How Scotland's mountains prepared Mollie Hughes for Everest
Edinburgh mountaineer Mollie Hughes explains how living in Scotland prepared her for record-breaking climb of Mount Everest.
Fifteen miles southwest of Edinburgh in the Pentland Hills stands East Cairn Hill. Accessed by walkers from Kirknewton or West Linton, the 567 metre hill is an unremarkable lump, dressed by expanses of brown heather, which are interrupted only by patches of yellowing grass and wire mesh fence.
Its hard to think of a peak more juxtaposing to the mystical and pyramidal colossus Mount Everest, but record-breaking mountaineer Mollie Hughes found the unheralded slab in the Pentlands a suitable training ground prior to her second visit to the world's tallest peak.
"There’s a route which takes in East Cairn Hill and Mount Maw which is pretty awesome," she explains. "From its summit you get an amazing view of Edinburgh. If you go up north, you need a day or two, but if you don’t have that much time then skip down to the Pentlands and do some hiking with a heavy bag and find some really steep sections to take on."
Hughes, 27, is speaking nearly a year to the day since her record-breaking second climb of Mount Everest. On May 16, 2017, she became the youngest female to climb the Himalayan peak from Tibet to the north and Nepal to the south .
‘My Everest days are over’
Everest is in the midst of its peak season and as the 8848 metre top receives its first guests of 2018, Hughes admits that she's glad to have her feet firmly on Scottish soil.
"I’m pretty sure my Everest days are over. Two Everest summits is definitely enough!" She reveals with an exasperated chuckle. "It was amazing I feel so lucky to have experienced the expeditions I did, but it’s nice to not be there at the moment!"
Despite her relief, Hughes reflects fondly on her climb via the northeast ridge one year on.
"That day when we go to the top was completely magical, ridiculously hard, but so amazing to get back up to the summit and feel OK up there. I took it in a bit more than I did in 2012."
The Tibetan route is widely regarded as the more difficult of the two approaches; winds are higher and the trek is punctuated with technical - and dangerous - climbs. What's more the route is strewn with the bodies of less fortunate climbers, a tragic reality which Hughes numbed herself to while climbing.
It therefore comes as a surprise when Hughes reveals that she found the north the less difficult of the two expeditions.
"I felt like I belonged there. I think I thrived a lot more on the north side than the south side. I have really fond memories of the climb form the north."
Preparing for Everest in Scotland
It's likely that Hughes' move to Scotland played some part in her preference of north over south.
Following her first climb of Mount Everest, Hughes briefly returned to live with her parents, where she suffered with a dreaded bout of "Post Expedition Blues".The Devon-born athlete then moved north of the border and settled in Edinburgh in order to "be somewhere closer to the mountains". Scotland's technical ridges, wintry weather and natural ice-climbing arenas served as the ideal playground for the mountaineer. Enthusiastically Hughes recalls her recent exploits in Scotland: "on Ben Nevis we did a couple of really cool ice climbs this winter. And yesterday I climbed a Corbett called Ben Ledi, it’s just north of Callander."
Her exposure to the famed, frigid conditions of the Scottish Highlands served her well ahead of her visit to the chilly northern side of Mount Everest.
"There was a couple days where it was really snowy and windy and we didn’t have to go particularly far," explains the mountaineer. "But people started dropping out and they seemed to think the weather was too rough. Me and my British teammate were like if you were in Scotland right now this would be a nice day out. It certainly helped us a little bit being used to horrible Scottish conditions!"
And it wasn't just the weather that felt familiar to Hughes.
"Jon Gupta who I was climbing with has also done quite a bit of climbing in Scotland, and we always found ourselves comparing things to Scotland, like different features on the mountain."
And upon her return to Scotland in 2017 there were no "Post Expedition Blues" to speak of.
"Coming back after 2017 I didn’t feel any of that. I think because I’m older and I’ve got my own place in Edinburgh, I had a job to come back to, loads of speaking to do, loads of friends to hang out with and celebrate with, coming back last June was great."
Teaching the next generation of adventurers
Climbing Mount Everest is a selfish exploit, and the frank Mollie Hughes is the first to admit this. Family members and friends are left behind as mountaineers follow their goal of standing briefly on the world's loftiest point and taking in the magical views of neighbouring peaks Lhotse and Nuptse - the little breath remaining in their oxygen deprived bodies is often taken following a glimpse of these other worldly vistas.
However, despite embarking on two trips to the roof of the world, Hughes doesn't come across as the ego-overloaded trophy hunters who climb Everest solely for the accolade of bagging the world's highest peak.
"I wanted to actually climb it," she notes. "I wanted see the Western Cwm and experience the second step on the northeast ridge. People shouldn't climb Everest for the pride and prestige of getting to the top. You have to be a mountaineer and there has to be a desire to experience the mountain."
And now, Hughes is selflessly looking to pass on her skills and her experience to a new generation of climbers.
In April 2019, the climber is leading an expedition of Bathgate Academy students to the fjord-lined coasts of Greenland on behalf of the Polar Academy.
"The Polar Academy don’t pick the high achievers or the ones who get all the attention for misbehaving, they pick the middle ground kids who maybe suffer from bullying and have low self esteem.
"We’re going to take a group of ten of them and train them for a whole year and turn them into almost elite athletes and then take them on a expedition to Greenland, on huge sledges across the icecap and up unclimbed peaks. It will completely change their lives."
The 27-year-old is speaking from experience, for it was on the frozen slopes of Everest that she had her own life changed.
"Before I went I was 21 and I had just graduated from uni, and during school and uni I was super shy, I never had that much confidence to talk to people.
"I always believed I had the potential to do something, but I never had the confidence to show it.
"Proving to myself that I could achieve these things made me so much more confident and also reaffirmed this resilience that I had - when you meet your barrier and break through it, you learn so much about yourself and about how much you can achieve."
Mollie Hughes is speaking at [email protected] on May 31