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Our clothing is designed to be worn by real people who will put it through its paces in a host of outdoor environments, from the British countryside to the peaks of some of the world’s highest mountains. We wanted models who would reflect our users so that you could see the clothing as it was meant to be worn. We selected our models from an application group who were nearly all climbers, hill walkers and outdoor enthusiasts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this process turned up some interesting characters.

Alison is not only a climber, but also a Glaciologist at the Scott Polar Research Institute (University of Cambridge) who has spent time studying glaciers in Antarctica, Greenland and Svalbard. There’s probably no one we could have found with more experience of the harsh, cold environments for which our clothing is designed than Alison. We visited her research office in Cambridge after the shoot to find out more about her climbing, research and the wild places she’s visited for both.

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What made you apply for the modelling job at Rab?

That is a good question, I’m not entirely sure other than it was something I hadn’t done before, it sounded fun and I’m always up for a new challenge. And I know that Rab gear fits me quite well as I have a lot of it for cold field expeditions and climbing trips.

You have been staying up near us here in Derbyshire for the shoot, what have you been up to?

Nothing for these three days as we’ve been too busy *LAUGHS* But, for the casting I came up and did some climbing in the Peak over the weekend. This time I’ve been staying with some family friends who I had no idea lived near Rab until a few weeks before the shoot. They are particularly good friends with my aunty and it was her that got me into climbing way back when I was 12.

Do you spend much time in the Peak District normally?

Yes, quite a bit. So living in what I call the “flat lands” of Cambridge means that the closest rock to Cambridge is the Peak District. If I want to go climbing outdoors I go to the Peak or occasionally I go to Portland on the South coast. The Peaks are about two and a half to three hours from me so we usually go up for a day trip or we sometimes go up and camp for the weekend.

When/ how did you start climbing?

So, neither of my parents climb, but my aunty first took me trad climbing on the Gower in South Wales when I was about 12 and then every summer from then until I was about 15. She also took me Scottish winter climbing a few times, I was pretty lucky. When I was 16, I discovered a small climbing wall in Wimborne, which was about half an hour from Bournemouth, where I grew up. My mum drove me there about once a week, but it was only when I learnt to drive at 17 that I was able to climb multiple times a week. As soon as I was 18 I got my SPA (Single Pitch Award) qualification and then started working at that climbing wall during my A-Levels, and then later on at Alien Rock in Edinburgh while I was an Undergrad student – which basically funded all my climbing trips abroad.

Can you remember the first route you ever did?

My first route would have been some random Sev/HS trad route on the Gower, that I can’t remember which. But I do remember the first route that I first saw climbers on – ‘Scavenger’, a classic VS above an archway. I remember walking through the archway towards the sea, looking up, and thinking how cool they looked.

What’s the main focus of your climbing?

Since I moved to Cambridge 8 years ago, it’s mainly been bouldering because there’s only a bouldering wall, so everything I do is mostly training for bouldering outside, and also for occasional competitions. I do occasionally still go sport climbing, often abroad in the winter, and very occasionally trad climbing. I used to do much more trad climbing when I lived in Edinburgh. It was my main focus there. These days, when I do get to climb outside, which isn’t that often, I usually focus on bouldering or sport because you can get maximum climbing done in the shortest time, whereas trad climbing you faff around with gear for half the day.

Where do you usually go climbing?

Generally I go indoors here in Cambridge and then I try and get away for a week/few weeks at a time during the year. I‘ve just come back from a 3 week bouldering trip to Rocklands in South Africa, and I usually go to Kalymnos in Greece – I’ve been every year for the past 6 years, it’s the climbing mecca. Cambridge is good because it’s close to airports so you can really easily get to Kalymnos from Stanstead, although 17 hours of flying to Cape Town was a bit more of an effort…. Fontainebleau is also pretty easy to get to from Cambridge, just 6 hours ‘door’ to boulders via the Eurotunnel, so I also usually go there for at least one long weekend a year.

How much time do you dedicate to climbing in the average week?

Erm… when I’m not on field expeditions, (or injured), about 4/5 times a week, and 1 or 2 of those days will be climbing-specific training like finger-boarding or campus-boarding. Then I do a bit of road cycling and running to keep fit. The climbing wall is a 2 minute walk from work so it’s really easy and I can even go for a lunchtime session. Climbing is definitely a big part of my life!

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Can you explain your job in terms those without a science background can understand?

I'm a scientist researching glaciers and ice sheets; I'm often called a 'glaciologist'. I'm based at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. I'm particularly interested in how glaciers flow and fracture, and how they are responding to climate change.

Currently, my research is mainly focussing on Antarctic ice shelves, which are the parts of the ice sheet that float around the edge. These areas are melting particularly rapidly as they are in contact with the warming ocean water. I went to do fieldwork in Antarctica for the first time last year, and I'm going twice more this year. We drove Skidoos to get to our field sites, where we installed various instruments to measure ice melt and movement. Antarctica is a spectacularly beautiful place to work, but perhaps my favourite aspect was having close encounters with penguins, they are such peculiar, clumsy creatures!

I've also worked previously on the Greenland Ice Sheet, and in Svalbard and Nepal. In Greenland we were dropped off by helicopter and then camped up on the ice for weeks at a time. Fieldwork in Svalbard and Nepal both involved ice caving under up to 80 metres of glacier ice.

I’m not always away doing fieldwork in exotic places though, I also spend a lot of time sitting at my desk in Cambridge, often trying to simulate glacier flow and break-up by running computer models.

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What does an average week in the office look like?

I have completely flexible hours, I don’t have a boss, and I sort of work for myself and communicate a lot via email with colleagues who are based at other universities abroad. But then ‘the office’ can be fieldwork for maybe 3 months a year. This year I’m going to Antarctica twice for 6 weeks at a time - which is a lot of time away from climbing. Having said that, I’m usually pretty good at fitting in quite a bit of training while I’m away, there’s even a fingerboard at the Antarctic base I go to!

Was your area of research what you always aimed to get into?

Interesting question. I think since the age of 16/17 having my interest in climbing I’ve really liked mountains and being outside, so a PhD in glaciers kind of came naturally. I’ve also always liked Geography, and I’ve got a good science background from my A-levels and undergrad degree. Before A-levels I had no clue what I wanted to do. Originally I wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter *LAUGHS* because I could do so much travelling around the world. I’ve always had a travelling interest but I don’t think I would be a good presenter.

It’s afforded you the opportunity to travel for work, can you tell us a little bit about where it has taken you and what you’ve done?

So for Antarctica, we fly to the American base via New Zealand which is awesome as I can tag a bit of travelling and climbing onto the end of the fieldwork. I’ve been to Greenland twice. Where else? I often get involved with undergraduate field trips, the last one being to the Swiss Alps. As well as fieldwork I’ve also attended conferences in place like Iceland, Beijing, Tibet, Chamonix and Alaska. Occasionally these trips are on a shoestring budget and I’ve had to partially fund trips myself in the past; it all depends what kind of grant money you have. But, Cambridge is good because you can apply for extra funds to do things.

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What have you learned from those trips about operating in cold conditions?

Good Gear, Good Company, Good Coffee. Once we had a 3 week trip to Greenland and camped on the ice not realising until the helicopter had left that we didn’t have any coffee. 3 weeks without caffeine is not good! But genuinely Rab gear is good for operating in cold conditions; I’m not just saying that, top quality down, lots of layers and good gloves are the way forward.

Is there a long-term aim for your career or are you happy with what you are doing now?

Well I’m very happy doing research, but the problem with these kind of research jobs is that they are only 2 or 3 years long due to funding – it’s hard to get a contract any longer than that. If I want a more permanent job, I’ll need to apply for a lecturing job at a university, but then I’ll end up having to do quite a bit of teaching so I’ll have less time for research. Ultimately, I’d ideally like to live somewhere that’s closer to climbing and mountains.

Gallery of Alison in action

Geared-up and ready to Skidoo to a field site in Antarctica.
Balance practice on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Photo credit: Eryka Thorley.
Goodbye to the Greenland Ice Sheet after 3 weeks of cold camping and fieldwork. Photo credit: Ian Willis.
Lying down to inspect a huge drainage shaft (‘moulin’) on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Photo credit: Ian Willis.
Home on the Greenland Ice Sheet for 3 weeks.
A view of the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet from a helicopter.
Four Lockheed C-130 Hercules (owned by the United States Antarctic Programme) ready to transport scientists between McMurdo Station, Antarctica and Christchurch, New Zealand.
'Mountaineering penguins’ in Antarctica! Photo credit: Alison Banwell.
Bouldering in Rocklands, S Africa. Photo Credit: Colin Rouse.
Working the moves on ‘Un Petit Heuco dans Rocklands’, South Africa. Photo credit: Florian Hölzel.
Climbing in Sikati Cave, Kalymnos (Greece).
Climbing in Kalymnos, Greece.
Cave Problem, Robin Hood’s Stride, Peak District.
Enjoying a sunny warm-up boulder problem in Rocklands, S Africa.
Trying to avoid forearm pump on the Silky Natural traverse in Rocklands, S Africa. Photo credit: Florian Hölzel.
Bouldering in Fontainebleau, France.
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