The Motivation to Do Something
Let me introduce myself. My name is Stuart and I’m part-way through my mid-life crisis. I turned 40 back in 2004 and woke up to the fact that I was ridiculously overweight and took absolutely no exercise at all. I have a sedentary job, requiring lots of sitting down, either in front of a computer screen, or in the car travelling to another computer screen somewhere else in the country. I was in danger of not being able to find a pair of trousers to fit me in Marks and Spencer anymore – and trust me the prospect of shopping at “High and Mighty” and “Mr. Fat Bastard” is a sobering one.
At my 40th birthday party my Mother took a picture of me that shocked me (see below) and as a result I embarked on an “eating modification program” and exercise regime. I don’t do diets, in my experience they don’t work. A lifetime of watching my Mum struggle with various different diets and not appearing to change shape at all led me to my own plan. I stopped eating high fat foods, especially chocolate, cut out all the mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks and switched to drinking scotch instead of beer.
I started walking our West Highland White Terrier, Meg, who at the age of 3 was also gaining weight as she wasn’t getting much more exercise than I was. I started with a 20 minute walk around the local park and after a 5 minute breather on a bench at half way, made it back to the house covered in sweat. This route was repeated each evening for a week or two until I no longer needed the breather at half way!
After a couple of months of extending the walk a few minutes each week, I was walking for almost an hour without a rest. I was still sweating buckets at the end, but then that means it was doing me good – right? I’ve never strolled, I always try and walk at a good pace. Meg was looking fitter as well, she was now legging it round the garden all day, chasing birds and cats and the planes that overfly our house! I walked Meg almost every day, rain and shine, fog and snow for 9 or 10 months, feeling better all the time and gradually losing weight.
It was about this time, probably spring of 2005 that I started walking with my colleague, and more recently friend, Rob. At the time we were living 3 minutes from each other, we were both doing the same job for the same company and this allowed us to co-ordinate walking activities. He’d been a keen walker many years previously, doing lots of hill walking in the Lakes. But he’d not been getting much exercise and his expanding waist line and declining level of fitness had driven him back to walking his fat black Lab. We started doing slightly more strenuous walks around the local area (which is central Cheshire) including one or two with “hills”.
This obviously went to our heads as we soon decided we were ready to tackle something a little more serious. I bought a pair of boots, a daypack and some waterproof gear and we headed for the Lakes early one Saturday in May 2005 to climb up to the beacon on Blawith Fells and the picturesque Beacon Tarn. This involved a short four or five mile walk with a mere 830 feet ascent, but provided fantastic views along the whole length of Coniston Water and the Coniston Fells to the North. We both managed this walk without too much difficulty and felt a great sense of satisfaction upon our successful return to the car later in the afternoon.
I can’t remember exactly when it was that I decided I needed a goal, something to aim for, to keep my motivation level up and a target to strive for. But I remember where I was. I was driving home one afternoon listening to a program on Radio 4 about the Pennine Way and how it was 40 years old. I did a bit of investigation and it seemed that only about 1% of people who start the PW actually finish it, this seemed like a suitable target to aim for. I discussed this with Rob and it turns out he’d always harboured a goal to walk the Coast to Coast path devised by Alfred Wainwright in the early 1970’s. After much discussion we agreed the C2C would be our joint target, satisfying my requirements of being a serious challenge to strive for and also fulfilling Rob’s long-held desire.
Now about a year into my lifestyle modification I’d lost about 6 stones (84 lbs) and could walk for 2 or 3 hours (albeit on the flat) without needing a break. The views from the Beacon had been incredible, I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was hooked. Of course I’d always known about the Lake District, I’d even spent a week there about 20 years earlier, staying in Windermere, playing golf and discovering Theakston’s Old Perculier; quite simply the best beer ever made. However, I had no idea of the grandeur and majesty of the Lakeland Fells until I climbed that first hill.
I have a benchmark too; I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, flown through it in a helicopter and had breakfast on the side of the canyon looking down onto the Colorado River below, which is very impressive. In fact I’d go a bit further and say that it was bloody awesome, but in my opinion it’s no more impressive than the Lakes, it’s just a different kind of impressive.
Coniston Old Man
A few weeks later, a few more local dog-walks under our belts and we felt ready to try a real hill, we decided to conquer Coniston Old Man. I’d seen the Old Man from Beacon Tarn and it looked bloody huge (even from 5 miles away), I said this to Rob along with my concerns that maybe we should set our sights a little lower, but was convinced by his argument that we were ready and he’d done it loads of times before and it wasn’t all that bad when you got there.
Another early Saturday morning start found us in the car park of a campsite that Rob knows alongside Coniston Water. I didn’t know at the time, but most people who climb the Old Man from the Coniston side start from the car park on Walna Scar Road, which is about 700 feet above the level of the lake from which we were starting and 2.5 miles closer. I was sweating bullets by the time we got to the car park and we stopped for a “review of the map” (aka breather) before pressing on any further.
One thing we have always had in common during our walking together (and still do today) has been our requirement to stop every few hundred yards up a hill to; check out the view, get something out of our pack, have a drink, take a photo, in fact any excuse we can think of to catch our breath. We both know why the other wants to stop and we both agree that this is a perfect time for that particular break, whether it be a drink or a pee or whatever.
At Rob’s insistence, our plan had been to shun the tourist route up to the summit, instead using this as the path of our descent. We used the Walna Scar Road running along the south of the Old Man to make our way to an indistinct path, but one that would hopefully not be too busy. If we were going to pant like a couple of old steam trains up this hill, I didn’t want a bloody audience to the fact!
The day was very warm and I’d already zipped off the bottom of my trousers and packed my fleece to walk in shorts and t-shirt. The climb up to the summit seemed to be interminable with at least a dozen false summits along the way. Although the path we chose was fairly quiet, we were passed by several people on the way up. The final straw for me was the group of obviously American tourists who passed us while we stood panting and “admiring the view”. They were quite inappropriately dressed for a walk up here with jeans and trainers and not a pack between them. We made our usual pleasantries (we always say hello to anyone we see out walking), but my usually suppressed macho gene was outraged – there was no way I was going to let this gaggle of tourists beat me to the top.
I stuck an elbow in Rob’s ribs and we were off; head down, breathing ragged and sweat pouring. We kept pace with the American’s who were a mixed age group, led by a man with a very loud voice and a pink sweater over his shoulders. Fortunately for us they seemed to be slowed by one older lady in their party.
Approaching the summit, the weather closed in, the temperature dropped considerably and the cloud rolled in to obscure everything beyond 50 yards or so. We were well equipped as each of us carried a warm fleece, we also had gloves and hats, which we had need of by the time we reached the trig point and cairn on the top. Just before the summit, we managed to pass the Americans who were waiting for the older lady to tie her shoe laces (that’s one delaying tactic I’d never thought of – but now use occasionally).
One thing Rob said to me on the way up has stayed with me since and I always apply to summit approaches; no matter how shagged you feel or how knackered you are, always approach the summit like you’re fresh as a daisy and this is just another walk in the park and once in the sight of anyone at the top, don’t stop. It really doesn’t do to let other walkers see that you’re actually just a fat bloke struggling up a hill. However, in this case I’m sure our sweaty, red-faced appearance belied any impression we tried to give, but it’s not a bad philosophy to adopt.
The most memorable thing about that day for me was the two of us standing at the summit, about to ceremoniously and simultaneously touch the cairn at the top (my first ever cairn, my first ever 2000 foot summit) and as our fingers touched the rocks the Red Arrows roared overhead. It seemed completely justified that my outstanding personal achievement should be recognised in such a manner.
The summit was completely jammed with people, I don’t think I’ve seen so many people on a summit since (except perhaps Mam Tor). Some were obviously experienced and well prepared walkers, like us :), but many were completely unprepared for the weather conditions that had set in unexpectedly. Since that experience I have always made sure never to assume that what is a glorious day down in the valley will remain so on the hills. Admittedly, no-one was going to die of exposure on the Old Man that day, not with so many people around, but many people went home cold and damp.
We used the tourist track to descend back to Coniston, passing the old mine workings and a constant stream (what we liken to a caterpillar) of tourists making their way up the hill. For me the descent is almost as hard as the ascent, I have a real problem with my right knee that seems to be exacerbated by descents. By the time we reached Coniston I was in a lot of pain and by the time I got home, the knee had swelled considerably. I have since purchased an elasticated bandage to try and shore up the ligaments as I walk. This helps, but my knee is still my Achilles heel (pun intended).