My First Time: Extinction Training

In the Arctic, shrinking ice sheets are leaving polar bears starving, with nowhere to hunt. 7,000 miles south, Tokyo reels from its worst typhoon in 60 years. Extinction Rebellion protesters are staging a “die in” outside the New York Stock Exchange while on London’s Westminster Bridge, they’re locking arms in defiance of an approaching police line.

Two miles up the road at Gymbox, Farringdon, I’m hyperventilating through an asphyxiation mask that’s strapped to my face.

“It is the year 2050,” the gym trainer shouts, pacing down the row of panting participants, each of us looking like extras in a nuclear fallout dystopia. “Climate change has happened. Do not breathe too fast through your mask – you’ll choke.”

Gymbox is a London-based fitness company that cites “making sweating enjoyable” as its primary goal – and the flagship Farringdon branch goes all out to achieve that. A DJ spins Daft Punk from a booth by the treadmills, while low lighting and industrial design lend the boxing ring a gritty, steampunk vibe. It’s like a nightclub, if all misbehaviour was swapped for weight lifting and cross-training. No wonder London’s trendiest gym has been behind many of the capital’s quirkiest fitness ideas – from a CBD-enhanced stretch class called Cannabliss to Brexfit, in which participants attack a Boris Johnson-printed punchbag. It’s part of a city-wide yearning to ditch the dumbbells in favour of less-boring exercise: think parkour, pole dancing and circus training.

Gymbox’s latest brainchild, Extinction Training, is even more out there. Having launched in Farringdon this month, the hour-long HIIT class aims to emulate the worst-case-scenario of global warming: “scorching heat, restricted air, extreme conditions and lack of water”, according to the description online.

“The idea is that, if we carry on the way we are, this is what the world could be like in 2050,” says the company’s creative director, Rory McEntee. “We increase the temperature of the room to up to 34 degrees. You wear an asphyxiation mask to imagine a world where the air is so poor that you struggle to breathe. We want to raise awareness – all the exercises are based on science, like real rising temperature statistics.”

So far, so dramatic. I head into the class, my imagination whirring with apocalyptic images of barbed wire and contaminated water – as well as an internal debate about using the most pressing matter of our time, climate change, as a marketing tool. Is this a gimmick, or a genuine attempt to raise awareness of the consequences of inaction? We’re already plagued with eco-anxiety: 70% of the UK population wants dramatic governmental action, but we’re set to miss both our 2025 and 2030 targets for cutting emissions. Perhaps taking it out on some gym equipment could be helpful.

In groups of four, we undergo a series of 60-second exercises, from lunges to dumbbell curls, squats to ball slams. Some keep their asphyxiation masks on at all times, while the rest of us slip them on during the minute-long recovery after each set. It’s a well-devised workout, but I haven’t noticed the elevated heat, or thought much about melting icecaps, since the instructor’s brief introduction.

The second half of the class is more unusual. We crawl under a camouflage net into room two, where we each pick up a plastic water container, half-filled with liquid, and run across a squidgy mat as fast as we can (this part aims to draw attention to water shortages and create the sensation of running through water). We spend a minute each on a rowing machine and a spin bicycle, and push a metal frame in the path of an industrial-strength fan, which is meant to replicate the weather extremes of a hurricane. We’re each given a 125ml sachet of “emergency drinking water”, which everybody spills as they tear open the tricky packaging.

I leave with my heart-rate soaring and thigh muscles burning, but I’m not sure I’m any the wiser about climate change, which makes me question the class’s awareness-raising power.

“Our goal is to educate and inspire our members in our own Gymbox way, while giving them a really good workout,” says McEntee. “The feedback I’ve had from members is that it’s fun, and a bit of a wakeup call. The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive.”

When I hear that proceeds from Extinction Training go to Greenpeace, and the water sachets are recyclable, I agree. “We couldn’t put on this class without living and breathing the values behind it,” says McEntee. “It’s inspired the team to make sure we’re doing our bit, and we’ve changed to reusable bags and coffee cups as a result. These may be small things in the business, but we’re not perfect. We’re just asking, how can we inspire our members to make a little bit of a difference?”

The Gymbox social media hashtag is #AnythingGoes. When I first heard about Extinction Training, I cynically agreed. But stepping back out into the cool autumn night, I gaze at the trees and the London streetlights and realise that climate change is on my mind after all – but I’m so packed full of post-exercise endorphins that my eco-anxiety has been replaced by energy. This class isn’t a lecture or a protest, and it’s not meant to be. But if it slips climate change into our general consciousness just a tiny bit more – however vaguely – it’s surely done some good.

Conde Nast Traveler

Meet the woman recreating the journeys of history’s forgotten female explorers

By the time she was 16,400-feet high in the Himalayas, Elise Wortley had learned to deal with altitude sickness and blistered feet. She’d even gotten used to her uncomfortable leather boots slipping on the rocks as she picked her way between sheets of ice and tufts of coarse grass. But as the sun went down near Kangchenjunga basecamp—the third highest peak in the world—it was the extreme, bone-chilling temperature that nearly broke her.

“I’ll never forget that night,” says the 29-year-old Londoner. “It was -15 degrees Celsius and I had ice in my hair and all over my blanket. The ground was too wet to make a fire. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’”

Nowadays, trekkers in Thangu Valley are equipped with snow-proof tents and buttoned up in state-of-the-art clothing to protect them from the harsh conditions that characterize that strip of northern India. Not so for Wortley. In 2017, she embarked on a journey that she’d been dreaming of since age 16, when she read a book that changed her life: My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Néel. Published in 1927, the autobiography charts the French female explorer’s 14-year expedition to Tibet, between 1911 and 1925. She traveled overland across Europe before finally reaching the town of Lachen in Sikkim, a northern region of India that juts out between Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. Making the region her home for four years, it was from there that she first caught a glimpse of Tibet and vowed to enter it, eventually making it over the border by disguising herself as a beggar. Entry was forbidden for foreigners at the time, and it was unthinkable for a solo European woman to embark on such a journey alone.

“Women just didn’t do things like that,” Wortley says. “When I was a teenager I was shy and I dealt with extreme anxiety for years. The fact that she’d done this epic voyage fascinated me. I always had this inkling that maybe I could follow in her footsteps, but at the time, I was so anxious, I struggled to get on the bus.”

Part self-funded and part-funded by travel company Exodus, for whom she was working at the time, Wortley set off for Sikkim in 2017. An avid traveler, both personally and professionally, it wasn’t her first trip to India (she had already traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, Senegal and South Africa), but it was certainly her most adventurous. Joined by camerawoman Emily Almond Barr and local female mountain guide Jangu, Wortley recreated a portion of David-Néel’s journey from regional capital Gangtok to Kangchenjunga on the Tibetan border, covering some 435 miles by foot in a month-long trek. Keen to recreate David-Néel’s experience to the full, she made a mad-cap pledge to only take with her the equipment available to the French explorer in the 1920s. She traded in all modern-day comforts (minus emergency medical supplies) for a yak wool coat, rubber-soled boots, and a wooden backpack that she’d fashioned from an old chair, some rope, and an Indian wicker basket that she bought from a market in Gangtok.

“I went the whole hog. I had 1920s underwear—a cotton bra and high-waisted pants, and a woolen undergarment that was so itchy,” Wortley says. “The ropes on my backpack rubbed a lot, I had scabs on my shoulders. But I had to know how it felt to do it that way. The journeys of female explorers were way more hardcore than for their male counterparts. It was much more dangerous [for them] and they had to deal with the physical elements but also their periods, and even having to hide the fact they were women.”

Despite the decades separating their adventures, it wasn’t just the old-school underwear that aligned Wortley’s experience with David-Néel’s. “The scenery that she describes so beautifully in the book hasn’t changed. Mountains don’t change, not in 100 years anyway,” she says. “And she writes about how any house she passed welcomed her in, as they do now. You have a Tibetan tea with salt and butter, you have a chat even though no one knows what anyone’s saying.”

Wortley and her small team had to stop short of Lhasa due to similar difficulties in entering Tibet today, but the experience inspired her to celebrate other female explorers of the past. She pledged to continue to undertake expeditions to other extreme terrains explored and catalogued by intrepid women, under the name Woman With Altitude, in 2017.

“There are so many women like this and they’re not household names, but they should be,” Wortley says. “Annie Smith Peck was the first person to climb the north peak of the Huascarán in Peru. Ursula Graham Bower left England for India and ended up marrying the chief of the Naga tribe. And no one knows about her! The only problem is that it’s hard to find much written about explorers that aren’t white and European. But I’ve found some warrior queens and Tibetan nuns that I’m looking into.”

While Wortley’s main aim is to celebrate the achievements of historical female explorers, there’s a charitable element to her expeditions, too. “Because the project is woman-based, I wanted to help women in the areas I’m going to in some way,” she says. As part of the Himalayan project, she raised £2,500 ($3,000) for the charity Freedom Kit Bags, which provides girls in rural Nepal with reusable bags of sanitary products.

When we spoke, Wortley was preparing for her second trip (which she has since completed), following in the footsteps of Scottish explorer Nan Shepherd, who scaled the six highest peaks in the Cairngorm Mountains and catalogued it in her book The Living Mountain. Written in the 1940s but not published until 1977, it’s now considered a masterpiece of poetic non-fiction.

“It was written when people were racing to be the first people to scale peaks,” Wortley says. “She was into Taoism and saw it in the water, rocks, the sky, and the air. She wrote this about seeing the mountain as a whole.” Mostly alone, Wortley wandered between the peaks and lochs of the Cairngorm National Park for three weeks, equipped with a wartime gas cooker, a canvas tent, and old-school food supplies—mostly potatoes, cheese, and eggs. Part-sponsored by Wilderness Scotland, she was raising money for Scottish Women’s Aid and hopes to use these two projects to pitch a television series to fund forthcoming expeditions.

Wortley’s adventures are all the more impressive when you consider how alien the concept felt to her at the beginning. “Five years ago, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t even get on a bus,” she says. “But I could read Alexandra David-Néel and think, if she managed to leave Europe on her own and do this, I’m sure I can get on the Tube. I just want to make people more aware of these women, so they can inspire others.”

Conde Nast Traveler

Meet the world’s longboarding women

When Valeria Kechichian started longboarding in Madrid in 2008, there were just three other women in her crew. It represented freedom; an escape from a soul-crushing job as a secretary in a law firm and a self-destructive spiral of partying. ‘It was this very pure kind of joy,’ she says. ‘It completed me somehow.’ Still, when she first stood on a board in the Spanish capital, people would ‘turn their heads and look at me as if I was doing something weird’.

It’s fair to say that Argentinian-born Kechichian’s gang has grown a bit. Longboard Girls Crew (LGC), which she co-founded in 2010, now claims to be the world’s biggest action-sports community, with 233,400 Facebook followers and counting, and representatives in 70 countries. With some of its videos being viewed as many as 3.6 million times on YouTube, the group has ignited an international scene built on female empowerment and dreamy images of cruising golden-hour open roads. Kechichian has become the global face of it all, launching and partnering with NGOs, giving TEDx Talks and motivating Nike ambassadors and Facebook employees with the free-wheeling gospel.

The sport was invented in Hawaii in the 1950s, when surfers started customising skateboards with bigger wheels and looser trucks to make them more like surfboards. These Hawaiian pioneers would drive up volcanoes and glide down, carving S-shaped turns as if on a peeling wave. Over the years, longboarders developed tricks and started speeding down hills at more than 90mph – but the primary appeal has always been a certain languorous elegance; a free-spirited surfer vibe, more at home in nature than gritty skateboarding. There’s a scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, of Ben Stiller whizzing alone through the mossy Icelandic landscape, grinning at the wild freedom of it all.

That spirit is central to the movement, which includes all kinds of women across the world. In Nice, Marina Corrêa spins along the old boardwalk, flicking her dreadlocks to a reggaeton soundtrack. Seoul freestyle longboarder Ko Hyojoo (pictured below) is the queen of a flourishing Korean community, dancing on her board in cute knee-high socks to the tune of 568,000 Instagram followers and partnerships with Chanel and Gucci. Chinese boarder Mu Qing skates through Chengdu in a hoodie and Vans, filmed by a friend on a smartphone for her 500,000 followers on the Douyin video app. In Malaysia, Fatin Amalina whooshes between Kuala Lumpur’sshiny skyscrapers in a hijab.

The riding styles are as diverse as the women. On the Venice Beach Boardwalk, Natalie Pluto (pictured below) is part of a small band of balletic freestylers, doing kick-flips and shove-its as she weaves among the tourists. Based in Virginia, Emily Pross, who styles herself ‘the Prossecutor’, wears a shiny black speed suit and aerodynamic helmet to beat the men in downhill races – her speed record is 83.88mph. All of them are celebrated on the LGC social feeds, from the cruisers to the leather-clad competitors posting under the #girlscanride hashtag.

The group had its Endless Summer moment in 2011, with a film of seven women road-tripping across Spain and the Balearics in a red VW camper van, riding their boards through white-stone villages and down sun-flared roads overlooking limestone cliffs. Endless Roads, the result of this 2,670-mile journey, became a clarion call for a certain type of female-powered adventure, with 1.4 million views on YouTube. ‘It was more rare for something to go viral back then,’ says Kechichian. ‘But our video was suddenly everywhere. It resonated with women who thought, “Hey, we can do this.” It started a global movement.’

One of the people who watched Endless Roads on repeat was a teenage Valeriya Gogunskaya (pictured above), who lived in the forested Finnish city of Kuopio. ‘It just looked super-cool,’ she says. ‘I used to roller-skate, and I gave my skates to a friend in exchange for his longboard. I downloaded some YouTube tutorials and started cruising.’ A year later, Gogunskaya moved to Santa Cruz, a beach town north of Lisbon, with hopes of finding other skaters: ‘There was just one guy there at the time. I was always whining to my boyfriend that there was no one to skate with. He said, “Why don’t you start something?”’ Inspired by LGC, Gogunskaya organised a meet-up in 2017 at Praia de Santa Cruz’s white-stone-balustered platform, which looks out over the hazy, rocky coastline. To her surprise, around 30 people showed up – almost all of them female. She launched a skate camp, Longboarding Days and Nights, and single-handedly sparked a scene in Santa Cruz, where many are now women in their 30s and 40s.

Gogunskaya practises most evenings, carving wide turns and hanging 10 like the old-school surfers. Just as Kechichian used longboarding as a form of therapy, Gogunskaya applied her passion to face down her own challenges. ‘I began when I was struggling with bulimia,’ she says. ‘It helped me relax, nurture self-love and respect my body again. I just want to share that chance with other people, especially women.’

But while Gogunskaya and Kechichian have both used longboarding as a way to process their issues, behind it all is still that simple, joyous feeling of gliding along a road: ‘When I’m skating, that’s all that matters,’ says Kechichian. ‘Me, my board and the road. It creates some sort of magic, a bubble where nothing else matters… You feel like you rule the world.’


My first time: learning to strut

I’m staring at my own face in the mirror, and wondering if I’ve ever truly done it before. Taking in the curve of my eyebrows, the shape of my jaw; noticing my dimples and the pinprick scar on my nose. I’m struggling to remember the last time I contemplated my reflection without seeing it through a prism of self-judgement.

“I am beautiful,” Madam Storm cries, and I repeat it after her. “I am enough. I am a woman. I am here.”

I’d signed up to the STRUT masterclass expecting to learn how to walk in heels like a boss, but things just got real. Female confidence coach Madam Storm uses six-inch stilettos as a tool to get women not just strutting their stuff, but owning their space – physically and psychologically. In Vauxhall’s BASE dance studios, 30 of us – from our early 20s to middle age, and from all walks of life – are sizing up our fishnet stocking-clad, stilettoed selves in the floor-to-ceiling mirror. We’re starting to realise that really, really looking at yourself (in any context that doesn’t involve make-up brushes and spanx) is not an easy thing to do. But then again, neither is sultrily sauntering towards a group of strangers, running your fingers through your hair and over your waist in a manner you’d possibly not even attempt in your own bedroom.

STRUT is one of a growing number of London-based empowerment classes of this kind. Pineapple Dance Studios have their own popular strut class (Strutology) while, on a similar tack, Ruby Rare runs sex-positive workshops for grown-ups. Tantra Dating and partnered yoga are also gaining popularity. London’s getting sexier, and exploring the idea that owning your sensuality means more than giving your sex life a boost.

Not many people would be able to get me to publicly perform a sexy catwalk. But within the first five minutes of STRUT, it’s clear that Madam Storm has a special gift for creating a safe, empowering environment that glows with sisterhood. We stand in a circle and introduce ourselves, clapping reassuringly at each other’s backstories. One woman has just begun chemotherapy. Another is going through a bad break up. Others are there to celebrate a birthday. All are just as keen to support each other as Madam Storm is.

“In this class, we don’t say ‘yes’,” our teacher begins, dressed in a black leotard, over-the-knee velvet boots and a jaunty trilby. “We say ‘YAAASSSS, HONEY’.”

Over the next three hours, we learn six different ‘struts’ – styles of walking in heels that get progressively racier. Madam Storm eases us in with the ‘power strut’. “Every day when you walk out of the house, you’re on stage,” she tells us. “So put your phone away and own it. Core engaged, shoulders back, tits UP.”

We do just that, before learning variations: walking with our hands firmly planted on our waists, or swaying our hips for a sassier effect. It all comes with positive affirmations, led by Madam Storm, to a Beyoncé backing track. “I am powerful!” I shout as I stride towards my reflection, all hips, heels and hair flicks. “I am perfect.” I’m well aware of how hard I’d cringe saying these things in any other context – and increasingly aware of how that might be a problem.

We take a prosecco break halfway through, before things are taken up a notch. We repeat positive affirmations to our mirror reflections before trying out more seductive struts, which involve slowly running our hands over our necks, hips and thighs as we walk.

“The first thing you need to do to turn someone else on, is to turn yourself on,” says Madam Storm. “Don’t be afraid to touch yourself.” “I’m not!” shouts out one of the strutters, to much hilarity. Together, we explore our more sensual sides to soulful RnB, each woman’s strut met with enthusiastic whoops of applause.

But there’s one final challenge before we can kick off our stilettos (and we’re all starting to feel the burn). Madam Storm grabs a megaphone and, in pairs, we power strut outside to the Albert Embankment. A trio of drunk, older men leer at us from the next-door Wetherspoons, but there’s power in numbers and not one of us bats an eyelid. “What other people think of me is NONE OF MY BUSINESS!” we scream, in unison. Madam Storm holds the megaphone to my lips and I call out, “I am powerful,” into the grey, drizzly breeze. I’m finally starting to believe it. And I’m not the only one.

“Today has been really empowering,” says one strutter as we arrive back at the studio. “This is my third time going through breast cancer and looking at yourself in the mirror is really difficult. It’s not something you do when you have a cancer diagnosis.”

It’s a sentiment shared by others in the room. “I’ve had a lot of surgery and through that process I felt like I’d become disengaged with my femininity,” says another participant. “This is getting me back in touch with who I am.”

It takes courage to walk tall, especially in the face of life’s most earth-shattering curveballs. My afternoon at STRUT has left me in awe of the strength shown by these women. In their honour, I keep my heels on, and power strut to the Tube to begin my Saturday night. Shoulders back, core engaged, tits up. What other people think of me is none of my business.

Follow Madam Storm on Eventbrite here to be the first to know when more tickets go on sale.