Adventurer Rachel Colenso was the first woman in South Africa to become a mountain guide and one of the only women in the world to complete the specialist and rigorous SAS training with the British Army. In our exclusive interview Rachel reveals how she became a mountain guide, what makes a successful leader, and how her stories inspire corporate audiences. Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Rachel Colenso
How did you discover your unique path in life?
When I was very small my family ran safaris in wilderness and remote parts of Africa, and I think I developed a passion and love for wilderness environments from a young age. This led me on to training up in rock climbing, winning national competitions, and going on to compete in international adventure racing; and ultimately becoming South Africa’s first – and currently only – female mountain guide.
I also became one of four women in the world to go through a very rigorous British Special Forces selection, and I have worked on films and stunts in various capacities. I really enjoy speaking to corporate audiences now about my experiences and sharing with them.
What is mountain guiding?
A lot of people think mountain guiding is going around and taking people up mountains and showing them flowers, and “here’s the view!”… and it isn’t really. It’s quite strange because people will sign up to wanting to do something, and to have the ropes and everything else, and then when they actually get to the cliff face, they’ll go “well actually this isn’t what we were intending”. And you think, 'what were you thinking!?’.
Mountain guiding is essentially leading people in mountainous and dangerous terrain, safely and effectively so that they’re able to accomplish an end result; and normally the end result is getting to the top of something, or achieving something that they wouldn’t have been able to achieve; and then the other part of the result is getting them off safely.
When happened when you were stranded on the Alps on one of the world’s most testing climbs?
What happened was a series of little things. We were slowed down by snow on the route, but that was fine, we’d managed to overcome a number of small adversities on the way, which we would consider completely normal. Then right, right at the top of this route, the last vertical twenty metres or so, there was a wall of ice. It’s essentially a sheer rock face which had became verglas, which means there’s a very thin layer of ice on the rock. And it was completely impenetrable; so had we had ice-axes and crampons, it still would’ve been impossible to climb, and we were there with summer rock boots anyway.
So we realised at that point that we had to abseil off, and we weren’t able to make the summit and then go over the top. And just as we were setting up our rocks for abseil, there’s a huge crash of thunder, and the whole sky just lights up with this pink lightening everywhere, and we just knew we were now in for a really, really frightening experience. The lightening was so close, the electricity in the atmosphere was so intense, that it literally charged our head torches, our hair was standing up on end. We had humming sounds in our heads, our water-proof over-trousers had static coming out of them, and every minute we were thinking, ‘we’re not going to survive more than another couple of minutes… we’re not going to get through this’.
It’s when you’re in those very tight situations, where you think that everything depends on this, but it’s going to be lost any minute now anyway, that’s it’s so easy to panic, it’s so easy to just then go into a flight – a fight or flight scenario – and it’s at those times when you have to calm yourself down, calm your mind down, and then place yourself into a situation where you can just consider everything in order, and go exactly according to the way you’ve been taught.
You use a very high level of self-discipline just to see you through. I think through our training and our working together as a team, and using that very high level of discipline, we were able to get ourselves into a position of refuge and shelter. Again it was due to knowledge and experience, that we realised when to stop, when to then actually build a shelter and dig in.
And then again, due to experience, it’s unfortunate, but when you’ve spent life doing extreme sports, you’ll know a number of friends who didn’t make it, and always you ask yourself the question ‘why? – what was the reason?’. So often if it was cold, it was due to hypothermia, it was due to landing in a situation like this, and then just curling up in a ball and having a break. And so we knew we couldn’t take that break, we had to keep going… and creating strategies; creating strategies for survival, is so important.
What are the traits of a successful leader?
To lead successfully you need to have honesty and integrity, and you need to build up trust within your team; people have to trust you, and trust in your decision-making process. If there is doubt in their mind, that will become so visible in the way they interact with other team members, in the way they approach things which may be a challenge.
Communication is part of building that trust; leaving people in the dark means they feel unnerved, and they feel that maybe there’s something that they should know, but they don’t know, and their mind starts to go into overdrive. So, having clear and effective communication is essential.
For me, it’s about stating things precisely and accurately, and as they are. And, on a mountain or a wilderness environment, you don’t really have time to play games, so it’s about “This is the way it is. This is what we’re doing. And we’re going to do this together and get through it like this. And if this happens, that will be the result.” It’s not mincing your words.
How important is calculated risk to leadership?
I come from a climbing background and I got into speaking a number of years ago, and I found, to begin with, I was intrigued by why it was that CEOs and leadership teams were so interested in hearing what I had to say about risk, and what I had to offer them in terms of my experience.
It took me a while to actually then turn it around on its head, because, ultimately, I wanted to be able to enable those people who had come to me, to hear me speak, to give them something to take away. It’s not something tangible that they can see, it’s not something that they can physically carry with them, but they can take it in their minds.
And I found that that understanding of risk, of calculated risk, of feeling confident in taking risks at an extreme level, and how you go about that, and how your brain processes those thoughts – which are all things I’ve had a lot of time to think about when I’ve been sat on the top of a cliff face somewhere – was of quite a lot of interest and importance to people in senior positions in companies, to enable them to then take those ideas forward, to take on their own challenges in risky environments.
How important is goal setting to success?
I think goal-setting is really at the pinpoint of the success, because without those goals, you’re not going to be able to succeed in very much. Goal-setting has to be accurate though, so I think it’s important to set the right goals for the right team.
Having something lofty and ideal is very important, but having achievable steps along the way, which are also goals in themselves and are measurable, is also very important. And part of the reward becomes an acknowledgement of those successes along the way.
So, goal-setting is really important on the big level, macro scale, but it’s also really important on a micro scale as well. Appreciating every step you take and looking down to feel a great sense of accomplishment in what you’ve already done.
When did you realise you had a story people wanted to hear?
I’ve always had this real love for speaking, for being able to engage with people and to share with them. I’ve always thought it would be great if I could just get in touch with people and help them to believe, ‘I feel this is something I can do’.
It was quite strange because I started climbing, I started working on film sets doing stunts, and doing other bits and pieces, and then slowly I realised it all came together. Because, my life, unusual background, experiences and the climbing side, actually did have some really important relevance, in terms of team-work, leadership, risk-taking, and in terms of over-coming great adversities, in very remote or dangerous or unusual situations.
I realised that this was something I could share, that people wanted to hear, and that actually made a difference in their lives. And at first it was a bit of a tentative move because I couldn’t quite gather what it was, and it was really through people coming up to me afterwards, and saying how this had moved them or how it had changed their lives.
It gave me great pleasure to give something to somebody else. To have them, maybe a year later, write to you and say that “this that you said…”, and it could be one point, “… has changed my life in this way…”. For me, if I can do something to inspire or motivate, or give someone just a little something that they can take with them and use in their life, even years and years into the future, that’s a huge inspiration for me to be able to do that for other people.
Is there a single most important take away message from your talk?
I think something that I always keep in my mind, is that phrase by Darwin when he said that “It’s not the most-intelligent, nor the fittest that survive, but those that are best adapted to change”, and so, by keeping your eyes open, and enabling yourself to be flexible to change, and then driving one-hundred percent for what you want, that’s probably one of the key messages that I like to be able to share with people; being able to be flexible, but also very, very focussed.
How do you connect with an audience?
For me it’s about taking people on a journey, getting them to come with me, getting them to be on the mountain with me, getting them to feel the cold, getting them to feel the strain, getting them to be in this isolated environment, getting them to feel the comradery of someone working with them, alongside them.
I think it’s difficult to encapsulate exactly how I do that, except I can see, because I engage with the audience and some of them shiver, some of them cry and some of them laugh. That’s wonderful to know that you’ve actually got those people and you’ve taken them on a journey.
I see things in very vivid pictures, and I like to paint those pictures for people.I also feel things so I like to explain to people how it is to be in that environment, and perhaps the words that I use, they won’t remember every single word, but they’ll have an understanding or feeling for it, and I just feel very pleased to have that ability to be able to do that for people.
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