Fran Pothecary – International Mountain Leader and Sea Kayak Guide in Antarctica

I have the honour to introduce one of our bloggers here at the WIMA portal, Fran Pothecary, who will share her life with the mountains and the sea as her work place. With extensive experience from parliamentary and policy work, Fran is nowadays a freelancer in mountain and sea adventures, commuting all year round between jobs in the European Alps, Iceland and Antarctica among other places. But how did it all start? What are the benefits and challenges being a freelancer and a woman above 50? And what long-term trend does Fran predict for the outdoor industry? Let’s find out.

We are taking a rest and a late pic nick lunch during a climbing session in the San Bernard pass between Italy and Switzerland. It is a hot and sunny day in mid September, also here at 2400 meter above sea level. But Fran has no problem coping with neither the sun nor the altitude. She is eagerly going for a carrot and some cheese while enjoying the beautiful scenery.

First, I want to ask you Fran, who are you?
“Wow, when people ask who I am I often say I am a climber. And it is kind of ironic in a way because I am a climber, but I climb a lot less than I used to. But in my head I am still a climber.

But if you want more basic information, I am a female, I am in my mid-fifties, I am English, I live in Scotland, and I have lived in Scotland for 30 years, so it is very much my adopted home. And I am somebody with a huge passion for the outdoors, which means that is basically what I do in my own time. And what I do is to try to connect as much with mountains and wild places in my professional life as I do in my personal life.

Who am I? I am a human being, ha ha!”

photographer CC
Fran climbing in the San Bernard col

Professionally, you have a quite broad profile. You have worked as a freelancer before, but also as an expert on recreational access legislation. Can you tell me about it?
“I have kind of come back in a way, because for about 15 years I had what you might call proper jobs, salary jobs. I moved away from freelance work, and I worked in the area of recreation and access instead for many years. That is looking how people is taking access to the outdoors in a recreational sense. I was working along with landowners, looking at path maintenance, peoples’ opportunities to get out into the outdoors. Trying to resolve conflicts that might turn up from that.”

“I had a job for three years that was all about lobbying for the right of access. That was very interesting and that got me involved in parliamentary work, and I did a lot of policy work. I really found that fascinating. Then I moved to the National Park authority and I had a job for 10 years as an access officer, implementing the new legislation for access rights and managing recreation within the park authority.

But I now freelance again!”

Can you tell me a little more about your background?
“My family comes from a very flat area of England, east Anglia, on the east coast. It is where I grew up, you could stand on two telephone books and you could get a view of it all, that is how flat it is. It was quite a long time before I found mountains.”

I remember it very well because I was in my early twenties and I had just stopped being a university student. I wasn’t very fit, I drank beer and I was tubby, and the first time we went climbing I was absolutely useless. I mean, I couldn’t get the idea of it at all, I was not a natural, but it was something about it that just – I thought – I really want to do this.

In the beginning, I got into climbing together with a boy-friend. We didn’t do courses, we read books and we just asked a few people. Also, as a result of that I got fitter, and the more I did, the better I got at it. It was a very important time of my life. And it wasn’t just climbing either, I started going into the hills and mountains a lot more, doing more walking and things.

Cragging in the Aosta valley

In the early nineties, when I had been working with young offenders in big cities for a couple of years, I attended an outdoor education course in Edinburgh. It was a year-long course and there were 12 or 14 of us. I often say that it was the best year in my life. It was a year of outdoor activities, not only climbing. That was the start of me living in Scotland. It was a big life change for me and I have friends now, that I met on that course, that I am very close to. I was 29 and 30 when I finished the course. So, I came to it professionally quite late in some ways, but then I already had quite a lot of life experience.”

What did the mountain education course mean to you professionally?
“That is how I got into working more professionally in outdoors. Up until that point I had still been working with young offenders and had been climbing for myself. As a result of this outdoor education course, I started doing outdoor qualifications. I started working in the outdoors as a mountain and climbing instructor and walking leader and hill walking leader. Winter and summer mountain leader. And I started kayaking as well.”

What has your family meant for you in terms of your passion for mountain and outdoor adventures?
“My parents did not bring me into mountains at all, although they are very supportive of everything I do. They did not imbue me with an adventurous lifestyle, but what is important is that they gave me a lot of confidence in myself. I don’t know how they did it, but they taught me to be a confident person. Not over-confident but being happy in myself, and they have always supported me.

They have always said that the most important thing is that you do what you are happy with doing, and they never pushed for me to be a particular person or be in a particular way. I don’t have children and they have never ever sort of laid that on me. Like saying how nice it would be to have grand kids.”

What is stimulating with being a freelance in outdoor adventures?
“Flexibility and the variety of work! Not having a nine to five job. Being able to travel a lot.

This summer I have been working as an international mountain leader, which means that I have been taking groups on fabulous walking tours all around the Alps in Switzerland, Italy and France. In the winter I work as a sea kayak guide in Antarctica. I also help a friend doing ecological work, doing mountain scrub service, and I am also going back to Antarctica working for the British Antarctic survey as a field guide on remote field camps.”

Fran cragging in the Aosta Valley

What would you say that the challenges are?
“I travel much more now for work than I do for myself. I still do travel for myself, but I don’t take conventional holidays any longer.

As a freelancer you are constantly looking for work, and you are planning a lot of work a long way ahead. I have already commitments six to twelve months ahead. It is good, but you must always have your eye out for where you are going to get your next work from.

Financially it is not very secure, and I am somebody that does worry about that. In particular now as I am 56 years old. I am thinking, gosh I am moving towards the latter end of my working life.

One of the things that can be frustrating is that I get more easily injured and I take longer to recover, so that I feel as a setback sometimes. I am very aware of that my body is my tool really, and I am looking after it. I am not always very good at looking after it, though. I am a bit lazy.

The other thing is when you do a physical job it is about staying fit. I am not as strong as I was, so I have to be more careful. Gosh, I sound like I am about 80 and I am not, but it is harder to maintain a level of fitness.”

Is it hard working in Antarctica where it is very stationary, compared to here in the Alps?
“Yes! In Antarctica you don’t get very fit because you don’t get any aerobic training, instead it is very very physical if that makes sense. You don’t go out running or get any long walks, so aerobically you can get quite unfit. But at the same time you have to use your body in a very physical way as a tool.

Some of the work I do when I am down in Antarctica involves shifting loads of science equipment or fuel drums and things like that. You actually have to work quite hard lifting and pushing and shoving things. And you have to do snow farming.

“It is about dig dig digging”

Snow farming is basically digging. Anybody who spends time down in Antarctica will realize that it is not a lot of precipitation down there but it is lots of wind. What wind does is to redeposit a lot of snow. So a huge amount of the work you do in a field camp is actually to move snow around. How do we do it? We dig.

We have to keep everything clear. We have to keep everything from deep field air strips and runways clear. We have to dig out fuel drums, we have to make sure batteries are clear, solar panels. We have to dig out doorways. It is about dig dig digging. Sometimes it is just the old-fashioned shovel that you can use, so that can be really quite hard. That is what we call snow farming.”

What are the benefits of being a woman in your business?
“Well, that is an interesting question, because I think it actually depends on both your age and gender. When I was younger, it was easier to persuade people. As a young female, who is sort of active and fit, people often respond to you more positively.

As you get older you are consequently not as much of interest to people. Let’s face it. We are often looking at old people in their sixties, seventies, eighties. What do we notice about them? We notice that they are wrinkly, that they look grey haired, tired, you know. We make very sort of physical judgements about people. When we get to know them of course that changes, but you have this kind of stereotype about what an old person looks like, and I am moving more and more towards that age.

I realize that people respond to me differently now as an older woman than when I was a younger woman.”

Pick nic in the San Bernhard col

Are there some benefits of being older?
“Yes, I do in terms of in myself I am more confident. I work with a lot of people who are in their fifties and sixties. I think they see me and they go – yes if she can do this I can do this too! They also respond positively because my age suggests that I have got experience, that is really reassuring for people.

And I think especially for older women, I have got the ability to relate to them. I honestly do that, because I know what it is about to go through that process of getting older. I meet a lot of people that are in the middle of their lives, and I really understand – in particular the women – some of their doubts that go through their heads. Things they are grappling with when getting older.”

What recommendation do you have for younger versus little older people, whatever gender, who wants to become a freelancer like yourself?
“I do get this question quite a lot from people. What do you have to do to become a guide or a mountain leader or something like that. The thing I always say to people first of all is go and fall in love with the mountains! Do loads and loads of stuff for yourself. Whether you are climbing or walking or exploring. Do it for yourself. Don’t do it because you want a qualification or you want to be in the industry. I don’t think this is an industry people should be working in unless they have an absolute passion for it.

The experience is absolutely critical. So, I say to people go out and do it. Go walking, climbing, mountaineering, kayaking or whatever it is you are doing, and then bring that passion and work with people. Because then you can go a course and learn a few more technical skills about managing groups or leading groups and things like that. But what those courses can’t give you are those days of experience, that by the end of the day is what you actually make your judgements based on.”

What trends do you see in the long term for the outdoor industry?
“One theory I have is that people will do shorter holidays, shorter courses, things closer to home, more budget in the future.

“I think the next generation will have less money”

At the moment we are right at a high, because we have a lot of people who can afford expensive trips abroad. It has to do with what I was doing this summer. I was leading groups of people in the mountains, and a lot of them were older people, retired with good pensions who have made money out of their houses. In 20 years of time in Britain, we will not have as wealthy population as we have got now.

I think young people have far more debts. Job prospects and security are far less. We don’t have the same degree of public pensions for people working in the public sector any longer. People will not have the same opportunity to make money out of their houses. So, I think the next generation will have less money. And I don’t think Brexit is going to help, but that is a different story. So, I think we will have fewer people with more money, but a lot of people with less money to spend. Therefore, people will travel less. And I think it will bring things closer to home. Will that mean less work?”

The carrots and cheese are finished, the sun is about to stay another hour, so we quickly wrap up and enjoy a last climb on the white, slabby quartzite crag. Next time you read about Fran, you will get a taste of her experiences in Antarctica where she stays from November to March. On a cruise ship or in a tent somewhere isolated on the ice. No carrots and cheese to enjoy there, but a lot of snow digging…

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