Explorer Lucy Rivers Bulkeley: ‘I should grow up after this trip… but I think it’s in my blood now’

In 2010, Rivers Bulkeley became the first European woman to complete all four desert ultramarathons

Comfortable it will not be but as Lucy Rivers Bulkeley approaches the South Pole on skis she will have, at least, the consolation of having guaranteed herself a white Christmas.

Skiing the last degree, an eight or nine day trek from Union Glacier – she is due to arrive on Boxing Day – is only the warm-up for the second part of the expedition which, all being well, will see her summit Mount Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica. She will see in the New Year half-way up. 

In the world of adventure that will put her out on her own as the only woman to have run the four major desert ultramarathons (Sahara, Gobi, Atacama and Antarctica) and to have climbed the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. Only one other person has so far accomplished the feat; the Canadian Leonard Stanmore. 

Compared to Everest, which she climbed in 2018, Vinson is a relative tiddler but no less difficult or dangerous because she will be starting from sea level, have a 50lb pack on her back and, at minus 45 degrees plus wind chill, it is a good 10 degrees colder than the world’s highest mountain. 

Apart from the extreme cold she will also have to negotiate crevasses in the knowledge that the nearest hospital is in Chile.   

But she is in good company; the three guides, including Mike Hamill, in the party of eight have 22 Everest ascents between them. “It makes my one look rather weak,” she points out.

Rivers Bulkeley will be half-way up Mount Vinson, all going to plan, on New Year's Day

Credit: Getty Images

So, when she could be at home in the Cotswolds in front of a roaring log fire with a glass of wine in her hand, why on earth or, rather, ice is Rivers Bulkeley, who works for a US investment bank, doing this?

It started with a supposed one-off, the Marathon des Sables – seven marathons in six days across the Sahara – in 2008.

“It was a hair-brained idea dreamed up over lunch with my sister,” she explains. “In 2007 my dad, Johnny, died of cancer. He had been a military attache in Washington and lived life to the full but cancer took him in 10 weeks and we decided to do it for a military charity.

“I’d never done a marathon but it played to my adventurous side and an inner stubborn streak. I was never going to be the fastest but I was hoping to finish. Though you can’t move the day after, I enjoyed it. I’m not good at being told I can’t do something.” 

A year later she tried the Atacama marathon in Chile but pulled up on day four with a knee injury which only made her more determined. Having failed to finish in 2009 she decided to do all four desert ultramarathons in 2010 and she became the first European woman to complete the feat in a year. 

“You go in knowing it’s going to be painful but it is two drips and you’re out so the key is to avoid the medical tent,” she explains. “You do see a few familiar faces – everyone has a similar mindset but a different reason for being there.”

That should have been that but she was giving a talk at the Royal Geographical Society on an ‘adventure’ evening put on by the Light Dragoons. She hopped up on stage with a broken leg but the next speaker talked about Everest.

“I’d always been fascinated by mountains,” she says. “My grandfather lived in the Alps, I’d always skied and that’s when the silly seven summits idea took shape. I’d done a small amount of climbing, nothing hugely technical but you do need to know what you’re doing.”

There seems to be little rhyme or reason to altitude sickness, athletic prowess does not come into it as Victoria Pendleton famously found on Everest. Rivers Bulkeley has never had a problem with heights – she says she could happily dangle her legs over the edge of the Burj Al Arab – but the only way to know whether you can cope with thin air is to try it.

“So in 2013 I spent a month on Aconcagua in the Andes to see if I could cope with the altitude,” she recalls. “I didn’t get sick or headaches. The only disappointment was when I summited. Everyone had told me I’d see the Pacific but it was foggy and it didn’t feel much different to a day in the Brecon Beacons!”

Climbing Everest proved third time lucky. In 2014 she was at base camp when 14 sherpas were killed in an avalanche and the mountain was closed. She was meant to try again in 2015 but on her last training climb in the Alps was herself caught up in an avalanche and broke her cheek bone.

The injury that put an end to an Everest attempt

She describes that as ‘sliding doors’ because having been ‘gutted’, that was the year Nepal suffered an earthquake and the team she would have been with were stuck at camp one.

In 2018 she finally reached the summit. “It was amazing. There was a large weather window so none of the queues that were photographed in 2019. She was part of a team of six which made the top.

“There’s a bit between the Balcony and South Summit which you climb in the dark – it’s very narrow. I think if you looked down in daylight you might be inclined to turn back. But it was crystal clear at the top and you can’t compute how far you can see. Everything in the world is below you. You can see the curvature of the earth. Pasang, a sherpa, and myself spent 45 minutes at the top. I thought I’d be shattered but you get a huge sense of achievement.

“You take your hat off to the early pioneers who did it in tweed jackets and no goggles,” she says. “I’ll be wearing a down skirt over trousers to protect my thighs – there’s got to be one girly element to this! Normally at this time of year I’d be trying to squeeze into a little black cocktail dress for Christmas but I’ve been trying to put weight on. I’ll be eating 6,000 calories a day and still lose a stone but, at least, my step count will be pretty good and I should have detoxed before January!”

Is she a restless soul? “I don’t think so,” she says. “I haven’t had a challenge like this since Everest.”

She has nearly done it all now so there, surely, cannot be much left but it does not take a genius to work out that, if she successfully skis to the South Pole, then that pretty much sets up skiing to the North Pole.

“I probably should grow up after this trip,” says Rivers Bulkeley, “but I think it’s in my blood now.”   

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