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Career 23 Part 2: Emma The Explorer?

Updated: Jun 7, 2019

After being so thoroughly inspired from my interview with Sarah Outen, I decided I’d have to take part in a couple of my own adventures – one mini, and one decidedly less mini.

The Mini One

I started small, by seeing if someone already doing something adventurous would have me. Luckily, one close to home said yes – Dan Raven-Ellison is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and describes himself as a Guerrilla Geographer. A few months ago, I joined him for a section of his 563km walk spiralling around London as part of his campaign to make our capital an official National Park City, given that 47% of it is green space. We were also joined by Sian Berry, the Green Party’s mayoral candidate and who is also a member of the London Assembly.

Dan, Sian and I on top of Hampstead Heath

Whilst this wasn’t quite walking to the South Pole, the kilometres I walked with them showed that adventure can be accessible to the masses and is a positive force for good. Dan’s project was ultimately advocating for London’s green spaces to be conserved, with their natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage enhanced for the economic and social benefit of local communities – an aim that I could not support more strongly.

The Less Mini One

After the excitement of taking part in a mini-adventure, I decided to aim for something a little bigger; I signed up to climb four of Morocco’s highest mountains in 48 hours. Mount Toubkal is the highest peak in North Africa, at 4,167m (13,671 ft), and the other three are only marginally smaller. To give you a sense of scale, the UK’s tallest mountain is 1,345m – roughly 30% of the size of Toubkal. Because I never make anything easy for myself, I chose to wait a few months and head to the Atlas Mountains in winter, when temperatures regularly got down to -20⁰C and a foot of snow wouldn’t be unusual. This meant that this particular adventure would be after the end of 25before25, but I couldn’t resist the challenge (the reason I gave at the time) and really needed another few months to make sure I was fit enough (the real reason).

Training began in earnest.

Living in North London, I did not have easy access to many hills to walk up, so chose to put the treadmill on maximum incline for 30-45 minutes at as high of a speed as I could tolerate at walking speed. I then added some weights to a pack – starting small at 4kg and working my way up to 10kg – and watched endless episodes of Have I Got News For You to try and distract myself from the fact that my legs were on fire. Whenever I had a spare chance at the weekend, I headed up to the Chiltern Hills for some fresh air practice. Add in a couple of sessions of weights and core each week, I was left praying that I was fit enough to not hold the group back.

Fast forward from mid-summer to November 2017, and with many hours spent in Cotswolds Outdoor shop, I landed in Marrakesh airport without the faintest clue of what to expect, though Marrakesh’s +28⁰C was the first pleasant surprise! A somewhat less pleasant one was when most of the group I was about to hike with casually dropped in that they were marathon runners…

Leaving Marrakesh’s dusty plain behind, I drove up into the Atlas Mountains to the last outpost town, Imlil. By mid-afternoon, I’d stocked up with supplies (mostly Twix related) and having been up since 04.00, started hiking up a well-trodden path to the first stop for the night. This first short afternoon hike left me cautiously optimistic – this wasn’t too hard, I was still warm enough to be wearing a t-shirt when in the sunshine.

Starting up from Imlil

Day 2 stepped up a gear with a full day of hiking up to base camp at 3,200m. Again, for context, this is the height of the highest ski lift in the highest ski resort in France, so definitely not low in altitude… It got steeper, though not yet intolerably so, and as I began burning plenty of energy, on went some layers and down went the pace; the higher you get, the colder and thinner the air. After a few hours of continuous hours of ascent, it gently started to snow and the vegetation petered out until there was only white-dusted rock. By the end of the eight-hour hike, I was pretty beat, but still left feeling like I would have plenty of energy the next day, after a hot meal and a good night’s sleep.

Adventure Lesson One: Altitude

The first symptoms of altitude sickness are insomnia and loss of appetite. However, to keep check of your symptoms and health, you must be aware of what is normal and what is abnormal in the first place. This would have been the first lesson - if I’d have been aware of it.

The next morning rolled around brightly and I shook off a surprisingly restless night, given the amount of exercise the day before, and after picking at breakfast, we set off for the first day of double peaks - Ras Ouanoukrim (4,083m) and Timzguida (4,089m). It was a day of over 1000m of ascent, including a few ups and downs, and the temperature steadily dropped – I’d never worked so hard physically and been in so many layers of clothes before. The incline of the ascent had increased again by several degrees and I’d switched into mountaineering boots for extra foot and ankle support. The hiking poles were out too, mercifully taking up to 25% of the pressure off my knees and giving me a bit of extra balance.

At the top of a major col at about two thirds of the way up, I took the first big break for peppermint tea and snacks (it was Morocco after all!), and was rewarded with the first half-impression of what the view at the top was going to be like. We were making OK time, the weather was clear, and it already felt like I was on top of the world, looking out over the start of the Sahara below.

Two thirds of the way up Ras

There were two sections remaining to reach the first peak; a tricky scramble and a final steep plod to the summit of Ras. I’ve done some scrambling before in the UK and have found it exhilarating; it is essentially rock climbing that’s not quite vertical enough to justify ropes and full climbing gear - at the easy end, at least - but looks like it should unquestionably have both of those things to the untrained eye. Sure-footedness is key. Looking up at the jagged rock formations, in typical gung-ho style (sorry mum), I got going without thinking twice about the sheer drop of several hundred feet on either side.

Adventure Lesson Two: Trust

To be confident and sure-footed, it turns out, you have to have total faith in your kit. New boots with a very unfamiliar tread and untested rigidity, it seems, do not provide that trust. You do not want to be testing these things for the first time at 3,800m. This became obvious about five minutes into scrambling up an hour-long section.

My pace dropped as quickly as my confidence.

I fell further and further back among the group, until I was nearly last. I started taking fewer and fewer calculated risks, checking and double checking that every foothold and handhold was secure. Whilst this sounds like thoroughly sensible behaviour, it is only up to a point; when you are up against remaining sunlight hours, falling temperatures, ever-changing weather and ten other people waiting for you, confident decisiveness is critical.

Still enjoying scrambling at this point

I spent what felt like hours slowly picking my way up to endless ledges and crevices, always being pulled slightly backwards by an over-filled pack. Next time, gloves with finger grips would also be a very useful thing!

Thankfully, there were no mistakes made and I safely made it to the final section, albeit behind schedule. We crossed into 4000m+ territory.

Adventure Lesson Three: Learn from Lesson One

I was left worn out after the excitement of scrambling and found myself becoming less and less able to keep up. Gradually, the gap between myself and the group grew. I also started to develop a headache and then felt nauseous.

Clue: headaches and nausea are also symptoms of altitude sickness.

I am not ashamed to say that it took a monumental effort to walk those last few hundred metres to the summit of Ras, it really did take all my determination to ignore the screaming in my legs and continuing to put one foot in front of the other.

But then, I was at the top. And it really was spectacular.

Squinting on the summit of Ras with the most forced smile I've ever mustered.

The decision was made to not attempt the second peak – it turns out I wasn’t the only one in the group who had been struggling with an unexpected set of symptoms and the weather was beginning to turn. It would mean that I wouldn’t achieve the goal of 4 in 48 hours, but it was time to be sensible and realistic, for once.

By the time I got back to base camp, several hours later, I really was exhausted. My appetite had entirely disappeared, and I’d begun to feel very nauseous. Throwing up later that night, I realised this was bad enough that it would certainly hold the group back and could impact my chance at summiting Toubkal the next day. Fortunately, the guide I was with gave me some Diamox, a medication which reduces altitude sickness symptoms.

On Top Of The World (sort of)

What a difference that one tiny pill made.

I started out gingerly the next morning, though felt leagues better than the night before. Over the course of what should have been the most challenging day - climbing over bungalow-sized frozen boulders deep in the shadow of Toubkal - I felt only stronger.

The group had initially been split into two, with the first half striding ahead to summit their third peak, and the half I was in, who took things at a little more of a measured pace and did not aim for the third.

This time, when I passed the 4000m mark and knowing I still had 167 vertical meters of ascent to go, I was totally in control of my body. I’d (medically) acclimatised, lightened my pack substantially and gotten better at walking at the much slower pace necessary when the air is thin. I was taking food and water in far more regularly and had finally begun to work out how to wear my layers without constantly stopping to take one off or put one on.

After six hours of going only up, the ground flattened out and, finally, gave up altogether. Blinking half-frozen sweat from my eyes and looking up, I was four thousand, one hundred and sixty-seven meters above sea-level and there was nowhere else to go.

The summit of Toubkal

The feeling of being at the top of a mountain that you’ve worked hard to climb is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. It’s all-consuming, addictive and is a place of clear-headed epiphanies. Ordinarily clichéd statements will take on new meaning, becoming sincere and profound – you can say things like, ‘I will write a book’, ‘I am truly over my ex’ or even ‘I can push myself further than this’ – and really mean them when you get back down again. The summit is a place where you feel as if you can breathe for the first time, even with 40% less oxygen.

In short – I think I found my thing.

This is what I want to do over and over and over again. It won’t be possible in the short term, even the medium term, and maybe it will never be possible in the full-time career sense and will have to be as part of a portfolio or purely hobby-based. But, I want to find a way to do all the things that my adventure heroes do too.


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