IF anyone knows what it means to go through difficult, dark times and “push edges”, as she puts it, it’s rock climber and ice swimmer Gilly McArthur. Not only has she been through the trauma of losing a child, her daughter, Elsie, stillborn at 41 weeks, but six months later, whilst climbing with her husband in Utah, she slipped. “I was at the top of the route. I went to put a piece of gear above my head in this crack that I was climbing, at about 90ft up. The rock is sandstone, and so dusty, and my foot slipped. I had fair bit of rope out and fell. All of my gear held but I fell about 20ft.”

On the way down she hit a ledge and bounced off the rockface. She knew immediately she had done something bad. She recalls that she screamed. “The rescue,” she describes, while sitting in the sunlit calm of an Edinburgh cafe, “was quite long and when they put me onto a spine board, and I knew I’d broken my back.” All the while too, she was thinking of her best friend who had died the previous year in a climbing accident. He had had some swelling below the ribs, but had thought he was okay, and said cheerio to his girlfriend, before going off to the hospital to get, she says, patched up. An hour later he died from internal bleeding.

“I thought I’m okay now, but maybe this is going to just go like that.”

Such is her approach to life, that she was already, even then, trying to mentally frame what had happened in the best way she possibly could. “I was thinking climbing has been just a great bedfellow for me that I don’t want this to be an endpoint for my climbing. I want to frame this in a positive way, thinking, 'I’m going to come back and I’m going to climb here again.' So right from the point I had this accident I wanted to not see this as something that was big and dark.”

It turned out she had broken her back and several ribs, and, while she was recovering in a spine unit, she recalls, "I kept thinking that having gone through everything with Elsie, this wasn’t so bad. It’s rubbish. However I’m really lucky aa I could have so easily have been injured far worse.”

McArthur, originally from Aberdeen, continues to be a passionate climber and is one of the key organisers of the Women’s Trad Festival in the Lake District, originally inspired by an international women’s climbing event that had happened in North Wales. In its fourth year, it aims to bring women into what’s called trad climbing – the kind of outdoor rock climbing, using ropes, and gear which is placed into the rock to protect a fall. It's the original form of climbing and quite the opposite to the indoor version of the sport.

“With trad climbing,” she says, “you’re putting your own pieces of gear into a rock face and you have to analyse the risk, the changing weather conditions and physicality of the climb."

While there are already a lot of women doing indoor climbing – it’s a sport with near-parity between men and women, and inspiring female icons like world bouldering champion, Shauna Coxsey – trad climbing isn't yet so gender-balanced. The festival, she says, is all about bridging that gap, and helping women to get outside, connect with climbing partners and, she says, “push their edges or look at their boundaries a bit.""It's about fun though, in however way you want to trad climb."

“You can be a total beginner,” she says. “You don’t need to even have actually climbed before. Instead of the climbing festival being about preaching to the converted we’re getting a lot of people who have maybe learnt to climb inside and now want to see what this outside climbing is about.”

McArthur's own introduction to rock climbing came after she burnt out in her job. For years, she had been working for Gap, and loving it so much she recalls “if you cut me in half, I was Gap through and through”. But, she says, “I wasn’t really following my heart.” She had been working for 60-70 hours a week, climbing up the corporate ladder, but she felt there was something missing. “I worked in New York for a while and they offered me a contract to stay and I realised there was something that wasn’t right. I was really tired.”

Her solution was to take a year off and move to the Alps, which was where she learned to rock climb and found “a different type of people who were more like my kind of group”. She started out as an indoor and sport climber. However, when she moved back to the UK, she met Charlie Woodburn, her husband, a keen trad climber. When she first tried the sport, she found it “boring – so slow and you had to have so much gear and it was just an inordinate amount of faff and hassle”.

“I just didn’t get it,” she says. “But what I realised over time was that slowness and that faff and that hassle, is actually what makes it so rewarding, because what you do get from trad climbing that you don’t get from sport climbing is the mental challenge to piece the jigsaw together of the route. You have to work it out and and you have to be a lot more aware of your surroundings and reliability of your partner.’

A big moment for her, in terms of really getting what trad was all about, was her first lead climb – where she had to place her own protection in the rock face. "All of the responsibility is down to you, and I remember setting off up that route and being just so scared, but being really amazed that my climbing partner was really trusting in me and believing in me. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were on a sea cliff and I’d just finished and I remember looking down and her then following me up the route.”

She thought then, “I get this now.” “It is,” she says, “the complete antithesis of this disposable, fast food world that we’re living in. That’s what I love about it – and I think that’s why a lot of people are getting into it, because it does take time, but the rewards are so much more than this quick hit of getting down to the wall and approaching things like you’ve been at the gym. I love sport climbing too, but there is something quite special about trad climbing that is very unique.”

McArthur believes that rock climbing – and also the wild swimming she regularly does – is, for many reasons, good for mental health. “Last year the festival one of the main sponsors was a brand called Rab and we had a board and took Polaroid pictures of people and we invited them to write underneath it 'why we climb'. About 85% of the things that people wrote were around mental health. Really beautiful things, like, ‘Climbing has been the golden thread that has pulled me out of my darkest moments.’ ‘Climbing has been there for me when everything hasn’t made sense. If I went climbing my life made sense.’”

One of the remarkable things about McArthur is how little time it took her to get back to climbing after her accident. At the three-month mark, in honour of Elsie’s birthday she and her husband walked up the hghest hill in south Wales, then at six months she went back to Utah and climbed there again. When she talks about the challenges she has faced, of climbing where she had once fallen, or of visiting friends who have babies, she describes it as a process of expanding her comfort zone. This, she says, involves “peering over edges” into those difficult spaces.

For her those most difficult edges, however, involved the loss of her child. The fall wasn’t nearly as horrific, she says, as losing Elsie, born just a couple of days after her due date.

"Losing her was completely devastating. How you can swim out of that is unthinkable. But it's quite interesting in that from that experience, looking back, I have a broader understanding that everyone has difficult times in life and that from deep roots into darkness, it's possible to grow a more beautiful tree. I think we get what we focus on and despite the hardships I have faced there is far more joy to be had if we choose to face that way."

Women's Trad Festival is from August 2-4, www.womenstradfestival.co.uk

Life and Loves

Favourite film

I have two. Local Hero for the vibes and Amélie because that’s pretty much how my brain works.

Favourite holiday destination

The west coast of Scotland in early spring with no tourists and Catalunya in Spain for climbing and people.

Best advice received

Marry someone who is good at sex and DIY.

Worst advice received

“Honestly, try mussels, they are so lovely.” Let’s be honest, that’s just 100% lies.

Ideal dinner partners

My best mates and family – meeting heroes is always a let down.

Advice for your younger self

"Do it now as the chance might not come again,” Also, that ten years from now you will wish you had the body and fitness you have now so crack on and stop wishing things to be better. Life is now.

Favourite piece of music

Heavens, one piece? Today, probably JJ Cale, After Midnight. Tomorrow maybe some dirty electronic, modern jazz or folk. My music taste is pretty broad.