Today, a British 50-year-old amateur climber and mother of two is stepping way out of her comfort zone - onto a big wall in Yosemite to share the 100th ascent of The Nose with American climbing legend Hans Florine, who holds the speed record for the route.
Fiona Thornewell MBE is no stranger to speed and challenges either ... but usually with her feet firmly on the ground and in rather colder places. In this interview the Polar explorer explains how it all came about, and why she's doing it to raise money for the BMC Access and Conservation Trust.
FT: Back in 2006 when I broke the South Pole Speed Record, I was invited to Poland to receive an award. Hans Florine was there as well, receiving an award for breaking the World Speed Record for climbing The Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite - in an incredible 2 hours 23 mins.
So Hans and I had speed in common. We struck up a friendship and he inspired me to consider taking up climbing. I finally did with my husband Mike in 2011.
This year I was looking for a new challenge to take on to mark my 50th birthday. At first I thought I would tackle the Hawaii Ironman but it's not easy to qualify.
Then my husband Mike suggested I climb the Nose - but tongue in cheek really... However it did prompt me to call Hans to ask if he was interested in meeting in Yosemite to do a little climbing and to see if 'some climbing challenge' might be the way forward.
I hired a guide called Josh for most of the fortnight I was in Yosemite and ended up following the first three pitches of The Nose.
I was so inspired by El Capitan. You cannot believe how big that cliff is. No picture does it justice. I met up with Hans again just after that - and he suggested I might think about joining him while he attempted his 100th ascent of The Nose.
I was honoured he would even ask me - so how do you say no to that! Fortunately Mike supported my decision and has helped in every way he can. But the truth is: climbing this route is a very very a big ask for me.
My own challenge background is Polar travel, not climbing. In 2000 I became the first British woman to ski to the South Pole. Then in 2001 I became the first British woman to ski to the North Pole. In 2004 I became the fastest person ever to ski the journey - something I actually did solo and unsupported in 41 days. (A normal time is 60 days.) I think I went quickly because my sat phone failed after 10 days - that was a shocker!
I love keeping fit and I love testing myself with physical challenges - but personally, this one is more out my comfort zone than even reaching the Poles.
Hans is using this opportunity to raise money for climbing related charities, and so we decided the BMC Access and Conservation Trust should be the one we support in the UK.
BMC ACT is such a great, but rather unsung, charity. Quite simply I love the British countryside and our wild places - and we need to protect it all for our children's future - so I hope people reading this will help me make the most of this opportunity!
In my day job I work in Nottingham as a Recruitment Consultant with Harper Resourcing and they are being really supportive of me.
I also have the good fortune to be a public speaker. I love speaking because there's nothing more rewarding than talking to people and watching them get excited and leave the room inspired to do what ever it is that matters to them.
I also guide expeditions (see: www.polarchallenge.org) and this allows me to show people how they can take on big challenges and succeed. I love seeing their faces when they arrive at the destination. I get a lot out of this.
I do hope other people are inspired that a 50-year-old mother with a 'limited climbing background' - can step out her comfort zone. You can do anything you put your mind to - if you want to enough.
I also want to show my boys that Mums can do great things. I have two boys - Sebastian age 7 and Conrad age 6 - and they keep me very busy.
It's always more rewarding to use high profile opportunities like this to help others.
Over the past four years I've improved at climbing quite slowly. I can lead 6a sport and occasionally even the odd 6b. I don't lead much on trad, but I will follow Mike up HVS/ E1.
Since June I've been training hard on cracks and also learning to jumar. I think I should be able to follow some of the 5.9-10 pitches - but lets see what the exposure says about that!
I have been running 35-40 miles a week regularly - and doing heavy weights - so at least I'm basically fit. So I would say I'm as prepared as I can be in the time I've had.
SUPPORT: donate to Fiona's Just Giving page here.
READ: More about Fiona
Anyone who wants to follow (or simply view) Fiona can visit www.facebook.com/FionaThornewill.MBE
The Access and Conservation Trust
The BMC's charity – the BMC Access & Conservation Trust – promotes sustainable access to cliffs, mountains and open countryside by facilitating education and conservation projects across the United Kingdom and Ireland.
By educating climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers to enjoy outdoor recreation while minimising their impact on the landscape, conserving the UK’s upland resources, and campaigning for improved access rights, ACT enables future generations to continue to enjoy outdoor activities and the physical, mental and social benefits they bring to individual lives and society in general.
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