‘Every time she goes away I wonder if she’ll come home’

She’s scaled the world’s highest mountain – from both sides – and is the youngest woman to trek to the South Pole solo. But adventurer Mollie Hughes insists it’s her mum Jane who is the brave one.

Mollie’s story

Mollie Hughes, 30, is a mountaineer and motivational speaker. She lives in Edinburgh with her partner Tegan, 26.

While skiing alone for 11 hours a day on my expedition to the South Pole, one of the things I did to stay motivated was imagine my reunion with my mum. Battling against blizzards and sub-zero winds, I’d visualise that precious moment when we’d hug in Arrivals at Heathrow after three months apart. This thought was even more powerful in keeping me going than being the youngest woman in history to reach the Pole solo. Knowing how proud – and relieved – she’d feel when I called to say I’d made it pushed me on when I was exhausted.

Mollie and mum Jane
Mollie with her mum Jane.

I know what I do is inherently selfish. I’m the one who gets to see amazing sights, such as the view from the summit of Everest and the vastness of Antarctica. Mum is the one worrying at home, hoping I’ll survive my latest adventure. People say I’m brave, but actually she is – for enduring a rollercoaster of emotions each time I go away.

It was Mum who first set me on the path I’m on today. When I was 17, she encouraged me to go on a school trip to climb Mount Kenya. Other mothers may have hidden the letter, unwilling to send their daughter to Africa to climb a 5,000-metre-high mountain. But Mum always urged me to be curious and experience the world.

I grew up with my elder brother and younger sister on the south coast of Devon and life was very outdoorsy. We surfed, hiked and explored together and Mum always joined in, too.

At first, I was hesitant about the Kenya trip, mainly because of the cost. I knew there was no way Mum, who separated from my dad when I was 13, could afford the £1,600 bill. But she assured me that if I wanted to do it, we’d find a way to make it happen.

I spent five days scaling the mountain, experiencing climbing at altitude for the first time. It was tough, a world away from the hill hikes I’d done in the UK before, but exhilarating.

For the next four years, I’d save money from part-time jobs to fund summer climbing trips to the Himalayas, South America and Tanzania.

In 2012, when I was 21, I decided to climb the south face of Everest. I’d written my university dissertation about the psychology of climbing it, interviewing mountaineers who’d made it to the summit, and just had to experience it for myself.

It was so much more serious than anything I’d attempted before, and while I didn’t think Mum would try to talk me out of it, I was painfully aware there was no way of alleviating the worry she would inevitably feel.

Climbing Everest was tougher than I could have imagined, both physically and mentally. Walking across ladders over deep crevasses, fleeing an avalanche and running out of oxygen, it tested me in ways I’d never experienced before. Eleven people died there that year. One day, my team came across a smear of blood where the body of a Sherpa guide had been pulled out of a crevasse. That was a visceral reminder of the risks I was taking with my own life.

Five years later, I climbed the north side – becoming the youngest European woman to reach its peak from both sides. On both climbs I channelled Mum’s unflappable nature. Such qualities were essential to staying safe because when you’re in a storm halfway up a mountain, you simply can’t be overly emotional.

Mollie and mum Jane
With ‘early walker’ Mollie aged one.

With every expedition my thirst for adventure has only deepened. In November 2019 I began my solo 702-mile trek to the South Pole – my greatest challenge to date. I felt confident I could do it, but I also realised how tough it would be for Mum, knowing her child would be all alone with no team in a freezing wilderness for weeks on end.

Every time I was able to call her on my satellite phone, it would leave me feeling calm. Just hearing her voice gave me strength. But it was a balancing act between needing to offload what I’d been experiencing and wanting to protect her because there was nothing she could do to help me.

I was taught never to see being a woman as a barrier to anything. When I’m on a trip, my gender is irrelevant. It’s the same achievement when you reach a summit. However, women face a much greater struggle before an expedition begins. I’ve felt, many times, the perception that I’m less likely to achieve my goal, making it so much harder to secure sponsorship for trips that cost tens of thousands of pounds. It’s frustrating but Mum has always encouraged me to keep raising the profile of women in the mountaineering community, to dispel the myth that we’re not as capable.

After reaching the South Pole, my reunion with Mum was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped – including having Christmas dinner because I’d missed it while I was away. It tasted so good after weeks of dehydrated food.

Mum has always recognised how psychologically hard my adventures are, and never adds to that by trying to dissuade me or burdening me with the anxieties she must feel. Her strength and stoicism free me to follow my dreams, and for that I am so grateful.

Jane’s story

Jane Hughes, 57, from Devon, runs her own gardening business.

When Mollie was just 21 she called me from an expedition to the Himalayas to tell me one of her fellow climbers had died in a terrible accident. Hearing her voice shaking, all I wanted was to bring her home so I could wrap my arms around her. To be thousands of miles from your child when they’ve experienced something so deeply traumatic – and knowing she still had to get off the mountain safely – was agonising.

Waiting for her to fly home a few days later, the rest of the trip cancelled, I thought about the family whose child wasn’t coming back, the mother who had suffered such an unimaginable loss. My pain was nothing compared to hers, yet every time Mollie leaves for an adventure I know it could be me facing that grief next.

Every time I have to say goodbye, holding her at the airport, it’s impossible not to think, ‘Will this be the time she doesn’t come home?’ I have so much confidence in her abilities, but Mother Nature is so powerful and the terrains Mollie explores are lethal.

For the weeks before she leaves on one of her trips, I am caught up in the anticipation and it’s easy to be distracted from what she’s about to undertake. But as she walks away into Departures, while I try very hard to hold back my tears, I always fail. My pride and amazement in her can never extinguish my maternal worry.

Mollie in the Himalayas
Mollie in the Himalayas, 2014.

Despite the sleepless nights, I’ve never wished for Mollie to be less adventurous. This is who she is, and she’s had the same zest for life and deep curiosity since she was a little girl. With her head of blonde curls, she crawled early, walked at 11 months, and all my memories are of her storming around having fun and trying to copy everything her elder brother did.

As a teenager she was very sporty and I wasn’t surprised when she became interested in mountaineering. However, when your daughter announces she’s going to climb Everest, or ski alone to the South Pole, that’s very different.

Inevitably, I feel conflicted between my pride in her courage and wanting her to have these incredible experiences, but also an instinctive desire to protect her from the very real dangers I know she’ll face.

It’s surreal when I’m pottering away in my garden in Devon and I know Mollie is battling the elements in parts of the world few people ever get to see.

Her motivation is an internal desire for adventure and to see the world, as well as to inspire other women. She doesn’t care about praise or external validation – that’s not why she does it.

She had no idea, when she reached the summit of Everest for a second time, that she’d set a new record. Someone had to tell her on the way down.

That’s so typically Mollie.

Mollie and Jane in four

Describe each other.

Mollie: Supportive, fun, strong.

Jane: Brave, determined, kind.

Their worst habit?

Mollie: She eats very slowly.

Jane: Stealing my clothes when she comes to visit!

When you’re together…

Mollie: I can be myself with her.

Jane: She’s so uplifting to be around.

Your favourite memory of each other?

Mollie: Watching her run into the (freezing) sea in St Andrews on her 56th birthday.

Jane: Climbing Ben Lomond a few years ago, just the two of us.

As told to Eimear O’Hagan.