Berghaus Women in Adventure at Kendal Mountain Festival... PLUS exclusive interview with Anna Blackwell

Kendal Mountain Festival – fellow attendees, have you recovered yet? What a crazy packed weekend! I was there representing Intrepid Magazine, as official new Blog Editor for the team – woop!

One of my absolute must-go-to’s for the weekend was Berghaus’ Women in Adventure session on Saturday night – hosted by the one and only Anna McNuff. Anna is also known as the happiest and most enthusiastic person in adventure, and her achievements include running the length of New Zealand, cycling all 50 states of the US, and rollerblading Amsterdam (yes, you heard that right). I have been fangirling her for a while, so I was only just able to hold back a squeal when I bumped into her in the media room, and she a) remembered who I was, b) agreed to a future interview (watch this space!), and c) gave me a huge hug. Dream come true.

Anna was on top form as host, and the line-up of ladies was incredible. First up was Anna Blackwell, definitely ‘one to watch’ emerging into the world of ‘badass ladies undertaking epic human powered, long, self-supported adventures’ and forging a life as a ‘professional adventurer’. She shared her recently completed journey, kayaking in a double kayak from London to the Black Sea, with her friend Kate. This trip included 4000 kilometres of sea, river and canal, 11 countries, and the hilarity of trying to figure out how to pee while kayaking. In case you were interested, when crossing the Channel, Anna and Kate had a support boat, but this was filled with lots of family members, so peeing from the boat with a dangling naked behind was ruled out. The solution – nappies. Doubled up to be safe, this was preferable to flashing, and avoided drenching the gear they’d be using for the next 150 days, in pee.

I was lucky enough to interview Anna to find out a bit more of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of this trip…

All of your previous adventures have been solo hiking trips. How did it compare going with a friend?

I love solo expeditions - I find the solitude, the way it forces you to look after yourself, and become aware of how capable you are, really empowering. However, I have also found with those trips that there were moments of thinking, ‘it would be really great to share this’. In terms of Kate – we met online! She’d posted an advert on Explorers Connect - I emailed her, and we found out we’d been to the same school, and she lived just a couple of miles away! We hit it off straight away – we were in hysterical laughter within about 5 minutes. We didn’t have a single argument throughout the whole 5-month trip of being in a double kayak together. It was really special to share it with her.

What was it like logistically to plan – was it a big time commitment?

We had six months from ‘let’s do this’ before setting off from London. The route planning took a LOT of hours. We had so many different maps - and oh my gosh, SO many hours were spent on Google maps clicking through the whole thing. I was working part-time to start with, but the last few months I was full-time planning and kayaking. The most time-consuming thing was the training. Kate and I had done a bit of kayaking, but just little bits on family holidays! We had to get used to paddling together, each other’s styles... All of that together with finding funding and kit sponsorship, became a full-time job.

Was it hard to get sponsorship?

It was probably the worst aspect of the trip. We sent out about 100 letters, and were calling up dozens of companies per day. It helped that we were fundraising for Pancreatic Cancer Action in memory of Kate’s Dad, so there was this personal, poignant motivation for it. Then there was the fact that it was a world first, and we were two young women doing it – which was quite a sellable story. We got all of our sponsorship and funding in about 3 months – raising about 15 grand - but it was so horrible doing it!

Were you apprehensive that you would perhaps do a week of kayaking and think ‘I’m sick of this’!?

We were concerned! Most of our training was in the same rivers and canals around Oxfordshire, so we got incredibly bored with that. There were definitely sections on the trip where we were bored out of our minds because of the repetitiveness of the scenery. Sometimes there were concrete walls each side which we just couldn’t see past – so we had no idea what was going on, we were just stuck at water level. But we worked as a team – we were so good at distracting each other and playing games like “what would you do if….?”. We were watching Gilmore Girls every night on my i-pad, and every day we’d spend hours discussing the ins and outs of these scenarios!

And the future? Solo vs pairs?! Life as a professional adventurer?

Next year I’m going to do a big solo trek again – but Kate and I will definitely do other trips in the future. We made such a phenomenal team!

But yes, my goal is to focus on being ‘an adventurer’. I’ve got to the stage now where I’m just about making enough to support myself. Mainly through writing, talks, photography...

When I was walking 1000 miles, between my third and fourth years at Uni, that’s when I realised “this is awesome, this is really what gets me going”. Every morning I was waking up way before my alarm, leaping out of my tent - I was so invigorated so much of the time that I realised “there is something to this”. I started writing, and seeing people engage in it was really encouraging. I remember getting to the end – I finished on my 22nd birthday - and having this sinking feeling which completely took over. I was absolutely crushed, because I had to go back. Having had that experience, I knew I wanted to chase that.

Thank you Anna!

Back to Saturday night and Berghaus Women in Adventure…

Anna was followed by the hilarious Sian Lewis, travel journalist behind the award-winning blog ‘The Girl Outdoors’ – for which there is now also a book! She owned the stage with stories we could all relate too – especially the fight with vicious swarms of determined midges in Scotland. This was followed by an interview with 19-year-old pro climber Molly Thompson-Smith, who talked about her recovery from a season-busting (and gruesome) finger injury. Her dedication and commitment was admirable and there were lessons for everyone on how to overcome challenges and keep hold of your dreams.

Finally, we listened to the Wonderful Wild Women. This. Was. Amazing. Who are they? Just a bunch of normal women doing incredible, wild things together; from swimming from the snow-covered pier in Windermere (no wetsuits!), to a 36hr team relay involving running, mountain biking, and paddle boarding around the Lake District. Their main aim is to inspire all women - no matter their age, experience, or ability - to get outdoors and live everyday adventures. Their sense of fun was infectious and the cheer they got from the audience said it all.

Following a huge cheer/foot stomp/drum roll for Jenny Graham, who was passing through having just shattered the women’s around-the-world cycling record, completing this in 125 days, that was a wrap for the evening!

And so, to the beer…

Thanks hugely to Kendal Mountain Festival for supporting Intrepid Magazine's pass into these sessions and for organising the interview with Anna. And, look out for more insights from Anna about this trip in her upcoming article in our print magazine!