Adventurer James Forrest on swapping the everyday for the extraordinary
IN PARTNERSHIP WITH KEEN
Tired of inner-city life, Forrest switched his 9-5 for the great outdoors. Now, he’s encouraging others to do the same.
Arranging an interview with James Forrest is a tricky business. The adventurer is currently in the midst of a major mountain-climbing mission in Scotland, which means that – for the most part – he is almost impossible to reach. Mobile reception is patchy, scrambling is tiring, and time is scarce.
“At the moment I’m trying to climb the Munros, which are the 282 mountains in Scotland over 3,000 feet,” Forrest explains, when we finally do get round to talking. “I’m just at the very beginning of this challenge: I’ve done 25 so far, so feels like I have an incredibly long way to go.”
Fortunately, the adventurer is no stranger to these kinds of challenges. In 2017, he broke records by climbing every mountain in England and Wales (446 in total) in just six months – the fastest ever time. The following year, he went on to conquer the 273 peaks of Ireland. Now, in what he sees as the final part of “a trilogy”, he is tackling Scotland.
But these adventures are much more achievable than you think – especially when you consider that Forrest did most of them while holding down a regular office job. Many of the trips were squeezed in on weekends and during holiday time, to ensure they remained as affordable and accessible as possible. Nevertheless, it’s been an intense three years.
“You have horrific lows and dizzying highs, it’s a bit of a rollercoaster,” he says. “Whenever I spend a long time in rainy mountains I always say that next time I organise a challenge, I should make it 273 beaches in the Carribean or something. But the mountains always seem to lure me back in somehow.”
But adventuring wasn’t always part of Forrest’s life. In fact, for a long time, it was almost the furthest thing from it. From the age of 20 to 30, he was based in inner-city Birmingham, holding down a 40-hour-a-week office job in the charity sector: “It was an alright life, but in many ways, I wasn’t happy,” he remembers. “I was a bit down and depressed, and it didn’t feel right for me.”
After being slowly worn down by the pace of city life, he decided it was time for a drastic change. So, in 2016, Forrest decided to hand in his notice, sell his house, and go travelling: “I realised that I shouldn’t be chasing money, a better house, a better car, or a better salary. I should be chasing the dream.”
Once he got back, he moved to the Lake District and got a part-time, four-day-a-week role fundraising for the National Park. It was there that he began weaving adventuring into his everyday life, scaling mountains and setting outdoor challenges into any spare moment. He eventually started to realise how much he had been missing in his previous life.
“While you’re in the city and focusing on your career, stress is an epidemic. You don’t quite realise how stressed and under pressure you are until you remove yourself from it.”
“It’s not even a physical benefit – a massive thing for me is the mental health side of being outdoors. I’ve always found that when I’m in the outdoors it helps put life’s little problems into perspective. If I’ve been feeling stressed, worried, anxious or down with my everyday existence, going for a walk in the countryside always clears my head. The brain fog lifts and I always end up feeling happier.”
Now, Forrest is hoping to encourage others to follow in his footsteps. While that may not involve quitting your job to become a full-time adventurer, it does mean getting back in touch with the natural world, and understanding the benefits of being outside.
“Doing something as hectic and crazy as 446 mountains isn’t for everyone,” he acknowledges. “But hopefully what my journey can show everyone is that everyone can live a little bit more adventurously. Even if it’s just taking one week a month to go to a new national park in Britain, or spending one night a week going to sleep in your tent on your local field or forest, rather than staying at your home. Or even just going for a walk on Sunday rather than lazing around the house.”
Forrest is also keen to stress that, while he loves the outdoor life now, he never has been – and still doesn’t feel like – a classic “adventurer”.
“I always joke about how calamitous and unskilled I am at adventuring,” he jokes. “I’m still not particularly good at navigating, I still struggle to sleep in my tent if it’s not flat, and I’m still scared of every animal I encounter. My legs still go to jelly if I stand too close to a cliff edge, and I’ve got no qualifications in adventuring. But I have this longing to do it. And anyone can, it just takes a bit of determination and grit and a want to do it – then it will all fall in place.”
The adventurer adds that, once he finishes his latest quest, he hopes to do his first major thru-hike (a non-stop journey from a to b) across New Zealand. For now, though, the focus is on mastering the Munros of Scotland, while staying on top of his other work commitments.
“My goal,” Forrest adds, finally, “is just to be happy in my life, and to be able to spend more time in the hills, going for walks, and enjoying our countryside rather than spend my whole life staring at iPhone screen looking at Instagram notifications. I just want to enjoy the outdoors.”