Women & Sports: Gemma Smith, Mountain Leader
Approaching 30 and living in central London, didn't stop Gemma from climbing mountains and in 2018 she is now a qualified Mountain Leader - leading people out to experience the amazing hiking available in the UK.
Trying to juggle a sporty outdoor life whilst living in London is difficult, Gemma shares her experiences of balancing sport with a full time career.
You’re training to become a mountain leader, what is that exactly?
In the UK a Mountain Leader is someone who is qualified to take people out walking in the mountainous regions of the UK. Whilst anyone can go hiking and take friends with them, Mountain Leaders provide support for individuals who may be going out into the hills and mountains for the first time, those who are nervous, or organised groups completing trips or challenges.
How do you become a mountain leader?
If you want to be a Mountain Leader in the UK, you’ll need to complete a training course and assessment with Mountain Training, the UK body for Mountain Leaders and instructors. As part of this, you need to hold an up to date, relevant, first aid certificate and be able to demonstrate experience in the UK mountains by completing a minimum of 40 quality mountain days prior to assessment.
What mountains do you climb in the UK?There are so many amazing mountain ranges in the UK, and I’ve been lucky enough to experience a number of them in both summer and winter. Snowdon, in North Wales, will always hold a special place in my heart as it’s one of the first mountains I climbed. The Snowdonia mountain region itself also offers some incredible outdoor adventures beyond just hiking, so I spend a lot of time there. Outside of Wales, I love any opportunity to visit the Cairngorms in Scotland. I first went in the depths of winter and ended up battling against the wind and snow just to stay upright, it was incredible but certainly fell into the type two fun category on the worse weather days.
One place that I’ve not managed to go to in the UK yet is the Cuillin in Skye. It’s a beautifully harsh looking collection of mountains known to offer some of the finest climbing the British Isles has, so it’s very high up on my list.
Where else have you hiked or would love to hike around the world?
I’ve been lucky enough to go on some incredible hiking adventures to date. Everest Base Camp and Kilimanjaro are certainly two highlights! My main hobby is mountaineering, so I tend to go to places where I can do that and hang out at altitude. As a result, it means I’ve also done a lot of hiking in the Chamonix valley in the French Alps, it has some great trails and is really easy to get to from a lot of places in Europe, especially the UK.
There are so many countries I’d like to visit and hikes I’d love to do, from the long trails in the US to hikes around the circumference of Iceland and the Te Araroa in New Zealand. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of financing my way around the world without working full time just yet, so for now, I have to balance any hiking adventures I do with my regular job in London. This means a lot of the trips I do I aim to fit them into a two-week holiday at the most. It always surprises people when I tell them just how much you can squeeze into two weeks if you plan it right.
When did you start hiking?
I’ve always loved the mountains, and I’d done a little bit of hiking on and off as a child on family trips but nothing major until more recently. In reality, my current hiking and mountain climbing obsession started at the end of 2014.
At the time I’d been living in London for two years and was doing no exercise at all. I kept reading about people going on incredible holidays and adventures, and I’d tell my friends how much I’d love to go on a trip like those, but I’d always find a reason for why it wasn’t possible - it’s going to be too hard being my preferred excuse.
Then, one day on a complete whim I decided that, I was going to stop saying I can’t and booked a trekking holiday to Everest Base Camp for March 2015. I had the most incredible time, and it completely changed my life, I blame that holiday entirely for everything adventurous I’ve done since.
How can someone new to hiking start?
When most people think of going hiking, they think of long trails and miles upon miles of wilderness. Whilst that’s hugely appealing for many of us, the idea of a long hike like that can be incredibly intimidating for someone who is unfit or never been hiking before. I always think the best thing to do is start small. Go for a walk in your local park, along the beach, down a river, through the local forest, wherever there’s a nice flat trail really.
If you’re happy doing that, but hiking a mountain trail is still too daunting, then find a local guide to take you the first few times. There’s the equivalent of Mountain Leaders all over the world who can take you on a single day or multi-day hikes in different regions. Or find a hiking buddy online. There’s a huge number of adventure groups on social media with people looking to go and have fun outside, that includes people looking for hiking friends.
Any final words you would like to add?
There’s a belief that you need loads of expensive kit to have fun in the outdoors and that’s simply not true. Hiking is one of the cheapest ways to get out there. The only things you really need to invest in to get going is a good pair of boots or hiking trainers and a waterproof coat. For everything else, cheap and cheerful gear can work just as well as the flashy stuff if you’re doing your first day hikes.