Walking for Mental Health - Climbing Europe's High Points

© Louise James

Based in Westminster, perhaps one of Britain's least mountainous neighbourhoods, Louise James combines her day job as a Civil Servant with a sideline in amateur film making. Quirky, witty, and and with a distinctive animated style, her films document a personal challenge - to climb the highest mountain in every country in Europe.

"Climbing Europe's high points is a coping mechanism for managing my current role" she tells us. "I know I have achieved something that month, it gives me purpose. I also simply love doing it!"

Without much background in walking or mountaineering Louise, 28, is picking things up as she goes, motivated by a desire for purpose and inspired by the example of other 'tough women'. The project is her 'life jacket' she tells us. 

Check out Louise's Youtube channel SwallowedAStar

Learning on the job in the Tatras  © Louise James
Learning on the job in the Tatras
© Louise James

UKHillwalking: You live in a city without hills, and don't describe yourself as a seasoned mountaineer. So what was it that inspired you to want to climb Europe's high points?

Louise: There were two contributing factors:

The primary factor was that I felt suffocated by an element of a new role I recently started working in. Without any job satisfaction I felt lost. My passion for the civil service had previously provided me with significant purpose, and I realised that if I couldn't derive a sense of achievement from work, then I would need to get it from somewhere else.

Getting outdoors gives me peace, it gives me life. The more extreme the elements the better.

Second factor was that my older ex-boyfriend (for want of a better word), had continuously told me that at 27 years old I was past my prime as a woman, and less valuable to society. A very Andrew Tate narrative that had battered my confidence.

The combination of these two factors meant I was desperately unhappy (but not depressed) for much of 2022. In August 2022 my friend's girlfriend lent me a book called 'tough women'. The title appealed because there were no frills – it was muddy, rough and ready stories of the kind of women who (I expect) would rather climb trees than sit under them. My kind of women.

In this book was a chapter about a Swedish lady who had reached a personal crisis in her life. Instead of breaking, she just started climbing mountains all over Europe. I thought, this is my life jacket – I'll do that.

Two weeks later, August Bank Holiday 2022, I was up Ben Nevis, my first European high point.

How many mountains is that (ok, I could have Googled it) and do you have any idea how long it might take?

Good question, I haven't actually counted the number of mountains, but from the look of my list I think there are 40-50 odd names. I quite like not knowing. When I reach my goal I will know how many I have done - although Ukraine & Russia will be on hold for the foreseeable future.

People approach this challenge differently. For example some count Ben Nevis as the UK's tallest point, whereas I count it as Scotland only. This means my list does grow but not because new countries in Europe are being created [depending who you ask, Ed]. I want to make sure I cover all my bases so there is no room for argument. So for example now I've done the highest in mainland Portugal I might as well do Mount Pico in the Azores too. If in doubt, do more.

The initial list of mountains that I found was from the book tough women, and also this site.

I don't want to be spoon fed this process. I want it to be tough – not just physically, but in planning, understanding and adapting to the environment

How many are you hoping to do per year?

My absolute minimum is to average a mountain a month, but the aim is to do as many as I can before next March 2024. Very much dependent on finances, time, and weather conditions. Having started last summer I've currently done eight.

Which peaks do you anticipate being the hardest?

I have heard it'll be Monte Rosa – harder than Mont Blanc. It all depends on the route, and as I have no intention of taking the easiest routes up we shall see.

In your Polish video you say you're learning to mountaineer, and seem to be picking up crampon use then and there. Did you start out with prior experience and skills in hiking or climbing, or is this whole mountains thing relatively new to you?

I've always been outdoorsy – but I love an icy turbulent sea and had not previously invested much time in hiking. My newfound obsession with mountains has surprised my friends and family, as I am hopeless at orienteering and often get lost. I have done some outdoor climbing (lead & top rope), but would not say I am a seasoned climber by any stretch of the imagination. While mountaineering isn't my strength, I am determined to become skilled enough to stay safe.

My mum climbed mountains when she was younger, and my uncle died from an avalanche in Antarctica (way before I was born). So I like to think it's in my blood, if that's possible.

It can be pretty icy on the highest mountains in mainland Spain  © Louise James
It can be pretty icy on the highest mountains in mainland Spain
© Louise James

Are you self-teaching and picking skills up as you go, or have you had any instruction? 

The only instruction I've received was with guide on Gerlach in Slovakia as it is technically illegal to climb there without a guide unless you are certified. I then applied what I saw on Gerlach to Rysy. So it's pretty self-taught.

If I want to do more difficult routes I may need to do some winter skills training, but for now I am surviving by learning as I go. I have an outdoorsy friend called Rob who has been in some of the UK videos. He shares general wisdom he has on mountaineering so I have learned bits from him. I don't want to achieve this goal through hiring guides – firstly it is extremely expensive, secondly I want to upskill myself organically – I don't want to be spoon fed this process. I want it to be tough – not just physically, but in planning, understanding and adapting to the environment.

Are you working systematically, as in building skills and experience as you go so that you get to the more difficult mountains when you're readier to tackle them?

My aim is to start with the easier mountains and work upwards. Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa are towards the end of the goal, but some countries' highest points are just hills, so I need to tick them off too at some point. This month I wanted to do the highest in Andorra (on ski), but found out there was a high chance of avalanche at this time of the year.

It also depends on how much annual leave I can take, and prices of flights – sometimes I don't know what mountain I am doing til a few days before. Very last minute.

Rysy looked exciting as a solo mountaineering objective but I guess there are a few that will definitely need a partner and a rope: have you got as far as thinking about that yet?

So my friend Rob has learned a lot from his brother who is a professional mountain guide. Rob has loosely agreed to accompany me on the more challenging mountains. If not, I will get making friends with more experienced mountaineers. Ultimately, I feel like it will all work out in the end, and it is a problem for another day.

Some hills you've done alone so far, some with Rob: on the videos you seem to be able to keep up the banter either in company or by yourself, but which do you prefer – up a hill with a mate, or on your tod? 

There are bonuses to both, and I like a mixture.

Myself: Being alone on a mountain is quite special. I have more time to film and to be creative, I also feel tougher and more isolated. The solitude feeds my soul. There isn't the same safety net if something goes wrong – I am alone and I think I grow from the independence.

With Friends: Rob has been my rock this past year, he hikes fast so I also get fitter which I value. We also have a laugh and it's a good way to maintain our friendship while doing what we both love. More generally, it has reached the point where I am so busy working, making videos, and going away to do mountains each month that my friends are learning that to properly see me they need to start hiking with me. To this end, I have four trips planned with other friends late spring/summer.

Which of the hills has been the best fun so far?

Pure fun was Torre (Portugal) simply because I had such low expectations and it thoroughly exceeded them. Sun was shining, the air was icy and invigorating, and it surprised me so much. I think being surprised is the key to fun.

How about the one you've found hardest?

Mainland Spain's Mulhacén. First mistake was taking a 70-litre backpack with all my stuff up to the mountain hut. On the way up I got lost in a valley and scratched to death by brambles, then confronted by a wild boar. To begin with I was filming loads of hiking shots then this got abandoned as the sun was setting and I was desperate to get to the mountain hut. The next day weather conditions were extremely icy and I was recommended not to try it (although I did). I got 200 metres from the top and had to turn back. It turns out I approached the mountain via a more challenging angle - lesson learned, but I now need to go back. The next video I upload will be on summit fever...

Climbing Europe's high points is a coping mechanism for managing my current job. I know I have achieved something that month, it gives me purpose. I also simply love doing it

The mountain bits look brilliant and are obviously the pretext for each adventure, but it also seems like you're getting a lot out of the overall experience of getting to and from them. How have you found the general travel aspect of the trips so far?

Where possible I don't want to experience a mountain without getting a sense of the country it is set in. So I like to explore.

I have become very spontaneous, as I often just don't have the brain capacity in London to plan out how I get to a mountain until I am there. So, travelling for me is 70% winging it 20% planning, and 10% luck.

In 2017 I passed my driving test but haven't driven since and have never owned a car – not pragmatic for London. I have also never driven on the right side of the road, and this means I am heavily reliant on public transport. This adds a layer of complexity which is part of the fun. For example, Denmark's highest point. This is a field with 160m of elevation and is a 50 min drive from Billund airport. However, by public transport (from the airport) the journey took me nearly six hours including walking on the side of a highway for hours.

A fish-eye view of Crib Goch  © Louise James
A fish-eye view of Crib Goch
© Louise James

Have you met many interesting / friendly people?

Yes, Rose from Denmark. We were the only two people staying on a Spanish mountain and she really changed my perspective on living. She has a remarkable life and a remarkable mindset. Rose lives life with an attitude of abundance and thinks very differently to me, on how to best make a positive impact on the world. I often think to myself since meeting her 'what would Rose do?'

Caught short behind a boulder; discovering you've been walking around with a huge hole in your trousers (and receiving a lot of friendly attention from men all day) – and that was just the Polish trip. Would you say you have a knack for finding funny situations, or just that you have the rare ability to laugh at life?

Well, this kind of stuff has found me my whole life, so I have just learned to laugh about it. It is my status quo, and must be down to a combination of putting myself in interesting situations, being clumsy, not risk averse, and mildly oblivious.

I am also a highly sensitive person, I feel raw emotions very powerfully. As such, my ability to laugh at myself is a necessary coping mechanism in life.

Tell us another funny story from a hill

There is this symbol on trail posts leading to the bottom of Mulhacén (Spanish mountain). The symbol looks like a back triangle. I was tired from dragging my huge backpack all the way from the nearest village so wasn't thinking too sharply. I just presumed that this symbol was a fancy arrow pointing upwards and followed it. 

I could see faint trails of where people had trodden – which I now know were animal tracks. I followed the trails that sometimes required ploughing under bushes etc but I persevered. I got my backpack and hair completely tangled in brambles.

I genuinely started panicking, got very stressed and was absolutely not even slightly laughing. Then from nowhere this massive wild boar springs out two meters in front of me. A huge beast with tusks protruding from its mouth. I genuinely thought if he/she went for me, I would die. Die with my hair looking like I had been dragged through a bush backwards (because I had been). Fortunately, it ran off. I eventually got untangled but was so deep through brambles there was no going back, so I just sort of guessed the route for the next 30-40 minutes. Thankfully I eventually found a path leading to the mountain hut.

Incidentally, as I don't speak Spanish I couldn't easily book the mountain hut. I had called up while in Portugal and tried to read the Google Translate Spanish words – but it hadn't worked. The more I tried to pronounce the sentences, the more confused the steward got and after my third try they told me (in English) that a Spanish speaker must call. I called my mum, who called round to her old neighbour's house, whose daughter lives in Spain, and asked if she could phone up and book the hut for me.

Looking at your videos, the style of camera work, editing, narration and animation is really distinctive. Do you have a background in making films or are you just naturally talented?

Ahhh... I wouldn't go as far as to say talented, but it is a self-taught coping mechanism. If life's tough I edit a video and it reminds me that I love life, that I am lucky and am grateful that I get to do this for myself. This approach allows me to be creative, because I am doing it to cope. As I am approaching it as a form of art therapy my style is all about being able to take control of a story and tell it in my own way. I think being dyslexic helps to be honest. In terms of cameras, I put it down and film, and just know that pressing the red button records. 

On a dank and slippery Ben Nevis  © Louise James
On a dank and slippery Ben Nevis
© Louise James

I want to talk about mental health, something we tend to find difficult. You liken yourself not to a sturdy oak, but to a weed that gets cut down and pops back up: "Resilience is not the ability to avoid struggle, it's the ability to recover from struggle". Can you tell us a bit about your experience of mental health and ill health over the years?

Yes I am a dandelion in life, not an oak tree. I think there has started to be a narrative around 'resilience' that if you fall down when struggling you aren't resilient. In fact, you are only resilient if you fall, it is about recovering from falling not the avoiding of falling that makes resilience. 

I have an anxiety disorder and a phobia of not be able to sleep that came from being a chronic insomniac. I now take medication that helps me sleep, and for anxiety. Going on medication was initially a very rough ride as my body is very sensitive to chemical changes. However, having been on anti-depressants for years now my body has acclimatised and they help me sleep so I am grateful.

I have been depressed once (only once, for which I am fortunate), and it was the darkest most debilitating experience of my life. It robbed me of most of my functionality for months. Thankfully, I don't think I will ever go back to that place – I am much stronger now and have devoted significant time working on myself. Not that depression is a choice but I now have more tools at my disposal to manage life more effectively.

I am also very passionate about speaking about mental health. In particular I think it is very important that men discuss their own mental health more.  

Does getting into the outdoors have a bearing on how you feel?

Yes, it rests me, it gives me peace, it gives me life. The more extreme the elements the better. Happy to go swimming while its snowing.

Is this European high points project a challenge that you are setting yourself as a response in some way to other challenges in daily life?

Yes, it is a coping mechanism for managing my current role. I know I have achieved something that month, it gives me purpose. I also simply love doing it. If and when my job changes I will still need it.

Lastly – I Swallowed a Star: where does that name come from?

I drew the 'I swallowed the star' picture when I was struggling in life.

I find it easy to entertain others, on numerous occasions I would tell a story at dinner parties etc that 'I swallowed a star'. I conjure up this whole story where the details change each time, and I tell people that swallowing this star gave me the ability to read minds. Then I play a magic trick on them where I read their minds. I am a big personality, and it helps set a fun tone to gatherings where perhaps people don't know each other.  Although, believe it or not I am an introvert – just a very confident one.

I few years ago when I was lost in myself, I drew swallowed a star to remind me of who I am. I rarely do the mind trick anymore, I also learnt that it isn't just my responsibility to set a good atmosphere. As if you give all of yourself to others all the time you have nothing left for yourself. Also why mountains are good for me, they are just for me.

If you are curious about some of my mental health drawings look at Instagram page – it's where the name comes from.  

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2 May

Just watched mountain no1…loved it and looking forward to the rest. Good bit of dog rescuing 😀

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