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Wild Swimming, Learning to Let Go, and Keeping Adventure Accessible, by Hetty Key

Wild Swimming, Learning to Let Go, and Keeping Adventure Accessible, by Hetty Key

A keen outdoorswoman who loves adventure, endurance and data! Hetty runs Women in Adventure - an independent research company championing women in the outdoors. She is also a director of Women's Trad Festival - a popular climbing festival centred around three core values: accessibility, sustainability and mental wellbeing. Combining her love of the outdoors with her scientific background, Hetty chats to us about her love of wild swimming, learning how to let go of the uncontrollables and using data to increase diversity and improve accessibility to the outdoors.


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The outdoors and adventure means something different to everybody. It can be doing big mountains, or ocean rowing, or just getting out in the local park close to home. What does it mean to you?

I think adventure to me is pushing my comfort zone. That means really different things at different times in my life. At some point that's been going and climbing mountains, and going to far-flung places that really excite and feel really remote. And on other days, that has been much smaller.

For example, the cold water swimming all started because I was at a point at the time where I didn't have the capacity to physically or mentally get out and do really big adventures. I was thinking, how can I find adventure? How can I like push myself out of my comfort zone, but in a nice way.

I'm not really a swimmer. I didn't really like swimming at school, but I was tempted by the fact that it wasn't in a pool, it was a river. Me and a friend just made a pact to go in, it didn't matter whether we went up to our knees, our waists, we were just going to try and get in twice a week. 

During this pandemic we've had lots of challenges and it's been a very uncertain time. I think when we're in the outdoors and on these big adventures we learn a lot about resilience. Is there anything you learnt from your adventures that's helped you recently, any particular tips or strategies that have really stood out to you?

I think definitely resilience, I know whether it's a climbing trip, bike, hike, or whatever I’m doing, there's a certain amount of you that knows the unpredictable is going to happen. You know you can't control the weather! You know, there are all these things that you can't control, but you prepare as best you can. Then you make sensible decisions.

As a result of that, something I've learned over the past year is to, not “embrace the uncertainty”, as I think for me that's really hard, I'm a planner! But to try and take the same approach that I would on a big day out in the hills and acknowledge these are the things I properly can't control. No matter how much I want to, not matter how much I would like to influence them or make them more certain, I can't. However, these other things I can influence.

That’s been the biggest learning curve for me, trying to put that outdoor mindset to "2020 life". Trying to not give myself a hard time on the uncontrollable. In the first lockdown there certainly felt a huge amount of pressure to write a best selling novel, create a film, become the fittest you've ever been or aa master of sourdough! I think you have had to put all of that to one side and just work on a day-to-day basis with what you've got.

You’ve done a lot of work around mental health, in terms of the science behind it and the power of outdoors. What got you interested in that? And is there anything you have found that's really surprised or interested you?

So much. I first got into Women in Adventure, which is an independent research company I ran way back in 2016, because I was curious. I just wanted to know the answers to certain questions in the outdoors, mainly surrounding women at that point in time. Whether female women prefer female only groups? Or what barriers to participation were? As a scientist at heart, I just wanted to learn more.

The big theme that came out through those first surveys, whatever I asked, was mental wellbeing and how the outdoors made us feel. It just seemed to be woven into everyone's responses, it didn't really matter what the headline topic was. So that drove and inspired me to do a survey that was specifically on mental wellbeing in the outdoors and the results were just fascinating.

I think the top headline statistic was that 99.6% of women agreed that the outdoors was good for their mental wellbeing. I was initially going to round everything up, and then I realised it'd be a hundred and thought everyone would think it was rigged! But underneath that, there was so much. The breadth of the sports that people spoke about or the way different sports influence wellbeing. For example, mountaineers had particularly high scores for seeing the things they do in life to be worthwhile. Whereas surfers had lower anxiety and higher levels of happiness.

Are there any kind of major barriers that you see at the moment that still exist, in terms of engagement and people actually being able to access the outdoors for their mental health?

I think there's a huge amount we can all do. I think “barriers” is quite nuanced, in the sense there are many different barriers and they are different for different groups. However, I think the one thing we all can do is inspire and encourage others to get outside. Whether they're outdoorsy or not, it’s taking someone and showing them what you love and that's inspiring. It also helps take down so many barriers.

You'll have more knowledge than you realise and by transferring that you’re helping them take that first step. You might not know all the barriers for them, but at least you're engaging in a conversation and showing them something. And on an individual level, because sometimes the first step is the hardest bit.  

I certainly found that during a lockdown on the grey, rainy, very January days. You may know the outside is good for you and you do know you're going to feel a hell of a lot better afterwards. But, sometimes getting over that threshold requires a bit of a shove.

What sort of tips would you give to people if they're struggling to motivate themselves to get out? What’s helped you to try to stay active during this time?

I think taking the pressure off, just put your trainers on, put your kit on, just entertain the idea of going out. Lower the expectation, it doesn't have to be a personal best. It might not be the best adventure you've ever had. It might be something you feel like you've done 100 times before. Just ease in, give it the first 10 minutes. Just head out, and if you're having a really bad day and it just isn't working, at least you've gone and tried for a little bit.

I’ve been really inspired by Ruth Allen, @WhitePeak_Ruth on Instagram. She reminds me to look for nature everywhere, whether that's literally the house plant in my office! I’ve also been trying to make a really concerted effort on those days where I don't feel like pushing myself to find another way to experience the outdoors in whatever sense that is.

It sounds cheesy, but even if it's like cloud gazing or just sitting somewhere for 10 minutes and just breathing in the fresh air.

women running wearing Boston t shirts

I read about One Run that you had about 15,000 people involved, that’s an incredible number of people to get excited and passionate about something. How did that all start, we'd love to know?

So One Run was founded by Danny Bent and James Hay. They asked me to join the team to do operations and logistics, i.e. organizing! We were working on this concept of having an event that every human could be part of. It was held on Human Rights Day, 10th of December.

We wanted to show the world that love is a human right and no one should be hated for who they are. After the year we've all had we wanted to bring everyone together in a huge celebration of humanity and essentially unite the world.

I think quite a lot of my friends just laughed, they were like, every country? And I'm like, yeah, every country by UN definition!

So that started by going through different running communities that we knew, reaching out to different press and media throughout the world. When it came to super niche countries, for example, there's a place called Naira, which is the least visited island in the world. It was a case of trying to find any sort of outdoors, or active community. Or just even reaching out to people and saying, do you know anyone in this area that would love to take part?

It was actually incredible! I think we're the first sporting event to have participants in every single country. It was so inspiring to see everyone come together and yes, we weren't all in the same place. But people started running at 7 o'clock their local time, you then moved however you're able for an hour before passing a virtual baton on to the next time zone. It was really heart-warming to see all these images coming in from everywhere in the world. It really did end the year on the high for me.

You've been to a few places around the world on various bike challenges and adventures. Have you got a favourite outdoor experience from all that time that you could share with us?

I'll go for one that's in my head at the minute, because I don't think I can pick a solid favourite and commit. But this time last year, I went out to Kazakhstan to do some ski touring. That was just incredible. We were in a hut on the Eastern edge, near Siberia, hours and hours from anywhere. 

It was so beautifully quiet and just be able to spend time like that in the mountains. The skiing wasn't particularly gnarly or hardcore, it was just stunning. I absolutely loved it. It's nice to think back to the sense of peace that trip brought me. I really enjoyed the simplicity, because you've got no power, even limited water, or you melt the snow!

Is there a favourite outdoor activity near home during lockdown you've been going to?

I love my swimming. I'm lucky enough to be near Ladybower Reservoir and Win Hill. I just love the view, it's my favourite hill. So it's a joy to be near it and be able to go up it - even if I'm incredibly out of puff doing so! 

What is it about the cold water swimming then? Can you describe that for those of us who just can't bear the thought of it?

For me a lot of the sports I do, I like to push myself and try really hard. And I like that with the swimming my aim is just to get in. I don't want to offend people for whom it's different. But for me, it's really, almost pointless. I'm not doing it for a time. I'm not doing it for a temperature. I'm just doing it because I love the surroundings.

I like that for that point in time, all I can concentrate on is how I feel and just getting in. It strips everything back. And the rush afterwards, when you get out of cold water, you feel great!

woman cold water swimming with bobble hat and snowy lake beyond

Do you have any thoughts on how we can encourage and inspire young people to explore and get outdoors?

Throughout my research it shows that role models are really important. And I think to some extent we can all be those role models. Telling adventure how it is, sharing the experience in whatever capacity that is for you. Some people love social media, other people would rather not touch it with a barge pole. That's cool!

Share what you love. And especially when it comes to the younger generation, or even those that are just new. Be mindful of the lingo. We pick up so much jargon. Even in a brief period, you just do. So be mindful of when you're telling people about stuff that they're not left completely bamboozled as to what you mean.

Also on the clothing and equipment front, I think giving ideas that are easy to get out and get a flavour of something without having to need everything right away is always good. I think it applies to whenever you're new to something, but certainly when you're younger, you don't necessarily want to invest in everything when you don't know if it's quite for you. Focus on letting people know what they can get out and do without needing a load of stuff.

Is there one place that you're most looking forward to being able to go once all the restrictions have eased off?

This is a tough one because I think I've literally been accumulating a list of places I really want to go, but definitely the sea. I can't wait till I can go to the sea. I don't mind which bit, or if it's near or far away, that would be lovely.

I definitely want to be able to explore more of Scotland. I love maps. I'm like a full on map geek! I sit for hours with a map working out where I'm going to go.

I have an aim to ride every bridal way in The Peak District, even the esoteric ones, which, in some areas of The White Peak I don't think anyone's taken a bike down it in years.

But I think I've got about nine different bike packing routes I really want to go and ride when we're allowed. I want to go and do lots, the list is never ending! If anyone needs a route in a random part of the country, the chances are I've probably tried to look for something ready for when we are allowed out again.

Have you got any more plans or projects in the pipeline or on hold at the moment?

Certainly, we are just gearing up for One Run 2021, so keep your eyes posted on that front. Depending on what’s announced, we're keeping all fingers crossed for Women's Trad Festival this summer.

On the research side I've got quite a lot going on, I'm analysing a survey on sustainability at the minute and also looking to start my next project. Lots of exciting things and plenty to keep me busy, which is good.

Is there anybody who inspires you?

Oh, this is a long list! I think my friends inspire me a lot and my Dad was a massive inspiration for me. He was a very keen climber and mountaineer. Sadly we didn't get a climb together because he had Parkinson's and was a very poorly man later in life. However, just to be able to have that shared experience was lovely. We might not have climbed together, but we got to talk about the same routes or the same walks, same hikes. Same hut food at the top. That was a huge inspiration for me and still is.

 To follow Hetty's adventures go to

To read more on her research

To find out more on her climbing festival

Or to check out the OneRun Project

Hosted by Alex Staniforth, serial adventurer, mental health activist and our Co-Founder

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