“Doctors aren’t always right; sometimes they write you off,” says Emily Ward, the star of our latest BMC TV film. And she should know: overcoming injury after injury, and breast cancer, Emily has kept on reaching for summits.
Emily, based in Chamonix, is the star of our latest BMC TV film, Patience,
produced by Jen Randall and sponsored by Mountain Equipment
When Emily Ward is injured, she throws herself into training, time and time again, until she's climbing harder than before. And when she became one of the youngest women in Britain to suffer from breast cancer, she was determined that wouldn’t stop her either.
Sarah Stirling spoke to Emily to find out more about her story:
I met Jen Randall in Glasgow. I was an art student there, and we kept bumping into each other at the climbing wall and Dumbarton Rock. We became friends, and one day she said: “You're always hurting yourself. Can I make a film about you?”
Once I broke my talus in a weird way. It basically shattered. Another time I fell and sprained my neck. The doctors thought it was broken and put me in head blocks for 6 hours: that was pretty scary. In the end, though, it wasn't as bad as the time I ruptured two ligaments. That took a very long time to heal.
It's usually my ankles though. They're really weak and slightly double-jointed, so they can come off badly in falls. I broke one of them in 2009, and it's slightly fused now, which has actually made it stronger. One of my physios suggested I break the other ankle, and let that one fuse, too.
When I first broke it I was pretty grumpy because I'd had a really hectic winter, cleaning flats in Chamonix Sud. I'd been focussing on the thought of mountaineering all summer: I was organising an expedition to Kyrgystan to climb new routes. Then that happened.
It's very rare to get breast cancer under the age of 25. But that happened in August 2010, and I somehow thought it would be over by Christmas. I really didn't understand what was ahead of me. That's whyJen called the film 'Patience'!
I guess I need structure and I'm goal-driven. I just don't like wasting time. When I broke my ankle I trained for mixed climbing: hanging off axes, doing core work. When I came back to climbing I was stronger than before. Then I started trying to getting fit again...
Injuring myself often doesn't put me off, strangely. I have become really scared of falling off though, so I try really hard not to. I've got very good at down-climbing things I don't think I should be able to down-climb.
Then, in 2010, I found a lump. I unwisely didn't see anyone about it for eight months. When I had tests, they told me I was in the clear! Then they told me, actually, there were some cancerous cells. Come back in. I almost fainted. The breast cancer wasn't genetic at all, so for now I'm a mystery case.
I got pretty sick sometimes when I was having radio- and chemotherapy, but it made me really want to make the most of the time when I felt OK. I'd focus on the fact that I needed to be climbing as strong as I could, to overcome the problem of feeling sick.
I reacted badly to the chemo. It ruined my veins, but I wanted to keep climbing so declined a central line into my heart. It did make my neuralgia bad for three years afterwards... But I kept climbing, staying in huts and wild camping, and I kept getting chest infections and needing antibiotics, predictably.
But exercise made me feel happier. Like life was more normal. It's harder to believe you're unwell when you feel fit and strong otherwise. And I got out a lot, actually! I got dragged up my first Scottish VII three weeks after my operation to remove the cancer, and climbed Orion Face Direct when I was on chemo.
I'd also decided not to have a double mastectomy. Doctors told me it would really affect my shoulder muscles. Even the small op I had has given me a stiff shoulder and a lot of discomfort if I haven't climbed in a while. At the time I was focussing on climbing at my limit. I'd have to give up hard mixed climbing forever. I didn't want to. Then I actually moved to Chamonix.
It took two years to get back to climbing as hard as I was before, and I'm still on hormone therapy and in and out of hospital. On Alpine trad I can now do 6b comfortably, Font 7a+ and Scottish VI or VII when I'm feeling focussed. I still haven't done an ED alpine route though. That's next on my list.
Now though, having done a lot more alpine mountaineering over the past few years in Chamonix, I would be more willing to have the mastectomy. There's skiing and ski mountaineering: things that need my legs more than my arms. It's good to have a wide range of interests, I've learnt, finally...
Mixed climbing is pretty male-dominated, even in Chamonix. But there are some pretty strong women out there. A good handful in Scotland climb hard, and there are some superstrong European women climbers like Ines Papert. But, even alpine climbing in Chamonix, I rarely see any other girl-climbers soloing things.
Alpine climbing in Chamonix was the stepping stone that inspired me to do something I'd always wanted to do organise an expedition to Kyrgystan. It's nice to go somewhere there isn't a guide book to. You just look at a route and think: “I think I can get up that.” And then you just try it without having any information.
I like the unknown. This year I soloed a rock ridge and when I got to the top I expected a summit, but instead it just dropped away into nothing. Stuff like that is really nice. In Chamonix there is so much information.
A lot of people from Chamonix go to the Himalayas, but Kyrgystan is remote, not at all touristy, not as high, a lot cheaper, the people are friendly and helpful (though learning Russian would help!) and there are loads of unclimbed peaks.
We did five new routes last year. I'm still researching the ones we did this year. I think at least three were first ascents. I did a lot of 4,000m peaks – so about the height of Mont Blanc. There are other ranges I want to explore, but first I need to acquire money and be psyched enough to deal with climbing-permit bureaucracy.
Cancer made me impatient! I'm always planning the next adventure! In Kyrgyzstan this year I soloed quite a lot of routes, when I'm doing that it all feels like a weird bad nightmare.
WATCH: Patience, exclusively on BMC TV
WATCH: Hazel Findlay talking injury, exclusively on BMC TV
WATCH: This Girl Can Climb, exclusively on BMC TV