Q&A with Wainwrights Round record holder James Forrest
Written By: Ben Mounsey
James Forrest is a British adventurer, hiker and author. The inov-8 ambassador is best known for climbing all 1,001 mountains across the UK and Ireland in the fastest known time - walking over 5000km, climbing the height of Everest over 30 times and camping wild over 100 nights. His inspirational story - from bored office worker to intrepid adventurer - is told in his debut book Mountain Man, winner of the prestigious Book of the Year accolade in the 2019 The Great Outdoors Readers Awards.
We caught up with him to talk about his latest achievement - setting a new FKT for the Wainwright’s Challenge by hiking over 214 peaks in the UK’s Lake District, in a time of 14 days and 11 hours - all completely self-supported.
Not sure what an FKT - or Fastest Known Time - really means? Check out our What is an FKT & How Can You Get Started guide.
Firstly, congratulations on your outstanding achievement! The previous record for a self-supported Wainwrights Round was 25 days, set by Jack Roberts, in 2017 - now that’s some improvement on his time!
How long have you been planning this challenge and what was your biggest motivation?
I’d been thinking about it for about a year, but lockdown messed around with some of my plans and timings. However, I finally got around to it in late August. inov-8 believed in my idea and agreed to sponsor my journey too, which helped give me the confidence to take the time off work, take the leap of faith and just go for it.
I was motivated by the chance to bag a record. I’ve really enjoyed watching the incredible efforts of ultra-runners like Steve Birkinshaw, Sabrina Verjee and Paul Tierney – amazing feats of endurance. They inspired me to want to experience the Wainwrights in the ultimate way, a single round. But I’m not a runner, I’m a hiker, and I wanted to complete my own round in my own way and own style.
Your FKT challenge was completely self-supported. Can you define what this means? For example, where did you sleep and how did you plan and organise supplies?
The FKT (Fastest Known Time) website provides a clear definition of self-supported, as follows: “Self-supported means you may have as much support as you can manage or find along the way, but not from any pre-arranged people helping you. This can range from caching supplies in advance, purchasing supplies along the way, to finding or begging for food or water. Most long thru-hiking routes are done self-supported.”
I made a conscious effort to ensure my adventure was as authentically self-supported as possible. My aim was to be entirely self-reliant and self-sufficient, and to genuinely survive alone in the mountains. I believe I achieved this aim by: wild camping or bivvying every night; cooking my own food every night (I didn't use any pubs, restaurants or cafes); walking alone for 95% of the adventure (I was joined for very brief sections by my girlfriend Nic, a photographer from Inov-8, and various well-wishers including Steve Birkinshaw); and re-supplying exclusively via stash boxes, rather than going to shops or supermarkets.
In my opinion, there are a number of benefits to a self-supported challenge. It is true escapism and freedom to be alone in the mountains – it gives you a greater sense of peace and solitude and tranquillity. And the challenge of being self-reliant – facing adversity and difficulty, and getting through it – can be life-affirming.
The biggest logistical challenge was sorting out the stash boxes. It was quite time-consuming. I had 8 re-supply boxes stashed across the Lake District. They were left in ‘safe’ but publicly accessible locations, strategically placed so I would pass them every few days. This meant I never had to carry more than two days of food at any one time. The boxes were simply plastic storage boxes – just normal household ones – sealed with gaffer tape. Inside I had expedition food, snacks, spare socks and clothes, some toiletries and camping gas. I had emailed various businesses and people if they could help store a box for me. Thankfully some were happy to help out and so a few days before my challenge I drove around the Lake District and dropped off the boxes in situ. The locations were as follows:
Thackthwaite – at a B&B
Wasdale – wood store of a YHA
Great Langdale – farmer’s barn
Kirkstone – outbuilding at back of a pub
Glenridding – outbuilding of private residence
Howtown – church
Longlands – stables of private residence
Binsey – farmer’s barn
Photo credit to inov-8.com
Let’s talk about food and hydration. You obviously needed a lot of calories and energy to help you complete such a mammoth adventure. How did you fuel yourself for the challenge?
I had a freeze dried meal every evening. I’ve always found that a hearty, hot meal can do wonders for your morale and spirit when you’re out in the fells. For breakfast I ate porridge, cereal bars and dried fruit, while for lunch I always had crackers with peanut butter or Nutella alongside more dried fruit, chocolate bars, sweets, nuts and Lucho Dillitos guava energy blocks – a mix of sugar and fruit that provide an epic energy boost and taste way better than gels. You’ve got to treat yourself when you’re out on a big adventure.
How did you plan the route? Did you take the advice and follow the route/s of former and current record holders such as Steve Birkinshaw and Paul Tierney? Or did you devise your own route?
I had studied the route at home, but I didn’t do any recceing. I followed the fellrunner’s route – the route created by Steve Birkinshaw, which is effectively the most efficient way of bagging the Wainwrights. One thing I was struck by was how much ‘off piste’ there was, including bee-lining straight off the side of one mountain to link it to another. I found this a challenge, as some of the terrain was rough and rugged, and the ascents and descent were knee-crushing. I coped fine with it, but every now and then I decided to take the luxury of a longer route just to stick to a path, rather than suffer some impossibly steep cross-country section.
I’d previously completed two rounds of the Wainwrights, over many years, so I was already pretty familiar with the peaks, paths and terrain. Plus, I live in Cumbria, so I am very familiar with some areas, particularly the north-western fells. I don’t think it was absolutely essential to have prior knowledge, as general hill skills and good navigation could suffice – but the familiarity did help at times for sure.
My exact route is here on OS Maps: https://osmaps.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/route/6091396/James-Forrest-Wainwrights-Single-Round
How much planning and preparation is involved in a challenge of this scale?
This adventure was a few months in the making – and I found the planning and preparation stage pretty time-consuming. There were three key aspects to it: planning my route, organising my kit and arranging my food re-supply boxes. Thankfully Steve Birkinshaw (a former Wainwrights record holder) kindly shared his route with me, so I was able to follow his clever approach to bagging all 214 fells in the most efficient way possible.
What were the hardest parts of the challenge and what were the biggest highlights?
Definitely the rain. It transformed my journey into a rather gruelling and traumatic experience – I’ve never felt so utterly miserable and unhappy on a mountain before. I had some crushingly low moments - the weather really drove me to despair. Plus, I was alone, so dealing with the rather demoralising mental lows by myself was incredibly difficult.
There’s no easy way to deal with miserable weather. Over time it inevitably chips away at your resolve and erodes your spirit. My main coping strategy was to try and stay philosophical and simply accept ‘it is what it is’. I couldn’t control the weather, so what was the point of getting annoyed about it? That was just the theory, however. In practice it was far more difficult. But I tried to channel that anger into something positive – a bit like a riled footballer who plays better when he’s angry – and used it to fuel my fire to walk faster.
Somehow I managed to pull through and I’m so happy that I found the strength and resilience to keep going and make it to the finish line.
In terms of highlights, I did enjoy four joyously sunny days during my expedition – and on those days the challenge was everything I wanted it to be. I loved the exercise, the fresh air, the freedom of the open trail, the challenge of going outside my comfort zone, the majesty of the mountains, and the deeper, more intimate connection I felt with landscape and nature.
My favourite moment was on Holme Fell. I sat in the porch of my tent, tucking into a hearty expedition meal (supplied by Base Camp Food) and watched the sky morph into ever-changing, diluting, blending hues of pink, orange and red above the jagged profile of the Langdale Pikes. After a few days of awful weather, it was a moment that re-opened my eyes to the wonders of the world, and revived my determination to see the challenge through to the end, come what may.
Photo credit to inov-8.com
What are your top kit recommendations and what were the most essential items of your adventure?
My best kit was ultralight, enabling me to travel fast and light through the mountains. The base weight of my backpack was just 6,648g. It could always have been lighter, but I was pretty pleased with my gram-saving efforts. I achieved this weight by focusing on high-quality, ultralight gear. My Nordisk Telemark 1 ULW tent weighed just 899g, a massive saving compared to the 2.4kg Vango Banshee 200 I used a few years ago. My cooking set-up – the Alpkit Kraku stove and MytiMug 650 – was just 143g (a JetBoil Flash weighs 371g), and my sleeping system – Thermarest’s Vesper 20F quilt and NeoAir Uberlite pad – clocked in at just 800g. In terms of apparel and footwear, I exclusively wore inov-8 gear – including the Roclite G 345 GTX boots with graphene grip. The kit was ideal for moving fast, light and nimbly through the mountains.
On reflection, what did you learn the most from this challenge?
The main lesson would be: don’t head into the mountains in bad weather. That seems really depressing and inadequate, but it’s certainly an over-arching theme of my adventure. If nothing else, my Wainwrights journey certainly reminded me that the mountains are in charge. They are to be respected, and feared, and only taken on with humility. As much as they can be therapeutic and healing; they can also be brutally inhospitable, places of pain and anguish and unhappiness.
But I don’t want to leave it at that. So, at the risk of sounding sentimental and saccharine, perhaps my adventure taught me another valuable lesson: that resilience, positivity and determination can overcome great obstacles. After all, the lure of the mountains is – at least in part - that they are symbolic of wider life. The gnarly weather, rough terrain and brutal ascents represent the difficulties and problems we all encounter in life; the summit signifies the goals and aims and ambitions we set for ourselves. So, hopefully, if I could overcome my demons and battle through the hardships in the mountains, perhaps I can do the same when everyday life throws me a curveball too.
You’ve set the bar pretty high for this particular challenge. In your opinion, can it be broken? And would you defend the record should someone else break it?
Yes, now that I’ve finished the challenge, I can imagine it could be done faster: perhaps by sleeping less, hiking for longer each day, taking it on in June when the days are longer, and maybe tweaking some of the strategies, such as not cooking and only eating cold food. But personally, I’m not sure I fancy giving it another go. I’m still reeling from the suffering I went through this time around.
What’s next for James Forrest?
I’m still recovering from this adventure, I think, so I need to take a few months to let it sink in, process things and decide how I want to move forward. I might step away from big, gruelling challenges; I might not. But, whatever I chose, I know hiking will remain a big part of my life. I want to climb more of Britain’s stunning mountains; I want to progress my career as an outdoor writer; and – perhaps most importantly – I want to continue championing the mental health benefits of spending time outdoors.