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Di Gilbert: ‘Scotland is where conditions are toughest’

Written by Fiona

May 10 2020

I interviewed Di Gilbert for The Scots magazine, ahead of her third planned trip to Everest. Note: The Covid-19 pandemic means this third record-breaking ascent has been postponed. Di’s story is impressive.

Master of the mountains

Ask Di Gilbert about her hardest days in the mountains and she says, empathically, “Scotland”.

Despite having climbed the highest mountains on all seven continents and currently preparing for her third expedition to Everest, the accomplished mountaineer reveals that it is the time spent in her home country that “toughens me up”.

She says: “The big trips – the ones to the world’s highest summits – are all about careful planning, taking time for acclimatisation and finding a good weather window. 

“But here, at home, I go out in all kinds of weather and it can be atrocious. In winter, in particular, I spend day after day in the cold, wet and snow on my own or guiding others and that is very, very tough.

“I have faced more life-threatening experiences while in the mountains in Scotland.”

Di Gilbert. Credit: Tom Ripley

Challenges of high-altitude mountaineering

This is not to say that Di, who lives in Grantown-on-Spey in the Highlands, underestimates the challenges of high-altitude mountaineering.

In 2016, for example, on a trip to K2 – the second highest mountain on Earth – a massive avalanche tore through a high camp, wiping out vital equipment and oxygen cylinders. The disaster ended the season for all climbers, although, thankfully, it spared their lives.

Di explains: “The Adventure Peaks expedition was to be the first by a British team for 12 years. I was team leader and we were fit, strong and ready for the summit attempt.

“We were so close but then came the avalanche and that was it, game over, and not just for us but for everyone. I didn’t have any regrets about not summiting because we didn’t get a chance even to  fail.”

K2 is “unfinished business” for 46-year-old Di and she hopes to find another team to return to the inhospitable 8611m mountain, located on the China-Pakistan border, later this year.

“It is technically much harder than Everest. It is a climber’s mountain and also demands a long trek in. It’s susceptible to changeable weather conditions, too,” she says.

If she is successful, Di will be the second British female and the first Scottish to summit – and survive – K2.

A love of the mountains. Credit: Duncan Gray

Everest twice

Her second time on Everest also proved to be extremely testing due to unpredictable weather. In 2005, Di was only the second Scottish woman to climb to the peak of the 8848m tall mountain – and the first British woman to lead an expedition on the north side.

Although she had she would never return, last year she agreed to lead another trip to the roof of the world. 

However, a severe storm, Cyclone Fani, hit the Himalayas causing heavy snow and strong winds. Di says: “Usually there are around two weeks in mid-May when conditions are appropriate for an Everest attempt but the weather was crazy in early 2019.

“There were only two summit days in the whole season and we were fortunate to make it safely to the peak and back down on one of the days, but towards the end of the month.”

Again, Di was leading an expedition by the British company Adventure Peaks and also, for the second time, from the the Tibetan side, via the north col-north east ridge. 

Di says: “China has far stricter restrictions on permit issues on their side of Everest compared to the southern side in Nepal. This means there are fewer groups on the mountain.”

But it is also a more technical way to summit. Di explains: “There are advantages to a north ascent, such as a more luxurious base camp, which you can also drive to rather than having to trek to. So the start is less tiring compared to the southern side.

“But the top camp is very high and there is a long ridge to the summit with more technical climbing. It is a much more difficult way to summit Everest.”

She will return to Everest for a third time, leading an Adventures Peaks expedition and hoping for a third summit finish.

An impressive mountain career

Di’s journey to what she describes as “the best job in the world”, appears natural enough, although as a child growing up in Aberdeenshire, she says she could never have imagined her career.

She says: “I have horrible memories as a youngster trudging through thigh-deep heather on hills close to home and then of over-ladened Duke of Edinburgh expedition rucksacks. I didn’t really get off to a great start with mountain climbing.”

But, still, she went on to study Outdoor Education at Aberdeen College, where she met an enthusiastic lecturer called Chris Pounds. Di says: “He lit the rock climbing fire within me and this opened up the mountain scene.”

In the mid-1990s, Di began taking long treks in mountains around the world, including the Himalayas, South America and Africa. She spent four years working in Antarctica at Patriot Hills, initially as a guide and then as field operations manager.

In 2004, an opportunity arose to lead an expedition with Jagged Globe, based in England, to Huascarán, the highest mountain in Peru at 6768m.

Something clicked in Di and she found a lust to climb higher mountains. In the autumn of 2004, she led an Adventure Peaks expedition to Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain at 8201m.

The 2005 Everest trip was to guide Jake Meyer, who achieved fame by becoming the youngest Brit at that time, aged 21, to climb Everest. 

Within six years, Di had completed the world’s Seven Summits. She says: “It took me less time to do the highest peaks on every continent than it did to finish a round of Munros.”

She is has also found time to represent Great Britain in the International Ski Mountaineering Federation’s World Championships and she’s a director of Skimo Scotland, the home of Scottish ski mountaineering racing.

Less intent these days on personal goals – although she is working her way through the Corbetts in Scotland –  Di’s greatest joy is to enable people to achieve their lifetime dreams.

She says: “It is usually such a life-changing personal experience for people, such as those who want to climb Everest, and I am there assisting them.

“It amazes me still, that I am just a lass from Aberdeenshire and here I am guiding people on such extraordinary journeys across the world.”

Di organises Skimo Scotland annually.

Di Gilbert facts:

It took Di 6773 days, or 18 years, 6 months and 18 days, to complete her first round of Munros, which is a lot longer than she took to summit the world’s seven summits.

Di has been inducted into the University of Strathclyde’s Sports Hall of Fame in Glasgow and awarded an Honorary Full Sporting Blue for showing an outstanding high level of sporting achievement.

Di is found of Skimo Scotland.

Di is a sponsored athlete. She is supported by: Scarpa, Grivel, Deuter, Black Crows, Edelweiss, Sea to Summit, Lorpen, Arva and Salewa.

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