Diversity, Dialogue and Disruption! by Mikaela toczek

This weekend I zoomed down from a wet week of training and assessment with potential leaders for World Challenge in the Lake District to Bristol for a burst of creative, adventurous energy from Shextreme Festival and the Women’s Adventure Expo. I’ve had a few days for it all to sink in now and it feels like a good time for a bit of reflection.

But first, here’s some background. Shextreme is a Women’s Adventure Film Festival set up by Ruth Farrar that is now in its fourth year. Calling Shextreme a Film Festival doesn’t quite do this event justice, as it brings together film-makers, photographers, bloggers, publishers, poets, performance and any other form of Outdoor Media that you can think of! I was lucky enough to have my blog post “A Successful Failure on Triglav” selected for the Adventure Blog Award, which was such an awesome surprise, especially as it is the first competition I have entered my blog into. It is amazing to get recognition for something that started out from a desire to improve my writing and to provide a bit of background to my life outdoors, warts and all!

The Women’s Adventure Expo celebrates adventure in all its weird and wonderful forms. Set up in 2015 by sisters Tania John and Rebecca Hughes the Expo is built around a range of talks, panels and breakout sessions. This one day event offers up the opportunity to make connections with other adventurous people all excited about sharing stories and ideas. This year the expo was chaired by the untiring, frolicsome Anna McNuff who kept us all bouncing along from one inspirational story to the next. I was there representing World Challenge, who are passionate about making active changes to increase the diversity of their leaders, of whom only 28% are currently women.

Lucky for us the two events coincided perfectly, collaborating to create a weekend jam-packed full of adventure. And it wasn’t just the calendar that brought the two together so beautifully. There were common themes running throughout. Rather than give you a breakdown of all of the amazing stories that were shared I have tried to pick out what I felt was the essence of the two and it goes something like this.


You would be forgiven for thinking that two events focusing on women in adventure could be less diverse than some of the bigger adventure expos and film festivals but here’s why they achieved the opposite. Through having a focus that was more than just ‘Adventure’ both succeeded in encouraging meaningful dialogue about diversity in all its forms. Both Shextreme and the Women’s Adventure Expo celebrated adventurous women with disabilities and women from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities and recognised the work that still needs to be done to increase participation from Women and Men from all walks of life.

 Boarders without Borders, Source: Shextreme Film Festival

Boarders without Borders, Source: Shextreme Film Festival

From Shextreme the standout film for me was Boarders Without Borders, an intimate invitation into the creation of the UK’s first Women of Colour Longboarding Crew. So many film festivals focus on the attention-grabbing, jaw-dropping, bombastic and seemingly unreachable adventures of the elite few but here was a compelling, personal story from the grassroots level that I am sure will inspire others to start their own clubs and communities around the UK.

Equally, Street to Peak founder Dwayne Fields and two of his mountain climbing young women came along to the Women’s Adventure Expo to chat to us about Unlikely Adventurers. Cutting to the core of the diversity issue in the outdoors, Dwayne championed taking unlikely friends on adventures, starting small and sharing stories. Refusing to see diversity as a problem but as a challenge that can be overcome through active initiatives that increase participation was powerfully put across in its simplicity. I also think that it was beautifully condensed in answer to the question “How can we get more young people outside?” with the simple response “make PE more interesting”. I completely agree that PE should include more adventurous activities as part of an embedded curriculum, not just one trip in 5 years of secondary school (if you’re lucky) with a couple of runs up a climbing wall.

The simplest response of all was put across by Dwayne and also by Misba Khan who was part of the All-Women EuroArabian expedition to the North Pole earlier this year. they both distilled the issue down to one clear message. To encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to take part in adventurous activities, we need more role models that reflect that diversity. Simply put “You’ve got to be it to see it”.


Bringing together engaged voices in one place creates a powerful platform for dialogue and there were all sorts of exciting connections being made and schemes being started for our next adventures. Having representatives from a range of organisations enables us to put faces to names and opens up the potential for new ideas. For example, writing a book seems massively daunting, where do you even begin? Camilla from Vertebrate publishing was on hand at Shextreme to offer tips and just generally chat to, making it suddenly seem possible. Or you could simply walk over to the books table at WAexpo and chat to one of the many adventurers there who have written amazing books, why not you next?

Having small breakout sessions and panel discussions with extended opportunities for questions and answers opens up the dialogue to the wider adventure community and it certainly provides more meaningful spaces to reflect on what we can all do to have a positive impact, not just on others but also on the environment, communities and the wider world. Many of the issues we face can seem insurmountable, Climate Change in particular seems so massive that it becomes overwhelming for individuals. But if we come together and collaborate with different groups and experts then individuals can start to shift the balance.

 Sacha Dench, Flight of the Swans. Image Credit:  BBC

Sacha Dench, Flight of the Swans. Image Credit: BBC

Sasha Dench and Kate Rawles encapsulated this for me. Sasha’s expedition ‘Flight of the Swans’, following Berwick Swans on their migration from Northern Russia back to the UK was so utterly bonkers that it completely succeeded in communicating the urgency needed to inspire change. Sascha’s adventure was backed up by the scientific community, with meaningful data, but built a journey based on discussion and making real connections with real people living very different lives. Equally, Kate’s journey through South America on her bamboo bike brought together hard truths and people fighting for environmental justice from necessity and an urgent need to protect their land, livelihoods and futures.


In order for meaningful change to happen we need to think differently and disrupt our habits and comfortable trajectories. This might start with something small, like picking up two bits of plastic every day when you leave the house or through taking an unlikely adventurer out to discover something in nature. Or you might need a bigger disruption like setting off on an adventure, where success is only defined after you return and may indeed only be successful through the unpredictable outcomes created through failure.

What next?

Next year I would love to see Shextreme and WAexpo collaborate with the awesome Women’s Climbing Symposium, which unfortunately fell on the same weekend. Lets broaden opportunities even more! Also, how about running a photography exhibition as part of Shextreme and the Women’s Adventure Expo?

Shextreme have also just launched their new Alliance, which aims to provide support, training and opportunities for women adventure filmmakers, photographers and storytellers. Follow them to keep updated!

You can also join Women in Outdoor Media. This is a collaborative community based on sharing ideas, feedback and opportunities to all outdoor storytellers in any medium.

Check out some of the following:

Women in Outdoor Media


Women’s Adventure Expo

Women’s Climbing Symposium

EuroArabian North Pole Expedition

Vertebrate Publishing

Boarders without Borders

Plastic is not fantastic: Reducing our impact on expedition life by Mikaela toczek

 Team hair washing, expedition style! Conserving water and using shampoo bars.

Team hair washing, expedition style! Conserving water and using shampoo bars.

Although spending time outdoors often goes hand-in-hand with increasing awareness about nature and the environment, unfortunately we can unwittingly have a negative impact in favour of cutting down weight and convenience on expedition. Here are 10 of my tried and tested suggestions for reducing our impact and creating more sustainable adventures:

  1. Use a shampoo bar.

    I use Lush Seanik bar for my hair, body, clothes… pretty much everything. I’ve used a lot of different bars and this one is the best by far. The others either leave my hair feeling like straw or a grease-bucket, or make my skin feel like it is shrink-wrapped on. Even better, is that the Seanik bar is made from all natural ingredients, so you won’t damage the environment using it to wash yourself out in nature.

  2. Treat your water.

    I always treat water over buying a bottle. Boiling is the surest way to make your water safe, but using chlorine tablets or drops like Aquaprove are faster and reliable. I prefer these systems to bottles that also filter but that is also an option.

  3. Buy water bottles that last.

    It is worth investing in a good, widemouth water bottle. These ones by Camelbak are perfect as they have a wide top for filling and washing, but a screw-top for drinking, which comes in handy on those unpaved, bouncy mountain roads! I have tried using bladders for my water, but the tubes are difficult to keep clean, the main compartments are prone to punctures and they just generally do not last as long. I do use a small aluminium bottle for day-to-day use, but on expedition I like to see what is going in to my bottle!

  4. Opt for glass for fizzy drinks.

    If you get fed up of warm water with a hint of chlorine (why, would you?!) and need a treat, A lot of the countries I have travelled in sell fizzy drinks in glass bottles, which are then collected, sterilised and re-filled. Look for these over plastic bottles to reduce your impact.

  5. Buy food with a real skin not a plastic one!

    Visit local markets to buy fresh fruit and veg (that can be peeled or washed in treated water) and take a little linen bag for your shopping.

 No food storage, no problem. My last team made fresh bread every day during our community phase.

No food storage, no problem. My last team made fresh bread every day during our community phase.

6. Use a bamboo toothbrush.

It seems small but it is estimated that 6.8billion people use disposable plastic toothbrushes around the world. Even if you only replace them once a year that is a staggering amount of plastic.

7. Women, Invest in a Mooncup!

They are easy to clean, you only need one, and they save carrying around a huge bag of sanitary products that are difficult to dispose of once used… Gross! As well as being more practical for expedition life, Mooncups also reduce your impact on the environment so it’s win, win. I suggest starting to use one a few months before you go away, so you get used to it in normal life first. I know some people use them alongside underwear like Thinx, which could be handy for extra confidence on those long journeys!

8. Buy a Titanium Spork (or just take a normal metal spoon from home!).

On my last expedition more than half the plastic sporks broke, so although they are reusable, they inevitably end up in the landfill. A normal spoon from home is actually all you need, as lets face it, when does anyone use the knife end of their spork anyway?!

9. Ditch the wet wipes! Just bring a very lightweight flannel.

Add a little water to it in your tent in the evening, rub down, rinse it out and hang it up. It will be dry by the morning and if it’s not then just clip it to your bag.

10. While we are at it, cut down on your anti-bacterial hand gel.

Don’t get me wrong, it is very useful and you should still take some, but team up with others in your group to bring a larger bottle and also bring a cut-off from your soap in a re-sealable tin with the end of an old bamboo toothbrush for a nailbrush. Washing your hands properly is the best protection against bacteria, especially after seeing the amount of people who just rub hand gel onto filthy hands and then magically think they are clean!

Although recycling can feel like we are doing our bit, even in the UK it often ends up in landfills and/or the ocean. The best way to have an impact is to

refuse and reuse products made out of unsustainable materials!

 Preparing to cook on an open fire in South Africa.

Preparing to cook on an open fire in South Africa.

Review: FjallRaven Kaipak 58W by Mikaela toczek

 Me and my Kaipak on the Giants Cup Trail, South Africa.

Me and my Kaipak on the Giants Cup Trail, South Africa.

What’s your favourite gear? For me its definitely rucksacks. I don’t think I’m a gear geek but I do have a lot of rucksacks from 5ltr all the way through to 70ltr, ultralight to tough and traditional. I am constantly on the lookout for my ideal expedition pack and I think I may have found it! This review is based on a genuine purchase and personal experience.

Choosing a brand.

Many of my smaller rucksacks are Osprey, they are versatile and fit well and are generally lightweight but I have never got on with their expedition packs. Osprey’s larger packs feel like they are clamping you in with their excessive hip belts and back systems and there are two many toggles and tags, straps and gadgets that make them feel cumbersome and faffy.

Over the past few years I have been on the lookout for perfect simplicity. Enter the Fjallraven Kaipak. Prior to this I was using the Montane Grand Tour 70ltr pack, which is simple and lightweight, but it feels flimsy and requires a packing system planned to perfection. The Grand Tour needs to be full to feel balanced and secure, it was also far too big for any expedition I have been on. The Fjallraven Kaipak however is 58Ltrs and cuts away all of the attention grabbing features of other new bags vying for our attention.


The Kaipak is made from their own G-1000 HeavyDuty Eco fabric, which consists of recycled polyester and organic cotton. Already they have my attention, too many brands use harmful materials in their products, whilst attempting to peddle an environmentally conscious approach. But here is a bag made out of predominantly recycled materials and that can be repaired and cared for to make it last.

The fabric is indeed heavyduty and already it has taken a battering from me on expeditions trekking in Morocco, South Africa, Swaziland and around the UK. It feels tougher than any other packs I have used before and if any tears do happen, I feel confident that good quality repairs will be possible.


The design of the bag keeps things very simple, there are no unnecessary toggles or straps but well-thought out and useful features have been included. The bag is top loading, with an adjustable hood and bottom access as you would expect with a rucksack of this size. However, what I really love about the Kaipak is the front zipped pocket. This pocket keeps items you may need quickly separate from your main gear and I use it for snacks, maps, waterproofs and other small items I may need. The compression straps on the side double up as secure pole or axe attachments and the water bottle mesh pockets are large enough to securely stow your 1tr water bottles on each side.


Most rucksacks come with adjustable back sizes, but the Kaipak relies on the initial fit being comfortable. It is only possible to make adjustments with the shoulder straps at the tops and under your arms and with the hip belt. Initially I was apprehensive about this lack of adjustment, but it fits me perfectly and feels extremely comfortable on the trail. The hip belt also has two good size pockets for more essential snacks!

Weather Resistance

In bad weather you can wax your pack to increase its water resistance. It does come with a pack cover but I have never used it and find that the bag’s own repellency combined with waterproof stuff sacks is sufficient to keep all my kit dry in even the worst weather.


The Kaipak 58W does weigh in at slightly more than other women’s packs of the same size at 2100 g. Weight has been saved by cutting out the adjustable back system and additional features but the durable fabric does mean you will be carrying additional grams. However, after using other lightweight packs I would choose durability over weight for an expedition pack. Also, choosing to use a 58ltr pack inevitably saves you weight as it is smaller than the standard +60ltr packs usually recommended for expeditions. I can comfortably fit all of my gear in this pack for expeditions of any duration. I have used it for days out with groups climbing, a weeklong trek along the Pembrokeshire coast path and for a month in Sub-Saharan Africa and it has been perfect for all of them.

 Me, Mum, Bella and Ozzy on the Pembrokeshire Coast path.

Me, Mum, Bella and Ozzy on the Pembrokeshire Coast path.


If you buy the Kaipak directly from Fjallraven it will set you back £220 but it can be bought for £170 if you do some shopping around. The price puts it towards the upper-end of packs grouped by similar volume but I would argue that for an extra £50 you are getting better quality and a longer-lasting bit of kit.


Taking things back to basics works beautifully for the Fjallraven Kaipak and it is now my go-to rucksack of choice. I have been won over by its simplicity and i think it has moved into the territory previously occupied by Macpac, but with more intelligent and aesthetic design. I love that the rucksack uses large amounts of recycled materials and because it is so durable, I hope it will last me 10 years or more of heavy use around the world.

How Climbing Changed My Life. An Article Not About Climbing. by Mikaela toczek

 Happy faces on my Rock Climbing Instructor assessment at The Roaches.

Happy faces on my Rock Climbing Instructor assessment at The Roaches.

Me: "I think I might fall..."

Nik: "Ok"

Me: "Wait, do you think I should fall?"

Nik: "If you need to fall, fall"

Me: "OK, I'm going to fall now..."

I am not an epic climber, I get scared, I worry about falling, I get nervous about the next gear placement, I bail on routes I should be able to climb. However, I love climbing, whether it is sport, trad, bouldering or deep water soloing and I am pretty sure it has changed my life.

That may seem like a bold statement, that blows the impact climbing has had on my life out of proportion, and you may be tutting at your screen, thinking I'm just trying to come up with something catchy and inspiring to write about.  Over the last year I have shied away from writing this, for fear of appearing self aggrandising and also because it opens up some difficult times in my life that I haven't wanted to put down in words. But now is as good a time as any and I hope it encourages others to seek out a climbing course, club or wall to give it a try.

 Deep Water Soloing in Mallorca.

Deep Water Soloing in Mallorca.

If Life Serves You Lemons, Go Climbing...

Or something like that.

Back in 2014 I went through a painful breakup with my partner, who I had been with for 6 years, after just having bought a house together.  This was a huge bombshell.  I was left with a house in a small Welsh valleys town, with only Bella (my Border Collie) for company.  Almost all of our friends were mutual but mutually brought over from him and it didn't seem likely I would keep in touch with any of them. I suddenly felt very alone.

 Bella 2014

Bella 2014

I was also in my second year of teaching and 4 months earlier had taken time off with stress-related illness.  I loved teaching when I was in the classroom but I felt I was always teetering on the edge of disaster.  I had just watched one of my colleagues go through a dismissal and I was finding the increased workload, targets, data and emotional strain impossible to escape from. 

Of course I also had lots of happy, meaningful and rewarding experiences leading up to these events, but this was the catalyst for my life taking an unexpected swerve, down a much rockier, scenic route than I was previously heading!

When a Surprise is Not a Surprise

These events don't often happen by surprise and although at the time I wouldn't have admitted it, I knew some big changes were approaching.  In the midst of it all, I joined a Ladies Night Climbing Group at Dynamic Rock, which just happened to be 10 minutes from my new house.  I had tried climbing on and off throughout university, but it never seriously took off for me.  But, this group, set up by Jacky Tyrie was full of welcoming, encouraging, awesome climbing women. These women not only provided a fun space that helped me to realise the potential climbing had as a sport but they also became my support network through what was a turbulent, scary and uncertain time in my life. I was gradually introduced to more and more climbers and other outdoor lovers, and now the friendships that I have made through climbing (either directly or by association) are fundamental to my life in Wales.

 Group bouldering in the Lakes.

Group bouldering in the Lakes.

As well as friendships, climbing offered me an outlet.  When I was on a route, I became so absorbed in the process that I was unable to think about other areas of my life.  This was pretty handy at the time, as other areas of my life were not particularly fun to think about. 

I have always been actively involved with one sport or another, mostly running and swimming, both of which I still love now.  But running and swimming allow my mind to wander, I could overthink things at my leisure and it was like having constant repeats of the same miserable show going around in my head.  They have also always been solitary sports for me.  Climbing, on the other hand was social, exciting, engaging and encompassing, so, pretty perfect if you are looking for something to become absorbed in.

It's Amazing What You Can Find Under a Boulder

No, really, it is. I found my husband under one.

As my confidence grew and the climbing bug had well and truly bitten, I spent more and more time at the wall.  When I didn't have a partner for routes I bouldered and loved the social, communal atmosphere I found in the bouldering room.  That's where I met Zlatko, and little did I know, his Slovenian charm and lovely curly hair would result in our marriage 4 years later.  We got to know each other at the wall, in fact our first conversation was sharing beta for the same problem (and for the record I'm pretty sure I solved it before him!). 

Since then we have shared some epics together, some of which you can read about here.  He is my number one adventure buddy (except for Bella of course!) and has promised to humour me on all of my crazy outdoor ideas.  If you want to test the quality of a relationship try walking together for 42 days across the Pyrenees, or relying on each other when things have gone tits up on a multi-pitch mountain route.  One of our friends wrote the following for us on our wedding day and I think it sums up our relationship pretty neatly:

"Partnership is like climbing, all the time it demands confidence, attention and caring for each other.  In return it gives you the purest joy." 

 There is always time to fit in a cheeky climb.

There is always time to fit in a cheeky climb.

When a hobby is more than a hobby

It might be said that I can sometimes be a little bit stubborn.  I don't know how true that is, but back in 2015 I hatched a plan.  Teaching photography in a formal environment was not working out for me.  I would share all these amazing, inspiring photographers and picture myself outside, having my own adventures and things didn't add up.  I asked for a sabbatical first of all, which was declined and then I plagued myself about what to do, before finally and painfully taking a leap of faith and leaving my job in 2016. 

I have now been freelancing as an outdoor instructor for 2 years, and I am still teaching.  I hope I am teaching young people to engage with our incredible landscapes and each other and that they can be strong leaders, team players, independent, scared, excited and that failure is an essential part of learning.  I have had moments, drenched through, gritting my teeth and yet still having to sing and smile that have been testing but I am excited every day I go to work and although I'll never earn as much as I did teaching, I have a more content soul.

 My first session as a qualified Rock Climbing Instructor.

My first session as a qualified Rock Climbing Instructor.

My climbing has also progressed massively.  I have sought out new adventures, learning trad, and taking my first steps into Alpinism on an excellent Conville Trust course. This April I became a Rock Climbing Instructor (formerly Single Pitch Award).  Throughout this process I was privileged to have been mentored by a close friend and experienced instructor, Matt Woodfield, who not only helped me work towards my RCI but also build a new basis for work as a freelancer.  I am so excited to be able to take groups out onto the rock for what is often people's first experiences of climbing.  For some, just challenging themselves and enjoying a new, fun and exciting activity that one day is enough. But, for others it is amazing to see the spark that is lit in these early experiences with the sport, and I hope it can be as transformative for them as it has been for me.

 Rescuing a cragfast Matt Woodfield.

Rescuing a cragfast Matt Woodfield.

A little bit about climbing that is about climbing

My personal climbing is still an extremely important part of my week, I set goals, some of which I keep and some of which I don't, and I try to get outside as often as I can, which is not as often as I would like.  I also have some secret goals that I'm too shy to share publicly, but I'll let you know if I achieve them! 

My article about climbing turns out to have been more about life than it has been about climbing, but I think, in a roundabout way, that proves my point.  Climbing is about a lot more than what happens when you are at the crag or the wall, and I suppose that's why it has changed my life.

 Recovering after bailing off Triglav's North Face.

Recovering after bailing off Triglav's North Face.

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 a 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.