James Forrest on the Self-Supported 3 Peaks Record Interview

© David MacFarlane

In late summer 2021, outdoor journalist and long distance enthusiast James Forrest completed the fastest self-supported link-up of Britain's three national high points. His route on foot between Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon covered 492 miles, and 11,000 metres of ascent, and took 16 days, 15 hours and 39 minutes. Runners on the three peaks will have a team to provide logistical support, but going solo made this a very different experience. On this fast backpacking journey, James carried all his gear, and slept roughly half the nights in a tent.

Being self supported is "true escapism and freedom to be alone in the mountains" he tells us. "It gives you a greater sense of peace and solitude".

On Ben Nevis, peak one  © David MacFarlane
On Ben Nevis, peak one
© David MacFarlane

UKHillwalking: What attracted you to this particular challenge?

James: I love peak-bagging. I'm a total peak-bagging geek. But, after spending three years climbing 1,001 mountains across the UK and Ireland (including all 282 Munros) and then bagging the Wainwrights in a 14-day solo and self-supported record, I found myself a little jaded with summit tick-lists this year.

I love the solitude and tranquility. Going entirely self-reliant and pulling through the tough times feels epic

So instead I turned to long-distance trails and it immediately renewed my passion for fast-hiking adventures. This spring and summer I walked the 154km West Highland Way in three days, the stunning 299km Pembrokeshire Coast Path in six days during a rare Welsh heat-wave, and the 293km Coast to Coast in seven days – and each journey was good for my soul. It felt like time for solitude, self-reflection and quiet; for living simply, getting back to nature and renewing my mental health; and for testing myself and going outside my comfort zone. I relished it all.

These experiences inspired me to take on the National Three Peaks on foot, climbing Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon – and walking every mile in-between them – in a self-supported, solo adventure.

Heading for the Devil's Staircase on the West Highland Way  © David MacFarlane
Heading for the Devil's Staircase on the West Highland Way
© David MacFarlane

As a motorised charity caper the 3 peaks need no introduction, and even less promotion: why was it important to you to do it as a continuous journey on foot, rather than making life easier with a car or even a bike?

The traditional 3 Peaks approach has a bit of a bad reputation – petrol-guzzling, visiting quiet communities late at night, and floating in and out of mountainous in a flash. I wanted to do something different. I travelled to Fort William by train and coach, and returned home from Llanberis via train and bus (and a lift with a friend), so I was able to journey mostly by public transport. And, of course, the bit in between was entirely human-powered. Being eco-friendly wasn't a primary focus of my plans, but it felt great to know I was minimising my impact on the planet and avoiding the common pitfalls of the normal 3 Peaks approach.

What positives does going solo and unsupported add to a journey like this?

It is true escapism and freedom to be alone in the mountains – it gives you a greater sense of peace and solitude and tranquility. And the challenge of being self-reliant – facing adversity and difficulty, and getting through it – can be life-affirming.

A wet day in Glasgow (not uncommon)  © David MacFarlane
A wet day in Glasgow (not uncommon)
© David MacFarlane

I saw so much of the UK in just 16 days, from sprawling urban jungles and industrial wastelands to remote mountains

Hiking alone with no support crew or pre-arranged help does pose certain challenges – you don't have a team-mate to perk you up with a joke or smile when you're feeling low – but I love the solitude and tranquility. Being entirely self-reliant and pulling through the tough times feels epic.

How about the logistical and physical challenge – how did it differ from a supported attempt?

Logistically it was quite easy, as I booked hotels and ate in restaurants, and passed through many villages and towns/cities. It was the longest non-stop walk I've every done. The physical challenges were overall fatigue, and foot management, i.e avoiding blisters.

What sort of planning went into it?

Modern technology has made route planning both intuitive and straightforward. For my National Three Peaks, I used the desktop versions of the Komoot and OS Maps apps to plot out my initial route, and tweak it over time. I was then able to chunk up the walk into realistic daily targets – based on a mileage and ascent I felt was achievable for myself – and begin figuring out places I could wild camp, shops I could re-supply in, and B&Bs available for the night. Before long I had a spreadsheet with 17 daily stages, detailing mileage, ascent, re-supply points and accommodation, and the structure of my adventure was beginning to take shape.

En route to peak two, Scafell Pike  © David MacFarlane
En route to peak two, Scafell Pike
© David MacFarlane

I created the route myself, but it mostly follows the established route used by other competitors (and thanks to ultra-runner Alex Staniforth for sharing his route with me, after he narrowly missed on the running record by just over an hour). The main route change I made was to take the coastal paths of north Wales from Ellesmere Port towards Bangor via Prestatyn and Conwy, rather than opting for a more direct (but boring) road route through north-east Wales. Some runners also choose to take a ferry or train across the River Mersey at Birkenhead over to Liverpool, but I walked across the Runcorn bridge further east – thus ensuring my entire journey was self-propelled. Throughout much of the route, it'd have been faster for me to power along an A-road, but I wanted to enjoy the hiking and selected quieter trails wherever possible.

Industrial landscapes near Ellesmere Port  © David MacFarlane
Industrial landscapes near Ellesmere Port
© David MacFarlane

Looking at a map you might assume that the long lowland sections could prove a bit dull and repetitive compared to the hills. What was your experience on the ground?

I thought I'd hate the built-up sections, but I found myself relishing the variety of this walk. The journey felt like an authentic insight into life in the UK, and every aspect of it. I saw so much in just 16 days, experiencing the real breadth of the UK's landscapes, from sprawling urban jungles and industrial wastelands to remote mountains and far-flung coastlines. Going through urban areas meant I could stay in hotels too, which felt like a real luxury after several nights in my tent. I didn't fancy wild camping in Preston city centre.

Presumably a journey this long and hard can't have gone without a few hitches or low points: can you tell us about them?

I suffered two pretty awful days of rain, including a 12-hour stint of non-stop downpours on the West Highland Way – that was really demoralising. But overall the weather was kind to me. Looking after my feet, trying to avoid blisters and sore spots, was a constant battle, but the biggest challenge was without doubt the final ascent of Snowdon. I had to dig really deep then and, for a fleeting few moments, I didn't think I'd make it.

Digging deep after falling ill at the foot of the final peak  © David MacFarlane
Digging deep after falling ill at the foot of the final peak
© David MacFarlane

After almost 500 miles of walking, I suddenly fell ill with sunstroke in Llanberis. I threw up violently and just felt absolutely awful: nauseous, dizzy and completely bereft of any energy. I'd come so far, maybe 98% of the whole journey, and now it looked like I might fall at the final hurdle. I just wanted to curl up in the embryo position and go to sleep. I felt so weak. It was a pivotal moment in my challenge. But I didn't panic. I had some fizzy drinks and sweets, managed to regain my composure and somehow found the strength to plod, rather slowly, up and down Snowdon to complete my journey.

How about notable highs – surely there must have been a fair few of those?

I walked several lovely trails, including the West Highland Way, Clyde Walkway, Annandale Way, Lancaster Canal Path and North Wales Coast Path. The best moments were a magical wild camp in the hills above Conwy, watching the sunset, and camping close to Devil's Staircase with a grandstand view of The Buachaille.

Which was the hardest day? 

The last day, due to illness – that was seriously tough. But I actually enjoyed the tougher mountain days. The most boring and hence tough days were full road slogs in the middle, from south of Lancaster to the Wales coast.

Wild camping in the hills above Conwy  © David MacFarlane
Wild camping in the hills above Conwy
© David MacFarlane

Going solo and unsupported makes it very much a backpacking challenge, and that means a heavy pack and careful kit choice. Can you give us a rough breakdown of gear you carried and what you wore on your feet?

I'm sponsored by inov-8, which fits perfectly with my fast-hiking approach, so I exclusively wore inov-8's lightweight clothing and footwear – including the new Rocfly G 390s, which worked perfectly – comfy, cushioned, good rebound and non-GTX. For camping, my 4.6kg base weight was as ultralight and minimalist as possible. I packed a Gossamer Gear The One trekking pole tent, Thermarest NeoAir UberLite mat, PHD M.Degree 300 K Down sleeping bag and Zpacks Nero 38L frameless backpack.

I barely carried any food; I kept this minimal and resupplied/ate every time I passed a shop or restaurant.

Made it - on the summit of Snowdon  © David MacFarlane
Made it - on the summit of Snowdon
© David MacFarlane

Do you have a favourite of the three peaks?

I love them all – but, because I live in Cumbria, I'll say Scafell Pike

You're definitely making a habit of taking on big things like this. So, what's next?

Not sure to be honest. I usually take the winter to calm down a bit and at some point an idea will pop into my head. I'd love to do the 3000km Te Araroa trail in New Zealand one day, but that might have to wait for a few years.

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