Hiking gives me the buzz beer used to

Harrison Ward | May 2022 | 9 minutes

When Harrison Ward quit drinking at age 30, an unexpected visitor led to a new passion.

Two weeks after quitting drinking, I had an unannounced visitor. Still in the haze of alcohol withdrawal, I’d been trying to run but had discovered I couldn’t even run a bath! My friend Ryan knew about this fitness drive. So, he turned up on my doorstep and said, “We are going hiking up Blencathra.” I didn’t even own any walking boots. Undeterred in his kindness, Ryan stopped at a shop to buy me some.

A slow and demanding vertical plod commenced. While descending Ryan said, “Helvellyn next?” I’m not sure I even answered, yet a week later we were marching up a steep ascent on a magnificent day, with barely a cloud in the sky. Finally, the trig point was reached.

The climbing felt like a physical manifestation of what I had been going through with the first few weeks of quitting alcohol; an uphill struggle, occasionally an unknown path, but reward and endorphins at the summit.

The climbing felt like a physical manifestation of what I had been going through with the first few weeks of quitting alcohol; an uphill struggle, occasionally an unknown path, but reward and endorphins at the summit. Looking east over Striding Edge, I knew a new addiction had been ignited.

I used to think alcohol was my only escape from an overactive mind beset with self-loathing. Yet it was only once I stood on a mountain top – looking down at what I’d just climbed – that I discovered the true mental freedom I’ve been craving since I was a teenager, when crippling depression had set in.

I kept my illness, my depression, a closely guarded secret for most of my life. Although born in Cumbria, I neglected the green space I had on my doorstep, half through complacency, half through dark thoughts restricting motivation. When I got my first bar job aged 18, I started to see booze as a medicine, a social lubricant that allowed me to be myself. By the time I went to York university, I could consume ten pints in a session with ease. I started smoking and drinking daily, my studies fell by the wayside and in a short space of time I reached 22 stone.

My secret battle became public around my 21st birthday. In the early hours of the morning and heavily inebriated, I made a call to my mother via the payphone closest to the railway tracks. I had rung to say goodbye having decided it was the end. Thankfully, it wasn’t. This should have been the turning point for me. But I didn’t want change yet.

As well as discovering the outdoors, I’ve now rediscovered my earliest passion, cooking.

Four years of blackout drinking continued, and I surprisingly found a girlfriend. She was somebody I didn’t deserve as I hid my double life. Then I behaved unfaithfully under the influence, which ended our relationship. This loss was the turning point for me. I left the area I had lived in for seven years, my job, my flat and my friends, and vowed to leave alcohol (and cigarettes) behind too.

I’ve remained sober since that mountain-top epiphany. Drinking took up such a large part of my daily activity that I needed a new association to fill that void - hiking has done just that. Pre-2016, come the end of the working day, I would have been finding a seat at a bar to start unwinding. But now, I head to the hills post 5 o’clock for a vertical dosage and the sunset.

As well as discovering the outdoors, I’ve now rediscovered my earliest passion, cooking. I learnt to cook at my grandmother’s side as a child. But my days drinking had nulled this passion, since I was often incapable of cooking. Instead, I sought out convenience in the shape of takeaways on the way home at 11.30pm.

Someone suggested I get a camping stove and prepare one of my fell-top lunches from scratch, on the fell. Not one to shirk a challenge, that’s exactly what I did. And so, Fell Foodie was born.

Without the copious calories from boozing, and now that I was burning more energy in the mountains, I began to notice physical changes in my body. This was complimented by swapping pizzas and kebabs for freshly prepared meals.

For hikes, I would prepare a packed lunch to enjoy up high, and my fellow hikers often looked on with jealousy while consuming their squashed, clingfilmed sandwiches. Someone suggested I get a camping stove and prepare one of my fell-top lunches from scratch, on the fell. Not one to shirk a challenge, that’s exactly what I did. And so, Fell Foodie was born.

Everyone’s relationship with alcohol is different, but if any of this resonates with you, I implore you to experiment with trading a glass for some fresh air, if only for the duration of Sober Spring, rather than permanently like me. I still get that same buzz, that rush the first pint used to give me, but without the inevitable hangover. Reaching for the hiking boots the next time you want to reach for a bottle may well provide the exact fix you were looking for.

Harrison Ward is better known these days as Fell Foodie, a Lake District based cook who attempts to recreate culinary delights up in the mountains on just a camping stove. You can follow him on Instagram here.

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