Going back to School!

Squash Falconer Speaking at OSLA

 

I was really delighted to be asked to return to Ockbrook School, where I spent 15 years of my life, to speak at the Ockbrook School Leavers Association Dinner.

In recent years I’ve reflected a lot about who I am and why I am who I am and there’s no doubt my time at Ockbrook hugely influenced that.

I wasn’t too naughty but it would be misleading to say I was ‘a model pupil’!  I have such happy memories of school.  I really enjoyed thinking back to my time there, especially about the ridiculous antics my friends and I got up to.

Looking back through my old school reports I found things that were written about me when I was 10 that still apply now!  Mrs Holmes, one of my favourite teachers, wrote this –

‘She has a good sense of fun, verging occasionally on the mischievous, which, whilst is entertaining, I hope she never lets get out of hand.’

A story about school -Click on this link to see a short video clip of a story about one of my ‘achievements’ at school.

Squash telling some stories

Looking back through old school books I found my school diary and despite thinking my passion for mountains came when I was older, this entry, written when I was 7 would suggest otherwise. (It also clearly shows what an exceptional artist I was!)

Squash's School Diary 17th October 1988

I get asked a lot why I do the things that I do.  It’s not an easy question to answer but it undoubtedly has a lot to do with being supported in my dreams and being given the confidence to go for them.  There is no question that Ockbrook was an incredible foundation from which I launched myself into the big wide world and why I now have the confidence to launch myself from the top of it!

Squash with Chris Saunders, organiser of OSLA

 

Eating for Everest

I love a cup of tea and a bar (or two!) of chocolate...

Apart from training and kit the other rather large area that I’m focusing on is my diet.  Hmmm food – now here’s a sensitive subject!

I think I have been lucky in my life that I’ve always been pretty active and in general can get away with eating what I like, staying healthy and not putting on too much weight.  That said, a few years ago I went travelling around the world or perhaps more accurately I ate my way around the world!  I wasn’t doing a lot of exercise, I was eating everything and I put on rather a lot of weight.

This was my first experience of feeling that I wanted and needed to go on a ‘diet’.  I didn’t like my body, I didn’t like how it looked or felt and I wanted to lose weight.  I went down the sensible eating route, it worked for about 15mins.  The thing was I was on ‘a diet’ so all I was thinking about was, guess what?  Food!  And as a result I was just eating, eating, eating!… so for me, it was the exercise route that was going to help solve this problem.

I ran, I cycled, I swam (a little bit) and I found that when I was exercising, without thinking about it, my diet kind of fell into place too.

I was eating what I wanted, I wasn’t over eating and because of the exercise I had ‘a balance’.  I’m laughing as I’m writing this because ‘a balance’ was a ridiculous thing to write.  The truth is I was either gaining weight or losing it but only within a kilo or two so I had ‘a good average weight over all’.

Having done Biology A-Level and generally being interested in the whole food thing I had a fairly good knowledge of different food groups, what I should be eating and what I needed to eat more specifically for the sport I was doing.  I needed ‘a balance’!…  I needed to be getting plently of carbs, a good amount of protein and some fats – good fats, that’s chocolate, right?!  And obviously I needed to make sure I was getting all the right vitamins and minerals.

A bit like with my whole training and fitness theories I’m the same with my food thinking.  I’m not too specific about it but I have built up my knowledge over the years and I have a good idea of what works for me.

I had a very interesting experience with food when I climbed Cho Oyu in 2008.  I was a vegetarian.  In the months before I climbed the mountain I had been getting the right amount of protein from milk, eggs, cheese and chocolate!… during the expedition, with limited food options (no fresh food available) I was getting a good amount of calories but couldn’t ensure I was getting a good ‘balance’ of the things I needed.

{Little science bit – When you get above a certain height (around 6,500m ish – very ish) your body starts to work in a different way.  Digestion becomes an issue.  Without going into too much detail, very basically, your body finds it easier to break down your muscles to get the energy from their protein.  As a result you quickly begin to lose muscle mass which is one of the reasons why once you get above a certain height you are on limited time to stay up there and it’s not ideal. }

So I had been on the mountain for over three weeks, we were at about 7000m and I could actually see myself losing weight!  Each day I was pulling the waist strap on my back pack tighter and tighter.  I was in a tent with one of the climbing Sherpa’s and he had a sealed pack of chicken – it looked pretty gross, red bits and bones included urghhhh!  Anyway he opened the sealed pack and I, like some kind of starving animal, leapt over to where he was and pretty much inhaled the chicken.  I was totally over whelmed by my desire to eat the chicken, I smelt it and every conscious thought I had was overridden with this huge desire, complete instinct to get myself some protein.  Never before in my life have I experienced my body telling me what I needed.

I think most of us are so used to having a routine with food.  We have three meals a day, we get used to eating certain foods, we choose what we like and what we don’t like – not necessarily based on what we need, generally based on taste or mono sodium glutamate!  And we don’t really experience hunger, not real hunger.  Why would we?

This experience changed the way I thought about food and my relationship with food.  On a mountain food isn’t a luxury, something we choose from a menu or an enjoyable past time.  It’s another job to do.  The calories must go in and you must get what you need.

Since this experience when I’m preparing for or I’m on an expedition I’ve really tried to be more aware of what I need, what my body wants and it’s for this reason that I’m not a vegetarian anymore.  When I’m doing a lot of training I feel a huge benefit when I eat meat.  So I do.  I don’t particularly enjoy it but I know I feel better for it.

So what am I eating now to prepare for Everest?  Loads!  I’m eating to fuel my body for the training I’m doing now and I’m also eating to put on weight.  It’s handy on mountains to have a few kilos to keep you warm and to have some excess to lose when you do the 9000calories a day burning when you’re high up!

I’m literally eating everything and a good variety so I know I’m covering all areas and food groups. I’m trying to listen to my body.  For example, if I’m tired hiking, I’ll eat more carbs, if I crave a steak I’ll have one and as per usual I’m always satisfying my desire for chocolate!

A typical days food at the moment would be –

Breakfast – A bowl of fruit, yogurt and honey followed by about 3 slices of toast or a couple of croissants. (and/or a pan au chocolate!)

Lunch – A large (sun dried preferably!) tomato and cheese baguette.  Maybe some kind of biscuit/cake/crisp/chocolate combo too.

Dinner 1 – Potatoes, veg and/or salad sometimes with meat (about twice a week I’ll try and eat steak/chicken). Sometimes pudding.

Dinner 2 – Yep, dinner two! Dinner one is usually about 6pm and then I’m having a second sitting about 8/9pm.  This might be a pizza or soup or just another chocolate feast!

I’m drinking loads of water and about 10cups of tea a day too.

I do love a cup of tea, with a chocolate bar obviously!

My favourite lunch!

In Chamonix with RAB

With RAB in Chamonix - Kit faff!

 

I am really excited to be working with RAB and delighted that they are offical sponsors for my upcoming Everest trip.  As you can see from my last post I have been trying and testing some of my RAB kit out here in the Alps.  Just recently I headed over to Chamonix and did some work with the RAB team – luckily the weather gods were smiling and the blue skys were amazing!

 

 

 

Squash in Chamonix with RAB – Click on this link to see what we were doing…

We found an IGLOO to sleep in!! – Click on this link to see where we slept!

Being so high was excellent altitude training.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The original plan was to sleep out on the mountain, however when we came across this huge igloo that had been built with a snowcat we decided to sleep in there, it was -17’c inside… A lot warmer than outside!

The igloo we slept in!

Is it possible to launch and fly a paraglider from the top of the world?

Yes!

In 1988 an incredible man called Jean Marc Bovin made the first solo paragliding flight from the top of Mount Everest.

…After an hour and a half preparation, Frenchman Jean-Marc Boivin launched a paraglider on 26 September from near the summit in a gusty 40 km/h wind to make the  “First paraglider flight from the top of the Everest”.  His flight down to camp II at 19,400 ft took just 11 minutes…

And in 2001 French couple Zeb Roche Betrand and his wife Claire Bernier Roche launched a tandem paraglider from the Summit of Everest on 21 May.

…They were extraordinarily lucky with the weather, when they arrived at the summit: “It was 8am. The view was breathtaking. Not a cloud, the wind was between 30 to 40 km/h.”

Having taken some summit photos We found a take-of spot 10 meters below the summit. We took off our oxygen masks and prepared the sail. These tasks which were so easy below were very trying up there.  It took an hour to get ready.  Then, sat one on top of the other, on the edge of the mountain, Zeb put the sail up and very quickly the wind took us to that mythical place. For a few minutes, we were birds. We got a brief glimpse of the West Face and then we headed off north, in the direction of the Chinese Base Camp.  We saw the whole route up, paragliding is magical and effortless!  The countryside flashed by. The conditions weren’t as calm as they seemed, the west wind changed our flight path.  Above the North Col, the sail started to flap violently, reminding Zeb of competition flights. We were distancing ourselves from anything which could cause turbulence.  At 10:22 AM we set down gently on the Rongbuk glacier, just above 6400 meters.”…

There is no doubt about the fact that I will have to be very lucky with the weather, if I’m successful in summiting, in order to even attempt to fly from the top.  However, it is good to know that it’s possible!

Lots of people have been asking about the thin air at the top and how this will effect the glider, so here’s a simple bit of physics that is basically correct for the heights we are talking about with Everest.

The glide angle of the paraglider is the same up high as it would be at sea level.  Vertical speed and forward speed increase by the same amount.  For example if the glide angle at sea level is 7:1 then it will still be 7:1 on the top of Everest.  The differnce is the air will be thinner so I will fall faster but I will also therefore fly forward faster.

About to go flying in my RAB expedition down suit!

As part of my paragliding training I have been doing lots of flights and just a few days ago I did a flight in my RAB expedition down suit!  This is what I will be wearing on Everest, it’s a huge down suit that will keep me warm and cosy up high.  It’s very important from a practical point of view that all my kit works together and that I can fit comfortably into my Ozone Oxygen light weight harness and fly my paraglider with my expedition suit on.  So despite looking absolutely ridiculous (and a little over dressed!) I took the cable car to the top of the slopes in Courcheval the to the take off point and tested the kit….

Checking the lines before take off

I got rather hot preparing to take off, but I was delighted with how well the harness fitted despite the hugeness of the down suit.  Taking off was no problem, I was able to run and move as I would normally so that was great…. and the final bonus was just how toasty warm and comforatble I was when I was flying!  It was like going flying in a double goose down duvet – it was bliss.  I would recommend a RAB expedition down suit to all paraglider pilots (that is if they don’t mind looking really fat and ridiculous!).

First flight in RAB expedition down suit!

Here I am!

I’ve based myself for the past few weeks in the French Alps.  I think one of the best ways to train is to try and replicate, exactly or as near to as possible, the activity that I will be doing.

So here in the beautiful snowy mountains I find fairly steep slopes and hike up and down them!

Being in the mountains, sleeping and training between 1500 – 3600m above sea level is brilliant altitude training.

{A bit of blurb on altitude – One of the major reasons that climbing big mountains takes so much time and is so difficult is because of the altitude.  The higher up you go the thinner the air gets and therefore the less oxygen there is to take with each breath.  We need oxygen for aerobic respiration to produce energy – the energy that we need to move!  Because there is less oxygen in the air the higher up you go the more difficult it becomes to produce the amounts of energy you normally have and everything ………slows……… right……. .down…..

Acclimatization is the process we go through to help our bodies adapt to being in thinner air with less oxygen.  On a mountain you don’t just climb straight to the top.  You reach a ‘base camp’ and from there you go up a little way, come back down and rest.  Then you go up a little further than the last time, maybe camp overnight, come back down and rest.  Then, guess what?!  You go up a little further than before, camp, come back down and rest.  You repeat this process until it’s time for the summit push.  Our bodies are so amazing this process makes our blood do funky stuff!  The number of haemoglobin (the bit of our blood that carries oxygen around in our red blood cells) increases.  This in turn increases our oxygen carrying capability – therefore we can use the oxygen available far more efficiently and produce enough energy to slowly make our way to the top of the mountain!}

It’s not only good to train at altitude it’s also good to carry weight on your back.  (On Everest I’ll be carrying weight when I climb – it’s therefore important I’m strong enough to do it).  So when I’m hiking around the hills I also carry a heavy pack on my back (heavy being 13-20kgs depending on how I’m feeling!) .  Sometimes I climb up and carry weights, ski boots and skis – then I can spend 2-3hrs going up and an exhilarating, fun few minutes blasting back down!

Hiking up... About to ski down!

Training and Fitness

Training

It’s impossible to say one thing is the most important thing to do in preparation to climb Mt Everest and fly from the summit because each area of the preparation is not exclusive to another.  However, as a priority my physical is fitness is right up there.

I am doing all that I can to make sure that my body is fit and strong.  I don’t have an exact training plan or regime, I’ve never been one for gyms and I don’t have a personal trainer.  What I do have though is a very good knowledge of my own body and a rough idea of how I’ll use my time to reach the level of fitness that I think is required.

Fitness

Fitness is an interesting subject and how fit you are is a tricky question.  It’s like when you go skiing, you’ve done 6wks, you can do all the red runs, a few black even and you go to get your skis fitted.  The guy in the rental shop asks what level you are, you have a think, and say intermediate/advanced, well more advanced – you are actually pretty quick too.  Then you head out onto the slopes and a 6yr old child that learnt to ski before he/she could walk comes flying past and you realise maybe you’re more beginner/intermediate after all!

So I don’t know how fit I am, compared to some people I’m very fit and compared to others I’m not so fit.  What I can tell you though is this –

At school sport featured quite heavily and so when I left at 18 I had a good base level fitness.  I had also touched on cross country running for the later part of my school years and so it’s likely this is where the foundation of my endurance fitness began.

I did several ski seasons and I was aware that I wanted to maintain a certain level of fitness so made sure I did the odd run/bike ride.  Then in my early 20’s some friends were doing the Salomon Adventure challenge, a gruelling 36hr endurance race.  The teams were of four and there had to be at least one girl, I was the one girl in my team!  To prepare for the race, I did go to the gym, that lasted for three weeks.  It was good, I can do the gym in bursts of time and it’s something different, I enjoyed using the pool and although not a very good swimmer, getting a bit of swimming in was a good thing.  I did long runs and longer bike rides…  I did on 12mile run which was a personal record for me at the time.

The weekend for the race finally came and as we listened to the rules (at any one time three out the four would be racing- that meant in the next 36hrs I would get just 8hrs rest) and the routes (which were huge distances) it dawned on me that I had never done anything as hard, as far or for as long before… “oh well, better get on with it” I thought, as I was now at the starting line!

I continually surprised myself during the race at the speeds I was maintaining and the distances I was covering, the biggest surprise came in the final part of the race though.  After racing for 28hrs, there was a 30mile fell run to finish off with.  How on earth was I going to do that?!  Well, I just continued to put one foot in front of the other and I managed it.  But I’d done that thing… I’d hit ‘the wall’ and gone through it.  By ‘The Wall’ I mean, “I had to stop, I needed to stop, I must stop, I can’t carry on, my legs will drop off, I need to stop….Oh, I’m not stopping, I’m carrying on, there’s some energy left, I can keep going, I am keeping going…wow…”.  This was something I’d only ever heard people talk about and hadn’t given much thought to.  I was shown one of my best lessons in life during that race, I could go further and do more than I imaged or dreamed was possible.

Looking back you could say I wasn’t very well prepared but actually I just wasn’t very experienced and it was a brilliant place to move forward on in terms of knowing my own body and my own fitness.

From that race I went onto do others and at 24 I began climbing big mountains.

I have found over the years ways to train that suit me and here are the main points I include in my not to specific training plan –

  • Get enough sleep
  • Aim to do something every other day, if I do more it’s a bonus, if I do less I try not to give myself a hard time about it because that can lead to giving up.  (Like if you’re on a diet – you eat one chocolate biscuit, you’re so cross about it, you declare the diet ruined and eat the whole packet.  Instead you should have just eaten the one and carried on with the diet).
  • Try to do the exact thing you are training for.  When I’m training for a mountain, I try and do long walks up and down hills.
  • Do a variety of things.  I’m not a swimmer, I don’t need to swim, but it’s good to do a different type of exercise and so I swim once in a while.
  • Time yourself and set small goals – this might be to increase the time you doing a specific thing or to beat a certain time with the same distance covered.
  • Be realistic but expect a lot from yourself.  Remember to keep pushing.  Sometimes I’m out running and I find myself day dreaming and I’m going at a snail’s pace, so concentrate on what you’re doing while you’re doing it.
  • Mix it up.  If I’m out running I try to go very slow and very fast in short bursts as a part of my run.  This is a type of training that is amazing for building fitness and power.
  • Eat well.  You don’t need to over think food, but be aware and think about trying to have a balance.
  • Have a rest.  For example, if you are training for something in six weeks time, allow yourself a week before the event to just rest.  Think about rest days in your training and if you feel tired, it’s because you are so listen to your body.
  • Know yourself and what you need to do.  You might work really well in a gym and with a very strict plan, you might not though.  So do what’s good for you.
  • Find ways to enjoy what you are doing, I do this by listening to music, training with other people and training in great places (by the sea or in the mountains are my favourite!)

So there’s the background to my fitness and some ideas I have on training.

In the next few blogs I’ll be talking about all sorts, but it will include more specifically and exactly what I’m doing to train for Everest!