Five minutes with - Adele Pennington, Climbing and Mountaineering Instructor

Reading time: 5 - 9 minutes

Taking place on 8 March every year, International Woman's Day (IWD) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. HF Holidays is marking this date by recognising the accomplishments of inspiring women in the outdoors, many of whom are role models and educators paving the way for future generations of explorers and adventurers.  

We’re delighted to chat to Adele Pennington, climbing and mountaineering instructor, guiding expedition leader, and HF Holidays Technical Adviser. Not only was she the first British woman to climb Mount Everest twice, but she holds the British female record for climbing six of the fourteen 8,000m peaks. She currently lives in Scotland where she runs her own company, Adele Pennington Mountaineering.

Have there been any instances in your career, where you faced preconceptions or negative attitudes towards you, as a woman?

One incident when I was working sticks out in my mind. Instructors were being handed out to their clients, and I was the only woman guide. I was assigned to lead a man, and he physically slumped, rolled his eyes when he was given me. It puts you on a back foot, even before you’ve had a chance to display your competency! 

How have attitudes in the outdoor industry changed in recent times?

I’m used to working in a very male-dominated environment. But certainly in the last five years or so, I’ve noticed more females getting involved with the outdoors. Importantly, there’s also more awareness of needing to be inclusive to all sorts of different people. I do think this comes from heightened political awareness. We’re all being a little bit more aware of how our actions affect others, which I think is great.

Did you always know you wanted to spend your career outdoors?

Although I was a very outdoorsy child (the opposite of my brother who was always indoors reading a book!), I didn’t even know that jobs like mine existed. The careers advice wasn’t what it is now, so I went to university to study biochemistry and ended up becoming a teacher of chemistry as well as outdoor education. This led to my realisation that I wanted to spend all my time outdoors.

I think now, being an outdoor instructor and mountain guide, there is much more progression and awareness of these kinds of jobs. But 30 years ago, I sort of stumbled into it.  I work with UCLAN, the University of Lancashire, who have a fantastic outdoor education programme and there’s so many more opportunities now, including degrees in outdoor education, management, and the tourism industry.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into the outdoor industry?

Follow your passion and work hard at it. I think young girls might feel a little nervous of stepping into it, and we must encourage them to ignore external influences or their preconceptions. Women aren’t as physically strong as men, but when you’re up in the mountains, the most important thing is to be adaptable, and look for ways you can overcome a challenge – which is an important skill for anyone. 

Through my work for the Martin Moran Foundation, 16–18-year-olds who might not otherwise have much interaction with the outdoors are given the chance to join a week-long outdoor education programme. I remember I told one girl that she would make a good outdoor instructor and she burst into tears, telling me that was all she had ever wanted to do. If we can change one person’s life, it’s worth it. 


What more can be done in schools to encourage young people to get involved in the outdoors?

The benefits of outdoor education are well-documented, but sadly, delivering this to the next generation is widely placed on the passion of individual teachers, rather than outdoor education being a part of the curriculum. The risk-averse society we live in now has had an impact on this, and although accidents do happen, there are still a lot of schools that value outdoor education. 

I know a bill was going to be put through in Scotland to make outdoor education mandatory for every school child, which I would welcome. Even one residential experience in a school year would have a huge impact on a child who might not elsewhere spend time in the outdoors, and I think those teachers who do want to run these kinds of experiences should be rewarded. Up near where I live, the primary school children go skiing on winter Wednesday afternoons. 

Why do you think it’s important to have different walks of life represented in the outdoor industry?

It’s about people having role models, people like them in visible roles, to give them confidence and welcome them within the community. The HF Holidays Leaders, for example, are a whole range of characters from lots of different backgrounds. Our guests enjoy being with that mix of people. I love when I go out into the hills, learning about the people I’m with, and hearing their stories and experiences. 

Who do you admire in the industry?

My hero is Alison Hargreaves, the second British woman to climb Everest. She really inspired my personal dreams and did it at a time when there really weren’t any other women paving the way. My colleagues who manage families, jobs and working outdoors (sometimes as volunteers) are also big inspirations for me. One lady, Julie Cunningham is a good friend. Her son has severe Cerebral Palsy, and she juggles caring for him alongside working as head of a Lake District outdoor centre.

Do you have a key piece of safety information you'd share with someone wanting to go exploring the outdoors?

The key thing for me is to let someone know where you’re going, and what time you expect to be back.  If you want to go into the hills, you should really know the basics of navigation with a map and compass. I know it’s tempting to rely on mobile phones and GPS devices, but I know too many cases of people getting lost because of dead batteries. I would always advocate learning the core skills.

We must talk about Everest. How did the idea progress?

My stepdad took me up Mt Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) when I was a little girl. Although it was a bit of a disaster really (we got lost), I remember coming back from that trip, and thinking I wanted to climb Everest one day. The years went by, but that dream always stayed with me. I become a mountaineer in my own right, and in the end, I decided I had to work out how I was going to make Everest a reality. There was no way I could afford the $60,000 to go on a guided trip, so I started doing similar expeditions myself.

I worked for a company called Jagged Globe, and I started taking people on smaller expeditions, and worked my way up to leading on 8,000m peaks in 2007. On one of these trips, I met a lady called Janet Pickett – who the following year asked Jagged Globe if I would be her guide on Everest. Janet and I then succeeded in summiting the world’s highest mountain in 2008.

I also returned to Everest in 2009 as a leader on a group trip, which was a completely different experience. I wasn’t a fan of managing such a large group, and this led me to pursue one-on-one guiding which has formed the basis of my career to date.

Once the ball was rolling, I started chasing the 8,000m peaks, either organising trips myself doing them just for me. I was lucky in that I got paid to go up Everest, and that I got the opportunity. I would always say to anybody, never miss an opportunity. Although I do understand why so many people want to climb Everest, the commercialisation of the mountains means change, and sometimes not for the better. It’s about having a passion you want to follow, finding something that appeals to you, and fits your dreams really. 

Are there any outdoor products designed specifically for women that you would recommend?

I remember starting off with huge men's mountaineering boots with newspaper stuffed in the toes, because that’s all you could get! As more women embrace the outdoors, it’s been great to see manufacturers making women’s clothing, boots, and backpacks. But there’s still a way to go to have the same level of choice that men have.

I would recommend a rucksack specifically designed for women because it will fit your back and not fall off your shoulders. I was lucky that a company called PHD Software sponsored some of my big trips, and they made my down suits to size because I’m not very big.

Coming full circle, what would you say to that man who sighed when he was assigned you to lead him, now that you can look back on your incredibly successful career in the outdoors?

Well, I made him cry in the end. I showed him no mercy, and at the end of the week, he admitted that he had made a misjudgement. Women in the outdoors should stand proud. They should know that they have every right to be there as an expert in their field and are equal (if not slightly better sometimes) than their male counterparts. 

You can find out more about Adele Pennington Mountaineering here.