Mar 15, 2015

The People You Meet Along the Way: Time to get my 'Diva' on...! Shishapangma and ChoOyu 2015

Just 7% of sports media coverage is devoted to women. Only 1 in 10 people who enquire about expeditions are women. Research by universities and other sports foundations in the UK found that 2 million fewer women regularly participate in sport or exercise than men - despite 75 per cent of women aged 14 to 40 saying they’d like to do more. (source: Sport England)

But why?
It’s not about women being less adventurous than men or about there being fewer women who embrace outdoor activities. I think it has more to do with the image that it’s only Amazonian, super-athletes who go on expeditions, supported by production teams and sponsorships. There’s a perception that in making the decision to ‘see the world’ you must put both career and family on the backburner. That you have to grit your teeth for every photograph and morph into a female, long-haired mascara-wearing version of Bear Grylls.

But I know that this isn’t the case at all. I know this because the description above definitely doesn’t describe me and it doesn’t describe most of the women who I’ve met in the outdoors.

The Challenge:

From early April through to the end of May 2015 I’ll travel to Tibet to complete a ‘double header’ expedition, climbing two remote 8,000m peaks which - Shishapangma and Cho Oyu - respectively the 14th and 6th highest mountains in the world.

However, this expedition is about much more than mountains and my goals are clear:
  1. To raise the profile of women in the outdoors
  2. To lobby for more coverage about women in the outdoors in mainstream media
  3. To increase the number of women involved in outdoor activities in every level – from those who watch it, to those playing it, all the way to those in the boardroom 
I’ll be climbing to raise money and awareness for Wellbeing of Women, a health charity dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of women and babies around the world through research, training and education.

Some context...
The journey
I’ll be traveling overland from Kathmandu, Nepal, into Tibet through to the basecamp of my first objective - Shishapangma. Along the way, we’ll be stopping in the ancient Tibetan towns of Zhangmu, Nylam and Tingri, experiencing Tibetan culture, while stopping to walk each day in the surrounding hills to acclimate to the increasing altitude. This acclimatisation period offers a great chance to encounter the vast Tibetan plateau, the surrounding Himalayan Giants and experience the ancient Tibetan culture.

Shishapangma - the 14th highest mountain in the world
The first mountain-objective will be to climb Shishapangma, the 14th highest mountain in the world at a height of 8,027 metres (26,335 ft). The initial 3-4 weeks will be spent acclimatising on Shishapangma, allowing my body enough time to get used to the thin air of higher altitudes while working with my Sherpa to set up the 3-high mountain camps - Camp One (6300m); Camp Two (6900m) and Camp Three (7,300m). Conditions dependent, my intention is to climb the East Peak which is the true summit of Shishapangma. The exact date of our summit push will depend on the weather window, marked by the decrease in summit winds which historically takes place around mid-May. 

Given that Shishapangma is only the first of two mountains in the challenge the timing of our ascent will be critical.

Cho Oyu - the 6th highest mountain in the world
After climbing Shishapangma we’ll will descend and immediately travel overland across the historical Tibetan plateau, stopping 20kms west of Mount Everest to make the most of the short weather window and begin our ascent of Cho Oyu, the 6th highest mountain in the world at an altitude of 8201metres (26,906 ft). From our Base Camp of 5,650m we’ll move steadily up through the three mountain camps, making the most of the ‘pre-acclimatisation’ from the 3-4 weeks spent ascending Shishapangma. On our ascent of Cho Oyu we’ll pass through the high mountain camps of Camp 1 at 6,400 metres, Camp Two at 7,000 metres and Camp Three at 7,400 metres.  The summit climb from Camp Three will involve climbing through a short rock band just above the top camp before heading into an open couloir, which in turn leads to the 8201m summit plateau.

I certainly won’t be undertaking this tremendous challenge alone. A small team of Sherpas will accompany the entire expedition and will be integral to its success, providing a great portion of the ‘carrying power’. Having worked with teams of Sherpas on past expeditions including Everest, Lhotse and Makalu I’m very much looking forward to the insights, experience and friendship that the Sherpas bring to form the backbone of the team.

The Diva in Down
In the past 6 years I’ve spent over 13 months in total living above 5,000 metres thanks to a passion for experiencing new cultures and seeing the world from a different perspective.  

I have a full time job. I have family commitments. I have to train. 

And no, it isn’t always fun.

But yes, I do bring lipgloss.

I’m proud to be a sporty woman, a ‘Diva in Down’. And I’m proud to have earned my place in the mountains through sheer discipline, commitment, courage and creativity. 

And I’m going to keep climbing these mountains – both real and proverbial – and hope that I can inspire others to do the same.

Mar 14, 2015

The Mile High Club...

Crazy, vivid, trippy dreams. Over the past week I’ve dreamt that I lost my wallet in my wardrobe and got married in my living room wearing a beige-coloured veil made out of a shower curtain and that a tornado ripped through central London with all the drama of The Wizard of Oz… 

Yep, I’m sleeping high.

But training low.

Vivid dreams have been an entertaining side-effect of my move back into an unconventional yet recurring annual feature in my bedroom – a Hypoxico ‘altitude tent’. Sadly, I don’t live in the Swiss Alps and I don’t have a hot ski-instructor named Frans or Hans to house me in a luxurious high mountain chalet, feed me cheese fondue and take me skiing <sigh>. Regrettably I am restricted to finding more creative ways to prepare my body for another 2-month adventure to the higher altitudes of the Nepal Himalaya. No mountain to climb and no plane ticket required – yet!

Made of special grade nylon with 4 clear vinyl windows, the ‘altitude tent’ houses my mattress and is erected over my bed. By sleeping in this 'simulated altitude environment' I am able to benefit from some of the positive adaptations to altitude while continuing to go to 'carry on my normal life' – continuing to work, train, and socialise at an oxygen-rich lower altitude.  

What’s involved?
A small machine the size of a beer-fridge (the 'hypoxic air generator') which sounds like a low-decibel lawnmower is connected to the ‘tent’ by an 8 foot long umbilical-cord-like clear plastic hose which pumps the low oxygen controlled air into the tent. The resulting rhythmic ‘whoosh, whoosh, whoosh’ sound makes it seem a bit like I’m sharing a bed with Darth Vadar (now that would be a trippy dream…)

After crawling inside the plastic bubble, rearranging numerous throw pillows and then zipping up my contained environment, it doesn’t take long before you start feeling like you’re sitting at Everest Base Camp, on the summit of Kilimanjaro or atop the Grand Teton, minus the biting wind, bitter cold, mountain vistas, exhaustion, vertigo, and… the problem of getting down…

Understanding the Physiology
Besides the crazy vivid dreams associated with ‘sleeping high’, one of the most rewarding side effects of my high altitude experiences over the years has been the opportunity to better understand my own physiology and the changes that are taking place within my body as I 'go to altitude' – whether that’s on a mountain or in an altitude tent. 

In the past I’ve ‘moved into’ the tent between 6-8 weeks before an expedition but because I was on Kilimanjaro at 5895m just over a week ago I’m trying to ‘keep’ the positive physiological benefits derived from going to this altitude until I head to Nepal.

Understanding the Physics
It’s a common misconception to think that there is less oxygen at altitude - but this is false as the mix of gases in the air is the same. Instead the higher up you go the air pressure gets lower. Consequently the partial pressure of oxygen is reduced. An altitude tent does not copy this change in pressure. Instead it pumps refined air with a reduced oxygen content into a confined space – e.g. the tent.

The body responds to the reduced oxygen content in the space by increasing the efficiency of oxygen intake from the lungs and oxygen transport in the blood through the production of more red blood cells. This takes place mainly during rest. This is known as ‘acclimatisation’ and gives the blood better oxygen-carrying capacity – e.g. it makes it more efficient. 

It takes the body more than two weeks to produce new red-blood cells and the positive effects of acclimatisation generally lasts between 10 days to two weeks.

I must admit, I’d prefer pre-acclimatising high in the Swiss Alps but I’ve learned that in life (in this crazy world of high altitude mountaineering) you have to learn to make compromises… Until then it’s just me and my Darth Vadar sleeping sidekick preparing for the adventure ahead.

If you're interested in altitude training or have questions about how altitude training can boost your performance at altitude or for long-distance events (eg. marathons, cycling, etc.) give The Altitude Centre a call - or better yet, pay them a visit at one of their fantastic gyms.

Mar 9, 2015

Wellbeing of Women Kilimanjaro Climb - 'Sippy Sippy' & Summit Success..!

“What did you get up to over the weekend...?” 

I don’t always have the opportunity to provide such a satisfying response across the coffee machine at work on a Monday morning...

Oh…well, I flew back from Tanzania after climbing Kilimanjaro with the most inspiring, fun and amazing colleagues ever… whilst raising an incredible amount of money for research into the health and wellbeing of women and babies…”

As I type the final members of our 14-strong team are making their way back to the UK. We left just over 8 days ago as colleagues, bound together by a common employer and a common ambition to reach the Roof of Africa. We return to sea-level bound by new friendships and memories that will last a lifetime – friendships built through shared laughs, fears, experiences, and a shared sense of team as we plodded our way to the 5,895m. 

As individuals we pushed ourselves to our personal limits, to the nth degree and beyond, putting one heavy altitude weighted foot in front of the other whilst being spurred on the journey by our collective sense of team and sights on the ultimate objective…
One thing that I have learned from this adventure is the importance of celebrating success in the progress toward a goal. The PwC Wellbeing of Women Kilimanjaro Climb the goals were to (1) reach and surpass our 25K target and (2) challenge ourselves our our journey to the summit of Kilimanjaro.

‘Fresh’ off the plane last Saturday evening, our PwC team sat down for our very first dinner together in our hotel in Arusha, Tanzania. Anticipation was running high. It was here that I realised just how much we’d achieved already – not only had we put together a strong, connected team with a common vision and common goals, we’d also actually made the preparations to say ‘Yes, let’s do this..!’  Shiny new kit had been purchased, flights had been taken via cities who’s names we could hardly pronounce, Tanzanian visas had been sorted, overflowing bags had arrived, hotels had been booked, new boots had been broken in… and nearly £30,000 had been raised for Wellbeing of Women through the hard work, creativity, passion and commitment of the team.

So much achieved, so much to celebrate - and we hadn’t even set foot on the mountain yet!

The trip continued to be jam-packed with successes. At the end of our first day on the trail we’d just reached camp and Jess exclaimed, ‘Woohooo!!’ and gave Aysegul the hugest high five. 

That night crammed into our mess-tent, bundled into our warm jackets and hugging hot cups of tea we raised a toast to the days achievements. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was laughing. The team had made tremendous progress already – Camp 1 reached – and it was only a matter of ‘onward and upward’ to reach the following day’s objective.

The days on the trail passed quickly, broken up through ‘sippy-sippy’ water drinking stops, eating stops, photo-stops, sunscreen application stops, and impromptu stops to accommodate frantic dancing to ‘Uptown Funk’ while gasping for breath… All the while conversations flowed, learning more about each other and the environments we were passing through.

I’ll never forget stopping on a walk with Martin and looking up at the sea of stars above - the Milky Way stretched out in all her glory before our very eyes. Hundreds of millions of stars reflecting endless possibilities, opportunities and questions. The moon shone so bright that we were able to walk without head torches. At one point our guide pulled us aside to show the Zebra rock – a giant natural rock formation etched into the side of a hill that looked like a zebra’s stripy belly. Crickets chirped and a gentle breeze whistled through the long African grasses. London seemed like a million miles away.

Onto the ‘main event’… When the team reached our ‘base camp’, 'Kibo Hut' at 4,750m (almost as high as the summit of Mont Blanc!) in the early afternoon before our ‘summit push’ the effects of altitude were starting to show. We walked across the saddle between Mawenzi peak and Kibo, with laborious breaths, our packs suddenly feeling heavier and every step harder than the last. This did little to dampen Team Spirit as we settled in for the afternoon and began mentally preparing for the challenge ahead. We would be leaving camp at 11.30pm for our ascent.

That night at around 11pm I awoke from a restless hypoxic slumber to hear Richard shout over the noise of the gusty-breeze hammering down our tents, ‘Don’t worry everyone! The winds’ bark is worse than its bite!’ No sooner had we all bundled into the mess tent with head-torches aglow nervously scoffing ginger-snap biscuits and hot tea then the wind started to die-down and our guide stuck his head around the corner. It was go-time.

The team performed absolutely brilliantly. Heads down, our Kilimanjaro conga-line snaked its way through the seemingly endless switchbacks and zig-zags over the volcanic scree. We stopped every hour for no more than 5 minutes to refuel and reassess our progress. It wasn’t until I looked up to see the familiar rocky final section that I realised that we’d reached the  first of the three summits – Gillmans Point (5685m) – in record time and in the dark..!

We then continued on with a further 3-hour round trip to the summit, Uhuru Peak - the highest point of all Africa. The route took us through a moonscape of volcanic rock and remnant glaciers with their impressive ice cliffs.

I can safely say that I’ve rarely seen such an incredible sunrise. The conditions were clear and there were panoramic views over the crater, to Mawenzi and Mount Meru looking very small below us. The view from the final summit was quite literally ‘breathtaking’. 

Despite our cold fingers, desperate gasps of rarefied air, throbbing heads, and rosy cheeks, we were laughing as the dawn broke over the summit crater in spectacular fashion and we celebrated our combined successes. A ‘journey’ that had started with an email saying ‘Yes! Sign me up!’ led to these happy (tired!) faces, new friendships and memories to last a lifetime. Additionally, we succeeded in our challenge to surpass our fundraising target, raising nearly £30,000 for Wellbeing of Women – money that will go toward improving the health of women and babies – and leave a legacy that will long outlast aching feet, sore muscles and throbbing heads..!

Climbing Kilimanjaro (or any mountain for that matter!) is no different from any other major challenges that we face in our lives. Whether we want to start a new career, have a healthier lifestyle or mend a broken relationship - we’re all climbing mountains of sorts. These experiences require us to be stronger than we think we are, endure more than we think we can, and become more than we dreamed possible.

Over £55,000 has been raised for the Wellbeing of Women thanks to the hard work, dedication, determination, creativity and fortitude of some of the most amazing people that I’ve ever shared a mountain with. Once again it highlights why I love climbing - not only for the breathtaking views, the physical challenge, and the personal sense of achievement, but also for the inspiration gained and insights shared by the people you meet along the way.

It's not too late to donate if you'd still like to show your support. All proceeds go to Wellbeing of Women and can be made via the link below:

Thank you to the amazing team – Angus, Aysegul, Ele, Jaya, Jessica, Karolina, Martin, Matthew, Mette, Richard, Sophie, Victoria, Zeynep and our amazing team of porters and guides - for the wonderful trip memories; your humour, honesty, commitment, and enthusiasm through thick and thin (air) will never be forgotten and I can't wait to share another mountain with you again soon.

A massive Thank You to friends and family who supported the climb. We’re most grateful for the many ways that you have showed your support – donating to Wellbeing of Women, providing us with moral support, advice on kit, and getting involved in fundraising activities. We could not have achieved our goals without your tremendous and most generous support.

A tremendous Thank You to PwC and the firm’s Community Affairs Team who worked tirelessly over the past few months to make our climb such a success and who helped us to achieve our £25,000 fundraising target through support at Bake Sales, Pub Quizzes, and support with our internal campaign. Thank you for all of your encouraging words and your support. It's through the passion that you put into your work for Wellbeing of Women that we were driven to put one foot in front of the other.

Huge Thank Yous to Thalgo UK for the wonderful goodie-bag which kept us feeling fabulous throughout both the run-up to the expedition and on the expedition itself. We especially loved the SPF 50 sun-cream which kept us all protected and moisturised on the mountain. An added bonus was the leg mist which kept us refreshed...!

Thank you to The Jerky Group for nurturing a taste for beef jerky and biltong. Your very generous donation of beef jerky fed us and fuelled us up to the summit and provided a constant source of protein and snacking pleasure for all times of the day - breakfast, lunch and dinner along the trail and to the summit.