She's climbed the Seven Summits and twice led expeditions up Everest. But one of her favourite places to go is closer to home... in the much-maligned Drumochter Hills. Fiona Russell talks walking with mountain instructor, skier and all-round high achiever Di Gilbert.
Di Gilbert is a hugely experienced mountaineer, climber and skier. In 2005, she became only the second Scottish woman to climb Mount Everest, and while she said she would never return, in 2019 she did – joining a very small group of females who have led more than one expedition to the roof of the world. She has also competed the "Seven Summits", the highest peaks on the world's seven continents.
Di, 46, will be returning to Everest in 2020 for a third time to lead the Adventure Peaks North Ridge Expedition. She also hopes to return to K2 as expedition leader with the Adventure Peaks K2 Expedition. In 2016, she led the first British Expedition in 12 years to K2 but due to a huge avalanche that destroyed Camp 3, the season ended early and the expedition was abandoned.
The first time I said out aloud that I was actually bagging Munros was a pivotal moment in my life
She has represented Great Britain in the International Ski Mountaineering Federation's World Championships and is a director of Skimo Scotland, the home of ski mountaineering racing in Scotland.
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. She is now working on the Corbetts.
Di spent four Antarctic seasons based at Patriot Hills, initially as a guide, before becoming a field operations manager. She has also 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.
Originally from Aberdeenshire, Di's home for the past 25 years has been the Spey Valley in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, where she works as a winter mountaineering and climbing instructor.
She says: "I have never had a proper job and it is unlikely that this will change now."
What is your first memory of walking in the hills or mountains?
It was a walk up Bennachie in Aberdeenshire when I was a tot with family friends. I probably moaned all the way to the top because I was the smallest. Or maybe I was carried.
Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?
My mum has to take credit for this and her involvement with the Air Training Corps. I didn't get off to a great start with mountain climbing, however. I have horrible memories of thigh-deep heather and over-laden Duke of Edinburgh expedition rucksacks. But, still, I went on to study Outdoor Education at Aberdeen College, where I met a very enthusiastic lecturer called Chris Pounds. He lit the rock climbing fire within me and this opened up the mountain scene. After that there have been lots of influencers, but mum and Chris were the first.
When did you realise you would be a keen life-long walker?
I didn't realise I was, rather it's just in-built I think. However, the first time I said out aloud that I was actually bagging Munros was a pivotal moment in my life.
Do you prefer coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?
It's the variety that keeps me going, to be honest. I am not a huge fan of trudging through deep heather-clad moorland but we have such a variety of terrain in Scotland that it's hard to say where I prefer.
Are you a fair weather or any weather walker?
To become a competent walker in the hills you have to be able to operate in any overhead/underfoot conditions. Bad mountain weather often throws up some of the most spectacular weather days so although I wouldn't purposely head out in a diabolical forecast, I don't mind getting caught out in it.
What are your three all-time favourite locations to go for a walk?
The Cairngorms, because it's home.
The Drumochter hills, because if I am there, on the A9, it means I'm probably driving home after a spell away.
I really enjoy spending time with people in the hills and I suppose that is why I do what I do for a living
The Lecht hills, again because if I am on the A939 it means I'm probably driving home after a spell away.
...And home is where all the adventures start and end, for me.
Is the night-time a good time to go walking?
Being outdoors at night is certainly a great way to confirm your navigation skills. I can't say that I would aim to go out for a night walk out of choice but in the depths of winter it's a must because we end up running out of daylight. It's nice to watch the sun set on beautiful evenings but if it's a blizzard in winter, I'd say it's a bit more like type 2 fun.
Have you ever been lucky to avoid/escape a difficult situation in the mountains?
When you spend as much time in the hills as I do, this is inevitable.
You have written a great deal about walking. What were the challenges, if any?
The last piece I wrote was for the Scarpa blog after I returned from leading the Adventure Peaks Everest expedition this spring.
This was by far the hardest thing I have ever written and you'll probably need to read it to understand why. When I returned to the UK, I spent the following three months climbing in the Alps but I had to take a step back because (stupid as it sounds) I kept seeing dead bodies. It was too soon to be back in the mountains.
My mate summed it up perfectly by saying that there aren't any books written about what you've been through so you just need to work it out for yourself. It just took time and having returned from another big expedition this autumn, I can safely say that time was the healer. Writing about the expedition was part of my debriefing and healing process.
Who is your perfect walking partner?
My mates – and they know who they are. I could say some famous celebrity but they might turn out to be a plonker, so I would rather leave them on the pedestal. At least I am guaranteed to have a laugh with my mates.
Are you happy to go solo?
Only when there is nobody else to join me! I really enjoy spending time with people in the hills and I suppose that is why I do what I do for a living. Sharing memories are the foundations for great friendships.
I am in the process of bagging Corbetts and there are some out there that are beyond the realms of friendship. So, although I prefer to have a giggle along the way, I'm very happy to go alone, too.
Boots, trail shoes, Wellies or barefoot?
Depends on the conditions underfoot. All of the above except for barefoot as that just seems stupid.
How do you navigate?
It's a traditional map and compass for me but I do have OS Maps on my phone, which always has the downloaded map of where I am.
What three items are always in your rucksack?
It depends on whether I'm working or playing! My three essential items are all the same but the bulk and size will differ. Shelter. Insulation. Phone.
What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?
If I tell you, it won't be a secret any more!
What are your favourite walking foods?
I always make my own bread for sandwiches. I take only one roll, but it's usually a monster and I like to add some of my mum's chutney. The filling will be whatever is in the fridge. I also take individually wrapped chocolate biscuits and a home-bake, such as lemon drizzle cake made from a recipe from the Cairngorm Cafe book.
If you could only pick one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?
That's a no brainer. It has to be the Highlands of Scotland.
What is your ultimate walking heaven?
I often get asked this and the answer always remains the same. It's not about the where, but the who. I really could be in the worst place imaginable but if the company is great, things will be fine.
Will you be walking until you are 103?
You have got to be joking! By the time I am 103, I would like to think that I will have been pushing up the daisies for a few years. As Freddie Mercury coined so nicely: Who wants to live forever? The thought of my body gradually deteriorating with old age fills me with fear and that's one of the main reasons that I try to pack in so much to my life now. I'm not saying that I'm ready to go quite yet but when my time has come, I know that I am going with a smile on my face.
- For more about Di, or to book a course, see digilbert.co.uk
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