James Forrest on climbing all of Ireland’s mountains, coping with relentless bad weather, and stinking out an Airbnb with his smelly socks…
Not content with having climbed all the 2,000ft peaks in England and Wales last year, TGO contributor James Forrest decided to head across to Ireland to polish off a major mountain tick-list there too. Intrigued by his stunning photos of summit temperature inversions on social media, we got in touch to find out more.
Please introduce yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
“My name is James Forrest. I’m a former newspaper journalist turned adventure travel writer. I live in the Lake District and I’m passionate about hiking, wild camping and climbing mountains. I used to live in a city and work in an office – but I hated it. So in 2016 I quit my job, sold my house, moved to the Lake District and set about living the most adventurous life I could. It’s the best decision I ever made.”
Tell us about your latest challenge.
“I challenged myself to climb all 273 mountains over 600m in Ireland – the so-called ‘Vandeleur-Lynams’ – in the fastest ever time. It took me 56 days with 10 rest days, so 46 walking days in total. I walked 1,129km and climbed the height of Everest every week for eight weeks in a row. It was the adventure of a lifetime – simultaneously incredibly tough and amazingly rewarding.”
Where did you first get the idea of climbing all 273 mountains in Ireland, and what did the planning and training involve?
“In 2017 I climbed all 446 mountains over 2,000ft in England and Wales – the so-called ‘Nuttalls’ – in just six months, the fastest ever time. It was my first ever major peak-bagging expedition and I loved it. It was a life-affirming experience; a challenge that changed my life really. I wanted to go on a similar adventure in 2018 and the idea of Ireland popped into my head. I’d never hiked in Ireland so I was drawn to the idea of new experiences and exciting landscapes, especially in the wild, rugged, remote west and south-west of Ireland.
“To be honest, I really didn’t train for the challenge, simply because I walk a lot in my everyday life, so I was already fit for hiking. And, similarly, I didn’t spend loads of time planning. I love the unpredictability of adventures and the joy of ‘going with the flow’, so I’ve never been one to over-plan. All I did really was jam-pack my car full of expedition food and camping gear (especially chocolate and Nutella) and plan routes on my phone using a GPS app. Simple.”
What one item of gear did you rely on the most during your journey?
“Definitely the GPS navigation app on my phone. Many of the mountains of Ireland are pathless and, in poor weather, navigation is very tricky. My GPS certainly got me out of a few tricky situations – I might still be lost in the remote Dunkerrons in County Kerry if it hadn’t been for the wonders of GPS pinpointing. I used my phone as my primary navigation tool for all 273 mountains and it never let me down.”
Any low moments? What were the biggest challenges you faced on your trek?
“There were, naturally, loads of lows: falling violently ill (stomach problems) after my first week in the wild; losing my wallet in Killarney (only to luckily get it back after it was handed into the police); being berated by an angry Airbnb owner for ‘making his house smell of old socks’ after stashing my hiking gear in the room (one of the most awkward and cringy moments I’ve ever had!); and forgetting my lighter on a multi-day wild camping trip meaning I couldn’t use my stove (luckily a kind man gave me one on day two!).
“But easily the biggest challenge was the weather. I faced so much rain and wind and cloud it was utterly gut-wrenching. At one point I hiked for 10 days in a row, climbing over 50 mountains, and it was torrential rain every day and I didn’t see a view from a single summit. It was horrific. I felt like giving up so many times. It was demoralising and I felt broken mentally. But I persevered, as I didn’t want to be a quitter, and I’m so pleased I kept going.”
And what about the best moment?
“There were so many highs and ecstasies: the freedom and escapism of the mountains, the nature, the fresh air, the simplicity of your only goal for the day being to walk from A to B, the solitude and tranquility of walking alone, the magic of sleeping wild under the stars, the sense of achievement that comes with a big challenge, the happiness-inducing endorphins of exercise, the heartwarming generosity and kindness of the strangers who gave me lifts when I was hitchhiking around, the unpredictability of a big adventure (and the joy of overcoming the mishaps and obstacles in my way), and the beauty of the wild landscapes of Ireland.
“But my most euphoric moment was waking up to a perfect cloud inversion on a mountain called Knockowen in the Beara Peninsula. I unzipped my tent and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was truly beautiful, like waking up heaven. I will remember that moment forever.”
Anything you can tell us about your next expedition – or are you taking the chance to rest and recover for a bit first?
“Well, I’ve now climbed all of the mountains in England and Wales in 2017, and all of the mountains in Ireland in 2018. So, perhaps, the past 719 mountains have just been training for the inevitable – an attempt on the Munros in 2019 maybe. But, for the time being, I’m planning on spending a lot of time with my sofa, watching Netflix and eating Dominos pizzas. I think I deserve the rest! Haha.”