My Mountains: Mary-Ann Ochota

For the second in our series of conversations with well known hill folk we chat with broadcaster and writer Mary-Ann Ochota. A 'Get Outside' champion for the Ordnance Survey and a 'Hillwalking Ambassador' for the BMC, she is currently presenting the BBC TV series Britain Afloat, discovering how boats have shaped our lives.

Born and raised in Cheshire, Mary-Ann had her first taste of the outdoors with the air cadets. She went on to study Archaeology & Anthropology at Emmanuel College Cambridge University and joined her first expedition, to record rock art in the Sahara Desert, in 2001.

Mary-Ann scrambling on Tryfan  © Rory Southworth
Mary-Ann scrambling on Tryfan
© Rory Southworth

Since then, Mary-Ann's work has taken her across the world, including into the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster exclusion zone, across Australia's Simpson Desert with 17 camels, through the slums of Dhaka and Delhi, sailing across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and to the high plains of Tibet to live with Yak herders.

She's a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Hillwalking Ambassador for the British Mountaineering Council and a Get Outside Champion for the Ordnance Survey. She lives in North London with her husband (a committed non-walker) and a large brown dog, Harpo. She still thinks that home is in Cheshire, despite 15 years in the capital.

Mary-Ann's television credits include Britain Afloat, currently on BBC2, Saturdays 8pm until November 4; Time Team (Channel 4); Ancient Impossible (History Channel) and Tibet: Living on the Roof of the World (Discovery).

She's written two books on British archaeology and history, Britain's Secret Treasures, and her new book, Hidden Histories: A Spotter's Guide to the British Landscape.

She'll be presenting her new short film, Inaccessible, at the Kendal Mountain Festival, which runs November 16 to 19. The film explores why we set ourselves challenges in the mountains and sees Mary-Ann tackle the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye's Cuillin Ridge on Skye with the BMC. She'll also be introducing the film of the Berghaus Dragon's Back Race, revealing elite mountain runners who race the length of Wales over five days.

Do you see yourself as an outdoors ambassador?

I am keen to promote the outdoors as a place for everyone to learn and grow. As well as being a hillwalking ambassador for the BMC and an OS #GetOutside Champion, I've just started working with The Tony Trust, which provides funds for young people, whose families can't afford it, to do outward bound and adventure courses.

I think this is hugely important because our mountain areas offer a wonderful playground that every young person should experience and enjoy, regardless of wealth or background.

At the heart of what I do, on TV and in my writing, is showing people the many outdoor opportunities. I'm happy if I can reveal, "look, I'm not the fastest or fittest, but I like getting outside and you can do it too".

What is your first memory of walking in the hills or mountains?

I was aged about 10 when my family went camping to Snowdonia for the weekend. We arrived in the dark and I remember waking up the next morning and looking out of the tent. There was a lake and vast mountains surrounding us. It was thrilling. We went for a walk and I remember getting a stitch, but being incredibly proud of getting to the top. I can't remember what top we got to!

Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?

My mum always took my brother and I to the woods or a grassy park to play, rather than the playground. I think that had a big impact – the idea that the natural world is a wonderland to explore.

Harpo the dog is a cuddly companion for camping...  © Julian Andrews
Harpo the dog is a cuddly companion for camping...
© Julian Andrews

When did you realise you would be a keen life-long walker?

I always liked being outdoors and doing adventurous things, but I really only got into hillwalking in my 20s. Walking is free – and for a freelancing journalist that was definitely a draw. It's low tech, low cost and in Britain, you have all the excitement and challenge and variety you could wish for.

For one birthday, my brother got me the Book of the Bivvy by Ronald Turnbull. It's quirky and funny and I thought, "I want to go bivvy bagging!" But I didn't know anyone who wanted to come, too. So, I went on my own.

The first time I was nervous. But it affords you freedom and a feeling of real adventure and I love that sense of self-sufficiency.

Coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?

All of them, and for different reasons:

  • The coast because it's often very varied.
  • Hills for places where you can feel the human history that's shaped the landscape.
  • Moorland for a feeling of a wide and wild space.
  • Mountain ridges for those sustained and slightly more technical journeys where you really need to pay attention if you want to get home in one piece.

Are you a fair weather or "any weather" walker?

Any weather! I've had some of the best and most satisfying days out in driving rain or thick, swirly mist that plays tricks on your eyes. Being tucking up in a tent with the rain lashing down outside can be fun, too, as long as it stops before breakfast!

What are your all-time favourite hill or mountain walks?

Blencathra via Halls Fell ridge is a classic. It feels exciting, looks impressive, but is very manageable for any mountain walker and offers plenty of places to put your hands and feet!

I recently did the Cwm Bochlwyd horseshoe, which links an ascent of Tryfan, the Bristly Ridge scramble on to Glyder Fach and then the descent down Y Gribin. It's billed as one of the most unforgettable days in the mountains and it really is as good as people say. [See the UKH Route Card here].

Not quite a hill, but the coast path on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales is absolutely stunning and with a surprising amount of up and down.

This summer, I climbed the In Pinn on Skye with a guide, Lou Reynolds. It is in the most incredible location. The BMC film of our trip premieres at Kendal Mountain Festival and will then be free to watch on BMC TV.

Is the night-time a good time to go walking?

Definitely. It boosts your confidence because then you know you can do it and it forces you to use good navigation techniques. In addition, being out at night means you often have busy places to yourself. It can be spooky but it can also be very special and fun.

"Our mountain areas offer a wonderful playground that every young person should experience" says Mary-Ann
© Rory Southworth

Have you ever been lucky to avoid/escape a difficult situation in the mountains?

On my Silver Duke of Edinburgh award expedition aged 15 I slipped and cut my leg open on a piece of slate. If my foot had gone a few inches further, I don't think I'd be here now because I would been off the side of the mountain.

The cut was like a surgical incision – deep and clean. There wasn't actually that much blood, but we all peered into this gaping wound and could see the nerve fibres. Thankfully a leader was nearby and helped us bandage it tightly before we got off the mountain safely and to hospital. I've still got the scar.

First aid is one of the most important mountain skills you can have.

You have presented many successful TV programmes about walking. What were the challenges, if any?

Filming walking can be incredibly tedious because it takes a long time to carry heavy and bulky professional camera kit anywhere. This means you end up walking sections of the route multiple times, so the camera operator can get different shots of the same action.

In Tibet, I had to climb a small but feisty hill called Hepo Ri about seven times. It's at about 4,300m, so you can feel the altitude. The problem was the first time I'd tried to walk fast and look athletic, which meant I had to match that pace for the next two hours, up and down, up and down. The audio recording of my breathing is hilarious, I sound like a steam train.

Who is your perfect walking partner?

If I could wave a magic wand I'd get my husband to like hillwalking. But he just doesn't see much point in walking up hills. I'm trying to convince him to try scrambling, as I think he'd like the challenge and variety.

Other than that, anyone who I can chat comfortably with, who won't moan, will share their chocolate and be good in an emergency. And of course, my dog Harpo. As long as it's not too narrow, he's a great companion and he's very cuddly for camping.

Are you happy to go solo?

I prefer company, but I think being alone in the hills can be pretty special. It also improves your self-confidence.

Walking boots or trail shoes? And why?

It depends on the terrain. I'm not a fell runner and there's some terrain that my ankles need the greater support and protection a boot can provide. But other times a pair of trail running shoes make you light, fast and you can feel the ground you're travelling on. The only shoes I'd never recommend are the heavy, bulky trail shoes aimed at walkers because I don't think they provide the support of a boot or the lightness of a trail running shoe.

How do you navigate?

I'm a map and compass girl. They can't go wrong and do not run out of battery. Saying that, I found that a GPS on the Cuillin in Skye is a good idea because the rock is magnetic so your compass won't work. I've also got the OS Maps app on my phone, which is really excellent for picking out footpaths or open access land and planning ad hoc routes.

What three items are always in your rucksack?

Head torch, group shelter and first aid kit.

What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?!

ITV Wales' Coast & Country presenter Andrew Price introduced me to the delight that is Carnation squeezy condensed milk in a tube when we were hiking along Offa's Dyke path. It's sweet, creamy and good in tea and coffee. Or for dessert, you just squeeze it straight into your mouth from the tube. It's quite disgusting but delicious.

What one piece of walking clothing do you favour above all others?

I've got a pair of Jack Wolfskin hiking trousers that I've had for years. They've trekked around China, done years of service walking in the UK and they've even sailed across the north Pacific with me.

I also have a Berghaus Extrem hydroloft jacket that climbers would call a 'belay jacket'. It's big enough to throw over all my other layers, waterproofs included. Because it's synthetic, it doesn't matter if it gets wet. It means that for a lunch stop you can chuck it on without having to take other layers off first.

Your favourite walking foods?

A friend recently introduced me to "mountain pizza, which is pizza, eaten in the mountains. It's great instead of sandwiches because it's already flat so it doesn't get squashed in your bag. And cake! Harpo likes ginger cake.

If you could only pick one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?

I have a lot more that I want to explore in the West Highlands of Scotland.

What is your ultimate walking dream?

I've never been to the Alps, so that would be quite cool. I'd also like to walk across Scotland.

Will you be walking until you are 103?

I very much hope so. It's so simple, so primal and it feeds my soul.

For more on Mary-Ann see and @MaryAnnOchota on Twitter and Instagram

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