Hands on rocks, feet in the clouds

The name “Birkett” carries a certain weight among the right circles. Whether it is Bill, Dave or even Jim. Various generations of the Birketts have been responsible for pushing the boundaries of Cumbrian climbing; defining and documenting the possible on the crags and walls of the mountains of their Lakeland home. Will is the latest in that line; following grandfather Jim, father Bill and cousin Dave.

Birth of an obsession

“It was Cousin Dave who got me into climbing, really. My dad had me when he was already quite old, so he wasn’t climbing so much by then. As a teenager, I’d hop on the back of Dave’s motorbike and drive up to Scotland with him for the weekend. He was my hero. There I was, watching him climb E10s! It was definitely a formative experience for me. At the time, I was kind of aware that Dave was climbing hard, but I had so little to compare it with. We both grew up in Langdale, so you definitely felt separated from the rest of the world to an extent.”

Mid 2000s: A teenage Will skives off school again. For a wild kid with dyslexia, the confines of education are too much to bear. Instead of catching the bus to Bowness he hops off early, and runs up the steep hike up Old Dungeon Ghyll to spend the day soloing VSs. Even at an early age, he has a bold streak. Smart enough to understand the potential risks, there is no naivety to his actions, just an urgent desire to chase the next thrill. As alien as school feels, he is utterly at home in the mountains. As his strength begins to fade, he makes the return journey home with aching shoulders and weather-pinked cheeks.

Now 26, Will recounts these tales over Zoom from his home; still in the Langdale valley of his youth. I’m interested to know if there was a tipping point where climbing became an obsession, or whether his unique family background left him so immersed he simply followed the path laid for him. 

“For a while, I think climbing was just something I did, and a way to spend time outdoors. I definitely always felt that yearning to be in the hills. After I’d left school, I’d go out drinking in Ambleside and bumped into University of Cumbria climbers in some of the bars. It was my first real exposure to the climbing world beyond home and family. It was formative in many ways; I made some great friendships that endure to today. Climbing with others was also my first real point of comparison. I realised that I was stronger than many… and bolder. It also opened my mind to the idea of training and bouldering for strength rather than just climbing as much as possible. I quickly began to move through the grades over a couple of years, and I think it was around then that my obsession was solidified.”

Shaping the landscape; shaped by the landscape

Present day: Now in rock shoes, Birkett transitions into true climbing, soloing through lines of weakness on the face of Gimmer Crag – his home valley to his back – as he moves quickly and purposefully, unencumbered by neither ropes nor fear. On topping out, a gusting breeze causes his t-shirt to flap as he pauses momentarily to scan the view that was gradually revealing itself as he climbed. The Lakeland landscape stretches out before him. On the distant horizon are the instantly recognisable tops of the western Lakes, despite the heat haze of early summer. While the large-scale shapes of Cumbria have been formed over millennia by natural processes, present day Lake District is just as much a living history of human life within the valleys. Birkett’s grandfather and earlier generations would recognise the view almost exactly. Little has changed in the intervening decades and centuries. 

Dry stone walls divide fields into a patchwork quilt and reach up the steep mountainside like fingers. Sheep-cropped grass is divided from iridescent green bracken and the crags above. There’s something special about these partitions; obviously man-made in their straight lines and right-angles, yet still of the landscape. Constructed from nothing but the rock of their surroundings.
“After school I briefly went to Kendal College to learn carpentry, but I didn’t follow it through. I still wanted to be outside, I think. Cousin Dave was a drystone waller, so I obviously had a go. He was my idol, but realistically, I didn’t have that many options at the time. My first day was working up on the Fairfield Horseshoe. It was a brutal day, but I stuck at it. There’s a real art to it, and I like that there is a physical tie back to my home landscapes. It will always just be a job, but I like the sense of tradition and care for where I live.”

For a few years, Birkett worked hard walling during the week and climbed harder at the evenings and weekends. He had a penchant for the bold and the powerful, perhaps culminating in a free-solo ascent of Karma Kings (E7 6c) on Raven Crag; first climbed by a certain Dave Birkett. That climb seemed to represent a turning point for the younger of the cousins. 

“I’ve always been drawn to soloing. This definitely felt like maybe I’d scratched an itch in terms of risk. I was on such a high afterwards, but I also calmed down a little. I guess there reaches a point where you are aware that if you keep putting yourself out there, something is going to happen.”

There’s a real art to dry stone walling and I like the physical tie back to my home landscapes.”
“I’ve always been drawn to soloing”.


Google “Will Birkett” and for the most part you will find the exploits of other members of the Birkett clan before you discover Will’s. The exception to this is a few news articles from 2020, marking Will’s fastest known time (FKT) of the Lakes’ Classic Rock round, and the subsequent to-and-fro of FKTs between him and professional climber, Tom Randall.

The Lakes Classic Rock round is inspired by the seminal Ken Wilson Classic Rock guidebook. Since its first print run, it has inspired climbers and armchair adventures in equal measure with epic photography and love letters to some of Britain’s greatest classic rock climbing routes. It almost immediately became a must-do tick list for many, and as with all tick lists, there are those that seek to complete them as quickly as possible. The first recorded attempt to “complete a round” of the fifteen Lakes routes within 24 hours was in 1993, and included link-ups by car. Nick Wharton and Brian Davidson were the first to complete the route on foot;  34 miles and 4300m of ascent, including 70 pitches of rock climbing up to VS – from long mountain routes, to the iconic Napes Needle

– in just under twenty hours. 

“I only properly got into running during the first Covid lockdown. I’d head out now and then before then, but I wouldn’t have described myself as a runner. In many ways though, I think I’m a more natural runner than I am a climber. I fell in love with these long solo days out in the completely empty hills above my home.

“I wouldn’t have described myself as a runner, but in many ways I think I’m a more natural runner than climber”
Birkett brushes over the cumulative effect of fatigue and the huge exposure of some of the routes. And while they are by definition “classic”, that doesn’t make them immune to wet rock and precarious moves. Let’s face it, 34 mountain miles is no easy day running by itself either.  


“The Lakes’ Classic Rock round was on my radar when Chris Fisher broke the record in 2019, but I never thought I’d have the time to do it. I guess Covid gave me the time, and Tom Randall gave me the extra nudge that I needed. I’d heard that he was going to have a crack, so I thought I’d see if I could get in first. My first attempt was with my mate Callum [Coldwell-Storry]. We hadn’t even really planned to finish it and I’d never run more than seven miles before – it was more of a recce – but we felt good so just kept going. We topped out on Little Chamonix [the final route of the round, on Shepherd’s Crag] just under thirteen hours after we set off. We broke Chris’ record by over two hours.”

That record didn’t stand for long though. Randall lopped 50 minutes off the pair’s time, taking the FKT down to 12:02.


“I was doing some work on a farm in the Duddon Valley that day. It was a glorious day, and I remember thinking it would be perfect for a record attempt. I got the news through that Tom had been out just after! I tried to reclaim the record as soon as possible. I absolutely emptied myself. It was one of those days out where it feels like you get nothing right. I ended up really dehydrated, ran out of food, had bowel issues. The whole lot. But I just kept moving.”

In fact, Will just kept moving for 11:50. A new record, but not by much. Randall wasn’t done yet, so returned once more – 11:10. Randall and Birkett were getting to know the route, finding efficiencies, finding their own limits, nibbling away at the time bit-by-bit. As a runner who is very much an occasional climber, I’m intrigued to find out more about the specific challenges of this round. Birkett talks me through, although, I’m ultimately likely to be repeating the route in his style. 

“If you have any hopes of getting the record, you’ll be soloing the climbing sections. It’s just the most efficient way to cover the ground. The logistics mean downclimbing some routes. That’s something that I did practise a little, but there’s a great quote from Alain Robert [the Frenchman dubbed ‘Spiderman’ for his spectacular solo climbs of buildings in the 90s] that downclimbing isn’t risky, because if you can’t make a move, you can always just climb back up again…”

There’s a knowing understatement to Birkett’s description. He brushes over the cumulative effect of fatigue and the huge exposure of some of the routes. And while they are by definition “classic”, that doesn’t make them immune to wet rock and precarious moves. Let’s face it, 34 mountain miles is no easy day running by itself either. 


“I should say that the rivalry with Tom was really friendly. I’ve huge respect for what he achieved. The route was on my doorstep. Tom was driving up from the Peak to run it. But, I knew that I could go much better than my last attempt. I’d got so much wrong, there were definitely some easy wins there. So I headed out once more.”

September 2020: Birkett hasn’t long finished a huge week at work. He spots a notification on his phone at 3am. Randall has regained the record. He sets an early alarm and sets off the following day. While his body may be weary, he is better prepared in every way. He solos his way through moves that are as much part of his muscle memory as his walls are now part of the hills. Birkett chooses not to run to a schedule. Instead, he blows across fell tops, feeling stronger as he goes, placing trust in his body to get the job done. Until, 10:41 after he set off, Birkett once more crests Shepherd’s Crag. Over an hour faster than his previous best and thirty minutes quicker than Randall. Done. For now…

“Ultimately, though, I absolutely love being in the hills and mountains. They feel like home; they are my favourite place. For me, the best way to move through them is to run. The best way to enjoy them is to climb”

Further afield

Just in case it wasn’t already obvious, Cumbria is much a part of Will Birkett as he and his family are in the Lake District’s history. That doesn’t mean he isn’t drawn further afield. Time off work has meant climbing trips to other parts of the UK and the world. Now that travel is possible again, Will tells me of future plans; racing, the US, elsewhere and some objectives that are so big that he daren’t share them just yet. 

First up, there’s a small matter of a challenge elsewhere in the UK. No one has ever completed all of the Welsh Classic Rock routes in a single push on foot. At twenty one routes spread out over sixty miles, it’s not hard to see why it hasn’t attracted a great deal of interest. This year, Will Birkett intends to be the first – and in under twenty four hours to boot, because “it doesn’t really count otherwise” – to tick off the challenge. 

“I was talking to Caff [James McHaffie is a former Lake’s resident, and trad-climbing heavyweight now based in N Wales. Like Birkett, he’s well known for bold ascents of hard routes] and he brought it up. I wasn’t sure if he was taking the piss at first, but it planted the idea in my mind.


Scroll through Will’s instagram and you’ll find his own accounts of adventures past. Prose-like reflections, written in the moment, effervescing with joy. He expresses a deep love for the mountains; whether they be on the doorstep, the other side of the Lakes, or further away all together. So, as we are about to finish our call, and he leaves me with a couple of sentences that are so earnest and so heartfelt, I tell him that he’s just written his own last paragraph to the tale. And with that, I’ll just leave you with Will. 

“Ultimately, though, I absolutely love being in the hills and mountains. They feel like home; they are my favourite place. For me, the best way to move through them is to run. The best way to enjoy them is to climb. I’m immensely lucky that I am able to immerse myself in the experience. As long as I can keep doing that, I’ll be happy. It’s total luxury.”

Produced by: Coldhouse Collective

Words: Tom Hill

Photos: Ryan Goff

9 December 2023