With decades of experience in the mountains, Becky Coles is the person you want in charge of your expedition. An adventure travel specialist and expedition leader, she has travelled to more than 70 countries on all seven continents, achieving everything from multiple first climbing ascents as far afield as Antarctica to crossing the Lut Desert on foot.
This year, the Montane ambassador has teamed up with fellow mountaineers Mo Barclay and Lou Beetlestone to attempt a challenge no woman (or Brit) has achieved so far: to summit all 82 of the 4000m peaks in the Alps in one year. You can read more about this below, as Becky talks about the challenges it will bring.
Tell me about your background and how you got into climbing and mountaineering?
I was introduced to the outdoors by a combination of my parents, school, DofE (TheDuke of Edinburgh’s Award) and the Army Cadet Force.
My parents didn’t climb or camp; we went hill walking as a family. I began to climb at the end of school and had a taste of winter mountaineering at university.
Can you tell us about your climbing and mountaineering experience?
I’ve climbed throughout the UK but particularly enjoy winter climbing. I’ve led the crux pitches of routes such as Gemini VI 6, Crest Route V 6, Savage Slit V 6. I’ve also climbed over 50 classic rock routes, and 120 Munros, mostly in winter.
Overseas, I’ve been on over 20 Greater Ranges expeditions, and made first ascents in South Georgia, Antarctica and Nepal (6000m+ peak). I’ve been on many more first ascents expeditions where we didn’t succeed including multiple expeditions in Tajikistan and a major second ascent in Afghanistan. I’ve also climbed Peak Lenin in Kyrgyzstan (7134m). In fact, my climbing has taken me to all 7 continents.
What does your day job involve?
I work as a mountaineering and rock climbing instructor, as well as expedition leader. When in the UK I teach on navigation and hillwalking courses including NGB awards like the Mountain Leader award. A large amount of my work is delivering adventurous training to military personnel and I still work on outdoor education programmes with young people including on DofE expeditions.
You’ve completed first ascents in South Georgia, Antarctica and Nepal. Have you experienced any hairy moments during these summits?
No, not really, in the mountains anyway, sometimes in vehicles getting to the mountains. I’ve only had minor injuries within any groups I’ve been with or leading, but I have helped out on some major incidents when others have had accidents in the UK and overseas.
Do you ever feel nervous in anticipation of a climb that nobody has ever done before?
I always feel nervous before summit day and don’t sleep, especially if I’m responsible for people, but I know that is part of the process and don’t worry about it now.
On my own expeditions I’m generally only anxious that I might have missed something when researching the expedition. That we might not have some critical paperwork or can’t access the mountain due to terrain or logistics. Once I’m on the mountain, it feels good.
Have there been any attempted summits that have eluded you?
I’ve made two attempts at the same 6000m+ peak in Tajikistan, in 2012 and 2014, and not succeeded. To the best of my knowledge it still remains unclimbed despite other teams attempting it.
How physically fit do you need to be for your job?
You do need to be physically and mentally robust but being efficient and skilled together with good decision-making is way more important and nearly always often beats brawn. I get frustrated that this message often gets missed. I don’t consider myself ‘super-human’ fitness and strength-wise, and in the past worried about my fitness. Experience has taught me that I am plenty fit enough to do my job and, even working with the military, I’ve never had a group who is fitter than me over the course of several days – maybe on the first hill of a course, but I just give them a tricky point to navigate to which slows them down.
I have trained specifically for a few things in the past, when I was leading back-to-back Aconcagua (highest mountain in the southern and western hemisphere) expeditions for example. However, most of my training is focused on strength and flexibility for injury prevention.
In 2018, you crossed the Lut Desert on foot – what was your experience like?
We were the fifth team to cross the Lut desert on foot. It holds the record for the hottest surface temperature [on the planet], a measurement made by a NASA satellite. I was leading the expedition for Secret Compass. It was a great expedition. We had a super group and were supported by an excellent local team. Because of this, my job as the expedition leader was made quite easy. I just became the chief blister popper! The most stressful part was getting my Iranian visa – I got it the day before my flight.
This year you’re teaming up with two other women to summit all 82 of the Alps’ 4000m peaks. Can you tell us about the project and where the idea came from?
From our research we don’t think this has ever been done by an all-women’s team and we thought it would be fun to try. I love the Alps. We have called the challenge Project Alpine Spirit and in addition, a big part of the project’s aim is to highlight the achievements of historical female alpinists, to tell their stories as well as those women doing awesome stuff today. Check out some of these stories on our Facebook page.
One of the great things about mountaineering and climbing is that you can make your own rules, as long as you’re honest about your approach. We have decided to use lifts [to ascend]; personally, the thought of walking beneath lift lines would be soul destroying. However, if we start running out of money we might have to in order to cut costs. Talking of which we are crowdfunding for the challenge so please visit our crowdfunding page.
What are the challenges of planning this enormous feat?
The tactics of this sort of challenge are key to its success, and a big appeal to me. Some peaks will need to be snowy with crevasses filled in and those with rock routes will need to be clear of snow. No doubt we will also have to climb some which will not be in the best condition.
What do you anticipate will be the most challenging element of Project Alpine Spirit?
The relentlessness of it. 82 peaks! I’m actually trying not to think about that too much.
Have you studied other attempts, like that of Liv Sansoz’s, or spoken to others who have done it?
Yes, we’ve been in contact with Liv and she has been very generous with her advice and support. Many others have also helped us from knowledge about routes to offers of accommodation, it’s a fantastic community.
Which is going to be your first Peak summit?
That completely depends on the weather Gods. We plan to be mobile throughout the challenge and make use of the best conditions.
Are you doing any specific training for this or will your current fitness level carry you through?
We have all been working in Scotland this winter, which is the most physically tough work I do. I’m relieved to be coming out of the winter uninjured and am feeling pretty fit – I did 19 days in a row at one point this winter. I hope it’ll be enough.
What are your must-have items of kit?
My Julbo Monterosa sunglasses with reactive lenses, to protect my eyes and make me look cool in the photos! I also love my Montane soft trousers and down jacket – they fit so well and will definitely be coming with me on to the Alps.
Finally, podcasts and headphones to help me relax and wind down in huts.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I’m sponsored by Montane, Julbo Eyewear and Ellis Brigham, and I’m an ambassador for Cicerone Press. All are supporting the Project Alpine Spirit team and we are very grateful to Montane for being the main sponsor. However, we still need to raise more funds for it to go ahead and our sponsors have given us lots of awesome items and experience to give away so check out our crowdfunder.
You can find the crowdfunding details here.
To follow Becky on social media go to www.instagram.com/allbutessentialtravel, www.twitter.com/allbutessential and www.facebook.com/allbutessentialtravel. You can also visit Becky’s website, www.allbutessentialtravel.co.uk.