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You cannot conquer the fells

When reading about the topic of running in the hills, there seems to be a prevalence of phrases I have never heard from people who actually go to the fells with the two most egregious being conquer and vanquish. Emotive language indeed, designed to make the reader feel that the protagonist in the tale that is being weaved is better than the fells, has tamed them and made them their own. While I mainly saw this in posts related to ultra running, in particular in the States, it seems to have made its way into literature about the fells, with a recent post I read detailing someone's journey to “conquer the Frog Graham”.

To go to the fells at all, let alone the heroic achievement needed to do a round, such as the aforementioned Frog Graham requires incredible stamina (both mental and physical) and dedication and is an all-round incredible achievement. This is by no means an attempt to diminish the achievement of those who do this, but to claim to have conquered the round? It just doesn't seem right. When searching for a definition of vanquish and conquer there are a number of similar themes: to take control, subdue, defeat. How can these terms refer to the fells? We go to them, run amongst them for their beauty, their majesty and the freedom of being in these places. Are we expected instead to conquer them, to make these fells our own?

While you may say that, in the case of the Frog Graham, it is the challenge, not the fells that are conquered, I would question even that. I have done several rounds and helped out on other people's rounds. The feelings I gathered from all these were a humble appreciation and a joy of being able to do these iconic routes in such special places. There were no exuberant celebrations, no claiming to have beaten the round. For my rounds, which I did solo, I walked away from the finish, alone and satisfied. Had anyone been there to witness, they would have been none the wiser of my achievement. At the finish of the longer rounds I helped on there was just quiet talk, hugs and handshakes, and then one by one we left. No one mentioned conquest. No one claimed that anyone had beaten or mastered the fells or the route. There was just an air of thankfulness that it was over, and they had made it.

When you put the fells, and routes on the fells in the same sentence as conquest, it casts them in a negative light. “Look at these monoliths of sin, of impurity, we must vanquish these dreadful places” it seems to imply. “We will not tread carefully amongst them, like you would precious cathedral, but crush them under our studded fell shoes”. On occasion, I have felt the fells have conquered me when I have been reduced to an incomprehensible wreck barely able to continue onwards, but for me to conquer them, absolutely not, nor, importantly, would I want to. Can we not appreciate their beauty, without taming them? To say we could conquer a fell seems boastful and arrogant. A fell is just there, a thing of beauty, to say we have conquered it is laughable.

Of course, there is a reason for this language, which is used by journalists, event organisers and brands to name but a few. Emotive language gets clicks and gets people to buy magazines or read articles. It generates traffic for a site and therefore revenue, the people saying it is, often, part of a business. A story about someone completing the Bob Graham is laudable, but someone vanquishing the Lake District fells, now that is worthy of a second look. But at what price? Should you not have seen the fells, the rugged Langdale Pikes or the beauty of the Buttermere fells, and read these articles, should you think that, to go to the fells is to conquer? Not to treasure and nurture, but to vanquish.

Standing on Cat Bells, the final fell of my Tea Round, I felt weary. The sun was low in the sky behind me and all that was left was a steady descent before a flat run into Keswick. I looked behind me. All around me were fells that I had been on that day. I felt no sense of conquest; for either the fells or the round. Yes, I had run over them, but all I had were fond memories, an appreciation of their beauty, and the intricate shapes they made in the sky. How could I ever dream of conquering the fells?

cat bells
Cat Bells, the final fell on the Tea Round, one of the 214 Wainwirghts I have never, nor ever will, conquer. Image Credit: Derek Poulton

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