The Original Peak Baggers
Lakeland Walker (forthcoming)

This page reproduces the article as published. Endnotes and references are set out here

Climbing a mountain makes for a good day; to gain two, or even three, makes for a truly great one. But what of the folk who take it further? And in whose footsteps are they stepping? This is the story of the original Lakeland peak baggers, who pushed themselves to see how many fells they could summit in a single day. In doing so, these walkers laid the foundations for what is now the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record, one of the foremost day-long endurance challenges in Britain.

These stupendous mountains

When offcomers first came to the Lake District, the idea of climbing mountains was largely incomprehensible. The fells were to be surveyed safely from the valleys rather than climbed. Conquering even one peak was to take one’s life in one’s hands, especially without the services of a guide.

Happily, by the turn of the eighteenth century, aspirations began to gain altitude. The Lakeland poets were known for their long excursions over the fells and early tourists such as Captain Joseph Budworth sought to demonstrate that a wide range of fells might be climbed – and survived. But while impressive for the time, these adventures could not quite be described as record walks or ‘rounds’, that is, a circuit of fells.

This is what sets apart the achievement of Harrison Walker and Joseph Clark in 1832. In the summer of that year, the two Keswickians completed a round of Skiddaw, Helvellyn and Scafell in 18 hours, involving 46 miles of walking and 12,500 feet of ascent. We know precious little about the pair or their motivation, but the assessment of the Carlisle Journal was that “considering the difficulty of ascending and descending these stupendous mountains, it may be considered a most arduous task.”[1]

Nearly two centuries later, most would still agree. But this was the start of the story, not the end: over the remainder of the nineteenth century, a large number of ever more impressive feats were undertaken, the object being to perform a day-long round more impressive than the last.

These walks were celebrated in their own right as the ‘Fell Record, but also form a particular Cumbrian piece of a much richer sporting context, that of the curiously popular Victorian sport of ‘pedestrianism’, essentially competitive long-distance walking (which took place in both indoor arenas and out on open ground). In parallel, British rock climbers were beginning to appreciate what Lakeland could offer as an alternative to continental alpinism. The result was a fusion of two worlds which brought an eclectic range of men to the fells. The Lakes provided neutral and accessible ground, where offcomers and Cumbrians could test themselves on the same landscape – local hotel guides, educated gentry and northern industrialists all feature in these fell-walking achievements.

Knickerbockers are to be avoided

As the ‘sport’ developed, contenders broke new ground in how they approached their walks, on matters such as clothing, nourishment and equipment. Many of these will resonate with today’s fell-walkers.

It is said that a soldier is no better than his feet and the same is true for the ardent peak bagger. Alpine nailed boots were the traditional starting point – hardy, but heavy and inflexible. In pursuit of a lighter load and grip, rubber-soled gymnasium shoes were increasingly deployed. The major downside was the complete lack of protection for the feet, although some discomfort could be managed by sewing socks directly onto the shoes to keep out loose rock.

For the rest of the body, the lightweight options included alpaca wool, flannel and silk tops. For the legs, one record-breaker’s advice to his Victorian contemporaries marks how blessed we are with today’s range of technical wear: “trousers are better than shorts, as they do away with the need for garters; knickerbockers are to be avoided.” [2]

None of this apparel performed well in any form of weather. Partly for this reason, record walks were almost never undertaken before April or after October. Despite this, navigation was fraught with difficulties, even with use of handheld compasses which became available in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Most walks involved some time lost due to mist; the Back o’ Skiddaw and Esk Hause appear to have been the two most troublesome places. While some attempts made use of lanterns, these were highly susceptible to wind; moonlight and good luck was the usual method.

In an age before the packed lunch and energy bars, nourishment had to be sourced from a variety of vaguely portable foodstuffs. Chocolate, meat sandwiches soaked in water, boiled eggs and sponge cake could all be found in over-stuffed pockets sewn into shirts and blazers (for that is how it had to be carried). If willing supporters could be found, they might provide rice pudding in the valleys or leave wine bottles of hot tea in strategic locations. As one contender noted: “If pacemakers can be got hold of, one can feed sumptuously, but these animals do not grow on every bush.“ [3]

Partly for this reason, routes were planned around pubs and inns, thus allowing for civilised meals between mountain stages. Refreshment was not always dry, indeed, in the early history a teetotal walk may have been the exception rather than the rule. After the Fell Record was taken to six peaks in 1876 by Henry Jenkinson, the local press thought fit to extol that “the whole of this remarkable journey… was accomplished without the use of wine or spirits.” [4]

Beyond the bottle, the most critical pieces of equipment were simple pen and paper. The exceptional nature of the walks meant that accomplishments were often disputed. For the purposes of verification, ‘proof notes’ were left on the tops, usually inscribed with a plea for the next finder to post the slip to a local hotel or newspaper. Amazingly, the system actually worked and most notes were received within one or two days of having been lodged in a summit cairn.

The last walker

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Fell Record had developed into a serious accolade. This also marked the moment that the challenge was first codified. In the words of Dr. Arthur Wakefield: “The aim of these walks is to ascend the greatest possible number of peaks above 2,000 feet and to return to the starting point within 24 hours.” [5]

Wakefield had every right to set the terms: he was the then record holder following a 1905 round of 21 fells. While he was a physician by trade, he was far from a mountaineering amateur, going on to participate with George Mallory in the 1922 Everest expedition, the first British team to set out with the explicit aim of reaching the summit.

As he prepared for the Himalayas, a man named Eustace Thomas prepared for an assault on Wakefield’s Fell Record. Thomas’s story should give us all hope: in his late thirties, he was an unathletic Manchester businessman; by his mid-fifties, he would be one of the most prodigious walkers of the interwar period.

He was only introduced to the Lakeland fells after the Great War. But some inner, ready-kindled fire must have been lit as within a year he was chasing records. By now, attempts required the professionalism and systematic preparation which is evident in so many of today’s endurance challenges. Thomas took this a step further and made it his personal mission to define a “system of mountain endurance” to train body and mind. He left no stone unturned: his method was the original marginal gains. [6]

His meticulous approach and engineering brain would go on to lend itself to a number of other fields. He is probably best known for the invention of the Thomas stretcher, used for decades by mountain rescue teams and once safely housed in the stretcher boxes of Mickledore and Sty Head. Less well known is his role in designing and cobbling a pair of ultra-light shoes for Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile.

In 1920, he succeeded in completing Wakefield’s round in a quicker time, thus taking the record. In what has since become a treasured tradition, Thomas was paced by the holder of the very record he was seeking to surpass, Wakefield.

The 1922 season saw Thomas take the Fell Record to 29 peaks. In addition to Wakefield’s 21, he added Great Calva and the full set of fells along the Helvellyn ridge. As he returned to Moot Hall, Thomas decided to carry straight on after only the briefest of rests, heading up to the north-western fells to gain five further peaks. While this would not be achieved within the 24 hours, his object was to complete a continuous walk with a total climb in excess of 30,000 feet. This was far more than just a neat number; it was an intentional act to ascend to a height greater than that of Everest.

Handing over the baton

While Thomas was a walker, make no mistake: this was no perambulation. Reflecting some decades after the challenge, Thomas concluded that the Fell Record “makes as near an approach to the conditions of the greater mountaineering as this country can afford.” [7] Despite the noble comparison, Thomas’s record was not without controversy: one Climbers’ Club President described peak bagging as “doing the right thing in the wrong way”; another mountaineering club “passed a resolution that they would not recognise anything in the nature of racing on the fells” (albeit at an average speed of no more than two and a half miles an hour). [8, 9]

This proved a more accurate prediction than the complainant desired as, when Thomas’s record was broken a decade later, his successor had to run. This marked the handover of the Fell Record from walkers to runners. The record-breaker in question was no less than Robert Graham, a well-known Keswickian, who in 1932 gained 42 fells in the 24 hours. In doing so, he gave his name to the UK’s most famous mountain endurance challenge, the Bob Graham Round. While Graham’s round would go on to form the basis of a Club with now over 2,000 members, the rounds of Thomas, Wakefield and the walkers before them have been largely forgotten.

But walkers should not feel disheartened. Take comfort in the knowledge that the runners of today are standing on the shoulders of pedestrians past. Lakeland walking was born out a spirit of adventure and appreciation of the fells, which is in no way diminished by speed – or the lack of it. Be it a single mountain or 42 in a day, peak bagging is a broad church. Long may it continue.

 

SIDEBAR: How fell-runners progressed the record

After Bob Graham’s round of 42 fells, the following three decades were a quiet time for the Fell Record. Indeed, Graham was – and still is – the person to have held the record for the longest number of years.

Alan Heaton ended the drought in 1960, starting the gun on the busiest time in the Fell Record’s history – first he, then Ken Heaton, then he again, then Eric Beard, then Alan once more, and finally Joss Naylor traded the record until it reached 72 peaks in 1975. Mark McDermott and Mark Hartell would go on to better it in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively.

In July this year, after a summer of lockdown with no fell races in the calendar, Kim Collison of Mungrisdale took the Fell Record to an eye-watering 78 peaks, stopping only twice to remove stones from his shoes.

The inaugural women’s record was set in 1977 by Jean Dawes, who became the first lady to complete the Bob Graham Round. Notable advancements include Anne-Marie Grindley (58 peaks), Anne Stentiford (62 peaks) and Nicky Spinks (64 peaks). Earlier this year, Carol Morgan broke the record with a tantalising three minutes to spare, adding Grizedale Pike to Spinks’s round.

Can these records be further improved? Of course. But it will take truly gifted athletes.

Endnotes

Note: [idnx] refers to newspaper references; [idx] refers to all other sources. Full references are available here

[1] An account of Joseph Clark and Harrison Walker’s 1832 walk is available here. The full quotation, originally from the Carlisle Journal but reported in the Morning Advertiser [idn062]

[2] This is from an account by Richard Broadrick, who would later be killed in a climbing accident on Scafell Pinnalce. The disaster was the worst accident in British climbing until five deaths on Ben Nevis in 1954. The quotation is from [id072]

[3] Ibid.

[4] An account of Jenkinson’s walk is available here. The quotation is from [idn071] / [idn059]

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[5] Wakefield’s quotation is from his 1906 article in the Climber’s Club Journal [id031]

[6] A fascinating and much fuller description of Thomas's system of training can be found in his article for the Rucksack Club Journal of 1921 [id028]

[7] Thomas's quotation is from his 1922 article in the Fell and Rock Climbing Club Journal [id046]

[8] Ibid. [5]

[9] The quotation is from Thomas's 'Memories of the Fell Record', published nearly thirty years after his record [id030]