“Are you up for challenge?”…Something Marie Cheng, founder of Three Peaks Africa, must have asked Iona Rendall in a round about way a few months ago. But what does ‘challenge’ mean to the founder of an expedition company giving everyday individuals not only the chance to discover a world of remarkable adventures, but also meet and hear stories from incredible people and to accomplish something extraordinary. Marie tells us more below…
I was born into a typical Asian family. Despite growing up in a leafy green village in Surrey, most of my childhood life was buried in a pile of books; with huge amounts of pressure to do well at school, go to university and get whatever every respectful Asian child is expected to; a good and stable professional job. I read an interesting statistic once, which suggested that hundreds of people who visit National Trust sites only make it as far as 100m from the car park. We were one of those statistics. The outdoors featured very little growing up, and initiatives such as Duke of Edinburgh, were often dismissed as distractions from getting good grades. Unsurprisingly I was also never very sporty at school or university.
Now in my thirties, I look back and don’t begrudge my strict and academic upbringing. Quite the contrary as my professional life has afforded me many opportunities to travel. Not to mention that it is only having had the chance to step back, are you able to truly fully appreciate that none of us get to where we are without the help, people, experiences and opportunities along the way – both good and bad. However, having come into the outdoors relatively late, a small part of me still feels a tiny bit envious supervising the DofE kids and the chances they have getting to travel and explore at the age of 14!
‘Are you up for the challenge?’
In 2010, I had just started a new job and I still remember the day that an email landed in my inbox. ‘Are you up for the challenge?’ Six small words teasing me to apply to a ballot to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. My track record of getting selected for anything was pretty slim, so what harm I thought, as I typed furiously the reasons and skills of why I should be selected and what I could bring to the team. Send. Then I conveniently forgot all about it.
Until that is, when I got the email saying I had been selected. The panic set in, as what did I know about anything about climbing a mountain, let alone the highest one in Africa. I had never even camped! How would I train? What did I need to pack? A million thoughts running through my head. Fast forward 9 years and it is still one of the best things I have ever done. It is true what they say, the friendships forged, and highs and lows shared on the mountain will stay with you forever.
For quite some time after Kili, my idea of travelling resembled a bucket list of things to tick off around the world. The Inca Trail. Tick. Skydive in Australia. Tick. Don’t get me wrong, all of these have been amazing, however hitting the 30 milestone stirred a nagging curiosity to get off the beaten track and truly see what other experiences travelling could bring.
A mouse click away
It is easy for us to forget how fortunate we are to live in an age when booking a holiday or an expedition is just a mouse click away and how we have such a luxury being able to encounter new places and cultures pretty much anywhere in the world. As habitual creatures however, I think many of us fall into the trap of being stuck in the same old routine of where to go, what to do. Reluctant to push the boundaries of our own comfort zones. Somewhat ironically it was in an EasyJet in-flight magazine where I read that ‘the real reward from travelling comes from stepping outside ourselves, our fixed views, beliefs and habits and experiencing the reality through the eyes of the locals or even those of our fellow travellers’.
Cue January 2017. I’d just joined the start-up accelerator run by Escape the City, a community organisation whose tag line is ‘Life is short. Do work that matters to you.’ So I did. I’ll admit, life as an entrepreneur and running my own start-up had never been on the cards. Equally unlike many who perhaps had signed up to the programme, I actually liked my job. So what was I even doing here. One evening in a pub, wracking my brains desperate to find the next big thing, it dawned on me. Set up my own expedition company. After now years of hiking and climbing different mountains around the world, and helping so many other people organise their own challenges, it seemed only logically. And so in February 2017, I nervously put out there the idea of climbing three peaks in succession in Tanzania, got a couple of deposits and so far at least, there’s been no looking back.
Trips that matter
The travel and expedition market is incredibly saturated, and with many positive campaigns to increase access to the outdoors and the ability for people to travel; demand to climb different mountains across the world has never been higher. However, I wanted my company to be different. I wanted our trips to matter. I wanted us to positively impact the communities and environments in which we go and whom we rely on to do these amazing things. And having been denied the access to the mountains in earlier life, I wanted everything positive that I had subsequently experienced from being outdoors to be poured into the design of our challenges and the brand and community in which we were trying to create.
The challenges that we offer on the face of it are not for the faint-hearted. But as can be attested by one of the Morocco team this year who only started hiking 8 months prior; it is entirely possible to reach the top of three 4000m peaks in just 8 days, with a bit of hard work, some training and a lot of mental willpower. It is important that whilst all our trips have three options to summit, we need to be careful and responsible that we aren’t encouraging people to get too easily carried away by the thrill of summits. We have a duty to make sure that expeditions are as much about getting to the top as well as having the maturity and experience to know when turning back is the right and safest thing to do. And as the bunch of ‘ordinary adventurers’ from the Morocco team experienced this year, their real reward of the mountains came from the feeling of being able to escape from the everyday pressures of life, turn off the constant connectivity, bond with a bunch of like-minded people and experience the joy that remoteness can bring.
With the Morocco team this year having never had the opportunity to hike overseas, the support that they received from brands such as Berghaus to enable the individual team members to achieve their goals has been invaluable. There has been much in the way of campaigns in the past few years around increasing the level of diversity in the outdoors, be that better gender balance or ethnic mix; all of which have been pleasing to see with brands making a huge step change to redress that. These things often take time but surely and steadily, it has been refreshing to begin to notice the positive effects. However, what I believe still gets forgotten in the drive to get people outdoors is the financial barrier. (Read Iona’s story here).
Expeditions are not a cheap undertaking. Aside from the actual cost of the trip, there is all the right gear to think about and budget for. Good kit is not just a nice to have, but an essential consideration when thinking of going out in some of the harshest weather conditions and terrain. We only need to look to last year and the terrible tragedy of the deaths of some of the porters on Kilimanjaro due to inadequate kit as cold weather and snow set in on the mountain. But not all kit is good quality or affordable, but as brands such as Berghaus look to encourage even more on the benefits of getting outside, they are all also savvy to the fact that a safe expedition requires good kit. And therefore help to reduce this barrier to as many as possible.
Stop, pause and reflect
In the hectic lifestyle that we all lead, it sometimes takes a task like ‘writing an article’ to allow us to stop, pause and reflect on the journey we have been on to date. It’s hard to imagine what the year would have been like without the support of brands such as Berghaus believing in what we do and excitement mounts as we look to release the adventure film we did in collaboration with them, later this year. As we edge ever closer to the end of 2019 and as plans for the new expedition season emerges, I take an uncharacteristic moment to look to my teenage self and wonder – just what would life have been like had I not discovered the outdoors.