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
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
“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
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
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
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