My Walk of Life: Lucy Shepherd

Lucy is a self-confessed ‘unlikely adventurer’, but underestimate her at your peril. She has explored the Arctic, the Andes, the Amazon and far-flung Patagonia – all by the age of 24.

Interview by Dan Aspel | Photograph by Tim Taylor

Lucy Shepherd

I grew up an only child, so I had to make my own entertainment. This usually meant climbing trees with friends and venturing as far as I was allowed to out of the garden. But it was never more challenging than that, and as I got older I was never very sporty or athletic. In PE lessons I would always have a go at rope climbing and running, but never played hockey or other sports.

I always felt most myself when out in the hills. I soon realised that’s the kind of person I was: someone with a passion and an aptitude for the outdoors that not everybody has. And even a lot of people who seem to have it when they’re young then lose it at around the age of 16. It’s not ‘cool’, it’s not what a girl is expected to do. But I loved it so much that I kept going and managed to balance that with the girly life too, which I think is important: ‘muddy boots and high heels’ as one friend described it. I then got involved with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award as so many young people do, from bronze to silver to gold. It was a journey that eventually took me to Nepal, which was very exciting.

At around the same time, I saw an ad in the newspaper asking for volunteers for a British Exploring Society trip to the Arctic. I applied, got through the interview and underwent the training. There were 10 of us and some people treated it as a ‘once in a lifetime trip’. But for me it was just the beginning. I saw all these possibilities as the world just unfolded in front of me. The fundraising was particularly challenging, but I did everything I could to raise the money. I taught me a valuable lesson: get used to rejection!

I was 18 when we went to Svalbard. I spent two-and-a-half months carrying out scientific research: counting bird populations, observing tides and snow conditions, studying slush flows – a wide variety of work. It was a great expedition. Since then I’ve been on expeditions to the Bolivian Andes, crossed Norway’s Finnsmarkvidda plateau in an Arctic winter, and lived and hunted alone with an Amazon tribe. I was also the youngest female captain to compete in the Patagonia Expedition Race. I balance that with work as a freelance coordinator with a media production company. In many ways the worlds of film/TV and adventure are comparable. They’re both about planning, coordination and managing yourself and others in fast-paced and pressured environments, with plenty of briefing and debriefing! But I can’t cope more than a couple of months without being in the wilderness. 

I find that a lot of people tend to underestimate me. I’m blonde, female, I don’t look particularly strong, I’m not cocky and I don’t talk big. So when they hear about all the things I’ve done – and have planned – they always want to know how I do it. I’d say ‘attack’ is a good word. If you want it, don’t just talk or dream about it… do it! As a kid I suffered more than most from altitude sickness, so when I went to the Bolivian Andes I took every precaution. I arrived long before the expedition was due to begin. I spent 48hrs in a La Paz hotel room – already at 3,500m – without moving and only ordering soup and water. Then I took short walks around the town, very slowly. By taking such little steps everything went perfectly according to plan. The porters and guides on the 6,000m mountains we climbed marked me out as the first person to descend and paired me up accordingly. But we ended up being the first on the summits! It shows that human beings are very good at adapting. People get scared of mountains and extraordinary environments (I know I do) and it can be intimidating to explore the unknown. But once you do it’s hard to give it up.

‘Don’t lose your botheredness’ is something I try to tell others. By that I mean, if you think ‘I can’t be bothered with that’, whether that’s going for a run or forgetting to zip up the fly sheet of your tent, then do it immediately! Don’t think about it. Those small things make all the difference. On an expedition it could be life or death, but take that attitude into everyday life to get things done. Chip away at the big things a little bit every day, and keep that self-belief and desire. When I do these things I want them bad, and if you don’t believe you can do it then you’ve already failed. The hardest thing for a lot of people is just committing. As soon as you do then you’ve set a course and you’ve got to make it happen. So just say yes and then figure it out! There’s always a way, no matter how big the goal, and a million ways you can get there. And remember that it doesn’t take an extraordinary person to do extraordinary things.

Lucy Shepherd

For the latest on Lucy’s expeditions, visit find your own adventure with our online library of Ramblers routes