By Matt Fisher
If you sign up for just one big physical challenge this year, then why not make it Walking With The Wounded’s fun and testing Cumbrian Challenge on 13–14 May? Test your team against the charity’s beneficiaries and expedition team members on the stunning fells of the Lake District. Each team of four which takes part supports another wounded veteran back into employment, and last year the event raised more than £170,000 for vulnerable veterans.
Matt Fisher, 30, is a single-leg amputee who completed the Cumbrian Challenge in 2015 as part of his training for Walking With The Wounded’s Walk of Britain expedition across the UK.
The Cumbrian Challenge was the first bit of hillwalking I had done since electing to have my leg amputated below the knee in 2011 as a result of a gunshot wound sustained serving in Afghanistan just over a year before.
Last spring I was one of the newly selected Walk Of Britain team, soon to launch a 1,000-mile expedition throughout mainland UK, who arrived in the Lake District to ‘warm up’ with the Cumbrian Challenge. The event is Walking With The Wounded’s main annual fundraiser that takes place in the beautiful Cumbrian village of Grasmere, at the foot of the mighty Fairfield, the highest of a group of hills in the Eastern Fells, standing to the south of the Helvellyn range.
For us it was an opportunity to train, to get to know each other properly and to get some mileage done over hills to see how we would fare on the various hills we would take on during the Walk Of Britain, which would include Britain’s three highest peaks. The weekend consisted of Friday night registration and the chance to mingle and share banter with all the competition teams who had travelled from all over the country to take part, followed by the challenge itself on the Saturday, a celebratory drink or two afterwards, departing on the Sunday.
There were two routes: The ‘Tough’ and the ‘Tougher’, 20km and 29km over the various fells around Grasmere, starting and finishing at the sports ground in the middle of the village. The terrain up there is classic Lake District fells, rocky scrambles, grassy slopes, ditches and streams and good old scree slopes that can be particularly challenging underfoot. I didn’t think the distances sounded too difficult, and 20 or so kilometres on flat ground isn’t that much – but the type and variety of terrain up there makes it far more difficult and there were plenty of red faces on the trail.
The ‘Tough’ route started fairly steadily, as do many hill walks, but quickly got quite steep – it’s the Lake District. The angle of my prosthetic foot is set and does not adjust for different slopes and gradients, so hills were always going to be a struggle for me.
I soon started to realise that walking poles would have been helpful. I recall on the downhill of one of the first fells there was a considerably steep, wet, grassy slope that was the cause of much laughter. There were people slipping and sliding all over the place and at one point I suddenly became aware of a girl in my peripheral vision sliding almost the whole way down on her backside, having slipped over backwards, laughing the whole way down.
Just when I thought I was holding it together quite well, I slipped in the same way and decided that maybe the best way down the valley was to slide; it certainly saved a bit of energy. We managed to get back to the marquee on the sports field for a well-earned beer – cheered into the finish by the team of volunteers and staff from the charity. If nothing else, I had learned that the best way for me to stay standing and actually power up the hills and work my way steadily down would be with the aid of walking poles rather than hanging on to another human – but the event brought us closer together as a team as a result, as we had to work together to complete it.
The vibe on the Cumbrian Challenge is very jovial and although some of the faster teams take the challenge itself seriously, the atmosphere is filled with friendly, competitive banter and everyone takes it in the spirit you would expect from a fundraising event.
One of the prizes given at the after-party on the Saturday night is for ‘Best Fancy Dress’, and there were some hilarious costumes out on the hills that day; some were laughably impractical, including the winners’, who were dressed as cowboys on horseback.
The teams themselves come from all walks of life, different ages, different backgrounds and varying levels of experience in this type of activity. As a predominantly corporate event there were teams from various different businesses, teams from the army, the University Officers’ Training Corps, sponsors, trainee nurses, and beneficiaries of the charity and past expedition team members.
It was a great chance to meet some of the beneficiaries who have been through, or are going through, programmes funded by Walking With The Wounded and to hear their stories about how they have benefited from the charity. It really puts the event into context, because that is where the money raised is going.
The party on the Saturday night was a fun way to round off a tough day’s walk, and after a free massage from some volunteer sports massage students to iron out some of the aches and pains, we all went into the marquee where there was food, drink and live music and the much anticipated prize-giving.
The CEO, Ed Parker said a few words and announced the winners. Unsurprisingly, the winners of the ‘Tougher’ route were an army team who were a great bunch. The Cumbrian Challenge is a great way to spend a weekend, have a laugh and get some exercise in undoubtedly one of the country’s most scenic places. This year it’s the same weekend as Eurovision, so expect the party afterwards to have a suitably Swedish twist.