How I returned to fell walking after heart problems

Martin looking out towards a peak

After a triple bypass operation, avid fell walker Martin Booth thought his walking days were behind him, but gradually returned to his mission to 'bag the Birketts'. He tells us how he did it, and reflects on the joys and challenges of hill walking.

Early in 2009 at the age of 66, I was informed I needed a triple heart bypass. Prior to that I had bagged one hundred of the 217 peaks over 2000 feet in the English Lake District That’s the end of my fell walking career, I thought. Then my GP told me of a patient of hers who’d had the same operation the previous year and since climbed the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I rose from my black mood like a badly poured Guinness.

After the operation in March I followed the advice of the NHS to the letter, daily walking first round the garden, then the village, and the surrounding countryside, until I could do the prescribed three miles. My consultant told me that most of his patients interpreted the NHS guidance less literally. I then sought out the higher points of Herefordshire, and by September  was ready to return to the Cumbrian fells.

Then my GP told me of a patient of hers who'd had the same operation the previous year and since climbed the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

My first post-op peak was Adam's Seat, possibly the least memorable 'top' in the Lakes. "One Hundred and One", I nevertheless proclaimed to an audience of indifferent Herdwicks. Together with Beth, my wife and minder, I claimed two more peaks on the same outing. The following month I successfully tackled the High Street range on my own.

Top is the preferred term amongst fell walkers; it has a nice understatement about it. Walkers tend to be coy about bagging, only confessing to it when fairly sure you are engaged in the same quest. But you can spot a peak bagger a mile off, diverting from the path to climb anything vaguely pointed, stroking the top stone of a summit cairn or circling it three times in a clockwise direction while singing Climb Every Mountain Ford Every Stream!

In November, however, came calamity. Beth and myself, together with friends, Tony and Mary, set off from Dunmail Raise to climb Seat Sandal. The omens were bad. It was drizzling and Tony had left his rucksack at home. When we reached cloud level, our partners turned back and Tony and I continued with the intention of taking in St Sunday Crag en route to Patterdale where we had left the second car. However, the poor visibility forced us to take the escape route down Grisedale Beck. We were in low spirits and caught in a deluge which was to prove the start of the Cockermouth flood. Trudging into Patterdale and a phone signal, we learned that Beth had slipped just after we left them and broken her leg. And we hadn't bagged a single peak.

Each visit to the Lake District is a homecoming for me

That incident taught me not to plan ahead, despite tempting offers from motel chains. It may be raining, freezing or blowing a gale but, having incurred the expense of accommodation and travelling, you will feel obliged to venture out onto the hills. Wait for a window of high pressure; but don’t assume your friends will drop the golf or the grandchildren to join you at a day or two’s notice. And walking alone does have its advantages. You can walk at your own pace, stop as often as you need (to admire the view) and experience true solitude. If it worked for Alfred Wainwright, it worked for me. 

The following Spring, I adopted the pattern of visits to Cumbria which was to see me through the next two years. Every month from March to October I would wait for a three day spell of good weather, then announce I was heading north if anyone could join me. Mostly they couldn't. While I packed the car, Beth rang round for accommodation, I would get to the Lakes by lunchtime on the first day in time for a short-ish walk, do my main walk on the second day, and another short one on the third day before driving back to Herefordshire. That way I could bag up to ten tops in a visit.

Walking alone does have its advantages. You can walk at your own pace, stop as often as you need (to admire the view) and experience true solitude.

We are following one of several lists: Nuttalls, which are tops over 2000 feet with a relative height of 15 metres, Hewitts the same but with a relative height of 30 metres, or Wainwrights which are based on nothing more scientific than that the Great Man liked them enough to include them in his famous guides

I myself follow Bill Birkett’s list, because I was given his book for my birthday. He is passionate about the Lake District, and I am too. Each visit for me is a homecoming.

There were times, however, when toiling up some steep mountain that tiling the bathroom seemed quite attractive. I would bring the lump down to size by rearranging its name to something derogatory. Helvellyn had long been Helluva Hill. Now High Snockrigg became Snotrag, Hartsop Dodd - Heart Stop Dead. Great Cockup condemned itself. And then there was Harter Fell!

The polite names of many Cumbrian mountains are stoic combinations of colours and topographical features, Red Pike et al. But others evoke the Norse past of the region; Blencathra, Glaramara and Thunacar’s Knott. What would the Viking, Thunacar, have made of an ageing Anglo-Saxon strolling over his Knott? Head bagging was quite PC in the 10th century...

Most encounters on the high fells are more amicable, at least marked with a greeting, perhaps a conversation over sandwiches. I have on several occasions ended up walking the rest of the day with a complete stranger. Some etch themselves on the memory; the two evangelists who tried to save my soul on Scoat Fell, the party of nubile students singing along the Cumbria Way, the man walking from John o’Groats to Lands’ End who was climbing Scafell Pike on his day off.

I have on several occasions ended up walking the rest of the day with a complete stranger

The most dramatic incident of my quest happened on one of the regrettably few outings when Tony was able to join me on the fells. Tony manages to combine a passion for mountains with vertigo. So while I took the ridge way, he chose to follow the gill up to a rendezvous on Hopegill Head. The weather was changeable. As I scrambled with hands and feet up the last ten metres, there was an almighty crash and the top of the mountain was struck by lightning. A charge ran from left to right across my chest.

On the dubious theory that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, I rushed over the top and down the gentler south slope, bagging the next top, Sand Hill, on the run. If the footpath up Gasgale Gill had not been devastated by the floods of the previous November, Tony could have been waiting for me on the summit when the lightning struck.

I bagged Pen (2500 feet), my 216th and appropriately enough my penultimate peak, in March 2012 - within three years of my operation.

This leaves just Pillar Rock, the only Birkett which involves a rock climb and expert assistance. I  recently trekked to its base but it was a wet day and I was advised that the rock was slippery. I wouldn’t have to do it at all had I followed Wainwright, who didn’t count it as a separate peak!

I will be back, if only in powder form, having stipulated in my will that I am to be scattered from the top of the Rock.

In the meantime, I have discovered that there are only 83 peaks over 2000 feet in the rest of England!

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