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Women & Sports: Cathy O'Dowd, Alpine/Rock Climber

Cathy O'Dowd is a rock and alpine climber, a backcountry ski-touring skier, and a lover of all activities that let her travel through mountains in interesting ways, so canyon-ing and mountain running also find a place in the mix. 
A climber for over 30 years. She’s chosen to live somewhere with easy access to a range of outdoor mountains sports, which has made training a way of life. The easiest way to find out how she achieves this is to view her impressive Instagram page. 
Today, we ask Cathy five questions to get to know her, her sport and how she became an adventure sports woman. 
1. What has been your biggest achievement in the sport?
The general public would say it is my record as the first South African (of either sex) to climb Everest and the first woman in the world to climb it from both sides.
Other mountaineers are likely to think it’s my participation in the first ascent of Mazeno ridge of Nanga Parbat - even though I didn’t get to the top. 
Personally, I think it's the fact that a girl who grew up in the suburbs of Johannesburg, to parents who did little more than go for day walks, found her way to a life of adventure - learning to climb rock and snow, to ski, to travel safely in high risk environments. I found a career as a motivational speaker that let me be self-employed, spending half my year climbing and skiing, while still making decent money. I moved myself halfway round the world to a beautiful mountain home bathed in southern European sunshine. I’ve travelled round the world with my talks and my sport. I’ve been living this life for over 20 years now, and I love it! 
2. What were the steps that you took to become the first woman to climb mount Everest, both sides?
I never set out to climb Everest specifically, or to claim that record. A teenage summer adventure camp brought me to the mountains. Joining the rock-climbing club at my university started me on learning the technical skills. Thereafter I saved up and found partners for trips to mountains in central Africa, the Andes and then the Alps. My next aim was to get to the Himalaya and a bizarre opportunity, described below, got me onto the 1st South African Everest expedition as a ‘token woman’. I thought of it as an apprenticeship, no one, myself included, really expected me to get to the top.
The confidence that brought, along with the doors opened by the publicity around the expedition, let me arrange further expeditions. One of those took me back to the other side of Everest… and I failed. Went back a year later, got to the top. I was just lucky that that particular record was open at that moment. But it has been useful to me ever since, in building my career as a motivational speaker. 
3.  Is Climbing/rock climbing a very competitive sport?
Although there are competitive disciplines within various kinds of climbing (and climbing will feature in the 2020 Olympics, for the first time) the vast majority of climbing, whether on rock or on mountains, is a personal challenge. It’s a journey of exploration - literal and emotional. It is not about beating someone else. For people like myself, who don’t enjoy one person winning meaning that someone else must lose, there is great freedom in the deeply personal nature of the objective. 
However, despite that freedom, there is a good deal of ego among climbers, perhaps that’s inevitable among people with the self-confidence to take on these kinds of risky endeavours. So there can be subtle pecking-order jostling among some climbers, in ways that are not always welcoming.
4. Have you ever thought of giving up? What kind of self-talk did you use to get through it?
I’ve never thought of giving up my sports, although I’ve adjusted what I do based on age, and access, and shifting interests. I’ve absolutely given up on mountains, mostly in cases where that was the right choice. Sometimes things are genuinely too risky, or honestly are not what you hoped for. Giving up, moving on - that’s the right choice in those kinds of circumstances.
But when the urge to give up is about lack of confidence, or tiredness, or aversion to the grind, then I resort to three things. 
1. Reminding myself of my bigger picture. Where do I get to in the future because I do this work now? 
2. Reaching out to others for support. That’s one reason I seldom do adventure alone. I like to share the joy but I also like to draw on others for focus and motivation. 
3. Gritting my teeth and counting my steps. Sometimes it just takes bloody-minded self-discipline. 
5. Have you ever had to deal with Promoters of your sport promoting women as anything other than a sports person and how did/do you deal with it?
I have, although not that often personally. I got onto my first Everest expedition as a ‘token women’ brought on at the last minute via a competition that had more to do with drumming up media coverage for the project than with finding the right climber for the team. While there are certainly some things that are so egregious, you need to call them out and refuse to play along, there are others where the opportunity is very real, even if it is not presented in quite the way you might want - like that Everest opening. I seized the chance, despite my reservations, and it changed my life completely, almost entirely for the good. 
6. What are you doing to give back to your community?
I recently started a website and weekly newsletter, The Business of Adventure, to help potential adventurers answer the awkward ‘how are you going to pay for it?’ And further down the line ‘how do you make a living from it?’ There is no one generous funding stream for outdoor sport, especially for those not in the competitive categories, but rather pursuing personal adventure challenges and records. You have to weave together your own tapestry, from many small funding sources. I wanted to create a practical, pragmatic resource to help people do that. 
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If one of our readers wanted to get talk to you about becoming an adventure sports person, where can they find you?
My websites  and 
Twitter  @CathyODowd
Instagram @CathyODowd 
My book of my Everest adventures, Just For The Love Of It

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