Mountaineering could one day become an Olympic event – with the popularity of sport climbing providing the ideal spectacle for viewers across the world.
Sir Chris Bonington
That’s the view of Britain’s foremost living mountaineer, Sir Chris Bonington, who yesterday climbed to the top of England’s highest peak to celebrate the UK’s status as host of the next Olympic Games. Sir Chris and fellrunning legend Jos Naylor were joined by Olympic hopeful Laura Park as they hoisted the flag of the 2012 Olympics at the summit of Scafell Pike.
grough accompanied the 74-year-old Everest summiteer to the top of the more modest 978m (3,209ft) Cumbrian peak to mark the official takeover by Britain of the Olympic baton. We asked Sir Chris if he thought mountaineering could form part of the Olympics, as originally envisioned by Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee.
Bonington was emphatic: “Oh yes. Climbing is a very broad church and there is, of course, competition climbing. And it’s very active and very healthy and it’s great to watch. I know the British Mountaineering Council and the UIAA, the international climbing body, have pushed for competitive climbing. So, from that point of view, it could certainly become one.”
Whether or not mountaineering ever becomes an Olympic event, Sir Chris was in no doubt as to the benefits of mountain walking, at a time when obesity has become a national obsession.
He told grough: “I think the beauty of the outdoors and of just going walking is that you don’t need any kind of formal facilities. All you need do is get yourself a decent pair of trainers or walking boots, hopefully learn how to read a map and off you go.
“You’ve got some waterproofs and you can just build up from the gentlest of walks to real big marathons to collecting all the munros or doing all the Lakeland Peaks or the wainwrights, so there is just so much there and I think walking in the outdoors and getting close to natural beauty has a wonderful, most soothing, therapeutic effect on all of us.
“I take the dogs for a walk every day, just locally around our house. We live on the back end of the fell. But most of my walking is to crags, but I love wandering and I never cease being amazed at how beautiful the Lakes are.”
The veteran of countless climbing expeditions is certainly a good advertisement for the health benefits of the outdoor life. At 74, he’s still climbing. “I still rock climb. I was climbing up at Swindale yesterday, and I’ll be climbing tomorrow,” he said.
“Next year I have two treks in Nepal and I hope to get some climbing in there. I go climbing in Morocco every year. I go climbing in the Lofoten Islands in the far North of Norway and in Spain a couple of times a year, so I’ve got quite a lot on.”
Sir Chris made his home in Cumbria more than 40 years ago and still believes it to be one of the most scenic places in the world.
His favourite fell is right on his doorstep: “I would say one of the loveliest of the big fells is Skiddaw. It’s quite close to our house but I think the view you get, around the northern fells, as you look across to down to Bassenthwaite and across to Grisedale Pike is one of the most beautiful views in the world.
“Skiddaw is a lovely shape – a stately mountain.”
Another great ambassador for the outdoors is Jos Naylor, the renowned farmer, shepherd and fellrunner, a resident of Wasdale and a man who knows the Lakeland fells like the back of his hand. He too is still active at the age of 72.
Speaking on the summit of Scafell Pike, he told us: “I still do quite a bit of fellrunning at the moment. I want to do the Mountain Trial next month. It’s been running now for a long time.
“This will be my 47th one. I missed sending my entry in one time and there was one year when there was Foot and Mouth, so this should have been my 49th one.
“Four more to go and I’ll have done 50 of them.”
He has won ten of the races, which are a test of mountain running endurance and navigation, with about 2,450m (8,000ft) of climbing and up to 32km (20 miles) of running. The races move to a different venue in the Lakes each year, and competitors aren’t told the course until after they start the event!
Could we ever see fellrunning in the Olympics? Jos is upbeat about the sport. He told us: “It’s going well. Fellrunning in this country is probably one of the best organised sports there is."
Sir Chris Bonington, right, and fellrunner Jos Naylor make their way to the top of of Scafell Pike
"They have a great governing body and all the rules are adhered to and these championship races are thriving – there was one in Borrowdale a couple of weeks ago and there was an Olympic field of 500, which is a lot of athletes.
“I’m proud to be part of this today. It can only do good.”
Popularity of outdoor pursuits has taken a toll though, and the fellrunner is worried about the effect of so many feet pounding the Lakeland peaks.
“I think we’ve started a new phase now, with Wasdale winning the most scenic valley in the UK, it’s had a tremendous lot more people in the last 12 months and they still come in numbers,” he said. “The roads have been very busy and, with the Three Peaks Challenge and one thing and another our fells have been very busy, especially this area.
“There must be thousands come up from Borrowdale and Wasdale. It’s got to the point where – I don’t say you should have a limit on it – but you could spread them out a bit better.
“The paths are starting to take a hiding again, because there are so many people going down and people coming up they have to get off the paths to pass one another and that’s where problems start, where the erosion starts again.
“You probably noticed coming up Brown Tongue it’s starting to erode badly there. I came over here the other day and there was a tremendous number of people coming up, so we tried to divert on to the other side of the river. There was no way you could pass them on the path – there was that many of them.”
The third member of the flag party was, by a long way, the youngest. Laura Park is at the beginning of her career. The 16-year-old from Maryport on the west Cumbrian coast is potentially an Olympian. She helped the two older mountain men hoist the flag at the summit.
She would like to see her strongest event included in the Games: “I just wish cross-country was an Olympic sport. That’s the one event I like the most and I’m the most successful at."
Despite the ascent of Scafell Pike being her slowest ever up a mountain, in the company of those less fleet-of-foot, she enjoyed the event. “It’s a good experience being here today,” she told us, “With the likes of Jos and Chris Bonington and everyone getting together.”
The summit of Scafell Pike on a bank-holiday Sunday is never going to be a quiet, peaceful place, and the Olympic flag ceremony probably drew a few more summiteers.
Sir Chris poses with walkers on the top of Scafell Pike
There were more than a hundred on the rocky summit plateau of the Pike as the London 2012 flag was hoist on two walking poles lashed together by Richard Warren, chairman of the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association and a gentle breeze caught the colours of London 2012 in the low cloud of a cool English mountain as, thousands of miles away, the Beijing extravaganza was winding down.
A planned aerial filming session by an RAF search-and-rescue Sea King helicopter couldn’t take place because of the low cloud, but many Scafell Pike summiteers were delighted to have the chance to be photographed with Britain’s pre-eminent mountaineer, while a few fellrunning aficionados were probably even more enthralled to be able to pose with Mr Naylor, their own hero.
It would have been possible to join a different crowd listening to the delights of McFly and Will Young and other ‘celebrities’ marking the occasion, but most of the visitor’s to England’s summit probably recognised true celebrity and achievement, and came to the right place to do it.