Polly Murray: Travelling to the ends of the earth

At the tender age of five, the explorer Polly Murray walked down a mountain. It was an exhilarating introduction to the world of travel - and she was hooked for good. Interview by Jenny Cockle
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The Independent Travel

I've been an explorer all my life in a funny sort of way, ever since my stepdad introduced me to the mountains as a child. I've always had a passion for travel.

During my childhood, we tended to travel to European destinations. My earliest vivid memory is from when I was nearly six and we took a family holiday to Courmayeur in Italy, just below Mont Blanc. It was a camping trip but we spent most of the time up on the glacier camping at 11,000ft. My stepdad wouldn't pay for us to get the lift down the mountain so we had to walk. It wasn't really walking; it was more like abseiling off the cliff face. I'm told I was so scared that I made the journey down between his legs, but I don't remember that. I didn't have any fear of heights then. Now I have a slight fear although, strangely, I like that feeling of looking down and feeling a wee bit scared. I equate the feeling with that particular holiday.

My brother Jamie, who was on that holiday, has done quite a lot of exploring. We're very similar in what we like to do. But he got the brains in the family and ended up getting all the good jobs. I left school at 17 and missed out on university - my work has always related to what I enjoy doing, such as teaching skiing, abseiling off buildings, that kind of stuff. I think of each job as paying for a certain trip. I love exploring and I get so annoyed if I haven't done anything for a few months.

It wasn't until I left school that I went on a really big adventure. Through my stepdad I got the opportunity to walk up to Everest base camp when I was 17. He was in the services and had led a previous expedition up the mountain. In 1988 he was offered a paid trip to visit the climbers at base camp. He saw it as a great opportunity to take some of the family along.

It was an incredible journey. We didn't just walk straight from Lukla, the nearest airport; we also climbed a 21,000ft-high mountain en route. I have to admit I didn't get to the top, but pretty close. That was my first experience of high altitude. You get dreadful headaches when you're not acclimatised properly - which I wasn't at the time.

It's just a different world up there, so remote and incredibly spectacular. The mountains are enormous and the countryside is stunning. In fact, the walk into base camp is just beautiful, probably the best part of the whole trip.

In 2000, I was offered a free trip to climb Everest with a team of friends - you don't refuse an opportunity like that. I reached the top and became the first Scottish woman to summit Everest. Unfortunately, we couldn't see anything from the top - it was a complete whiteout. But it was a fantastic experience.

To be honest, I'm not a fan of the commercial side of big mountains like Everest, which have so many "guided expeditions". So, on my most recent trips we've used small boats and sailed to remote locations, which I find far more interesting. I absolutely love the mountains, so whenever I'm travelling I always try to seek some out. A great place for that is up in the Arctic. I took the most incredible, special journey in 2001 with my best mate Tash Wright. A trip can either build or break your friendship but Tash and I were brought up together and we've been teaching skiing together for years, so we know each other incredibly well.

We hitched a ride from Greenland in a tiny boat owned by a friend of ours - a reverend - and sailed across Baffin Bay to Bylot Island. It had been crossed only once previously, by the great explorer Bill Tilman in 1963.

Our aim was to find a new traverse of the island, which we achieved. It was such a cool place - it was totally uninhabited, just ice, crevasses, mountains and polar bears. It might sound terrifying but ignorance is bliss. If I went back now I'd seriously think a bit more about what I was actually doing. When Tash and I look back on that trip we both say: "My God. How did we do it?" If one of us had fallen down a crevasse, how the hell would we have got any help?

It took seven days to cross the island. But when we got to the beach at the other end the boat wasn't there to meet us as planned. The weather was so bad they couldn't get in, which meant we had to wait two extra days. We pitched our tent and sat patiently, but we'd run out of food. We were absolutely starving. There were lots of seals on the island and we had a rifle, so we considered trying to kill one of them. There were also loads of snow geese and we dreamt of roast goose, but there was no way we could have caught one.

And as for the polar bears, at that point we just thought: "If they come and eat us, they eat us." Thankfully, they weren't that close. If you get close to a polar bear you rarely live to tell the tale. But their paw prints were everywhere.

I feel proud of what we achieved. When Bill Tilman crossed the island in 1963 he used a different route, so we succeeded in doing a completely new traverse. It was a great trip.

There hasn't been any great plan behind my travels. I haven't tried to cross each continent or anything. For example, I was given the chance to climb the seven highest mountains in the world but I wasn't interested. I'd already climbed one of them, Mount McKinley in Alaska in 1998, and skied off the top which was a pretty cool thing to do. Most people take skis up a mountain but not to the summit. On that trip, two of us chose to ski down Rescue Gully, a 3,000ft gully just below the summit. It was quite terrifying, especially as we were telemark skiing, the traditional Norwegian way, which means you use very light skis and your heel is free. I guess it was pretty dangerous.

When I started exploring, I'd accept a trip without really knowing any of the people. My first one, to northern India to climb a mountain, was with one friend plus a group of people I didn't know. But as I've gained more experience, I've now got a group of mates I can travel with and we always have a laugh. Even though you're climbing a mountain, you've still got to be able to party.

In 2003, I travelled from Chile to Antarctica, then across to South Georgia. Two members of our group were big divers and were very keen to dive down to the wrecks and swim with penguins and fur seals. I did a Padi course so that I could go diving too. Searching around those wrecks was amazing.

Last summer I got a job with the BBC in the Peruvian Amazon. We spent two months in the jungle for the children's TV series Serious Amazon. I learnt a lot from that experience because it wasn't my environment at all. At first it was horrendous - really wet and humid with insects everywhere. I got bitten alive and dreamt of being up in the mountains - I was so desperate for fresh air. But after about three weeks, I got into it and really started to enjoy myself. Eight kids joined us for the show. I felt so sorry for them when they arrived because, like me, they were scratching away like mad.

The scenery and the wildlife were incredible. We saw caymans - South American alligators - and an anaconda that was about 20ft long. Incredible and quite scary. We also met some indigenous people which was great because I'm often in completely remote locations.

Last September, Tash and I plus two male friends from Scotland were asked to do a reccie in Argentina for a travel company. They used us as guinea pigs to test out a ski-type adventure holiday in Patagonia. It turned out to be a really great trip involving horse-riding, mountain biking and ski touring. And, oh, what a country! It's so beautiful. I want to go back there. In fact, I want to go and live there. The climate can be a bit fickle, but we were incredibly lucky because we had beautiful weather for pretty much the whole 10 days.

I suppose I'm fortunate in that I haven't had any disasters or suffered any serious injuries from climbing. To be a climber, you need to be calm and cool headed. The minute you start panicking it all goes wrong, especially if you're up high on a rock. The last thing you want is disco legs. I've had terrible toothache in South Georgia, in the middle of nowhere. But you just have to get on with it. And on Everest I got a chest infection, as everyone does. That was pretty horrendous at 24,000ft. Luckily, we were on the way down and we had two weeks at base camp to recover. I think I am quite a tough person.

During the winter months I live in Chamonix, a beautiful place, where I work as a ski instructor. The rest of the time, when I'm not travelling, I return to Perth in Scotland, another of my favourite parts of the world. It's hard to beat the scenery on the west coast of Scotland - although I have to admit the weather is shocking.

When I work, I work hard. My trips are partly funded by my sponsor, Tiso, but in the summer I do rope access work - abseiling down buildings carrying out repairs. So although I don't do any specific training for my trips, my lifestyle is pretty active and because of all my skiing and building work I'm very, very strong and I have a lot of stamina. I'm certainly not your skinny type.

In June, I'm off to the Andes for another BBC series, Serious Andes, which should be brilliant. But there are still plenty of places I haven't seen. I've always talked about going somewhere tropical like the Galapagos and, hopefully, that will happen soon. My boyfriend is a skipper on a private boat and we spent some time together in the Caribbean last winter, sailing across to Cuba. The owners plan to take the boat off to some very exciting places and I plan to be a passenger.

We'll probably go to the South Pacific - Tahiti and places like that. But ultimately, there's got to be something great to do there, whether it's diving or climbing. I'm not one for sitting around doing nothing.

My best location

I'd love to go back to New Zealand. I spent two months out there travelling around doing everything they have to offer, including ski telemark, windsurfing, biking, hiking and swimming. I love their way of living and the whole attitude of the people. It's such a small country but they've got everything - mountains, the sea, plus the climate is incredible. It's such a great place. Everyone there seems so happy.

My best view

I've seen so many spectacular views it's almost impossible to choose. While we were in Patagonia, on the Chilean border at the top of a mountain called Tronador, I remember looking across at the Andes and the view was just stunning. In Greenland, standing on top of one of the islands we crossed, I can vividly recall looking out to sea and seeing the most enormous icebergs.

My first resort

I love Vallorcine, a beautiful little French village in the valley below Chamonix, where I live in the winter. It has some great scenery and the people are so friendly. I've been going there every winter for eight years so I'm now almost fluent in French. When I'm in Vallorcine I teach all sorts of people to ski - all age groups. I have a really great life.