Conservationist, speaker and adventurer Holly Budge knows her way around a mountain or two. After being the first woman to skydive down Mount Everest, Into the Wild Meets spoke with Holly to talk about what makes her wander the world, and how she’s giving a new perspective to the African Elephant crisis with her campaign How Many Elephants.
What made you first decide to become an adventurer?
I started life as an adventurer at an early age and spent a lot of my childhood in the outdoors. When I was 21, I did my first skydive whilst backpacking round New Zealand and was blown away by the experience and the fact that people were getting paid to jump out of aeroplanes for a living. My career’s advisor at school definitely hadn’t mentioned that as a possible career path! I decided there and then, that was the job I wanted. Six months later, with lots of training, dedication and hard work, I achieved my rather far-fetched goal and became the third woman to work as a freefall camerawoman in Lake Taupo. On reflection, I refer to this as the ‘arrogance of youth’ (arrogance meant in a positive way) as when I set myself this goal, I knew nobody in New Zealand, I knew nothing about skydiving and I knew nothing about filming but none of that mattered. I love the outdoors and the adventures that go with it.
Photo credit: Holly Budge
You were the first woman ever to skydive Mount Everest, tell us about that experience.
As a skydiver, I knew skydiving next to the highest mountain in the world was an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss out on. I worked hard and got sponsored. On October 6th 2008, I became the first woman to Skydive Everest by successfully jumping out of a plane at 29,500ft, looking onto the summit of Mount Everest and getting a bird’s eye view of some of the most breath-taking mountain scenery before landing on the world’s highest drop zone at 12,350ft! I freefalled past the mountain in excess of 140mph, in temperatures of -40C. Jumping next to Everest was a very different experience to any other skydive I had ever done and indeed, different to other high altitude jumps, because of the inhospitable terrain and conditions. The first difference, besides the exit altitude of 29,500ft as opposed to the normal 12-15,000ft, was the temperature. I was jumping in -40 degrees. To help with the biting cold, I wore a full-face neoprene facemask and a special insulated jump suit, so none of my skin was exposed. The second difference was jumping with oxygen. I had never jumped with oxygen before so this felt strange! I had oxygen in the plane for the 45 mins ascent from 12,350ft and then I switched to an oxygen bottle for the freefall. The third difference was the size of my parachute. It was three times the size of my normal chute but landed at the same speed due to the 12,350ft elevation of the landing area and the thinner air at that altitude. The last difference was the landing area. On two sides were 1000ft drop offs to the valley’s below. There were very few, if any, alternative places to land in this treacherous terrain, so it was imperative I made it back to the designated landing area. I made it back in one piece!
What experience have you found the most challenging so far?
I can’t really pick an outright “most challenging” experience so far as there has been a few but this expedition was definitely up there; I made a successful first ascent of an unnamed mountain (4000m) in the Altai Mountains in Western Mongolia. Whilst it's a wonderful liberation to go where no one has gone before, it comes with its own unique set of challenges. We had to carry out a long medical evacuation for a crush wound to one of my teammate’s legs. We had to battle precarious boulder fields, extremely steep virgin snowy slopes, huge exposure and avalanche risk. It was a great achievement to reach the top and more importantly, return safely! We have applied to name the peak ‘Mount Zuchi’, which was the name of Ghengis Khan’s first-born son and the word means ‘guest’. Two thirds of the world’s mountains remain unclimbed so this is an avenue I am keen to continue exploring.
Photo credit: Holly Budge
Your work has taken you all over the world, has there been any one place that is particularly special to you?
Mountaineering and hiking in Nepal is without a doubt my favourite adventure destination. It has become my second home as I have spent so much time there in the past few years. The culture, the colours, the smells, even Kathmandu has become endearing to me! The Himalayas is a magical place to explore but also a very unpredictable place too. I have a huge respect for the mountains and never underestimate how small I am in this environment. Last year, I was quite literally on top of the world when I achieved a long-term goal and summited Mount Everest. My climbing partner Jangbu Sherpa and I have climbed together on other big mountains and on Everest we had a great and responsible summit. Our 47 day endurance on the mountain was rewarded with beautiful blue skies and awe-inspiring views from the summit, which we enjoyed by ourselves for 30 minutes. I have huge respect for the Sherpa’s, especially those whom I have had the pleasure to climb and work with. I always treat them with the respect they deserve. I recently trekked to a very remote Sherpa village in Eastern Nepal, where few tourists have been, with my good friend and business partner, Shera Sherpa. His family live in the village and his brother works in the local school. The trek meandered through dramatic hillside farmland allowing me a glimpse into a world of beauty, hardship, resilience and warmth. I was able to experience local culture in its most organic form; I was hosted by Shera and his family who treated me to fresh home cooking next to a roaring open fire. It was a unique expedition of exploration, privilege and social purpose, actively helping those in need as it’s in an area that was badly affected by the 2015 earthquake. There were spectacular views of Mount Everest from a remote hilltop, without any crowds! What I like about life on the trail is, it’s without clutter; every piece of equipment has a role and every object has a place. This year Shera and I set up Trekannering, an expedition company which values fair and honest practices and delivers journeys with purpose, like this one.
Along with your adventures, you’ve also done an enormous amount of conservation work. Why do you think conservation is so important?
I am passionate about conservation and design. How Many Elephants is using design to bridge the gap between scientific information and human connection in the field of conservation. My campaign is giving a voice to the critical African Elephant crisis. Few people know the extent of the problem; 96 African elephants are poached each day for their ivory. At this astonishing rate they will be extinct in the wild by 2025. I have turned this disheartening statistic into a powerful art installation that presents a physical commentary on the devastating impact of the elephant ivory trade, to raise awareness and funds to support anti-poaching projects. Over 1000 school children have visited my exhibition for workshops with plenty feeling inspired. Part of the originality of this exhibition is in my approach to avoid gruesome and shocking imagery to portray the facts. It is not about scaring people or assigning blame, it’s about raising awareness of the enormity of the poaching crisis.
Recently I immersed myself with the Black Mambas, the first all-female front line anti-poaching team in South Africa to intimately learn what drives and motivates these pioneering women to pursue their multifaceted roles as protectors, educators and beacons of hope. The Black Mambas' work takes them away from their young families for weeks at a time, challenging the traditional status-quo. Armed only with pepper spray and handcuffs, these women patrol hunting grounds of armed poachers who pose an imminent threat to the elephant species. They also strive to change attitudes towards the role of women in Africa and beyond. I have raised £5000 so far for the Black Mambas.
What do you think it is about watching your challenges that inspires people to donate or support your cause?
I consider myself as ‘sort of pretty normal’, with a down-to-earth approach to life and I do not consider myself to have a greater physical or mental advantage than most. I think people can relate to me and in turn, a lot of people who follow my expeditions want to get involved and help support my campaign.
Do you have any advice for young people looking to support conservation?
Don’t listen to the naysayers. Being a conservationist, amongst other titles, is tough and at times, very emotional. There is often no road map and sometimes this is hard to convey to others. I sometimes felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall and not making any progress but a small voice inside kept whispering ‘keep going’. I did keep going and following my passion and then momentum picked up. Now I receive regularly public recognition for my work and I’ve learnt to be proud of the life I lead; being entrepreneurial, being an alpha female and living an ‘unconventional’ life, rich in purpose, experience and passion. I do what I love and love what I do. I wouldn’t change anything about my journey so far. My advice is think big, dream bigger.
To find out more about what Holly is up to, go to her website for more information. Join her campaign to educate the world on the poaching of elephants with How Many Elephants.