At the age of 86, John Michael Waddy Smith is a keen mountaineer and can claim to have been donning his hill walking boots for nearly 7 decades. And the inspiration behind almost 70 years of adventures? His love of the Lake District – and the photographic opportunities that it delivers.
After leaving grammar school in Hull, John joined the RAF and played many sports before going to university, where he discovered a love of fell walking. “One of the senior lecturers was an ardent mountaineer. He persuaded me and several others to spend a week at a youth hostel in Langdale and walk the main fells in the valley: Harrison Stickle, Pike o’ Blisco, Pavey Ark, Bow Fell and Crinkle Crags. I was hooked and came back many times using the Wainwright books and an OS map.” In 1975 John decided to apply for a deputy headship in the area and came to live in Cumbria.
Since then, he has climbed all the Wainwrights at least once by himself, with his son, with friends, or with the Mountaineers Club that he started in 1998 with a cricket colleague. The club recently celebrated their 20th anniversary.
John’s love for the Lakes runs deep. He’s even asked for his ashes to be scattered on the summit of Great Gable, his favourite climb (Haystacks and Scafell Pike coming in second). “The main reasons I like these climbs are a) the views from all points are the most spectacular, photography being a passion of mine, b) there is a certain romance about them, even the names suggest this, and c) height is gained quickly. I will keep on doing them as long as I am able!”
The Mountaineers Club set off to walk, whatever the weather, every Thursday: “The weather, as usual, is the main spoiler of a good walk. Two of us once took on Fairfield when the snow fell above around 500 feet, it was quite deep and several times one of us would disappear up to our armpits as we walked across a hidden snow-filled dyke and had to be pulled out.”
Always encouraging others to get outdoors, John, after discovering none of the children he taught had ever been to the Lake District, organised a residential stay for 36 children at Glaramara, in Borrowdale. “I started them off on Castle Crag, then Grange Fell and down to Watendlath. Then, when they were fully into the experience, we climbed Glaramara and – on their last day – tackled Great Gable. To see them progress from grumbling and moaning into enthusiastic walkers full of pride in what they had achieved was worth every bit of the hassle.”
Venturing beyond the Lake District, John has also walked overseas. “I have walked in Switzerland, going halfway up the Jungfrau, Yosemite, and also the Rockies. Although I am now not too keen after warnings of mountain lions, rattlesnakes and bears!”
It’s hard to find a walker more experienced than John, so here are his top tips for pulling on your hill walking boots and staying safe:
1. Check the weather, dress for the expected but still err on the side of the worst possible outcome, stick to the paths and follow the cairns if there are any.
2. Carry an OS map, reliable compass and whistle in case of bad visibility and always plan to get down from a mountain before dark.
3. Make sure you have plenty of water and nutrition with you and do not wait until you are dehydrated.
4. Greet other walkers
5. A good walker does not damage a path or deliberately loosen rocks- I was told by my mentor that you can also do your bit for others by adding a rock to a cairn or repair one that has been damaged. That is the Wainwright way.
6. Invest in a set of the Wainwright books – they are worth reading even if you never set foot on a fell.