The Iron Lady
Posted on October 10, 2013 @ 4:08 PM in
WalkNI.com caught up with long distance runner and all round adventurer Hannah Shields to find out where she gets her inspiration from. In 2007 Hannah became the first woman from Northern Ireland to conquer Mount Everest, just one of her many accolades. An enthusiastic mountaineer, Hannah has climbed extensively in Ireland, Scotland, the Alps, South America and Nepal and also competed in the inaugural Polar Challenge, a race to the Magnetic North Pole in which she came second. Lately she can be found on the podiums after completing some of the toughest Ultra Marathons in the UK and Europe. Currently living in Derry Hannah splits her time between training, expeditions, racing and working as a dentist.
Mountaineering and adventure racing is not a typical hobby, how did you get started?
From an early age I have always loved sports, taking part in everything going. While I was studying at University in Manchester there was a walking club but to be honest at first I was pretty sceptical. Why would I want to go walking? Surely all it involves is being outside and getting soaked. I went along anyway and the first time I went I enjoyed every second of it – I was as high as a kite! I didn’t realise you could get so much from walking. My mountaineering really started when I dated a student who was into climbing and I thought if you can’t beat him, join him! I was scared of heights so it was terrifying to begin with but I pushed through my fear and quickly became hooked. That’s when I realised I wanted to climb. I like to put myself outside of my comfort zone and I’m always looking for a challenge however saying that, if you had asked me 2 or 3 years ago if I would be competing in ultra marathons I would have laughed at you!
You have achieved so much, summiting Everest, racing to the magnetic North Pole, competing in 100 mile Ultra Race’s to name just a few of your accomplishments but what has been your most memorable achievement?
It’s hard to say because they are all so different in their own ways. Obviously summiting Everest was a dream come true but I love the atmosphere when competing in events at home such as the Mourne Way and Causeway Coast Marathons. The polar trips were memorable for their physical challenge, you’re pulling 150lb pulks in temperatures as low as minus 70C having to hold your own against men who have the weight advantage. Then again with my ultra running I still have to pinch myself that I’m completing these 100 mile races. I’m just happy I can do all these things!
Obviously you can’t be away doing specialist training all the time, how do you train at home?
I just get outside as often as I can. Like everyone I like a lie in on a Saturday but if I decide to take up a challenge I have no problem getting up and out! I’m from Derry so I regularly hit the slopes of my beloved Binevenagh. I like to spend as much time there as I can and I know it so well yet I never get bored of going there, it’s just so dynamic. I like to train on my own without too many people so Binevenagh is perfect as you can often go out and not meet a soul so I have it all to myself! I also love training on the Giant’s Causeway Coast, the scenery up there is simply spectacular. I’ll do a 26 mile run along the coast from Portballintrae to Carrick-a-Rede and back. I also try and do a 52-80 mile race every month to keep fit. Many people often think you have to go far afield to find these amazing places and don’t realise or appreciate the fantastic scenery that is right on their doorstep. I have been lucky enough to experience some amazing trips in the British Isles but I can honestly say climbs in Northern Ireland are most definitely on par.
What are the crucial skills needed to train for such extreme conditions?
For something as extreme as Everest the preparation is all about breaking it down to things you need to be good at. For example coping in cold conditions and knowing what the appropriate clothing is to help you with this, being able to hill walk with a weight on your back and functioning without much sleep. When I was on my expedition to the Magnetic North Pole I was only getting a maximum of 2 or 3 hours of sleep at a time for the whole 4 or 5 weeks of the trip, in preparation for this I would deprive myself of sleep and do everyday tasks so my body learnt to do things automatically. You also need to be good at assessing your conditions, it’s a steep learning curve but you just have to get out there and do it! Being part of a walking or running club is a great way to introduce you to a lot of these elements. A lot of the time, it's as much about mental resolve and teamwork as physical fitness.
What was it like coming so close the first time you attempted Everest in 2003?
Absolutely devastating, it felt like the end of the world to come so close (Hannah was forced to make the heartbreaking decision to turn back just 100m from the summit due to frostbite injuries). I hadn’t achieved what I had set out to do and it was heartbreaking but you know what…I think it was the best thing that ever happened. Sometimes you just have to keep trying, if it’s something you really want, you’ll do it.
In 2007 Hannah returned to successfully summit Everest from the North-Tibetan side with the all male 7 summits Russian Team. You were the only woman in a group of 7 males how was that?
It was a real eye opener! None of my team spoke any English so it was a very different experience from the first time. The leader was fantastic though and I felt very safe, it’s amazing how much you can communicate without words. You are completely reliant upon your other team members, so mutual trust has to develop because your life, quite literally, depends on it. With the language barrier there wasn’t the same type of craic however it was a great way to examine and learn about my inner self.
How did you celebrate when you reached the top on your second expedition?
With a thumbs up and a hug! When you reach the summit that’s only half the battle, you still have a dangerous descent ahead of you. My contact lens had frozen to my right eye and we were trying to conserve as much oxygen as possible so the proper celebrations didn’t start until we were down safely.
Do you have any recommendations for those wanting to start mountaineering?
I would definitely recommend getting onto a good course and learning the basic skills properly. It’s so important to get the technical side ride with tuition from the experts from the very start.
What is your next challenge and how are you preparing?
I’m really concentrating on my ultra running at the moment. I only started in my 30s, the long distances require a lot of discipline so you often find older people are good at it as they’re mentally toughened up. Obviously you have to be in good shape physically but that’s only half the battle. I’ve been lucky enough to stay away from injury so far so hopefully the next year will bring plenty of racing both in the UK and Europe.
Visit WalkNI.com for a full list of outdoor activity providers who deliver skills development courses to help improve your confidence in the hills as well as a full range of courses in walking and mountaineering.