“This was my first experience of mountain hunger and I hated it. I stuffed my face with a peculiar dinner of chorizo wraps, and peanut butter on Hobnobs.”
TGO contributor James Forrest has a new book out! In Mountain Man: 446 Mountains. Six months. One record-breaking adventure, he tells the story of climbing 446 mountains in six months, walking over 1,000 miles and ascending five times the height of Everest. In this extract from Chapter 11, ‘The Mind of a Peak Bagger’, James savours the delights of boggy ground and running out of food in the Yorkshire Dales…
I had the next three days off work and I wanted to complete the Yorkshire Dales’ northern fells, a list of 19 mountains located in a triangular wedge of land between Sedbergh, Kirkby Stephen and Hawes. I’d already ticked off the six tops in the Howgills, as well as Nine Standards Rigg, so I had 12 Nuttalls left in my sights. I would complete them, I hoped, in a three-day expedition, with two nights away from home.
Originally I had intended to drive to Wild Boar Fell first thing, but yesterday’s storm meant I had to spend the morning packing up the Fix the Fells stand at the Keswick Mountain Festival. It took much longer than anticipated and so, feeling annoyed that real life was again getting in the way, I was running late as I sped down the M6 towards Sedbergh. I didn’t arrive at Uldale, the start of my walk, until 3.30pm.
The sky was grey and light rain was falling as I plodded over rough moorland grass to Sand Tarn, following the stone wall flanking Needlehouse Gill. I looped around the tarn and scrambled on gritstone boulders to the 2,323ft top of Wild Boar Fell, my first Nuttall of this trip. With hill fog obscuring the views, I descended south to a col with a small tarn, wondering exactly how many mountains I’d stood atop in a white-out – maybe it had already reached 100?
I gently ascended to the 2,234ft summit of my next peak, Swarth Fell, and then followed a wall first south-east and then south-west as it dropped steeply towards Holmes Moss Hill. The flat ground was saturated. I stepped carefully, trying to place my boots on patches of grass that looked firm, and kept one hand on the metal rail of a rickety fence for stability. I veered away from the fence, sensing I was less likely to be ensnared by the quagmire over to my left. I misjudged it, took a hesitant step and my right leg disappeared into the muddy swamp to well above the knee.
Shit. I tried to pull it free. Nothing. I tugged again. Nothing bar squelching and gurgling sounds. The more I struggled, the more it felt as if I was being sucked deeper into the bog. To make matters worse, just as I was trying to stay calm, I spotted the half-submerged carcass of a dead sheep about five feet to my left. Oh God, am I destined for a similar fate? Is this how it all ends? What did Bear Grylls do when I saw him escape from quicksand on one of his action-man TV shows?
“By the time I’d nipped west to the nearby Nuttall of Knoutberry Haw and taken the flat ridge to West Baugh Fell Tarn, I was feeling light-headed and empty-stomached”
Needless to say, I wasn’t really that close to death. After a couple of attempts at shuffling and squirming in different directions, I finally freed my cold, wet, soiled leg and continued through the swamp, which mercifully became easier to negotiate, towards Rawthey Gill Foot. The drama of Holmes Moss Hill was, however, not quite over. I spotted a number of large birds perched in a row along a rusting metal fence. My first thought was that they were birds of prey, and as I got closer I realised it was indeed a parliament of short-eared owls. Disturbed by my presence, they flew off, squawking loudly and angrily, and one circled over my head. I’d never seen anything like it before.
I climbed alongside Rawthey Gill on a faint sheep trod. The browny- red stream cascaded over rocky ledges in a series of mini waterfalls, while thick moss gave the green banks a bouncy, soft feel. The only sounds were the tumble of the water and the rustle of a sheep or two in the overgrowth. It was an enchanting little valley that felt remote and secret. Hundreds of black slugs looked imperturbable, relaxing on the wet grass, and every now and then a flash of rodent fur would dash into a hole. What were they? They were so lightning quick, I couldn’t tell.
I veered south to Gill Head and emerged at a flat plateau with a collection of small tarns. The climb had drained me of energy and I suddenly felt ravenously hungry. Stupidly, I’d thrown only a couple of snacks into my backpack during the afternoon rush to get my walk started. I wolfed them down and pressed on to Tarn Rigg Hill, the 2,224ft top of Baugh Fell. It was 7pm and I still had about two hours to go. By the time I’d nipped west to the nearby Nuttall of Knoutberry Haw and taken the flat ridge to West Baugh Fell Tarn, I was feeling light-headed and empty-stomached. Adequate sustenance is vital in the mountains – and I was used to chomping on all manner of unhealthy snacks in the joyous knowledge that my calorie-burning stats were through the roof. This was my first experience of mountain hunger and I hated it.
By 9pm I had stumbled back down to my car. I was too hungry to bother with cooking anything, so I stuffed my face with a peculiar dinner of chorizo wraps, and peanut butter on Hobnobs. An added oddity was that I couldn’t find a knife, so I found myself plastering the crunchy spread on to the nobbly biscuits using my fingers, like a famished toddler let loose in the kitchen. When my hunger was well and truly satisfied, I turned the key in the ignition and drove east as heavy rain began to fall. The forecast had predicted as much and, consequently, I’d booked myself into Hardraw Old School Bunkhouse, an independent hostel in the village of Hardraw, just to the north of Hawes.
I checked my phone during my self-imposed 30-minute evening window for internet use and a WhatsApp message from my friend Ed popped up. Our conversation went like this:
Ed: ‘How’s it going?’
Me: ‘All good, buddy. I’m currently in a 30-person bunkhouse in the Yorkshire Dales and I’m the only person here – creepy.’
Ed: ‘That’s basically the start of every good horror movie – I’ll send a search party for you.’
Me: ‘Oh God, I think the front door might’ve just creaked open.’
Ed: ‘It was nice knowing you.’
Mountain Man: 446 Mountains. Six months. One record-breaking adventure by James Forrest is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99. Available now.
All images © James Forrest