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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville


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Adventure Travel

May 15, 2018

Sian Sykes: 1000km Circumnavigation of Wales by Paddleboard

On 5th May 2018, Sian Sykes became the first person to complete a solo-unsupported 1000km circumnavigation of Wales by stand up paddleboard, all while raising awareness about single-use plastics.

WRITTEN BY

Sian Sykes

A first-person account. 

I am in my late 30’s, recently divorced, I have no commitments. Everyone around me is settling down, having another child, for me, I am far removed from it. I am drawn to the attraction of a simple life, to get away from it all. I guess you can call me a free-spirited soul. I have a yearning to travel, seek adventure, and I am happy on my own. I am happiest outside, I have a deep connection with the outdoors. I thrive off all the wild elements it offers me. I get supercharged and feel invigorated to embrace the wild elements mother nature throws at me.

I fell in love with paddleboarding when I was first introduced to it by friends. I absolutely loved the experience it brought me, a freedom to journey without the faff, floating on water, a bird’s-eye view, the ability to get away from it all, to find inner peace and to connect with nature. To have absolute appreciation for what the great outdoors has to offer. 

Stand up paddleboarding gives you the freedom to adventure and that’s what my recent trip brought me. I have just returned from an expedition around Wales (UK), a 1000km journey along rivers, canals, roads and the ocean. I did the trip solo and unsupported. I was on a path of pushing my comfort zones, testing my physical and mental ability to get on with it.

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Before I set off, I spent a considerable amount of time preparing for the expedition, research, training, planning and exploring all potential risks and how to mitigate them. However, when the day came when I embarked on my expedition I had lots of unknown—where will I stay each night, what will I encounter, who will I meet along the way? I had a small amount of apprehension as a lone female traveller journeying through urban areas—will it be safe? However, every day was different and I never once felt threatened or indeed ever lonely. I enjoyed the solitude being on the water, it gave me the clarity to just focus on me and nothing else mattered. I so needed it too, it allowed me to escape from the day-to-day stress and the consumption of stuff. It all melted away and all I focused on was just me—get up, eat, check conditions, pack, paddle, set up camp, eat, plan for the next day, sleep and repeat. I loved the simplicity of it all. Just surviving from two 40L expedition duffle bags, far removed from clutter and unnecessary stuff.

During the expedition, I always had several options to choose from of possible places I would reach, depending on the weather and water conditions or how I was feeling. It was literally plans of potential A-Z options. I liked the unknown of where I would get to and what I would face once off the water. Every day was different and I enjoyed it. I went with the flow and adapted to the conditions of the water and what I encountered.

       Video Credit: Eastwood Media

Image Credit: Eastwood Media

The only pressures I had were key moments to jump on the water to take advantage of a strong tide or I had to paddle like stink to pass MOD firing ranges or across busy shipping channels. The other pressure was to charge up devices. As I was travelling solo and unsupported, the coastguard requested for me to keep my VHF on whilst on the water, so I had to come onto land to charge them up. I picked 2 months where the weather is so changeable and this year particular it was overcast, it affected the opportunity to charge devices from solar panels. So I relied on the kindness of strangers to allow me to hook up and charge my VHF and mobile phone. It was also a good opportunity to chat to locals to gain further insight to the area and any potential tricky spots. However, a few people along the way would put their insecurities on me, with their worries of certain areas of complex water, but I reassured them I knew what I was doing, experienced and happy to do it solo and unsupported. 

Some people were amazed I was doing the trip this style as it was almost unheard of to do it independently. It was all about the planning, timing and the right conditions to do it successfully. I was once offered a tow from a fishing boat, and I explained I was more than happy to paddle. And then when they mistakingly thought I was a nurse for my profession, they said they could do with being looked after. I just looked at them and thought to myself, do I look like the type of women who would make an ideal domesticated goddess to stay at home and look after a man whilst floating on a SUP in the middle of nowhere, not washed for a couple days, hands blistered? I smiled at them politely, I am glad I made this life choice, I couldn’t be happier. I waved goodbye to the friendly fisherman as they headed off in the distance and I continued on my journey alone.

Image Credit: Eastwood Media

I found as a female solo traveller, I would meet people who were intrigued with my expedition and I received several acts of kindness. I felt well and truly loved and encouraged on my personal journey around Wales. I was offered places to stay, to have a shower, and also provided with homemade cakes. I never thought the trip would be this good and I am so grateful to everyone. I didn’t feel alone. I was asked once if I ever cried during the trip. I just couldn’t relate to the question, I never had a down moment. A lot of people would say keep going, but I never considered the option of giving up. I always knew I would complete it, the only thing I just didn’t know was when.

The trip was an incredible experience, I have gained more confidence in myself, faith in my ability and the decisions I make. I trust my gut instinct and am not influenced by others. I feel I am at peace with myself and content in the present moment, enjoying the rich tapestry of a simple life in the outdoors. 

ABOUT SIAN SYKES

Sian used to work in London in the fast-paced advertising industry, working up to 18-hour days. She decided to make a career change to have a better work-life balance and now runs a paddleboarding business in Wales. Sian is a regional rep for Surfers Against Sewage (an environmental charity) and she is passionate about raising awareness, educating and inspiring others to reduce their daily consumption of single-use plastics. Her trip around Wales was single-use plastic free, she collected plastic pollution along the way and inspired others to make a pledge against plastic. 

Sian is an ambassador for Starboard UK, Peak UK, Water Skills Academy and Aquapac.

Featured Image Credit: Eastwood Media.

Further details can be found at www.psychedpaddleboarding.com

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Athletes & Explorers

Oct 19, 2018

Outdoor Moms: Hilaree Nelson – Mother of Two, Mountaineering Hero to All

2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir, ski descent of Papsura, first woman to summit two 8,000m peaks in 24 hours… mother of two.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

‘Outdoor Moms’ is a new series, profiling mothers pursuing their sport, all while taking care of family. You can read the first article on world-famous kayaker, Emily Lussin, here.

“You know just when you have that skin crawl on the back of your neck. Like, we are not in a good place. We need to move.”

One week ago, Hilaree Nelson was in Nepal completing one of the biggest expeditions of her 20 year ski mountaineering career. Today, she is sitting at home in Telluride, Colorado, just having finished the hectic morning routine of packing lunches and getting her two kids to school on time.

She is telling me the story of when her crew got stuck in a storm between Camp 1 and Camp 2. Instead of pushing on through the whiteout, they decided to set up an interim camp and wait it out. “We were all huddled in this little single-wall, three-person tent. It was storming out pretty good and we started hearing avalanches coming down… One avalanche was a little too loud and a little too close, so we left the tent standing and we got out and started trying to navigate in the whiteout.” Once the weather cleared, the team safely made their way to Camp 2. Two days later, Nelson and her climbing partner, Jim Morrison, returned to the interim camp to gather the gear they had left behind. What they found was the remains of a massive avalanche that had ripped across the camp, scattering gear everywhere and throwing it into crevasses. “It was a little crazy. We were kinda like, ‘oh wow I am really glad we didn’t stay there’.”

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

Less than two weeks later, Nelson and Morrison found themselves atop the summit of Mt. Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. Four hours after that, they both arrived back at Camp 2, having just completed the first ever ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir.

Skiing a 50 degree slope for 7,000 feet would be an impossible task for some of the most dedicated skiers out there. Add in the fact that they did it at 8,000 meters elevation after spending the previous 14 hours on a summit push, and the feat becomes unimaginable.

Read about Hilaree’s Lhotse Expedition here.

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

For Nelson, who has previously skied both Cho Oyu in Tibet and Papsura in India, this achievement is one of the highlights of her career.
But her career as a ski mountaineer is only half of her life.

Nelson’s two sons, Graydon and Quinn, are the other half.

Summit of Wilson Peak, Telluride, CO. Graydon and Quinn’s second 14’er.

“I got home (from Nepal) Sunday night, and Monday morning I was freaking out making kids’ lunches and trying to get the kids to school on time”

“I have two boys. They are 9 and 11. Graydon is the younger one and Quinn is the older one. They are crazy little boys… They are really into skiing, they are both alpine racing, they are currently in mountain biking camp after school, they go to climbing club after school, and they are really obsessed with lacrosse. And they both really like math too!” Between expeditions, working as The North Face team captain, and being a mother of two, it is a wonder Hilaree is able to juggle it all. And from what it sounds like, both her kids are on a path towards being just as busy as she is!

Instead of letting the busy schedules stress her out, Nelson embraces it.
“I got home (from Nepal) Sunday night, and Monday morning I was freaking out making kids’ lunches and trying to get the kids to school on time. It just doesn’t miss a beat… It’s fun to be a mother.”

As Nelson talks about motherhood, her face lights up with pride. “I like how unpredictable it is. I’ve always been a bit terrified of every day being the same, and kids are a sure-fire way to make every day different and an unknown adventure.” Nelson describes the unpredictability of her children as one of her favorite parts of being a mom. As she recounts the chaos of motherhood, I can’t help but think how this mirrors the other half of life. Weather forecasts, snowpack predictions, snowpack stability, and even personal mental and physical strength are all factors that can be unpredictable during a ski mountaineering expedition, much like children can be unpredictable during motherhood.

Nelson climbs Skyline Arete with younger son, Graydon.

“It is not that I put being a mother away, but I do have to compartmentalize it a little bit”

Taking on two very different roles as both mother and mountain athlete requires a unique mindset that Nelson has adapted over the past 11 years. “The emotional roller coaster I ride is sometimes very difficult on my kids. I am so stressed to leave them before I go on a trip, and then I turn into that climber person. It is not that I put being a mother away, but I do have to compartmentalize it a little bit so I can focus on what I am climbing. Then when I come home, it is really hard to switch back into mother. You know, I am full mother when I am home. I am in the classroom, I am picking them up from sports, I am taking them to ski races, cooking them dinner, making them lunch. I am just mom, like what moms do. It is almost like I am two different people living in one body.”

Nelson’s somewhat double identity life is what defines her. But it didn’t come easy. She describes her comeback from childbirth as the single most difficult challenge she has had to overcome. “Getting back to being an athlete after having babies was about the hardest thing I have ever done. In fact, it was so difficult that it almost makes climbing and expeditions look easy.” Her first son was born via a relatively “easy” c-section. Her second… not so easy. Hours of surgery for both mother and son, combined with blood loss and blood poisoning resulted in Nelson taking an entire year off from athletics.

By the time she returned to training and to the mountains, her mental strength had taken a huge hit. “I pushed hard to get back in it, but it was really difficult. It was really challenging on my confidence.”

All challenges aside, getting back into it was worth it. Having just completed one of the most iconic ski descents in history, Nelson was eager to show her boys some media from the Lhotse expedition. Nelson’s recount of their response made me giggle. “They looked at some video stuff of it yesterday and some photos… I mean, they are hard to impress, my kids.” With notable ski descents around the world, as well as being the first woman to climb two 8,000 meter peaks in 24 hours (Everest and Lhotse), and being named a 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, I am actually not surprised her sons are so hard to impress. She has set the bar pretty high!

Nelson says the boys are finally at an age where they are starting to become aware of what her career means. One of the most challenging aspects of it – long stretches away from home. Recently having gone through a difficult divorce, the challenge of leaving her kids for long periods of time becomes even more apparent. When she is in Nepal, the kids stay with their father. With the recent addition of 3G internet access to Everest Base Camp, it has been easier for her to stay in touch with her kids. However, a month is still a month, and time spent away isn’t easy. Nelson says she used to feel guilt when she left her kids, but now she has learned to view her career as a positive influence in their lives. “It has taken a long time for me to realize that having my job and being a mother has been beneficial to my kids for them to see me be a person, individually, and trust in that. It was a struggle for me for a long time that I was hurting my kids by continuing my profession. But I see now their joy and their support for what I do, and we can have rational conversations about it. I see that they are proud of me. I see that they appreciate what I do, and see me as a person. So I think it has all been worth it, but it wasn’t without a lot of tears and a lot of difficult times.”

“I don’t think they fully appreciate the dangers of it, but I also think they understand that it is dangerous”

Another challenge of her career – the danger. Ski mountaineering is one of the most risky sports any mountain athlete can partake in. At ages 9 and 11, Nelson’s kids are just beginning to understand the danger associated with it. “Skiing and mountain climbing to them, it has always just been a part of their lives as long as they can remember. I don’t think they fully appreciate the dangers of it, but I also think they understand that it is dangerous. I don’t know if they are okay with it, but it’s just what I do, and they love what I do.”

The first time Graydon and Quinn skied in the rain. “Being from Washington State, I grew up skiing in the rain and it was fun to see my kids reaction to the adverse weather. Of course, they thought we were crazy…”

“Then they want to come to the Himalayas.”

Danger and challenges aside, Graydon and Quinn look up to their mom with the utmost admiration. The boys support her career, and are proud of her accomplishments. Between their mom’s career, as well as their own personal experiences, the boys have started viewing mountain sports less as hobbies, and instead, a way of life. “Both my boys consider skiing not even a sport for them. They learned it as soon as they learned how to walk. It’s just a way of life. It’s how they play.” Nelson says she isn’t going to push the boys into climbing and mountaineering. However, despite her lack of effort, both boys have already made a list of the mountains they hope to summit. “First they are going to climb Mt. Baker, and then Rainier, and then they want to climb Denali. Then they want to come to the Himalayas.”

Both boys have already been to Makalu base camp, as well as summited several 14,000ft peaks in Colorado. When they were ages four and six, they made it most of the way up Kilimanjaro, but in Nelson’s words, they were “a little bit little” to make it to the top.

Family time on Telluride Via Ferrata.

As much as the boys idolize her, Nelson is reminded every day that they are still kids. They go to school, they play tag at recess, they wrestle, fight, cry, laugh, and most of the time are completely unconcerned with Nelson’s career as a world-renowned ski mountaineer.

“The best thing in the world is going on these expeditions that mean so much to me, but then coming home and having kids that in some ways are oblivious to what I do and are just kids… It’s awesome. It’s just a great thing to have in my life.”

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

Cover Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

 

Read about Hilaree Nelson’s ascent and ski descent of Papsura, The Peak of Evil here.

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