SQUASH FALCONER

WHAT IS A LEADER?

 

Squash Falconer has made a career of firsts: She is the first British woman to snowboard Mount Mustagata in Tibet, the world's highest bum-boarder on Cho Oyu in Asia, the first British woman to paraglide from Mont Blanc and the first British woman to paraglide from the top of Gran Paradiso in the Graian Alps. She leads expeditions and has made a career of linking sports together in a way that neither she or others have done before. For example, Squash is an avid motorbike enthusiast, a talented paraglider and a Big Mountain climber. One day it occurred to her, why not do all three one one adventure? So Squash packed up her provisions and gear, hopped on her motorcycle and rode it through the Alps to the South of France, using each vista as motivation for the next stage of the journey: climbing Mont Blanc. Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps and is known for its perennial ice and snow. She  launched her paraglider from its snowy ledge, soared its snowy bowls and returned safely back at the mountain’s base.

Squash is often asked how she got her name and if it is her real one. She mentions on her website: “When I was born my sister Jo was 15 months old. She couldn’t say Louise (that was my intended name!) so she called me Ease, then Peas, then Squashypeas and then finally just Squash! Throughout my life I’ve always been Squash and as far as I’m concerned my name is Squash, if I hear Louise it usually means there’s somebody nearby called Louise or I’m in trouble- either way, I don’t respond!”

Perhaps it is the spontaneous and joyful nature of Squash’s lifestyle that has attracted sponsors such as RAB, BMW, Salomon and many others. She has successfully summited Everest, the highest mountain in the world. However, she has led or co-led climbs on some of the world’s most beautiful mountains including but not limited to Sassiere in France, Vespignani in Patagonia, Mt Rainier in the state of Washington, and Lobuche in Nepal. More than a living, Squash has made a lifestyle of leading big climbs and finding the joy in physical and mental challenges.  Unique to Squash is her documented attitude: All the photos you see of her in route reveal a grin and not a grimace. Her smile reveals a light-heartedness combined with a wisdom that is derived as much from the bad days as the good.

Despite the prodigious nature of her feats, Squash reminds us that a true leader knows when to turn around. Great adventurers must have a clear mind when evaluating whether or not to proceed on each step of an expedition. Perhaps, rather than a brazen nature, what an accomplished adventurer must have is a persistence to return to a challenge once it has shut them down. Her attempt to climb Mustagata in China resulted in the an arduous journey through a building storm that ultimately forced her to turn around just a few hours from the summit. "Despite not making the top and the trip being a 'failure' I realized it had actually been a huge success . . . Ultimately, the success of any adventure lies in the coming back alive . . . and the top is only one small part of the adventure." It's “the doing that counts!" Squash admits, "I'm happy to make the call to turn back on a mountain if things aren't going well and I'm the first to not get my paraglider out of its bag if the conditions aren't right." What we learn from Squash is that it's not the turning around that matters, but the decision to come back and try it again.

 

Take Squash's summit of Mont Blanc, for example, which took three attempts. On the second attempt, Squash had a near disaster when she and her climbing partner, roped together on an icy ledge, took a fall. They were able to dig in their ice axes and arrest themselves just before plunging into deeper disaster that could have swallowed them both. No doubt, this moment was in mind when gearing up for the third and successful attempt to summit the 15,774 foot peak. The mountain is reported to take 6,000-8,000 alpinist fatalities, a record in the climbing world.

 

A common misconception about adventure athletes is that they are born with some unshakably intrepid spirit; some godly ferociousness inherent in them that drives them to do what others never could. Important in Squash's story is the reminder that while a brazen spirit may keep you on the hunt for more adventures, the first step of any journey starts just as it would with any of us: with uncertainty. What makes Squash different? She stepped anyway. Squash tells us of her early years, thinking about climbing Everest. "There was no way I could climb Everest," she decided. "That was something other people did. . . I didn't know how, so I didn't even imagine it." A kind of self-imposed aphantasia, a condition where you literally cannot visualize the image. We begin to see the "impossible" as a result of an inferiority within us rather than a quality of the obstacle at hand. Similarly, it's nearly impossible to act on something if you have no way to imagine how it can be completed. It would be like trying to build a house without knowing the materials you need. For Squash it was similar. But, over time, she tells us, "things evolved and I started to see a way." Suddenly, there is an opportunity to train, to research, and to start small. In her early days, Squash had the opportunity to climb Aconcagua in Argentina. She had little to experience but was in good shape and went with a knowledgeable group aware of her limitations. After this success, she climbed bigger and bigger mountains; ultimately, leading climbing expeditions as a guide. "Over time my experience and confidence built . . . [and] then one day, someone suggested to me that I was strong enough to climb Everest and that planted a seed in my mind." In the following three years that seed grew, she tells us. She "started to see a way and the crazy idea became a possibility." That's the thing about the impossible and the crazy: Though there is no substitute for time and experience, "broken down into smaller parts," and with a "good team behind you, a crazy idea isn't so crazy!" The inherent challenge of the adventure doesn't change. The only thing we can change is our approach and our training. Squash has made not only a career, but a life, of training for the seemingly impossible and improbable.

 

For Squash, however, it it's not just the adventures we train for that make for an adventurous life. Often, it's the unexpected moments that hold the most excitement. Last year, she found herself in Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, when her group left the ship to hit the icy beach. Dared by the local guide, Squash looked out at the icebergs and the grey, took her first few steps and slid into its icy waters. "The ice-cold water touched my skin and hurt, but the exhilarating, energizing feeling when I came out of the water was like no other, and every part of my body was tingling and I was so alive. . . I said to myself, you won't have this moment again."

 

To learn more from the source, we sought an exclusive interview to learn more about what it actually means to be an expedition guide, close calls and self-arrests on Mont Blanc, life at Everest basecamp, managing the demons of self-doubt and the importance of a good pair of knickers.

INTERVIEW WITH SQUASH FALCONER

Tell me about what the responsibilities are like being a lead and a co-lead on climbing expeditions. What does this role mean and what is involved?

 

Being a leader or a co leader means that I have the experience and information to share with the team so that we can make good decisions before and during the expedition to make it a success.  The role often starts with training and kit well ahead of the climb.  I share my knowledge of how to prepare physically for a trip and what kit to take.  Being prepared physically, mentally and even emotionally is a vital part of any mountain expedition.  It’s important to get to know each member of the team, to understand the team goals and individual goals.  It helps to know what makes each person tick and therefore how to inspire and motivate them.  The responsibility is huge and it’s something I both enjoy and take very seriously.  Things can go very wrong, very quickly in the mountains and decisions must be made first and foremost to keep everyone safe.  For example, turning around from a summit, especially when you are so close to it, is not an easy thing to do, but sometimes it’s absolutely necessary.  I also think a big part of the role is to ensure people are as happy and as comfortable as possible, getting the most from the experience.  It’s not always easy to achieve this in a mountain environment, but there are definitely things I think I can do to make for a better experience.  Sometimes it can be as simple as getting the pace right and working to keep everyone at a comfortable temperature and fuelled right.  The difference between a day going too fast, feeling too hot and like you’re on the edge of burning out compared to a steady pace, where you can chat to each other, without getting sweaty and with plenty of stops for refuelling is huge.  As a leader and co leader it’s my job to notice and monitor each member of the team.  Has someone slowed right down and stopped speaking?  Is another member struggling with kit?  Is everyone ok?  I like to create an environment where people feel they can ask any question, without feeling worried or silly or embarrassed and where the team can share their excitement, enjoyment but also concerns and fears.  My aim is to allow each person to feel responsible and in control of their own expedition but to know there is a safety net in place should they need it.  Being a leader is different to being a co-leader.  Co-leading is a shared responsibility with shared decision making, as the leader the butt ultimately stops with me so pressure is really on!

 

You have been the first British woman to snowboard on Mt Mustagata; the world's highest bum-boarder on Cho Oyu in Asia; the first British woman to paraglide from Mount Blanc and the first British woman to paraglide from the top of Gran Paradiso in the Grapian Alps. Was your goal to be the first in any of these expeditions or were they adventures you had dreamed up independently of the record?

 

They were adventures dreamed up independently of the record.  My goal was the expedition and the experience.  It was afterwards that I found out I was the first.  When I successfully flew from the summit of Mt Blanc it was my climbing partner, Irwyn Jehu, who suggested that I might be the first British woman to do so and it was confirmed a few weeks later that I was.

 

Regarding your expedition on your motorbike through France, your climb of Mount Blanc and paragliding flight off the top: When and how did this expedition occur to you? 

 

It was three goals I had over a number of years that I decided to roll into one adventure! When I was 18 I did a ski season in France and had views of Mt Blanc, I would often look at it and think, people climb that mountain, wouldn’t it be cool if one day I did that.  I passed my motorbike test when I was 21 and daydreamed about riding a bike to the South of France along the amazing, endless, winding roads through the alps.  And when I learnt to paraglide at 26 I thought it would be incredible to climb a high mountain and fly down from the top.  Then one day it clicked; I could ride a motorbike to the South of France, to the foot of Mt Blanc, I could climb the mountain and if I got to the top I could fly off!

 

Was there ever a time when these accomplishments would have sounded crazy to you? If so, what changed that made you think they were possible and worth pursuing?

 

Yes, definitely.  For me, it was a combination of experience and other people’s words that changed ideas from crazy to totally possible.  Climbing Everest, there was no way I could climb Everest. That was something other people did.  How would I even begin?  When I didn’t do things, like mountaineering, I didn’t know how, so I didn’t even imagine it.  I think what happened was, over time, things evolved and I started to see a way.  I wasn’t a mountaineer but then an opportunity to climb a mountain with friends came up.  It was Aconcagua in Argentina; I didn’t have any experience but my friends reassured me that with my level of fitness and their knowledge I would be fine and so I went along and I was fine!  Then I climbed bigger mountains and slowly progressed and in order to climb more I started to work with the climbing company I was doing the expeditions with.  Over time my experience and confidence built and I loved doing what I was doing, I was passionate about it and that made it worthwhile, I was living the life I wanted to live.  Then one day, someone suggested to me that I was strong enough to climb Everest and that planted a seed in my mind.  Over the following three years the seed grew, I started to see a way and the crazy idea became a possibility.  Other people played a significant part in me doing a lot of the things I’ve done.  It only takes one person to say you’re strong enough, you have the ability or you can do it.  So many people told me my idea to ride a motorbike to South of France, to the foot of Mt Blanc, climb it and fly off the top was crazy.  But one person didn’t, Irwyn, my climbing partner, he thought it was a perfectly reasonable idea.  I could ride a motorbike; I was an experienced mountaineer and had climbed bigger and more difficult peaks and I could paraglide.  Far from being crazy I would actually be very sensible.  I ride a motorbike quite defensively, I’m happy to make the call to turn back on a mountain if things aren’t going well and I’m the first to not get my paraglider out if it’s bag if the conditions aren’t right.  Broken down into smaller parts, with the right experience and a good team behind you often a crazy idea isn’t so crazy!

 

What are some of the unexpected challenges you experienced in your expeditions and how did you overcome them?

 

I fell off Mt Blanc!  On our second attempt to reach the summit (it took three attempts) Irwyn and I, roped together, were climbing a steep ice face.  I was leading when I lost my footing with my crampon and slipped.  I was falling, it was a very surreal moment, it was like everything went into slow motion.  My mind was calm and I told myself, you’re falling Squash, you need to use your ice axe and arrest yourself.  Which I did, however, as I fell I was attached to Irwyn with a rope and I had pulled him off and he was now falling, he fell past me, the rope tightened and I was off again.  Fortunately, as there was a huge crevasse below, we both managed to dig our ice axes in and arrest ourselves.  We came to a stop and there was silence.  My heart was thundering in my chest and I was breathing deeply.  I uttered the words “sorry about that” to Irwyn and we continued.  It wasn’t until we got off the mountain later that day that we actually talked about it and the reality of what had happened and the dangerous position we had been in sank in.  I was relieved to learn that in moments of immense distress and chaos that I had the ability to be calm and deal with the situation.  I had no idea I was capable of that.

 

Another very unexpected challenge I faced was when I reached Everest basecamp, it was the mental challenge of dealing with the dangers around me and the thoughts of what could go wrong.  The challenge until that point had always been a very physical one, I hadn’t thought about the mental side so much.  Basecamp a very difficult place to be.  It’s high - higher than Mt Blanc Europe’s tallest mountain – at 5,300m you really feel the lack of oxygen.  It’s also very uncomfortable.  It sits at the foot of the Khumbu icefall and is a massive area of rock and ice.  Then there’s the avalanches and movement in the icefall which sounds like bombs going off all around, with the constant threat that at any moment the ground might open up beneath you.  With so much free time at basecamp acclimatising there was plenty of opportunity to get worked up and anxious.  It was then that I really spent a lot of time on my own, in my own head, getting to know myself, reassuring myself, and learning to deal with the mental and emotional pressures of the position I had put myself in.  I reflected on my past experiences, I reassured myself that I would and could make the right decisions in order to keep myself safe and I also worked hard to keep my own council.  Sometimes others can plant doubt and worries in your mind, especially when they are nervous and anxious themselves and I worked hard to not let that influence me unnecessarily.