Monday, 16 May 2016

Life of a Mountain: Blencathra - a Review

I never started this blog in order to be a film critic and I'm not going to pretend that I am going to be any good at it, but, I was lucky enough to go and see one of the first showings of this new film from Terry Abraham at the Rheged Centre in Penrith which was followed by a question and answer session afterwards.
For those of you that haven't seen Terry's first major documentary, Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike then where have you been? Set over four seasons, it was a film less about the mountain itself but of the individuals and communities that live, work and play in its considerable shadow. Featuring a cast that includes legendary fell runner Joss Naylor, mountain guide David Powell-Thompson, broadcaster Eric Robson, author and backpacker Chris Townsend, mountaineer Alan Hinkes and a host of other Wasdale residents it was a sumptuous 2 hour epic. There is a short trailer here which will give you a taste of what you have been missing.
Anyway back to the new film. Blencathra is a bit of a hot topic at the moment and has hit the headlines due to the landowner planning to sell it in order to raise funds to pay off the families death duties and so Terry was persuaded to change his plan of following the Scafell Pike release with a film about Helvellyn in favour of this one (Helvellyn will now be the next subject and final instalment of the Life of a Mountain trilogy).
Having been very impressed by the Scafell Pike film I was a little worried that this documentary might be just a copy using a different mountain, however, my apprehension was soon dispelled. Stylistically the films are very similar, lots of stunning time lapse shots of the mountain looking gorgeous and/or dramatic in a variety of weather conditions, cloud inversions, snow and at night. But there were differences as well; there was the introduction of aerial footage from drone cameras which definitely added a different perspective (literally) and there seemed to be a greater emphasis on the village of Threlkeld and its relationship to the fell that rises above it. Some familiar faces from the Scafell Pike film reappeared with David Powell-Thompson giving both a form of introduction and conclusion to the work as well as the ever chirpy Alan Hinkes crossing Sharp Edge in full winter conditions laughing to himself all the way.
In the Q and A session after the showing I asked Terry what lessons he had learned in producing the first film and how they had influenced the second. His response was that he had filmed the Scafell film almost with no real plan and then just put it all together into a film, almost hoping for the best but with this one he had a definite plan. That growing skill at storytelling really seemed to come across very nicely with a definite beginning and end in the shape of David Powell-Thompson almost bookending the work with his pieces to camera from Threlkeld Common looking towards the rugged face of Blencathra across the A66.
Corinne, Terry Abraham and I have a quick Hinkesie
If I was to be slightly picky then I felt that the section around three quarters of the way through about the floods didn't quite seem to fit and felt slightly jarring against the rest of the film, almost as if it had been stuck in as an after thought and was just a little bit out of sync with the rest of the footage. I think it was quite fitting that the subject was covered and the devastation it caused to the people living in the area but the sudden jump to news footage didn't quite flow with the pace of the film.
Having said that the sequence with comedian Ed Byrne and broadcaster/writer Stuart Maconie being escorted across Sharp Edge genuinely made me chuckle (a bit of it here) and Alan Hinkes' self deprecating humour about wandering the hills looking for people to have selfies with has led me to now call such photos Hinkesies.
All in all an even better production than first Life of a Mountain episode, which was itself excellent and a definite progression in terms of Terry Abraham's filmmaking art and I'm now really looking forward to the Helvellyn one in, probably, a couple of years time.

Both films are available to buy from the Striding Edge Productions online shop by following this link

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Hill Bagging - a blessing or a curse?

Sometimes I feel there should be some sort of support group for people with a serious hill bagging addiction, somewhere you can turn up and stand in a room of fellow sufferers and proudly say "My name is Col and I'm a hill bagger" (feel free to use another name if you're not called Col). A group where people really understand your irrational drive to travel hundreds of miles, endure terrible weather, to walk/climb for hours just to put a tick in a book or fill in another box on a spreadsheet.

The view from Low Fell - cheers Alfred Wainwright
For those not in the know, hill bagging is a bit like outdoor stamp collecting. Instead of having lots of albums full of gummed bits of paper we have ticklists and pictures of us looking dishevelled stood next to cairns or trig points. We don't trawl through ebay looking for a rare penny black or a mint condition Malaysian commemorative first day cover, no we are a lot cooler than that, we surf the web trying to find out if there's a linking route between two obscure peaks so we can get two ticks from one walk. While stamp collectors might have guides to prices and values we have Munro tables and Wainwright guides. I'm probably painting a really bad picture of the hillbagger here, but its not all geekishness and obsession, there are adventures to be had and experiences that you would never have thought of without following a ticklist; one of my favourite ever views from a summit was the one from Low Fell in the Lake District looking back over Crummock Water and Buttermere to Fleetwith Pike and Haystacks, somewhere I would have never thought of going if it wasn't one of Alfred Wainwright's Western Fells.

In its simplest form hill bagging is the act of getting to all the summits in a certain list - and there are lots of lists. The oldest and probably the most famous are the Munros - first conceived by Sir Hugh Munro back in 1891. These are the Scottish mountains over 3000 feet in height which can be viewed as a separate mountain from any adjacent ones - there is no rigid criteria for height difference unlike some other lists and in total there are currently 282 with a further 227 Munro Tops (mountains over 3000 feet but no real distinction between its summit and the neighbouring ones). It took only 10 years for the first person to claim that they had completed this feet, Reverend A E Robertson in 1901 although it is possible he missed the summit of Ben Wyvis.

One of the really nice thing about hillbagging is that a lot of it is taken on trust, so its probably no coincidence that the first recorded completer of the Munros was a Reverend. When I finished the Wainwrights and got my completers certificate from the Wainwright Society no one asked to see proof that I had been to the top of all 214 summits, all I had to do was give the name and date of getting to the top of my first and last fells and that was it. At the end of the day its a personal achievement and you're only really cheating yourself by claiming you've done something you haven't and if you get into conversation with someone that really has done them all then you will usually get found out pretty quickly. Anyway, back to the lists.

Armboth Fell "cairn" - not really worth the effort
Hill lists normally fall into one of two categories; you have those that are measurable, like the Munros (if its over 3000 feet, in Scotland and a separate summit then it qualifies), if its between 2500 and 2999 feet with a prominence (height difference) of 500 feet or more and in Scotland then its a Corbett and so on. On the other hand you have lists that are more subjective where they are in a list purely because of someone's opinion. A good example of this type are the Wainwrights. If hill baggers are a meticulous and obsessive breed then Alfred Wainwright was the ultimate example. On the 9th November 1952 Alfred Wainwright sat down to start writing his seven volume Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, he estimated it would take him the next 13 years. Working at the rate of one page per day he produced page after page of beautifully hand drawn and hand written work filled with information, not just of routes but history, geology, humour, maps and views. They are not just guides, they are works of art. There were no hard and fast rules as to which summits he chose to include and there is much debate about why he chose to include something so insignificant as Mungrisdale Common (a small grassy lump in the middle of an upland moor) but left out Helvellyn Lower Man (a large peak nearly 3000 feet high) - who knows? it was his list so his choice I guess.

Five and a half years to get from one hand to the other
Technically the Wainwrights were the second list I finished, but you cant really count the English Furths as there are only 6 of them, It took me just under 5 and a half years of zooming up and down the M6, camping, sleeping in my car, working out routes, filling in spreadsheets and colouring in maps. It cost me a lot of money and took up a lot of time but I loved virtually every minute of it - well I did with hindsight, at the time some of them were pure hell and I questioned my sanity on several occasions (as did a lot of other people).

I cant speak for all addicts and I don't know if this happens to all hill baggers but I feel like I went through a bit of a metamorphosis . When I first started it was a case of "summit at all costs", getting there come hell or high water (quite often the water wasn't high, more like falling torrentially from the sky), doing the mountain by the quickest possible route and then trying to get as many more in that day as I could. Every spare day or weekend was commandeered as a Wainwright day, the car would be filled with gear and I would leave home in the early hours and I wouldn't return until late at night with more ticks to go on my spreadsheet. The spreadsheet was a thing of hill bagging beauty! It told me not just how many I had done but the perentage of each book, which months I had done the most peaks in (generally April and September, don't ask my why that was, or why I wanted to know it), the average height of the completed summits, all manner of geekiness in excel format. The day all that changed wasn't actually on a Wainwright fell, it was on Ingleborough in North Yorkshire. The first 18 months of just concentrating on the Wainwrights made me pretty bored of the M6 and I started taking the odd weekend off to go walking in other places - it was weird, I almost felt like I was being unfaithful to the Lake District. Anyway, one of those stolen, illicit days I decided to do Ingleborough and it was a really crappy day; high winds, low cloud, cold, miserable. I set off from Clapham and by the time I was halfway up I was wet through and getting battered by the wind. I plodded on until I got to the crest of Little Ingleborough which isn't too far from the top. I could have made the summit quite easily from there but it suddenly struck me ... why? Yes, I would get a tick (Ingleborough is on the Trail 100, Hewitts and Nuttalls lists) but I wouldn't get the view Ingleborough is famous for, I couldn't say that I had experienced Ingleborough other than having got to the top, all I would have seen would have been grey clouds, the odd bit of limestone and the trig point and wind shelter at the top. The other thing is that hill bagging as just a tick list exercise is all about the new, which new ticks have I got, where can I go that I haven't been? If I had completed Ingleborough that day then it wouldn't be a priority any more, it would have its tick and the next time I was in the area then I would be looking for somewhere else to plant my metaphorical flag. So, I gave up, turned around and headed back. That was the point that my mindset changed - enough of racing to the top, tick, on to the next one, tick. No more always looking for something new to do. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a hillbagger but now the priority is not "conquering the hill" (a phrase a detest as how can you conquer something as big as a mountain - you can get to the top but the mountain will always be greater than you) its appreciating it, taking the best way up, really getting to know it. Sure, it may take a little longer but in my book its worth the time and effort.
The highest hill to bag of the lot

I started this blog saying that hillbagging was like stamp collecting, but really that's what it is at its worst. At its best its a framework for adventure - the chance to go places you would never really have thought of, to research routes and mountains during times that you can't physically be on them, to acquire an impressive collection of maps and be able to sit on the bench on top of Latrigg in the Lakes and look at all the high mountains, fells and summits arrayed in front of you and say "I've done all of those"

Just as an appendix to the above, here is a list of the lists - should you be interested:

Munros - hills in Scotland above 3000 feet and separate from the next summit (282)
Munro Tops - summits in Scotland above 3000 feet but negligible difference between it and the next (227)
Corbetts - summits in Scotland between 2500 and 2999 feet with 500 feet of prominence (221)
Grahams - summits in Scotland between 2000 and 2499 with 150 metres of prominence (221)
Donalds - hills in lowland Scotland above 2000 feet sometimes with a prominence of 98 feet (but not always!) (140)

Mountains in England, Wales and Ireland that would qualify as Munros but for the fact they are not in Scotland are called Furths (6 in England, 15 in Wales and 13 in Ireland)

Trail 100s - the best 100 hills and mountains in Britain as voted for by readers of Trail magazine
Nuttalls - summits in England and Wales over 2000 feet with a prominence of 49 feet (254 in England and 190 in Wales)
Hewitts - Hills in England, Wales and Ireland above Two Thousand feet with a prominence of 98 feet (528 Hewitts in total: 179 in England, 138 in Wales and 211 in Ireland)
Birketts - summits in the Lake District above 1000 feet (541)
Wainwrights - the fells in Alfred Wainwrights Pictorial Guides (214)
County Tops - the highest points of either the modern or the historical counties of Britain
Humps - any hill with a prominence of 100 metres (nearly 3000 of these)
Marilyns - any hill with a prominence of 150 metres (1556 in Britain)
Fellrangers - the hills written about by Mark Richards in his guides to the Lake District

If you still require more lists then there are Deweys, Hardys and Tumps.

You can even create your own lists of whatever you want. I am currently doing the Gillhams (hills written about by John Gillham in his guides to the mountains of Snowdonia) and the English Top 50, which is, as you might guess, the highest 50 mountains in England. Nearly finished these apart from The Cheviot and Mickle Fell (because its in a military live firing range - getting blown up would really make hill bagging a curse).

Friday, 22 April 2016

The Magic Mountain

Yesterday, my daughter asked me "Dad, if you could only ever climb one mountain for the rest of your life which one would it be?" - ouch, tough question.

Now, I don't want to seem like I am blowing my own trumpet here but I've been to the top of over 500 different hills and mountains in the UK, some of them many times. I have climbed all kind of pointy bits of landscape from Dartmoor to the North of Scotland, been out in every kind of weather and seen some amazing things - so, as you can guess, I had a lot to choose from. In typical dad fashion I stalled and gave a generic answer about "all mountains being special, etc, etc, etc" but last night I had a really good think about it and finally pinned if down to just one.

Before I give away the winning mountain's identity I wanted to give some of the reasons why I chose the one I did and how it encapsulates my views on adventure and the love of the British hills.

The official Government definition of a mountain is a summit of 600 meters (a little under 2000 feet) or higher and the one I have chosen checks in at 633 meters, so, it only just qualifies. Like the mountains of Britain in general its small but this also makes it accessible. If you choose to, then you can get to the top and back with a relatively simple walk of 5 miles, with a total ascent of less than a thousand feet from a major UK road. Alternatively you could spend all day making your way to the top, scramble up waterfalls, climb weird rock formations, watch mountain hares running around, sit amongst the heather, picnic by its little streams and hardly ever see another person. You can make it as simple or as hard as you feel comfortable with - the perfect hill for adventure.

Any guesses yet?
Like every bit of high ground in the country, you need to respect it and be prepared. Yes, in perfect conditions you could wander to the top and back in an hour and a half, but, when its tough it gets really tough, really quickly. I'm a navigation geek and like I said I have been all over the country with a map and compass in my hand but this is the hardest place I have ever had to navigate. The "summit" is really a plateau which stretches for 7 km from west to east and 6 km from north to south and in that area are only two major footpaths, the rest is a collection of odd rocks, peat, heather, streams and bogs. Wander from the path without a map and you're in trouble - I should know, I'm in the mountain rescue team that covers this area and we spend a lot of time searching for lost walkers, even ones who are well prepared. But, if you know how to handle a map and compass then this is real adventure territory.

In this country we seem to believe that everywhere is a bit tame, that we don't have real mountains like the Alps or Himalayas - if anything does qualify then you need to go to Scotland or maybe even Wales. There are plenty of people who wouldn't believe there are any adventures to be had in England unless you go to the Lake District but this hill isn't in any of these places. But, I'm trying very hard to convince you that adventures can be had right on your doorstep. The place I am describing is within an hour's journey of six major cities; Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Liverpool and Derby.  Enough of the suspense, have you guessed where it is? Hands up all those people who said Kinder Scout ... sorry, you're wrong, it is in fact Kinder's little brother, Bleaklow.

In typical British fashion I have gone for the plucky underdog, the one that always gets overlooked, the one that always gets ignored as the crowds head to neighbouring Kinder Scout for this, in a way is part of its appeal. You can go to Kinder on any day of the year and there will always be loads of people milling around Kinder Downfall or walking along the Pennine Way. Bleaklow is different, it  is like a members only club that only a select few know about. Sure, lots of people traverse Kinder and carry on along the Pennine Way to then cross Bleaklow and, hopefully, get all the way to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland at the end of 267 really hard miles but even though they pass the cairn at the highest point they have never really experienced what Bleaklow has to offer - that's the least interesting way up. Bleaklow is an odd mountain, the top doesn't have great views, in fact if it wasn't for the big cairn with the pole sticking out of it then the summit is hardly distinguishable from any other bit of the plateau, all the action is around the edges and the approaches.

Fancy a bit of romance?
Whatever style of walk you want then I bet you I could recommend a way up that contains those elements:

Woodland? head up Middle Black Clough, across to Blacklow Stones and then along to the top.

A scramble? Go up Wildboarclough

Big dramatic valley? Take the Doctor's Gate Path

Wide airy moorland? Try going up Lightside, along to Dog Rock

An easy stroll? Park at the Snake Pass summit and walk along the Pennine Way

A really tough day? Alport Bridge, Westend, Grinnah Stones, Bleaklow Head and back down the Alport Valley

History? Try finding some of the plane crash sites (there are a lot of them - more about them in future blogs)

Romance? Take your beloved to the Wain Stones, also known as the Kissing Stones

Part of the B29 bomber crash
Bleaklow is the mountain that has it all.

There are probable quite a few outdoorsy types who are reading this and maybe sneering a little bit - they probably think there are much more worthy mountains to choose, each having their own personal favourites and I'm not going to argue with them. It's a personal choice after all. That's the point of all this really, its up to each of us to find our own adventures and these don't have to be miles away from home. Bleaklow was my favourite mountain for all of the reasons listed above but most probably because its the one I know best and so I have had the longest time to learn its ways and little hidden nooks and crannies.

Bleaklow is my mountain, its my home territory, I can see it from my living room window (or not see it when the clouds roll in). I have been up there in thick snow, blazing sun, torrential rain, howling gales, in the dark, watched the sunset and rise, rescued people, taken up groups and friends. I have been up it so many times I couldn't even begin to put a number on it and its always different, always exciting, always an adventure.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016


Ok, so not the most original of titles for the first blog but it seemed appropriate to introduce myself to you all and maybe give you a taster of what to expect from these little forays into the world of writing. So ...

On Beinn Narnain, Scotland
Hi, I'm Col, outdoors addict, map geek, hill bagger and as of a few weeks ago, mountain leader and blogger! I have been a walker since being a small child, thanks to my dad who dragged me kicking and screaming for walks in the Peak District (and beyond) virtually every chance he got. I suppose like most small children I didn't really appreciate it at the time but as I got older then I found the escapism and freedom of wandering across the moors and hills very appealing, so much so I now inflict it on my daughter and so the circle goes on (she'll thank me for it one day). I have a bit of an addiction to the British hills and mountains, which are, in my view, the best in the world. OK, granted they are not quite the Himalayas, Alps or Andes but they have a history, character and variety that is hard to match. The other great thing about the hills in Britain is that they are so accessible; they don't require months of planning, sherpas, inoculations for rare diseases, entry visas and all manner of other bits and bobs you need for an assault on Everest or The Eiger. This does not mean you should underestimate them at all - Britain's mountains may look benign but if you get things wrong then you can find yourself in a lot of trouble very quickly and they do claim their fair share of fatalities (I am also a member of a mountain rescue team so I have to put that warning in). That said there are some great adventures to be had and I have spent as short a time as an afternoon in the hills and bagged summits, seen rare wildlife, done a bit scrambling and had a great time just wandering around all within half an hour of home (I live near Manchester).

The great thing is that walking is kind of becoming a bit cool at the moment. When I was younger I was always seen as a bit of an odd ball and people's perceptions seemed to be walkers were all a bit weird and spent far too much time wearing cagoules and wandering about in the rain to really be sane. However, that seems to be changing lately and I find that now, rather than giving me a wide berth and looking at me blankly people seem genuinely interested in some of the things I get up to. Maybe it was the popularity of Julia Bradbury's Wainwright Walks series, the fact people have less money for foreign package holidays or  just a bit of a wake up to the countryside but I find the hills are getting busier and whilst hiking is hardly the new rock and roll its definitely not the outsider pursuit it used to be.

Corinne and I on the North Ridge of Tryfan
 One of the other influences is, as strange as it may sound, Facebook and social media. I spent years walking on my own, not really having any walker friends. But, now I have a wide range of people from all over the country who I regularly meet up with for walks who I have met through social media (some of them may appear in future blogs). There is also my long suffering partner, Corinne and the previously mentioned daughter, Poppy as well as another little one on the way who will all make cameos somewhere down the line.

For years now I have wanted to escape my mundane office job and spend more time out on the hills with an outdoor job and I got the kick I needed when I was made redundant just before Christmas 2015. I used the payoff to do my mountain leader training and then the assessment at the National Mountain Centre, Plas Y Brenin in Snowdonia. Fortunately all my years of walking and my membership of a mountain rescue team meant I already had enough experience to skip straight from the training to assessment and passed first time. Which now brings us to Everyday Adventures. As you may have guessed already I'm passionate about getting out in the hills and want to get many more people out there safely and introduce them to the fun you can have. I feel there are many people out there who sit looking at hills and mountains saying "I would like to go up there", but for whatever reason never do it. I firmly believe that if you want to go then there are no barriers to you doing it and Everyday Adventures is there to support you. No matter what your reason for thinking you cant get up your desired mountain then we will find a way to overcome then - unfit/overweight? then we will take our time - lacking in confidence? then we'll support and guide you - don't know where to start? then we will give you training in navigation and skills - lack motivation? then we will help you with charity challenges or whatever else will help you achieve your goal.

If you would like to know more then there is a website that you can find here or you can follow us on Facebook by clicking here, or twitter here