Women in the outdoors – it’s time to stop with the assumptions!

img_7132For anyone who knows me, they’ll know I have a tendency to live up to certain redhead stereotypes​, namely my ability to get sunburnt in 0.5 seconds whilst wearing factor 50 and my slightly short temper. The latter is particularly applicable if people question where I belong. Or more precisely where women belong, and frankly I’m so over it.

Hiking at the weekend I walked past a group of elderly gentlemen sat having lunch at the top of Glyder Fach, rather than the usual mountain hellos they didn’t acknowledge me, instead continuing on with their conversation. Nothing wrong with that you might think, and I would have agreed with you, did their topic of conversation not happen to drift over to me as I made my way across the stones from Bristly Ridge to the​ summit of Glyder Fach. They were debating women in the mountains, and I’m ashamed to say it wasn’t how do we encourage more, rather why they weren’t capable of being there all, with comments ranging from not knowing how to navigate to physically not being built for it and not having the mental strength for long endurance.

Now I’m all for a healthy debate, I think its incredibly important for people to share opinions and ideas, but this reminded me yet again why we’re still having to push for change.

In my mountaineering journey I’d say what I’ve done so far is pretty tame when compared with the incredible achievements of others. But it’s given me enough skills and knowledge to be comfortable and confident in the UK mountains.

Whilst the average person who passes me would never know these things, it doesn’t mean they have a right to project their own judgement or prejudice onto me. On and off I’ve had a whole host of questions and comments thrown at me when I’m out and about, from other solo hikers, both mixed and single-sex groups out on the hill, non-hikers, audience members at talks, the list goes on. And it’s not like they are just saying hello or asking a friendly how are you doing?

Why should it be a surprise that I’m out in the UK mountains on my own? Why do you need to check if my invisible boyfriend is further up the route? Why do you think I need to turn around because it’s a bit hard ahead when you didn’t pass comment to the people in front? Do I really give off the impression of being that ill skilled? Or is it simply that I’m a woman and you’re not used to seeing us on our own outside in the mountains? It’s not like these questions are only coming from men, I’ve had my fair share of well-meaning women asking me if I’m sure what I’m doing is safe, if I wouldn’t rather do something else, something less dangerous.

It’s not like this happens all the time, once every month or so perhaps. Thankfully I’ve never been one to bow in the face of adversity, but if I wasn’t as strong a personality I’d probably not be enjoying the outdoors as a solo hiker thanks to the wonderful judgemental greetings I’ve had from people over the years.

There are more women embracing the outdoors now than there ever has been, something I couldn’t be happier about. But if we want this growth to continue this sort of behaviour needs to start coming to an end. I’m all for the well-meaning question or statement from fellow mountain enthusiasts but regardless of if you’re male or female maybe think twice before you pass comment. Are you doing it because there’s a legitimate risk ahead that the person appears unprepared for, or are you doing it because they’re doing something you’re not personally used to seeing? If it’s the latter maybe keep that comment to yourself.

To those guys on the hillside, I’ll likely never see you again and you’ll likely never read this, but I hope you broaden your perspective on what women are capable of, pick up a book, browse the internet or watch a documentary with a woman at the centre, there’s plenty out there you just have to look a little deeper for them. And if you ever want to see how women ‘cope’ in the mountains here is your personal invitation to come on a mountain adventure with me, I assure you it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be the first one to break.

Back On Ice

20180116_141054.jpgThere’s something magical about this sport. Something in the incredibly satisfying thunk of ice axes on a frozen waterfall. The rhythmic noise as you ascend, putting your entire trust in forged steel and treated rope. The bitterly cold winds whipping spindrift into your face. The frozen hair and glittering sheets of ice in the early morning sun. It’s like a warped form of mediation and adrenaline mixed together. And it’s quickly becoming one of my favourite types of climbing.

I’d only ice climbed for a couple of hours a year earlier before booking onto a week long ice climbing trip in the Alps. But my original justification of “oh I’m only doing this for the transferable skills I’ll gain”, has quickly evolved into I want to do more of this, I don’t want to stop doing this, I wish it was winter all year round!

But with heavy snowfall forecast for the Chamonix Valley the week I was due to be climbing, I was a little concerned that my ice climbing trip was about to become a skier’s paradise. It later transpired that there was so much snowfall over that week that a number of chalets were evacuated due to the avalanche risk.

Thankfully my concerns about missing out on ice climbing weren’t to be. After a day checking competence levels on a single pitch ice fall in Valorcine, France, our guides took us round to Cogne in Italy for the remainder of the week, where the forecast looked at least a little less white.

Climbing in the valley around Cogne is ideal for a novice ice climber. There are enough easy routes that even the most beginnerish of beginners can comfortably learn what to do, whilst still providing enough variety so that those progressing quickly can get stuck in with harder, longer routes without the need for lengthy treks in.

Unsurprisingly for anyone who knows me, this meant I quickly started getting competitive with myself over what I could accomplish, ultimately resulting in an attempt at climbing with no ice axes at all. It was comical to say the least! My balance clearly still needs some work.

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After a couple of days on Cascade de Lillaz, a sweet little set of icefalls just outside Cogne, we headed for a route further down the neighbouring valley past Valnotney.

The only way I could describe the conditions that day would be Scottish. After a trek in through Narnia-esq woodland, spotting Chamois between the trees, we arrived at the base of the falls to substantial gusts of wind and light snowfall, though whether it came from the sky or the floor was anyone’s guess.

The route starts out gently enough, with each subsequent pitch gaining in steepness andPhoto 18-01-2018, 11 58 51 am enough room at the belay points between pitches that on a glorious blue sky day you could happily hang out and wait for your fellow climbers. As it was I spent most of my time at the belay points hunkered down as close to the ground as possible to prevent being blow over by the wind. At one point the wind had blown so much snow around it had formed a little wall around me whilst I waited to take my turn on the ice. This also resulted in some significant hair freeze, something I’ve come to discover is a given if you have long hair and a passion for being in the mountains in winter.

After topping out on the falls, we made our descent down a steep snow field at the side. As we carved our way through thigh deep snow, all I could think was that rather dangerously I could see this easily becoming an addictive addition to my climbing repertoire. It’s the ultimate balancing act between strength, technique, understanding of the environment and trust in your own abilities.

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Looking back at 2017

2017tgWay back in 2016 I responded to a post on a Facebook page asking for normal people with interesting challenges in 2017 to feature on a series of episodes for the Tough Girl Podcast.

I’ve never really been one to put myself forward for anything like that. So despite being a huge fan of the podcast I dismissed the post at first, thinking no one would be interested in what I was doing with my novice mountaineering adventures. Never mind the fact I’ve always been a super private person so sharing my life like this was a huge deal for me.

Then I realised that I was saying to myself all those negative things, the things Sarah had written in her post “I’d love to do that, but, I can’t, or my challenge isn’t interesting enough, isn’t big enough, I’m not a tough girl, there’s nothing special about me, why would anyone want to follow my journey? What if I fail?”

So I decided to share…

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And it snowballed from there. Over a year on, six podcast interviews completed, one talk hosted, ten trips to the Alps, hundreds of hours of overtime and plenty of ups and downs later, it’s all come to a close as the last podcast is now live.

Being on this podcast and meeting so many of the Tough Girl Tribe has genuinely changed my life. It’s given me new friends, opened up new opportunities, forced me to step outside my comfort zone and shown me just how important it is to share our stories.

No matter how rubbish the year felt in the end, it’s incredible to listen back to these episodes and realise just how many amazing things I did last year – from starting the year off on Kilimajaro and ice climbing for the first time to climbing all over the Chamonix valley and climbing my first 7a indoors.

You can listen to the last episode of the Tough Girl Podcast 7 Women 7 Challenges series below, and if you fancy listening to me ramble on for hours then the full series is also below. Thanks Sarah for including me on this, it’s been a blast!

The final episode… 

Tough Girl Podcast – 7 Women 7 Challenges

Episode 1 – Start time: 51:38

Episode 2 – Start time: 01:53

Episode 3 – Start time: 01:35

Episode 4 – Start time: 02:28

Episode 5 – Start time: 03:06

Episode 6 – Start time: 00:00

Returning to the Tough Girl Podcast

It feels like forever ago since I last caught up with the wonderful Sarah Williams of the Tough Girl Podcast for her 7 Women 7 Challenges series. Five long summer months have blown by and the end of 2017 is in touching distance. I daren’t utter the C word for fear it will bring the year to an end even faster!

It’s a long episode but go take a listen. You can hear all about the trials and tribulations of my summer mountaineering adventures from the 3:06 mark:

You can also download the podcast to listen on the go from the usual places like iTunes.

Changing objectives 

Instead ofFor just under 12 months I’ve been working towards climbing the Matterhorn and the Eiger. Putting in the time to train both at home and overseas and getting myself as fit as possible to take on these peaks.

If you’ve been following along with my journey, either on here or via the Tough Girl Podcast, you’ll know how hard it’s been to do this. Balancing a very busy work life with being outside and training has at times pushed me to my absolute limits.

But in my mind it was always going to be worth it. The stress, the effort, the pain, was all going to be worth it when I stood on the top of these peaks.

Fast forward and I’m at the end of two weeks in the alps. The very two weeks I had been working towards for all that time, where I was supposed to be taking on my biggest mountaineering challenge yet.

But just because you want something to happen doesn’t always mean that it will. If there’s anything I know from being in the mountains there’s always a little bit of luck involved in every trip.

Unfortunately this time lady luck just wasn’t on my side. Standing on top of either the Matterhorn or the Eiger was just not meant to be for me this time around thanks to some pretty heavy snowfall not clearing from either peak.

From the moment I arrived in Chamonix and looked at the forecast I had an inclination that my summit attempts might not happen. And with every storm that rolled through the alps, reality started to dawn. With a decent layer of snow put down and no clear weather window in which it would clear, climbing either of my chosen peaks was just not going to be possible this year.

It’s tough turning your back on something you’ve dreamed of doing. Something you’ve been training for the better part of a year to do. That sinking feeling you get when you find out that despite everything you’ve done, all the money you’ve spent, all the time you’ve invested, it’s simply not going to happen.

It’s hard to describe that feeling, devestated doesn’t begin to cut it. The only thing I can related it to is an athlete who couldn’t cross the start line.

I already know that trying to explain to most people why I didn’t make it is going to be hard. Whilst I know the decision came down to safety, and I can always go back next year, there’s not a huge amount of people in my life who understand what I’m choosing to do, or who would understand that you can go and climb if the weather isn’t right.

So there you go, my 2017 mountaineering goals firmly not ticked off. There’s always next year!

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If you want to know more about what I got up to instead during my time in the alps, keep an eye out as I’ll be sharing more about the climbs I did in the coming weeks. 

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Arc’teryx Alpine Academy

Hugo Vincent Photography Arcteryx Alpine Academy Summertime and everyone I know is packing swimwear, suncream, and sandals before heading off to sun-drenched shores. Never one to follow the trend, I spent my first summer holiday of the year kitted up with alpine gear at the 6th annual Arc’teryx Alpine Academy.

Set up to help people advance their mountain skills, I stumbled across the event last year ahead of my Mont Blanc accent. At the time I was gutted to have missed out, so it was an easy decision to head back to Chamonix for this year’s program of events.

After managing to snag some tickets, I took to the Alps at the end of June, joining over 400 other alpine enthusiasts from over 25 countries for a weekend of snow, altitude and mountain education.

With so many choices on offer, trying to decide which clinics I wanted to do wasn’t easy. My aim was to push my skill and knowledge level on that bit further. I hate the idea of being dragged up a route by a guide and not having the ability to do it myself, so any opportunity to progress that bit further is great.

I ended up going with Mountaineering Level 2 and High Altitude Medicine. Both were based on the glacier below the Aiguille du Midi, which is fast becoming one of my favourite places to be when in the Chamonix Valley. There’s nothing quite like making your way down the Midi arête with the sun beating down and the snow underfoot. Although, a bit too much snow melt had seen some of the crevasses on the arête itself start to appear, so it certainly made for an interesting descent.

I also signed up for this year’s mountain clean up day – something I feel we should all be taking responsibility for and incorporating into our mountain adventures as much as we can, especially if we want to keep enjoying these incredible wild places. Together with guides and Arc’teryx athletes we ventured out collect as much rubbish as possible from the mountainside, it was almost surprising how much we gathered in just a couple of short hours.

After pottering around at lower altitudes, I was stoked to be back in the snow when it came to my first clinic of the weekend. Mountaineering 2 focused in on crevasse rescue and safely moving on a glacier, both areas I had covered before but always beneficial to revisit and practise. After all, there’s nothing quite like being lowered into a crevasse so that someone can rescue you! Unfortunately, our day was cut slightly short due to one of the team suffering from the altitude part way through. Thankfully day 2 faired much better, High Altitude Medicine was hands down the most interesting and useful session I attended all weekend. Under instruction of mountain rescue, guides and a doctor we dug snow shelters, stabilized ‘injured’ patients, crafted makeshift stretchers, rehearsed calling for a helicopter and learned how to manage someone with altitude sickness using a Gamow Bag, which when the casualty is placed inside can be pumped up to create a false altitude.

With only 7 weeks to go until my Matterhorn and Eiger trip, having the opportunity to spend the weekend back in the Alps, learning from all the amazing guides and athletes was invaluable.

Big thanks to everyone involved in this years Arc’teryx Alpine Academy especially the amazing guides who kept us safe and taught us new skills whilst out on the mountains.

Video courtesy of Arc’teryx. Photo courtesy of Hugo Vincent Photography

Embracing your sporty side  

It’s women’s sport week this week in the U.K. A celebration of female achievements in the sporting world, both big and small, along with a time to encourage others to give sport a go.

I’d never really classed myself as sporty growing up. Sure I was active, skiing and riding horses, but to me that was never sporty. That was reserved for the perfectly preened popular kids who excelled at the school mandated netball, hockey, tennis. Sports where unless you had an ounce of athleticism or decent hand eye coordination you may as well have sat on the sidelines. So that’s what I did for years, sat on the sidelines. In the words of my teacher, it wouldn’t be fair for me to ruin it for the other children.

Unfortunately you hear of this happening all the time. Comments made to young girls which end up leaving longer term impressions.

Fast forward a decade and sporty is where I feel most at home. I’ve re-discovered my sporty self in the mountains. To me sporty now means not being afraid to try something new. It means getting sweaty, muddy, cold, wet and very sunburnt. It means coming home at the end of the day smiling even though I’m so tired. It means mental resilience in the face of enormous challenges and appreciating the incredible achievements of the human body under stress.

Across the board our perception of sporty women has changed too. We’re no longer fixated on the belief that sports aren’t for girls, that you’re a ‘tomboy’ for playing sport of any kind. Campaigns like This Girl Can and REI’s Force of Nature are putting incredible normal women in big adverts. Magazines are dedicating whole issues to women at the top of their game, pushing sporting boundaries. And podcasts such as Tough Girl Challenges and She Explores are redefining our perceptions of what every women can achieve through sport.

With this greater visibility of women in sport I can only hope that the next generation of climbers, runners, swimmers and gold medal winners is even more phenomenal than the last. I can’t wait to hear their stories.

Back with the Tough Girl podcast

It’s that time again, I’m back nattering on part 4 of the 7 Women 7 Challenges series on the Tough Girl Podcast.

This time around you can catch me at the 2hr 28 mark and I’m sharing more about my easter trip on the Cosmiques Arete and my more recent attempts at climbing 7a indoors in London.

But it’s not all roses, I’ve also been talking about the realities of working ultra long days and the challenges that brings when trying to train. After all, life’s not as perfect as social media likes to have you think!

So take a listen and let me know what you think. It’s also available to download from all the usual podcast apps for Apple and Android.

Taking on the Cosmiques Arête

What the hell am I doing? Those six words rang through my head as I skirted the edge of a huge boulder, nothing between me and a 2000m drop back to Chamonix, except for a slim edge of rock which I precariously balanced my crampon front points on.

Most people spend their Easter weekend eating their body weight in chocolate, yet I decided to take on a mountaineering challenge unlike any I’ve experienced to date by climbing the Cosmiques Arête.

For many, this Chamonix route is a classic, and I could certainly see why. A satisfyingly pointy collection of rock and ice, the Cosmiques Arête undulates as it makes its way up to the Aiguille du Midi, creating a picture perfect route ideal for a sunny day out. However at around 3800m above sea level, this high altitude challenge certainly wasn’t a walk in the park for my novice self – I’ve got the bruises, scrapes and bumps to prove it.

After catching the lift up to the Aiguille du Midi, there was something supremely satisfying about being one of the first people of the day to step out of the hollowed ice tunnel and onto the snowy arête leading down onto the glacier of the Valley Blanche. Crunching snow underfoot and watching the clouds sweep across the mountain range felt like coming home.

Standing at the Cosmiques hut and staring up at the ridge we were about to tackle prompted slightly different feelings, excitement mixed with terror would be a more apt description. A combination which continued, on and off, for the rest of the morning as I faced different sections of the route.

Despite this, and the huff and puff that comes with little acclimatisation, I felt good, strong even. Although it quickly became apparent that despite having long legs they just aren’t stretchy enough to reach some of the high footholds. And I clearly need to work on my abseiling, after spinning mid-way through one and rubbing my entire side down the rock face – not a smooth move!

The main crux on the Arête might be a no-brainer for a seasoned climber, but trying to negotiate smooth rock, with little drilled holes for crampon points, frozen hands in a crack and weak upper body strength was tough. Add the final section on the route to that, balancing precariously before wedging my entire upper body into a chimney, pulling and scraping my way up whilst hugging bits of rock, and it was pretty clear that I was at the limits of my current technique on this climb.

Stepping up onto the last crest of the ridge line brought both a sigh of relief and a wave of elation, it had been tough but I’d made it. One rattily ladder, and a rather undignified attempt to haul myself over a railing, later and I was back on the Aiguille du Midi, all done in time for lunch!

I had decided to take on the Cosmiques Arête as a test of my skill and nerve, to see how much more I needed to work on before my trip to climb the Matterhorn and Eiger in around 4 months time. I still can’t quite believe that I made it. It was hard work but it feels like all my training at the climbing wall and in the gym, trying to improve both my technique and strength whilst stuck in London, is starting paying off. Hopefully, there’s just a little less rock hugging by the time I get to the next trip.

Climbing Cosmiques 2

Take 3 – Catching up with the Tough Girl Podcast

For anyone who has been following along with my adventuring you’ll know that I’m currently part of the 7 Women – 7 Challenges series on the Tough Girl Challenges Podcast.

The latest episode is out now, featuring myself an 6 other amazing women in adventure. You can catch me nattering away from the 1hr 35min mark.

This time around I’m sharing all on my winter weekends in Chamonix and my London based training.