Just shy of 10 years ago, Mel McDermott was living the fast life in London. She spent her days hustling hard in retail, her free time frolicking in the city's most of-the-moment restaurants and bars, and the rest of her income on an ever-expiring wardrobe. Then, a serious mental health crisis led her to reassess her priorities and to change her life trajectory for good.
Today, she's a gregarious hiker, a Musto brand ambassador, a fully-fledged advocate of nature therapy and the founder of Galz Gone Wild, a hiking community and support group for women of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. Here, she opens up about her mental health struggles, the role that hiking has played in reconfiguring her life's path and shares the Musto hero products that enable her to get out into the mountains, whatever the weather.
How did you first get into hiking?
It's a bizarre story. I grew up in County Meath in Ireland. Since the age of 16, I'd worked in retail and, until the age of 23, that was how I envisioned my life panning out. I moved to London at 20 and spent three years running massive stores with huge teams of people. Despite being just a kid, I shouldered a lot of responsibility. It was a lot of pressure but I'm thankful for it on two counts. It both made me the empathetic leader I am today and led me to completely reconfigure my life's path. I found that there was no time or space to pause and reflect. I was constantly on the go, trying to keep up with everybody else.
In brief, I ended up suffering from massive burnout. I moved back home to Ireland where I was diagnosed with depression and put on medication for two years. My life had been all about getting handbags and new make-up and curly blow drys and eating out at fancy restaurants, but I realised none of it was bringing me happiness or joy.
Sometimes you have to take a step back to move forward…
Exactly. In order for you to clear your head and make sense of it all, you need that space. People find that space with a therapist or with friends or in the sea. I found it in the mountains. That's what happened. I'd become emotionally numb at this point, so I decided it was time for me to come off my medication. Instead, I'd focus on doing things that brought me joy.
In no time, I started a year-long photography course. Early on, my teacher asked me: "What kind of photographer do you want to be?" I'd just come across the work of adventure photographer Chris Burkard and decided that I wanted to take incredible photos like his.
"You'll have to get up into the mountains then," my teacher told me. So that's what I did. I joined the Dublin Mountains Partnership and started heading on hikes with them.
On one of the first few hikes, I remember stopping and looking around at the beautiful rolling hills. It was the first time I felt like I could actually breathe freely and wasn't thinking about what I was going to do next. I just felt this sense of ease, I guess. "I want to feel this feeling all of the time," I remember saying to myself. Then I started looking for other hiking groups to join.
Why did you start Galz Gone Wild?
I started it because I couldn't find it. The hiking groups I'd tried were male-dominated and quite focused on getting from point A to point B. I wanted to explore my connection to nature, to other people and with myself, but I just wasn't able to do that on these hikes. I couldn't find a community of women who went hiking. So, I did my mountain skills training and my first-aid training and then I put up a Facebook event. The rest is history.
Which three items would you put in a hiking starter kit?
- Musto's Evolution Performance Trouser 2.0. I hate to say it, but most women's hiking pants are terrible. They're either pretty colours or they're bland and fit poorly. These ones aren't bootcut, you know? They're fitted and tapered. They're also reinforced in the knee and in the bum, so you can clamber over rocks and climb trees if need be, safe in the knowledge that nothing's going to give way.
- And then, a beanie. It's funny, I love being outdoors but I hate being cold. In fact, I can't stand being cold. I'm miserable without my beanie. I was recently shooting with Musto in Scotland. We were wind-whipped and it rained constantly, but we were kitted out in Musto gear so we didn't care.
- And finally, perhaps the most ridiculous thing I own: a sit mat. It's just a piece of foam which you can roll up. I bring it with me everywhere and put it on the GGW kit list each week. I use it to stand on when I get out of the sea, to kneel on when I'm cooking and as a protector if I ever have to straddle barbed wire. I even put my thermos in it, for added insulation.
How is Galz Gone Wild different from other hiking groups?
We're described as a hiking group but hiking is such a small part of what we do. We always start our hikes gathering in a circle, and I invite everyone to express how they're feeling - how they're really feeling. I'll start by sharing any disheartening stuff I've had to deal with recently. Afterwards, it's like a domino effect; they all open up. Barriers are broken and we can all just get on with the hike. More than a hiking group, we're a support network.
I get the girls to connect with nature, too. I encourage them to pick up dirt or do cartwheels along the beach. Sometimes I tell them to go and hug a tree - to touch it, smell it, to talk to it. Trees are strong, they can take all of that energy that you have, whether negative or positive. Initially, people think, "what on earth is wrong with Mel? Is she going to make us actually hug a tree?" but then they do and they realise how therapeutic it can be. It's especially comforting at the moment, with so many people starved of physical connection.
Your favourite group hike so far?
Before lockdown, Galz Gone Wild would do surfing trips in Portugal, yoga trips in Ireland as well as mountain skills training and navigation workshops. Heck, we once even did a "paint and sip" by Glendalough Upper Lake where the girls drank prosecco and painted this beautiful landscape they'd just hiked. So, we've done all sorts of madness. The hikes that stick out for me are the ones where the weather is just awful. After those hikes, you can always see the girls have been re-energised and reborn.
Which one item do you take with you on every adventure, whatever the weather?
Whether I'm setting off for a sunrise swim or I'm heading into the mountains on a morning hike, my merino thermal base layers always come along with me for the ride. They're lightweight, quick-drying and take up no space either in my bag or when I'm wearing them under other pieces of kit.
What close-to-home adventures do you have planned this winter?
Adventure is relevant to your circumstances, I guess. I've been really getting into waymarked trails - they're basically long-distance trails in Ireland which can stretch from 36km to 600km. I'd hoped to walk the Bluestack Way in Donegal but that's been postponed for now. Ireland will hopefully come out of lockdown just before Christmas, in which case my partner and I have decided we'll camp out on Christmas eve and see the morning in with a sunrise swim. Of course, if Galz Gone Wild can get back to business, I'll be heading out on our usual hikes around Ireland.
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