height but a technical obstacle course to be approached with the greatest respect. This was easily the most difficult ascent and descent of all. I had previously attempted this climb from Scoat Fell. However, my courage failed at the sight of the narrow ridge to the summit disappearing into the fog and swirling mist. Steeple was conspicuous by its absence. I retreated to a safe distance to endure a migraine attack whilst Peter ventured into the unknown. He returned quite some time later in triumph. However my companions would not let me rest on my laurels in defeat. They colluded in the search for an alternative route and found one from Ennerdale.
It was a long but pleasant walk in with Steeple hidden from sight. My fools paradise. Our final ascent began up a steep incline of boulders. Then we were faced with a large obstacle, a rock barrier which we somehow managed to negotiate. My relief was short lived for when I looked skywards I caught first sight of the way to the summit.
Bloody Hell, what next? Mindful of my patient companions I womanfully pressed on – to discover a succession of rock towers, an ever increasing gradient, the narrow crumbly track and the sheer drop to the black broken boulders waiting far below in the sinister jagged jaws of Wind Gap Cove.
Once we reached the summit it was a tiny pinnacle of rock seemingly suspended on nothing but air. Strange how difficult I found the simple task of breathing – I’m sure there were wonderful views in all directions but I saw nothing but the way down. Yes, it would be the route we had just climbed up! Aah.
Was Peter with you for all of them, or did you go on your own, or have other hiking buddies?
In the early years Peter and I always walked together but would often be joined by a friend or two. After our fortuitous meeting with Pam and Rod we found that other friends were keen to join us to prepare for future challenges.
Sally was one such friend, a petite pensioner [retiree] preparing for a trek in Nepal, keen to test her clothing, boots and improve her overall fitness. We were especially touched when our great niece Masie joined us on a subsequent climb as she had been very ill with the many complications of cystic fibrosis.
Several long-standing friends have joined our walks whilst battling with the later stages of cancer or other illnesses. Each and every one, on completing the challenge, were elated – feeling stronger mentally, physically and emotionally.
Sadly, several are no longer with us except in spirit when we walk their long ago tracks. Especially Annie, Pauline and Eric.
How has climbing changed for you in the 29 years it took you to complete?
Life is all about change and as each year passes we find the volume of traffic on Britain’s roads has increased and Lakeland is no exception. Consequently getting around and car parking has become increasingly difficult and more expensive.
Some climbs, especially those starting in remote areas, only have spaces for 2 or 3 cars. We have always been early starters and now feel we must venture forth even earlier to be sure of a parking space, but this can be a great benefit giving us more daylight hours in which to relish the mountains. One or two farmers have taken matters into their own hands making part of a field or farmyard available for parking in return for a small charge. Sometimes the monies collected are passed on to local charities such as air ambulance or mountain rescue.
The ever increasing popularity of walking in wild places has resulted in severe footpath erosion on the most popular climbs. As a consequence some mountains have become scarred and despoiled. Then follows serious damage to peat bogs, wild plants and bird nesting sites. Again we are fortunate to have teams of park rangers and volunteers working tirelessly in all but the most extreme weather conditions to repair the tracks, thereby limiting damage to the surrounding terrain and giving nature the chance to regain its former beauty.
The past twenty years have seen vast improvements in clothing, footwear and communication technologies such as mobile phones and GPS navigation systems. Thankfully we have had to use our GPS on very few occasions to locate a summit or follow a faint path when unexpected low cloud descended. One can quickly become disorientated in mist with the very great possibility of becoming totally lost, or even worse, stepping off an edge on a speedy route to eternity. Technology does have its place but shouldn’t be a substitute for good preparation, mountain craft and survival skills.
Over the years we have learned to carry spare items such as gloves, hats, water, food, knee supports, strapping, bandages, analgesics, and Kendal Mint Cake in our rucksacks. The latter is used by walkers to supply a quick energy boost – ideal when “jelly legs” becomes a problem!
Every single item has been handed out to grateful fellow walkers on the fells at one time or another.
How are you celebrating your success? What’s the next adventure you’ve got planned?
In November, we are flying off to New Orleans, then we cruise for a week up to Memphis, back home via Chicago.
We shall spend Christmas in Singapore with our family including grandchildren Dan, aged 9 and Katie, aged 8.
In March we are going to explore Egypt from Aswan right up the Nile for 600 miles to Cairo and the Pyramids. There have been a lot of exciting discoveries there recently.
Although we have not had to travel very far from home to the Lakes, we have over the years met people in the mountains from several other countries such as Australia, Japan, India, Nepal, USA, and Canada as well as several European countries. We feel blessed and delighted to have met each and every one.
I ask myself where else in the world could we wish to meet and interact with such a wide cross-section of like-minded people. Each and every soul has bestowed in me a deep conviction of the common humanity innate within every man, woman, and child.
York, November 2017