On March the 29th, the Summit Fit academy will be heading into the hills with 10 people who have, in one way or another, been touched by mental health issues. Joining us on the day will be Harrison Ward, better known as the Fell Foodie. We chat with him ahead of the expedition about how the mountains have shaped his well being.
The 6th of June, 2016 marks an important day for you. Tell us more about this turning point of a date?
The 6th of June 2016 marks the day my life changed for the better. It was the day I realised I had become somebody I am not. I had struggled from a very early age with depression and insecurity but largely kept it to myself. After hitting 18 I found solace and escape in alcohol, self-medicating if you will to silence the debilitating thoughts. A relocation to York soon followed to begin the next chapter of my life, starting university, and I quickly found work in hospitality as I had previous experience from employment at home. At first, the social environment was enjoyed but this soon took over from the educational elements. Before long I had ballooned to 22 stone, was a full-time smoker and was drinking in excess of 20 pints a day. My life was unsustainable but I hadn’t seen this yet. The easy accessibility to alcohol in a big city as well as being in a job that was encompassed by it allowed by addiction to grow. It was like being a kid in a sweet shop. After 6 years, it was only the end of a serious relationship due to leading a double life with Alcohol that opened my eyes. It took priority in my life and affected everything; family, work, health, finances but it was only when it concluded a romance that I began to realise the man I had become. The 6th June 2016 was my first day sober, and my first day absent of cigarettes. I threw myself into fitness and returned to my home county of Cumbria. I have remained sober ever since and hope to continue to, I have not picked up another fag and lost 7 stone. So it is quite a memorable date for me.
You’re known as the Fell Foodie, how important have the mountains, or the fells, been in your fitness journey?
In some circles, yes. The mountains have been instrumental in my weight loss and mental improvement. Although being from the area, they didn’t tend to be of much interest. On returning home a close friend picked me up, drove me straight to GoOutdoors and bought me a pair of boots. He then parked up at the base of Blencathra and said: “We are walking up there.” I was still in the throes of withdrawal, desperate for a cigarette but also determined for that man of my past to become a stranger. I made it to the top and in the weeks that followed made it to the top of Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and then Snowdon. It was safe to say a passion was ignited. The challenge of summiting a mountain (or even a fell) felt physically reminiscent of my own personal challenge of overcoming mental mountains. The sense of achievement at reaching the top combined with the terrific views and the endorphin boost could be dubbed a fresh addiction. One albeit more sustainable, it has remained a key part of my life ever since.
You’re obviously passionate about good food, what goes into choosing your mountain menu before heading out into the hills?
Food and more importantly cooking is my earliest passion. I love to try new things and experiment to improve my palate and repertoire. I think cooking (and eating) just has the ability to bring people together in such a comforting way. When it comes to planning meals for the mountains there are some obvious constraints with the equipment I have. I tend to cook on a Biolite Camping stove, a wood-burning stove which powers an adjustable fan via heat transfer. The absence of an oven takes some recipes off the table but this doesn’t’ stop me trying to get creative with minimal utensils in remote locations. So far I’ve cooked up Steak and Ale Stews, Grilled Salmon dishes, Homemade Burgers, Chilli con Carne, Sausage and Mash with a Red Wine Jus and many other dishes. But I’m just getting started, cooking over a fire out in the wild feels like a throwback to our ancestors. Sometimes I’ll cook for friends and fellow hikers I am out with so the meal has to cater to the diets of the recipients. I’ll give anything a go though, within reason, I’m looking forward to the summer when I can be out cooking most nights after work in the light.
What’s been the most challenging meal you’ve cooked out on the hills?
Each meal has its own challenge but its often the environment that plays the greater difficulty. From struggling to get a fire lit in gale force winds on top of Great Mell Fell to pitching up on Fairfield after a miserable night hike up in wind and rain and then having to get dinner cooked. It is this challenge that I think just adds that extra ingredient to each dish that makes it taste all the better. Recently the challenge has been the cold, losing dexterity in the fingers is detrimental to prepping a dish, thankfully the fire is there to warm them up once it's all in the pan. I hope to really push on with the dishes I am cooking outdoors and take it to the next level again. Some people joke that I cook better food on my minimalist kit than they can in their kitchen. I reckon a Beef Wellington out in the hills may be a challenge too far mind, that’s one I’ll leave to cooking at home.
What singular piece of advice would you pass on to anyone who might feel the same way you did before you changed your lifestyle?
Never say never, there is always still time for a change. I couldn’t run a bath before the 6th of June but less than 9 months later I ran Brathay Marathon. I used to get out of breath walking up a flight of stairs and next minute I was summiting Helvellyn from Swirls Car Park in under an hour! I wouldn’t expect people to cut out Alcohol or Cigarettes from their life (if they are a part of it) but small changes can make all the difference to an improved lifestyle. For me, I couldn’t stop at one so had to eradicate it altogether. Start small and never be afraid to call it a day, remember any activity no matter how small is more than the person sat at home on their couch. The body is a resilient thing and repeating small actions will have a large difference. Before long that mountain you were looking at the day before may seem like a hill or that unachievable 5km run becomes a training run. You have to want it for yourself though, nobody can force you into the change but plenty of people in a community like Instagram will always be there for help, guidance and possibly company. But don’t compare yourself with others, you are running your own race and your own pace. It's great to have goals but make sure they are realistic. Don’t start running and within a week be wondering why you aren’t as fast as Mo Farah!
So, what’s next on the agenda?
Now that would be telling. I have some great projects in the pipeline already but hopefully more collaborations with fellow Instagrammers and brands. I’ve just returned from a 2-week break in Australia where I summited my highest mountains to date. The 2,228m Mount Kosciuszko and its smaller sibling Mount Townsend 2,209m (Australia’s 2 highest mainland mountains). I hope to have gone higher than this by the start of 2020. Otherwise maintaining my sobriety and keep enjoying the mountains closer to home.