We’re delighted to kick off our guest post series with Nic Hardy‘s interview with James Forrest on his mission to climb Ireland’s 273 highest mountains – the ups, the downs, sheltering from the storms in youth hostels and the magical moments that will stay with him forever.
So James, tell us a bit about yourself
“I’m James Forrest, I live in Cockermouth which is a town in Cumbria, just on the edge of the Lake District National Park in England. I’m an adventure travel writer and I particularly enjoy climbing mountains.”
What is it about spending time in the mountains that appeals to you?
“I love the feeling of escapism. I feel at home in the mountains, a sense of peace and being at one with nature. It makes me feel relaxed to have physically escaped the stresses and strains of modern life for a short time. Equally, I love challenging myself to reach summit after summit in a test of my own physical endurance.”
What was your first peak bagging mission?
“In 2017 I set out to climb all the ‘Nuttalls’. These are the peaks of over 2,000ft across England and Wales. I did this during my weekends and days off from my busy job as a Fundraiser for the Lake District National Park Authority. It really sparked a passion for peak bagging – reaching mountain summits and ticking them off a list as I went. As soon as I finished the Nuttalls, I began the planning for the 273 Vandeleur-Lynams.”
What are the Vandeleur-Lynams?
“The Vandeleur-Lynams are a mountain classification in Ireland and Northern Ireland, made up of mountains which are over 600m in height. The mountains are spread out far and wide, from the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland, to the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, to Errigal in the far northwest. It seemed like the perfect next challenge for me. There are 273 mountains in Irleand and Northern Ireland.”
So how did you approach the challenge?
“I arranged a sabbatical from work and plotted some of the routes in advance, starting with the Wicklow Mountains. I built flexibility into my schedule so I could go with the flow and embrace the unpredictability of the adventure. I brought my car over on the ferry so I’d have freedom to drive between the mountains on a schedule that suited me. I stuffed my car full of meals, snacks, clothes and camping equipment and off I went!”
Did you camp a lot during the challenge?
“I intended to camp for the majority of the time, both wild camping in the mountains and using campsites. In the end I camped much less than I thought I would due to the weather! Storm Ali ravaged Ireland during September 2018 and I managed to keep climbing through that period. But the hostels were my saviour. Sleepzone Connemara and Killarney International were two of the hostels that provided me with a much needed rest during the challenge.”
How did you find the hospitality of the Irish?
“The Irish people were so kind and generous. I owe a lot to an elderly lady who found my lost wallet outside a supermarket in Killarney and handed it into the Police. I’ll also be forever grateful to a couple who drove 30km out of their way to give me a lift when I came off a mountain range a long way from my car and was stranded in the middle of nowhere as darkness was setting in.”
Did you summit every mountain alone?
“The majority of them I did yes, but on one occasion, I walked the Twelve Bens Mountains in Galway with a chap named Padraig King who followed my journey on Instagram. It gave me a massive boost having someone to talk to after so many weeks of being alone.”
How long did the challenge take you?
“The challenge took 56 days in total, 46 of those were spent walking. The total distance I covered on foot was 1,129km, and I climbed the height of Everest every week for eight weeks. It was exhausting and rewarding in equal measure!”
What was the toughest part of the challenge?
“The challenge came with multiple hardships. I picked up a terrible stomach bug after the Wicklow mountains right near the beginning of the challenge. I almost quit before my 50th mountain as I was so ill. I also forgot my lighter on a multi-day trip – cold coffee and porridge doesn’t quite hit the spot! The hardest thing by far though was coping with the weather. I trekked for 10 days solid in torrential rain, up and down a total of 50 mountains in a row with not a single summit view. It was times like that when I questioned why I was continuing, but I’m so pleased I did. When you endure hard times the good times taste so much sweeter.”
Is there a moment that stands out as the best one?
“The best moment by far was on a mountain called Knockowen on the Beara Peninsula. I opened my tent in the morning and was astounded to find I was just above the most perfect cloud inversion. Nearby peaks were piercing through the marshmallow-like cloud like little islands. It was so still and quiet. It was like heaven on earth. It was a real treat after weeks of being battered by the weather.”
What about overall?
“In general, I enjoy the sense of purpose that being on a peak bagging challenge brings. I love sleeping under the stars. I like the feeling of my body being healthy and strong from lots of exercise. I also love exploring new places.”
What was your longest day?
“The longest day was 40km, so quite an epic day once you take into account the thousands of metres of ascent. On average I walked 25km per day. The biggest number of mountains I summited in one day was twelve. Ireland has beautiful wild landscapes but it was tough going over pathless, rugged terrain. I was pleased I was able to keep such a high pace throughout.”
Did you break any records?
“Yes, both my England/Wales mountain challenge and my Ireland/Northern Ireland challenge were world records for the fastest ascents of those mountains in a single round.”
I hear you wrote a book?
“Yes, my debut book, Mountain Man, was published by Bloomsbury last year and it’s about my record breaking mountain hiking adventure in England and Wales. It gives an insight into how to integrate a grand, epic adventure in your everyday life around a day job.”
What could possibly follow such an epic journey?
“Well, I’d climbed the highest mountains in Ireland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales so it was only right that I added Scotland to that list. So seven months after getting back from Ireland I headed to Scotland to climb the Munro classification of mountains. This brings the total mountains I’ve climbed over three years to 1,001.”
Well done! Where can we find out more about your challenges?
About the Interviewer –
Nic Hardy is a fellow peak bagger from Sheffield, England. She and James Forrest climbed the 282 Munro Mountains of Scotland together during the summer of 2019. She shares more of their mountain hiking routes and tales on her website.