How not to climb Mam Tor

David Whitley May 28, 2012 1

Hmm. Is that the way up? Nobody appears to be going another way, and it looks about right. On the steep side, but about right.

Walking trail to Mam Tor in Castleton, Derbyshire | Peak District hiking. Copyright David Whitley.

The correct route towards the top of Mam Tor. Note absence of author

Such thoughts fly through the mind of an eager adventurer, brimming with temporary vigour and a summer’s day desire to do something vaguely healthy. From the quaint streets of Castleton, Mam Tor looks like a nippleless breast – a cheerful, bulbous hill that inspires a gentle smile rather than the awed fear that a proper jaggy-sharp mountain might.

It is an obstacle to induce a few healthy huffs and puffs, moderate droplets of sweat and mildly clammy underwear rather than snap legs, burst hearts and thrash muscles to their limits. And, at the front, there is what appears to be a sloppy path; one that has slobbered down the hillside by accident rather than being thoughtfully planned out by National Park rambler-wranglers.

Up close, the path is steeper than first imagined. Each size 10 plod feels like a step up on the blackened earth rather than along. It’s knees as pistons stuff, thundering bodyweight toward the heavens as they straighten.

It’s not long into the climb before three views tell different stories. Across, the Hope Valley unfolds with a peculiarly English beauty. Above, however, the path seems to be dwindling; it’s steeper, more precarious, less confident in itself. Below is the real worry, though. Getting down this way will be far more dangerous than coming up. The two options are to proceed or attempt a descent based primarily on arse-sliding and prayer.

The footholds arrive further apart and at increasingly awkward angles. Many aren’t footholds at all – they’re just marginally less slippery conglomerates of loose soil and mud. It’s like walking on fire – contact has to be brief. It’s about momentum and faith. A brush of foot on foetal avalanche provides just enough momentum to get to a safe haven; considerable amounts of faith in said safe haven’s qualities are needed to even attempt it.

It’s the same with the hands. A lunge for the grass is sometimes the only option, but it tears away from its sickly mooring. No matter, as long as it’s enough to allow the flailing one-man erosion machine to cling on by elbows or hold position on filth-covered knees.

Water is the enemy. Not just the water than has been pouring down the slopes for the last week or so, but the water in the half-empty bottle. To abandon it would be a sickening case of litterbuggery; a brazen act of sullying a landscape. It monopolises a much-needed hand, but it’s a symbol of a principle. To let it go would be to let go of a much more important moral red line.

The scramble continues, and eventually the bottle goes of its own accord. Clunking against the newly redesignated devil mountain, it slips from the enfeebled grip of a tired, trembling hand. Down it goes, kissing the newly deturfed bulges and sliding down the mudbath like a roller through paint. Eventually it comes to a halt in one of the man-made craters. But it’s too far away to retrieve safely. Or, rather, it’s too far away to retrieve without exhausting the fumes of energy and hope remaining before a seriously humiliating call to Mountain Rescue is tapped out.

The conquest of Mam Tor is one of shame, not glory. The flop over the summit is one poisoned by the knowledge of irresponsible environmental damage. Covered in dirt and wheezing, the eager adventurer lies prostrate on the grass above the scene of the crime. Past him trundle the sensible walkers with their sensible boots, sensible walking sticks and sensible backpacks with sensible water pouches. Behind them is the path to the top of Mam Tor.

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