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The Adventure Travel Show 2017: Four Inspiring Female Explorers

Ahead of The Adventure Travel Show 2017 at Olympia, Rebecca Stephens MBE, Ness Knight, Laura Bingham and Natalia Cohen share their experiences out in the wild

Moving Mountains

Journalist-turned-mountaineer Rebecca Stephens MBE explains how she accidentally became the first British woman to climb Mount Everest 

It was journalism that took me to the Himalayas. One of the climbers going on the expedition had remembered that I was a writer and invited me to report on a climb up Everest’s north-west ridge. It still have to pinch myself when I think how I was able to do it; it was just such an exciting assignment.

There weren’t any other British women who tried to climb Mount Everest before me – it’s extraordinary. I suppose it has to happen to somebody, but I was incredibly lucky that it happened to me. It was something I badly wanted to do and then I found myself with this label.

"Retreating off the mountain back to camp was absolutely heartbreaking"

Unquestionably, the most challenging part of the climb was when we missed the first opportunity to make the summit bid. Retreating off the mountain back to camp was absolutely heartbreaking. The only reason I was able to turn around was because two Sherpas came back up the mountain and were in a position to climb with me. Even then we didn’t think we were going to make it by a long way; the weather forecast was so bad.

There was one moment during the descent that should have been scary, but wasn’t at all. We were retreating from the summit and the weather closed in. We couldn’t see anything and we daren’t move, so we just had to sit there and wait to see what would happen. What fascinated me was that I felt totally and utterly at peace. We have an adrenal gland that pumps adrenaline around our body if there’s something to fight or fly away from, but, because there was nothing to fly away from and nothing to fight, we were beyond that stage and in a place of acceptance.

For four consecutive years I’ve taken students from the Erasmus University up Mount Kilimanjaro and it’s tremendously rewarding. You see people who might normally be in a business setting in a totally different environment. On one trip, over half of them had never slept in a tent before, which was rather alarming. What I love is experiential learning, where you’re not just telling the story, but triggering stories in people’s own lives.

Going Solo

Adventurer Ness Knight discusses her latest expedition in Namibia and her plans to set a new world record as the first woman to row solo across the Pacific Ocean

Namibia was incredible. I took all of the most extreme bits of the previous expeditions I’d done – the terrain, pushing my endurance limits and the heat – and tried to up the level, as it were. I thought I knew what to expect and it blew me away; it was even harder and tougher than I expected but it was the most incredible expedition. I took a fat bike out there and tested it to its absolute limits, and took my mind and body to new extremes, too. I definitely reached both limits.

As much as possible it was a self-supported expedition, but it is absolutely impossible to go through remote wilderness and carry enough water in a country where there is no water. I went through hundreds of riverbeds and all of them were dry. Where I could, I would get water from natural resources, but I also planned ahead and cached water and food where I could. 

There were quite a few days where I suffered from heat exhaustion and dehydration. On one of those days I was actually a couple of hundred metres away from a fresh lion kill that had happened the day before and I completely blacked out. I was found by the lion warden unconscious by the side of the road.

It was a postcard that inspired me to quit my nine-to-five job. I worked in digital marketing and it was really fulfilling, but I didn’t want to sit behind a computer for the rest of my life. I found this postcard that said, ‘What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?’ I stuck it to my screen at work and never paid much attention to it until one day I was fed up and for the first time took hold of what it meant. I wrote down what I would do if I knew I wouldn’t fail, and that was to go out and find my passion in the outdoor wilderness.

Preparation for my solo row across the Pacific Ocean is in earnest. At the moment I’m focusing on raising sponsorship for it and the next step is to get the boat built. In a funny way I think it’s probably going to be harder to get to the start line of the expedition than out on the ocean. 

"You can plan all you like with Google Maps on your computer at home, but it’s nothing compared to being out there"

You can plan all you like with Google Maps on your computer at home, but it’s nothing compared to being out there. That’s what draws us in as explorers; it’s a way to test yourself when you’re going into the unknown. There’s no way I can prepare myself for what to expect on the Pacific Row, but I will find out when I get out there.

Making Waves

Natalia Cohen, one sixth of the Coxless Crew, the first all-female team of rowers to cross the Pacific Ocean, reveals what kept her motivated on the water

I saw an advert for the expedition on a website. I had just finished a contract managing a safari lodge in Tanzania and I was having a look to see what opportunities were around. The fact that I’d never rowed before was a consideration, but in my heart of hearts I always believed that the expedition would be a 90 per cent mental journey. 
The training was very intense. We did a lot of practical training because we wanted to be as prepared as we could so we aligned ourselves with experts in every field. We did sea survival skills, a capsize drill, a 48-hour row, and lots of strength and conditioning training. 

It was a mental journey and as individuals we all very much had our own inner struggles and demons that we battled. We had to return to shore after 10 days of being out to sea because we had a contained fire that affected one of our batteries. We needed to make a decision as to whether to continue with one battery or return to land. Within five minutes of making the decision to carry on the second charge controller blew. That was really demoralising and devastating, but I think it was an incredible lesson.

I think women have a stronger, natural empathy and compassion for one another. That was very evident out on the ocean because we had this mutual respect for each other. There’s an incredibly special bond of sisterhood that women have and that was something I was quite interested in. 

We saw so much wildlife. In the first week we had a humpback whale breach metres from the boat, which was mind-blowing. We saw sharks, which we named after Spanish men. I loved Fernando, he followed us for two weeks and we don’t know why. There was a Galapagos shark during leg three that we called Eduardo and he would visit us at night, which was
quite special. 

I’m coaching others through the Best Year Yet programme and helping them to cross their own Pacific. One thing that we really believe is that we may have crossed our literal Pacific, but everybody has their own ‘Pacific’ to cross and challenges that they have to face. There were so many wonderful insights that were reinforced when we were out on the ocean and I really want to prove to everyone that we can do anything that we set our minds to.

Wheels of Fortune

At the ripe old age of 23, Laura Bingham has already sailed the Atlantic Ocean and cycled the breadth of South America with no money. Here she describes how she survived on the kindness of strangers

The founder of charity Operation South America had told me a story of two girls who were so used to eating one meal every other day that they didn’t know they were supposed to actually eat three times a day. I was just so shocked by that story that I wanted to raise money and awareness for them. I also wanted to learn what it must feel like to be them and to be able to empathise with them a little bit better, so I set about trying to do the expedition without any money to learn what real hunger and true desperation is.

It was bloody difficult. The start was 20 times harder than the end; we started in Ecuador in the Andes and I learned what that feeling of desperation was like. I would go to bakeries crying and asking for stale bread and I managed to get just enough food to make it through, whereas by the end in Argentina I was having to tell people to stop giving me food because I had too much and couldn’t carry it.

At one point I’d been cycling for two days with a flat tyre and I hadn’t realised. I was trying to figure out what to do and this couple stopped and offered to help. They took me to a bike shop but it didn’t stock the right tyre type so I had to go to another town that was a seven-hour journey away. The couple let me stay with them for the day and the night, paid for my bus ticket to the next town and a hotel room and then they took me to the bike shop, paid for the tyre to be fixed, paid for a new tyre and then paid for a bus to take me back to where they found me. It was really incredible.

If there’s one thing I learned out of the whole thing, it’s how important smiling is. When you see people on the street, even if you don’t have any change, the kindest thing you can do is smile at them and register that they’re there and that they’re a human. 

I’ve got 87 things on my travel bucket list. There are weird things like stomping on grapes and learning another foreign language, swimming with sharks, visiting Antarctica, going to the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, seeing a solar eclipse, learning to tango and going on a cruise – I’ve always wondered what that was like. Everything has its charm and I just want to learn and know what everything feels like.

The Women at the Edge panel will be hosted by Rebecca Stephens MBE and will include Ness Knight, Laura Bingham, Natalia Cohen, Justine Gosling and Paula Reid, 21 January, 12-12.30pm. Tickets for the Adventure Travel Show are on sale now, £8, 21-22 January, Olympia, W14, www.adventureshow.com