“I've still got all the memories of that first trip to the mountains,” says Damon Alexander-Cole. “We were driving to Snowdonia and I remember singing along to ‘What about Us?’ by Michael Jackson and 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in the car.” He was five then and that trip would plant a seed that would save his life nearly 30 years later.
“My uncle is ex-Army and ex-Mountain Rescue, so he's been taking me up into the rocks since I was a child,” he says. “When we first climbed Snowdon, he told me there was a café at the top and I wouldn't believe him. But there it was!
“He got me this cup with a picture of the mountain on it and told me I was the first five-year-old to climb Snowdon and that they wanted to give me the cup as a reward. Obviously, loads of kids probably do it at that age but I was so happy. It made me feel like, ‘Wow, I'm part of this mountain’.”
Growing up in Hawarden on the Welsh Border, trips like this were frequent, but when he moved south as a young adult the mountains fell into the distance. In 2020, after a catastrophic week that ended with him living in his car, without savings or family to help, going to the mountains helped him reconstruct his life. Now, he leads monthly walks in the Peak District and annual Christmas walks for those who would otherwise spend the day alone.
“It was a proper mad experience but I'm so glad I went through it,” he says, “It's taught me so much and now I'm doing more with my life than I've ever done before.”
“I lost everything”
Keen to share his experience in the hopes that it might help other people who are going through a similarly tough time, Damon speaks openly about this period in his life, with the confidence that the worst is probably behind him and that, if not, that he will have the skills and ability to weather the losses and difficulties that come his way.
“I was living in Manchester managing restaurants and working 70-80 hours a week,” he recalls. “It was horrible and massively took a toll on my mental health. Then, in the space of six days everything went wrong. I broke up with my fiancé, got evicted from my house, lost almost all my savings and got made redundant.” Thinking it would be a short-term blip, Damon moved into his car, making his bed in the back seat and storing all his remaining possessions in baskets in the boot. After five years together, he rehomed his two beloved dogs.
"In the space of six days I broke up with my fiance, got evicted, lost my savings, and got made redundant."
Shortly after this, his Nan, who raised him, was diagnosed with aggressive terminal cancer and his Grandad was rushed into hospital with water on his lungs. “Every single day something new would happen. And I was just like, ‘What is going on? How can life be this unfortunate?’” he says.
When he first moved into the car, he had about £600 in savings. He joined a 24-hour gym, worked out in the mornings, had a shower and then used the internet in a nearby café to search for jobs. The car was his lifeline, giving him shelter, some security and a way of getting to interviews if he needed to. “Some days when it was really cold I would start the engine and put the heating on for a little while,” he says. “At first it wasn’t too bad, but once that money started to disappear, I had to cancel the gym membership. I started washing in toilets and then I couldn’t afford food. That's when it was like: I'm really in the shit.”
One Tuesday, after not eating for two days, he called a food bank. They could help, they said, but they didn’t open until Friday. “The only thing I had in the car was a pouch of microwavable rice and a can of kidney beans,” he recalls. “I had to starve for five days.”
Perhaps in shock, living in his car seemed like a silly little adventure. Nothing that would last too long. “I thought I'd bounce back, get another job and things wouldn't be too bad but then things started falling apart more and more.” The ignition coils on his car stopped working, the tax came due.
“It got to a point that I thought I could not recover from,” he says. “I'd lost everything and was one step from being on the street picking through bins for food. I thought, ‘I'm out. I don't want to be part of this anymore.’” A month after things first started to go wrong, Damon became suicidal and started to make a plan. “The voice in me that had always been so positive and had got me up and doing things, had just died.”
Damon details the thoughts he had, the ways out he considered, and the one he eventually decided upon. He was methodical and rational about the process and speaks about it openly. It was at this point that that inner voice, the one that had previously been so positive, piped up again.
“Something in me went, ‘No. Listen. You can do this but not now. You have to genuinely try every single fucking day – not feeling sorry for yourself, getting yourself moving, reading, writing, picking yourself up – trying solidly for six months and see if you can turn your life around. If you don't turn it around in six months, then I agree, you can kill yourself, because what other option do you have? But if you don't put in six months solidly, you don't know where you’ll be.’”
He wrote down three wins that he would need to have every day. Three areas of his life that he would attend to and where he would hope to see improvement. They were physical (walking, running, or climbing), mental (writing, reading or doing something creative), and spiritual (meditating, studying, growing, and reflection work).
He also realised that he wouldn’t be able to turn this around on his own so, as part of his plan to try everything, he started getting in contact with charities, homeless shelters, and the local council. He also changed his tactics when applying for jobs. The hospitality industry, still in the grip of COVID-19 suppression measures – was locked shut but work-from-home jobs were increasing.
“I didn’t have a home but I did have a computer and they didn't know that,” he says. He got a customer service job and worked from the car, tethering off his phone. “Sometimes they would want the camera on and I’d lie and say the Wi-Fi was down at home so I’d driven to McDonald's to use the Wi-Fi in the car park. No one suspected anything.”
Stepping Stone Projects, a charity based in Manchester helped Damon find space in a halfway house. On his first day there, after washing in toilet sinks for weeks and with the tentative sense of a happier future ahead, he stood in the shower for 45 minutes and cried. “To be able to go to the toilet in private and to clean myself… I was so happy,” he says. “I've never felt so grateful for a bathroom.”
“Before then, I felt really low but I didn't cry because I thought I wouldn’t be around anyway. I was numb to everything and in shock. But once I was in the halfway house I started to feel the weight of what I'd lost and the fact that I was going to have to rebuild and how hard that would be. It actually felt worse.”
It was while Damon was homeless, as part of the ‘physical win’ he was looking for, that he rediscovered the hills. “One of my friends invited me to the Lake District. They didn't know I was homeless, I didn't tell anyone and I nearly canceled the trip because I couldn't really afford the fuel to get there. But I went and it reignited my love for these places. It was the biggest turning point.”
“Almost immediately, I noticed the benefits,” he says. “Once I'd had that long discussion with myself, I started hiking regularly. Every couple of days I'd go to the Peak District and then on bigger trips to Snowdonia and the Lake District at the weekend with my friends.”
On that very first trip he noticed an expensive camera that one of his friends wore on a chest strap and promised himself that if he got out of the situation he would buy one for himself. “I bought it about a year ago,” he reports. “I’ve sold it and got a better one now!”
Photography began as the ‘creative win’ that he sought for himself and sharing images he took on his phone as a way to keep himself busy and to have the experience of building something. It’s since become his career. “I thought I was just going to build back to where I was but I've gone past it,” he marvels. He also realised that this was something he could share.
Passing it on
By Christmas, Damon was starting to feel better and to see material improvements in his life. Aware that, due to COVID-19 restrictions, many people would be spending Christmas alone, he organised a group hike. “I did it really at the last minute and 15 people said they would come but the day before every single person cancelled, except for this one girl who I’d previously matched with on Tinder. There was no vibe there and you can imagine it was a bit awkward but, I thought, regardless, I'm not gonna let her be on her own. So we spent the day together and had a real laugh. We're friends now.”
He organised another for Christmas the following year and this time about 60 people took part. “They were saying to me, 'Please do one on New Year's Day,'” so he did and 95 people turned up for that. After witnessing people making new connections and with the experience of the previous year ringing in his mind, he started organising group hikes on a monthly basis.
"More than 400 people came to the 2022 Christmas walk, and Tesco donated 450 mince pies."
“If you’ve had a shit month and you’re all on your own, it can give you something to focus on,” he explains. “I can't say I'll do those forever (although I probably will) but the Christmas Day ones I have to always do. It's too important.” More than 400 people came to the 2022 walk and Tesco donated 450 mince pies. This year, they’ll be taking place in Snowdonia as well as the Peak District. “Next year hopefully the Lake District as well,” he says.
“I don't think I'm the most hard-done-by person. I think I've been really fortunate,” he says. And he counts that difficult time in the back of his car as among the most valuable in his life. “I do genuinely believe, the lower you go the higher you can bounce back and you'd be surprised how fast things can change. Every day that you do something towards your goal, even if you don't see the result, is a success.”
“Life wasn't trying to say 'you have to die'. It was the old life: stressed, working all the time, not focusing on mental health, or what you can give. That had to die. And in order for that to die, I had to lose everything. I wouldn't ever have thought it at the time but it's been one of the best experiences I've ever had.”
Join Damon's Christmas walk
Damon’s 2023 Christmas walks will be taking place across Snowdonia and the Peak District in a series of 1-2 hour routes. People are welcome to join for one walk or for the whole day. If you’d like to join, send a DM to Damon on Instagram: @damon.a.cole
Where to find support
“I suffered way harder and way longer than I needed to,” says Damon. “There are networks out there. You're more than welcome to message me and talk about it – but definitely reach out to people. There's always someone you can talk to.” Here are a few resources that could help.
Stay Alive App: stayalive.app
Mountains for the Mind Facebook group: CLICK HERE