Georgia Pilkington // Climbing the Matterhorn
Her family jokes “she can climb The Matterhorn, but can’t go into a shop”. Georgia Pilkington is British Deaf Climbing Champion and cofounder of Deaf Climbing UK, she has also recently been diagnosed with Autism. As part of the Autism at Height team, Georgia attempted to climb the Matterhorn in August, she reveals to Womenclimb how the experience has changed her.
I have just turned 18 and I am a deaf and autistic climber. Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to climb The Matterhorn; I was very nervous, but I thought why not. I wanted to prove to myself that someone with my issues can overcome them to achieve their goals.
At school I was chucked out of the Ten Tors Team because they feared me having a meltdown and although I had completed my Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award I had to move schools due to bullying, and it was never signed off. Frankly, climbing the Matterhorn trumps these hands down so I just had to do it. “
From rock climber to Alpine Adventurer
Georgia started Climbing aged 7 at a local climbing centre in South Molton in North Devon and started wearing hearing aids aged 9. At 14 she joined the High Performance Climbing Squad at The Quay Climbing Centre, Exeter. At the age of 16 Georgia competed in BMC Para Climbing Series for the Hearing Impaired category, won all three rounds. She has competed for the last 2 years and is British Deaf Climbing Champion.
I have always considered myself a rock climber and boulderer and had never considered Alpine Climbing as a possibility until this summer. Climbing is my passion and have been climbing since my childhood. I am not so good with competitions purely because of the crowds and noise, so an opportunity to try another type of climbing was too tempting. I found the mountains of Switzerland mesmerising and inspiring. Waking up to the snow topped peak of The Matterhorn made me feel at home, now I’m totally hooked! ”
How do you train for the Matterhorn?
To train for this climb I ran every other day to build up my cardio and lungs. I would also take very long dog walks up and down the hills of Devon with a full backpack and my trusty companions Billie and Ella, two slightly old and slightly fat Labradors. Whilst training at The Quay in Exeter Centre I would also do low intensity endurance climbing as well as the usual core fitness and finger training etc.
Fitness wise, I was fine but I think the most important thing whilst climbing The Matterhorn was my breathing, pace and head game. There were a couple of times when anxiety got the better of me and mini meltdowns started, but Willis Morris, my climbing partner, was wonderful and would help me get back in focus and on track. ”
Tell us about Summit Day
It only truly hit me what I was about to do on the first pitch of the ascent. It was 5:30am in the morning, almost dark but you could see on the horizon, the sun trying to break through. The first pitch consisted of fixed ropes which, to be quite honest, I had never climbed before.
This may not sound like a big impact, but it was for me, and it totally threw me and I began to have what I call a sensory overload melt down. It felt like I was being pumped with fizzy water and my whole body was fizzing up. My whole head clouds over and my thought processes short circuit and I begin to have a panic attack and cry.
However, I was not about to let this sensation affect my goals and I could just about hear my climbing partner Willis Morris shouting at me to stay focused and push through it, which I did. I almost screamed trying to push myself up those fixed ropes. From that point the two of us were on a roll, moving efficiently and quickly up and along the rock until we reached the rest of the team. We were on track again.
As the sun came up and the day was filled with light, it became hotter and the pressure grew as we had not reached the Solvay Hut at a time that we’d hoped to. The Solvay Hut is an emergency refuge shelter 4,000m up. By this point the altitude was really getting to me. The call was made to push on towards the summit after a quick rest stop.
Climbing on the Matterhorn was not what I had expected. Mountain climbing and rock climbing are quite different. The climbing was either very exposed scrambling or very exposed technical slabs which could have been grades of up to 6b/c and it was very hard to persist, especially with the effect of the altitude. But, I pushed on and gave it everything I could because I was totally focused on getting to the summit.
Unfortunately, as we were coming up to the first ice fields a very large snow cloud came over the mountain and did not leave. It kept moving around the summit like a swarm. It began to snow, but we pushed on some more. I put on crampons and awaited the call from Willis that I could begin to climb the frozen icy snow.
It was tough using every single part of your body to climb whilst making sure you place your foot accurately so you didn’t slip and fall into the cloudy oblivion. After two pitches of ice climbing, the snow storm had grown worse and the temperature dropped rapidly which I could feel in my core at this point.
We were 4,300m up and could barely see the summit. The harsh reality of what could happen if we pressed on was really obvious at this point and a final call was made that we needed to go back down and retreat to Solvay Hut.
We spent the night there with me being sandwiched between other team members to help bring up my core temperature as I was dangerously cold, it took about 5 hours to bring my core temperature back up. It was a long night! I awoke to bright sunshine and the most amazing view ever! “
What did the experience teach you?
Although we didn’t quite make the summit the experience has had an enormous and profound effect on me. My confidence in my abilities has soared. Self belief is crucial. I now find myself doing things I would not have contemplated before The Matterhorn.
I now go into shops by myself, make train journeys, albeit with a bit of planning, and attempt all sorts of things that previously I would never have considered. I say to myself, “if I can climb The Matterhorn I can do this.”
Willis, my climbing partner, told me that “Alpine climbing, when you are actually doing it is hell, but when you get back down you just want to do it all over again”. He was right. I can’t wait for my next alpine adventure. “