Wednesday 19 December 2018

'I was wiped out by the fits' - Man (35) survives storm and climbs 273 Irish mountains

Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

Three years ago, a trip around the world changed James Forrest’s life.

He realised the life he’d lived before his travels – a full-time office job and a mortgage in a busy city – wasn’t the stuff of his dreams.

So he sold his house and moved to the verdant Lake District in England, close to the mountains to develop his passing for hiking. He kissed goodbye to the steady life of an €35,000 salary and headed for the peaks and troughs of a freelance mountain life.

And that brings us to today, when Independent.ie talks to the 35-year-old. He’s just completed the Vandeleur-Lynam – the name given to the group of 273 Irish mountains over 600 metres.

“The biggest challenge was the mental battle of coping with the Irish weather,” James says. “When the weather was good and the sun was shining, it was a joy to go out and enjoy the amazing landscape.”

“When it was bad weather I was still climbing and getting to the top and getting no views whatsoever. The wind was howling; the rain was pouring; it was cold; I was in the clouds and there were no views. Somehow I managed to dig deep and keep going and I’m glad I did because I wouldn’t have wanted to ever give up.”

Mentally wiped after his eight-week adventure, the prospect of his couch and Netflix are a joy, he says. The hurdles he encountered along the way are hard to forget.

“After the first five or six days in the Wicklow mountains I fell really ill. I tried to carry on but I was wiped out by the fits, I felt terrible and I had to leave it a couple of days… I’d possibly drank some water that was unsafe. I do have a filter that purifies the water and whether that had a malfunction or I hadn’t been washing my hands properly… because obviously there’s sheep s**t everywhere… maybe that caused it.”

He added: “One day I was up on some summit and the wind was so strong, I could barely stand up. I had to hang onto a fence to stop myself blowing over. And I realised I’ve got to be sensible here and take a day off. The mountains are in charge at the end of the day; you have to respect them. I had to be sensible.”

Forrest’s epic adventure cost him in the region of €1,100. He kept costs low by camping in the wild and bringing freeze-dried food donated by Summit to Eat with him.

With his phone for GPS, a one-man tent, a car, hiking gear, Forrest set off on his solo challenge.

Walking up to 25 miles per day, he finished his challenge in 56 days. Though he’d anticipated access problems due to the fact that Irish landowners are not obliged to allow public access to their lands (as opposed to the UK where there is a right to roam in areas of open uncultivated countryside), he encountered none. People were keen to help out, he says.

“I went camping for multiple days but one time I forgot to take a lighter for my stove so I couldn’t cook.”

“Then I lost my wallet when I was in Killarney and luckily I’d dropped it in a car park and someone had handed it in, and I managed to get it back.”

He added: “I was walking a lot of linear routes. And in the Galtee mountains I did a route and planned to hitch hike back to the car; I got down to the road at 8pm and wasn’t able to get a lift and I was stranded in the middle of nowhere with no tent with me. I thought, ‘I’m going to have to sleep in a ditch’. But I managed to get myself to a service station, and I was talking about my predicament, and there was a lovely guy and his wife who overheard my conversation, and they drove me for 30 kilometres back to where my car was.”

“The Irish people were really generous and kind. One guy was 85 and he was tootling down a country lane in his car, off to a care home to visit his friends, and he was not what I expected to give a strange guy a lift.”

“That was a running theme with the hitch hiking. I met so many nice people who were so warm and generous. I didn’t do it all the time but I did it quite often.”

Forrest began his adventure on Thursday, August 9, and reached his final summit – Knocknadobar in county Kerry – on Wednesday, October 3.

“Lots of people always ask me ‘how have you got the money to do this expedition?’ But it doesn’t cost that much. I was in Ireland for nearly two months and I slept in tents on the mountains – that’s free. I was walking – that’s free. My food was cheap and inexpensive camping food. The whole thing cost me less than 1,000 pounds. Most people spend that on a week’s holidays.”

“You can really have a really big epic adventure in your life without it costing the earth. People could go hiking in the west of Ireland and it could be really cheap. I did have so many wonderful moments, especially in the west and southwest.”

“I saw lots of deer in the Wicklow mountains, I saw sea eagles in Kerry - that was special seeing them soaring. Lots of sheep, and cows,” he added.

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