I climbed all four hundred and forty-six 2,000ft mountains in England and Wales in just six months – the fastest-ever time. Solo and unsupported, I walked over 1,000 miles, ascended five times the height of Everest and slept wild under the stars over 25 times. And I did it all while holding down my job, moving house and, somewhat miraculously, keeping my personal life just about under control. But why? And what did I learn?
After a decade of living and working in Birmingham, I was fed up of my office-centric existence in the concrete jungle. I was down and depressed. So, after much soul-searching, I decided to flip my life upside down. I sold my house, quit my job, and went travelling around the world. My ‘gap year’ was the adventure of a lifetime, 12 months of wanderlust-soaked, sun-drenched exploration through Australasia, South East Asia and Britain.
The downside? I returned home with a head full of memories and a wallet empty of money. I was forced to go back to work, but I didn’t want to give up on my adventure dreams. I still wanted to go on a ‘big’ adventure. I longed for something grand, something that could rival the superlative heights of my gap year, something that could quench my insatiable wanderlust. Was that too much to ask? Was it even possible to integrate an epic expedition with a job and an everyday lifestyle?
I ignored the doubts and obstacles – and instead a crazy plan formulated in my mind. I was going to attempt to tick off every 2,000ft mountain in England and Wales, known colloquially as the ‘Nuttalls’, on my days off from work. I knew it would be tough. Two hundred and fifty-six mountains in England; 190 mountains in Wales; 1,047 miles to walk; 277,789 feet to ascend; 1,095,250 steps to take. If I made it, it’d be a peak-bagging record too.
And well, as they say, the rest was history. I did it. I became the fastest person to ever walk the mountains of England and Wales. The mountains taught me a simple but transformative lesson too: if you disconnect from technology, you reconnect with something innate and natural. In an internet-obsessed world of Instagram likes, Netflix binges and bursting email inboxes, we have lost our way. But if you turn off your phone and go climb a mountain, life is happier. Priorities realign, everyday worries dissipate, and closeness to nature and landscape is rekindled. Your reality becomes wholesome, humble, uncomplicated and fulfilling. It is joyous and liberating.
You learn to savour the simple pleasures in life – the pitter-patter of rain on your tent, a hot drink on a summit, the stillness of a forest, the wind in your hair, the crunch of the rocks below your feet – while simultaneously becoming immune to the stresses and anxieties that plague everyday life. After all, when you’re watching the sky swirl a thousand shades of pink as the sun sets over silhouetted mountains, you really don’t care about your burgeoning to-do list at work; and when you’re hiking along an airy sun-drenched ridgeline, you truly can switch off from the incessant noise of online life; and when you’re feeling like the king of the world on top of an exposed summit, you quickly realise how meaningless and fruitless our technology addictions really are.
Conversely, spending time in the mountains is meaningful and fruitful. Every walk I’ve completed has been time well spent – time for wilderness and solitude, for self-reflection and quiet, for escapism and nature. Every mountain has brought me boundless happiness. To non-believers this might seem a sentimental exaggeration but I stand by the statement. Being in the mountains is good for the soul. Why? Because, in the poetic words of the great fellwalker Alfred Wainwright: ‘I was to find … a spiritual and physical satisfaction in climbing mountains – and a tranquil mind upon reaching their summits, as though I had escaped from the disappointments and unkindnesses of life and emerged above them into a new world, a better world.’
So what are you waiting for? Grab your boots, turn off your phone and go and explore that better world.
James Forrest is the author of Mountain Man: 446 Mountains. Six months. One record-breaking adventure, published by Conway (an imprint of Bloomsbury), £16.99.