The night before we are due to climb the Old Man of Coniston, Sion Jair calls to warn that, chances are, we won’t be able to go up the 803m Lake District fell in the morning. I look out the window of my hotel. There’s little wind, the temperature is mild. I don’t say anything, but he seems to read my mind. “It’s quiet down here,” he explains, “but at the top, everything is exaggerated. The wind will be 10 times as strong.”
Jair is certainly no fair-weather climber. Now 68, he first came to the Lake District in 1968, half a century ago. He’s scaled the Old Man of Coniston, he guesses, on more than 5,000 occasions. He often goes up twice in a day; in winter, he just sticks on crampons. For many years, he has offered courses on mountain navigation and, informally, he has rescued dozens of walkers who have underestimated this craggy Lakeland icon. As much as anyone, Jair is the old man of Coniston. More remarkable is that Jair has continued this regime despite a succession of debilitating illnesses. For years, he suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome. His doctor suggested a change of air might help him, and in the early 2000s he swapped Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham for Ulverston. The new locale suited him, but then he was diagnosed with pernicious anaemia, a condition in which the immune system attacks healthy cells. Pernicious anaemia can be moderated with injections of vitamin B12, but Jair’s body rejected the treatment. He says: “The doctor and a specialist told me, ‘If you don’t have the injections, the most you can expect is to live for three years. And it won’t be pleasant.’” Jair, though, kept walking. Initially he would be exhausted from even short hikes but, over time, his tolerance increased drastically. “My body had adjusted to the small amount of B12 I could accept,” Jair goes on. “The doctors did tests and put it down to – although it’s not scientifically proven – my exercise routine. I just kept going and my body had two choices: I could either sit down and die, or the body had to get up and use what it had.” But Jair’s medical issues didn’t end there. The physical effects of the pernicious anaemia had concealed a severe mental deterioration. “I had a brain scan – and they found one,” he says, wryly. “But my brain had shrunk. When they told me I had Alzheimer’s it was a relief in one way, but then they said: ‘There’s nothing we can do to help you because it’s too far gone.’ It had gone past the early stages.” This was about four years ago, and Jair’s response was exactly the same as he’d given to previous ailments: he laced his boots and went walking.
The following morning, I meet Jair outside a pub at the foot of the Old Man of Coniston. He has the jolly, ruddy complexion of a life spent outdoors and looks a full decade younger than he is. Most days, he reckons he can be up and down the mountain in a shade over two hours, which is very fast and pretty well the same pace he’s always done it. Today, he looks warily at the clouds and decides we might just be able to fit in a quick summit, so long as we don’t spend too long admiring the views. He sets off at a clip and I scamper behind him.