I wasn’t driven to climb Everest from hearing about it as a kid, or anything like that. If I hadn’t gone to that [RGS-IBG] lecture, I don’t think I would have ever started climbing; it was that moment that the spark was ignited. The fact that I saw Kenton Cool and Rob Casserley on stage, they both just seemed really down to Earth, hearing them say things like ‘You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to climb Everest’. Having that person in front of you is so important. If someone is there to lead the way or has gone somewhere before you then it’s always much easier.
I love climbing. I loved the idea of climbing Everest. Was I a world-class climber, or anywhere near that? No, but I was also a lot more experienced than most people on the mountain, because I’d climbed an 8,000m peak before that. At the time I didn’t think that my experience was an issue. But I look back and realise I was nowhere near as skilled a mountaineer as I am now. The truth is that Everest is not the kind of mountain you’d go to if you were a world-class climber. Just to go and climb the normal route is for people that aren’t the world’s best climbers – that’s just the way it is.
I left the mountain feeling quite sad to be going. There was really no world outside Everest for me during all that time. I never thought about anything but that mountain, and then suddenly it was gone. I was quite traumatised by that. When I got home, I was sitting with my parents on the sofa, and the news came on: ‘Youngest British woman to climb Everest returns home’. It did feel like ‘is this real?’ For weeks on end I could open any newspaper and see a story about myself. I could never have imagined it on that scale. It was just crazy, the press banging on the door. It was a very confusing time that you’ll never be prepared for unless you’ve actually gone through it before.
I’ve met and debated with people that really don’t like Everest, but have never been anywhere near it. They don’t like what it represents. For some people Everest is seen as a rich man’s playground, where nature and indigenous locals are exploited for the sake of a photograph on the summit. I get that, because there are those kinds of people there. But they are the tiniest percentage of people. Most people that I’ve ever met climbing are just lovely, caring, completely inspired by nature, want to protect the world that they live in, and just want to make the most of their life on Earth. So I don’t have a problem with the media focusing on Everest at all, but I do have a problem when it’s this sensationalised idea of Everest, which is actually nothing like the Everest that I know and love.
Lhotse was a much more difficult climb than Everest. That makes it more special. When I stood on the summit of Lhotse it did feel like the end of a chapter, this overwhelming feeling that four years of work had led to this moment. It was never about Everest when I look back with hindsight. It was always about Lhotse. But I had to go to Everest to get there.
People are fascinated with the climbing histories of Everest and Lhotse, and I guess I’m a part of that. But I have to remind myself that I climbed those mountains. There is a real sense, with time passing, of detachment from them. I do think about moments on those mountains every day, just that nostalgia, wanting to be back there. I did a big expedition last year to K2 and loved being back in the mountains. I felt so at home. It’s not about standing on the summit or anything like that. It’s about being in those places, and being around the people that are in those places.
I’m very lucky to have some very successful friends in everything from climbing to business to athletics. A lot of them have struggled with eating problems in the past. For a girl to have gone through her entire life and not had a weird relationship with food, they will have done really well. I think that more and more guys are going down the problem route too. It’s not something that people really talk about. I have a voice with this book, and I don’t want to avoid such an important situation, because generally that is what happens, and that’s why eating disorders are such a big issue for young women.
I think a lot of women that have overcome eating disorders have learnt the same lessons that I have, that if you want to change something, it starts with you. You can’t rely on anyone else. That’s a really powerful thing to learn; even though it has come from a bad place, it can be a positive thing going forward.
1987 Born in Reading
2008 Attended RGS-IBG lecture about climbing Mount Everest
2009 Graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with a degree in Media Arts
2010 Became the youngest British woman to summit Mount Everest
2011 Reached the North Pole, becoming the youngest person in the world to reach both Everest and the North Pole
2012 Summited Mount Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest mountain; began presenting Red Bull Cliff Diving on Dave
2017 Published The Girl Who Climbed Everest
This was published in the October 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.