I was in my late 20s. I was fit. I had climbed in the Alps and wintered in Scotland’s Cairngorms. I had been caving for ten years mainly on the Mendips but also in Yorkshire and South Wales. I was on expedition to Grotte Casteret, near Gavarnie, in the Pyrenees. This photo was taken just by the Refuge de la Brèche de Roland on the way back down to the minibus. I was becoming interested in the historical aspects of places, travellers and explorers.
I was a reluctant outdoor leader/ instructor, preferring to act as a back up, rather than lead. I had the experience and expertise to take responsibility and was beginning to gather a plethora of certificates, evidencing my abilities. I was beginning to develop an interest in the variety of approaches and strands of outdoor learning.
The Grotte Casteret expedition stands out because I was travelling in a group I did not know particularly well and I was forced to change my role in a group. I had made assumptions that fellow group members were technically competent for the terrain, and that I could be a happy follower. However, when, to avoid a wired path, they had descended a glacier, I became concerned. This meant that they had to ascend a wall of the glacier and cross the bergschrund to reach the cave. I had the skills and experience and pushed myself to the fore. I coached them in using an ice axe, sorted out a crossing point from the glacier to the rocks and set up the safety ropes, belaying people across the gap and over the loose moraine. I had take on a leadership role as my confidence in my technical and group work skills became apparent to the rest of the group.
This was pivotal in re-thinking my career away from teaching to a career in which I could share my enthusiasm for the outdoors. I became a youth worker, with the luxury of developing outdoor activities with the young people and fellow youth workers.
I was in my late 40s. I was fit. I had spent numerous winters in Scotland. I continued to cave regularly. I had an interest in sea kayaking, mainly off the coasts of Hampshire, Dorset and Cornwall and on numerous occasions had pushed myself well outside my comfort zone. I had also developed a passion for cross-country skiing, spending time each year in North America, Scandinavia, Scotland or the Alps. I was on a expedition to Stok Kangri, in Ladakh. My travels were drawing me to an interest in the impact the culture of the place on activity. I had evolved into an outdoor leader / instructor taking young people and adults caving and hill walking. My real enthusiasm was for working with groups of women who had not had the opportunity to experience being in the outdoors, questioning issues related to access and equality.
The Stok Kangri expedition came at another time of change. I was the only woman in a group of people I had walked and climber with for twenty years. It had become a friendship group. We recognized that we had been in some tricky situations and an ethic of mutual care. Here, I was outside my comfort zone. I struggled with the altitude and dehydration. as well as the physical challenge. For the first time ever, I “hit the wall”. I felt that the guides and sherpas saw me, a middle-aged woman, as a bit of an oddity. I was certainly not slender and rippling with muscles. For the first time, I seriously began to question my levels of fitness. However, I loved being in the mountains and observing everyday life – the ways in which spiritual and ecological connections with the landscape seemed to permeate all activities, from the positioning of toilets to the blessing of food. Outdoor activity was not in a silo. The potential breadth of outdoor learning that was striking me. I also recognized the privilege of being amongst a group of tried and tested friends.
On my return, I embarked on a course in magazine journalism. Our first assignment was to write an article about a fellow student. I was “outed” as a middle-aged extreme sportswoman. The thought of being seen as an extreme sportswoman challenged my self-concept. As a result of the expedition and the course, I developed my self-employment to encompass writing with outdoor learning and to focus on challenging stereotypes.
I was in my late 60s. The ravages of long descents with ludicrous rucsacs and the impact of injuries were taking their toll. I had become interested in photography and painting and making aesthetic responses to place. Here, I was just outside Disco Bay, Greenland. A Greenlandic guide had entreated us to understand how rising temperatures were impacting on the ecology of his landscape. We had previously visited a summer school where local children and Danish incomers were experiencing aspects of the indigenous culture of the place, in the hope that it would not die out. I hoped I was becoming a possible catalyst for change, both on a personal level through my art and talking about what had prompted it, and more widely through my writing and speaking at events.
The Greenland trip was one of the first times that I had become clearer about the ultimate purpose of outdoor learning. It is so much more than making a superficial connection with the environment. It has direct links with the future of our planet and the sustainable use of our resources. Instead of talking about development, why do we not consider consolidation, and a slower more reflective and responsive pace of life?
I continue to challenge stereotypes. I am interested in how our relationships with the environment may change as we become older. For me, being connected to the outdoors is as important as it ever was. It is who I am. It is more than a part of my self-concept. Being an outdoor person is my entirety. It permeates my total life.
Passionate about the outdoors, I continue as a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Expedition assessor. This gives me an opportunity to spend time alone in nature, as I wait for the next group to arrive. Being alone in nature is important to me. It is my thinking and marvelling space.
…. And I am still bemused that some friends continue to see me as an extreme sportswoman, even if now slightly battered and tarnished and awaiting artificial joints!