Kendal Mountain Festival 2023 celebrates adventure for all

Frustration at the lack of plus-size outdoor clothing and a feeling that people her size are unwelcome in the outdoors led Steph Wetherell to launch Every Body Outdoors last year.

The Instagram page she set up with four women whom she’d met online clocked up 1,000 followers in its first 24 hours. “We realised there were so many larger-bodied people who didn’t feel comfortable in the outdoor space – they’d had bad experiences perhaps, or struggled to find suitable gear. We wanted to create a community to show that people of all sizes can enjoy outdoor activities, from cycling to swimming, hiking or climbing. There’s a lot of us out there.”

As well as fighting for brands to make clothing and kit for bigger bodies (it’s particularly limited over size 18) and to be properly represented in advertising and the media, Every Body Outdoors organises regular walks and events, and runs weekend courses on hill skills and mountain adventures. “It’s been amazing to see how finding a community changes lives,” said Steph.

A talk by charity Black Trail Runners in Kendal
A talk by charity Black Trail Runners in Kendal Photograph: Mark Battista

We were talking at last weekend’s Kendal Mountain Festival, an annual event that turns the Cumbrian market town into a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, film-makers, authors, activists and outdoor brands every November. The UK’s biggest adventure festival – first held back in 1980 – screened 180 films (features and shorts), hosted 150 speakers and ran activities from a 10km trail run for 1,000 people to “climbing with heroes” sessions and mountain rescue events.

Big-name explorers such as Levison Wood, and Olympic and Paralympic athletes including Sir Bradley Wiggins shared their inspiring tales, but the topic of community, accessibility and diversity in the outdoor world was high on the agenda.

“Inclusivity is key, and this year more than ever we have speakers from a wide range of under-represented groups,” said festival CEO Jacqui Scott. “The films and talks touch on important topics, from mental health to outdoor access for those with disabilities. We also keep what we can free and have events for local school kids too, to make things accessible for everyone.”

Stage for talk by Kristin Hamila
The programme of talks included one by climber Kristin Hamila

There was a buzz in the air as festival-goers flitted between screenings, talks, music and parties, held at venues across town and a main “basecamp” hub. Everything from wild swimming to caving, snowsports to mountain biking, ultra-running to stand-up paddleboarding features. I loved hearing Norwegian climber Kristin Harila discuss her record-breaking expedition to summit 14 of the world’s 8,000-metre peaks, and Nepalese double amputee Hari Budha Magar on climbing Everest. The festival’s patron, nature writer Robert MacFarlane, joined folk singer Sam Lee and others to weave a magical evening of words and music inspired by nature. And inspiring author talks included TV presenter Louise Minchin on “fearless” women and writer Allie Mason on travelling with autism.

At basecamp I caught Haroon Mota, founder of Muslim Hikers, talking about challenges faced by minority communities, and Amira Patel, founder of the Wanderlust Women, on her adventures and encouraging Muslim women outdoors. Opening Up the Outdoors, a collective of outdoor brands and experts, discussed its mission to promote inclusivity.

Adventure Queens, a hugely popular non-profit women’s adventure community group, ran hikes, and groups working to help those with mental health issues and physical disabilities access the wild also had time on the stage, along with environmental campaigners.

“There’s been an explosion of diverse community groups working in the outdoors over recent years, partly because of lockdown and movements like Black Lives Matter,” said Soraya Abdel-Hadi, founder of All the Elements, a non-profit supporting those increasing diversity in the outdoors. “It’s great to see more varied representation at the festival.”

Events included a 10km run around Kendal
Events included a 10km run around Kendal

Film remains at the heart of the festival, but for those who couldn’t travel to Cumbria, many can be seen via the festival’s Kendal Mountain Player. And a UK tour will take selected films around the country from January to June next year. This year’s winners included Franklin, an environmentalist’s tale of solo rafting through the Australian rainforest; Adra, a short about the climbing community in Llanberis; and If the Streets Were on Fire, about BikeStormz, a movement created by social activist Mac Ferrari-Guy to help London kids escape knife violence.

Before I left I attended a talk by the non-profit WeTwo foundation, which takes underprivileged youth on life-changing adventures. Hearing the teenagers talk about the impact a trip to Antarctica had on their lives was powerful and moving – reinforcing the festival’s wider message of the outdoors as both challenger and healer.

“We use mountains as a metaphor,” said Scott. “The mountain is your challenge whatever it might be, from climbing Everest to an urban run. We just want to engage people and show that everyone can overcome challenges, explore the wild and find joy in the outdoors. Adventure is for all of us.”

The trip was provided by Kendal Mountain festival, whose 2024 event runs 21-24 November (tickets on sale next summer). The UK tour runs from January to June in more than 40 venues. Train tickets from London to Kendal were supplied by Visit England

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