SUPERWOMAN doesn’t begin to describe Rachel Colenso. Climber and South Africa’s first and only qualified female mountain guide, one of only four women ever to survive British Special Forces training, mother, motivational speaker, charity angel and Intrepid Explorer,we chat with Rachel about her infamous Piz Badile climb, life as one of the toughest and most resilient extreme adventurers in the world, and her current expedition down the Thames. Growing up in canoes on the Okavango Delta and the wilderness of a South African farm, Rachel learnt to track game and appreciate the environment at a young age. No longer satisfied with trees and boulders, her love for climbing was ignited at university when she had the opportunity to try technical climbing – and the rest, as they say, is history.
The only qualified woman mountain guide in South Africa and one of only four women to survive the rigorous British Special Forces training (a military selection programme that sees a less than 5% pass rate for male soldiers), Rachel is used to being in a male-dominated environment. When asked about the difficulties of this position in sport, she was nothing but positive – saying her biggest challenge was finding shoes. “It is sometimes difficult to break in where you are in the minority, for simple logistical reasons. For instance, when I started climbing there was no option for me but to climb barefoot because the climbing shops rarely stocked shoes in female sizes.”
Now recognised as one of the toughest and most resilient extreme adventurers in the world, Rachel Colenso is a woman to be reckoned with. She has competed internationally in adventure racing, led expeditions through the Amazon and climbed some of the most technically challenging rock faces on various mountains around the world. Her most infamous, and disastrous, climb was up Piz Badile in Switzerland. When she set out to conquer the Alps in 2003, the last thing she had expected was to end up stuck on a sheer face at 3 000m, in a freezing blizzard, fearing for her life.
Ascending the north ridge in a fast and light method known as alpine climbing, Rachel and her climbing partner Jeremy, whom she later married, found themselves at an impassable section of mountain and had to start abseiling down. Before they were able to make the descent, though, a huge electrical storm blew in. “It was like being thrown into a huge fireworks display,” she said. They were trapped. As they tried to make their way down slowly, huge chunks of cliff face broke away and fell down the mountain, lightening flashed through the sky and night began to fall. At 100m above the ground, they finally had to strap themselves to a tiny ledge and hang on for dear life.
For the next two days, Rachel and Jeremy were trapped on that ledge. With sheer drops all around and the wind tossing the rescue helicopter through the sky, they found themselves counting the hours, the minutes and the seconds. “I kept thinking, ‘Is this really happening to me?’ I couldn’t quite believe it, or believe that we kept going for so long. We both knew that we had to keep going, and that we couldn’t give up,” she related.
After two long days with no food, water or sleep, they were finally airlifted to safety. This traumatising experience inspired Rachel to write a book titled, In a High and Desperate Place. It is hard to imagine a more high and desperate place, let alone conceive how one begins to recover from such an ordeal, but Rachel said: “I thought if I got off that mountain alive, I would dedicate time to helping others” – and that is exactly what she has done.
Our agonising time spent on the Piz Badile Mountain made it clear to me that I wanted to help others cope when faced with disaster
Not only has she continued to climb – in fact, she has returned to Piz Badile – but she has also dedicated her time to raising money and awareness for various charities. She carried her baby over the mountains from Cape Point to Table Mountain for a charity against child abandonment; climbed a big wall in Yosemite in the United States and dedicated it toward raising funds for a refuge in Accra, Ghana; was part of an expedition that pushed a paraplegic man with brittle bone disease up to 5 400m on Everest in support of a charity for children in wheelchairs; and, most recently, helped in numerous events to raise money and awareness for the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.
Fearless is a word that comes to mind when trying to describe this incredible woman, but Rachel counters that it is not about being fearless, it is about learning to control your fear and realising it is a natural emotion that is there to help you. It’s this attitude that has cemented Rachel as not only an intrepid explorer, but also a motivational speaker, fund raiser and role model to people around the world.
An inspiration to all, she strongly believes you can achieve anything you put your mind to. “Never stop believing that you can! Our brains are amazing, and we need to learn to trust our brain in making decisions. So often we doubt and find reasons we can’t do things – it is always good, especially when surrounded by doubt, to find reasons you can,” she said.
Currently, Rachel and her two-year-old daughter Jasmine (accompanied when they can by her five-year-old daughter Rosemary and her husband Jeremy) have started scooting the entire length of the Thames River to raise funds for the British Red Cross Disaster Fund, which aids countries such as Lesotho and Zimbabwe. It is a 301-kilometre journey that has been broken down into smaller sections. So far, they have completed about 20km – so they have a long way to go!
Words by Shan Routledge, pics by John Freeman, Jeremy Colenso, Avery Cunlithe