Meet the adventurer: Lucy Shepherd on crossing Guyana's formidable Kanuku Mountains

The 29-year-old adventurer is tackling her biggest expedition to date: crossing Guyana’s Kanuku Mountains, deep in the Amazon Rainforest.

By Josephine Price
Published 10 Nov 2021, 06:00 GMT
Lucy Shepherd feels very much at home in the Arctic even if it’s -30C, particularly when ...

Lucy Shepherd feels very much at home in the Arctic even if it’s -30C, particularly when she's skiing with clear skies.

Photograph by Lucy Shepherd

What led you to your first adventure?

When I was 15, I went to an adventure camp in Scotland for two weeks and was introduced to the word ‘expedition’. Up until then, I didn’t think expeditions could be done by people like me — I wasn’t brought up with explorer parents or family in the military or anything like that. I also thought expeditions were a thing of the past. But I simply fell in love with the concept and set out to find out how I could do it, too. 

From Svalbard to the High Sierras, what’s been your most challenging journey?

Every environment has its different challenges. I feel very much at home in the Arctic. Skiing with clear skies, even if it’s -30C, is quite peaceful. For the expedition I’m about to do in Guyana’s Kanuku Mountains, it’s the sheer length and all the unknown aspects of trekking in the Amazon that make it a big challenge. I’m sure there will be so many things I’ll discover that I won’t have even put in the risk assessment. 

What attracted you to these mountains? 

I first went through the jungle in 2014 — I had quite a scary encounter with a jaguar while I was in a hammock. It kind of stained the whole trip. From then on, I focused on the Arctic and mountains. But recently, after doing lots of expeditions all around the world and telling so many other people to get outside their comfort zone, I felt I needed to face my fears. 

The expedition, crossing the mountains from east to west, will be the first attempt ever documented. Tell us about the journey. 

I’ll start at the Essequibo River and head west before entering a protected area. Getting legal permits to enter these areas was a logistical challenge. Then the mountains start rising. This area is dense jungle, so sometimes I might only cover a mile a day. Jungle travel is quite demoralising in that way. It plays tricks on your mind, so you just have to remain positive, which is really hard sometimes.

How do you prepare for an expedition like this?

I’m big on visualisation. I spend a lot of time daydreaming about all the things that might go wrong, that I might struggle with, and focusing on how that might feel and what I might do. It’s about muscle memory and the imagination is great for developing that. At the end of the day, I’ve chosen to be in these places so if things go wrong, I just need to do my best and focus. 

What makes for a good team in the jungle?

Variation, and no egos. Also, great humour. Every living thing has a defence mechanism in the jungle, so don’t try to fight it. The jungle will win. You need to be able to go with the flow. I’m looking forward to getting the first week over with, getting into the right rhythm and connecting with the guys [a support team of skilled Amerindians] over things like finding waterfalls we’ve never seen before.

The Amazon is often at the centre of climate change discussions. What are your thoughts on its future?

There’s no doubt the wet seasons are getting wetter. And a big issue is that the dry seasons are getting longer and hotter, too — and that puts habitats at risk. Climate change is happening right before our eyes and yet many people feel disconnected from it. I’m a great believer that you’ve got to get out there into these environments and feel that fragility. I guide expeditions in the Arctic, and it doesn’t take long for people start feeling a duty of care. We all need to act like it’s an emergency. Our leaders aren’t treating it like one. The inaction is even more frustrating now that we’ve seen how we came together for the Covid-19 crisis. We have the potential.

Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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