Janey McGill is an adventurer, endurance athlete and former soldier. In 2010 while in military service, a broken back, a brush with death and a miraculous recovery completely turned her life on its head and left her with an insatiable desire to explore and experience as much as possible. I talked to Janey about her recovery, her 630 mile Sunflowers for Soldiers walk, sexism in the adventure industry and her upcoming trek across Oman’s Empty Quarter desert.
Janey, how did the accident change your life?
It starts before the accident. I was in an office job, training to be a lawyer, and I was bored out of my mind. So I went thrill seeking. I had joined the Territorial Army with a view – no, a desperate need – to joining the Army Legal Service. So that (a) I could use the legal skills my dad had very generously paid for, and (b) have the adventure and the lifestyle all rolled up into one.
So the army was a massive driver for me and I was desperate to join. I asked my Commanding Officer if I could represent my Regiment in the Royal Artillery Gold Cup, which is a military horse jump race for amateur jockeys. I’d been riding since I was a kid.
I got permission and I started riding out on Epsom Downs. Then one morning my dad came with me and I had this accident. He blamed himself because he thought I was showing off. I wasn’t. I was just glad he was there because he probably saved my life and without doubt from being paralysed.
And then it was a long slow process. Just before the accident I had applied to the Army Legal Service but it was 2010 and the recession had hit so they weren’t recruiting for the foreseeable future. So what I had been working towards for four years had just been taken away. And then I broke my back which was the nail in the coffin.
At the same time all this was happening, my best mate was looking to set up an art gallery and I thought, well if I can’t join the army, maybe I can put my legal qualifications to use in horse racing – regulation or something like that.
We got our heads together and decided to open an art gallery that went to the races. We bought an old furniture lorry and converted it into a travelling art gallery and drove it round the countryside going to racing festivals. After a few years I got to the stage where I didn’t really want to be part of the partnership anymore. I had my own ideas and thoughts and they were being hindered by another person and their own ideas and thoughts, so I left and went off to do my own thing.
When I left I was really, really lost because the gallery had papered over the cracks of not joining the army. It filled a massive void. I felt very guilty about having not gone to Afghanistan with all my friends. I felt terrible, and to try and plug that gap I did this walk around the South West Coast Path.
After a bit of research and digging, it turned out that all the numbers added up – the South West Coast path was 630 miles and the number of soldiers that had been severely wounded in Afghanistan was 616 so I thought OK maybe I could do something every mile.
I was toying with the idea of oak trees and planting saplings but that would have been a bit of a logistical nightmare. But then sunflowers – it had quite a nice ring to it. Sunflowers for Soldiers. A little pack of sunflower seeds isn’t going to take up a lot of room. So that’s what I did.
It was for a charity called Horseback UK which rehabilitates wounded servicemen with the use of horses and horse therapy. I had seen something on the World Horse Welfare website – a Royal Marine talking about what horses have done for him. One thing he said that really stood out is “I’ve got a psychologist, and I pay them in hay and water.” It’s so true. For me it’s dogs, horses not so much now.
After I broke my back I got a dog – Stubbs – and she brought me along leaps and bounds. She gave me so much confidence. And I had to learn to bend over to pick her up so she didn’t wee on the carpet. I was doing a lot more than I thought I was capable of and that’s one reason why I’m so grateful for that accident. It made me realise how much I can do. I thought if I can get over that, I can pretty much do anything.
What I realise now is that I have this insatiable urge to test myself and to constantly learn and absorb anything and everything. It’s actually a common thing; apparently it’s called post-traumatic growth. Quite often after a big trauma you muster strength from somewhere to do big things, to push yourself.
So your accident was the push you needed to get out there and do these big adventures?
There’s no doubt I was always quite adventurous, I get that from my father. But the accident gave me that additional edge. When I joined the army I would push myself but I wouldn’t really push myself. And now I do.
I had a little brush with death and now I don’t want to leave any stone unturned. I want to experience as much as I possibly can. In a way that’s a strength and a weakness, because I do have the confidence to try pretty much anything. I can turn my hand to most things and do OK at it, but I just don’t have the longevity with it. I don’t have the desire to stay with something, because there’s always something else to do and another box to tick. And I wonder whether that might be down to being afraid of death and afraid of not making the most of the time I have. And not stagnating. I just feel like we’ve always got to move forward.
After your accident you went through this incredible recovery period. At the time did you expect you would recover to the extent you did?
I didn’t think about it. Even when I was in hospital I had no clue what was going to happen. My dad said to me if I had been paralysed from the neck down he would have preferred me to die. Because he didn’t want me to live like that. But if I had been paralysed from the waist down, then I would have cracked on and done something with my life.
And this is the thing with post-traumatic growth and this is why it interests me so much. You look at the soldiers who have lost limbs, or people who have been paralysed and they go on to do the most remarkable things. And this raises the question – would they have achieved such remarkable things if it weren’t for that accident/injury?
A chap I went to university with broke his back on a skiing trip and then he went on to ski for Britain in the Paralympics. Now would he rather have been able to walk and gone on to be – I don’t know – a marketing executive, or is he glad that he broke his back and went on to ski for Britain and now commentates on the telly? That probably wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t broken his back. And I might not have done half of the things I’ve done if it wasn’t for breaking my back.
But not everyone overcomes trauma in the same way you did. It could have gone completely the opposite way.
I’ve thought about that too. And I am, and always have been, default positive. My glass is always half full – it’s very rare that it’s not. Yes I can get down, of course I can. But I just suck it up and look on the bright side. There’s always a bright side no matter how shit things are.
I think something like this always gives you a push – but whether it pushes you forward or backwards very much depends on your default character.
People deal with things in different ways. Everyone has different experiences that shape their views and how they react to things.
What advice would you give to someone who has gone through a trauma and been pushed in the opposite direction?
Embrace it, learn from it and learn how to apply that knowledge – which is I suppose what I’m trying to do. But it’s also patience. I’m very impatient but with some things you just have to suck it up.
What’s the story behind your upcoming expedition to walk across Oman?
The Middle-East has always fascinated me. After my accident I went to my regimental ball – I didn’t want to go but my friend bullied me into it so I went along. I’d only had the metal work taken out a couple of weeks earlier so I was still a bit poorly. I met this chap who was in the SAS and it was all so exciting and romantic – I love a fairytale. And he pulled a little spearhead out of his wallet. He told me it was from the Empty Quarter – he’d lived in Saudi Arabia for 2 years. And I was fascinated.
He was going through some struggles of his own – a bit of PTSD perhaps – and I was a bit of relief for him, a bit of sunshine. And he decided to take me on holiday to the Middle-East – Oman.
So we went away and it was a wonderful trip. It’s very safe there and we had a road trip and went camping … relationship didn’t last but that’s OK too! He went into the shadows.
I knew that I was going to go back to Oman and end up in the Empty Quarter at one time or another. It was just a matter of having the confidence to dive into it. And that confidence only came through doing the walks that I’d done and the challenges that I’d set myself. These things just weren’t hard enough for me and so I thought “OK, the most inhospitable place on the Earth – I’ll give that a go!”
I did some research and it turned out that no girl had ever crossed the Empty Quarter … well, walked it north to south – crossing it means going over Saudi Arabia but I can’t do that.
Because of your military background?
Yes, I was advised that if I had a military background I wouldn’t get permission and it would be too dangerous.
But Oman and Britain have a really close relationship which people don’t really know about. The British Army really helped out the Sultan of Oman in the rebellion. And the relationship is important on a global scale because of the shipping of all the oil through the Sea of Oman. At the northern point, there’s only a tiny thoroughfare for the ships carrying the oil. That relationship needs to be maintained and nurtured.
The army presence and history in Oman is a big thing for me. It really makes me warm for it, and the sand dunes are just magical. It’s romance.
I don’t think everyone would see it that way.
No! I do though. It is so romantic.
And so the plan is walk south to north up the Empty Quarter desert which is about 600 miles. And this will be all on foot, because that’s where the need for endurance and physical exertion comes in.
The tour will start at the site of the Battle of Mirbat, near Salalah, where there are lots of defensive lines built back in the 70s which I’d quite like to explore. And then it’ll take me down to the southernmost point, to the border with Yemen and from there I’ll snake my way up to the start of the Empty Quarter … if there is a start to it – I think it’s a movable dynamic.
After that I’ll cross the salt plains and head into the Hajar mountain range, where there was another SAS battle in Jebel Akhdar – the Green Mountain. And it will finish at the easternmost point of the Middle-East at Ras Al Hadd, which is where the sun rises on the Middle-East. And that will conclude the not-such-a-whistle-stop tour of Oman.
What are you trying to achieve with this walk?
There are several objectives for this walk:
- To explore and highlight the special and important relationship that we have with Oman. There will be a particular focus on our historic and current military commitments.
- To physically test myself by walking the length of the Empty Quarter, potentially the most inhospitable place on earth, and the mountain ranges in the North and South of the country.
- To investigate human relationships in Oman.
Currently, through my research, it doesn’t appear that a girl has walked the length of the Empty Quarter. That is not the reason for this expedition. I want to test myself and this is just my way of doing it. If this has the additional benefit of encouraging and inspiring others – men, women and children – then this is a wonderful result.
What are your thoughts on equality in adventure travel?
The adventure arena does seem male-dominated, I don’t see that as a problem or a barrier to entry, anyone who has the gumption to get out the front door deserves respect. There aren’t many girls on building sites – that doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed, it’s just not as common. That said, scanning social media there are girls doing all sorts of exciting, dangerous and notable journeys.
Beyond this trip, I am fascinated by the interaction between girls and boys at home and abroad – gender roles, stereotypes etc. Is the picture that is painted in the press true, or is there a little more to it? On this particular trip I would like to get a feel for how it is in the flesh in one small part of the Middle East. That doesn’t just go for male-female relationships; it’s all relationships, the culture and the traditions which are so different to my own, how I am perceived and welcomed (or not). I’ve read a couple of books by Middle-Eastern women and had several conversations and I’m intrigued to see the “reality” in situ with my own eyes.
It’s very easy for us to make judgements and sweeping statements on what we think we know about and measure it against our own standards. I’m guilty of this too.
A question that quite often enters my mind is when does challenging discrimination actually result in discrimination? I have been a victim of this “us and them” culture in the past and it’s very frustrating. In my opinion there is a very fine balance to strike and I also believe that we, as humans, tend to be discriminatory in one way or another without even realising it, which doesn’t help. Equally we should be glad of our differences and make use of our strengths and weaknesses together.
Clearly things have moved on but we still have a long way to go to reach equality. But we are collectively and individually consistently evolving together. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
You can learn more about Janey’s story and follow her Empty Quarter expedition on her website.