Find Your Adventure Routes and Inspiration 214 Wainwrights in 14 days and 11 hours

214 Wainwrights in 14 days and 11 hours

Routes and Inspiration

Tears are pouring down my cheeks, dripping onto the grimy rocks of Kidsty Pike’s cairn. I’m inconsolably miserable. Why the hell did I ever sign up for this godforsaken expedition to climb all 214 Wainwrights in a single round? I’m teetering on the brink of surrender. I just want the torment to end.

I’m cold, wet, exhausted and bereft of any fight. Several brutal rounds against the fearsome Cumbrian weather have left me battered and bruised – and emotionally beaten. I’ve been floored by a punishing right hook from the raging wind; almost KO-ed by a mighty jab from the torrential rain. Do I have the strength to get up off the canvas and face my formidable opponents yet again? Is this an unfair match, a battle I simply cannot win? I feel despairingly low and deeply unhappy. My fingers hover over my phone. Just a few clicks and I could put an end to this nightmare. Should I do it?

I pause – and think. The wind is gusting with merciless wrath and horizontal rain is pummelling into my face like a thousand tiny daggers. I still have 15km and six Wainwrights to climb today to the east of Martindale. Then I’ve got to sleep in my tent amid these apocalyptically atrocious conditions. And then I’ve got to continue for 213km for the next four or five days, over 76 more Wainwrights and double the height of Everest.

It’s a horrible prospect; one that knots my stomach and scrambles my brain with anxiety and desperation. I open up WhatsApp. “I’m done...can you collect me?”

But I delete the message. I stand up, tighten my hood around my face, brace against the wind and head off into the clag towards High Raise, my next Wainwright. A sense of euphoria gradually descends over me. There is something intoxicatingly uplifting about reaching rock bottom – staring into the abyss of failure – and pulling through. I feel invincible. Nothing now will stop me from reaching the finish line.

I walk hard and fast. Fury is coursing through my veins. I am apoplectic at the weather gods, as if I’ve suffered a great injustice. But the anger is no longer a weighty chain around my neck, pulling me into a downward spiral of negativity. Instead, like a sportsperson that switches gear because they’re behind, I am harnessing that anger for something positive, using it to fuel my fire and rekindle my spirit. I will not let the weather win. I will not let all those hard miles, gruelling ascents and mental battles be for nought. I will not accept defeat.

I write a narrative in my own head. My epic quest – to hike up all 214 Wainwrights in the fastest ever self-supported round – has become a war of attrition. I have only one simple weapon in this bloody conflict: to methodically chip away at the route’s 530km and 36,000m of ascent. My three nemeses – the weather, the mountains and my mind – however possess a far more complex and intricate arsenal.

The weather wields terrifying force, like a cruel monster hell-bent on inflicting pain and misery on its victim; whereas the mountains are more like a siren, seductively luring you in with their beauty and majesty, only to cripple you with infuriatingly never-ending ascents, ankle-jarringly rough terrain, and knee-crushing descents. But, worse still, is the enemy in my own head. It’s the wiliest and most cunning of opponents. It can blind you with self-doubt; paralyse you with negative thinking; and torture you with tantalising thoughts of how easy it’d be to give up.

The latter has been a thorn in my side for the past week or so. It’s day 10 of my peak-bagging adventure. 10 days of solitude. 10 days of being alone with the thoughts in my head. 10 days of singlehandedly facing my demons. My chosen mission is to complete a single, non-stop, self-supported round of all 214 Wainwrights. This approach serves only to exacerbate the psychological challenge. While the ultra-runners have big support crews assisting their attempts, I am a Lone Ranger. I have no team-mates or comrades to lift me out of the mental mire; no friendly faces to perk me up with a joke or smile when I need it most.

I walk solo. I’m self-reliant. I carry everything I need on my back, re-supplying every few days via stash boxes I previously cached in churches, farmer’s barns and pub outbuildings around the Lakes. I pitch my own tent, cook my own camp meals, filter my own water, nurse my own wounds and massage my own aches. Ten two-letter words sum it up: if it is to be, it is up to me.

This is exactly how I want it to be. I’m no runner. I’ve never run a marathon, let alone an ultra. Tierney, Birkinshaw and Verjee would easily leave me in their wake. But I am trying something different and unique, something that suits my skill-set – to survive in the mountains, alone and unaided. It feels like an authentic, ‘purist’ and intrepid approach.

No restaurants, cafes or pubs. No cosy B&Bs or hotels. No shops or supermarkets. Just a real, back-to-basics adventure. One man versus the mountains.

But, in awful weather, it feels like a wretched approach. Every aspect of being self-supported feels like an extra chore and hassle, eroding my patience and amplifying the suffering. My 10kg backpack weighs me down and slows my progress. Sleeping in a rain-lashed, wind-battered tent is hardly conducive to restful recuperation, while the morning routine of slipping my blistered feet into wet socks is a sickeningly vulgar daily errand. At times, I’m so tired I just can’t muster up the energy to cook, settling for cold porridge for dinner instead; and the constant hardships of a feral existence – not washing, performing toilet duties (responsibly) in the wild, rarely feeling warm or dry – are utterly draining.

I hike north along the broad, boggy ridge towards Wether Hill and Loadpot Hill, face down, marching robotically. The wind is buffeting my jacket and the drizzly air is saturated, as if I’m walking through a cloud. I let my mind wander to better times. It hasn’t all been a suffer-fest. I enjoyed four days of joyously sunny weather in the middle of my trip. I always wanted my round to strike a tricky balance: to be an arduous physical challenge that pushed my boundaries and tested my limits, but also served up the spiritual joys – freedom, escapism, nature, tranquillity – of the mountains. And on those sunny, dry days I walked that tightrope effectively.

On Holme Fell, I sat in the porch of my tent, tucking into a hearty expedition meal from Base Camp Food, and watched the sky morph into ever-changing, diluting, blending hues of pink, orange and red above the jagged profile of the Langdale Pikes. On the ridges around Grasmere, I relished the simplicity of my only goal for the day being to walk from A to B; and on the Fairfield fells the beauty of Lakeland – that magical place of wobbly dry stone walls, sweeping ridges, craggy buttresses, towering summits, tumbling ghylls, glistening lakes and placid Herdwicks – induced me into a coma of mindless happiness. Anxieties floated away, my mood restored and I felt rejuvenated.

A blast of wind and rain transports me back to the far less appetising present. My Inov-8 Roclite G 345 GTX boots trudge through wet ground towards Arthur’s Pike, above Ullswater, as a cold raindrop trickles down my spine. I shiver and decide to pick up the pace, planting my poles deliberately and purposefully. I think about my journey so far. What will it be like to reach the finish line? Will the sense of achievement at the end make all the hardship and suffering worth it? And, most of all, what have I learnt from this adventure?

I’m troubled by the thought that the mountains have become the source of, rather than solution to, my problems. Perhaps the great epiphany – the ultimate learning point – of my quest is that the mountains are in charge. They are to be respected, and feared, and only taken on with humility. As much as they can be therapeutic and healing; they can also be brutally inhospitable, places of pain and anguish and unhappiness. But I don’t want this entire mission to boil down to “don’t go in the mountains when it’s raining”. That feels like an unsatisfactory conclusion.

But maybe this whole journey isn’t just about the mountains? Maybe it’s about life in general? The mountains are a microcosm of an everyday existence; a mirror-image of reality. The rain and wind and exhausting ascents are symbolic. They represent the cruel twists and heartbreaking turns of life; the obstacles and frustrations and unkindnesses we all face, day in day out. You can either let those trials and tribulations defeat you; or you can conquer them. And I’m suddenly struck by an inspiring, elevating thought – a truly satisfactory conclusion to my adventure. If I can overcome the challenges of the mountains with resilience and positivity, perhaps I can do the same with everyday life.

Words: James Forrest

James is a British adventurer, hiker and author, best known for climbing all 1,001 mountains across the UK and Ireland in the fastest known time. Read his journey from bored office worker to intrepid adventurer in his award-winning book, Mountain Man.