“Something suddenly went boom,” recalls Phoebe Smith, adventurer, extreme sleeper and nominee for Pioneer of the Year in this year’s Everywoman in Travel Awards.
She was suspended above the mouth of Gaping Gill in Yorkshire at the time, with nothing between her and the ground, 98 metres below, but a memory foam mattress. “I honestly thought it was all over.”
The boom turned out to be just a twinge in one of the supporting struts. But, in that moment, the prospect of dying in her sleep – often touted as the gentlest way to go – became a terrifying, blood-curdling reality.
It wasn’t the first time Smith had injected a healthy shot of adrenaline into her bedtime routine. She is an ‘extreme sleeper’, after all.
It all started when she became the first person to sleep at each of mainland Britain’s most extreme points. Then followed an ‘Extreme Sleepout’ which involved dangling like a bauble from Clifton Suspension Bridge, among other treasured landmarks. Later she spent Christmas zig-zagging up and down the Three Peaks, sleeping at the top of each.
And last year she passed up her turkey dinner again to walk Hadrian’s Hundred in full Wonder Woman costume, hunkering down in ditches en route. “I wore the costume on BBC breakfast afterwards,” she says. “I had to apologise for the smell but I’m sure I’ll be getting it out again.”
For Smith, the act of bedding down for the night is about much more than just an adventurous travel experience. It’s about highlighting the plight of young homeless people who are forced to sleep rough, sticking it to those who say women shouldn’t travel alone, and proving that Britain is more extreme than most people think. “It’s a tremendous privilege to have carved out a career from sleeping,” she admits. “And also slightly bonkers”.
Her diary today reads like a travelogue, but the origins are rather unremarkable. “I’d just come back from travelling in Canada and Australia,” she recalls. “I didn’t have much time or money but I wanted an adventure. The obvious thing to do was to go outside, to go for a walk. Then I figured that if you sleep somewhere it feels like a bit more of an adventure.”
The pull was compulsive, she says. “I was attracted to finding these locations that no one can pinpoint on a map for you. It was like going on a treasure hunt. And then I tried pushing it for longer and longer periods of time and eventually I wrote my book, Extreme Sleeps”. And just like that, she became a self-proclaimed wild camping addict, published author and an official authority on sleeping out. Through her various excursions she’s raised tens of thousands of pounds for youth homeless charity, Centrepoint.
Despite her good intentions, when her book was published in 2013, hostility came thick and fast from a particular subsection of the web who perceived her outdoors adventures not only as boastful but fake, too. “She couldn’t survive without her makeup bag,” tweeted one such keyboard warrior. “It is so ridiculous,” jokes Smith. “I rarely wear makeup anyway”.
“Rather than putting me off,” she continues, “they just made me feel like there was even more of a reason to do it.”
Activism and adventure are closely intertwined for Smith who is also an ambassador for the Big Canopy Campout - an annual rainforest sit-in, of sorts - and frequently covers environmental issues through her work as a contributing editor at Wanderlust magazine. “The power of storytelling makes people care about places, people and wildlife which in turn makes them want to protect it,” she says.
Next year, she and fellow adventurer Dwayne Fields are taking a group of under-privileged young adults to Antarctica on the founding mission of their #WeTwo project.
Their aims are two-fold. Both feel a need to rebalance the landscape of adventure travel, which they perceive to be overwhelmingly white, male and rich. And, as frequent travellers themselves, they’re both hyper-aware of the role travel plays in literalising important but abstract concepts like climate change and species displacement.
“The more you travel, the more you realise how everything is connected and all of these things are happening all over the world,” she muses. “As a society, our primary concern is, ‘how does this benefit me now?’ And actually the world would be a much better place if we started asking, ‘how will this benefit people seven generations down the line?’”
We can start by demystifying the idea of the vulnerable, solo female traveller, she says. “If something were to happen to me, I just know the narrative that would be played. ‘Lone female backpacker gets attacked’”, she says. “Anything that perpetuates that myth of women being more unsafe than men is absolutely ridiculous and something that we’ve got to change”.
The sense of frustration in Smith’s voice is almost tangible. She’s not naive to the difficulties faced by solo female travellers, but she hasn’t let them impede her ambition. What does she say to those who argue the world’s too dangerous an environment for women travelling alone?
“Life is a risk. Getting out of bed is a risk. It’s about adventuring with purpose”.
The 2019 everywoman in Travel Awards is now open for nominations and the search is on for the industry’s most remarkable and trail blazing women. Entries are free and can be completed at https://www.everywoman.com/events-awards/2019-everywoman-travel-awards, before the deadline of 6th July.