My Mountains - Graham Uney

© Graham Uney

Fell Top Assessor and mountain instructor Graham Uney has climbed more hills than most of us have had hot dinners - Helvellyn alone, hundreds of times. So which is his favourite, asks Fiona Russell?

Best known as one of the Fell Top Assessors on Helvellyn each winter, Graham Uney also runs his own mountaineering business, offering Mountain Leader courses, as well as skills courses for walkers, mountaineers and climbers. In 1998, Graham became the first person to backpack over all of the 2000ft peaks of Wales in a continuous expedition and wrote his first book, The High Summits of Wales, that year. In total he has written 16 books, as well as some 450 features for magazines and newspapers. These days, he's turned his back on the office and loves nothing more than being out in all weathers on a mountain.

On the summit of Rhinog Fawr with my dog Bertie  © Graham Uney
On the summit of Rhinog Fawr with my dog Bertie
© Graham Uney

Graham lives on the eastern edge of the Lake District in the Lowther Valley. He and his wife Olivia combine running with the Bampton Shop and Tearoom.

His work in the mountains takes him regularly to Scotland and Wales, as well as the Lake District. He also works abroad leading treks in locations from the Caucasus to the Himalaya.

Graham says:

"I think walking should be about real adventure and exploration. It should be about discovering the landscape, the human history and the natural history. I encourage people to get off the beaten path, such as climbing a chosen mountain via an unfamiliar route, or by staying out late and climbing another peak.

"While following five hundred other people up the Pyg Track on Snowdon may be a challenge for some, it really isn't an adventure, in my opinion.

"I am also keen to encourage people to enjoy the hills and wild places in a responsible and environmentally aware manner."

Exploring the beautiful Howgill Fells close to home  © Graham Uney
Exploring the beautiful Howgill Fells close to home
© Graham Uney

What is your first memory of walking in the hills or mountains?

At about the age of eight or nine, I climbed a couple of fells in the Yorkshire Dales with my two older brothers. I can't remember which came first, but during a week's holiday at Halton Gill in Littondale, we climbed Plover Hill, Penyghent and Fountain's Fell.

Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?

At the age of about 10, I joined my local scout troop in Hull where I was brought up. Our Scout leader, Ted Mason, was a great character. He was rough and ready, but had a heart of gold and an adventurous spirit. We had regular trips to the Yorkshire Dales with the Scouts, climbing Whernside and Ingleborough, learning how to navigate and trying rock climbing, abseiling and pot-holing.

We used to take part in annual weekend challenges, competing against other scout troops in "fells marathons" on the North York Moors and in the Peak District. Today, these events would be called "ultras", but we didn't know such a term existed back then.

The weekend trips taught me a huge amount about walking, navigation, self-reliance, team-work, leadership and camping.

Mountain Leader training course at Glenmore Lodge, 1995. A very youthful me, second from left   © Graham Uney
Mountain Leader training course at Glenmore Lodge, 1995. A very youthful me, second from left
© Graham Uney

When did you realise you would be a keen life-long walker?

I don't think I'd ever really considered making a career out of the mountains until a golden opportunity came along in 1995 to do my Mountain Leader training course. I was selected by Gore-Tex to take part in their annual sponsored Mountain Leader training course at Glenmore Lodge. I passed the ML assessment in 1996 – and started my own mountain skills business in 1997.

Do you prefer coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?

Yes. All of them!

Are you a fair weather or any weather walker?

I'm not a big fan of really hot weather and I would much rather be out in the wind and cold than sunshine. But I enjoy it all really.

At work on Helvellyn  © Graham Uney
At work on Helvellyn
© Graham Uney

What are your three all-time favourite hill or mountain walks, and why?

I've never really had favourite mountains. I always think that when people ask me this question, what they really mean is: "What have been your favourite experiences on a mountain?"

Take Helvellyn, for example, which I've climbed hundreds of times now – and many people might assume it's my favourite mountain. It's true that I've had some absolutely amazing days (and nights) on Helvellyn, but I've also had some truly horrible days up there that I'd never want to repeat.

However, if pushed to make a choice I'd say number one would be a walk taking in all of the 4000ft peaks of Scotland. I've done this three times now, by a different route each time, and each time taking between seven and nine days, starting in the Cairngorms and finishing on Ben Nevis. It's not a walk to rush.

Number two would probably be walking the Trotternish ridge on Skye, from north to south. It's lovely wild country, lots of wildlife, and only busy in the few tourist honeypots.

Number three is an unplanned walk in the Rhinogydd. I enjoy simply wandering, looking out for the wild goats, choughs and other wildlife, and climbing the occasional hill as the fancy takes me.

Is the night-time a good time to go walking?

Yes, of course. But only if you have the equipment and skills to look after yourself.

On the summit of Mont Blanc  © Graham Uney
On the summit of Mont Blanc
© Graham Uney

Have you ever been lucky to avoid or escape a difficult situation in the mountains?

Yes. Anyone who spends a lot of time in the mountains could eventually find themselves in a difficult situation. I've called on the services of Mountain Rescue quite a few times over the years for other people I've met who are in difficulty, and also called on them twice for people who I am with. One was a lady with a broken leg in a very remote part of Knoydart, in north-west Scotland, and the other was last winter when ice climbing with a friend in the Lake District and he took a fall.

Your perfect walking partner?

Anyone who shares the same love of the outdoors that I do. Sometimes that person is just me.

Are you happy to go solo?

Yes. I don't often get to have a solo day on the mountain because I'm usually leading groups on skills courses, but on those rare days when I do it always feels magical.

Boots, trail shoes, wellies or barefoot?

I'm a fan of boots – and the correct ones for the job. I sometimes wear approach shoes if I'm heading to a mountain crag for a climb, but other than that I'll be in something sturdy from either Salewa or AKU.

How do you navigate?

I really enjoy navigation and I love using a map and compass. It's not the dark art that some would have you believe. That said, I do sometimes use the Viewranger app on my phone too, but I see that as the back-up to the map, not the other way around.

Working with clients on the top of the Inaccessible Pinnacle  © Graham Uney
Working with clients on the top of the Inaccessible Pinnacle
© Graham Uney

What three items are always in your rucksack?

First aid kit, a group shelter, plus food and drink. Map and compass will usually be in a pocket, rather than in the rucksack.

What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?

Not really a secret but I do like to have my little compact camera with me. It's an Olympus Tough T4. It's absolutely bomb-proof and even though bits have long-since fallen off mine, it still takes a better photo than any mobile phone I've ever seen.

Your favourite walking foods?

I have a sweet tooth, so love the fabled millionaire's shortbread that Olivia bakes to sell in our teashop. Appleby Creamery cheese and chutney from Jeannie's Kitchen Garden in Bampton always make a fine sandwich, too.

If you could only pick one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?

There are far too many places to choose from, but somewhere that combines exciting mountains, water, and ancient woodland. I'd say Torridon, perhaps.

What is your ultimate walking heaven?

Many of the mountain areas of the UK are hard to beat. I'll probably finish off the Munros and Corbetts when I find the time, and overseas there are so many mountains to explore.

Norway is definitely calling and this year I'm also looking forward to leading on a number of trekking peaks elsewhere, such as on Elbrus in Russia and Mera Peak and Island Peak in Nepal.

Will you be walking until you are 103?

But, of course!

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