I climbed every 2,000ft mountain in England and Wales in six months – the fastest ever time. I’m a record-breaking mountaineer, who walked over 1,000 miles, ascended five times the height of Everest, and wild camped for 50 nights during a pioneering peak-bagging mission. The Sunday Telegraph nicknamed me “Mountain Man” (which, I like to think, sounds like some sort of legendary superhero), and The Metro called me an “explorer” who completed an “epic challenge”.
It seems odd just writing all that down. For many years I’ve dreamed of making my mark in the adventure world and, finally, I’ve made it happen. It feels awesome and exhilarating and motivating. And I can’t wait for all the adventures that lie ahead. But, for the time being, I’m reflecting on my 446 mountain challenge. It’s now been a month since I stood atop Scafell Pike in the Lake District and reached the finish line. Since then I haven’t gone anywhere near a mountain (!). I’ve been sleeping, eating, chilling, eating some more, sleeping some more, and every now and then fantasising about my six-month blur of mountain madness. This post is my attempt to capture all of those post-adventure thoughts buzzing around my head.
Why did I do it?
I went backpacking around the world in 2016 (read about it here). On returning to England with an empty wallet, I promised myself that I wouldn’t slip back into the monotonous routine of the 9 to 5 rat race. Instead I was determined to find a way to make everyday life as adventurous and epic as possible, while still holding down a job (albeit a part-time, three-days-a-week one) and maintaining a semblance of normality to my existence. I wanted to set myself an awesome challenge to test myself and see what I was capable of. I walked the Wainwrights (more on that here) a few years ago and I relished the way that pushed me to go to new places – I thought that doing something similar would give me that motivation to explore new places and have new experiences.
I’d owned the Nuttalls guidebooks (see below) for quite a few years, but only done a few of the walks. The books sat on my desk for ages and, one day, the idea struck me of an intensive challenge to tick them all off in one summer. My main aims were quite simple: to explore the wild landscapes of Britain I’d never been to before; to indulge in my love of the mountains; and to prove that you can integrate a crazy, epic adventure into your everyday life. Setting a new record was simply an added bonus
Why am I drawn to the mountains?
Mountains are good for the soul. I love the freedom, the fresh air, the isolation, the unpredictability, the escapism. I always find that walking in the mountains and sleeping under the stars is life-affirming. Every walk is time well spent – time for wilderness and solitude, for self-reflection and quiet, for escapism and nature. Every mountain brings me boundless happiness. I’d encourage everyone to spend more time outdoors – you won’t regret it. (More on why I love walking here)
Why the rush? Why not take your time?
I’m one of those strange people that enjoys the pain and drama of a hectic expedition. I love the physical and mental challenge. But I fully understand that most (sane) people should take their time and savour every walk.
What was my definition of a mountain?
I based my adventure on the ‘Nuttalls’, a list of 446 summits compiled in The Mountains of England and Wales by John and Anne Nuttall, who define a mountain as “any summit of 2,000ft or more which rises above its surroundings on all sides by at least 50ft”.
For any of you eagle-eyed mountain geeks out there….when I started my challenge there were 446 mountains in England and Wales, as per the “Nuttalls” definition, so that is the figure I always quote. However, in May 2017 one mountain – Carnedd y Ddelw in Wales – was re-surveyed and found to fall slightly short of the required rise and thus was deleted from the list. Hence the current list includes 445 mountains.
How did I do it?
I started my challenge on March 16 and finished on September 16 – an exact six-month adventure, consisting of 82 days of walking in total. It wasn’t a single-round. I simply went on lots and lots of smaller trips, returning home every week to hold down my three-days-a-week job for Fix the Fells. This meant I lived a strange double-life, half being normal, going to work, sending emails, putting the bins out, watching TV with the wife; and half being a crazy mountain addict, throwing my kit into my car and driving off to far flung places to climb mountains, wild camp and tick off the list, one by one.
I climbed 256 mountains in England and 190 in Wales, visiting numerous national parks including the Lake District, Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland, Dartmoor, Snowdonia and Brecon Beacons. My longest day was summiting 13 peaks in the Berwyn mountains in North Wales (I don’t know how I did this on the energy-sapping, heather-clad slopes of the Berwyns) and my toughest overall section was climbing 86 peaks in Snowdonia in a gruelling 14-day hike in August.
Here is the full schedule of the mountains I climbed:
|16/03/17||Great Dun Fell, Little Dun Fell, Cross Fell, Bullman Hills, Long Man Hill, Round Hill – 6|
|17/03/17||Melmerby Fell, Fiend’s Fell – 2|
|18/03/17||Backstone Edge, Knock Fell, Meldon Hill – 3|
|19/03/17||Grey Nag, Tom Smith’s Stone Top, Black Fell – 3|
|20/03/17||Thack Moor, Bellbeaver Rigg, Viewing Hill, Cold Fell – 4|
|21/03/17||Grey Knotts, Brandreth, Base Brown, Green Gable, Great Gable, Kirk Fell East Top, Kirk Fell, Fleetwith Pike, Honister Crag – 9|
|31/03/17||The Cheviot, Comb Fell, Hedgehope Hill – 3|
|01/04/17||Bloodybush Edge, Cushat Law, Windy Gyle – 3|
|02/04/17||MIddlehope Moor, Killhope Law, The Dodd, Flinty Fell – 4|
|03/04/17||Dead Stones, Burnhope Seat, Harwood Common, Great Stony Hill, Three Pikes, Chapelfell Top, Fendrith Hill, Westernhope Moor – 8|
|04/04/17||Bink Moss, Hartsop Dodd, Stony Cove Pike, Thornthwaite Crag, Gray Crag – 5|
|07/04/17||Ullscarf, Low Saddle – 2|
|08/04/17||Great Borne, Starling Dodd – 2|
|10/04/17||High Crag, High Stile, Red Pike, Dodd – 4|
|14/04/17||Hobcarton End, Grisedale Pike, Hobcarton Crag, Crag Hill, Sail, Scar Crags, Causey Pike – 7|
|17/04/17||Pike of Blisco, Great Knott, Cold Pike, Cold Pike West Top, Cold Pike Far West Top, Little Stand, Crinkle Crags South Top, Crinke Crags, Shelter Crags, Shelter Crags North Top – 10|
|20/04/17||Robinson, Hindscarth, Dale Head, High Spy, High Spy North Top – 5|
|25/04/17||Whiteside, Whiteside East Top, Hopegill Head, Ladyside Pike, Sand Hill, Grasmoor, Wandope, Whiteless Pike – 8|
|28/04/17||Blencathra, Gategill Fell Top, Atkinson Pike, Bowscale Fell, Bannerdale Crags – 5|
|29/04/17||Black Mountain South Top, Black Mountain, Twmpa, Rhos Dirion, Waun Fach, Mynydd Llysiau, Pen Twyn Glas, Pen Allt-mawr, Pen Carrig-calch – 9|
|30/04/17||Pen Twyn Mawr, Pen y Gadair Fawr, Chwarel y Fan – 3|
|12/05/17||Carrock Fell, High Pike, Hare Stones, Great Lingy Hill, Knott, Little Calva, Great Calva – 7|
|13/05/17||Yarlside, Randygill Top, Fell Head, Bush Howe, The Calf, Calders, Nine Standards Rigg – 7|
|14/05/17||Steeple, Scoat Fell, Black Crag, Pillar, Looking Stead, Red Pike, Seatallan, Haycock, Little Gowder Crag, Caw Fell, Iron Crag- 11|
|16/05/17||Long Side, Carl Side, Skiddaw, Skiddaw Little Man, Lonscale Fell, Sale How – 6|
|17/05/17||Yewbarrow, Yewbarrow North Top – 2|
|19/05/17||Codale Head, High Raise, Thunacar Knott, Pavey Ark, Harrison Stickle, Pike of Stickle, Loft Crag – 7|
|25/05/17||Seathwaite Fell, Seathwaite Fell South Top, Allen Crags, High House Tarn Top, Red Beck Top, Looking Steads, Glaramara, Combe Head, Combe Door Top, Dovenest Top, Rosthwaite Fell – 11|
|26/05/17||Ingleborough, Simon Fell, Whernside – 3|
|27/05/17||Gragareth, Green Hill, Great Coum, Calf Top, Great Knoutberry Hill, Dodd Fell Hill – 6|
|28/05/17||Drumaldrace, Yockenthwaite Moor, Birks Fell, Buckden Pike – 4|
|29/05/17||Great Whernside, Darnbrook Fell, Foundains Fell, Fountains Fell South Top, Pen-y-Ghent, Plover Hill – 6|
|04/06/17||Bowfell, Bowfell North Top, Esk Pike, Rossett Pike – 4|
|09/06/17||Harter Fell – 1|
|11/06/17||Heron Pike, Heron Pike North Top, Great Rigg, Fairfield, Hart Crag, Dove Crag, Little Hart Crag, Red Screes – 8|
|12/06/17||Wild Boar Fell, Swarth Fell, Knoutberry How, Baugh Fell – 4|
|13/06/17||Lovely Seat, Great Shunner Fell, Little Fell, Hugh Seat, Archy Styrigg, High Seat – 6|
|14/06/17||Rogan’s Seat, Water Crag – 2|
|19/06/17||Birkhouse Moor, Striding Edge, Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Dollywaggon Pike, Seat Sandal, St Sunday Crag, Birks – 8|
|20/06/17||Catstye Cam, Helvellyn Lower Man, White Side, Raise, Sheffield Pike – 5|
|21/06/17||Hart Side, Green Side, Stybarrow, Dodd, Great Dodd, Clough Head – 5|
|28/06/17||Bleaklow Head, Higher Shelf Stones – 2|
|29/06/17||Kinder Scout – 1|
|01/07/17||Yes Tor, High Willhays – 2|
|06/07/17||Moel FFerna – 1|
|07/07/17||Pen Bwlch Llandrillo Top, Cadair Bronwen, Tomle, Foel Wen, Foel Wen South Top, Mynydd Tarw, Godor, Godor North Top, Moel yr Ewig, Cadair Berwyn New Top, Cadair Berwyn, Moel Sych, Post Gwyn – 13|
|08/07/17||Foel Cwm Sian Llwyd, Y Groes Fagl, Cyrniau Nod, Cefn Gwyntog, Stac Rhos, Pen y Boncyn Trefeilw, Foel Goch, Trum y Gwragedd, Foel y Geifr, Moel y Cerrig Duon – 10|
|09/07/17||Llechwedd Du, Foel Rudd, Esgeiriau Gwynion, Foel Hafod-fynydd, Erw y Ddafad-ddu, Aran Benllyn, Aran Fawddwy, Waun Camddwr, Gwaun y Llwyni, Gwaun Lydan, Pen ur Alllt Uchaf – 11|
|10/07/17||Glasgwm, Pen y Bryn-fforchog – 2|
|18/07/17||Cefn yr Ystrad, Allt Lwyd – 2|
|19/07/17||Waun Rydd, Bwlch y Ddwyallt , Fan y Big, Cribyn, Pen y Fan, Corn Du, Craig Gwaun Taf, Y Gyrn, Fan Fawr, Craig Cerrig-gleisiad, Fan Frynych, Fan Llia – 12|
|20/07/17||Fan Nedd, Fan Fraith, Fan Gyhirych, Fan Hir, Fan Brycheiniog, Picws Du, Waun Lefrith, Garreg Las, Garreg Lwyd – 9|
|21/07/17||Pen y Garn – 1|
|22/07/17||Gorllwyn, Drygarn Fawr – 2|
|23/07/17||Y Garn, Pumlumon Fawr, Pumlumon Fach, Pen Pumlumon LLygad-bychan, Pen Pumlumon Arwystli – 5|
|24/07/17||Bache Hill, Black Mixen, Great Rhos – 3|
|05/08/17||Tinside Rigg, Long Fell, Little Fell, Mickle Fell, Murton Fell – 5|
|08/08/17||Selside Pike, Branstree North East Top, Branstree, Tarn Crag, Grey Crag, Harrop Pike – 6|
|11/08/17||Tal y Fan, Carnedd y Ddelw, Drum, Pen y Castell – 4|
|12/08/17||Craig Eigiau, Pen Llithrig-y-wrach, Craiglwyn, Creigiau Gleision, Creigiau Gleision North Top – 5|
|13/08/17||Crib Goch, Crib y Ddysgl, Snowdon, Y Lliwedd, Y Lliwedd East Peak, Lliwedd Bach, Gallt y Wenalt, Yr Aran -8|
|14/08/17||Moel Hebog, Moel yr Ogof, Moel Lefn, Mynydd Mawr – 4|
|15/08/17||Tryfan, Y Foel Goch, Gallt yr Ogof, Glyder Fach, Castell y Gwynt, Glyder Fawr, Y Garn, Foel-goch, Mynydd Perfedd – 9|
|16/08/17||Elidir Fawr, Carnedd y Filiast, Carnedd y Filiast North Top, Pen yr Ole Wen, Carnedd Dafydd, Foel Meirch, Yr Elen, Carnedd LLewelyn, Foel Grach – 9|
|17/08/17||Garnedd Uchaf, Foel-fras, Llwytmor, Bera Bach, Bera Mawr, Drosgl, Gyrn Wigau, Pen ur Helgi Du – 8|
|18/08/17||Moel Elio, Foel Gron, Moel Cynghorion, LLechog – 4|
|19/08/17||Y Garn, Mynydd Drws-y-coed, Trum y Ddysgl, Mynydd Tal-y-mignedd, Craig Cwm Silyn, Garnedd-goch, Mynydd Graig Goch – 7|
|23/08/17||Allt-fawr, Moel Druman, Ysgafell Wen, Ysgafell Wen North Top, Ysgafell Wen Far North Top, Cnicht, Cnicht North Top, Moel-yr-hydd – 8|
|24/08/17||Moelwyn Mawr, Craigysgafn, Moelwyn Bach, Moel Penmanen, Manod Mawr North Top – 5|
|25/08/17||Manod Mawr, Moel Siabod, Foel Goch – 3|
|26/08/17||Arenig Fawr, Arenig Fawr South Top, Arenig Fawr South Ridge Top, Moel Llyfnant, Foel Boeth, Galt y Daren – 6|
|27/08/17||Waun Garnedd-y-filiast, Carnedd y Filiast, Carnedd Llechwedd-llyfn, Arenig Fach, Dduallt, Rhobell Fawr – 6|
|01/09/17||Place Fell, Rest Dodd, Rampsgill Head, Kidsty Pike, High Raise, Wether Hill, Loadpot Hill – 7|
|02/09/17||Yoke, Ill Bell, Froswick, High Street, Rough Crag, Harter Fell, Kentmere Pike – 7|
|04/09/17||Pillar Rock – 1|
|08/09/17||Wetherlam, Black Sails, Swirl How, Great Carrs, Grey Friar, Brim Fell, The Old Man of Coniston, Dow Crag, Walna Scar, White Maiden – 10|
|11/09/17||Y Garn, Moel Ysgyfarnogod, Foel Penolau – 3|
|12/09/17||Rhinog Fawr, Rhinog Fach, Y Llethr, Crib-y-rhiw, Diffwys, Diffwys West Top – 6|
|13/09/17||Tarrenhendre, Tarren y Gesail – 2|
|14/09/17||Maesglase, Cribin Fawr, Waun-oer – 3|
|15/09/17||Gau Graig, Mynydd Moel, Cadair Idris, Craig Cwm Amarch, Cyfrwy, Tyrrau Mawr, Craig-y-llyn – 7|
|16/09/17||Lingmell, Middleboot Knotts, Round How, Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag, Sca Fell, Symonds Knott, Scafell Pike – 9|
|Total – 446|
Was it really a record?
Yes. Guidebook authors John and Anne Nuttall, who have a list of almost 300 completers on their website, have confirmed that my six month hike is the fastest known time to climb all 446 summits.
Anne Nuttall said to me: “Congratulations James. Climbing the mountains of England and Wales is an impressive achievement, but to do it in six months is quite exceptional and as far as we know unique.
“When we climbed them all it was a labour of love and we are sure that you will also look at the summits as very special friends.”
Note: of course, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that someone has climbed all of the Nuttalls faster than me, but not told John or Anne or anyone else about it. That is why I have generally referred to my adventure as being the “fastest known time”.
How did it feel to reach that final summit?
It was such a mix of emotions to reach the final summit – relief, elation, gratitude and excitement. Miraculously I had the summit of Scafell Pike to myself and it felt like a perfect ending, being able to enjoy a quiet moment of self-reflection. I thought about how the past six months had been the adventure of a lifetime. I thought about the tough times – the physical and mental strain of the challenge. And I thought about the innumerable amazing times. Mountains are good for the soul and they had given me so much – freedom, fresh air, isolation, unpredictability and escapism. Strangely, as I headed off the summit, it didn’t feel like an ending. Instead I found myself getting excited about my next adventure in the incredible wild places of Britain. I guess once mountain wanderlust bites, you’re addicted for life.
What was the biggest challenge?
The weather. The weather Gods have not been kind to me – it has rained on more than 50 per cent of my hikes. I’ve been pummeled by torrential rain and gale-force winds on more occasions than I wish to remember – and I’ve stood atop literally hundreds of mist-shrouded summits with no views whatsoever. It’s been a tough one mentally. Often I’ve felt like the last thing I want to do is head up high when the conditions are poor. But I’ve battled on, determined to achieve my goal, and I have found a perverse kind of pleasure in taking on Mother Nature and surviving.
Those six months were also incredibly hectic, juggling normal life with a crazy adventure. I regularly felt exhausted and had to be incredibly efficient with my time. But I don’t regret a moment.
Did anything dramatic happen?
Yes. There was a bucket load of drama and calamity along the way. A few moments stick out in the memory – being chased out of a farmyard in the Cheviots by a gaggle of “psychotic” geese; getting picked up by a speed-loving owner of a £100,000 Porsche GT4 while hitchhiking in the Lake District; breaking into my YHA in Snowdonia through the kitchen window after losing my key code; and sleeping in an emergency refuge in the Carneddau after getting lost in a horrific storm.
The scariest incident was a botched attempt at scrambling up Pillar Rock, the only mountain on the list that requires rope work and technical climbing skills – I managed to bail just before it got to let’s-call- mountain-rescue time. The funniest fact, I think, is that I completed the entire challenge in a pair of my wife’s old hiking boots – something all of the journalists I spoke to picked up on. They loved that quirky line to my expedition.
How much did it all cost?
I don’t know exactly, but it was well under £1,000 – what an insane adventure for such a small price-tag. I wild camped for the majority of trips, meaning my accommodation costs were minimal. I spent about £150-£200 on the odd hostel bunk here and there, when I couldn’t face another night of torrential rain, while my main expenditure was petrol at perhaps £100 per month. You don’t have to break the bank to have an amazing expedition.
Why did I walk for the British Mountaineering Council?
I feel passionate about protecting the stunning mountain landscapes of Britain for future generations and am proud to have supported such a worthy cause as the BMC’s Mend Our Mountains campaign. I’ve raised more than £800 so far – and if you want to donate, please do so at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/challenge446
I haven’t decided yet on my next expedition – but I’ve got lots of ideas buzzing around my head and I can’t wait for the next adventure. My wanderlust has gone into overdrive after this 446 mountain challenge.
At some point soon I’d love to start tackling the Munros and, ideally, I’d like to do a single-round (e.g. one long trip with no breaks) of the Scottish mountains if I can get the time off work. I know the remote, wildness of Scotland will be right up my street. A 3,000km thru-hike of the length of New Zealand on the Te Araroa trail is also on my adventure to-do list in the near future. Watch this space.