Part 2.  John Hawkridge: A Never-ending Journey

Next Stop Ben Nevis

Only a few days after climbing his first ever mountain, John conquered Scafell Pike, the tallest mountain in England. The six-hour climb of 3,209 feet to the top went smoothly enough, although John describes the descent as much rougher than expected! For a more detailed account of John’s adventure, see the context accompanying Scafell Pike. However, this rocky descent in no way deterred John from his mountain climbing exploits, indeed, it was just one step on a long, winding path up many more mountains to come. 

Having conquered Scafell Pike, John once again began to look to the next challenge: 

“As I had lain in my tent that night of 19 September 1969, aching and sore from the ascent of Scafell Pike, I had begun to wonder what Ben Nevis looked like. Was the summit an impossible pinnacle or was it a mountain somewhat similar to the one I had just climbed? At what altitude was the nearest road and how far was it to the top? These were the things I wanted to know.” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 124)

Ben Nevis was the eventual goal, but it would be another five years of looking and longing at Scotland’s (and indeed the UK’s) highest peak before John would finally reach the top. In the meantime, he kept busy by climbing many other mountains around the Lake District and beyond. John’s mountain climbing exploits were briefly put on hold in 1970 when John was taken seriously ill with epididymitis and was left bedridden for two months. After his recovery, he had to learn to walk all over again, but was soon back to climbing mountains. In 1971, he climbed Scafell, Pavey Ark, and Bowfell by the Band, all in the Lake District, and successfully summited each of the Three Peaks of Yorkshire individually. That same summer, John finally conquered one mountain he had tried time and again to summit but never quite made it: Great Gable, also in the Lake District. This marked a particular achievement among John’s many hiking exploits, as he describes in Uphill All The Way: “at last I had unlocked the mystery of Great Gable and it will always hold a special place among the mountains in my life.” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 105) 

The following year, in 1972, John began to explore mountains beyond the Lake District. Following the recent death of his brother, who had been an avid supporter of John’s mountain climbing and accompanied him on many of his hikes, John and his parents ventured to the top of Snowdon in Wales. John travelled alone later that year to the Scottish Highlands to get a good look at Ben Nevis, and though he didn’t make an attempt at Ben Nevis on this trip, he did successfully climb Cairn Gorm. 

Over the next two years, John became very involved as a Scout leader, taking his local group on many adventures including hiking in the Langdale Pikes, sailing, rock climbing, and abseiling. In 1974, however, John’s outdoor exploits once again threatened to be put on hold by illness. He was experiencing severe pain in his leg, caused by bones in the spine twisting out of place and trapping the nerves there. Though the specialists at the hospital recommended hospitalisation and the use of a wheelchair, John refused, turning instead to his love of hiking and exercise as a remedy. In his words: “when you are fit, the muscles around the spine hold the bones firmly in place; when they are lax the bones can move easily – hence the pain.” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 130) This choice of exercise over treatment worked to relieve the pain and indeed seemed to do him better than others in similar situations; John notes that at this point in his life, at 25 years old, most people he knew who’d had the same operation as he’d had when younger were back in wheelchairs, but he was climbing mountains. This only increased his desire to climb Ben Nevis, and barely one month after he’d been told he couldn’t walk well enough and needed to be in a wheelchair, he made it. 

On 23rd of June 1974, John climbed Ben Nevis in 17 ½ hours. Though he was an independent climber and never took on a mountain he couldn’t manage alone, John’s journey was improved and helped along by the kindness of strangers. In his autobiographies, John describes how he was aided by a man along the way, who inspired him to keep going and carried his bag to the top, promising to wait with it for him. On the way back down, he was supported to the very bottom by some other climbers, who had passed him on the way down and had been waiting for him at the bottom with beer to celebrate and decided to come back up to see how he was getting on. 

Not everyone on Ben Nevis was so pleased to see him, however, and John recounts a humorous anecdote about a fellow climber who was disappointed to meet him at the top of the mountain: 

“It was time for one last summit photograph and then I must make my way back down. Suddenly an American chap appeared. He took one look at me and seemed to go beserk. ‘I have flogged my … guts out getting up here. I am absolutely … and I don’t know how the … hell I’m going to get back down again. And what the … hell do I find, a … cripple on the summit.’

Having obviously ruined his day, all I could say was, ‘Well that makes two of us, I don’t know how I’m going to get back down either.’ He stormed off in disgust.” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 133)

The Walks I Could Do

Ben Nevis marked a significant milestone in John’s mountain-climbing exploits, and for a while, he believed he could climb no higher. Ben Nevis had been his ultimate goal for five years, and he was left uncertain of where to go next once it was achieved. This was also a turning point in John’s determined isolation. Until now, John had insisted on undertaking his challenges alone: 

“My principles on this point were strong and I was not about to change them. If I thought that I could not climb a mountain alone, then I was not prepared to tackle it with someone else.” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 136)

Yet John’s physical state when he reached the bottom of Ben Nevis left him concerned about how much longer he could rely on his good fortune to avoid potential disaster. This danger was recognised by others, as John was also told not long after returning from Ben Nevis that he must stop climbing mountains as he was “behaving irresponsibly towards [his] employers” by putting himself at such risk of injury. The same was not said to the able-bodied employees who played football or rugby, and John argued about the unfairness of this double standard:

“Why does society think that disabled people do not have the right to suffer the same pain or take the same risks as the physically able do?” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 137)

Not wanting to risk an attempt at any taller mountains than Ben Nevis, believing he had reached his mountain climbing peak, John instead returned to smaller peaks in the Lake District accompanied by friends and family. However, it couldn’t be just anybody, as John was quite selective about who he took with him on walks: 

“The person with whom I walk is about the most important decision I have to make. He or she must wish to do the walk and be prepared to progress at the same speed as myself; each of us has to be tolerant of the other’s ways. It would be hopeless if a walk was terminated because of a silly disagreement, which could so easily happen when two people are in such a confined and emotionally testing environment for a long period. You must also have an honest belief in one another’s ability and strength of character.  

Surprisingly, most of my walking associates are not ‘walkers’ by nature, but simply fit people, who, for reasons best known to themselves, are prepared to suffer hardship, put their trust in me and step straight into an adventure. Experienced walkers would be [p. 163] dismayed by my slow rate of progress and would also reset my firm leadership.” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 162-63) 

 Nevertheless, John did not stop challenging himself entirely. Having climbed as high as he could go, John turned his attention instead to a different challenge - the long-distance walk:

“After I had climbed Ben Nevis in 1974 the challenge of climbing mountains had gone, and I turned to tackle long distance walks. I doubted that there had ever been the type of challenge which others imagined there was but, whatever the motivating force was that made me want to climb progressively higher peaks, I thought I must now be content with what I had achieved. There could be no question of tackling anything higher or more demanding. Ben Nevis had been a very personal affair. Throughout the five years it had taken me to reach the summit, I had never invited anyone else to get involved with the project. It was just between me and the mountain. I had never had any inclination nor desire to introduce a third party. My association with the mountain was a private and intimate one. I had too much respect for it to risk spoiling our relationship.” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 157)

In 1976, he completed the Three Peaks of Yorkshire all together, finally succeeding on his third attempt. He would return again to this challenge in 1981, and the video of this climb can be seen here. Later that year, John attempted the notorious Lyke Wake Walk, a 40-mile trek across the Yorkshire Moors. Though he was unsuccessful, it inspired him to seek out a less unforgiving route, and in 1977, John walked The Dales Way, a beautifully scenic riverside walk through the Yorkshire Dales (which can also be viewed here).

John did not let his failure of the Lyke Wake dog him for long, and he returned again in 1982 to make a successful crossing on what was now his fourth attempt. This walk also had great emotional significance for John: his mother had always referred to Lyke Wake as the walk he could never do. She had died shortly before John finally completed the walk; he was finally able to prove her wrong. 

The next challenge was the Coast to Coast – an epic journey of 190 miles from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood's Bay in North Yorkshire. This time, John only made it a third of the way before his left ankle - the same ankle that had been permanently weakened by surgery all those years before - began to cause him serious trouble, and he could go no further. The injury took four weeks to heal, but according to John, it was entirely worth it as it had determined the limit of his physical endurance:

“…I knew now what my physical limitations were in terms of distance and the number of days for which I could keep going.” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 169)