James Gibson | The Wainwrights in Winter
The Lake District in Northern England means something different to everyone. For some people it means Beatrix Potter, Grasmere gingerbread, and picture-postcard views; for others it means big mountain crags, classic walking rounds, and pints in the pub. For James Gibson it perhaps means something different again, because in December James became the first person to complete a continuous round of the Wainwrights in winter.
The Wainwrights are a series of 214 peaks written about and illustrated by Alfred Wainwright in his series of books Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. For many people, ticking off or ‘bagging’ Wainwrights keeps them busy for many years, slowly working their way around the District. A few people, however, have given themselves the unenviable challenge of trying to climb all of the Wainwrights in a single push, covering about 530km and 36,000m of ascent in the process. Doing this in winter, with shorter days and a savage forecast, isn’t what most people would regard as a fun way to spend a week. But James seemed not only to have managed the round, but to have enjoyed it as well. Once he’d recovered a bit, we asked him a few questions.
Photos by Steve Ashworth.
Running a round like this in the winter is pretty different to running the equivalent route in summer. Why did you want to do a winter round?
For me, being in the winter environment amongst the hills is an amazing experience and is often a challenging place to be. So why not have a week’s worth of winter adventure on my doorstep, was my thinking. I really enjoy the tough conditions that you get in winter, whether that be weather, ground conditions, how hard the simple things become, its constantly challenging. I love it. Winter is up there as one of my favourite seasons of the year (providing we get the conditions), I’m often winter climbing in Scotland or the Lakes if conditions allow, so I guess the winter passion grew from climbing/ mountaineering.
About a month has passed since you finished. How are you feeling now?
Surprisingly I have recovered really well. During the attempt I felt pretty good throughout and I only picked up one injury on my shin, which is now much better. I believe the main reason for this is the training plan that Paul Tierney (men’s summer record holder) from Missing Link Fitness made me. I had been training specifically for the round for about two years and Paul helped me train efficiently during this period, which clearly worked very well. I was walking around the day after, which is something that I certainly didn’t envisage doing prior to the attempt. Although for a few weeks after I felt mentally and physically tired, four weeks on and I’m back running as normal, although I’m still going to take it easy for the next few weeks, just to make sure my body is fully recovered.
The weather forecast for your round was pretty terrible, and it turned out to be just as bad as forecast. When faced with a forecast like that do you change your approach or your mindset, or at that point are you just committed against whatever you come up against?
So I always wanted proper winter conditions and that’s exactly what I got that week (thankfully). Before the attempt it was clear that there was going to be winter conditions during the week and with typical U.K forecasting, it was hard to see what was going to come through later in the attempt, it turns out that’s when Storm Barra rolled through. So the first few days the weather was cold and dry, with a temperature of around -7 on the high fells of the Lake District. There wasn’t any snow on the ground at this point, so making progress was good, which for covering the western and central hills was great for making up time. From about the Crinkles in the Langdale, the weather turned and it began to snow and from there on it turned full on winter, including white outs, lots of spin drift, wind, deep snow, the lot. It was exactly what I wanted to be honest, I would have felt a little cheated if I had managed to finish the attempt in ‘winter’, with no snow on the ground, so it certainly feels like I’ve completed a winter round. I went into the round with the mindset expecting the worse and my worry with the elements was the wind, because as we all know, when the wind reaches a certain wind speed, progress is near impossible and there were two occasions during the attempt where the wind was too much to continue making progress, so in total, I probably sat out for at least 24 hours. I always knew the elements have the final say and being surrounded by so many amazing people making decisions for me, some of which I work in the outdoors with, the decisions on what was safe or not was always made for me, so my approach was always the same, the restricting factor was the weather and if it was deemed unsafe, we just would let it pass and go out when it was safe to do so.
Which bit of the round did you like the most and which bit did you like the least?
To be completely honest there isn’t a particular part that I didn’t enjoy, mainly for the reason that I was always surrounded by so many different people, some of which I had never met before, so there was always enjoyment from being with different people. The winter environment always makes things more exciting too, so even moving over some of the less interesting fells felt like an adventure, actually it was some of these hills that were some of the hardest because of the amount of snow on the ground. There were drifts up to 9 foot that we had to navigate over, it certainly made progress slow. There were lots of sections that were enjoyable, the most memorable was the final leg going from Newlands Pass to Keswick, there was a good number of friends and people that I had only met that week running with me, the weather was clear and with the snow on the ground it just made the descents really enjoyable, with a mixture of some sliding too, then the atmosphere and amount of people cheering as I came into Keswick is something that I’ll never forget.
In terms of kit, what were you wearing and using, why did you choose that kit, and is there anything you would do differently next time?
For something like this I always knew that the kit that I was using needed to be good and work well with the demanding conditions that were likely to be experienced. Over the past decade almost, I’ve used a lot of kit from Mountain Equipment and know from experience it works and fits me really well. I’m very thankful for M.E. sponsoring me for the Winter Wainwrights and as expected all the kit used worked fantastically. I knew that not only I needed kit that worked, but I also needed a range of different items to keep up with the demand of the attempt. For example, I needed a few different waterproof jackets, because after each leg, I needed new and dry kit to wear straight away, which would then be dried in the van by the amazing support team that I had. The jackets that I used were mainly the Tupilak and the Tupilak Atmo, which kept me dry for the entire round and breathed really well throughout too. I would mix between the two depending on the conditions that I was likely to experience on that leg. The Tupilak I used on the legs which were high, windy and very snowy. The standout leg for this was the Helvellyn/ Dodds range, which was very demanding in terms of the winter environment, with lots of snow/ wind and difficult navigation conditions. I also tested out the new Firefly jacket [available Spring/Summer 2022] for some of the lower altitude legs, which was thinner and breathed perfectly. There were many mid layers that I used, such as the Kinesis Jacket, Switch Pro, Eclipse Hooded Jacket, all of which kept me nice and warm, but more importantly breathed well with the high energy output through the week. Gloves were also super important during the winter attempt too and I knew that I needed a wide range of different thicknesses to cope with the conditions that I’d potentially experience, the most used gloves that I used were the Mountain Equipment Tour Glove and the Super Couloir Glove for the colder legs, both worked extremely well. All of the kit I used worked really well and over the years of using the kit, I knew it would work well and thankfully it did.
View the full kit list.
You’re an experienced climber and mountaineer as well as a runner. Do you think that background helped you deal with the conditions and the fatigue?
I’ve climbed fairly extensively around the U.K, although not at a high level, but for me its always been about the adventure of traditional climbing and some of the positions that it gets you in, over climbing hard. I work in the outdoor industry too, so working with your passion is a fantastic feeling. So I feel that working in the hills, either taking people climbing/ mountaineering or simply taking people in the hills for a walk, I feel that I’m always training for running in the hills, through always being up hills. Combine this with my own training for running and having lots of climbing adventures from long climbs on Ben Nevis or climbing on Pillar rock in the Lakes, for me it’s all training, which hopefully helps. So, in some ways, I feel that my body over the last 7/8 years of working in the outdoors, doing different running rounds, climbing adventures and general running training has become conditioned to going up hills and generally being out for long periods of time.
James' Kit List
Tupilak Atmo Jacket
A lightweight and highly protective Alpine climbing shell using hybrid GORE-TEX construction, fully waterproof performance for the most exposed situations.
Super Couloir Glove
Warm, waterproof, tough and dexterous; our finest cold weather mountaineering glove.