Sarah: Hello, and welcome to the Tough Girl Podcast.
I'm delighted to have Tori James with us today.
Back in 2007, Tori was the youngest British woman and the first Welsh woman to climb Mount Everest. She was twenty-five years old at the time. Since then she's done a huge number of different challenges, which included the Polar Challenge and cycling the length of New Zealand, as well as doing the Beeline Britain.
Tori: Hi, Sarah.
Sarah: I'm so excited to have you here. I was looking through your website and I'm just so staggered by the amount of different challenges that you've done. Where did your love of adventure first come from?
Tori: Lots of people ask me did my mum and dad take me camping. The answer to that is no. I really got going on all things outdoors with the Girl Guides and certainly I bought my very first sleeping bag for a Guide camp. Through Girl Guiding I did the Duke of Edinburgh Award, which gave me that first taste of planning a journey initially over two days, and then up to as many as four days, and going out into the outdoors just because my friends with no one else around, which I guess is quite a nice feeling when you're a teenager. Having to look after each other and there are lots of outdoor skills, and I loved it.
That was my first taste of physically challenging myself as well because as a teenager, I never thought that I could walk fifty miles. It's a long way, but I proved to myself and I did and I love that sense of achievement. I would say that everything that has followed has been a result of that.
Sarah: I think things like the Girl Guiding are really fantastic in terms of learning a whole variety of different skills and putting them in different situations. It can really help you to build that self confidence up.
You're an ambassador for Girl Guide. What's involved in that role for you?
Tori: It's about supporting the activities mainly that go on in Pembrokeshire. That's where I grew up. That's in West Wales. It's about promoting the opportunities young girls have through Girl Guiding. For me, I jumped at the opportunities that were outdoors related.
Sarah: You started with the Girl Guides. You got used to getting outdoors. You move on to the Duke of Edinburgh, and I'll come back to that a little bit later on, but when was your first proper challenge would you say?
Tori: I was eighteen and a girl above me at school had been on an expedition with an organization called British Exploring. British Exploring is actually the longest-running youth expedition charity that exists in the UK and I really liked the sound of this and I thought, "Ooh, I wonder if I could do something like that?"
I looked at the list of adventures and expeditions that were available back in the year 2000, would you believe it or not. One caught my eye, and that was a full week expedition to the Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland. I was apprehensive and I thought, "Oh, maybe it's a bit too tough. There's no way that I'd be able to survive the cold sleep in a tent for that period of time without a hot shower or some nice, warm, and dry clothes," but I decided I was going to put myself up for the challenge. Applied. Got accepted.
Again, the challenge was to go away with about fifty other young people from across the UK who I'd never met before. As well as having to contemplate going to somewhere very cold and in an unfamiliar environment, it was about meeting new people too but I never looked back. It was just an incredible experience, not just for the friends that I made, but the environment I traveled to. That was where I got to love that cold environment and anything to do with snow and ice. I lived on the glacier for almost a month. That gave me all the excitement to then want to go on and study geography at university following that.
Sarah: I think what's interesting about that is that sometimes for women and young girls, there are these opportunities that become available such as doing that fantastic challenge, but you're either apprehensive, you're scared, you don't know how you're going to cope, what it's going to be like. Those fears can stop people from saying yes to adventures and challenges like that.
What was it that made you put yourself out there? To put yourself up for that challenge? What made you take that step?
Tori: It was daunting, but I say a lot in my talks now that if you're a little bit apprehensive, but you're also super excited. When I say super excited, I mean I had the advert printed out in front of me and I kept coming back to it. I kept reading every word on it. I was intrigued. I wanted to know what it would be like to spend that amount of time on a glacier. To see one up close and personal. I just thought, "I can't let this opportunity go by and I've got nothing to lose. Absolutely nothing to lose by at least putting the application in." That's the first step. I often say, you've got to be in it to win it. That's the sort of attitude that I carried with me through a lot of the things that I've done.
Sarah: Sometimes it's all about just taking the first step forward. To going after your dreams. Obviously, you've ignited this passion about geography because that's what you studied at university. After you graduated university, did you know what you wanted to do? Were you thinking, "Yes, I want to continue doing adventurous things." What were your next steps?
Tori: I had no idea what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I loved the subject geography and when I graduated, a job became available with British Exploring and I still describe it as my dream first job. I got to work at Royal Geographical Society, when is in Kensington in central London.
It is the home of British exploration and there are countless stories of explorers and adventurers who have been off around the world and then come back and brought various things that they've found and the maps that they had made of all these remotes countries. You can't fail but be inspired when you work there or even when you walk through the door.
Sarah: One of your biggest challenges was in 2005 with the Polar Challenge. Could you explain a little bit more about what the Polar Challenge was?
Tori: Yeah, so this was a three hundred and sixty miles race on skis and dragging sledges in an attempt to by the first to get to the magnetic North Pole. It was an annual event just before 20005, myself and two colleagues, we found out that no all-girl team had ever made it to the finish line of this race before. We liked the sound of that.
We thought, "Oh, wow. Wouldn't it be incredible to be that first all-female team?" We went along to an open day to find out a little bit more about it and I think some of the other potential competitors looked us up and down and thought, "I bet they're not serious about it," because, to be fair, we didn't look like any kind of Polar eXplorers. I'm not even five foot two, so I don't look like somebody who might be able to haul a sledge over three hundred and sixty miles.
Sarah: Interesting what you said though about you don't look like a Polar explorer and you're just under five foot two. I think a lot of women think they're not physical enough or not tall enough, they're not strong enough, and they limit themselves just based on their physicality.
You put together this amazing team. You've got the sponsorship. What happened next?
Tori: We had to get fit. Training for endurance basically and the compounding factor for me was that I'd never been on a pair of skis before. While Selma and Felicity had been on skis, I had a lot to learn in just the space of nine months. We took ourselves off to Norway and Austria. We did cold weather immersion exercises where we jumped into holes cut in the surface of a frozen lake.
It was all about making it hard whilst we were at home or in training so that hopefully the race would become a little bit easier.
At least that was the strategy. When we weren't in Norway or Austria, we were training five or six days a week. We were dragging tires around various local park. It was intense, but we got some incredible support, not just from the expedition community and colleagues at British Exploring, but also in particular from Doctor Justin Roberts. Helped us with all our training plans, our nutritional advice, and our team psychology as well.
Sarah: Interesting on the team psychology. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Tori: We first had to form a team. We had to make sure that we knew each other, that we had a common goal as a team and that we were all the time developing positive can-do attitudes.
We came up against lots of hurdles in training, be it injuries along the way, be it rejections from potential sponsors. If we were going to succeed out on the ice, it was always about finding a way to overcome these.
It was about that positive mindset.
It was about visioning.
It was about looking ahead and visioning what you wanted to happen.
What did we as a team want the results of this race to be? What did we see ourselves doing when things were going wrong?
We'd talk about different scenarios and work out what our reaction to those problems might be. Justin really helped us to get to understand what we were like as individuals. What our strengths were, and where we might be able to play a really important role as part of the team.
We gave each other a lot of feedback and sometimes that was nice to accept because it was nice things about something that you'd done on a training weekend, for example. Other times you might have to face up that you'd been the one that'd been really annoying all weekend for whatever reason. You had to accept that kind of feedback from your teammates and not start to defend yourself I think is probably the best thing. Just accepting it in the manner in which it intended. I learned an incredible amount just at the age of twenty-three about how you start to form a high-performing team.
Sarah: You must have learned a huge amount about yourself, which must have put you in good stead going forward for all of your future challenges.
I really liked what you were talking about with the positive, can-do attitude, the visioning, looking ahead. You had nine months of training. Doing all this mental preparation, this physical preparation. I love the thought of you running around Hyde Park dragging tires behind you.
You're coming up now to heading off on this expedition.
Can you talk us through what happened next?
Tori: I was pretty confident that we were getting along well as a team. That we were going to be fit enough. That we were injury free. The big unknown was the cold.
Yes, we'd been to Norway and Austria, but it just wasn't going to prepare us for the kind of temperatures that we were going to experience up in the northern territory up in the High Arctic. I was incredibly nervous about that. I remember stepping outside of the accommodation that we had up in Resolute Bay, and just thinking to myself, "I can't do this. How on earth am I going to survive in these kind of temperatures?"
It could have been sixteen days. It could have been up to twenty-four days. You have to coach yourself. You have to tell yourself you can do it. You've got to say to yourself, "You've done the training. You've come here for a reason. You've spent nine months training for this."
That's where you've got to help each other and that's where all the cold weather training really comes into play and the buddy systems whereby, to give you an example, if you're racing along on skis one day and you're taking a tea break or a toilet break, you're just taking a look at the other people and the members of your team and checking are there any bits of skin exposed? Are they potentially open to the wind and to the cold? Could they be getting frostbite?
You quickly realize that it's not just about looking after yourself. It's about looking after your teammates as well. We are started on the start line with sixteen other teams and we had set ourselves the goal to come in the top half of the field back in 2005. We were there. We were the only all-girl team.
For much of the race, we didn't know where we were in the field. Occasionally, we might see another team in the distance, but we just had to keep digging deep.
It was a race after all, so we had to minimize the amount of sleep we had at night. We had to maximize the amount that we skied during the day. We had to minimize the breaks that we had. We didn't want to waste time just admiring the view.
It was about covering the distance in the quickest time possible.
To cut what is a really long story short, we raced in the end for sixteen days. In those latter days, sleep deprivation was really hitting hard. We were seeing things. I was seeing black London taxi cabs moving across the ice in front of me. I was hearing birds tweet. There weren't any birds. I was having flashbacks from my childhood.
Sleep deprivation does some really horrible things to the human body, but I have to say, Selma and Felicity were just brilliant teammates.
We ended up achieving exactly what we set out to achieve.
We did cross that finish line. We did make it to the magnetic North Pole and we finished the race in sixth position out of the sixteen teams that took part in 2005.
Sarah: That is absolutely fantastic. Congratulations because I think you obviously face a lot offers doing this challenge.
I for one, one of my two pet peeves is being cold and being wet. The thought of even having to do the old water immersion training that you mentioned sent a shiver down my spine and being out in that cold, hallucinating, dealing with the sleep deprivation.
From what I'm hearing, you're on this journey and you're learning so much about yourself.
Sixth position is absolutely fantastic. How wonderful that you has such incredible teammates as well. You all got through there together. I really like how you were talking about it wasn't just you. That you were each looking out for each other.
That's what a really good team is all about. I think women particularly are very good at doing that. Learned a huge amount of skills. You came back successful. You'd done what you set out to do do.
The next big challenge, Mount Everest. For maybe some people listening who'll be thinking, "I know a little bit about Mount Everest. I know it's the highest mountain in the world." How would you describe Mount Everest?
Tori: It's like another world. I think when you do make that first journey into the Valley and you look up at it and you get your first glimpse of the summit of it if anyone has ever seen it pass from an aircraft.
It's incredibly difficult to imagine how any human being could reach its summit. It is just enormous. You might look at the smaller peaks around you and wonder how you'd get to those and then you compare it to Everest.
Then of course there's so much literature that can take us into that world.
People around the world absolutely love stories about Mount Everest and that's where you get to hear about what's known as the Death Zone. That's the upper one thousand meters of the mountain where there's not enough oxygen up there to sustain human life indefinitely.
Again, that's debilitating for human beings. Again, it does strange things to the human body. Then you throw in the sub-zero temperatures. The winds, the jet-stream in particular, pummels the summits of Everest for some eighty or ninety percent of the year.
Yeah, you start to question why anybody would every attempt it in the first place.
Sarah: That was going to be my next question actually.
Why did you want to climb Mount Everest? What was the reason?
Tori: Having finished the Polar Challenge, I was on a high. The sense of achievement was enormous. I never ever thought I would have been able ski three hundred and sixty miles to the magnetic North Pole, and when the suggestion to climb Everest came up, I started to have similar apprehensions to the ones that I'd had prior to the Polar Challenge.
There were two main emotions really. One of excitement of, "Wow, this could be another adventure. I know I love the cold, and snow and ice, and I love mountains."
The other of that apprehension. Partly for the dangers that you get on Everest be that frostbite, hypothermia, dangers of avalanches, and ice falls.
Also that fear of failure and perhaps of having said to your friends, family, colleagues at work, "Oh yeah, I'm going to go do this. I'm going to become the first Welsh woman to climb Mount Everest."
Sometimes I think the fear of failure can lead a lot of people to actually say, "It's all too difficult. Yeah, it might go wrong, so I'm not going to worry about it."
For me, particularly when I found out that no Welsh woman had ever climbed to the summit and that if I reach the top in 2007, I'd be the youngest British female. I thought, "I've got to give this a go." I started breaking down the challenge, saying, "Okay, where are the gaps in my skills? Where are the gaps in my knowledge?"
I was pretty confident about my ability in cold conditions. I was confident I could get fit again and I knew I would need to take my fitness to a whole new level compared to the Polar Challenge. I had a certain amount of climbing and mountaineering skills and talking to colleagues at British Exploring they said, "Yeah, if you come out with me or you go with that climate we can get you up to the level that you would need."
There was this one unknown, similar to what I was talking about the Polar Challenge, and that was the altitude.
Different people react in very different ways to a lack of oxygen. I really didn't know how I was going to cope. That was when I realized I needed to go climb some other high mountains around the world.
One of those included Cho Oyu, which is the world's sixth highest mountain and it sits only about thirty miles from Everest. That was the test and I went to Cho Oyu with my team, just six months before Everest to see how I fared.
[inaudible 18:51] say that that was a successful trip for me and I ended up reaching the summit of Cho Oyu which is eight thousand, two hundred and one meters compared to Everest's eight thousand eight hundred and fifty meters. That was when I thought, Yes. It might just be possible to get to the summit of Mount Everest.
All the time of course I'm trying to raise the sponsorship to go. I'm trying to persuade companies that they want to support me. They want to ultimately help me raise money for charity along the way as well and the [inaudible 19:25] charity for that particular expedition as the Prince's Trust. It became a full time job. So much so, that I actually had to quit my full time job and just get bits of part time work to pay the bills as you went along.
Sarah: How long were you preparing for? Was it a nine month preparation, a year?
Tori: Eighteen months was the period from one when I said, "Yep, I'm going to give it a go," to when I actually got on a plane.
Sarah: I was just wondering, what was your reaction of friends and family when you told them, this is the goal?
Tori: Particularly my parents. They've always been so supportive of everything that I've wanted to do. A lot parents I think would say, "You can't do that. It's way too dangerous," but they said, "If that's what you want to do, then you must go for it."
That was the best kind of support I could have had from them, if I'm honest. I think people who knew me knew that when I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to give it everything that I've got.
I think there were more than a lot of skeptical bystanders who in some cases said to my face. "You'll never do that. What makes me think that I'm going to climb Mount Everest?"
That got me down at times. That made me doubt my own ability to do it. It made me very close to giving up and just saying, "Yeah, this is too big. This is something that is beyond me." I didn't quit and I think that's the secret.
If you really want to do something, you mustn't give up. You've got to believe there's a way around everything that steps into your path and if it's problematic you've got to believe there's always a way around it.
I just kept on going. I had some injuries in training.
It took me until a month before the expedition to actually secure the sponsorship that I needed. I never once lost hope that I was actually going to get out to the Himalayas.
Sarah: One of the things I just want to get back to is handling other people's limiting thoughts about what can be achieved. I think for many women out there, even one person says no, you can't do that. Why would you want to do that? They almost take it straight away so, "Actually you're right, I can't do it," and give up at the first sign of or the first bit of lack of support.
I think it's really important that people out there understand that actually there are going to be people who may doubt you or doubt what you can achieve.
Sometimes, you've actually got to ignore them and just continue focusing in on your dream and what you want to do.
Tori: Absolutely. Ignoring them is the key, and I had a wonderful chat with somebody and we were able to talk about two different types of people that are out there that might comment on a potential expedition.
There are drains and there are radiators. The drains are the people that drain you of your energy and of your motivation and people who are likely to say negative things to you. Those are the ones you need to ignore.
Then there are the radiators who just bring out that positivity in you and they are the ones that are giving you help and advice and connecting you to people who are going to be useful and who will help you along your way.
There's a real skill to make you sure that you mix with the right people and you focus on the positive things that people are saying to you.
Sarah: It is about being positive, but as you say, there's an element of being realistic.
Everest is a very scary challenge.
There are deaths on Everest. Huge undertaking.
There's obviously got to be a lot of preparation that goes into that whether it's the physical, the mental, the teamwork, there's so many different elements that goes into it.
Which would you say for you was the hardest aspect?
Tori: We trained.
We took this preparation and the training very seriously.
We tried to control as many of the risks as we possibly could, some of that is by making sure you're fit enough for the challenge and healthy.
When it comes to controlling the dangers, there are some that you just can't control be it avalanches and ice fall and possibly how your body responds to altitude.
I think altitude was the thing I was struggling with the most in terms of headaches, nausea, there were a couple of occasions in the early part of the expedition, bearing in mind that it takes two and a half months to climb Mount Everest.
I was sick in the morning. I really had to try and understand my body and make sure that it was just a blip in the acclimatization process and that it wasn't anything more sinister because there's a really fine line between just having a little bit of reaction to the lack of oxygen or actually displaying symptoms that perhaps are on the way to having Acute Mountain Sickness and worse.
Sarah: Let's move forward now on this amazing journey. It's not a question of just couple of weeks. It's two and a half months out there. You've got to go through those acclimatization process.
Any particular highlights of what you found when you got there and what it was like?
Tori: It's an incredible experience. You turn up at Everest base camp on the south side, there are people from around the world and you all share in this goal to want to try and reach the summit of Mount Everest and immediately, you're struck by the camaraderie that is developing all the time. The Sherpas in particular from Nepal are so incredibly friendly and generous.
There's this great atmosphere that's developing. Coupled with that, you are often in sight or certainly in sound, of avalanches that are coming off the mountain.
You're always thinking about safety, and making the right decisions, and timing your descent and descent of the mountain because what a lot of people won't realize is that you go up and down the mountain several times before you actually make your real summit attempt.
To make make sense a little bit more. You're like a yo-yo. You're going up and down, up and down, but only ever as high as camp three and you wait to go to camp four and the summit until you are acclimatized and until you get the right weather conditions.
Sarah: That's all about the acclimatization. Getting your body used to the altitude and the lack of oxygen in the air. Go to camp three for us. Is that were you wait for an opening and then head up to camp four?
Tori: Actually, you go up and down first to camp one, then back to base camp. Then to two, back to base camp. Then to three, back to base camp. Then you're waiting at base camp for the right weather conditions. My team waited a fortnight to get the right weather, then you time your assent. For us we saw that the weather was going to look good initially on the seventeenth of May and so we knew it would take about five days to reach the summit, so we'd leave ahead of that date and keep an eye on the weather conditions the whole time.
It didn't work out for me on that particular date because I got ill. I thought that my attempt was going to be over and I had to make a very difficult decision to actually descend to base camp another time whilst two of my teammates went on to the summit.
I was devastated that everything I put into the challenge over eighteen months was over and was ... not wasted, but got all out of the way and I wasn't going to achieve it, but luckily it was only a short-lived illness. A bad stomach and feeling rather weak. Then I did get better and I was able to then look at making an attempt for the summit on the twenty-fourth of May back in 2007.
Sarah: How did that go?
Tori: It actually went really well, Sarah. I think for almost the entire expedition, I had a headache and I felt lethargic, but on summit day, I don't know whether it was the adrenaline, whether it was the sheer excitement of potentially reaching that summit, but I felt amazing.
I felt scared because climbing above camp three and four you haven't been there before, and it does feel like the unknown. I was climbing with [inaudible 27:31] who was my Sherpa, and I actually climbed with him back in the year before when I climbed Cho Oyu.
I really felt this bond of friendship and of trust between us. There was very little communication going on between us because my Nepalese language skills aren't that great, but we climbed together for ten hours.
I was scared of the drops and of the exposure and of the wind. You could barely hear anything that anyone was saying around you as you climbed. You're looking either side of you at two or three thousand meter drops into Nepal and into Tibet.
I just kept saying to myself, "I can. I can. I can," and whenever I felt like I didn't have much energy, or my feet hurt, or I was getting cold, I just told myself that I could do it.
After those ten hours of climbing I reached the summit at about seven thirty in the morning and it was the most incredible feeling.
The views were spectacular. It was such a unique moment.
You were acutely aware though that you were on your own and you're beyond rescue. You have to keep those adrenaline levels high to make sure that you have that concentration to get back down safely because you can't celebrate on the top.
That celebration can really only happen two days later, when you finally get back down the Everest base camp.
Sarah: Fantastic. When you were talking about that, I was nodding and smiling as you were going along about that I pictured you going up step after step saying, "I can. I can. I can," over and over again.
What is actually at the very top of Everest? Is there anything there?
Is there a box where you write your name in it?
Tori: It changes every year due to the snow cover.
In 2007, it was covered in prayer flags, and they are a feature of the mountain every year, but the addition in 2007 was that somebody had put a perspex box on the top, anchored it into the mountain, and tied it down the ropes, and inside that clear perspex box was a Buddha.
That is my lasting memory of what is on the summit of Mount Everest so I just admired the view and made sure we got that all important summit photograph.
Sarah: I was just going to say, make sure I think back in 2007 the selfie wasn't as popular as it is now. Would this be a more normal photo!
Congratulations again. Phenomenal achievement. twenty-five years old. Youngest British woman and first Welsh woman to stand on top of Mount Everest is such an achievement.
I think you mentioned as well it's the coming back down again which is where things can get very risky in terms of whether or not you lose concentration because you've achieved your goal.
When the reality had sunk in, it must have been a shock to your system after you've accomplished this incredible challenge.
Did you suffer from any low points after you completed this as in "what do I do next?" or what was it?
What was happening for you?
Tori: You spend a month or so just on a high. On cloud nine.
You want to shout from the rooftops about what you've achieved without being too big-headed.
Then you suddenly realize that life is carrying on around you and I didn't have a job then. I was really directionless, and I did have a really low point, and I didn't know what I wanted to do.
I knew I needed to earn some money, but what happened to me was I saw an advertisement for a job with an organization which was called Make Your Mark.
I wanted to find a bit more about what this organization was and it turned out to be a campaign to encourage people to set up their own business. I did have one moment in that first job where I received a certificate for doing something well at work and the problem was though I didn't feel any sense of achievement when I was given that certificate. I thought, "This is all wrong. I can't carry on living the rest of my life where these small awards that people are giving and this praise that is being offered is not accepted in the way that it should be.
I had to re-learn how to appreciate the small things in life. As an example of that, I entered myself into a 10K race, which yeah of course, that was achievable for me at that time, but I had to just appreciate the process of going through the training and appreciate what it feels like to cross the finish line of any event.
Any challenge. Whatever distance. Whatever the distance, you've got to feel that sense of achievement. I guess that's why we all do those things.
Sarah: You've mentioned a really good point because I know especially I went through a phase where I was constantly setting goals and I was wanting to achieve. It was like, "What am I going t o achieve this week? What am I going to achieve this month?" Ticking off boxes, ticking off things off my to do list.
My bucket list and so on and so forth. I think I realized at one point that I've never actually taken the time to appreciate what I've done and what I've achieved.
Sometimes it's not necessarily about achieving your goal, it's about what you've learned on that journey.
Even just taking it back to Everest. Even if you haven't reached the top, you would have learnt a huge amount about yourself and your abilities throughout those eighteen months of training.
Sometimes it's not necessarily just about achieving that goal, no matter how big or small the goal is.
I want to move on now to one of your funner challenges, which is cycling the length of New Zealand.
Two thousand four hundred miles, why did you decide to cycle the whole full length of New Zealand?
Tori: This one was another spur of the moment idea and another Welsh adventurer who's called Maria [inaudible 33:30] pops an advert in the South Wales Echo looking for other female Welsh adventurers. We both discovered that we both wanted to go to New Zealand and that we'd initially looked at a long-distance walking trail, but we looked at how long that would take and we thought "Well, we just don't have that amount of time."