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Why the Wainwrights are the best mountain classification


Across the UK, there are a whole host of mountain classifications. Some cover only specific regions, such as the Birketts in the Lake District or the Munros in Scotland, while others cover the entirety of the UK such as the Marilyns or the Simms. While the majority of classifications are based on the defined measurements of height and proximity, there are classifications that adopt a different methodology and while height and prominence may influence why individual mountains are picked, the classification itself is based on something far purer; the love of those mountains. 


Alfred Wainwrights classified 214 of the Lake District fells in seven different guidebooks; called the Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells (more about that here). These fells were chosen for their significance to the landscape, and to himself as opposed to any defined system of measurement. This classification stood alongside the more standardly defined Birketts, which are fells over 1,000ft in height within the bounds of the Lake District National Park, with 209* of the 214 Wainwrights being classed as Birketts. Of these two classifications,the Wainwrights are by far the most iconic and popular, taking over from Birketts as the de facto list for Lake District peak baggers to complete. 


There is something special about a classification based, not off measurements, but of love for the fells. It seems obtuse to define something as special as a mountain by mere arbitrary numbers. Mountains within these rigid classifications often change as, with better measuring systems, the peaks are re-measured and either declassified, or given status. This is a particular feature of the Munros, with a number of Munros having been declassified down to Munro Tops. The Wainwrights, however, is a classification impossible to change. More precise measuring systems can show you the exact height and exact prominence of individual hills, but no improvement in measurement system can change how important a fell was to Wainwright. 


When you are on the Wainwrights, you strive to look to see what Wainwright saw all those years ago, what made a particular fell stand out to him, what gave it significance over others in that  area. You make a special effort to look around, even if it is just for a second, and, while you may not see what Wainwright saw in that moment, you may find something that makes it stand out for you. The way the light plays on the valley below, ripples in a tarn, drystone walls running up the fells like a network of veins. These moments become intangible images in your mind, treasured memories of times on the fells, and, as you do the Wainwrights, you formulate a mental scrapbook of treasured memories attributed to each fell.


Would I have chosen the same 214? Many a time I look up to a prominent peak, and wonder why it was not classified by Wainwright, what made this one not significant to him. Other times, I stand atop fells that make me question what Wainwright saw (Mungrisdale Common and Lank Rigg springing to mind). There is something aesthetic about ranking something as majestic as a hill by importance rather than measurement. Removing the almost clinical approach, and replacing it with a more emotional, spiritual attachment. Standing atop a mountain, chosen in such a way, conveys an intense sense of worth; in the fell, and in your journey up it.


There is beauty in simplicity, and what could be more simple than 214 exquisite fells, chosen for one overriding reason, that they were important. In a world with so much change, the 214 Wainwrights will remain as they are, in my opinion, the most perfect of the mountain classifications there is. 



A cloud inversion over Buttermere Lake District


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