Take Action: Mental Health First Aid Training by Mikaela toczek

 Expedition life with one of my teams.

Expedition life with one of my teams.

Mental health + Physical health = Wellbeing

In 2019 it will become mandatory for all expedition leaders working with World Challenge to have completed a 2 day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training course.  This brings mental health into line with the standard 2 day Outdoor First Aid certificates we all need as outdoor instructors working in the UK.  As far as I am aware World Challenge are the first major outdoor provider to make this commitment, making them sector leading.  But even since writing this I have been contacted by STC expeditions who are also starting to run Mental Health training courses as an option for their teachers heading off on expedition. With major providers taking the lead, hopefully others will follow suit.

In the same way that we look after our bodies to stay physically healthy, it makes sense that we pay the same attention and care to our mental health.  As professionals working with groups from all walks of life and with diverse experiences and backgrounds, it is expected that if a participant in our care suffers a physical injury we should be able to administer first aid and help that person to safety.  But we spend the vast majority of our time engaging and communicating with people, often supporting them in challenging situations and encouraging them out of their comfort  zones.  At it's simplest, participating in outdoor activities can impact massively on our mental health.  Whether that impact becomes positive or not depends on how we respond, which requires the knowledge, skills and confidence to provide appropriate support.  

But as with physical health, the mental health issues we are sometimes faced with can be more complex, requiring specific training to enable us to respond effectively to help that person and offer them the right support.  

In an average group of 30 15 year olds:

  • Seven are likely to have been bullied

  • Six may be self-harming

  • One could have experienced the death of a parent.

Breaking Taboos

Suicide is not a word we hear spoken out loud very often and when it is, it is usually in hushed tones, and yet "for those aged 5-19 Suicide is the second most common cause of death".  I was shocked when I learnt this statistic and yet because we don't talk about suicide, the majority of us don't have the understanding to provide support to someone contemplating taking their own life.  Through attending a MHFA course we are offered a space where we can ask difficult questions and begin to break down some of the taboos surrounding mental health.  Learning that it is OK to ask whether an individual is having suicidal thoughts, and that this question can be the first step towards that person seeking help, is an essential part of the training.

Depression, anxiety, eating disorders and psychosis are all areas that we discussed openly, learning that despite diagnosis, symptoms often do not fit easily into one illness and that also every individual will need to find their own methods for recovery and coping mechanisms, which may consist of counselling, other forms of therapy and/or medication.  Mental Health First Aid focuses on being able to approach someone in crisis, actively listening to that person and signposting.  Knowing that someone is listening to you and that they are going to support you when seeking professional help is fundamental.

Fortunately society is becoming more aware and open about mental health issues, but there are still a lot of misconceptions.  If more of us choose to participate in MHFA training then many of these misconceptions and stereotypes can be addressed and changed through educating ourselves and others.  This will make us more prepared when a participant on expedition, out on the hill, climbing at the crag, paddling one of our many waterways etc comes to us with a mental health issue and will enable us to offer meaningful support.

Self Care

One of the major learning points I took away from the MHFA course was how to practice self care and encourage/enable self care with others.  When we have good mental wellbeing we are often practicing good self care by participating in activities we enjoy that help to make us feel positive, valued and productive.  But mental health is dynamic for all of us and remembering to continue with these things when we are feeling low or are going through periods of poor mental health can be challenging.  By creating self care plans we can put strategies in place that enable us to take positive action for ourselves during periods of low mental wellbeing.  At present I have used verbal self-care plans with groups, which we discuss during planning stages and reviews but there are plenty of templates out there that you could use to create written self-care plans, that can then be referred back to when needed.

I also created a poster for South Wales Outdoor Activity Providers Group (SWOAPG) that highlights 5 ways we can use the outdoors to enhance wellbeing.

Wellbeing photos final.jpg

Take Action

  • By signing up to a MHFA Training course you can start to develop your own toolkit for supporting those in crisis and self care.  World Challenge are running excellent MHFA certified courses with Stu Skinner that are tailored to expedition life but any youth focused 2 day MHFA course is a great start!
  • Sign the petition to make it compulsory for all workplaces to introduce Mental Health First Aiders.
  • Help to challenge and change misconceptions and discriminatory behaviour.  Practice active listening and promote the benefits of outdoor activities for holistic wellbeing.
  • Make yourself available to listen for those that need it and signpost them to one of the many organisations out there to help or to their GP.

Review: Banff Mountain Film Festival (Red Programme) by Mikaela toczek

 Click the images to visit the website and pages

Click the images to visit the website and pages

Is it possible to ice-skate when you have trouble walking? 90 year old Yvonne Dowlen proves unequivocally that it is. Her reason is simple, her shoes don't have edges, her skates do! Edges, a film by Katie Stjernholm was a beautiful and moving portrait of an athlete who demonstrates that age is not a barrier to participation or competition. Yvonne overcame injury and a stroke, getting back on the ice and fighting for what she loved.  The film is a reminder for all of us to continue with our endeavours for as long as we are able.  It resonated for me with my own Grandma, who was leading her own walking group until she was 80 and at 83 still goes for a walk every day.

 Yvonne Dowlin,  Edges , Katie Stjernholm.

Yvonne Dowlin, Edges, Katie Stjernholm.

This kind of passion comes from a lifelong relationship with sport that is sparked in our youths.  Imagination by Tom Wallisch follows the daydreams of a child who magically animates a mundane car journey - punctuated by his parents bickering - with a mischievous skier, jumping between rooftops, grinding rails and gliding through a snow-covered town.  This humorous and heartwarming film brought a smile to my face and filled the room with palpable nostalgia for our own childhood adventures in and out of our imaginations.

Creativity is fostered in childhood but a desire to play and be playful - if carried through into adulthood - can make us happier and more adventurous.  Micayla Gatto's Intersection is bursting with a vibrant approach to life, combining art and mountain-biking in beautiful synchronicity. We flow down glorious single-tracks as the forest blends with Gatto's own illustrations, and, as with Wallisch's film, Intersection brings Gatto's imagination to life.

 Micayla Gatto,  Intersection

Micayla Gatto, Intersection

In Ice Call, freeride skier Sam Favret makes Mer De Glace his playground, skiing right through the heart of the ice, finding tunnels, half-pipes and jumps, as he creates his own journey through one of Mount Blanc massif's most famous glaciers.  The world has become Favret's skatepark and we are brought along for the ride.

But adventure is often hard, can be isolating and does go wrong.  The film festival wasn't short of these reminders either.  The Frozen Road gains a full-house, featuring all of the above.  Ben Page filmed this short section of his around the world cycle trip entirely on his own and edited it throughout the following stages of his journey.  It is a stark reminder of the incredible highs and incredible lows we can feel as we push the boundaries of our adventures.  Page battles with his own attempts to balance solitude, whilst trying to avoid sickening isolation but finds both as he struggles to reach his goal in the far North of the Canadian Arctic. Romanticism abounds in many adventure films but anyone who has teetered on the edge of disaster in their own adventures will relate to Page's honest and heartfelt account, that is certainly far from romantic.

You don't have to be alone to feel isolation, Into Twin Galaxies had me watching through my fingers, and at times unable to watch at all, as the challenges stacked up for Ben Stookesbury, Sarah McNair-Landry and Erik Boomer.  Seeking out a river that may or may not exist on the far side of the Greenland Ice Cap, this intrepid team towed their kayaks across crevasse-ridden terrain, forced them down frozen rivers and kite-skied across vast, seemingly endless plateaus. The sheer grit of this film is admirable and insane in equal measure, creating a brutal adventure that I'm sure few would want to repeat but that creates incredible viewing from a safe distance!

It's hard not to leave Banff film festival feeling inspired but climber Maureen Beck smashes through the negative associations that can come with this word for disabled climbers.  Cedar Wright and Taylor Keating's film 'Stumped' follows Beck's project tackling a gruelling 5.12 route and at the same time addressing stereotypes, misconceptions, preconceptions and cringeworthy media representation with hilarious clarity.  Beck, who was born missing the lower part of her left arm, doesn't want to be known as a disabled climber, and she certainly doesn't climb to be your inspiration, Beck climbs purely for the love of climbing (with the occasional cupcake and beer)! 

 Maureen Beck,  Stumped,  Cedar Wright and Taylor Keating

Maureen Beck, Stumped, Cedar Wright and Taylor Keating

If you haven't caught one of the screenings yet, you have until the 19th of May!




Breaking Trail: women-powered initiatives by Mikaela toczek

 Mum after returning from Canada 1980.

Mum after returning from Canada 1980.

Back in November I signed up for my second Ignite Talk and I wanted to use my precious 5 minutes to try and inspire more girls to seek out adventure.  

When I began planning, I gathered all sorts of powerful research that highlights why time spent outside is so important for young people and adults and evidence that shows worrying trends with young people spending less time outside than prison inmates.  In particular participation in physical activity among girls drops considerably when they reach around 14 years old, just at the time when many young people feel the most insecure and could do with building resilience, confidence and empowerment. All characteristics that time spent outdoors helps to nurture.

However, after running through my presentation a few times, it all started to sound a bit preachy. Not a good start. 

So, I scrapped my entire presentation and decided that perhaps to inspire more mums and dads, teachers, guardians, sisters, brothers and friends to seek out adventure, a few inspiring stories would be a better jumping off point.

There are so many incredible women and girls out there, seeking out adventure in all its forms and in 5 minutes I wanted to share just a few that have helped to shape my life outdoors.  That meant just 15 seconds for each profile!  From this concept, Girls Discover was born. A campaign aimed at bringing together inspiring stories that could be used to help encourage more girls to get outside.

Since then Girls Discover has changed, Instagram didn't work out and I am now focused on collecting and sharing content on Twitter and Facebook that might be used by adults to inspire teenage girls.  I can see from my analytics that people are following the links that I share, but it is still not quite meeting my aims, so another review is needed.

A number of other new initiatives have also been launched in the last few months.  They all have one thing in common, they champion women in adventure and seek to inspire through positive action, providing platforms for stories, learning and reviews. 

The first issue of Intrepid Magazine was launched in January, sharing a diverse and exciting collection of women-powered adventures. It is available for pre-order both in print and online every month, in fact, you only have a few days left to sign up for issue 2!  The magazine doesn't just focus on the big-hitters either, with articles on accessible adventures, and advice features with genuinely handy hints and tips for women who want to get outside more.

Calliopes Magpies is also brand new for 2018.  It is an online journal that aims to collect and showcase women's outdoor writing, images and events.  High-profile interviews feature alongside trip reports and event reviews and their open call for content encourages all adventurous women with a story to tell to get involved and celebrate inclusive, varied and creative journeys in the outdoors.

From my own experiences I have felt that being an outdoor photographer can be quite a lonely place, especially if you are just starting out.  It feels like there are very few women image-makers in the industry.  However, if the amazing rise of women's adventure films is anything to go by then I am sure there are lots of women out there creating outdoor stills too, we just don't know each other.  Often these industries can feel a mystery if you do not know people willing to share advice and experiences and that is where the Women in Outdoor Media Group comes in.  This group hopes to build a community of women image-makers, film-makers, writers and other creatives to share advice, opportunities and feedback.  The group eventually aims to act as a database, bringing the community together to promote the work of Women in Outdoor Media as a more powerful collective.

Awesome Alphabetical List of Women's Resources:

Adventure Expo: https://womensadventureexpo.co.uk/

BMC Women in Adventure Film Competition: https://www.thebmc.co.uk/women-adventure-film-competition-2018

Calliopes Magpies: https://www.calliopesmagpies.com/

Girls Discover: https://www.facebook.com/GirlsDiscover/

Intrepid: https://intrepid-magazine.com/home

LoveHerWild: https://www.loveherwild.com/

Mountain Training: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1630737633841942/

Outdoorista: http://www.outdoorista.co.uk/writing/

Outdoor Media: https://www.facebook.com/groups/198561410692478/

SheWentWild: https://www.shewentwild.com/

This Girl Can: http://www.thisgirlcan.co.uk/

Tough Girl Podcasts: https://www.toughgirlchallenges.com/

Trad Festival: http://www.womenstradfestival.co.uk/

Women in Adventure: http://womeninadventure.com/

Contemplating Family Adventures by Mikaela toczek

 Reflecting on a difficult day in Poland. Click the image for more photos from the trip.

Reflecting on a difficult day in Poland. Click the image for more photos from the trip.

I have increasingly, and at times frustratingly, learnt that I am very similar to both my parents, who are, in contrast, very different to each other.  I am extremely stubborn like my Dad and worry excessively about my actions and their impact on others, like my Mum.  Both worry and stubbornness are of course useful, or even essential characteristics to help us lead balanced lives but in excess they can impede progress and harmony.  It is probably fair to say that I am both excessively stubborn and worrisome a lot of the time and these characteristics are enhanced around my family.

When you come together for intense periods of time with family who share the same characteristics as you, conflict can often arise.  Families can be challenging and exasperating.  And yet we decided to set off cycling 1000 miles from Derby to our ancestral farm in Poland, in memory of my Dziadek (Grandfather), taking some of his ashes home.

I did worry about whether we would all get along and at times had visions of the blazing rows that might occur, particularly between Dad and I.  When I was a teenager we used to argue a lot, mostly out of stubbornness, when I was forming my own political views and learned that, in this area, we were and still are incredibly different.  We rarely argue these days, but before we set off I wondered whether that is partly due to us living in different countries!

Despite our differences, one thing we all share is a love of adventure, something that I am eternally grateful to both of my parents for.  I am privileged, in that a desire to explore was instilled in me throughout my childhood, cycle-touring, backpacking and hitch-hiking for all our family holidays, rarely staying in one place for more than a night.  My parents were reluctant to book ahead, simply deciding on a start and end point and then working out the bit in between as we went along.  This didn't always work out, and it taught me that these were the moments when Adventure began.

 Dad and me at the Guildhall in Derby on day 1. 

Dad and me at the Guildhall in Derby on day 1. 

Throughout our journey cycling from Derby to Poland we spent every day together, Dad and I.  And we did bicker.  I got frustrated by Dad's insistence on trusting his Satnav over the map, and when I was leading, I would bristle upon hearing his frequent phrase, "Mikaela... this doesn't feel right.".  In turn, I annoyed Dad with my stubbornness.  I would insist on changing my flat tyres myself, and would always choose the smallest roads possible, even though he would definitely have been faster changing my tyres and the scenic routes often disappeared into vague tracks. However, the majority of the time we made a great team.  Our stubbornness rarely clashed, in fact it often helped.  Even when we were pushing our bikes for hours along dirt tracks, we just got on with it.  There were days when we got lost, sometimes my fault, sometimes Dad's, and it would add considerable distance to our day, but we cycled on.  Our combined stubbornness helped us to cross the Netherlands in less than a day's riding and got us from Derby to Poland in just 14 days.

 The reason I now carry gloves for changing tyres. 

The reason I now carry gloves for changing tyres. 

And what about worry?  Part of dealing with worry for me is having a good idea of a plan.  It doesn't matter if the plan changes or doesn't work out, but that initial reflection on the journey ahead gets me thinking about challenges, problems and potential solutions.  Because of my desire to plan, it also helped Mum's worry.  Much of her worry is caused by uncertainty, or by having to make decisions, so planning helped to alleviate some of her anxiety through creating simple routines.  I planned where we would aim to meet each day, roughly where to camp and how far we would try to get.  Mum was then tasked with trying to find somewhere for us to camp before we arrived, based on the information I had given her.  There were only 3 or 4 occasions where this didn't work out. 

 One of my evening planning sessions. 

One of my evening planning sessions. 

On one such occasion, on our first night in Poland, Mum drove ahead to a small village in the West that had a marked campsite.  When she arrived in fog and fading light she was told there were no campsites within reach.  She spent time wandering the village and, using her characteristic mixed mime approach, communicated with the few people around.  Eventually, when she had retired to the van to contemplate her next move, a man came over with his daughter (who spoke a little English) and said that my parents would be welcome to stay outside his house in the van and that I could pitch my tent in his Garden.  By the time Dad and I cycled into the village it was all settled, we were staying at Eddy's.  I pitched up in his immaculate garden for the night and we watched a neighbour tend to his pigeons across the road as the day drew to a close.  Mum has a talent for befriending people.



 Eddy's garden.

Eddy's garden.

I have learnt that Cycling brings out the best in people.  It brought us together, Dad, Mum and Me, and also helped us to make connections with the people we met along the way.  When we arrived in Derby's twin town Osnabruck, we were almost immediately befriended by an older gentleman named Wilfred, who took it upon himself to introduce us to the town, share stories and point out interesting landmarks and features.  Perhaps Wilfred and Eddy would have still welcomed us without the bikes, but cycling certainly provides a friendly and familiar icebreaker.



On reflection, without Me and Dad being so stubborn, we probably wouldn't have set off in the first place.  Or perhaps we would have given up after so much time spent pushing our bikes on sand and dirt. And without worry we may not have met such interesting people, or created plans that took us through all of the beautiful places we experienced along the journey.  I am still in the process of learning that the characteristics I perceive as being my weaknesses can also be my strengths, if I listen to them and include them in my internal dialogue rather than trying to push them out.

 When a road is not a road. 

When a road is not a road. 

In conclusion, our experiment in renewed family adventures appears to have been a great success.  In fact, it was so successful we are already planning our next one!


A Plan is Hatched by Mikaela toczek

 Nellie (my bike) waits patiently for an adventure. 

Nellie (my bike) waits patiently for an adventure. 

 Part 2 of our Family Adventure Cycling from Derby to Poland. For part 1 click here.

Initially I started planning this journey with my partner Zlatko, himself an experienced bikepacker but I knew this was something I wanted to do with my family.  I proposed it to my Dad, who at the time was living in China and I was met with expected dismissal. "No, no, it sounds amazing but you and Zlatko should do it. What about work? What about Mum? What about the dog?".  As with every adventure we can all think of a hundred reasons not to go.

A few weeks later an email popped up on my screen with the heading 'Possible Route?',  Dad had started planning - not for him you must understand - for Zlatko and I.  He was just taking an interest.  But at that point I knew, with a little gentle persuasion, it was going to happen.

 Planning a route. 

Planning a route. 

Over the next few months I quietly schemed and Dad quietly dismissed the journey as impossible for him, and Mum quietly thought none of us would go through it, so she didn't have to worry.  It got to about a month before, when Dad bought a couple of panniers, that he agreed, he was in!  Zlatko unfortunately was ruled out due to exciting developments with his own startup, and Mum was still unsure.

I knew that Mum would be unhappy at home, with Dad and I off on an adventure, and I was concerned about her joining us in the van.  Partly because I thought she would be on her own a lot and partly (and unfairly) because I thought it would change the adventure of the unsupported journey into something more tame.  I tried to convince her to cycle with us, but that was a resounding "no chance", so I tried to convince her to fly to Poland and just cycle the last section with us. Still no.  She was worried too about driving, would she be a help or a hindrance?  An impossible question; both, neither.

About two weeks before we set off, and with the pressure of needing to book a ferry, the decision was made.  Mum would drive the route as closely as possible in the van, with their dog Ozzie, and we would meet up every day along the route.  None of us knew how that would work out and it started to change my view that a supported journey would be less of an adventure, it looked like it was shaping up to be an incredible journey, so not less, just different.  My brother Aleks and Harrie would fly to Gdansk and join us at the Farm for a few days and Zlatko would drive to France in time for my 30th birthday!

And so I set off on phase one of the journey, making my way by bike and train to my parents’ home near Derby for the ‘official’ start of our adventure.

Ready to go at Swansea Station. Click the photo to see more!

A Family Journey: Cycling Derby to Poland by Mikaela toczek

What's in a Name?

 Family portrait at the the farm in Malary after completing our 1000mile journey. Click the image for more photos.

Family portrait at the the farm in Malary after completing our 1000mile journey. Click the image for more photos.

My surname, Toczek, is full of meaning for me and it is, in part, the inspiration for my most recent cycling adventure.  Growing up it created a connection with a place I did not know.  I have lost count of the amount of times I have been asked "How long have you been here for?" or "where are you from?".  These days I play a little game to see how long I can draw out this question for, do you mean Pontardawe where I live now? Wales where I have lived for 11 years? Derby where I grew up, or Sussex where I was born?  

My Dziadek (Grandfather) was Polish and I am extremely proud of my Polish heritage, but in the UK these questions can be charged with prejudice. There are 1.4million Eastern Europeans living and working in the UK, with 916,000 Poles.  Between July and September last year hate crimes against Polish people grew by more than 50% after the vote to leave the European Union.  I identify as a European and like so many others, the Brexit vote has left me feeling angry, disillusioned and defensive of my Polish roots. I wanted to explore my family history while the UK is still a part of the EU, which is perhaps another reason why I started planning this journey.

Dziadek settled in the UK after WWII.  He fought for the Free Polish Army but as a result of the deal made with the Soviets, it was not safe for him to return home, not even to visit his family.  So Dziadek settled in the UK, he met my Nana and got a job at the British Celanese factory in Derby alongside two other jobs.  He was respected by his British colleagues and refused promotion many times to stay with his workers, and he committed himself entirely to integration. This commitment stretched to my father and his siblings, who were encouraged only to speak English, not Polish.  When I was a child I attempted to learn but as I grew up the language faded, something I regret today.

It was only in later life that Dziadek began to engage with the Polish community in Derby, becoming a regular at the club and singing in the church choir.  Dziadek went on to be Guard of Honour for General Sikorski - Prime Minister of the Government in Exile - when his remains were finally returned to Poland. 

Through all of this, Dziadek never lost his thick Polish accent, and I remember the ease at which he switched back to Polish whenever a relative from the farm called to speak with him.

 Dziadek on his visit to the farm.

Dziadek on his visit to the farm.

It was not until the early 70's, once Dziadek received British Citizenship, that he felt it was the right time to return.  In 1974, when my father was 18 - the same age as when my Dziadek left Poland - they travelled together to the farm to meet our family.  My Mum and Dad went together again in 1985 and my Dad went with Dziadek 5 years ago in 2012, shortly before he passed away.  We feel that Dziadek's final visit to the farm was his last goodbye to a place and people who were separate for much of his life, but together at the end.

 Mum, Nana and Dziadek on their way to the farm (Dad was taking the photo).

Mum, Nana and Dziadek on their way to the farm (Dad was taking the photo).

My name, Toczek, is tied up with this complex history, making me feel connected to the journey my Dziadek took, the family I had never met, and the farm, where I had never been.

Later, my Dad told me that Toczek means Wheeler or Wheel maker, which also has a special relevance to me.  Dziadek cycled everywhere and for about ten years my Dad ran a bike shop, Cyclone, in Belper town.  He made custom bikes, and importantly wheels.  We cycled frequently during this period, youth hosteling around the UK, and heading out on regular weekend rides.  I vividly remember the smell of oil and metal in Dad's workshop and some of my earliest memories are of spending time there.



We both drifted away from cycling over the past 15 years; Dad sold the shop and later got into sailing, and I became a walker and a climber. But in the last couple of years, in a period of upheaval and change, my Dad returned to his bike, as have I.  Dad has since competed in a number of endurance races around the UK, including the Tour of the Peaks and the Welsh Dragon Tour, which consists of 3 days and over 300KM around my home in South Wales.  My return has been to touring, first Pembrokeshire, then Scotland and then ideas for bigger plans started to form.  I started plotting my longest journey yet, from Derby to our Family Farm in Poland.

 Zlatko and I at the top of Bealach Na Ba in Scotland.

Zlatko and I at the top of Bealach Na Ba in Scotland.

One Year On: Reflections after leaving the teaching profession. by Mikaela toczek

 Me in my natural environment!

Me in my natural environment!

It has been just over one year since I left the teaching profession to explore new opportunities and adventures in the outdoors.

Prior to leaving, I taught Photography, Graphic Communication, Art and the Welsh Baccalaureate for A-Level students for four years at an FE college.  We often hear dismal statistics surrounding teachers leaving the profession, the most commonly cited is that 1/3 of teachers leave the profession within 5 years of their teacher training. In 2014 half said they were considering leaving - is it any wonder when Gove was Education secretary? - and 10,000 left between 2010 and 2015.  We all have our own reasons for leaving and so I would like share my story behind the statistics.

Why did I leave?  

I loved working with students and some of my key aims as a teacher were to inspire young people to think creatively, explore their surroundings, develop their confidence, communication skills, independence and critical thinking. My Photography class tripled in size during my time teaching, as did my Graphics class and the students were consistently achieving strong outcomes.  However, I could not get it out of my head that all of the skills and qualities I was aiming to develop might be better achieved outside the system.

We only offered A-Level photography (there was no BTEC alternative), and of course we had entry requirements to ensure the students we accepted would be able to rise to the rigorous standards and workload required when studying A-Levels.  However, that meant that every year I had to turn down enthusiastic young people with potential because they did not have 6 GCSES A*-C.  To thrive in photography you do not need to be good at exam techniques, recalling facts or solving mathematical equations and so the selection did not always match up with the course.

At the beginning of the year, I often showed my students inspiring videos to encourage them to grasp every opportunity that they might be faced with and to not shy away from change, challenge and adventure.  One video stands out to me, about the work of Krystle J Wright.  Every time I show this video, I find myself welling up.  Maybe it is because I am inspired by the work of an adventurous woman, making tracks in a path still dominated by men. Maybe it is because I felt like my life had become too predictable. Or, maybe it was because I was encouraging my students to seek out their passions and joys with the knowledge that many of mine had been left unexplored.

After a lot of thought and agonising days, weeks and months spent wondering about what I should do, I handed in my notice.  I felt at once liberated and devastated.  I had so many potential adventures ahead of me but I was sad to be leaving my students and I felt like I had failed. I had become one of the 10,000, a statistic.

Embracing Fear

I did not give myself long before I set off on my first adventure.  One of my life goals has been to walk for longer than a month, to know what it feels like to carry everything I needed to survive on my back, to travel using only my own power and to cross an entire mountain range.  And so with Zlatko (my partner) and Bella (our Welsh Collie) in tow, we set off to walk the GR11.

This trail covers 818km, with 46,000M of ascent, across the entire length of the Pyrenees. We walked for 41 days, wild camped for 27 nights and went for days without seeing another person.  We talked about everything from politics, to art, but mostly about food. I laughed, cried, wanted to quit, got lost, injured myself, but kept walking. In the quiet moments I would be overcome with an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I was able to be in these amazing places, with the space to pursue my own adventures.

Since then I have walked the Skye Trail (another life goal), cycled the NC500, been on a Winter Mountaineering Course and a Conville Trust Alpinism Course.  I have cycled from Derby to Poland with my Dad (and Mum in the van) and I am working towards my Single Pitch Award. 

An educator or/and a teacher.

It took me a while to get out of my habits formed from being in formal education.  I went straight from school to college, college to my BA, my BA to my MA, MA to PGCE and my PGCE immediately into a full-time job as a teacher.  I still process time in academic years and even after a year out I still often have a morning break at 11.15.  It was right for me to leave!

However, I still consider myself to be an educator and so in essence, a teacher.  All of my key aims still apply but I have found other ways of facilitating them.  Since leaving teaching I have led expeditions to Java, India and Nicaragua with young people from all around the UK.  I have also started working as a freelance DofE trainer.  In all of my work outdoors I see more development in my key aims than I had ever seen in the classroom.  Young People develop their problem solving, communication, team work, financial skills, planning, reviewing, creativity, social skills and environmental and global awareness.  They push themselves physically and psychologically, reflect on big issues and embrace challenge; learning that education does not just happen in a classroom.  I feel like I truly fit in in the outdoor world and everywhere I go I meet individuals with shared values and a passion for inspiring people of all ages to spend more time outside. My feelings of failure have transformed into renewed confidence.


My photography has also improved and dramatically changed.  Prior to leaving teaching my photographic practice was relatively abstract and examined our relationships with landscape, space and place in depth.  I had become bogged down with theory and had moved away from the things that inspired me to take up photography in the first place.  I had theorised my way out of pursuing my passion for outdoor photography.  Although, perhaps, on reflection it is more cyclical than linear and I have just inevitably returned (with more knowledge) to the kind of photography I enjoy the most.

 Santa Clara Volcano, Nicaragua.

Santa Clara Volcano, Nicaragua.

The photographs I have taken this year have reignited my love of documentary photography.  To create a series of images that communicate the adventure, excitement, quiet and beauty that can be found in a life spent outdoors.  I aim to inspire others to seek out adventure, no matter how big or small and to communicate the enormous wellbeing that comes from spending time in nature. I believe we have a better chance of tackling the big issues like climate change if people spend more time engaging with our natural spaces and I hope I can inspire people to do so.

 Cycle-touring in Scotland.

Cycle-touring in Scotland.

I have doubts about whether my work achieves these goals, or whether it simply tells stories about my journeys and I worry about the problems with Social Media setting unrealistic expectations of people's lives.  I am writing this in my PJ's at home in my study.  I spent most of today drinking tea and procrastinating, venturing out only to hang the washing on the line and to walk the dog.  But I have been sharing photographs of the incredible mountains in the Pyrenees and of the fun we had climbing on my recent Deep Water Soloing trip to Mallorca.  Every life is full of contrasts.

Will I ever return to teaching?

I am often asked if I will ever go back to teaching.  It is an impossible question to answer.  At the moment, with the arts being undermined by Government Policy and with students being put under more and more pressure to achieve high grades, I don't think so.  Mental illness has reached shocking levels in our schools, with more and more young people and teachers suffering from anxiety, stress and depression.  I took time off with stress-related illness in my second year of teaching and I know of many others who have left the profession; with stress and anxiety topping the reasons why.

There is a whole wealth of research that demonstrates the benefits of outdoor learning.  Time spent learning outside has been shown to improve mental health, fight depression, build confidence and aid social interaction. And yet three quarters of the UK's children spend less time outside than prison inmates. 

Our education system needs re-aligning with the needs of our young people instead of business. Additionally, Climate Change is one of the biggest threats facing humanity and yet three quarters of our young people spend more time on screens than they do outside.  How can we expect people to care about the environment, when they do not spend any time in it?

So, at present I feel like the best place for me is in the outdoors, where I hope to encourage, inspire and coax people out into our amazing natural spaces, to learn, explore, develop and challenge in the best classroom available!

 Classic jump shot with one of my expedition teams.

Classic jump shot with one of my expedition teams.




Why We Need Women Specific Campaigns by Mikaela toczek

Reflecting on my 'She Went Wild' Feature

I am passionate about encouraging everyone to seek out their own adventures, but in particular I would love to inspire more women and girls to develop their skills and confidence to get outside and explore, so I was delighted when She Went Wild asked me to write a feature on my recent cycle-touring adventure. 

 Cycling through Torridon on the NC500.

Cycling through Torridon on the NC500.

In a sector (and society) where women are still underrepresented and often face considerable barriers to participation, we need organisations like She Went Wild that champion women's adventure and achievement in the outdoors and here's a few reasons why.

Many of you will have read about the latest Billabong ads, that failed to use women athletes in their advertising and I am furious (yes furious) when I open certain magazines that still fail to feature a single female contributor.  Nikon recently held a launch event for their new D850 camera, they invited 32 photographers, and not one woman.

We need women and men to stand up and be heard, to demand change and to encourage inspiring stories to empower more young girls to seek out adventure.  Karen Knowlton wrote a powerful response to Billabong's ad that went viral and eventually caused them to change their site to include women and men surfing. In contrast, Nikon's response was flacid, they simply said:

“Unfortunately, the female photographers we had invited for this meet were unable to attend, and we acknowledge we have not put enough of a focus in this area.”

Acknowledgement is not enough, Nikon need to take action.  An even bigger sign of how embedded everyday sexism is in our society can be found by reading the responses, mostly by men, usually along the lines of "if Nikon only want to invite male photographers that's their choice." or for Billabong "Sex sells, if you don't like it don't buy it." and of course the ever original "Here come the feminists, watch out!".  And we should watch out, we all need to challenge businesses, organisations and governments that fail to represent women to change their practices.

Katherine Young recently redesigned the cover of Girls' Life magazine when she saw the stark contrast with the partnered Boys' Life magazine that encouraged boys to "Explore your future" and girls to "discover your dream hair". Of course re-styling your hair can be fun for girls and boys, but the contrast keeps going, nowhere on the cover are girls encouraged to think about anything other than how they look and what other people think of them.  The editors issued a statement in support of their content but refused to apologise or offer a promise of change.

The evidence is there to show that campaigns such as She Went Wild, This Girl Can and the Women in Mountain Training group are essential for women and men, campaigning, supporting, inspiring and encouraging women and girls of all ages and abilities to be active, share stories and get outside.  Events such as Glenmore Lodge's Women in Adventure Sport Conference as well as the women's week run by Glenmore and Plas Y Brenin are all important developments, which I hope to attend next year, as is the BMC's Women in Adventure Film Competition, although I would love to see a photography category opened up as part of this comp!

So, there is a lot to be encouraged by, but still a lot of work to be done.  My article is just about my experiences exploring the Scottish Highlands, but it means something to have it published in a space whose goal it is to inspire more women to get out and be active!


And if you feel like some inspiration, here is a video by Krystle J Wright for Outdoor Research about women being awesome in the outdoors:

A successful failure on Triglav by Mikaela toczek

 Reaching safe ground after bailing off the route.

Reaching safe ground after bailing off the route.

I don’t get tearful in the mountains, I have been scared and frustrated on many occasions but rarely tearful.  Over the past few months I have written blog posts that share my learning and development in the mountains, but all of them present happy, successful experiences, dabbling on the edges of my comfort zone with mostly type 1 fun.  Last week I wobbled tearfully through my first mountaineering epic, where I learnt through failure on a much grander scale.

My original plan for this trip was to base myself in Chamonix and explore some mixed routes in the area to build on the skills I learnt attending a Conville Trust Alpine Course back in June.  But it was extremely hot, and I arrived at the busiest time of the year.  With most of the mixed routes appearing too dangerous for my level of skill and not wanting to queue on routes, or create my own traffic jam, my partner Zlatko and I decided to use the opportunity to drive to Slovenia to visit family, climb and attempt a route on the North Face of Triglav, Slovenia's highest mountain (2863M).

Zlatko and I have climbed and walked together on many occasions but never in a mountaineering context, so to build our confidence and develop our own systems as a team we started with some easy multi-pitch sport in Ajdovscina, Zlatko’s home town.  I led the entire route, with only minor problems arising due to misjudged kit - we did not bring enough slings - this meant the route took a little longer than it should have, as it required more creativity than necessary.  Aside from this it was enjoyable and we successfully abseiled back down in 4 pitches and felt ready for a bigger challenge.


Hindsight is a wonderful thing and at this stage we should have built up a more formidable backlog of multi-pitch climbs together (some of them in boots) but Zlatko is experienced in the mountains and after all of my learning this year I felt ready for Triglav.  We chose the Slovenian route, which is made up of easy scrambling and a good number of harder pitches (Slovenian Grade III).  My first error was thinking that Slovenian grades equate with British and that climbing these grades in boots would be a breeze.  I lead 6A+ on UK sport and I have recently progressed onto VS trad, giving me misplaced confidence as we approached.  My second error was to complete the two and a half hour approach on the day, which meant a 2am alarm.   Bivvying below the route would have conserved energy and given more time for rest.

Finding the base of the route after some easy scrambling on the approach was not a problem and we racked up feeling happy.  We looked at the first section and decided to solo it.  About halfway up we had to traverse a thin ledge above a nasty drop and I realised in a gut-wrenching moment that we should have pitched it but with a deep breath and careful footwork we made it safely accross.  As my UK climbing buddies will know, I love corners and chimneys and this route is full of them, so even after the first wobble I was feeling chirpy as we looked up at a long limestone chimney.  We estimated the chimney was about 80M long at grade III.  After reading the lines I was confident it would be well within my ability and so I started to climb.  

 Me leading the first pitch in the chimney, before things get tight.

Me leading the first pitch in the chimney, before things get tight.

Slovenian limestone is not like British limestone.  I was carrying a set of wires 1-10, 2 x 120 slings, 2 x 240 slings and three cams.  A few moves in and I had my first panic, the chimney was getting tight and my gear and my rucksack kept snagging.  I was looking for gear as I climbed and there was nothing.  There may be room for micro-nuts, but I wasn’t carrying any. And I couldn't find any threads or spikes either.  I continued, expecting some good gear to materialise as I went up and with relief I found one placement for a wire having climbed well above my usual comfort zone for protection.  I reached a ledge and found a piton left by a previous party and felt a rush of joy as I clipped in.  Imagining that I had passed the crux, still thinking that a grade III route should be easy, I looked up at the next section.  This consisted of a narrow chimney and a small overhanging face, but the ground that led to it was full of scree and loose rock.  I trod carefully and managed to find a couple of threads and with a bit of bold commitment went direct over the small overhang onto another platform.  The route continued like this for what seemed like forever, loose platforms followed by gruesome gullies that without a rucksack and boots I would usually revel in.  My love of chimneys was fading fast!

I felt like I was climbing into trickier terrain as we continued and at one point spent 10 minutes approaching a particularly narrow section, attempting to wedge myself up it and then backing off as lumps of chossy rock wobbled around me.  Eventually I set up a belay for Zlatko to come up and join me and with his encouragement I forced my way through it, eventually reaching the top of the chimney.

My initial relief wore off as I explored my new surroundings.  We didn’t have topos or photographs, only a diagram that, to me, bore no resemblance to the rock, made up of symbols that I had been learning for only a couple of days.  I could not see where the route was meant to go.  There was another chimney to my left, a blocky face ahead and a pleasant looking ridge to my right, separated from me by a large, cruel looking scree slope.  The notes we did have said that route-finding was difficult and that it would be easy to stray onto harder ground.  My last gear was way below me and I couldn't find anywhere to set up a belay.  I traversed back and forth but there was absolutely nothing.  I had realised by this point that the route required pitons and we only had 2 and one hammer, which was attached to Zlatko.  It was no use to me there and anyway, it wasn’t enough.  I started to panic as I felt I couldn’t move up or down and was battling with some serious drag from the rope.  I cautiously managed to make it back to my last gear, placed using 2 pitons that again had been left in the rock by a previous group and made myself safe.

 A section of our intended route (on the righthand line)

A section of our intended route (on the righthand line)

I brought Zlatko up and he endeavoured to have a go and started heading up but again backed off when he saw how little gear there was. He came back down and we started talking.  What were our options.  Our diagram indicated that the route should get much easier after this section, as long as we stayed on the correct line, but we couldn’t be sure we would do that - we might have already strayed - and the previous section had been much harder than expected.  We had already taken considerably longer than expected and so the summit was definitely out, but we had planned in an escape route higher up, as we should reach a large plateau that connected with an easy descent.  I was feeling emotionally exhausted and the day was getting hotter and hotter, going up felt like too much of a risk, especially given I would be leading most of it without a clear vision of the route.  I looked down at where we had come from and saw a grim, chossy descent that would be tricky to navigate safely down.  

I did not want to call mountain rescue but I felt stuck and I started to let fear take over and the tears build as the realisation dawned that we were in the kind of trouble that could easily escalate and that it was all of our own making; not enough research, the wrong gear, slow climbing, lack of experience.  I had a cereal bar and pulled myself together and we decided that in reality our best option was to abseil back down, very very carefully, initially using the two pitons we were attached to and then leaving our own two pitons in place if we needed to. 

We rigged up and I decided to go first, tentatively starting my descent.  I made it back to one of the ledges and started to feel better.  I could see how we could rig a new abseil from here and my confidence was returning.  I pressed myself into a protected position and Zlatko abseiled down to join me.  We managed to retrieve the rope with only minimal rockfall and we repeated the process, with each descent making me feel better.  In fact I was actually starting to enjoy our escape.  

After an hour or so we arrived at the bottom of the climb, leaving only easy scrambling and Ferrata in between us and the valley floor.  We both felt the right decision had been made at the right time, while it was still possible to self rescue.  As we shoved some croissants into our mouths a helicopter approached another face nearby and I felt relief that we had managed to rescue ourselves.  We later heard that the helicopter was to help a climber on Tominskova Via Ferrata who had frozen, not able to go up or down and I felt echoes with my own feelings back at our last anchor point.  

 A rescue team flies in to assist another climber.

A rescue team flies in to assist another climber.

We made our way down in the midday heat, stripped off and lay down in the stream leading away from Triglav.  If we judge success by whether we summited or not then we definitely failed but on reflection, our success can be found in making the decision to turn back while we still could.  I also learnt a hell of a lot about mountaineering.  Here are my key learning points:

  1. If only symbol-based diagrams are available, make sure you know how to use them by accompanying a confident climber on a familiar route and translating the symbols to the ground, as you climb within your comfort zone.  Zlatko did get me to draw out the route to memorise it, which helped, but I needed to build my confidence on the rock.
  2. Climbing in boots and with backpack is hard; practice, practice, practice.
  3. Research the route thoroughly.  This is obvious and something I always do, but in this case I didn’t read any logbooks and reports as I don’t speak Slovenian and there were no English reports that I could find.  I relied on Zlatko’s research that meant only one of us had knowledge of the route.  Had we done more research together perhaps we would have made better choices on the ground.
  4. Slovenian limestone in the Julian Alps often requires pegs so make sure you have plenty.
  5. Assess the approach, if it looks too long or potentially tiring then consider bivvying rather than attempting a 2am start (although this is completely normal in Slovenia).
  6. As a relative beginner to mountaineering, guidebook time should be vastly increased to account for troubleshooting and route-finding.
  7. But above all the most important thing I learnt was this: 

Safely bailing from a route is a success not a failure.

 A rest stop and a dip in a mountain stream on our descent.

A rest stop and a dip in a mountain stream on our descent.

Two Short Stories from the NC500. by Mikaela toczek

 Empty roads and sweeping landscapes on the NC500.

Empty roads and sweeping landscapes on the NC500.

"Is he dead?"

We had been cycling along a single-track road in a remote area of Scotland as part of a self-directed alternative on the North Coast 500. I had been struggling with a pulled muscle and we had barely seen another soul since leaving our train at Kinlochewe.  In fact the only other vehicles to pass were huge logging trucks that rumbled by and we were only joined by herds of deer that ran along in parallel to us and launched themselves across the road with abandon.

Eventually, we saw a car approaching from the opposite direction and it pulled into a passing place about 100M ahead.  When we got there and signalled thanks on our way past, we were worried by what we saw.  An elderly man sat slumped back in the drivers seat, engine running, radio on.  We both stopped immediately and after the briefest of exchanges decided I should go back and check. He could just be having a power nap, but we couldn't leave without making sure.

I reversed, found my balance and leaned in towards the window and asked "Excuse me, are you OK?", no response.  I leant in closer and asked again but with more vigour this time.  I almost toppled over as the man shot bolt upright and looked at me in surprise.  "I should be asking you the same thing, all the way up here on your bikes!" the man exclaimed, "What's the matter?" he continued. "Oh erm, we saw you pull in and then as we were cycling past we got a little worried about you and I just wanted to check you were OK?" I replied.  After establishing that we were both indeed fine, the man said abruptly, "Anyway, I must be off, my mother is expecting me for lunch."  and with that he drove away.  Slightly bewildered by the exchange, I returned to Zlatko and we also continued on our way.  

The Agricultural Mafia

 Bettyhill after a long day on the North Coast.

Bettyhill after a long day on the North Coast.

A few days earlier we were cycling around Loch Eriboll on one of our longest days.  We drifted in and out of drafting and on such a long stretch of straight road my mind began to drift too.  I noticed two men in overalls, knee deep in the heather, emptying something from a bucket.  Nothing strange there, probably just farmers putting out feed for the lambs.  Next to the road there was a black Mercedes, all the doors open - including the boot - with a third man standing idly by in a suit.  This was slightly more intriguing, and given my enjoyment for storytelling my mind started to make sinister connections.  I told myself off, don't be ridiculous!

Five minutes later I hear a car approaching slowly behind me.  Battling against a headwind and feeling a little frustrated with the exertion I signalled for it to pass.  In a flurry of beeping the Mercedes rushes by, except now the two men in overalls are also in the car; wearing suits.

That does it, I thought, they have to be the mafia, it is the only logical explanation. Zlatko and I began theorising as we cycled. What was in the bucket?  "Were they stashing money from a recent heist, or jewels maybe?" Zlatko offered, "No, no it is probably weapons or maybe a body!"  I declared. The wind drowned out Zlatko's response - as it so often did - and I peddled hard to catch him, "Probably not a body, it was only a small bucket." he repeated.  "Yes, probably not a body." I agreed. We also considered the possibility that they were indeed farmers, who were on their way to a funeral or another black tie event but still had to tend to their flock on the way.  It could be logical, but by that point our imaginations were running riot, after weeks of walking and cycling in the wild Scottish Highlands, only the most audacious stories could be true.




Conville Trust Alpine Course by Mikaela toczek

 Day 2 on the Crochues Traverse.

Day 2 on the Crochues Traverse.

The Conville Trust are an amazing organisation that provide heavily subsidised training courses to British climbers and mountaineers under the age of 30 that want to progress into Alpine environments.  

The Trust was set up after the death of mountaineer Jonathan Conville, in 1979 aged 27 on the Matterhorn.  His family memorialised and celebrated his legacy through the creation of the Jonathan Conville Trust, whose aims are to;

"encourage and assist young people to train for and pursue their love of the outdoors in the spirit of adventure, which Jonathan embraced during his life. As long as there are mountains, there will be a place for the Trust."

Since then the Trust has provided opportunities to hundreds of young people every year, with a team of experienced and committed Guides instructing the essentials in Alpine Mountaineering.  I was privileged to be a part of the course in June and was given the opportunity to learn the essentials of Alpinism that have laid the foundations for all of my future mountaineering adventures.

 Les Droites

Les Droites

Over 3 days participants work with their instructor on a 1:3 ratio, which allows for in-depth, personalised skill development, within each small group.  On arrival, groups are arranged based on current experience and then separate off with their assigned instructor to discuss packing for an Alpine day.  I am always happy to be in mixed groups but it was great to be placed with 2 other strong women climbers for the duration of the course!

 From Left: Me, Sophie and Rosa.

From Left: Me, Sophie and Rosa.

As this was my first experience of Alpinism I used my current knowledge of Scottish Winter Mountaineering to inform my day-bag packing.  So, before our group check my bag contained the following:

  • Crampons
  • Axe
  • Helmet
  • Harness
  • 6 carabiners, 3 prussiks, 3 120 slings, 2 ice screws
  • 1 warm layer
  • Down Jacket
  • Waterproofs
  • Lots of food
  • 1 litre of water
  • 2 hats
  • 2 warm pairs of gloves
  • 2 liners
  • 1 pair of tough bag mitts
  • Compass
  • Map
  • Reduced med kit
  • Wallet
  • Phone
  • Watch
  • Emergency Bivi bag
  • Silver foil blanket

It was +30º in the valley but I imagined it would get much colder as we headed out onto the Glacier.  How wrong I was!  After a demo from our instructor Simon and a discussion about what it meant to be Alpine Light I shed my down jacket, waterproofs, extra hat, spare gloves and a fair amount of my beloved food.  In the Alps, if the forecast says it isn't going to rain in the mountains, then it probably won't.  Coming from the UK, shedding my waterproofs from my bag was the hardest omission to make!  

However, this season is unusually hot, which also brings instability.  Mont Blanc was closed for guiding on the second day of our course, and many other routes rendered unsafe due to melting ice and rockfall.  It highlights the importance of understanding local conditions and making use of the amazing resources in the valley such as the Office de Haute Montagne in Chamonix centre.  There is a wealth of information here from recent route reports, forecasts, guidebooks and the extremely helpful and knowledgable staff who can assist you when planning potential mountaineering trips.

With our new improved super-light packs we set off to Mer De Glace for our first day of learning. As we walked towards the Glacier we got our first taste of just how busy the popular routes can get, with two large groups bustling for access to the many ladders down to the glacier.  We took an alternative bolted route down that just picked up the last of the ladders.  

I have never stood on a glacier before and the surface was surprising.  With our crampons attached we started walking over a rocky surface layer before hitting the central ice that was satisfyingly crunchy as we progressed towards the other side.  It was here that we began our main focus for the day, safe travel on steep ice with crampons.  We explored a range of walking styles and techniques for ascending and descending steep terrain including side-stepping, front-pointing and assisted ascent and descent using our axes.  I volunteered to lead a steeper section where I placed my first ice screw.  Simon praised the Black Diamond Ice Screws and it was here that I saw why.  I always imagined placing runners in ice would be quite strenuous and time-consuming work but once you get an initial bite they simply glide in with ease (of course dependant on the quality of the ice).  Once up, I placed two more ice screws for our belay, with Rosa and Sophie following behind.

 Sophie prepares to font point up a steep ice slope.

Sophie prepares to font point up a steep ice slope.

Our second major learning point was Crevasse Rescue.  This was way more technical than any rope work I have done before, but as with most things, simple once you know it!  We focused on using a Z hoist technique with two prussiks and spent considerable time discussing different scenarios and the importance of safely traveling to the edge of the fall to check your partner.  Simon explained that a number of deaths occur when rescues are attempted without checking the edge and the victims neck is broken due to the hoist forcing them against overhanging ice.  We also discussed distances between team members on wet glaciers (glaciers covered in snow).  If there are only two members in a team then the distance between was a lot more than I expected - at least 10M.  This gives time for a reaction if one member falls into a glacier and lessens the risk of being pulled in after them.

We used a buried axe for our anchor when consolidating our crevasse rescue skills on the wet glacier below Aiguille Du Midi and refined our ideas surrounding rescue in two's three's and with knots on the rope.

 Sophie uses a Z hoist to rescue Rosa from a crevasse.

Sophie uses a Z hoist to rescue Rosa from a crevasse.

However, prevention is better than a cure and efficient and skilful movement to avoid potential hazards and accidents occupied the bulk of our learning.  The Alps are a dangerous place and in a lot of scenarios very limited in terms of protection, except than through your own movement. "Don't fall off" becomes the main sticking point in these situations.  Becoming efficient at moving together and making sound judgements about when to pitch a tricky section are essentials when becoming independent alpinists and we developed these skills through our traverses of Crochues and Arete Laurence.

 I found that I have a healthy level of fear surrounding the mountains, and I feel comfortable managing that fear in relation to my skills, forecasts, known risks and preparation.  However, the amount of other people on routes is something that I need to get used to.  The Alps are so accessible making it rare to have a PD route to yourself and it is fairly normal for groups to overtake one-another.  This takes quite a lot of getting used to and it will also take some practice building my confidence to say "no" when I deem it unsafe for a group to pass at a certain time.  Traffic is just one justification for efficiency when en-route but predominantly, if at every pitch or change in terrain it takes you 10 minutes to sort yourselves out, this could easily add over an hour to your time and could mean the difference between catching the last lift down or finding yourself benighted.

Finally, we discussed guidebooks, huts and maps.  There are so many guidebooks out there with routes for every potential desire.  However, the new Rockfax is incredibly detailed and provides thorough descriptions, topos and photographs.  I also bought Mountaineering in the Mont Blanc range and of course a 1:25 Mont Blanc Map.

After 3 days on the Conville Course I am full of inspiration and admiration for Alpinism and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to participate.  The Conville Trust works in Partnership with the BMC and Plas Y Brenin.  I stayed at the beautiful Camping du Glacier d'Argentiere with the majority of other Conville participants.  As many stay on after their courses this is also a great place to come for consolidating skills and finding climbing partners.

You can apply for a place on a Conville Alps Course towards the end of 2017 until March 2018 through Plas Y Brenin's site.  They also run UK mountaineering courses in Scotland and North Wales.

 Mont Blanc.

Mont Blanc.



Sherpa Gear Review: Preeti Jacket, Lithang Jacket and Naulo Pants by Mikaela toczek

 The Quiraing, Skye.

The Quiraing, Skye.

I spent most of May Walking, running and cycling around Scotland in a glorious month of adventure and I took lots of lovely Sherpa gear along for the ride.

We started out with the Skye Trail, a 128km walk through the dramatic mountains, ridges and coasts on the Isle of Skye and then continued by cycling the North Coast 500.  With notoriously changeable weather and challenging terrain this was the perfect chance to try out my Sherpa Naulo Trousers, Preeti Jacket and Lithang Jacket.

The first stage of the Skye Trail was absolutely unexpected.  As we set off there was not a cloud in the sky and as we walked along the cliffs at Rubha Hunish, we wondered if we were actually in Scotland or had somehow hitchhiked to the Med by mistake!  The air was fresh and my Preeti jacket provided just the right amount of layering to keep the cool breeze off but without overheating.  When it got warmer, the Preeti jacket kept me cool and the sun off my burning arms (honestly!).

I now consider the Preeti jacket to be one of my most versatile bits of clothing.  I have worn it running, cycling, walking and climbing and in all instances it has come out top.  The fabric is comfortable and highly flexible, with a good fit and importantly, after a few days of wear it still doesn't smell thanks to the Polygeine technology, which uses silver salts to fight odour.  I also really like the pattern and colour scheme.  It is refreshing to find some technical fabric for women that is not just block colour and its style means that when I am on multi-adventure trips it is also great for wearing casually as I travel around.  The additional security pocket is a nice touch, perfect for travel but also great when you are more active and want to stash a key, or more importantly some sweets, without carrying a bag or belt.

On the NC500 (North Coast 500) I used it daily as part of my cycling layering system and this time the standout feature was the hood.  Most cyclists wear hoodless jerseys but it fitted perfectly under my helmet and protected my ears from the cold Scottish wind and as the fit is so good, it didn't flap around as I rode.

After the first day of glorious weather, we were treated to a Scotland that I am more familiar with where rain and drizzle prevail.  This brings its own beauty to the landscape, with the sun bursting through occasionally in dramatic revelations. But it pays to stay warm and dry so you can really appreciate this other, more raw side to the landscape and the Lithang jacket stood up to the most persistent soakings.

 A storm approaches on the NC500.

A storm approaches on the NC500.

The most intense rain we experienced came on the NC500 as we left Ullapool.  It had been drizzling all day, but we pushed on, with our hope maintained by signs promising "The Summer Isles" with "Sandy Beaches".  The rain seemed determined to dampen our spirits but my Lithang Jacket stood up to it admirably.  We arrived 100km later in the driving rain and although my jacket was drenched, I was in fact, remarkably dry underneath.  As the jacket is not built for cycling I was unsure how it would stand up to the increased impact of the rain from this kind of movement but it did its job regardless. The sculpted elbows also adapt quite nicely to time on the bike, maintaining comfort in an awkward position.  My only plea is for Sherpa to release another colour, I chose Rathee Blue over Tika Pink as I have had enough of pink gear.  The Men's Geelo Clay colour looks great, as does Yuu Blue and Fresh Jalebi, I like my gear bright and so these colour options would definitely be welcome!


 Approaching the Summer Isles in my Lithang Jacket.  Soaking soaked but dry underneath!

Approaching the Summer Isles in my Lithang Jacket.  Soaking soaked but dry underneath!

Last but not least I was extremely impressed with the Naulo Pants on this adventure.  I wore them constantly on the Skye Trail and despite bringing an additional pair of trousers with me, decided I  was just too comfy to swap!  They are the ideal companion for multi-day trekking, lightweight, fast drying and flexible.  Crawling around to take photos (often with my pack still on) was done with ease - but perhaps not grace - and scrambling on Bla Bheinn was comfortable throughout.  I was a bit unsure by the absence of articulated reinforced knees at first, but they really aren't needed on these trousers and the lack of additional seams that may rub or restrict is the reward for the omission.  

 Descending Bla Bheinn on the Skye Trail.

Descending Bla Bheinn on the Skye Trail.

The Preeti Jacket, Lithang Jacket and Naulo Pants are all now staples in my rucksack and they will certainly be joining me on my next adventure in the Alps in June.

Additional photos of me by Zlatko Vidrih. Instagram: @maliopica.


Earth's Age in a Year by Mikaela toczek

 Click to view a PDF version.

Click to view a PDF version.

Back in March I attended an excellent Geology walk with Alan Bowring from Fforest Fawr GeoPark and SWOAPG, exploring the Geological history of the Brecon Beacons and beyond.

Since then I have been dabbling with a bit of design, as I struggled to comprehend the massive timescales we were discussing.  Alan gave a number of brilliant examples that translated the Earth's geological history into a 75 minute talk, a day, a human lifespan, a walk and a year and in partnership with SWOAPG and Alan, I have transposed the Earth's Age In A Year into an infographic.

My aim was to condense this complex information into a clear visual format, that enables viewers to comprehend massive amounts of time and our very small part within that.  This meant keeping the design simple and uncluttered.

I chose to use Geological strata lines inspired by Fan Hir as my dividing features for each month, taking on a calendar format and increasing the space for months with significant or multiple periods and events.  All of the colours have been inspired by the Geological Survey Map of Fforest Fawr Geopark, and I have attempted - where possible - to match appropriate colours to appropriate months.  For example, light blue has been used in December, the colour used for Carboniferous Limestone, which for this example is when these rocks first appear.

It is incredible to think how little time humans have been here on Earth and yet how much damage and destruction we are responsible for.  Only a united global approach can combat Climate Change, with everyone working together towards a shared vision for positive change.

Video: Sharing Stories from the GR11 by Mikaela toczek

 The pleasure and pain of long-distance hiking.

The pleasure and pain of long-distance hiking.

Back in February I spoke at Ignite Swansea's second event at the wonderfully atmospheric Cinema&Co.  The concept is simple, you have 5 minutes, with 20 slides that automatically progress every 15 seconds to talk about an inspiring topic of your choice.  

My teaching background gave me the confidence to stand up in front of a room full of people, but the format made me nervous.  I am not used to speaking with such rigid timings, enjoying the natural flow of conversation that can be encouraged in a classroom setting.  

After lots of practise I arrived on the evening and was told that I had been chosen to speak first. Delight and fear took hold, going first meant that I could finish my talk and simply enjoy the rest of the evening, but also meant that I had to kick things off with a bang.

Once I got going, luckily, everything seemed to fall into place.  There were no technical errors - except an initial battle with the microphone height - and I didn't commit any tragic public speaking blunders.  It was, in fact, a lot of fun sharing our Pyrenean adventure and it was great to chat to some members of the audience after about their own aspirations for hiking, travel and love of the mountains.

The other talks were a truly diverse blend, covering everything from stickers, feet and online dating to challenging perceptions and stereotypes and taking community action in the face of disaster.  The evening definitely achieved its goal with an enthusiastic and invested audience and a great mix of speakers, engaging and inspiring each other.

The next Ignite event will be in the Autumn and you can sign up to be a speaker now!  if you don't fancy speaking then watch out for the ticket launch a few weeks before.  They are free but they go fast so keep your eyes peeled.

Geology Walk in the Brecon Beacons by Mikaela toczek

 Studying the different rock types in Western Beacons. 

Studying the different rock types in Western Beacons. 

The present is the key to the past and the past is the key to the present.  Fforest Fawr Geopark covers the Western half of the Brecon Beacons and is one of 119 recognised areas of international geological importance in the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network.  Today I joined SWOAPG (South Wales Outdoor Activity Providers Group) along with Alan Bowring, a Geologist for the Brecon Beacons National Park for a geological walk around Llyn Y Fan Fawr and Llyn Y Fan Fach from Tafarn Y Garreg.

Forecasts of gusting winds and heavy rain later in the day didn't dampen our spirits and we set off staying low along the base of Fan Hir, to avoid the worst of the approaching weather.  The river Tawe was our first stop, where we discussed the journey that all rocks are on.  It is easy to forget about the changes still happening when we talk about the Ice Ages that shaped the defining valleys in the Brecon Beacons and the hundreds of millions of years that have created the geology we see today.  But, the Tawe shows change in action and we considered the large rocks in the river, deposited by the traveling glacier and how eventually they may end up in Swansea Bay as pebbles or sand.

 Old Redstone.  The different layers show the direction of flow as the sandstone formed and the red colour comes from iron particles in the rock.  This image also shows a buildup of quartz on the right.

Old Redstone.  The different layers show the direction of flow as the sandstone formed and the red colour comes from iron particles in the rock.  This image also shows a buildup of quartz on the right.

The main focus of our day revolved around Old Red Sandstone, the presiding rock type in this area of the park.  We could also see areas of mudstone, limestone, grit and coal measures in the surrounding hills, creating a complex landscape of interwoven geological stories.  We reflected on how the different rocktypes came to exist in this area of the park, with evidence of origins from North Wales and beyond, traveling with the water, snow and ice to leave clues that suggest how the landscape may have once looked.

Alan explained that although it is possible to use all of this evidence to consider the history of the landscape, there are often multiple options and differing ideas that are then associated with it.  By comparing this evidence and the theories stemming from it, with potentially similar areas around the world, we can start to build up more comprehensive pictures of the shaping of South Wales.

Most of what we can see in our present day Beacons landscape was shaped in the last ice age known as the Devensian period, beginning approximately 120,000 years ago.  The Glaciers effectively bulldozed previous evidence of Ice Ages, although Alan suggested that we can assume there have been at least 3 others and perhaps more.  During this time, much of the Brecon Beacons would have been covered in ice around 600m deep in places, leaving the highest peaks such as Pen Y Fan protruding from the sheets.

 Looking along Fan Hir up the valley with the cirque morraine behind us.

Looking along Fan Hir up the valley with the cirque morraine behind us.

Fan Hir is an excellent ridge for visualising the creation of these glaciers, with wind whipping up the snow and depositing it on the steep leeward sides of the North Eastern ridges.  When the ice departed it left Morraines, Tills and Erratic rocks in its wake.  One of these Morraines is particularly characteristic on this walk, directly following the bottom of the ridge.  We considered the different methods for its formation, with one option being that perhaps it was made from rocks falling down across the snow and ice on the edge of Fan Hir or that it was carved out by glacial travel making it a Cirque Morraine. A cirque glacier can also be used to explain the formation of the lakes, creating an armchair in the hills and carving out the basins where the Tarns form.

 Reflecting on Bronze Age Settlements on the edge of Llyn Y Fan Fawr.

Reflecting on Bronze Age Settlements on the edge of Llyn Y Fan Fawr.

As well as glaciers and rivers we also briefly considered human evidence.  With one rather deep circular intrusion possibly suggesting a Bronze Age Settlement, although Alan reflected that this could not really be confirmed without further archeological excavations to provide more evidence.

The day was a real eye-opener for another area that I frequently walk through (see my previous post for learning on the Gower) and encouraged me to look more closely at the hints around us, as everything we look at has a story to its origins.  I found it particularly difficult to comprehend hundreds of millions of years and although it is easy to place these significant shaping forces on a timeline, it is much harder to actually understand these lengths of time.  Making comparisons with a 90 year human life or a calendar year can help to put some of these ideas into perspective.  If Geological history were a calendar year, the most recent Ice Age wouldn't be until 10pm on December 31st and the first direct human ancestors would arrive at about 11pm on the same day. 

Thanks to SWOAPG, Matt WoodfieldAlan Bowring and the rest of the group for a mindblowing, whistle-stop tour through the last hundred million years! 

 Alan's expertise helped to bring the geology of the Beacons to life.

Alan's expertise helped to bring the geology of the Beacons to life.

SPA Prep Day on the Gower with Outdoor Matters. by Mikaela toczek

 Discussing our Abseil set-up with  Matt.

Discussing our Abseil set-up with Matt.

Over the last couple of months I have been thinking about my next steps for CPD and which qualifications to aim for.  I have been seriously considering my Winter ML, International Mountain Leader and my SPA in various orders and combinations.  I am a keen climber and have been gradually progressing towards leading more outside and learning to lead trad. With so many wonderful spots to choose from on my doorstep in South Wales, the SPA feels like the most logical progression, alongside building quality days that can count towards my IML and WML for the future.

After such a constructive experience in Scotland with Alan Halewood I was inspired to buy my first lot of trad gear, and since then I have been itching to get out and try some of it and start the ball rolling towards my SPA training.  So, last weekend I eagerly gathered my kit and headed out with Matt Woodfield from Outdoor Matters on an SPA prep day.

My aspirations for the day were to get to know the qualification and practice some of the key skills involved with taking groups out climbing.  Straight away Matt got us thinking about the landscape as we walked towards our crag at Devils Truck.  I have lived in South Wales for 10 years now and regularly visit the Gower for mini-adventures but even in the first 10 minutes on the cliffs, I was already learning exciting new histories and facts about somewhere that I considered familiar.  For example, I hadn't been aware that there was a bronze age hillfort right under our feet or that the Gorse along the coast, that feels so characterful of Wales, is in fact Spanish - introduced as a clean-burning fuel for industry.

 Scurvy Grass -  Cochlearia Officinalis  in bloom.

Scurvy Grass - Cochlearia Officinalis in bloom.

As we scrambled down more treasures were soon revealed, conjuring images of sailors chewing on Scurvy Grass to ward off its namesake illness.  I love sharing these kinds of stories with my groups and so eagerly listened on.  Just to the right of our Sea Scurvy we came across some beautiful examples of Crinoid and Fan Coral fossils and the more we looked the more we saw.  Examining the rocks in this way before any equipment comes out seems the perfect introduction for a group heading out for a day's adventure to really anchor them (excuse the pun) to the rocks before they get climbing.

 The circular shapes are Crinoid fossils and the central dashed pattern is a Fan Coral fossil.

The circular shapes are Crinoid fossils and the central dashed pattern is a Fan Coral fossil.

This led nicely into kit checking.  Given that a lot of freelance work may involve using centre equipment Matt talked us through what to look for and why when you are checking ropes, carabiners and slings.  We examined the ropes for soft or bulging areas, frayed points and discolouring and did a similar check with the slings.  It turned out that some of my new secondhand extenders had hidden salt corrosion behind the sling retainers, reinforcing the importance of knowing what to look for and the potential risks that may arise from worn or corroded equipment.

 Evidence of Salt Corrosion.  Photo:  Matt Woodfield

Evidence of Salt Corrosion.  Photo: Matt Woodfield

 Putting aside the kit that did not pass our inspections we set off to look for anchor points and discussed distance, angle and equalising as we placed gear to prepare for a bottom-roping group.  We considered the pros and cons of different methods and tested out using 2 and 3 points with a different mix of ropes and slings and rated the placement quality of our gear.

Much of the day was spent rigging but this was constantly brought back to a group context and we explored different solutions for scenarios such as stuck climbers and what to do if something gets caught in the system during belaying and during abseiling.  I haven't had much experience setting up top ropes, bottom ropes and abseils and Matt paced the day accordingly, making sure to demonstrate new knots (such as the Bunny Ears knot) multiple times and providing useful tips to improve my own practice.

  Matt  demonstrates one method of rescuing a stuck climber.

Matt demonstrates one method of rescuing a stuck climber.

On the walk out we continued reflecting on different scenarios and group dynamics, discussing options and opportunities for individuals with disabilities and catering for those with physical impairments.  I spent a number of years teaching groups with complex additional needs and hope to provide accessible adventures for everyone in my work outdoors.  As reflective professionals what can we all do to ensure we provide exciting, diverse and inclusive learning experiences in the great outdoors?

If you are considering starting your SPA, would like a refresher before your assessment, or simply want to head out on the Gower Peninsula for a fun day of climbing then you can get in touch with Matt via his Website or over on Facebook.

 Happy faces as the sun comes out for a classic Gower day.

Happy faces as the sun comes out for a classic Gower day.

Another Side of Existence by Mikaela toczek

 Click on the image to launch the Virtual Reality space.

Click on the image to launch the Virtual Reality space.


“As a little nursery child… sitting alone behind the nursery curtain to watch the great resplendent planet in the evening sky near sunset.  The wonder and deep admiration I felt was surely something quite outside me, coming from another side of existence, of which I knew nothing, only that it was enchanting.”

Thereza Dillwyn-Llewelyn (later Story-Maskelyne, 1834-1926), was the daughter of John and Mary Dillwyn-Llewelyn, the progressive Victorian family from Penllergare, near Swansea. She was a woman of many talents. Throughout her long life, Thereza’ s interests spanned the sciences, politics, culture, photography and astronomy, all of which she explored on her family’s estate.  The landscaped Penllergare estate was designed as a place to ponder the picturesque, yet Thereza’s inquisitiveness drove her to look beyond such grounded beauty toward the boundless possibilities symbolised by the cosmos. This fascination with the ‘resplendent planet[s]’ encouraged her father John to build an observatory at Penllergare, and it was here, in 1858, that father and daughter collaborated to produce the now iconic - and at the time groundbreaking - photograph of the moon. Thereza was instrumental in the making of this image and it places her as an important figure in both astronomy and photography.

 Image from: Goldberg Vicki,  From A Forgotten Box a Ray of Light , New York Times, Feb 6, 2014Click the image to visit the source article.

Image from: Goldberg Vicki, From A Forgotten Box a Ray of Light, New York Times, Feb 6, 2014Click the image to visit the source article.


Since 2014 I have been studying the observatory at Penllergare and responding to the life of Thereza Dillwyn-Llewelyn, whose contributions to science and photography currently lack in-depth acknowledgement in all but a few recently published books.  As part of my research I tracked down Thereza’s memoirs that until 2015 lay un-archived in the British Library.  The memoirs revealed Thereza’s innermost conflicts and desires, specifically her lifelong obsession with experiencing comets.  “How I longed to see a comet in those days.  I even put a pin into the old pillar in the dungeon of Oystermouth Castle, walked around it three times and wished for a comet and it came within a year”.  

Thereza’s memoirs also contain a range of previously unseen, unpublished illustrations.  The images break the artistic norms and expectations of young women during the 19th Century and further reveal Thereza’s obsession with the night sky. Featuring dark, sparse and expansive spaces, Thereza’s illustrations are punctuated with pinholes for stars and bright white streaks cutting across their pages.  My own images, taken in the dark corners of the observatory throughout its renovation, aim to create a resonance with Thereza’s, distorting our perceptions of the distant and the near.

The Dillwyn-Llewelyn’s were at the forefront of utilising contemporary science and technology in all areas of their lives.  For example, it is likely that John visited the Great Exhibition in 1851 to source the most innovative building materials for the observatory, which were uncovered and replicated during the recent renovation process.  Equally the position of the observatory was carefully calculated for optimum performance.  He was later invited to the Royal Photographic Society to present the photograph of the moon, which was guided and calculated by Thereza.  

Thereza was also committed to contemporary science and technology.  There are a number of letters written by her and on her behalf to Charles Darwin and other prominent figures in science and she supplied climate data to the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  However, it is clear from Thereza’s journals that although her father did everything to encourage her passions, she was stifled by the political and societal norms of the time, which prevented Thereza from pursuing them outside the grounds of Penllergare and attending events such as the invitation to the Royal Photographic Society, alongside her father.

Contemporary Technology

Given the Dillwyn-Llewelyn’s experimentation with cutting edge science and technology, I am under no doubt that if they were alive today they would be equally fascinated with Virtual Reality (VR).  I also believe that Thereza in particular would have embraced VR given her fascination with other worlds, realms of existence and exploring the micro and macro elements of our planet and its position in the universe.  Rather than replicate historic processes or remain in the status quo, in collaboration with GoTouchVR, we have created a response to the life of Thereza Dillwyn-Llewelyn that attempts to engage with contemporary technology. VR is developing rapidly and is the current focus of many early adopters, much like the Dillwyn-Llewelyn’s early adoption of photography.  

Another Side of Existence can be experienced using you phone, tablet or desktop and navigated through by simply moving your phone/tablet around, or guiding your mouse.  However, for more enhanced immersion we suggest using a VR headset such as Occulus, or a simple phone-based headset such as Google Cardboard (which originates from the victorian photographic stereoscope).

Launch the Virtual Reality space by clicking on the image below


  •  Story-Maskelyne Thereza, 1923, Memoirs, Add MS 89120/10

Winter Mountaineering in Scotland: Learning Points by Mikaela toczek

 Looking back towards our scrambling route along Fiacaill Ridge.

Looking back towards our scrambling route along Fiacaill Ridge.

2017 is my year for learning and development and to kick things off I attended a 5 day winter mountaineering course at Glenmore Lodge.  In 2018 I am aiming to attend my winter mountain leader training, but I have very little winter scrambling experience and decided it was the perfect opportunity to take a course.

The week began with meeting our instructor Alan Halewood and introducing our previous skills and aspirations.  Alan then tailored the next 5 days perfectly to our needs, creating a structure that pushed us out of our comfort zones with completely new skills and developing the skills we already had.  We were also lucky to be in a group of 3 rather than the usual 4, which resulted in more opportunities for personalised learning.

 Alan assured us his icy beard provided extra insulation.

Alan assured us his icy beard provided extra insulation.

Of course you can learn a lot from reading relevant literature, blogs, chatting to more experienced peers and just getting outside but I am definitely a Kinaesthetic learner, which means I learn best through physical action with feedback in context.  As a result, I love attending courses and as a teacher myself, I appreciate the value of an excellent educator.  Alan certainly fulfilled that role!  I felt I was consistently improving over the 5 days and Alan's facilitation also brought our happy band of 4 together as a great team, enabling us to help and advise each other.

We all started with different aims and objectives and although I can't speak for the other participants, mine were definitely met.  Here is a summary of my key learning points from the course and also from the following days when I put some of what I had learned into action on a couple of solo walks.

 Curved Cornices above Coire an T-Sneachda.

Curved Cornices above Coire an T-Sneachda.

Planning and Preparation

As a summer ML I am confident route-planning and using the forecasts to aid my decision-making process but Scotland in winter is entirely different. I already had experience using SAIS, MWIS and the Met Office to cover all the potential conditions out on the hill but my decision-making based on these certainly improved throughout the week.

During the course I was introduced to FatMap, which provides detailed terrain guides to help you assess avalanche risk.  I also honed my skills using the Be Avalanche Aware (BAA) process for my winter planning, and as a result feel much more confident navigating well away from potential avalanche sites.  

Another skill that I will be taking forward is setting more key points than on a standard summer day.  These are positions at which something within your walk might change, for example (using BAA) the snow, team condition, or the terrain.  By pre-planning key points we are able to make more educated and informed decisions and avoid falling into one of the heuristic (human) traps, such as commitment to a pre-planned route.

On my solo walks I planned much shorter days than I ordinarily would to allow me the space to think about the terrain and conditions on the ground more carefully and to account for issues like deep drifts of snow that can significantly hinder progress.  I also planned backup options and potential escape routes in more depth. 

 Navigating in Scottish winter is tough!  Having very clear plans in advance makes a huge difference. Photo:  Alan Halewood .

Navigating in Scottish winter is tough!  Having very clear plans in advance makes a huge difference. Photo: Alan Halewood.

Equipment and organisation

In the summer we can generally afford a little faff time.  In the winter faffing is not an option.  We were out in 70mph winds, which leaves very little room for error!  Getting equipment prioritised and organised in the same way for all your outings can help to minimise this.  I have now permanently moved my compass, pacing card and A6 map case to my right coat pocket and all except the map are tied in.  My left coat pocket has my goggles and maybe extra gloves.

For walking this is my winter rucksack system:

  • Hip pockets: sugary sweets and snacks (stuff that won't freeze!) and my phone.
  • Bottom of pack (has access zip): crampons plus climbing gear if needed.
  • Main pocket: Extra layers, more food, hot drink, spare map and med kit.
  • Hood pocket: headtorch and spare batteries, spare gloves, maybe more snacks!
  • Ice Axe:  My axe is slipped down the back of my pack with the pick hooked over the shoulder strap for easy access.

For mountaineering I found that my rucksack has too much bulk and extra cords/ties/pockets and so I had to attach my hip belt around the back to ensure I can access gear on my harness efficiently.


I am a big fan of merino wool and so my layering system usually consists of a merino vest and leggings, base layer, mid layer and soft-shell jacket, waterproofs and a warm insulated jacket to pull on over everything.  Down is not great for Scotland so get yourself a synthetic belay jacket.

I have mild Reynauds, which affects the blood flow to my fingers and toes in changes of temperature.  As a result I have tried many, many gloves types over the years and I now feel like I have the perfect system, All-Mitten!  I chose Montane primaloft mittens, which I wore under my Dachstein woollen mitts and my hands were toasty warm all-week.  Because Dachstein's are made of shrunken wool, even when they are wet they stay warm and the snow gathering on the outside also adds extra insulation.

I think everyone was a little bit sceptical at the beginning of the week about whether I would handle the ropework, kit and general management on the hill in my mittens but I made it work!  Of course dexterity is reduced, but if you practice enough, you can tie all the knots you need in mittens, place gear and put your crampons on.  I did stitch on some mitten minders, just in case I needed to take them off!

 Leading a pitch in my Dachstein mitts. Photo:  Alan Halewood

Leading a pitch in my Dachstein mitts. Photo: Alan Halewood


As winter scrambling is pretty new for me this was one of my biggest learning areas but I will try and keep it to the key points.

  • Ropework:  Efficiently managing a rope in the winter was a big one for me.  We covered bucket belays with and without horizontal axe anchors as well as carrying coils and moving together in a ridge context.  We briefly touched on snow anchors but my main areas for learning were in a scrambling context.
  • Gear:  I am looking to start a small scrambling rack and over the week I developed my understanding of how this might look with just using 10 rocks, 4 hexes and a small range of different slings and extenders.
  • Route-choice: Of course this can only be learnt through experience of picking lines.  But over the week I gained confidence visualising the routes and choosing appropriate gear placements and setting up belays.  As a sport climber who occasionally seconds on trad I was very happy to start placing gear and lead pitches in a winter context.


My usual camera of choice is my Fuji XT1, which is perfect for backpacking, hiking and summer scrambling.  However, in the winter I found it too bulky with all my other kit for scrambling and so I am now in the process of looking for an advanced compact system with weather-sealing and RAW capabilities that will fit inside my jacket.  It's a lot to ask for but I'll provide another update when/if I find one!



Long-distance hiking with a dog by Mikaela toczek

 Bella enjoys the view on the GR11.

Bella enjoys the view on the GR11.

Meet Bella

Before we decided which long-distance trail we were going to attempt we knew that Bella, our Border Collie, would be joining us.  This decision was one of the first certainties of our journey and it was what drove most of the decisions that followed.  If you are considering taking your dog with you on your adventures then you must take an approach to planning that puts them first.  This means setting goals for distance, terrain and weather that will be different than for if you were setting off without your animal companion as part of your team!

 Ready to go at Cabo De Higuer.

Ready to go at Cabo De Higuer.

Bella is a 6 year old Border Collie and is used to multi-day treks in the UK.  She has always slept in the porch of my tent during these adventures, that sometimes last up to a week, with distances of up to 30km a day.  Living in the UK means Bella is used to walking in heavy rain, some snow and generally mild conditions but she has not had much experience of walking in hot, dry weather; I would say that anything over 20C is getting too hot for her.  Importantly Bella walks well on and off the lead and never ventures more than 10M away from us.  She is very good with wildlife, cows and horses but although I trust her, I would never walk her off the lead near sheep.  Bella's training and past experiences all prepared her for a longer adventure and, just like with humans, meant that she had the right background to be comfortable with something longer.  In order for your dog to enjoy a thru-hike as much as you they need to build up to it over a number of years and be happy sleeping somewhere new every night, which is a big ask for a lot of dogs.


One major consideration is food.  Bella eats dry kibble for every meal, with small amounts in the morning and evening.  This is sometimes supplemented with our leftovers as a treat.  When completing a long-distance trek you need to increase the amount of protein that your dog consumes to ensure that they stay healthy.  We chose to carry Evolution Naturally Complete Dog Food, which contains 30% protein and is 70% meat.  This food was ideal as you do not need to feed your dog a large amount to get the right nutrients.  We carried enough of this for 12 days, along with some high protein treats.  Additionally, when we stopped for a meal at a cottage or town we always put aside some of the meat for Bella as extra treats.

Of course there is no real way of knowing what you will find for re-stocking on a long-distance trail but this uncertainty can be managed in a number of ways.  If your dog has a sensitive stomach, changing food brands can be very uncomfortable for them, so you may want to arrange for their brand of food to be dropped in advance at specific points along a trail.  This takes a lot of planning but could be worth it for your own peace of mind and for their continuity.  We decided to buy food along the way, which meant we had to be a little more flexible with Bella's diet.  If there are no shops and you find you are running low, one option can be to seek out a house with a dog and ask to buy some food from the owners.  Similarly, on one occasion the owners of our accommodation for the night helped us out with enough food for a week.  In most towns with convenience stores it is possible to find dog food, but it is harder to buy high protein options.  When we had the chance, we bought small dog food or puppy food, which is generally higher in protein than medium-sized adult food.

 Supervising portion control.  

Supervising portion control.  


You need to decide well in advance if your dog will help carry the additional Kg that their food will add to your kit.  Carrying a small rucksack can be enjoyable for a dog, especially Border Collies who generally like to have a job to do!  By the time we set off on our walk Bella would get excited about putting her rucksack on because she knew it meant going on a fun adventure.  As a general rule, medium sized dogs can carry about 1/4 of their bodyweight.  Bella weighed 18kg when we started walking and initially carried 12 days of food that weighed approximately 2.5kg.  Despite being within her range, this turned out to be a bit much for her and so we reduced it to 8 days and we carried any additional food.  If your dog becomes uncomfortable you have to be able to potentially carry all of their food if needed.  It rained for the first week of our journey, which caused Bella's rucksack to rub as she couldn't get dry; so we carried everything until we felt it was appropriate for her to try again.  

Rucksacks vary in price massively.  I have read many good reviews of Ruffwear packs and seriously considered their Palisades Pack as a high quality option.  Before investing in a more expensive pack, we decided to train Bella with a cheaper version and upgrade if necessary.  We chose the Outward Hound Quick Release Backpack.  Bella got on so well with this pack that we stuck with it for the trail and it was absolutely fine.  You do need to make sure it is perfectly balanced with weight on either side, but if you split up the dog food into portions this is easy to do.

 Bella puts on her booties for some rough ground.

Bella puts on her booties for some rough ground.

In addition to Bella's rucksack, we also carried booties for her.  These came in useful on days with lots of walking on forestry roads or tarmac as her feet did get a little sore.

In your med kit you may want to carry some extra crepe bandages, and saline solution for washing wounds.  We agreed that if Bella started to show signs of being unwell or suffered an injury we would get her off the trail and to a vet as soon as we could and so the usual contents of our med kit would suffice. 

Route Choice

Once you are sure your dog is trained and has the right food and kit then you can decide on a trail.  We aimed to start walking at the end of September and used this as a jumping off point for research.  We needed a trail that would have fairly regular options for re-stocking or evacuating if something happened but still wanted to get out into some wild, mountainous terrain.  Bella can do some easy scrambling as long as it is not too exposed or sustained but anything requiring ropes was not an option. The weather needed to be fairly mild, snow is OK but too much heat would cause us problems.  All of this brought us to the Pyrenees.

There are three options for long-distance hiking in the Pyrenees, the GR10, the GR11 and the Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP).  The GR10 stays on the French side of the mountains, and mostly travels through steep, forested hills and farmland, with easy to access accommodation at the end of each stage.  However, you are not allowed to take dogs in any of the French National Parks so this was an instant no for us.  The GR11 sticks to the Spanish side and varies in terrain massively from rolling hills, to karst, boulderfields and granite mountains.  The HRP has considerably more scrambling and stays high so there are less options for restocking and Bella may have had issues with the terrain.  After researching a number of options we decided that the GR11 was the route for us and it was perfect.

 The last high pass of the trail after Nuria.

The last high pass of the trail after Nuria.

Autumn is a great time to walk the GR11 for foraging and mild weather.  The weather can of course change quickly, but no more so than in the summer when you can set your watch by the afternoon storms.  Heat was a concern for us with Bella, but by the time we reached the eastern sections of the trail, the weather had cooled considerably and it was just warm enough for comfortable walking.  

You can read more about the GR11 in Autumn in my November blog post.


Thru-hiking with your dog means you will have to wild-camp for the majority of the trail as there are only a few dog-friendly options.  We wild-camped for 22 nights out of 41 and only stayed in accommodation such as hotels and Casa Rural (B&B's) for 5 nights.  The Refugios (Mountain Cottages) along the GR11 do not allow dogs at all, not even into the boot area while you have a meal.  We left Bella outside a couple of times while we stopped for lunch but only if the weather was fine.  There are a number of Bothies/unmanned refuges that you can stay in, and out of season they should be quiet.  Our favourites were Refugio D-Anglios and Refugi De Baiau both of which were immaculate.  Although Bella slept in the porch of our tent most of the time, when the nights were particularly cold she slept inside with us and kept our feet warm!

 Arrival at Refugi de Baiau

Arrival at Refugi de Baiau

Here are the dog-friendly hotels and B&B's that were all very welcoming:

Casa Rural Valle De Tena, Sallent De Gallego:  There are no options for camping at the end of stage 11, despite information that says otherwise.  The wonderful hosts at Valle De Tena opened just for us, cooked a great meal and helped us out with some dog food for Bella.  Our room was stunning, with a large en-suite and nice decor.

Hotel Vallferrera, Areu: A lovely hotel with good quality en-suite rooms and excellent food.  All of the staff were fantastic and went out of their way to help us out.

Hostal Estacio, Puigcerda: There is a campsite before Puigcerda but they do not allow dogs so we continued into town.  Hostal Estacio is just off the trail next to the train station.  It is convenient, quiet and the en-suite rooms are clean and pleasant.

Hostal Ter, Setcases: A family run B&B that were delighted to receive Bella as a guest.  The room was a little noisy through the night because of the old heating pipes, but it was clean, warm and we had an en-suite.

Off-season you can expect to pay between €50-€60 for a double room, with an extra charge for your dog of around €10 in some places.

In addition to those mentioned above most campsites allow dogs along the trail, with some allowing dogs in cabins.

Final Thoughts

If you are willing to plan your journey around your dog as part of the adventure of long-distance walking, it is certainly worth the effort.  Bella was our motivator, film-maker, comic relief and comfort.  She coped with everything the trail threw at us and managed better than us a lot of the time!  She made friends wherever we went, with friendly walkers and locals stopping to chat about her and her rucksack.  Bella was an essential member of our team and we are looking forward to our next adventure together!

Adventures in storytelling by Mikaela toczek

 Stargazing on the GR11

Stargazing on the GR11

When we were walking the GR11, storytelling became a huge part of our daily lives.  As we walked we would tell each other detailed stories, old and new, from books, tv or film, trash, tragedy or terrifying; it didn't really matter, as long as they were told with gusto!  We also read to each other in the evenings from our only book that followed the journey of Norma Jean Belloff who cycled across America creating the first Women's speed record.  We wild-camped for the majority of the trip and the distinct lack of technology brought storytelling alive for us and it is something that I am trying to continue and explore more since our return.

In the spirit of storytelling, this week we attended a stargazing event with the Dark Sky Wales team and it reinforced my feelings that storytelling not only connects the teller and the audience in the present, but also across history.  However, most importantly, storytelling engages us with science and nature in a way that facts alone often struggle to do.  Just look at the viewing figures for Planet Earth II, it is the beautiful storytelling that hooks us in, with more young people watching the most recent episode than X-Factor - brilliant!  If we want young people to connect with nature and conservation, then storytelling from a young age is not a bad place to start!

I know a few constellations, but I am usually limited to The Plough, Pleiades and Orion's Belt when I gaze up at the sky.  The Plough was the first constellation I was able to recognise, although as a child I referred to it as the saucepan (and still do now if I'm honest!).  It always makes me think of home, or more specifically the street where I grew up.  Perhaps because we were always told to come home from playing when it started to get dark, by which point The Plough was normally visible as I hurried back. So, I associate it with happy memories, or stories, from my childhood and that is probably why I have always remembered it and look for it in the night sky.  Pleiades and Orion's Belt I picked up along the way, through various evenings spent picking out clusters, shapes and patterns and making up my own stories.

Once we start telling stories about the stars they are brought to life and it becomes very easy to remember and pick out constellations from the night sky and their associated narratives.  In particular, stories that allow you to connect numerous constellations are extremely powerful tools to help us remember.  For example the Greek myth that connects Gemini and The Ram through the quest for the Golden Fleece with Jason and the Argonauts.

These ancient myths provide glimpses into the distant past, through stories that would have been passed down verbally, well before the written word, and elaborated or embellished with each telling.  I was particularly interested in the Celtic mythologies associated with the constellations, with stories of Lleu overlapping Perseus and the horse Llyr connecting with Pegasus.  Llyr, the sea god, is associated with a beautiful white horse, which then also provides a possible explanation of why the whitecaps of waves are sometimes known as white horses.

Next year will be named the Year of Legends in Wales and I have already signed up to a storytelling workshop for activity providers in the Brecon Beacons.  In the mean time I have just bought a copy of The Mabinogion and A Poet's Guide to Britain and I am excited about connecting them all with my future walks and adventures!

 Night Walk Pen Y Fan

Night Walk Pen Y Fan