Words By Ed Leigh | Photos By James Bryant
Some people refuse to grow up, I am one of these people. I have long prided myself on being the most immature person I know. That was until I met Craig McMahon. I’m not being rude when I say immature (if you think I am then you are probably the kind of person I have devoted my life to avoid becoming), instead I mean it as a compliment. Being childish is not something to fear. Why not spend your day flexing your imagination, ignoring stress and climbing and jumping off things if you can?
Craig McMahon has turned the latter of those into a full-time job. He is so excited about taking Phil Young and I on a Ghyll scramble, he can barely contain himself. This despite the fact that he’s already done this three times a day, seven days a week, for the last seven months. I’m truly astonished by his enthusiasm, but I’m not too sure what Ghyll Scramble actually is…
We’ve just driven over two mountain passes in the Lake District, Wrynose Pass and the steepest road in Britain – Hardknott Pass. The Ford S-MAX has made short work of them both. I managed to shotgun the drivers seat before Phil this morning, so have been relishing the challenges the roads throw up in the shape of sheep, rocks, 25% descents and wheel-liftingly tight switch backs. I have spent much less time in the Lakes than I should have, as a snowboarder I have always looked south to the Alps for mountain stimulation, but sat in the shadow of Scafell Pike (England’s highest peak) I feel ashamed that I haven’t taken more time to explore our own ranges.
Being childish is not something to fear.
Craig is looking momentarily serious as he talks us through the safety briefing. That being said, his excite-o-metre is still hovering at around eight and half. When he’s finished, I decide to actually ask him what a Ghyll Scramble is and his excite-o-metre goes all the way to eleven. Through his soft Tynemouth accent Craig explains that a ghyll scramble is the art of ascending a river, so there is some rock climbing, wading, waterfall climbing, swimming and cliff jumping involved. I ask Craig how big the jumps are, and he looks like he’s about to pop.
“Me wife told us not to mention it, but there’s a massive one, you have to run off it and if you slip you’ll die. It’s massive mind!”
I have so much love for Craig already. He is incapable of keeping the “big jump” on the down low, and has announced its existence like someone who’s desperate to share with you the best secret in the world.
What I have failed to mention so far is that the weather is absolutely perfect. I mean, it really doesn’t get any better. There isn’t a breath of wind, it’s barely 9 o’clock, the mercury is well into the twenties and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. We set off up the trail on a 40-minute hike, that will take us to where we first jump in the river. We’re all frothing with joy. Or at least we are, until we make it into the first farmer’s field.
Callum, one of the cameramen, has skipped over a fence to get a tracking shot. Craig looks uneasy for a second before announcing:
“That farmers a right grumpy bugger, you might want to jump out of there.”
On cue a quad bike races out of the stables on the horizon and blasts across the field.
On cue a quad bike races out of the stables on the horizon and blasts across the field. Sat astride the quad is a farmer who looks like he’s over dosed on rage. The quad doesn’t slow down, Callum is trapped against the fence and the farmer blasts up, crushes the brakes and comes to halt less than a foot away from Callum.
I grew up in rural Gloucestershire and have been the victim of this tactic a few times, but to his credit Callum stands his ground and he starts trying to apologise. He is instantly drowned out by an outpouring of swear words, it’s like a burst water main of profanity spewing out into this idyllic setting, it feels so out of place that everyone just stands there open mouthed in shock. Everyone except Callum who calmly apologies, this triggers another tirade from the farmer who realises that we are all now looking at him not with fear but amusement and confusion. Nobody can understand why he is so angry.
This doesn’t help and the farmer sets off on another rant, which ends with him commanding Callum to jump the fence. Callum does as he’s told and after some muttering and engine revving the farmer is gone. We knew that we were in the wrong, but we just couldn’t equate the scale of the wrong doing to the level of the farmer’s rage. The saddest part for me is that Craig’s excite-o-meter has clearly dropped to a six.
There isn’t a breath of wind, it’s barely 9 o’clock, the mercury is well into the twenties and there isn’t a cloud in the sky.
In a bid to raise his spirits I ask about the potential to backflip off things and Craig’s eyes light up. We spend the rest of the walk talking about how Craig and his wife followed their hearts and made the transition from nine-fivers to adventure guides. Within minutes the excite-o-meter is back up to ten and Craig’s stoke is spewing out of him like a seasick toddler.
“I just love it man, I just love it, I can’t get enough of it. Every day”
“Even with a freezing a gale, with horizontal rain?” I ask.
“Oh I love it even more then…”
Craig replies, and looks at me like I’m insane for even doubting it.
We arrive at a random collection of drystone walls and get changed into wetsuits, hiking boots, life jackets and helmets. Craig walks us down to a nearby tree where he scampers up onto a branch five-metres above the river and announces that this is where we start. He then jumps in to a crystal clear pool of water being fed by a babbling waterfall. It is stunning, and Phil and I just giggle excitedly and follow.
True to my word I throw a backflip and I can hear the excite-o-meter redlining while I’m under the water. I don’t care about that though, I have a beautiful new zipperless wetsuit on so my body is warm and nearly dry, but my hands are freezing. Craig has failed to mention that the water is 5˚ C. I am not great with cold water, but it is really cold and this is confirmed by the look of shock on Phil’s face as he emerges from his jump.
Having climbed up a seven-metre cascading waterfall we make our way up the bank to a solid 13-metre jump...
It only takes a moment to acclimatize though and Craig will not stand still, we jump straight out, climb a rock pile and then jump in from the other side of the river from a six-metre rock. The sun is refracting through the cold clear water and we all whoop each other into another round of jumps. Then Craig like a two legged billy goat skips up the waterfall and beckons us to follow. For the next hour there is nothing except the next waterfall or rock wall or jump, each twist and turn of the river reveals ever more pristine pools covered in heather and lavender. Between the euphoria, the shame returns momentarily and I make a promise to return here more often.
About three quarters of the way up we come across the big jump. As a paying customer you wouldn’t be allowed to do this jump, and Craig is clearly a bit worried about us. I am equally concerned that he might have some kind of excitement overdose if we all do it. Having climbed up a seven-metre cascading waterfall we make our way up the bank to a solid 13-metre jump which has a fair bit of rock sticking out under it. In Craig’s words, “…slip and you’re dead like.”
...a short sprint with immaculate foot placement propels him out into a huge freefall.
He goes first, a short sprint with immaculate foot placement propels him out into a huge freefall. Phil goes next and I have to concede that, while he’s a pretty tall chap, the jump does looks absolutely massive. I launch out and know instantly that I’ve made it, but the bottom now looks incredibly shallow. I try to land softly but I still bounce off the bottom. I immdiately understand why Craig won’t let any paying customers anywhere near this deathtrap. I tell Craig I felt the bottom and he replies in the manner of a child about to open their Christmas presents: “Aye me too, I hit me back!”
You might watch the film of this and think it looks a little over the top in terms of how excited we are. But I promise you the mixture of outstanding natural beauty and adrenalin is such a heady mix, not least when it’s a complete surprise. I had no idea this even existed in Britain, and I spend the whole day in a mild sense of wonderment. I finally understood why Craig’s excitement dial was calibrated in such an inflated way.
After two hours we’re spent. The loss of energy and adrenaline is starting to make our feet slip. We send the last jump in style and then begin the clamber down the hillside to our clothes. On the way, Craig explains that he is the number one tourist attraction in the Lakes on TripAdvisor, he says he has 185 reviews and 184 of them are five stars (the other one is a four star).
This frustrates Craig because he knows who it was and explains that it was for a momentary confusion about timings. The excite-o-meter briefly touches five, but our assurances that 184 five star reviews is what he should focus on and a gag about him crushing my puny hands with his ludicrously strong climbers hands soon has the gauge north of eight again. We make light work of the hike back down.
The journey home is a quiet one but the Ford S-MAXax goes easy on us, making light work of difficult roads. Phil makes me chuckle again with the Ford Sync2 voice activated control call function. Somehow, and against all the odds, the car manages to understand his cockney drawl. He explains the adventure he’s had to his very understanding wife who returns the favour by allowing him the chance to discipline his children over the phone. By the time we make it back to the hotel, we’re both in bits.
It was, as all road trips should be, a proper laugh from start to finish...
The entire road trip had taken just over a week, the cars had done more than 1500 miles and taken everything we’d thrown at them from Cornish lanes and beaches to Welsh dirt tracks and Britain’s steepest road in the lakes. It had comfortably carried all the gear needed plus cameras and their operators. It was, as all road trips should be, a proper laugh from start to finish with some excellent “Arch Bishop of Banterbury” and no shortage of action.
Undoubtedly though the highlight for me was the Ghyll Scramble with Craig. The stars aligned with the weather and the element of surprise played a part as well because it was so much more than I expected. But I’d like to thank Ben, Kye and Craig for their time and expertise, they are all inspirations not just because of their ability but for their passion as well.
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