Suffolk explorer: "I've seen first hand how we're devastating the planet"
PUBLISHED: 13:00 24 February 2019 | UPDATED: 09:34 25 February 2019
Lucy Shepherd is only 26, but has conquered feats that so many others could only ever dream of, exploring the Arctic, Andes and Amazon. She's survived the jungle, scaled unimaginable peaks, adventured solo and led team expeditions. Emily Cotton speaks with the 'unlikely adventurer'.
Starting from the very beginning, where did your sense of adventure come from?
I had always been a so called ‘adventurous’ child, but aren’t we all? I would so enjoy climbing trees, exploring the Suffolk countryside and taking ‘risks’ whilst watching others gasp. The only difference is that I managed to realise how much I enjoyed it early on so made an active effort not to lose it.
Once you knew adventure and expeditions were for you, how did you get involved in your first proper expedition and where did you go?
It was after a two week adventure course at Ridgway Adventure in the remote wilderness of Scotland that I went to aged 15, where I was exposed to the word ‘expedition’ as being something accessible. Here we would go on ‘mini expeditions’ and I thrived doing these. I got back from the Scottish adventure knowing I’d like to do more than a mini expedition.
A few months later, I was made aware of an advert in the paper that was inviting 18 to 25 year olds to apply for a 10 week scientific extreme Arctic expedition. I applied and was interviewed, had training, fundraised and eventually was accepted onto the team of 10.
I found so many thrills in having something so big to put all my focus on. It was everything I could have ever hoped for a first expedition. It was long enough to for me to become completely comfortable in the Arctic environment and we had a great small team. It also had many extremes, from freezing polar temperatures to first ascents, from science fieldwork to wild animals. I returned and I had indeed solidified that this was something I was going to do forever.
As well as team expeditions, you’ve also adventured solo, hiking 500 miles across the Picos de Europa alone. What was this like?
Going on solo trips is very different, yet enjoyable for different reasons. When I go to the more extreme places such as high altitude peaks, I put together a team. Even if it’s just a climbing partner or a team of four, it’s here you most need those other people on the rope for various safety reasons.
I go solo when I want time to myself. Trekking through the mountains following a route you’ve created months before is so empowering. Of course you have a lot of time to question your decisions as you don’t have the luxury of being reassured by someone else, but this makes it all the more rewarding.
I find myself going solo when I want to remind myself of what I am capable of independently. It takes time to get used to it and trust yourself and, of course, there are times where having someone by your side would make certain scenarios seem less daunting, but it is truly a great way to be empowered by yourself.
You’ve also smashed female stereotypes by being the youngest women to captain a team on the Patagonia Expedition Race. What did this race involve and why did you decide you wanted to take it on?
The Patagonian Expedition Race was equally one of my proudest moments and also my biggest dark cloud. I decided I wanted to take it on because it combined so many different challenges all rolled into one, and was a major goal to focus on. The race is unlike any other. It consists of running, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, climbing and navigating in the extreme Patagonia wilderness, over a period of around eight days with a rough route you find out 24 hours before the start line.
We had a wonderful team, all of whom I’d met in incredible ways and we trained so hard; leaving our homes each weekend to climb in Wales, kayak in Cornwall and navigate in Dartmoor!
The race came and we set off. The route went something like marathon on the beach, bike ride 80 miles, bike ride 100 miles, then a kayak then a trek... However, 24 hours in, and well and truly into the mountain bike stage, I had a bike accident and we were pulled from the course as I headed to a Chilean hospital (miles and miles away!). I will always look back in regret of how that happened because I was so proud of what we had been achieving! It is an epic place and one epic race!
Despite all this, you’ve previously said people often underestimate you and you’ve therefore labelled yourself an ‘unlikely adventurer’. What does the term adventurer mean to you?
Adventurer is an odd term. I suppose many think they don’t exist anymore or have any place in the modern world, much like they classify explorers. This is certainly not the case in my eyes. Adventurer is purely someone who has adventures around the world and I adventure and explore things that make me the person who I am today.
As with the term explorer - those who say there is nothing left to explore are the most wrong of all and are the people who lack imagination and curiosity for this universe!
Through your travels – which you’ve documented through blogging, photography and video – you’ve gained first hand experience at how incredible our planet is and as a result, gained a keen sense of environmental accountability. Have there been any environmental messages that you’ve been keen to share with others when you’ve been back on UK soil?
It’s very easy for people to become disconnected with nature and think it doesn’t play a role in every day lives but really it plays a role in every second of our lives. For example, by cutting down our trees, we are literally taking away the things that give us oxygen!
Expeditions provide vulnerability. It’s all too easy to realise how small we are when surrounded by humongous mountains and how just the slightest change of wind speed could cause jeopardy. However its not until we go back to the cities or see a place we were previously look different the next time we go that we realise we might be small individually but as a group we are massively devastating our planet. We have made an irreversible impact but we can all do something about it to stop it from making this Earth uninhabitable. It’s important to make others realise that we, just as everything in nature, are all made of the same stuff. We are all connected and everything has a cause and effect. It’s time to stop burying our heads in the sand and taking a stand.
I also try to get people to want to be in the outdoors more, because why should they care if they don’t know about it and why should they know about it if they have never experienced it?
Is there anything else you would say your adventures have taught or brought out of you?
Embrace individuality. Everyone has something special about them and it’s tapping into that that will give you a lifetime of inner confidence. By embracing who you really are, you’ll forever be on the right track on pursing your own perfection and happiness.
This links to following your gut too. Not your head, or your heart but your gut. There have been so many occasions where I’ve listened to that pit in my stomach about whether to do something - good or bad - and it’s always been the right decision. Also, I learnt recently that there’s so many nerve endings in our gut, meaning the saying ‘gut instinct’ may actually have scientific meaning!
As well as the high points, there must have also been times when things have got really tough, possibly even life threatening. How do you deal with and ultimately overcome these situations?
Preparation is key! You must think of how your body and mind will be feeling. What are you going to find difficult and how can you make any possible situations less difficult by preparing for them in the months leading up to a trip?
If things really do go wrong and are out of your control then taking a step back, staying cool and calm and being confident in your decision making allow you to follow things through efficiently. I would say having a place to go to in your head to remind yourself of why you are doing these things is important too.
Your message to the world is ‘Don’t lose your botheredness’. What does this mean?
This basically means that as soon as the phrase ‘I can’t be bothered’ pops into your head, even if you’re just thinking it, then you must do it there and then, whatever it is. On expeditions this is useful to make sure the little things you ‘couldn’t be bothered with’ don’t snowball and cause one massive problem! I now find myself never saying ‘I can’t be bothered!’
Not everyone is out in extreme environments every day, so how can people use your motto in every day life?
This motto can be used in all levels of life. There’s of course the use when you’re trying to achieve a goal. For example, on those cold mornings that you said the night before you would go for a run on. As you lay in bed thinking I can’t be bothered, that’s when you should immediately jump out and put those running shoes on. No thinking, just doing! Or simply with day to day work or domestics; ‘I can’t be bothered to empty that dishwasher’ just means that the next day when you have another job on top of that to do, everything seems a lot worse. Just do it in the first place to avoid that feeling of too much on your shoulders.
You were voted one of Suffolk’s Most Inspirational Women in 2018, and it’s clear that you, your attitude to life and your experiences are something that will continue to inspire many. But who inspires you?
I try to get inspiration from many sources. There are people who I look up to and get energy and motivation from and then there’s thinking about how I’ve coped in those touch times where I get inspiration from my past self.
And finally, what’s next for you? Where is your next adventure taking you and why have you decided upon there?
I’m actually leaving for the Arctic next week. It’s a route I’ve done before however what’s different this time is that I’m taking six people who have little or no Arctic experience. It’s going to be an adventure for me and them, and I can’t wait to show them the Arctic in its most pure form as we ski and camp along the plateau. It will be hard and cold and they will have no choice but to connect with the environment. It’s going to be a great way to show them what they can achieve and hopefully be a positive experience that they can feed off for years to come!