Blog | Interview with Karen Darke
The Scout Association is delighted to welcome Karen Darke – climber, adventurer, and gold medal winning paralympic hand cyclist - on board as our new Scout Adventurer. We called her on a rainy afternoon, to chat about ‘adventurous genes’, resilience, and why Scouting matters.
How did you first get into the world of outdoor adventure, Karen? Do you remember where it started?
It came from my own curiosity, I think. I’m lucky to have an adventurous gene! When I was sixteen, I saw an advert for an expedition with Yorkshire Schools Exploring Society. I went on a selection weekend, completing challenges across the Yorkshire Dales. I really enjoyed it, and I got picked. I spent the next year planning expeditions and going on practice runs.
And where did things go from there? By your early twenties, you were navigating the Alps using only a postcard!
A journey with the Exploring Society involved mountain biking to China. When I got back, I started trying new things, like orienteering and bell running. A teacher at school was a keen rock climber, and helped fuel my interest. I joined a climbing club at university and somehow decided to climb the Alps with nothing but a postcard to guide the way!
That’s an amazing experience to have at that age. What’s been your proudest moment so far?
I’m pleased I’ve been able to live such a full, active life with my disability. Because I was always adventurous by nature, I think I’ve taken it for granted at times. Not everybody living with a disability pursues the kinds of things I have. Many people aren’t able to, and I’ve been very fortunate. Getting into the Paralympics was obviously a really proud moment; winning Silver at the 2012 London games, and Gold at the Rio games in 2016. I know how much hard work it’s taken to get here, so it’s quite special.
It’s amazing how much you’ve achieved. How did you harness the motivation to get up and try hand cycling, after your accident?
I’d been on mountain biking trips when I could still walk, so I knew I wanted to pursue being on a bike in some way. When I was paralysed, it felt really important to try and get a suitable bike made, so that’s what I did. Cycling is such a great means of journeying and meeting people and experiencing a place together.
Is that shared journeying an important element for you? It’s something that’s key to us in Scouting, that sense of being a part of something bigger.
Yeah, exactly right. A big part of it for me, a massive part, is the ability to share experiences with other people in the outdoors. That’s also what draws me to Scouting.
Could you talk a little about your project, Quest 79? When did you start paying attention to the number and its significance in your life?
I first became aware of it just after Rio, when I realised I’d won the 79th medal. Coincidentally, Gold is the 79th element in the periodic table. I’d spent years studying geology, so it stood out. Once I tuned in, I realised I’d taken lots of journeys that were somehow linked to the number. In 2014, I travelled at exactly 79 degrees east across Tibet. In 2006, I did a sit-ski traverse of the Greenland icecap at exactly 79 degrees north. And I travelled at 79 degrees west when I hand cycled across Patagonia! I’m keen to complete the mission by heading 79 degrees south, all the way to Antarctica!
So what is that concept? What is Quest 79?
As an ex-climber, I often hear about climbers doing the seven summits – the highest summit on each continent. I decided to create a hand biking alternative. I’m completing nine major hand biking routes, across all seven continents.
Can other people take part?
Absolutely. I want people to try something new, and to hopefully find a new passion. The challenge doesn’t have to be physical, only connected to the number 79. The hope is that people will share their journey with others, and perhaps even help others by raising money for a good cause. I’m calling this ‘finding your inner gold’!
That sounds great. Are any Scouts involved?
Moray Scouts are journeying for 79 miles through the Great Glen in Scotland, challenging themselves and raising money for the Spinal Injuries Association in the process. And an Aberdeenshire Scout has also informed me that he plans to drum for 79 hours straight!
Why do you think Scouting is important?
I think it imbues that sense of adventure, and shows young people that there is a wider world out there for them. You don’t always get that opportunity through your parents or school. I was lucky enough to get that support from my parents and my school, but Scouting is another route to take, another route to opportunity. It helps you build belief in yourself, and to work in a team with others. These are all skills that are important in everyday life.
Do you have any advice for anyone who is may be interested in adventure but who feels a bit intimidated by it, or doesn’t know where to start?
Ask other people involved in adventure if you can join in, and surround yourself with positive people who will be open to your ideas, and will help you think it through.
You write so beautifully about being grateful for things, and thinking positively. Do you have any tips on how to develop resilience?
Well, I think resilience kicks in naturally when life demands it. When you’re put into situations where life is difficult and you therefore have to rise to the occasion, your survival instinct is an incredibly powerful thing. But putting yourself in any situation where you’re stretched or challenged, where you’re out of your comfort zone, will help you to develop resilience in a constructive way.
I think it’s also important for people to remember I’m not an expert. I may have more experience than some people, but every single time I set out on a new adventure I feel just as intimidated, and I question whether I can do it or not. I think it’s important to remember that having all the doubt and uncertainty is part of the adventure too. Often, those feelings can lead to adventures, and to finding your inner gold.
Bonus trivia questions
What’s the most beautiful sight you’ve ever woken up to?
One that really sticks in my mind is climbing El Capitan, and just lying there on a ledge, hanging off this huge cliff face. I was mostly terrified but it was night and it was so peaceful and beautiful. I was able to just look up at the stars and the incredible rock faces, lit up by moonlight. Looking down at the valley, seeing how miniature everything was… that was very, very special.
What’s your favourite camp snack?
I really like porridge. Not just plain old porridge. I like throwing loads of stuff into it. My favourite is porridge with milk powder, custard powder, cinnamon and raisins chucked in. It’s a hotch potch of random stuff to keep me going!
What do you always carry in your adventure kit, no matter where you’re going?
When you’re exhausted, having something nice and a little luxurious makes you feel less homesick. My essential is usually something that reminds me of home, and the world beyond the wilderness. It’s a bit girly, but I always pack a nice lip balm and face cream. It’s a simple, trivial thing, but it can bring you comfort in a strange way.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party? Who inspires you?
I’d actually like to meet Prince Harry. He comes across well, and he seems like he’s been on a lot of his own adventures. I’d like to have a chat with him. Maybe I could rope him into an expedition!
You can follow Karen’s adventures on her Facebook page, and find out how to participate in Quest 79 on her website. Follow her at @karenquest79.