James Forrest on Climbing all 273 Irish Mountains Interview

© James Forrest

Between August and October this year, Cumbria-based outdoor writer James Forrest climbed all the mountains on the island of Ireland. Spread widely between the Mournes in Northern Ireland and Kerry in the southwest of the Republic, the 600m+ summits on the Vandeleur-Lynam list number a whopping 273. James did the lot in just eight weeks - the fastest known time.

James, 35, who also set a record for climbing all 446 mountains in England and Wales in just six months in 2017, began working life as a local newspaper reporter in the Midlands.

"I was bored living in a city and working in an office" he tells us.

"I was fed up, down and depressed. I lived that life for a decade and I always felt like something was missing. I wanted to spend more time outdoors and to live a more adventurous existence. So in 2016 I sold my house, quit my job and travelled around the world, before re-locating to the Lake District and launching my freelance career as an outdoors writer."

British walkers can be more parochial than we'd give ourselves credit for, and it's probably fair to say that a lot of people won't have heard of the Vandaleur-Lynams.

"I really wanted to travel to Ireland and to explore the country's wild mountains" says James, "so I researched the different classifications of Irish hills online and stumbled across the VL classification."

"I'd only ever been to Ireland twice before - both student booze-ups in Dublin!"

Despite this rather limited base of local knowledge, James put in very little prior research.

"I've always found the unpredictability of adventures appealing so I don't like to overplan" he says.

"Sometimes the best parts of adventures are when things go wrong, or you get lost, or veer away from the original plan. But obviously I had to do some planning, as follows: I simply had my car rammed full of food and expedition meals and all my hiking and camping gear; and I had all of the maps of Ireland downloaded onto my phone."

He planned a five-day route in the Wicklow Mountains for when he first arrived, and the rest he then made up on the hoof.

The main Irish mountain groups are widely scattered, so James travelled by car between areas. But on the hills themselves it often made sense to link multiple summits on overnight trips.

"I wild camped as much as I could" he says.

"I love sleeping under the stars - it is a special, magical experience. I always find it peaceful and tranquil, the perfect way to escape the stresses and worries of normal life."

Over eight weeks he clocked up 1129km, and climbed roughly the height of Everest every week. Out of 56 days in total, he had 10 rest days. Some days were bigger than others, such as a round of almost 40km in the remote mountains of Ballycroy National Park.

"All of the walks in my final weeks were a challenge" he says, "as I was struggling with fatigue and burn-out. But easily the most difficult were the days when storms blew through. In Connemara National Park and surrounding areas I walked for 10 days in a row and faced torrential rain every day - and failed to get a view from over 50 summits. It was mentally demoralising and a real challenge to keep going."

And compared to England and Wales, the relative lack of well-trodden paths often made for hard going underfoot.

"I faced such brutal weather during this challenge at times I felt like giving up", he adds.

"But I persevered and was rewarded with some wonderful and poignant moments in the stunning landscapes of the Irish countryside.

"I was particularly wowed by the beauty of the mountains in the west and south-west of Ireland. I loved exploring those wild places – it was breathtaking."

The local welcome was an unexpected bonus, too.

"A couple of human experiences stick out in my memory" says James.

"I was hitchhiking in the Knockmealdown mountains and couldn't seem to get a ride to save my life. Then an old man in his 80s pulled over and offered me a lift. He was so friendly and sociable and kind and generous - and really funny too. We had a great chat and his warmth really renewed my faith in humanity.

"Another was a time I had hiked the Galtee mountains and woefully underestimated the timings. I needed to hitchhike 30km back to my car but it was dark and I couldn't get a ride. I had no tent and no food. I was stranded in the middle of nowhere. I thought I was going to have to sleep in a ditch. But I found a petrol station and was talking to the cashier about my predicament when a couple, who had been eavesdropping, offered me a ride all the way. It wasn't even in the direction they were heading.

"The final incident was when - at a point I was feeling really low and close to giving up - a guy I followed on Instagram Padraig King guided me up the Twelve Bens in Galway. It felt great to have a companion and he really boosted my spirits."

"It has been the adventure of a lifetime and an incredibly tough challenge, both physically and mentally.

"Mountains are good for the soul. I love the freedom, the fresh air, the isolation, the unpredictability, the escapism – and this journey let me experience these joys more than most.

"Ireland is an incredibly wild and beautiful country and I found the people to be so warm and friendly."

So what's next for James? It sounds like and attempt on the Munros, and the 3000km Te Aroroa trail in New Zealand, are both on his radar.

You can follow him here:

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