Riddell talks about how mountaineering has helped her become the strongest version of herself.

By Baillie Riddell as told to Faith Brar
June 26, 2020
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I had never even thought about mountaineering before I laid eyes on the Matterhorn Mountain in Switzerland while on vacation with my family during a college break. The mountain's magnificent peak straddles the border of Switzerland and Italy and is essentially a perfect pyramid. I remember thinking it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen and wondered what the world would look like from the top.

I returned home, and life moved on, but the Matterhorn stayed in the back of my mind for a while. A few months later, in 2016, I moved to New York City in hopes of jumpstarting a career as a plus-size model. It was around this time that I really started getting into health and fitness.

Even though I had been active my whole life, I wasn't necessarily in the best shape when I moved to NYC. As I got more modeling gigs, I started comparing myself to other women. I mean, I was getting winded simply walking up a flight of stairs, and that made me self-conscious. Moving to a big city like New York was hard enough on its own, and I felt like I didn't have the stamina to keep up.

I knew something needed to change—not so much because of my size, but because I wanted to feel strong, confident, and comfortable in my skin. I also wanted to set a good example for young girls in the industry. As a model, I wanted to show that it was important for me to put my health first. (Related: 12 Workout Tips for Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced Exercisers)

So, for the first time, I committed to working out. In the gym, I focused mostly on strength training to help me gain some muscle and I also started doing some yoga to increase my flexibility. Over the next two years, I got stronger and more agile, and the idea of climbing a mountain crept to the forefront of my mind again.

In 2018, I started doing some serious research into mountaineering. That's when I came across the Alpine Ascents Mountaineering School, an international mountaineering school that leads expeditions around the world. It's known for teaching the ins and outs of mountaineering, with experiences for both beginners and more advanced climbers.

After reading about the program, I set my eyes on the school's six-day educational trip to Mount Baker in Washington. This particular program is designed for beginner and intermediate climbers, which felt like the right place for me to start. I registered for the trip on the spot and a few months later, set out for one of my greatest adventures.

Climbing My First Mountain

Mount Baker has an elevation of more than 10,000 feet. Our educational course was designed to take six days to ensure we took our time learning the basics of mountaineering, but experienced climbers can do it in just two.

The first day, we trekked to base camp. Days two and three were spent learning how to use climbing gear and about weather patterns, different types of terrain, and how to rescue someone in case of various types of emergencies. On day four, we climbed to the summit of the mountain with two guides. All in all, it was a 15-hour journey to the top and back.

Physically, the hardest part of the climb was The Roman Wall, which featured a dauntingly steep, 45- to 50-degree-angle ascent entirely made of ice and snow. You essentially walk up a ledge that is so narrow that you can barely put one foot in front of the other. As if that wasn't terrifying enough, none of us were harnessed into an anchor point on the mountain. We were all simply linked together by a ropemeaning if one of us fell, we all did. (Related: These Badass Athletes Will Make You Want to Take Up Rock Climbing)

The climb was physically draining, no question. But it also really challenged my mental grit. Four hours into the hike, a woman started struggling with her asthma and asked to go back to base. Naturally, I began questioning myself. I was the weakest link in the group since all the other guys were either in the army or had extensive fitness backgrounds. I asked the guide if he thought I could make it. He told me it would take every single ounce of my strength and energy, but he felt like I could do it. So I decided to keep going.

I was the last one to make it to the top and immediately burst into tears. That climb was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life, but the fact that I made it and didn't give up, gave me so much confidence. I felt like there was nothing I couldn't do. (Related: How to Boost Your Confidence In 5 Easy Steps)

Working My Way to Climbing Aconcagua

When I got back home, my body felt like that of a 90-year-old woman. It took me weeks to recover. My knees and ankles took a huge hit because I realized that my core and lower body just weren't strong enough. I knew I wanted to climb another mountain someday and I realized I'd really have to take my training up a notch so that I didn't put so much undue stress on my body. (Related: How to Get Rid of Knee Pain Plus, 6 Common Causes)

Over the next year, as I continued working on my modeling career, I also started working with a trainer. I needed help in making my workouts more focused and conditioning my body to handle tough climbs.

As I was training, I set my eyes on Mount Adams, the second-highest peak in Washington after Mount Rainier. This time, one of my friends and I decided to hire a private guide. And after about six months of training, we made the climb in July 2019.

With an elevation of more than 12,000 feet, Mount Adams should have been more challenging than Mount Baker, but the terrain was much easier. My training had also paid off. I was much stronger and faster, so much so that some of the guys on the trip had a tough time keeping up with me. And even though the climb was challenging, I didn't feel like I was using up every morsel of strength to make it to the top. I went home with a couple of scrapes and bruises, but my knees didn't hurt and it took me much less time to recover.

Following Mount Adams, I felt like I was ready for something bigger and bolder, like climbing one of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains in each of the seven continents. I wanted to know what it felt like to be in nature for an extended period of time with minimal exposure to the real world. Given the scale of these peaks, they can take weeks to climb and require making camp overnight and backpacking with all the equipment and supplies you need for the trip.

Based on my schedule, the best time for me to travel was over the winter holidays. I knew I could take several weeks off, so I started researching mountains I could climb during that time. I wanted to do an expedition through Alpine Ascents again and saw that they offered a trip to Aconcagua in the Andes mountain range during that time frame. So I signed up.

I started training for Aconcagua six months before the expedition. Similar to last time, my goal was to maximize my strength training. I began working with a new trainer and focused a lot on lower-body strength and cardio. Squats, lunges, and snatches were part of my workout routine and I started using more complex equipment such as sleds, plates, battle ropes, and resistance bands.

Three to four weeks before the climb, I was working out two hours a day: An hour with my trainer, followed by an hour of cardio on my own. In the gym, the focus was on progressive overload—a fitness methodology that prevents plateau by continuously increasing difficulty through intensity, reps, weights, or skill.

The last month leading up to the trip, I also started focusing on my diet. I stopped having any dairy, alcohol, or processed sugar and really upped my protein intake. (Related: 6 Things That Happened When I Gave Up Dairy)

As I got ready for the trip, I hoped that all my hard work would pay off, and in December, I made my way to Peru, ready for the biggest adventure of my life. (Related: This Badass Woman Just Summited Everest In a Record-Breaking Climb)

How I Conquered One of the Seven Summits

The climb to the top of Aconcagua would take 16 days. The first three days of the trip were spent making our way to basecamp. To get there, each day, we covered 20 kilometers (almost 12.5 miles), with 50-pound packs on our back in the desert heat.

Once we got to base, we rested, spending four days acclimatizing to the reduced oxygen in the air and recovering for the journey ahead. My feet were covered with blisters and my body was sore already. So I knew that having that time to reset was very important.

On day five, we started making our way up to the summit. The plan was to camp at three different locations before making it to the top. But since the climb was steeper and more challenging, we couldn't really carry all of our gear up at once. So, we took a sort of hopscotch route.

As we began the ascent, we divvied up our belongings, putting only the gear we didn't need in our packs. Then we took all that stuff up to the next campsite and then returned back to the previous one to get everything else. Basically we were taking two steps forward and one step back each time we set up camp.

Even though we were only hiking a couple of miles a day at this point, it took us between five and six hours to cover the distance because of the elevation. Not only was it physically exhausting, but we all needed time to adjust to the altitude.

The most challenging day was our 17-hour trek to the summit. We hit the trail at around 4 a.m., climbing 4,000 feet to the top.

I was the last one up to the summit, but I was so proud of myself I broke down into tears again. I had made it to the top of one of the highest peaks in the world and was standing about 23,000 feet above sea level. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the view was absolutely surreal. The Andes are the largest mountain range in the world and it felt like you could somehow see the entire thing. It made me feel so small, but also so powerful to be able to experience it.

Why I'll Always Keep Climbing

Climbing for me has become more than just a hobby. It's given me so much confidence and helped me become the strongest version of myself, both physically and mentally. Even though mountaineering has a reputation for being dominated by men, I hope my journey encourages women to try it for themselves. (Related: These Benefits of Hiking Will Make You Want to Hit the Trails)

Over the past three years since I began climbing mountains, I've realized how much I love the unique sport of mountaineering. For starters, it's a great way to stay healthy and active. I've never been someone who loves going to the gym. But I recognize I need to train to be able to make it to the mountains. Putting in the work is so worth it.

More importantly, though, climbing pushes you out of your comfort zone, highlights your potential setbacks, and makes you realize that you're full of capabilities. The climbing community is also all about supporting and empowering one another. It's not about competing, but about making it to the top together.

Given everything I've accomplished in the sport in such a short period of time, I'm excited to see what adventures lie ahead. With peaks like Mount Washington, Kilimanjaro, and Kosciuszko on my list, I know my legs are in for a wild ride.

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