To say that adventurer Katie-Jane L’Herpiniere has been close to death during adventures and expeditions is no exaggeration. Her collection of near-death experiences include being critically ill with dehydration during her world-first walk of the Great Wall of China (all 4500km), having to be resuscitated following C02 poisoning in Patagonia, and almost being buried alive by snow during a record breaking Patagonia Ice Cap expedition. She’s also eaten larvae, suffered foot rot and lost all the skin on her nether regions, but we’ll get on to that later.
Reading about Katie’s incredible adventures I knew I had to get her on the blog. Here, the 38-year-old adventure athlete talks us through her most challenging moments, and reveals where her passion for extreme adventures began.
Hauling a pulk in the Arctic Ocean
Let’s rewind to your childhood. You competed in Eventing from an early age, is that right?
I was 9 years old when I said to my dad, “I’m bored”, during the summer holidays, and before I knew it he had me at the local riding school to learn something new. I have no idea why they chose horse riding – no-one in the family rode horses, and I’m sure they assumed that I’d just go a couple of times a week in the school holidays. It turned out that within 6 months I would have my own horse and within a year I would be competing on a number of horses all over the South West of England.
My parents didn’t have a lot of money to fund my sport – and Eventing is a very expensive sport – so nearly all my horses over the years were freebies, someone else’s cast offs, or just temporarily on loan. Within a year of sitting on a horse for the first time, riding became my life and my school were very supportive giving me plenty of time off to train. My wonderful parents spent every weekend living in a horse lorry driving me to competitions all over the UK. My greatest achievements include becoming National School Champion, runner-up in under 21 PC National Championships, and winner of South West Championships six years in a row.
How did your interest in endurance sport and adventure develop?
Growing up, my dream had been to compete at the Olympic Games. However, by the time I reached my 20’s I realised that we didn’t have anywhere near the kind of funds needed to buy suitable horses to make my dreams a reality, and I settled for the fact that horses were now just an expensive hobby that I knew my parents couldn’t really afford. So, at 22 the eventing took a bit of a back seat. I thought about the big wide world that was out there and found I had a burning desire to go out and see it. After uni I worked as a model to fund my travels, and off I went on a number of packaged adventure holidays.
When did you discover you were capable of ‘extreme’ adventures?
The ‘real’ adventurous side to my life began in 2005 after I met Tarka (Katie’s ex-husband). We met through family friends at a party and found we had little in common. However, we met again six months later and got on so well that by the fourth day he asked me to join him on his next North Pole expedition attempt! I immediately declined thinking, ‘How could I?’, but over the next few months Tarka convinced me that I was capable of more than I thought, and so I agreed, but only if we could do something ‘easier’ first.
On my list of places I wanted to see in the world was the Great Wall of China, so I suggested that – though I probably just had a couple of weeks walking and taking some pictures in mind. Tarka, however, ran with the idea; he found out that no-one had ever walked the full length of it before, and before I knew it we were busily planning our expedition to become the first people in the world to walk the entire 4500km length of the Great Wall of China – from its most westerly to most easterly point, continually and unsupported.
What were highs and lows of your Great Wall expedition and how challenging was it?
In short, it was incredible! The expedition took 167 days over terrain ranging from the barren Gobi Desert to towering snow-capped mountain passes. The months in the desert brought dust devils and sandstorms, with winds strong enough to knock me off my feet. I suffered from critical dehydration leading to an emergency evacuation to hospital with the help of a hijacked bus. With limited vocabulary I was often faced with ‘interesting’ food options, including pigs’ heart and ears, chickens’ feet and stomachs, larvae, and dog meat to name a few. In the mountains I endured pain caused by temperatures below -35°C, eyelashes freezing together, frost-nipped cheeks and fingers, and nights spent shivering uncontrollably. I also suffered from damaged nerve endings in my lower spine from the compression of my backpack, causing months of acute pain in my back and legs.
Hygiene issues to overcome included foot rot, rashes, cysts and feminine susceptibility to infection caused by the lack of hygienic sanitary conditions. The final battle came in the last week with the worst snow blizzard to hit China in half a century, producing Antarctic-strength winds and 2 metres of snow in one night. In total the journey was the equivalent to 106 back-to-back marathons. All of the above hardships were worth every second to experience the overwhelming generosity and hospitality of the rural people I met along the way. They took me in, housed and fed me, despite having next to nothing of their own. Due to China’s doors being closed to outsiders until fairly recently, almost all the people I met along the way had never seen a westerner before. Experiencing such warmth when not even a word has been spoken, just a shared smile, is something that will stay with me for life.
In China’s Gobi Desert, suffering with chronic dehydration
Were there times during the toughest moments of your challenge that you felt like quitting?
When I headed off on my first expedition, all my family and friends thought I was going to fail within a matter of days… in fact, I’m sure they had a sweepstake going! Within the first week it looked like they were spot on to doubt me, as I became critically ill in the desert over a couple of days from a contaminated water supply. This resulted in chronic dehydration and I began to lose consciousness. Tarka ran off through the desert to get help. I later spent four days in hospital on intravenous fluids, resting and recovering.
Getting a taxi back out to the desolate spot I had been so critically ill only days before was really tough, and perhaps the toughest part of the whole journey. If I was going to quit, this was the moment it would have been. I was scared and kept thinking that maybe I’m just not cut out for this, it was so early on and I had already been close to dying. But my stubbornness, competitiveness and desire to prove the doubters wrong meant quitting was never really an option. I was also raising money for the wonderful Make A Wish Foundation, so the lovely supportive messages from the families who were going through just the most difficult, heartbreaking circumstances with their children, made any hardship or discomfort that I had voluntarily put myself through quickly fade away – it makes you revaluate each situation into a positive one. That’s not to say I didn’t find pretty much every day hard for 6 months. I cried at some point most days, but never did I want to quit.
You also hold the world record for the longest ever female crossing of the southern Patagonian Ice cap. What was this trip like?
In 2009, Tarka and I completed the longest crossing of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap by any British team and the longest ever crossing by a woman. These were not, however, the accolades I had set out for! I had set out with the intention of becoming the first to complete a full-length unsupported crossing of the world’s third largest ice cap without the aid of sail kites. But when my tent was destroyed in one of the most hostile environments on earth the goal became merely ‘survival’.
This adventure included lots of hairy moments, didn’t it?
Hairy moments were a daily occurrence! Before I left on the expedition I read a quote from one of the few people who had previously been up onto the Southern Patagonian Ice cap, which went: “Where the wind drops you to your knees and the snow buries you alive!” This was no exaggeration! The two scariest incidents include when my tent was destroyed in a storm and I was being buried alive with no way of taking shelter. I had to make a difficult decision of whether to call my parents to say goodbye or not, as I didn’t believe I would survive the night. I didn’t make the call!
The other was when I stopped breathing due to Carbon Monoxide poising from the stove cooker in my tent! On that occasion, Tarka thankfully resuscitated me. In addition we were hit by avalanche debris, fell down crevasses daily, I lost most of the skin on my feet, got snow blindness, only saw the sky once in 30 days due to poor weather, endured winds gusting over 140km/hr and much more.
Which of your challenges pushed your endurance limits the most?
The 2015 Transcontinental 4200km unsupported one-stage bike race from Belgium to Turkey, where the clock never stops, was definitely the challenge that pushed me to my physical limits daily. I was the most inexperienced cyclist in the field by far, with my longest ever ride previously having been 145km with 3600m of climbing during L’Etape du Tour. During the Transcontinental, I covered between 300-350km a day with just a handful of hours off the bike each day, and with that came great pain. I lost all the skin on my neither regions early in the race, and it was this that went on to cause me the most excruciating pain every second I was on the bike. I also got cyclist palsy, which is where you lose the movement in your hands through nerve damage. This meant changing gear and controlling the brakes became particularly concerning. It also meant that holding a fork, opening food packets, zipping up your coat etc. become incredibly challenging.
My mouth was full of ulcers and acid spots from being rundown and exhausted which in turn affected my appetite as eating became painful. I lost the feeling in all my toes on day two, and this took months after the race to return. Plus my knees and back hurt constantly and staying awake at all times on the bike become increasingly more difficult! Sadly, after 11 days in the heat of Albania and 3200km in, I collapsed off the bike with chronic dehydration and was forced to withdraw from the race. Of the 172 starters, 70 riders finished by the race cut-off times. Of the 10 women who started the race only one made the finish. Of the remaining nine woman I was the only other to pass through the penultimate checkpoint 4. In short, it’s tough and it hurts… a lot!
In Bosnia during the Transcontinental bike race
Which of your adventures has been the most mentally challenging?
The crossing of the Southern Patagonia Ice cap mentally put me through hell and back. Every day I was scared to death! My Chonophobia (fear of snow) didn’t help! The weather was the most horrific conditions the planet could throw at you and there were no views to lift your spirits. It was just skiing into a white out with danger left, right, above and below, and you never knew what would happen next. I don’t think anywhere could scare me more.
You live in Courchevel, a playground for outdoor adventure. Are you always outside?
I am such a lucky girl, Courchevel in the French Alps is just the most spectacular outdoor ‘gym’ you could ever hope for. Beautiful hidden valleys to explore, fresh mountain air and epic mountain top views to savour. All of which makes keeping fit a pleasure and not a chore. Whether you’re walking, running, snow shoeing, cycling, ski mountaineering, or mountain top picnicking with friends, there’s mini adventure to be had around every corner that keeps you in good shape. However, just four weeks ago I started to also go to a gym for the first time in my life to do some strength training, in the hope I won’t be plagued with injury next year as I have been this last year.
What does a typical week of ‘training’ look like for you?
Other than my recent addition of strength training in the gym, I’ve never really trained with a plan. In fact, I would go as far as saying I don’t really ‘train’ as such. I just go outside and do sport for fun, to socialise with friends, to see new places and just because sport makes you feel good. This inadvertently keeps me fit for my adventures and challenges. The idea of following a structured training plan has always frightened me a little, as I’ve been concerned that I would then lose the love of the sport if it felt more like a chore. However, I’m a little torn as I also wonder if I could improve greatly by having a structured training plan. Decisions, decisions! Maybe 2018 is the year to try a new approach and actually train.
Ice climbing in the Mer de Glace, Chamonix
You did an ice marathon on just four days’ training. Would you say you have a high level of base fitness or do you think it’s more down to your mindset?
I think it’s just a mindset. From my adventures I’ve become very aware that the human body is an incredible thing that can endure so much more than we think. So as long as I just jogged at a steady pace so as to not injure myself – although the awful snow conditions also decided the pace – I knew I should be able to run a marathon, slowly, without too many problems.
Have you ever feared for your life on an expedition or adventure?
Yes, many times. In fact, more times than I can probably remember. With the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap Expedition providing a large proportion of them, particularly Co2 poising, and my tent being destroyed in 140km/hr winds whilst I was being buried alive by snow.
Katie-Jane on the Arctic island of Svalbard
You run, cycle, mountaineer and ski… do you have a favourite endurance sport pastime?
I love my bike! Cycling is my happy place, and preferably cycling up a mountain – I love the up much more than the down! But whether it’s on foot, bike or ski, I just love climbing to the top of mountains for the incredible views and the feeling of having had a good workout.
You’ve also cycled up Mont Ventoux from all 3 sides in a day. What bike do you ride?
I just have the one bike, a Felt Z4. It’s only my second ever road bike and I’ve had it for 5 years. It’s had cracks in the carbon top tube which have been drilled and filled, it’s fallen off the back of the car while going along the motorway which well and truly battered it, and I’ve ridden it over mountain gravel roads and more. As much as I would love a new bike, I’d prefer to spend the little funds I have going on another adventure or entering another cycle race, rather than spending it on a new bike and then not being able to go anywhere with it.
Where are your favourite places in the world to cycle?
I’m lucky enough to call home a place where a lot of cyclists come to visit as their dream cycling destination: the French Alps. My local rides include the epic and feared Cols from the Tour de France, such as the Madeleine, Galibier, Telegraph, Glandon, Aravis to name a few.
If I was to recommend somewhere other than home, I think it would be Corsica. So beautiful! The Island is wild, rugged and mountainous with such diversity of terrain. It’s still very undeveloped, the roads are quiet and around every bend is another ‘wow’ moment. It is just made for cycling touring.
When things get hard in a race or on an expedition, do you have mental strategies for getting through?
When things get tough I generally have a little cry and then I have a little talk to myself. I remind myself that any feeling of accomplishment, achievement or success from these adventures or expeditions is directly proportional to the effort, commitment and hardship put into achieving them, so suck it up. I also remind myself that I chose to do this, and that I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I’m able to go on such incredible adventures. Then the next, and most difficult, bit is to try and lose myself and [lose] time in my thoughts. You need to be able to lose yourself enough that you no longer feel the pain or the hunger or the tiredness. It’s a hard thing to do and something I’m still trying to perfect. I find music helps me.
How do you balance sport and adventure with your job?
On returning from my first adventure (walking the Great Wall of China), adventuring quickly became my full-time job. Working with sponsors, making documentaries about my journeys and motivational speaking to corporations, schools and the general public, with a little bit of modelling still thrown into the mix. I now balance my love of adventure with earning a living through web design. I work freelance building websites, which works perfectly as I can fit adventures around clients’ project dates.
What’s next on your adventure/challenge hit list? Do you have any plans for 2018?
My bucket list is very, very long, but up near the top are expeditions in Mongolia and Greenland. However both need considerable funding, so will be in 2019 at the earliest.
So far for 2018 I have a number of smaller, self-funded adventures planned. Including an incredibly tough 1700km unsupported mountain bike race over the remote mountains of Kyrgyzstan this summer, which I am so excited about. I have a few local bike races in the Alps already in the diary including the Tour De Mont Blanc, advertised as the world’s toughest one-day sportive with 330km and 8000m of climbing in under 20 hrs. I’ll also run 300km across the high mountain passes of the French Alps to complete the second half of the GR5, as I did the first half of this route earlier this year. I’m sure there will be many more adventures added soon.
What are your favourite items of kit for training and adventures?
Hmmm, so many sports, so much kit, everything has its use so I can’t really think of any favourite bits of kit. Maybe my little Apple iPod Shuffle, my music really helps me when the pain kicks in!
Do you have any sponsors that support your training and adventures?
When I did adventures and expeditions full time, I had a number of wonderful sponsors who supported me. However, having now only recently returned to my adventures, I am back in the position where I currently have to fund everything myself through my web design.
You can follow Katie-Jane’s adventures via her website, www.katiejaneendurance.com, and her social media channels: www.instagram.com/katielherpiniere and https://www.facebook.com/katiesenduranceadventures/