Climbing Mountains With Allie Pepper
Hey Allie, thanks so much for agreeing to share some thoughts with us and welcome to the Women Want Adventure Team. To start things off, can you tell everyone about yourself? When did you get into climbing and adventure expeditions?
I live and work in the Blue Mountains and have been outdoor guiding, rock climbing and mountaineering since 1999. I have ascents of three 8000m mountains under my belt including Everest and a solo summit of Cho Oyu without oxygen. I have guided expeditions to Aconcagua in Argentina, Mera Peak, Island Peak and Lobuche Peak in Nepal and various high altitude peaks in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru.
Even though I grew up in the Blue Mountains I had never been into climbing when I was younger. In fact I was a punk, a troubled teenager you could say. I travelled in a van up and down the East coast of Australia after I failed my HSC, fruit picking and living a hippy life. I saved up enough money to travel to England for the punk festivals before heading to India in an attempt to “find myself”. I ended up in Nepal in 1997 at the base of the Annapurna’s thinking how crazy people must be to want to stand on top of these awesome Himalayan giants.
When I got home I cut my dreadlocks off and headed to the local TAFE to enrol in a course and find some direction in my life. As I was looking through the brochures only one stood out to me, I read it wrong but it was meant to be. I read Outdoor Re-creation, perfect I loved the outdoors and I wanted to recreate myself! I enrolled in the course and I never looked back. Finally I found something that I enjoyed and I seemed to be good at it, actually topping the class!
One of my instructors invited me to New Zealand to complete a technical mountaineering course. I fell in love with the mountains and the challenge of climbing them. Straight after the course I climbed Mt Aspiring with one of the other students. It was an amazing feeling to stand on the top and have got there on our own. I have been chasing that feeling ever since on numerous other high peaks and expeditions.
What is your main motivation for what you do, what are you seeking? Fitness, adrenaline, freedom..?
Guiding people on an outdoor adventure is just as rewarding to me as standing on a summit on one of my own expeditions. I love sharing my passion, knowledge and experience with others and it makes me feel good to not just focus on my own goals. In saying that though I need some sort of challenge in my life outside of work to keep me motivated. My training is focused towards my next goal or adventure. At the moment I am training for ice climbing as my husband and I are off to Colorado and Utah in December to climb and ski for a month. Sometimes I train for a local ultra marathon when I can’t afford to travel overseas on expeditions. Most of my training or adventures are driven by my main objective and I constantly aim to get stronger mentally and physically to be able to complete it.
When I climbed my first 8000m-mountain Cho Oyu in Tibet, I came away with an addiction. On that climb I discovered my strength at extreme high altitude as I summited on my own without supplemental oxygen. I also discovered a new world, which was not easy to survive in, but was beautiful, raw and awesome all at the same time. I had an experience unlike any other I had before in the mountains. Ever since then I have wanted that experience again even though I know how dangerous it can be. I have climbed on other 8000m mountains but I haven’t summited them in the style I aimed to, which was without oxygen. I have spent almost all my money on expedition climbing over the years. I have also committed a lot of time and energy training for 8000m climbs with month’s away from home on expeditions. It hasn’t been easy and I haven’t always reached the summit but this is what ultimately drives me.
Besides, from climbing, what other outdoor adventure activities are you interested in? Do any of these activities in particular complement the pursuit of climbing?
I love to ski, I learnt in Argentina at the late age of 28. I immediately went out and bought touring skis so I could head into the backcountry to find fresh turns. That led me to complete my Avalanche Safety Level 1 course in New Zealand. The course taught me a lot about safety in the mountains and has saved me on more than one occasion. Since then I have survived two avalanches; one skiing and one mountaineering.
I enjoy hiking and camping in the snow. I spend a month of the winter snow camping in the Snowy Mountains teaching small groups mountaineering skills. I also love the adventures that the Blue Mountains has to offer, not just the rock climbing. The canyons here are out of this world in summer and we have awesome trails for hiking. I trail run as much as I can which helps my fitness for my expeditions and is also great for mental training. I hike with a 20-kilo pack up hills for pack fitness. I am not really a beach or water sports type of person, unless the water is frozen! Canyoning is really the only exception to that and carrying a heavy pack up hill after the end of the canyon is great training for mountain climbing.
Are there a few key pieces of gear you take with you on every expedition?
I have worked as an outdoor trainer at TAFE since 2005. Last year we came up with a funny acronym so students could remember all the personal things they need to pack in their bag for a day in the outdoors; WHATSMURF. So here’s an example of what’s in my pack during an 8000m expedition. W= Water: 2 X 1litre Nalgene bottles, one of them glows in the dark. H= Hat: a Mont cap and a beanie that fits under my helmet. A= Activity specific: (this means the items you need specific to the outdoor activity) Petzl Sirocco helmet, Petzl Summit ice axe 59cm, Petzl Sarken crampons, yes there is a theme here people and a Petzl Altitude harness. T= Torch: Petzl Actik head torch. S= Snacks and lunch: chocolate for a snack and chocolate for lunch. M= Medication: Nurophen, my husband says they are my lollies. U= Underwear (thermals): Icebreaker merino of course, summited Everest in them! R= Raincoat: Black Diamond Sharp End Shell. F= Fleece (or warm layers): The North Face Summit L2 Grid fleece jacket and Himalayan Down Suit (it’s like a sleeping bag with arms and legs).
What advice would you give to women looking at getting into climbing but unsure where to begin?
Don’t be scared to give it a go as it isn’t as hard as you think. Learn to climb in a safe and supportive environment where no one cares how high or how hard you climb but they just want to have a fun time. The key here is to gather your friends and do it together, even if they are new friends! Create that supportive environment amongst yourselves at the climbing gym. Celebrate when someone gets that 1 metre higher than they thought they would or does a move that was hard for them. I guess that sounds a bit cheesy but honestly climbing is so much fun at any level. I love to create that environment when I am guiding outdoor rock climbing. My aim is to cater to all levels and make the experience enjoyable. Of course it is challenging because of the heights and the technique you need to learn to move efficiently up the cliff but that is what it makes it rewarding. It is also comforting climbing with highly qualified and experienced instructors, so I hope that lots of the ladies will come and learn to climb with me. The people with the biggest fears are the ones that get the most out of the experience! I was totally afraid of heights when I started and I still am in certain circumstances. The more we push our comfort zones, the more we grow and it is easier to do it together. I never imagined I would stand on the summit of Everest when I was looking up at the Annapurna mountain range in 1997.
You frequently go on trips overseas to lead expeditions. Where is your favorite place and what makes this place special for you?
I get asked this question a lot and I have so many places close to my heart it’s hard to pick one! Aconcagua was my first high altitude expedition. I worked as an assistant guide in 2000 and consequently ended up living in Argentina for more than 3 years. I have many friends that work on the mountain every season so I really enjoy guiding it. The Nepalese Himalaya is amazing. I have spent over a year in Nepal trekking and climbing and in that time I have made so many close friends. It’s not just about the mountain or the place; it’s about the people so I can’t choose one over the other!
You reside in the beautiful Blue Mountains. What is your go to place for a fun climb on the weekend?
It depends how hard and how often I am climbing. If I have just come back from a high altitude expedition I don’t seem to have much strength on the rock. In that case I would choose an area like Barden’s in Mt Victoria that has some easy sport climbs. If I am climbing well I really enjoy traditional climbing at Mt Piddington and sport climbing at Wave Wall or the Freezer. However I can always head up my favourite multi pitch climb at Sublime Point in Leura, Sweet Dreams. It’s awesome and a fun few hours out on the rock with a fantastic view to the Three Sisters.
What are some of the barriers you have faced on rocks, ice or expeditions? Any scary moments?
So many stories I could write a book and should write one! Most of my barriers have been mental ones like thinking I am not good enough or strong enough to achieve certain goals or even to become a guide in the first place. I had to overcome a lot of doubt and believe in myself to get to where I am now.
I have been so far out of my comfort zone on so many occasions and in different ways over the years. From having to prove myself in the Andes to the macho male guides, to facing my fear of public speaking.
When you are on the mountain at your mental and physical limit you are always going to reach a barrier of some sort that you can either push through or you can’t. Many times I haven’t been able to and I have had to turn around. I have turned around on as many mountains as I have summited. I don’t call this failure however; to fail would be to not come home.
I certainly have had my fair share of scary moments. There were the two avalanches, not being able to reach our tent in a blizzard, climbing alone above 8000m, sleeping on a ledge 500m up a big wall in Patagonia with -16 temperatures and nothing but an energy bar and a garbage bag to keep warm. These are just a few of my stories. I must be crazy!
Where do you wish to go with your climbing? Any major goals or destinations?
In my personal climbing I have one major goal and I have had it since 2007. I aim to climb as high as I can, in the best style I can, without the use of supplemental oxygen. I have tried many times to climb higher than Cho Oyu but I have not achieved my goal. I have succeeded in summiting Manaslu and Everest but not without supplemental oxygen. I had my third attempt at climbing Lhotse 8516m this season. I was climbing with my friend Mariano Galvan. He had already summited Everest, Lhotse and five other 8000m mountains without oxygen so he was the perfect climbing partner. I was well acclimatised as I had climbed two 6000m mountains before arriving at the Base Camp. On the mountain I was climbing strong, going faster than I had when I climbed Everest and carrying a heavier pack. Then I picked up a nasty Nepalese stomach bug. I had gastro for 12 days, lost 6 kilos and all of my strength. I still managed to climb to 7200m but I couldn’t carry on and had to turn around. It was really disappointing to turn back but I was happy with my decision and how far I got despite the circumstances. I was also really happy to sleep well for 3 nights at 7200m without using bottled oxygen. So I have unfinished business.
For women attending beginner outdoor climbing days with you, what can they expect or learn?
The ladies can expect to feel safe, supported and encouraged. I like to be the gentle motivator. I would never push someone too far, too soon because I have experienced that before and it is really off putting. They will learn safe climbing techniques that are similar to climbing in an indoor gym. They will learn to trust each other and work together. Of course there are great views and the benefits of spending time in nature. The ladies do not need any previous climbing experience or to be at their peak fitness level. There is no pressure to climb to the top or to do the hardest climb. You do not need strong arms to climb as it is mostly about trusting your climbing shoes at a beginner level. Climbing is a fantastic way to meet need friends and try something different with enough challenge to get the “feels” or “warm fuzzies” at the end of the day. Bring your daughters! If they can fit a harness, they can climb too and I would love to meet them!
What are you most excited about to work with Women Want Adventure?
To meet everyone of course! I love to share my passion for adventure, my knowledge and my experience and I can’t wait to share a day in the outdoors with the ladies.
Where can we learn more about you?
Face Book: www.facebook.com/pepperclimbs