We catch up with Bafta nominee and hiker Jen Crook as she walks from Gretna to Cape Wrath for her aptly-named 'Scottish Slog'.
Firstly, give us a wee introduction to yourself!
This is tricky already! I’m a film maker, photographer and adventure lover. Primarily, I’m a person that does stuff and some of that stuff turns into film projects. I try to make film that emerges from something I’m already doing, rather than to look for projects because I think I’m a film maker. Adventure is what I’m doing with my life just now (although I’m way too scared to label myself as an adventurer!)
How and when did you discover your love of the great outdoors?
I guess I discovered the outdoors when I went to university. I always wanted to climb when I was a kid – although I have no memory where I got this idea from – but there were no opportunities where I lived. So it wasn’t until I was 23 that I moved to Scotland to study, and started climbing at Dundee wall. I also joined the RAF Reserves in my second year of university and actually gave up smoking… because the fitness test terrified me! Once my lungs cleared, I realised how unfit it had been making me and how much I loved sport. Through the RAF, I went ski touring, walking, caving and diving. But it was climbing and the hills that I got really addicted to. In my third year, I joined RAF Mountain Rescue, spending a year training: four hours on the stepper, three nights climbing and two days in the hills with the team. I learnt so much about mountaineering and climbing that I’ve built a life around it. Last year, I was climbing in the States… but my big projects aren’t just about climbing – it’s about inventing things when I’ve got room in my life for them.
Along with being a keen climber and adventure lover, you’re also a film maker. How did you make the transition into doing this full-time?
When I had finished my degree, I was pretty addicted to physics. I very nearly did a PhD! But when I was about 16, I’d already landed on the idea of being a film maker and – knowing that a PhD would lead to research – I tore myself away and committed to ‘doing the film thing’. So I took a year out – working in cafés and struggling to live – to make some short films and apply to film school. I couldn’t afford the fees in London and wanted to stay in Scotland, and the following year I started at Edinburgh College of Art on a two year MFA in Film Directing. I learnt a lot and have been freelancing ever since. Freelance is hard though, especially when you start and the jobs are sporadic. One way round this was becoming a wedding photographer, which I did during the course. It was a means to an end in a way, but now I really enjoy doing weddings! It also helps by keeping photography as ‘work’ and ‘passion projects’ for film making. Of course, I still do film jobs, but in freelance the reality is that your time is always split between work (to make money) and work (for passion). But really… it’s all work! When people ask me what my job is, I find it hard to answer in a sentence. Planning adventures has become a large proportion of my life. It might be a job where you don’t get ‘paid’ in monetary terms, you get sponsorship or raise money instead… but I wouldn’t want it any other way!
You’re currently doing the #ScotSlog, a two month exped from Gretna to Cape Wrath. How do you train for long distance walking?
I did a lot of weight training, so I was really strong before I started the Scottish Slog (or Winter Slog depending on which version you read). I hate feeling weak, and have felt my strength disappearing in the last week (it’s now over a month since I’ve been in the gym…) It doesn’t help when lifting Haggis over styles or putting my pack on… But I think feeling strong helps you to feel energetic in crap conditions and sort through kit or situations effectively in adverse situations. Muscle mass also helps to keep you warm, much more so than fat I think, since it’s functional (shivering etc) as well as insulation.
I’ve also always done a lot of stepper work for being fit in the hills. It’s one of the most boring bits of training I can think of, so I tend to read a book for an hour and a half and vary the resistance manually. I make sure I work up to max effort over the 90 minutes, always increasing and never going down in between, then cooling off. Pre-programmed sessions tend to have you max out for shorter time, or at least give you little bits of respite every so often which is less like doing a big, long ascent. With any training I always try and balance it out with antagonist exercises, so doing opposing exercises to strengthen the antagonistic muscles to prevent strength imbalance and so injury. And on top of this, I stretch to stay flexible. This also shortens muscles and tightens stringy bits through training. I was historically bad at this until I saw the benefit when forced to do physio due to injury. It’s really necessary!
A lesson I have taken from this trip is that I could have done more testing of my body, doing weighted walking for extended periods. I did do some of course, but more with a focus on kit testing over body testing. I have always been able to trust my body to be very robust and conditioned for carrying a heavy pack over a long period of time. What I hadn’t factored in with enough significance was a climbing injury I got a gear ago when I ripped my glute muscle heel hooking. I did do physio for it pre-walk, but since it doesn’t affect me day-to-day I hadn’t anticipated the effect it could have on my body. I am consequently now undergoing a very strict stretching, massaging and bandaging routine to keep my left knee together and get up to Cape Wrath! This is quite difficult in a cold tent and takes up time, so my whole trip is made more difficult. I’ve also been forced to cut out big ascents I had planned to reduce the downhill pressure on my knee, meaning I’m constantly looking up at snowy mountains wishing I could camp in the crunchy snow!
So, to add to the above, my futuristic answer will be to see how your body reacts under the most accurate replicated conditions of the expedition for an extended time… to test nothing has changed since you last checked!
What are your 3 kit essentials when you’re walking in Scotland?
Right now I'd say waterproofs, waterproof and waterproofs! (Tested in the shower of course.) But assuming your waterproofs are up to the job, I'd also add great boots that your feet love, a great tent that is easy to put up and above all, high psyche! Since a long distance walk in Scotland will inevitably involve lots of days with your head down, watching the drips fall off your hood, I can't imagine it would be possible to stay out without a high level of motivation to finish your objective.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the outdoors?
That's a tough question. Currently, sustaining dry kit in really wet weather over a long period of time springs to mind, especially with a dog in the tent. If it speckles with rain, I change to full waterproof coverage immediately. It sounds obvious, but when you're out for a day or two at a time, it's easy for damp cuffs, buffs and other usually insignificant things to go unnoticed. But if you are out for weeks in moist conditions then these little bits of dampness won't dry and will slowly grow into heat sapping bits of essential kit. Then there's things like the dog's paws which are impossible to dry completely without leaving her in the porch for a few hours (I tried this and she lost too much body heat during that time and was shivering through the night), which overnight cause extra condensation in the tent, which then leads to condensation on the edges of the down sleeping bag and so on... So prevention is the key in conditions above freezing - the worst kind! The other thing I hate is spindrift coming down when winter climbing - yuck.
What advice would you give young women – and budding adventurers in general – who want to chase their dreams?
I’m not sure about giving anyone advice as I feel I’m very much at the beginning of my own journey. I suppose the only way I can answer that is by thinking about people that I have heard justifying why they can't do things. Saying things like ‘if I had the money, I’d love to go on an adventure’… Of course, there are some situations where circumstances are difficult, but you also have to jump a certain degree, and work out the rest later. If you really mean it, then you’ll find ways to make it work as you go, and if other people know you mean it they will be willing to invest in you. It’s guaranteed that if you never commit wholeheartedly to something that takes time, effort and energy, it will never coagulate. Just as a side note, two days ago I met a man on a bike called Ian. He lives on the streets without money and had decided to go on an adventure. Six months ago he set out from Birmingham, and is now on the West Highland Way with me digging up roots for dinner! Now THAT is resourceful, and way more hardcore than I can imagine!
Who inspires you in the outdoor community?
Wow, I don’t know… Ian?! I guess anyone with a love for some suffering and exposure to extreme situations. I also love books written by adventurers where they have become very introspective and modest thanks to their experiences; they tell their stories honestly and without pride. Directly, I suppose it was Cas and Jonesy’s book and film that got me psyched up for my Antarctica trip.
You’re planning to be the first woman to trek to the South Pole unassisted (2017-18). Can you tell us a bit more about this project?
The Antarctic expedition that I am planning (as yet unnamed - suggestions welcome!) is a solo unsupported return journey to the South Pole from the edge of the Antarctic land mass. I got psyched up for a polar adventure after watching ‘Crossing the Ice’. It wasn’t the challenge that inspired me, but the otherworldly place with bizarre ice formations and crazy weather. Then, after watching the film unexpectedly at a festival, I remember sitting through the credits thinking, ‘right, I’m going’. When I started looking into it, I did consider alternative challenges like the traverse that Henry Worsley was very sadly killed completing recently, which was upsetting as his expedition feels close in nature to the return journey and is one of the major challenges left in Antarctica. But there was something that had captured my imagination about the return journey, so I settled on this – there’s something pure about starting and ending in the same place, having reached the pole.
The unsupported part is important to me because it's there as an option and I struggle to choose an easier route if something more difficult is plausible. That's by no means in underestimating the enormity of the challenge of an unsupported journey, but more in that I feel that I'm cheating myself otherwise, because I know that the unsupported option is there. The solo part... I like being self sufficient and I like the freedom of doing things alone. But really I think it also probably stems from a similar place in that if I do it on my own, I really did do it, if that makes sense.
Have you got any other projects in the pipeline?
Not right now – completing my Scottish trip and planning Antarctica whilst still earning a living is enough for me at the moment! One of the downsides of big projects is that I can’t climb consistently as I don’t have time. So I think whatever I invent next will be more rock oriented. A long-term goal is to free a big wall on El Cap, since I fell so heavily in love with Yosemite when I went there last year with a broken butt cheek. This would mean getting pretty damn strong at climbing, so I hope to be able to focus some time on that when I get back from Antarctica… Sounds like I’ve got a project planned after all!
If you had to spend a day in the Scottish outdoors, where would you go and why?
There are so many beautiful places! If I was taking non-mountaineering types out, then I’d go to Loch Tay in the south or Achiltibuie up north. I’ve always had a thing for Loch Tay – I think the view from the beach is stunning. And the Summer Isles are amazing, a more desolate version of somewhere beautiful. Mountaineering wise, the top spot would have to be the top of Ben Nevis after a day’s winter climbing (provided I can choose the weather!) The view on a cold, crisp, clear winter’s day with snow around is amazing.