Tori James: Iceland to Everest - The 10th year anniversary of my Everest summit

May 24

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24 May 2017 09:49  RssIcon

At 7.30am on 24th May 2007 Tori James became the first Welsh woman and the youngest British woman (at that time) to climb to the summit of Mount Everest. On the 10th anniversary of her ascent of Mount Everest, Tori looks back at some of her early expedition experiences and inspiration.

For many people climbing Everest is a childhood dream but for me it wasn’t something I ever considered as I child. I was however always captivated by stories of adventure and exploration and was addicted to reading Hugh McManners’ Survival Handbook which I kept by my bedside for several years. Little did I know that I would one day get to travel to some of the most extreme environments on the planet and make my own snow hole just as I had read about in the book.

It was after completing my DofE Gold Award that I was actively looking for the next adventure. I loved the expedition section of the DofE but wasn’t sure what would replace it or what existed for adventurous 18 year olds.

There was a girl in my year at school who had travelled to Kyrgyzstan on a youth expedition and she told me about British Exploring. I immediately requested the information for expeditions in the year 2000 and as soon as I had read the information pack I knew it was something I wanted to do.

I decided to apply for a 4-week expedition to Iceland ‘the land of fire and ice’, it sounded incredible, I was intrigued to know what it would be like to not only see a glacier in real-life but also to stand on one and study one. But I immediately questioned my ability to survive for 4 weeks on the Vatnajokull Glacier in potentially sub zero conditions. Was I tough enough to do that? At school I was almost the smallest in my year group. I was sporty and I would have loved to have represented my school, county or event country but simply wasn’t talented enough. But in comparison to the netball court or the cross-country track the outdoors seemed to demand a different skill set and approach in which I immediately felt at home.

I can still remember working my way through the kit list, trying to understand the pros & cons of down or synthetic sleeping bags and working out what I needed to buy and how I would save up enough money to go. I grew up on a farm in rural Pembrokeshire so whilst I had a very outdoor way of life, my knowledge of clothing was limited to wellies and overalls, as opposed to C2 boots and breathable fabrics.

Next came the briefing weekend for participants. I didn’t know anyone else going on this expedition but feeling slightly apprehensive I arranged to travel up to the briefing weekend in Yorkshire with a few other members of my expedition who were from Swansea. After a 5 hour train journey I was feeling a lot more confident about the challenges that lay ahead.

During the weekend it was confirmed that I would be in the ‘glaciology group’ which I was really pleased with. We would be mapping crevasses and looking at features on the surface of the glacier throughout the expedition. I couldn’t wait for everything I had read in Geography text books to be right in front of my eyes.

The expedition surpassed all expectations. We were led by such talented, positive leaders, some experts in their fields of research and taught outdoor skills that I never anticipated having the chance to do such as ice climbing and cross country skiing. I fell in love with being in a remote environment, being part of a self-sufficient team and waking up every in such beautiful surroundings.

We witnessed an incredible natural event whilst in Iceland, when during a lovely sunny (they were rare in August 2000) afternoon whilst everyone was having a day at basecamp to wash clothes, bodies and collect resupplies of food, the stream in the gully near to base camp began to visibly rise before our eyes. Many people had items of clothing drying on warm rocks which were at risk of getting washed away if not rescued in time. It transpired that the likely cause would have been the burst of a small sub-glacial dam further upstream and it was a great reminder as to the dynamic nature of our surroundings.

I remember learning about radio communications but being too nervous to be the one to communicate our group’s location and status to base camp. I remember eating biscuit browns & Primula almost every day for 4 weeks (I think the menus have improved a lot these days). I remember being tent-bound for over 24 hours due to some adverse weather conditions. I scrambled for the first time, up to the peak of Kerlinger (?) and learnt how to descend safely on scree slopes.

At the end of the 4 weeks I felt amazing, the most physically fit I had ever been, able to carry a 65 litre rucksack as though it were a small day sack and more freckles on my face than I have ever had in my entire life! In addition those 4 weeks confirmed that I definitely wanted to study Geography at University, with a focus on glaciology.

To my utter devastation I didn’t get the grades I wanted to take up my UCAS offers. I felt like a failure. Fortunately, Royal Holloway University saw the other side, and valued the fact that I had just spent 4 weeks in Iceland with British Exploring and Dr Peter French accepted me onto their top-rated degree course to start immediately.

The connection that I had made with British Exploring in 2000 stuck strong and after graduating I took up my first full-time job in the BE headquarters at the Royal Geographical Society in London. My job was now to inspire other young people to step outside their comfort zones and travel to some of the most incredible wilderness areas of the the world.

Anyone who has ever stepped inside the RGS will know what an inspirational place this is and that certainly rubbed off on me with speed. In 2005, I was part of a team called the Pink Lady Polecats together with British Exploring work colleagues Sam Eve and Felicity Aston. Our aim was to become the first all-female team to complete the Scott Dunn Polar Challenge, a 360 mile race to the Magnetic North Pole. We certainly weren’t the favourites for the race but thanks to huge support in terms of training and advice from the wider British Exploring network we felt confident and competitive. We raced for over 2 weeks against 16 other teams (some ex-military) and eventually reached the finish line, surpassing all expectation in 6th position. The sense of achievement was off the scale.

It was these expeditions and many others that paved the way for my biggest challenge, to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Tori is a professional speaker who has delivered over 280 talks around the globe, engaging audiences from Kuala Lumpur to Cardiff. Tori is also the author of Peak Performance which describes her climb to the summit of Mount Everest.

<June 2018>