The Female Lead

Meet the first woman to skydive Mount Everest: Holly Budge

The Female Lead interview with Holly Budge

Meet Holly Budge, a world-class adventurer with a couple of world records under her belt, including being the first woman to skydive Everest and race 1000km across Mongolia on semi-wild horses. She recently climbed to the summit of Everest and has raised over £400K for charities. She doesn’t stop there. She is passionate about elephants and is educating and inspiring a global audience about the devastating impacts of the African Elephant ivory trade. Her multi-award-winning charity, How Many Elephants, is immersive, design-led and will leave you speechless. It visualises the annual poaching rate of 35K elephants in a powerful exhibition and avoids any gruesome or gory imagery. Holly is gaining momentum quicker than a charging herd of elephants and will soon resume touring major international cities with her anti-poaching campaign.

 

1. When you were 21 you did your first skydive and you said that those 60 seconds of adrenaline changed the entire course of your life. What happened next?

I threw myself out of a perfectly good aeroplane for the first time at 21. That sixty seconds of adrenaline (and sheer terror) changed the course of my life forever. Not only did I want to go straight back up and do it all again, but I was also blown away that people were getting paid to jump out of aeroplanes every day as a job. Funnily enough, my career’s advisor at school hadn’t mentioned this! 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, New Zealand.

On reflection, I refer to this as the ‘boldness of youth’ as when I set myself this massive goal, I didn’t overthink it; I knew nobody in New Zealand, I knew nothing about skydiving or filming, but none of that mattered. I knew I could learn the skills I needed, or I could at least try. When I landed my dream job, I was getting paid to jump out of planes up to twelve times a day, every day. Achieving this goal gave me immense confidence and self-belief that I could achieve whatever I set my mind too. I have tried to keep this positive mindset going for the last two decades and it’s taken me on some pretty awe-inspiring adventures around the world, including becoming the first woman to skydive Everest, summiting Everest and racing semi-wild horses 100kms across Mongolia.

2. You then landed your dream job and became a camera flyer filming people as they dropped out of planes. Is this what you had in mind when you imagined your future career as a young girl?

I started life as an adventurer at an early age and spent a lot of my childhood in the outdoors, so it came as no surprise that I wanted to make a career out of being an adventurer. Growing up in rural England was quite literally a breath of fresh air! I have an older brother and I have lots of memories of us running around, exploring, jumping over gates and fences, and climbing trees for endless hours. I was a real tom boy! Anything he could do, I could do! Of course, the reality in many instances was quite different but the competitive mindset and the willingness to try was always there. I competed from a young age in tetrathlons, in disciplines of trail running, equestrian, target shooting and swimming. The role of competition taught me discipline and patience, it taught me about the glory of winning and the harsh reality of losing, and the importance of being a team player. It toughened me up. I was taught when you fall off the horse, you get back on. I feel fortunate on reflection to have had the opportunity to grow up in the absence of technology, as we know it today and as a result, I feel I have a deeper connection to the outdoors and with nature.  

3. In 2008 you became the first woman to skydive Mount Everest. What was the driving force behind this?

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 freefall past the mountain in excess of 140mph, in temperatures of -40C. It was an incredible experience!

4.  You then studied a masters in Sustainable Design which led you on a journey to starting your own charity – How Many Elephants.  How did you go from Skydiving to starting an award-winning charity?

In between skydiving, climbing big mountains and making money from speaking about my adventures, my life entered a new and exciting chapter. In 2013, I began studying for a Masters in Sustainable Design at the University of Brighton, UK, and embarked on a journey fueled with passion, new knowledge and creativity and I went on to found How Many Elephants. I was researching a material called vegetable ivory, a sustainable nut from the South American Rainforests and it was its similarity to elephant ivory that got me researching the African Elephant crisis. I was horrified by the statistics of 96 elephants being poached each day in Africa for their ivory. I wanted to find a powerful way to raise awareness of this.

 

5. Tell us a bit more about your charity and what you hope to achieve

I am passionate about conservation and design. My award-winning UK registered charity, How Many Elephants, is using design as a powerful tool to bridge the gap between scientific data and human connection in the field of wildlife conservation. 

How Many Elephants 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 in the next ten years. I have turned this disheartening statistic into a hard-hitting design-led campaign and a travelling exhibition that presents a physical commentary on the devastating impact of the elephant ivory trade; to raise awareness and funds to support anti-poaching projects. Part of the originality of this campaign is in my approach to avoid gruesome and shocking imagery to portray the facts. To actually see this data visually is very impactful. It is not about scaring people or assigning blame, it’s about raising awareness of the enormity of the poaching crisis.

6. You also have another world record under your belt for the ‘World’s Longest Horse Race’. Tell us about this.

Holly was a part of the first group to race 1000km across Mongolia on semi-wild horses.

“Holly, would you like to be part of another world-first adventure?” I quickly replied, “YES, what is it?”, “It’s a 1000km horse race across Mongolia on semi wild horses…” “Definitely! Count me in!”. This adventure tested my nerve, physical fitness and mental endurance to the limit. I rode 25 semi-wild Mongolian horses in total, an extremely tough breed that has changed little since the Mongol hordes swept across Asia in the early thirteenth century. 800 unshod horses were lined up for the race, with a team of international vets stringently checking their heart rates after each section, before allowing us, the riders, to continue.

I am happy to report that this was not my first go at riding horses! I started riding somewhere around the time I started walking and have represented England on occasion. From the start, at Kharkhorin, the ancient capital of the great Mongolian Empire, I raced to the finish line 1000km away in just 9 days. I changed my steed every 40km in a format inspired by Genghis Khan’s ancient postal system, where hardy horse messengers crossed Mongolia and into Europe.

I spent up to 13 hours in the saddle every day, navigating through the Mongolian steppe in temperatures fluctuating from 35 degrees to sub-zero. It was gruelling at times, especially overcoming a hazardous night in the mountains without water, losing one of my steeds and recovered another from sinking into a bog. I shed all of my modern equipment along the way to lighten my load and to experience the real Mongolian culture, eating only mutton and goat, drinking fermented mare’s milk and sleeping in local Mongolian yurts. I experienced Mongolia in a very unique way, riding in vast wildernesses with total freedom. Literally, where the eye can see, you can go!

7. You support the important work of the Black Mambas Anti Poaching Unit in South Africa. Tell us about them and how you got involved in this?

Through my charity, How Many Elephants, I help to support the work of the Black Mambas, South Africa’s first all-female anti-poaching team. I earned a rare privilege of immersing myself on the front line with the Black Mambas, to gain an intimate insight into what motivates these pioneering women. They are protectors, educators and beacons of hope. Armed with pepper spray and handcuffs, they patrol hunting grounds of armed poachers.  They are changing attitudes towards the role of women in Africa and beyond.

Becoming a Black Mamba has empowered them to improve their lives by gaining skills, knowledge and hope. They wear their uniforms with great pride and there are many young women who aspire to be a Black Mamba. Their shared an intense passion for protecting the wildlife and improving the lives of their families is inspiring, humbling and powerful. Everyone has their own fight in this tangled web of wildlife conservation, most striving for a common goal to preserve and conserve. Through spending time with the Black Mambas, I feel richer in knowledge, in experience and in hope that the elephant poaching crisis can still be turned around, despite the odds.

8. You’ve had so many incredible adventures and moments, what’s been the highlight for you so far?

It’s difficult to pick one highlight but an experience that rates highly is spending time on the front line with the highly skilled and fully armed Akashinga Rangers in Zimbabwe. 

A particular memory I recall is:

“It’s 5.45am and still dark as I stand in line with four armed Akashinga rangers, ready to go out on foot patrol. “You may not see any wildlife Holly, this is not a safari trip” says my go-to ranger. I pinch myself as the realisation of where I was became very real. These women are fighting a war on poaching and the poachers are not the only threat out there. The rangers load their rifles. The front ranger clicks her fingers as a signal to go. I take a deep breath as we move into the darkness.

We cover the ground purposefully, with an occasional stick breaking underfoot or a thorny branch trying to take my eye out. It was impressive how these women navigate through the terrain, gracefully moving through the thick undergrowth, whilst simultaneously spotting wildlife and looking out for signs of poachers.

We stop abruptly and kneel down. I sense a change in their energy, these women mean business. My mind starts racing… What have they spotted? What’s going to happen next? To my delight, they had spotted an elephant cow with her calf, heavily camouflaged in the trees about 50 metres away from us. One ranger whispers to me, “a cow with her calf can be very aggressive. We must move back slowly”. I loved seeing the excitement on the rangers’ faces from the elephant sighting. Their passion for the wildlife shone through in that moment. No words were needed.

That night, we got dropped off with supplies and equipment to a remote area in the bush. After we set up camp, we patrolled the surrounding area to identify any imminent threats. One-armed ranger stayed at the camp to guard and protect whilst we walked for two hours on a big loop around the camp. We spotted a herd of elephants relatively close by and could hear hyenas too. When we returned, we ate stew with Sadza and stoked out the fire so our location could not be identified by the poachers.

The plan was to sleep for a couple of hours before night patrol. As I lay on the hard ground, alone in a small tent, it dawned on me that I was completely and utterly out of my comfort zone in this environment! These rangers were my lifeline. Without them, I was a dead woman. The intense energy of the bush made me feel more alive than ever.”

This was just two days in the life of an Akashinga ranger. These brave and courageous women, selected and trained by the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, are doing such valuable but often challenging work every day and are making a real difference on the front line of conservation. The thought of the African bush devoid of elephants is heart-breaking enough but putting emotion aside, the impacts of losing these animals will be of extreme detriment to the environment and beyond; If the elephants go extinct, entire ecosystems could follow as they are a keystone species and important ecosystem engineers.

9. One of The Female Lead’s themes is to find strength in setbacks. Give us one example of where this applied in your life?

Being trapped at 8300m in the Death Zone on Mount Everest was definitely a setback! Waiting out a raging storm on my way back down from the summit, I lay in my tent for hours shivering, watching the sides being thrashed by the winds. I felt shattered but alert. It had been 72 hours since I left Advanced Base Camp for the start of my summit push. My climbing partner and I lay side by side in our down suits, inside our sleeping bags. We forced ourselves to eat dehydrated food, washed down with boiled water. The next morning when I peered out of the vestibule, we were one of only three tents left standing. Remnants of other tents were blowing in the wind. It was eerie and time to go. I didn’t know what lay ahead for us. We were freezing cold and exhausted, but I knew one thing more than anything, I couldn’t stay here any longer. I had to turn my fear and my exhaustion into action. And that’s what I did… step by step, hour by hour, we battled through the storm and made it back to safety. Life in the mountains is not for the faint-hearted! Every day is a challenge. A positive mindset and an acceptance that nothing is perfect, normal or even comfortable at times is essential.

10. You’re an inspiration to so many, tell us about the women who inspire you.

I’m constantly inspired by women who strive to live their life driven by passion. This takes courage. I felt humbled by the two all-female ranger teams I’ve had the privilege of spending quality time with. These pioneering women are not only working on the front line of conservation but are also protectors, educators and beacons of hope.

11. What’s next for you?

My next adventure is to hike the Great Wall of China in its entirety of 3000 miles to humbly carry out research into how elephant ivory fits into their culture and their deep-rooted traditions and beliefs. My hard-hitting, but non-gory, How Many Elephants exhibition showcases 35,000 elephants, the annual death toll in Africa, and will be exhibited in major cities in China coinciding with the adventure. It will be a journey of discovery into a different land and culture, fuelled by passion and a thirst for new knowledge and insight. It will be an adventure of physical and mental endurance to raise awareness and funds for How Many Elephants

 

To get involved with How Many Elephants or find out more, visit www.howmanyelephants.org. To read more about Holly’s adventures, visit www.hollybudge.com