Walking for Life: Debs Slater

In the second interview of the Walking for Life series, we're talking to Debs Slater, the maker and adventurer behind the beautiful brand Alp & Ash . I first met Debs on Instagram through her beautiful craftsmanship of products that spoke to my love of the Lake District topography, but as soon as we got talking we discovered many shared loves, including walking in the mountains and the benefits that come from completing long-distance trails...

Debs, in 2015 you completed all 214 of the Wainwright Mountains in the Lake District over just 40 walks in a year. Why did you decide to set yourself this challenge? Was it really just because running a Marathon didn’t interest you? (see Debs' original blog post here) What specifically appealed to you about walking in the UK mountains?

The desire for a challenge was to prove I could succeed at something. I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished much in other areas of my life and was anxious to see if I was capable of completing something I set my mind to. After making the decision to embark on a challenge, the idea of walking all 214 Wainwrights swiftly followed; partly because of my love of the Lake District (grown over a childhood of visiting and camping in the area), and also because walking was something that I could do, I didn’t need to learn a new skill or sport to get started. 

The timing of setting myself this challenge just so happened to coincide with the 9th anniversary of my dad’s passing, and because of this it was instantly intensified to see if I could walk all the Wainwrights in one year, to mark the tenth anniversary of his death. His ashes were scattered on one of the smaller Wainwright Fells, because my dad had loved hiking in the Lake District, and so the decision was made that Loughrigg Fell would be where I’d complete my challenge. 

It sounds like walking the Wainwrights became a really special challenge for you. I’m struck by your commitment to get out there and rack up the walks given that you don’t live in the Lakes. I think many of people will take inspiration in that – you kept showing up despite the other commitments in your life at the time. How hard was it to balance walking with work, friends and family, house buying and renovating?

I had it easier than most in that we live within driving distance of the Lake District (about 1.5 hrs away from the Far Eastern Fells), and I’m self employed so I could be quite flexible with my time and go alone in the week.

A long weekend meant we could get in three walks which helped, but we did seem to spend most of our free time up in the Lakes which was hard for my fiancé (now husband) who hates walking! He was incredibly supportive, joining me on 123 of the fells and I know I wouldn’t have completed it without him. 

About six months into the challenge I hit a setback when I had to visit a physiotherapist for three months to rectify a problem with my knee alignment. At that point I probably should have given up, and if I hadn’t been doing the challenge with my dad in mind I imagine I would have (I’ve always been better at doing things for others than for myself!) 

Making your parents proud is something most of us strive for, and losing my dad in my formative years means he’ll never know the person I’ve since become. He was such a huge fan of hiking, whereas I spent much of my childhood moaning about the mountains he dragged me up. I, sadly, only discovered my passion for walking after he died, and so the determination to do something I know he would have been impressed by was a huge driving force for me. The amount of walking did get a little silly towards the end though as 9 of those 40 walks occurred in the last two weeks! 

An intense final two weeks then! Do you have a favourite walk from those 40?

I think I’d have to say a walk that took in Pike of Blisco, Cold Pike, Crinkle Crags, Bow Fell, Esk Pike & Rossett Pike. I was using a guidebook by Stuart Marshall to plan my walks and had a spreadsheet going a few weeks into the challenge that listed key details such as the length of the walk, height of ascent, and a rough estimate on the time it would take to drive to the Lakes, complete the walk and get home. I found this an essential tool in completing this challenge and became a bit obsessed with it if I’m honest, finding great pleasure in turning the red text green once I’d completed a walk! The walk I mentioned was longer and had more ascent than most, and it was daunting to me in the early stages of the challenge. By the time I came to walk it however, on a gloriously sunny day in the last two weeks of the challenge, I didn’t find it difficult at all, and I was alone which gave me an even greater sense of achievement. 

Of course, the last walk was also incredibly special to me. Once upon a time, I’d have had to pause walking up Loughrigg to catch my breath, but I hiked it without stopping and cried when I reached the summit.

You really achieved something that was meaningful to you, and that's a compelling thing to do and finish. Since the Wainwrights, you decided to get walking again and recently completed the Coast to Coast, can you tell me a bit about that decision?

I’d been struggling mentally when I decided to walk the Coast to Coast. We’d been living with my mum for two years whilst we renovated our house, we’d been married for a year of that, and I wasn’t coping with not having our own space. In all honesty I was desperately unhappy and seeking an escape. I’d thought about walking the Coast to Coast after I finished the Wainwrights, but it was actually being inspired by your solo trip to the Alps that pushed me to start planning, and a month later I was walking! I think completing it alone was important to me, as although I had walked all the Wainwrights, I still felt like I’d been helped along by having company on many of them. I needed to prove my independence and complete a walking challenge alone. 

It was tough physically, particularly on the days crossing the Lake District as my knee problem recurred, and my feet by the second week were a state: I dreaded taking my socks off at the end of the day, and even lost a toenail to the trail!

Mentally, however, it did me so much good. For two weeks all I had to think about was getting up and walking to my next accommodation. The routine was largely the same every day and all the commitments and big questions I was facing at home took a back seat whilst I walked. 

Walking really can push other things out of your mind can't it. As you know, I’m really interested in the role walking has in our lives; I’m particularly interested in the physical, emotional and mental journeys that we make when on the Trail. You've touched on this a bit already, but do you have any other thoughts on this?

Walking the Wainwrights really was a mixture of many emotions for me. On the days I was alone in the mountains there were times I cried over losing my dad, there were times I cried because I’d physically had enough and wanted the walk to end, and there were times I cried simply because of the sheer beauty of the place and how lucky I felt to be experiencing it. So far, walking has been the best tool I’ve found for quieting my mind, and I find I get increasingly anxious the longer I spend without an outdoors fix. 

What were the differences you noticed between doing lots of shorter walks over a year, and doing one longer walk over a fortnight? 

I found hiking the Wainwrights to be harder mentally, whereas the Coast to Coast was harder physically.

I’d recommend walking all the Wainwrights to everybody, it’s an amazing way to discover the Lake District, but in a year? Not so much. Having to squeeze them into a short space of time, around many other commitments, can be stressful and it means you undoubtedly have to walk some in horrendous weather; the Lake District is home to Seathwaite after all, the wettest inhabited place in England. My dad would have called those rain-drenched walks character building, I’d describe them more as miserable! One of the best things about walking in the Lake District is the incredible views, but when you’re walking in complete cloud coverage you miss all that and it becomes more a case of ticking them off, which does a disservice to the beauty of the place. 

Although the longer walk of the Coast to Coast had more of a negative impact physically, I definitely felt more of a positive impact on my mental state. Those two weeks were the happiest I’d felt in the entire year preceding it, and I didn’t have one single headache despite suffering often at home.  

It sounds like the long walking journey was really powerful. Have you learnt anything about yourself or the world, whilst out walking?

Through walking I’ve learnt how mentally strong I can be, despite all evidence to the contrary when I’m finding life difficult at home. My determination to complete both challenges despite the physical set backs showed me that I can succeed with set goals, and that maybe my lack of success in a career sense is because I haven’t worked out what I’m really trying to achieve yet. 

And the world? It’s just so incredibly beautiful! With views that can actually bring you (or at least me) to tears. 

Oh, I've been there with the tears regularly! You're not alone. What’s your relationship with nature like?

It’s definitely deepened over the past decade. I’ve become much more aware of our role in nature and our impact on it, and as we set up our home I’m keen to introduce more eco-friendly practices into our home such as growing our own veg, composting, and eating mostly plant-based meals. Nature’s been so good to me and I want to be good to it in return.

Do you have any other walking challenges coming up?

I accidentally stumbled on a long distance trail called Wainwright’s Way recently that starts in Alfred Wainwright’s hometown of Blackburn and ends 126 miles later atop Haystacks where his ashes were scattered. Blackburn just so happens to be my hometown too and the idea of setting off on an adventure practically from my front door has a real appeal to me. The Coast to Coast certainly won’t be the last long distance route I walk, I loved it far too much for that...

All photos copyright Debs Slater 2017

Thank you so much to Debs for sharing her inspiring story of setting personal challenges and walking the Wainwrights and beyond despite the difficulties. You can find her beautiful adventure-inspired lasercut products on her website or through Etsy, and follow her inspiring adventures outdoors and creative adventures indoors, on Instagram