Dec 31, 2014

Looking for Love on Ice: "Tinder" and Ice Climbing in Cogne, Italy

If you compared ice-climbing in Cogne to the popular ‘Tinder’ dating-app, you could be picky and ‘swipe left’ for hours before finding the ‘perfect match’. A ‘perfect match’ would reflect preferences in ice conditions, level of gnarly-ness, number of pitches etc.  By ‘swiping right’, you would be given the option to explore the route further and check out photographs to decide whether the route is worth pursuing and whether or not to add to a growing list of ‘potentials’. Unfortunately, with no significant snowfall to date (no pun intended) and a season marked by relatively warm temperatures, this year Cogne was having a ‘dry-spell’ (literally) and it was going to be a logistical challenge to celebrate the Cogne Ice Opening festival in traditional style… In short, there would be a minimal amount of ‘swiping right’.

Based out of Cogne, Aosta Italy, professional ice climbers Matthias Scherer, Tanja Schmitt and Heike Schmitt, organisers of the third annual Cogne Ice Opening Festival met the challenge with a passion. Leveraging their creativity, energy and a contagious passion for the many disciplines of climbing we soon forgot that there was a shortage of ice and took the opportunity to embrace and refine new skills including mixed climbing, dry-tooling, and ski-touring… and learn one of the fundamental lessons of alpinism… you can’t do anything about the weather.

I attended the Cogne Ice Opening Festival last year when, through perfect weather conditions leading up to the event, we were spoiled for choice with short approaches and a plethora of routes suited to all levels of ability. The festival, one of the first key social events of the winter in Cogne, is an opportunity to learn, have fun, meet new people and share experiences. The event is sponsored by Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Suunto, Sterling Rope, Gloryfy and Chimpanzee who are all on-hand to answer questions, sharpen tools and ensure that even if you were to show up in a pair of Bermuda shorts you could be fully kitted out, cramponed up and walking to a frozen waterfall in about 5 minutes.

Despite the lack of ice this year, the first sip of hot mulled-wine (Italian style) in the bar at the ‘Apero’ on Friday night indicated that the festival had well and truly begun – ice or no ice, the atmosphere was buzzing and a growing group of participants were chatting about the new options available. I signed up for mixed- climbing which means climbing on a mix of rock and ice – something I had only done previously in Nepal so very excited about the weekend ahead..!

The next morning we broke out into our groups under a blue sky and temperatures hovering just above zero.  Led by IFMGA guide Patrick, our group headed off to do some roadside crag-climbing to take advantage of the mixed conditions. After scrambling down into a small ravine, we stumbled up on a rock face dotted with patches of ice, rock and frozen clumps of grass where Patrick set up three routes– a one pitch ice climb route over some fragile ice waterfall sections, a one pitch mixed route offering a challenging mix of rock and ice, and a one pitch route of very thin and fragile ice over a rapidly flowing waterfall. We took turns climbing and belaying between the routes and the day passed quickly. As much as I enjoy ice climbing, I find mixed-climbing tremendously satisfying and enjoy the different ways that the earths’ natural ‘ingredients’ provides the ballast to support a body inching its way up a steep face.

We had an absolutely brilliant day out - I learned plenty of new techniques and certainly gave my arms a workout. It was fantastic to share the day with friends, both old and new. By around 3pm the ice on the waterfall had begun to melt and the mud began to thaw so we all piled back into our cars and headed back to the bar for some liquid refreshments and the opportunity to share stories with other groups coming back from their own adventures.

In the evening we headed to the Sala Grivola in Cogne for an ‘All about the Ice’ movie night. With rosy cheeks, pumped-arms still throbbing and bellies full of Italy’s finest pizza, we all sat back in the theatre to be inspired… and we certainly were not disappointed. With presentations from athletes in word and film including extreme climber Rudi Hauser (Austria), Klemen Premrl (Slovenia), Mael Baguet (France) as well as the inspirational Tanja Schmitt and Matthias Scherer (Cogne) we quickly realised the tremendous dedication, passion and commitment required in climbing – or any sport for that matter. You can find some highlights from the clips shown here: Reborn - the quest for early season ice and  Climbing icebergs in Greenland.  

Sunday presented us with equally stunning blue-sky and crisp clear conditions. There was a rumour of forming ice further down the valley so our group, led by guides Heike, Isabelle and Patrick, we piled into our vehicles and sped off down the road to find out if the rumour was fact or merely a case of wishful thinking. After a 40-minute walk in, we looked up to see two pitches of beautifully forming... and virtually untouched ice..! RESULT! The next 3 hours were spent reviewing the basics in ice-climbing, swinging our ice-tools, screwing in ice screws, kicking in our front-points and pushing our personal limits on the icy-face. Whilst the ice conditions weren’t as ‘gnarly’ as previous years and we weren’t spoiled for choice, the day proved to be a tremendous success simply because we, a group of passionate climbers, adventurers and friends, had gathered outside around the ice and were cheering each other on, exchanging stories and planning future adventures. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a brilliant day.

Huge thanks to Matthias, Tanja, and Heike for organising the event, for your creativity and for sharing your passion with us..! Thanks also to the event sponsors Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Suunto, Sterling Rope, Glorify and Chimpanzee for supporting the festival and helping to spread the ‘love’ for ice... Despite the lack of snow and ice, we certainly were given plenty of opportunity to 'swipe right'..! 

Nov 30, 2014

Benighted and 'Au Cheval' on L’Arete a Marion in the French Aravis

I asked the question I swore I’d never ask…

‘Are we there yet?’

Our guide Jon looked at me incredulously. ‘There!? We’re not even half way! We still have at least two more hours!’

Not the response I’d been hoping for. 

It was nearing 4pm and dusk had started to cast its shadow on the mountain panorama sprawled out below.  We were ‘not even half way’ through a very wintery climb of L’Arete a Marion in the Aravis. During the  summer the route is a straight forward, ridge walk… during the winter, a corniced hell of seracs, avalanche prone slopes and icy-cold wind whipping up from the valley. It was ‘an adventure’ to say the least… much more of an adventure my climbing partner Nick and I had anticipated. And it didn’t sound like it was going to end any time soon.

I took a deep breath, dug in my heels and held the rope tight as Nick fell through yet another cornice, arms flailing for the stability of the rock.

‘Whoops. There’s some deep snow there’ he called out. I followed closely behind him, looking down into the ‘snow hole’, saw the blue sky through the other side.

Our journey had started much earlier that day.  We (ok, Jon) had begun to break trail up to our objective for the day at 9am after a scenic hours’ drive from Chamonix. It had been a bit of a risky decision to head to the Alps so late in the Autumn season with many of the lifts providing access to more popular routes still closed. The previous evening we’d all met in the bar in Chamonix where our guide Jon Bracey of Vertigo Guides promised us he’d do our best to find something fun and challenging - and he certainly delivered.

Less than 10 hours later Jon was skilfully and steadily breaking trail over the corniced, snowy ridge, brushing away the snow from the ridge to dig out the bolts. A precarious conga line with consequences. We’d already found ourselves 'au cheval' in uncompromising positions straddling the icy ridge as if we were riding a horse and trying to pull our bodies along while the wind whipped at our cramponed heels. 

As Jon navigated the route along the ridge, Nick and I held back, tied into the anchor and waiting for Jon’s signal that it was safe to continue. Many times he would disappear out of view, winding his way around rocky outcrops and using the featured terrain to create safety anchors for the rope and for us to move along. While he did this it left us to stand patiently, discussing all of the food that we were craving whilst trying to gauge of the type of terrain which lay ahead by how quickly the rope led out. We deduced that if the rope led out quickly it meant that the terrain was straightforward… when the rope remained limp it meant that Jon was ahead trying to navigate a more technical section. We quickly realised that what took Jon 5 minutes to navigate would take us 10… Our imaginations grew proportionate to our growing appetites and to our levels of exhaustion.

And we weren’t even half way there yet.

Jon had disappeared from view and the rope lay limp over the snow indicating that he was working his way through what appeared to be a technical section beyond our view. I wondered aloud the option of rappelling down a steep section to the right might be possible given that it was getting dark. Before we even had time to reflect on what that decision might have been, the rope went tight and we heard John shout over the wind. 

It was go-time.

Nick rounded the corner before I did. His running commentary provided a hint of what lay in store. ‘I don't have a good feeling about this’ he muttered balancing the front-points of his crampons in a tiny seam in rock-face with a 300 foot drop behind his heels. Reaching up, I followed, planting the tip of my axe in an iced seam in the rock. The 20 degree angle of the face made it incredibly hard to climb as you literally had to pull your body over the  almost flat icy smooth surface. From there I inched my way upward along the ice, praying that the axe tip was ‘bomber’ and would stay firmly lodged in the seam. The front points of my crampons scraped against the rock as  I tried to get enough purchase for the next move. And so we slowly and methodologically inched our way up the face.

I love the sense of relief after passing through the crux of a climb and when you are again fixed solidly to an anchor with precious moments to recompose and refocus. We arrived at the anchor gasping, eyes wide but laughing… experiencing a rush of endorphins with the crux now behind us. The summit of L’Arete a Marion was now within reach. We navigated the final section and popped out onto the summit just as the sun disappeared over the horizon.

A congratulatory handshake summit and then we quickly prepared ourselves for a rapid descent to make the most of the final rays of light before darkness fell.

“It is what it is” was Jon’s response when I questioned the descent conditions as I tried to mentally prepare myself. 

Exhausted but buzzing we arrived at the car for 8pm. The last hour had actually had me thinking that snow-swimming should be made an olympic sport, so much agility and flexibility was required when moving through waist-deep snow. It had been an absolutely BRILLIANT day. 

Massive thanks to Jon Bracey for organising such a fab day out, guiding us, and for doing the hard work..! 

Benighted - 8pm at the carpark

Nov 25, 2014

Feature Article: Merrell Outdoors - "Choosing Mountains in the Middle East over Mojitos in Marbella..."

Despite the incredulous disbelief flickering across the faces of family and friends, I would not be dissuaded from my holiday plans to climb Damavand in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Had I listened to a couple of the more popular media-influenced ‘facts,’ I would have been frightened off by cloak-and-dagger tales of a hostile, ‘anti-west’ country; ‘the axis of evil’ where men with stones stalk dusty streets in search of infidels while the government spends its time rigging elections and stockpiling vast arsenals of nuclear weapons. 
But I chose the mountains of the Middle East over mojitos in Marbella and what I discovered was just the opposite.
Challenging some of my own preconceptions, I joined an expedition to climb an 18,372 ft. peak called Mount Damavand, the highest peak in Iran and the highest volcano in the Middle East. Over the course of the expedition I experienced first-hand the hospitality of the Iranian people and the pride that they have in their rich, Persian history. I fell in love with the cozy teahouses of Teheran, the lively bazaars, vast deserts punctuated by historic oases, and rugged mountain ranges surrounding the country’s favorite cone-shaped icon.
Read the full story here... 

Nov 15, 2014

The People You Meet Along the Way: They Didn't ask Me About Knots! The Mountain Training Association (MTA) Autumn Conference

"What’s the common thread between outdoor enthusiasts of all abilities across the world…? What on earth could I share with mountain leaders from across the UK - many with heaps more outdoor experience than myself…? What if they ask me how many knots I know how to tie?” 

These were just a few of the questions I asked myself last week, staring at a blank powerpoint template whilst preparing my presentation for the Mountain Training Association (MTA) Conference at Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Sports Centre in North Wales.

Over the past few years I’ve presented about parallels between business and mountaineering, about ‘work - life’ balance at PwC, my passion for geography and mountains at the RGS, and I’ve presented about the ‘client perspective’ in a panels alongside some of the worlds top mountaineers including alpinist Kenton Cool and Adventurer of the Year, Lakpa Rita Sherpa… So it was with some careful consideration that I put together my thoughts - from student to teacher - about what I hoped would resonate with over 100 outdoor instructors who attended the MTA conference

The conference was aimed at supporting and developing professionalism.  Participants attended workshops on a variety of topics including legal issues and marketing to leading gorge walks, nature hikes and coaching navigation.

Having benefitted from the services and professionalism of outdoor leaders in the past, one thing that I knew was consistent about everyone in the audience (and confirmed when I saw the amount of fleece, down and waterproof gear in the room) was a common passion for the outdoors. A passion for life. A passion for stories. And, above all, a passion for people and sharing their knowledge and experience with others. I was preaching to the converted..!

My approach was simple. I focused on people. And stories… Mountains, I’ve long maintained, have been more than 3 day - 2 month journeys. Not summiting a mountain is not ‘failure’ but rather an experience that contributes to a broader success. After all, at the end of the day, isn’t life about experiences, stories, lessons learned and the people you meet along the way?

Yes, sometimes that journey is hard… there’s no denying that. There have been dramas and tears… I’ve been stuck in a tent on more than one occasion wishing I was drinking mojitos in Marbella rather than stuck on the side of a mountain, watching snow melt whilst feasting on a dinner of beef jerky and jellybeans… Contrasting that feeling with the sense of camaraderie and team, moving together up a mountain face connected by a rope and  sharing unprecedented views of a sunrise casting a warm glow over landscapes far, far below… And that’s when it all makes sense.

HUGE thanks to the Mountain Training Association for organising and inviting me to attend and speak at such an inspiring conference, to the attentive audience for appreciating the 'mountain porn', random stories about eating guinea pigs and overeating beef jerky .. and more importantly for all the work you do! And finally, huge thanks to Sherpa Adventure Gear and sponsors for supporting such a fantastic event.

For an overview of the MTA weekend and gallery please see:

Oct 29, 2014

Feature Article: Merrell Pack stories - "Journey, not the Destination - Discovering new cultures while climbing"

"People often ask me why I climb.

One of the benefits of mountain climbing is that it helps me to put life into perspective. The sheer magnificence of the vistas I experience from lofty mountain precipices - high above the cloud, looking out over the curvature of the earth far, far below - helps me to connect with my thoughts and put into context my place in the world around me...." 

Huge thanks to Merrell Outdoors for featuring some of my recent adventures in their Pack Stories series...!

Oct 4, 2014

PwC & Friends Take on the Three Peaks Challenge for Wellbeing of Women

Last weekend I had the pleasure of being part of an intrepid team from PwC's 'People and Change' Consulting practice who joined together to take on the infamous Three Peaks Challenge - climbing, scrambling, slipping and sliding up the United Kingdom’s three highest mountains to raise money and awareness for the women's health charity, Wellbeing of Women and supporting PwC's firmwide fundraising challenge, the 'Race for £3million'. 

I must admit, when I initially agreed to the challenge there were a few things that made me nervous... As a self-confessed, sometimes high-maintenance 'diva in down', I will be the first to admit that I don't cope well with rain or cold and without sleep - which some may consider slightly ironic given my Canadian roots and the number of alpine-starts I've endured in sub-artcic Himalayan temperatures! In my view there are few things worse than spending 24 hours (most of it in the dark), in the rain, walking up and down slippery slopes with wet feet, without views, hot tea, dry clothes, and sherpa support... In short, when we agreed the challenge date, I knew it was not going to be the tropical, sunny jaunt lathered in SPF and sporting Ray Bans...

Having said that, there were two things made this challenge significantly more appealing:

The first was that the ultimate objective of the challenge was to raise money and awareness for Wellbeing of Women - a charity which funds research to tackle problems which affect men, women and babies. Problems that we may not like to 'talk about' yet they are problems that we simply cannot ignore.

Some shocking statistics:

  • 17 babies a day die in the UK at or near birth (they are either stillborn or die shortly after birth)
  • 145 women a week in the UK die of a gynaecological cancer
  • 1 in 5 pregnancies end in miscarriage
  • Fertility problems are estimated to affect one in six or one in seven couples in the UK (approx 3.5 million people) 
  • At least 1 in 2 women will suffer from at least one reproductive or gynaecological health problem
The second was the opportunity to spend some 'out of the office' time with a great group of colleagues and friends from PwC - some I knew well, others I'd never met before. In an industry where people generally spend more time with colleagues than family it does sound odd to  voluntarily spend even more time - a weekend for that matter! - in the midst of office chatter. Having said that, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be part of a great team within a firm of over 17,000 people - a team which 'works hard and plays hard' and who are among the brightest, most motivated and supportive colleagues one could hope for. And I still maintain that after 24-character building hours together..!

Our Wellbeing of Women Three Peaks team was also made up of friends from the Wellbeing of Women Kilimanjaro Climb, organised earlier this year. Not satisfied with having only climbed Kilimanjaro, there was a general consensus among the team that the next obvious challenge would have to be the Three Peaks. It was fantastic to see everyone again, picking up at the foot of Ben Nevis from where we'd left off on the slopes in Tanzania just a few short months before.

We had an early misty morning start at the foot of Ben Nevis in Scotland on Saturday, 26 September, and went on to scale Scafell Pike in England and Snowdon in Wales. Twenty-four hours after we set off, and with blisters, aching legs, fuelled by gummy-bears, KFC, whiskey and hot chocolate we successfully completed the challenge – raising over £1,000 for Wellbeing of Women.  Our spirits were high as we tucked into our full-English breakfasts with gusto and satisfied smiles.

Was it easy? I'd like to say 'yes' but I have to admit, I was surprised at just how much I had to 'dig deep' particularly in the early morning hours when dozing in the mini-bus that chauffeured us across the country seemed significantly more appealing to getting out and going for a 'walk in the dark'. What made it so  much fun and memorable - as with all expeditions - were the people. Jon Gupta from JGExpeditions provided us with a brilliant service with well organised logistics, fun and knowledgeable guides and a focus on our individual well-being balanced with achieving our challenge.

Reflective of the dedication and commitment to achieving our sub-24-hour time, we managed to finish at the top of the climbing class – coming in with a time in the top 5% of teams across the country who regularly take part in the challenge.

To everyone who participated, followed along and supported us, thanks so much for all of your words of encouragement and patience... and for bearing with many of us who have been tired and a bit achy this week!

Wellbeing of Women is a charity dedicated to improving the lives of women and babies in the UK. It’s supported by the PwC Foundation’s firmwide fundraising challenge - Race for £3 million. 

Shifting Sands, Mountains and Mosaics in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Drawing my scarf up over my mouth I attempt to find a happy medium between desperately trying to gasp enough air to breathe and trying not to breathe too much. I look up from the dusty trail to see plumes of yellow smoke being belched into the atmosphere by a giant yellow vent, and, a few hundred metres further, a small plaque below the dry remains of what appears to be a dead sheep… The stench being emitted by the crater serves as a reminder of where I am – under a clear blue sky taking the final few steps to the 5671m summit of Damavand, Iran - the highest peak in the Middle East and the highest volcano in Asia. The summit is a barren plateau festooned with dull, sulphur-yellowed stones offering unparalleled views of the dry and rocky plains below.

Our journey had started much, much earlier that day…

Night in our ‘airy’ 4-person tent at our 4000m Base Camp had passed in a sleepless torment of quickened heartbeats and haggard breaths, until the alarm sounded, waking us from our hypoxic slumbers. It was 5am - go time.  One of my teammates, Kirsten, stuck her head out of the tent and reported back to us in a rasped in an excited whisper: “The weather is perfect.” We were in luck – the mountain gods were smiling upon us.

Our intrepid little group was the ‘united nations’ of teams – under the guidance of Shirin, a lovely Iranian-British friend with a true passion for the mountains and sharing her Iranian heritage through her newly established British-Iranian trekking company, we were a small team made up of a patchwork of nationalities and backgrounds -  British, Belgian, Brazilian, Japanese, South African, Spanish, Italian, Iranian and Canadian.

Fourty-five minutes later, with the sun rising at our backs, we set off single file behind our local Iranian guide up the spine of the gentle ridge, eyes squinting in the direction of the summit – from here a dull brown dome with patches of snow, defiant and still impossibly remote, framed against a bright blue sky. The rising sun cast a shadow of the mountain onto the dusty plains and shifting sands hundreds of metres below.

With boots crunching over the gravel, I reassured myself with the knowledge that we were embarking on what is a relatively uncomplicated climb. “Basically a walk-up,” had been my conclusion based on the numerous websites I’d consulted while researching the trip. “Technically easy and physically moderate.” Technically easy it was – the terrain being very similar to Kilimanjaro. Having said that, it differed from a standard Kilimanjaro climb as the physical element came from a very aggressive altitude profile – a 1600m summit day to 5671m - the climax of a 2.5 day climb which left very little room for acclimatisation. Empty syringes of dexamethasone, a steroid used to aggressively treat symptoms of altitude sickness, were littered between the rocks from past climbers.

I was also very aware of Damavand’s tempestuous weather system. Like other prominent peaks around the world, Damavand has a weather system all of its own: hot air blowing up from Iran’s dry interior hits the mountain’s southern flank, producing storms that are sudden, unpredictable and can easily quash the ambitions of the most seasoned climbers. In the early 1970s, Reinhold Messner, who is widely considered the greatest alpinist in history (and a personal hero of mine!), learned firsthand about Damavand’s fickle winds when a storm swept in and sabotaged his summit bid. Henceforth, Messner, whose normal playground is the 8000m death-zone of the Himalaya, would describe Damavand as “That little hill that defeated me”.

With that thought, I continued on, head bowed in submission to the altitude and moving slowly in single file behind our guide plodding on up the hill. We calculated that our average speed on the way up was just over 1km / hour. We certainly weren’t setting any speed records but we were moving at a steady and comfortable pace.

About 6 hours later we were within touching distance of what looked like an ominous rocky gate, a gap between two rocky outcrops, like a half-finished barricade, through which we could see our goal. Cheered by its apparent proximity we were urged onwards. “Ten minutes from here,” said our indefatigable guide, fibbing brazenly in a last-gasp attempt to raise our spirits – it turned out to be more like 40.

A welcome cultural distraction to our monotonous plodding was provided by a government religious group made up of about 10 rather militant looking men who were climbing alongside us. Every few minutes a call of prayer echoed down the ridge from what appeared to be a heavily bearded and prominent group leader. The climbing party, between strained gasps of breath, would respond in chorus, urged onwards and upwards, driven by their faith. I looked on and became increasingly conscious of my presence in this ‘foreign’ land – a woman, a Canadian, climbing as an equal alongside a party of men, in a country which I felt had, thus far, defied the media headlines and the many preconceptions I’d had. I adjusted my warm hat and pulled my head-scarf more prominently over my face to cover my western features and also provide protection against the acrid fumes.

Eventually, at a little before noon, our intrepid little team breached the crater rim and trundled onto the roof of the Middle East, a barren plateau festooned with sulphur-yellowed stones. The noxious smoke contaminated each triumphant breath, as fumaroles within the crater – the reason behind the rocks’ jaundiced coloration – pumped out a concoction of gases from the center of the earth. The stench served as a reminder of Damavand’s earthly purpose: a pressure-valve built by nature to relieve the earth-shuddering friction at the conjunction of the Arabian and Eurasian plates.

Living up to the Canadian stereotype, I arrived at the summit with a modest-sized Canadian flag stored in the depths of my rucksack. Earlier that morning, I’d spoken to our guide asking whether it would be permissible to have a picture on the summit of myself, alongside both the Iranian and Canadian flag. After much deliberation it was decided that as long as I was discrete the moment could be captured on film. So, it was with much trepidation that I stood on the summit with the red and white, maple leaf emblazoned flag hoping for a quick photo.

In the meantime, the burly-looking men which made up the government religious group had also arrived on the summit and were busy offering each other congratulations whilst continuing their exhortations of faith. My ‘sixth sense’ kicked into overdrive and I became aware that taking out a Canadian flag could go one of two ways, possibly putting me in the centre of a diplomatic incident… I began to visualize the headlines flashing across the ‘Globe and Mail’ and wondered how my parents would fare in dealing with ransom demands… The irony was that the risk that I found myself deliberating with surprising clarity was very different from the risk that I normally found myself deliberating on my more frequented Himalayan stomping ground.

And then it happened.

As I discretely attempted to unfurl the Canadian flag, one of my teammates started to cheer… All eyes turned to me. There was no going back as I held my flag – a symbol of democracy, freedom and equality - proudly above my head. The leader of the local Iranian religious group waved with a gentle nod indicating that it was ok to proceed. My united nations team looked on smiling. Suddenly it struck me. I was on the highest point in the Middle East, surrounded by friends, old and new… a team which reflected my perception of the ‘modern Iran’. Whilst the summit reflected the ‘crux’ of our climb, I realised that it actually was so much more than that. It was a symbol of the multifarious melting-pot that is defining modern Iran –a country that is endlessly welcoming and a country that is desperate to been seen for what it is, rather than what it is depicted to be.

Before we began our descent, all of the teams standing on the summit – a mosaic of cultures – stood together to celebrate what we individually and jointly had achieved. It was one of the most pivotal and memorable moments that have shaped my climbing ‘journey’ as other flags soon began to appear from the depths of dusty climbing packs – Iranian, Ukranian, Palestinian… Climbing mountains has become a symbol of a journey which brings together people from all walks of life with a shared passion to achieve a common goal; to celebrate, learn from, and inspire each other.

Aug 21, 2014

The Diva in Down on Tunics in Teheran...

I've worked hard to establish my reputation as 'the diva in down'. A critical component in maintaining this title (as many have tried to steal my crown...) is an expedition wardrobe packing routine based on trial and error (and too many fashion faux-pas to mention)… I pack my ‘go-to’ favourite t-shirt, favourite matching knitted Sherpa hats, favourite Striders Edge base layer, favourite Sherpa down jacket, favourite hard-shell waterproof and, more recently have added a favourite soft shell to my ensemble. Everything can be ‘mixed and matched’, can be worn together or separately, is easily washable and can go weeks (maybe even months!) without compromising the Channel No.5 infusion.... Throw in a post-expedition dress (something floaty and feminine to wear to facilitate integration back into civilisation) and then that’s my kit-sorted. I call it shabby-chic a la diva-in-down

Ironically, there’s little by way of packing list that differentiates a 5 day expedition from a 50 day expedition.

Having this routine means that I only need to ‘top up’ with new pieces from time to time as fabric technologies are introduced and as colours and styles are upgraded from one season to the next. This saves money, time and makes packing a relatively straightforward and predictable task. 

Iran has thrown a spanner in the works.... 

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so worried about an expedition wardrobe... 

The cynics among you may say that I should be worried about more than my wardrobe, heading to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Fashion Sense...

The advice I’ve received on dress code for Iran is a long tunic that covers the body (especially the butt), with long sleeves (no bare arms), long trousers that cover the ankles and close-toed shoes… 

I also have to wear a ‘hijab’. Ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it has been illegal for a woman to leave the house without wearing a headscarf. The punishment ranges from a fine to imprisonment… Given how challenging it was to get a visa, I don't fancy pushing my luck in this department.

Over the past two weeks I’ve been into and out of nearly every high-street store on Oxford Street - Zara, New Look, H&M, Miss Selfridge, Monsoon, Primark, Hobbs, Reiss, Dorothy Perkins, Ted Baker… and then countless visits to Selfridges. Market research told me that Harrods would also be a strong contender. I have googled, ‘Iran Streetwear’ so often that my Facebook feed is now written arabic script. In the past two weeks I’ve tried on more tunics and kaftans and floaty coats than I’ve had warm dinners. 

I have stood in front of hundreds of mirrors speaking to hundreds of store changing-room attendants asking things like; 

Does this cover my butt?’, ‘Can you tell I have an um...errr.... shape?’  'Does this come with a matching scarf?’ ‘Is this too revealing?’ and my all time favourite, ‘Do you have this in black?’ 

I’m exceptionally lucky as most high street 2014 Autumn / Winter collections feature variations of the tunic - bright tunics, flowery tunics, bold tunics, short sleeve tunics, long sleeve tunics… you get my drift. The slight concern however is that it’s 40 degrees centigrade in Teheran and linen and cotton are preferable over heavy wool and cashmere. Normally when it’s 40 degrees I’m poolside, lathered in SPF 40 with a daiquiri in hand and not tunic-ed up in wool drinking a yogurt lassi on a street side cafe…

I doubt I'll ever embrace the look with the same passion as Dame Judy Dench, but can certainly see the versatility of the tunic… you can eat McDonalds burgers and Crispy-Creme donuts  to your hearts content, you can hide VPL, you could be 8 months pregnant and no one would be the wiser.

Because I’m shopping both for my Iran and post-Iran tunic look at the same time, investment has taken some extensive consideration. It’s been incredibly hard to discover and define what my ‘tunic’ style is… I like the shapeless, floaty-look but at the same time, I know how finicky fashion can be and I’m afraid that this ‘look’ will be ‘Sooo 2-0-1-4 by December… and then I”ll be stuck with a wardrobe that I’ll only ever be able to wear again if I’m either pregnant or going to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

This story does have a happy ending... 

I bought a lovely floaty black and white printed tunic (worryingly a little bit sheer) that can be worn with a floaty black cardigan (to hide the sheer element of the tunic) and a very baggy pair of drawstring jersey trousers… Not only is the outfit ‘Iran street-friendly’ but I can also eventually belt-it and wear it to London Fashion Week with jeans and a smart pair of heels in London. I also bought a versatile long black shirt that can be worn on the mountain over a t-shirt - perfect for travel along the dusty roads. Finally, I made a bit of an investment today on a long-sleeve plum-coloured tunic at COS that is very on-trend. It’s made of a cotton blend but the back is silk and buttoned from top to bottom. If the button-look is judged too risqué I can just layer the floaty jacket over top….

Now to find a hajib to match my down jacket….