I was recently very honoured to take part in a key notes address at this years award ceremony for successful Duke of Edinburgh students and their families from Worthing High School.
Below the interview has been written out in its entirety.
Tell me about yourself?
A short life story, I’m a local lad growing up in rural East Sussex where I went to school at Ringmer CC where (think) I was a good student. However, during this time, at the age of 14, I suffered a major bereavement. Despite finishing well at school I ended up quitting college, for all the wrong reasons, but fortunately finding myself in a trainee sales job. Fast forward 17 years, a successful sales career and four promotions later I found myself in charge of a multimillion-pound sales department. However, this July I quit my job with the decision to take the leap out of the high-pressure world of business wanting to give something back to the community with the aim of setting up a not for profit company helping people to realise their potential through outdoor adventures.
My biggest passion has always been the outdoors, mountains, nature and adventures. I have been lucky enough over the years to have been on some amazing adventures throughout this country and around the world. I have been a volunteer for local DofE groups now for four years and its great to share some of that passion and experience with the next generation.
Where have you just returned from?
I have just returned from a month-long trip in Nepal where I completed two treks in the Himalayas.
How long have you been planning the trip?
Sub-consciously…probably decades! It’s the home of Everest and the biggest mountain range in the world, so you could say that all my treks and adventures where eventually leading me here, its like the holy grail in the world of outdoor adventures.
Conscious planning however, this would have started early this year when I made the decision to quit my job and have some time out.
How did you imagine it was going to be?
Being such and outdoor enthusiast, I have read many books and watched many films involving these incredible mountains. From these you build up romantic, idealistic ideas about how such a pinnacle trip like this will be. Based on everything I had read, dreamt and imagined I was expecting unbroken wilderness, perfect weather and constant snow-capped landscapes for as far as the eye could see. I was expecting a journey of pure mindfulness and relaxation, to immerse myself of the calming cultures of the sacred mountains. Obviously, I was expecting many tough days of trekking and to summit the odd mountain here and there but also to do yoga, meditation and, with the journey that I have been on for the last 20 years, I was hoping to have some kind of epiphany or “find myself”. Sounds like I was looking to find the perfect cliché!
How was it actually?
Well, whilst it was some of those things it was very different to what I thought I was expecting. It’s a difficult one to explain because in a strange way I did get a lot of the things I craved from the trip but not in the ways I was expecting.
We didn’t book through a big company instead opting to go direct to guides through local recommendations in search of a more authentic experience. Whilst this was perfectly fine and our guides where brilliant it did feel like we were flying by the seat of our pants a lot of the time. Because of the lack of rules, regulations and legislation out there a lot of the trip felt pretty unorganised, based on not what you know but who you know with to the guides sorting accommodation, transportation, food and equipment but I suppose this did add to the authenticity we were after.
Nepal had experienced a late monsoon so the weather in the beginning wasn’t great and we had to walk through a lot of storms in the early days, especially in the lower sections of the treks. Down there as well it was mainly jungle, we walked for days through Jungle which I wasn’t expecting and frustratingly, on the second trek, walked over four days in the Jungle and cloud before getting high enough and close enough to see some mountains.
The trekking trails were pretty busy out there as well. Weirdly, even though I was in the biggest mountain range in the world I found myself craving the pure wilderness of some previous treks I had been on. I’ve been on treks where you could go for days without seeing someone but here you could barely go 10 minutes.
We stayed in tea houses nearly every night which surprised me as I was expecting more camping and they fed us so much food! By the time that we were staying consistently above 4000m it was absolutely freezing at night in these drafty little huts when I think a tent would’ve actually been warmer.
We did no yoga or meditation as we were too knackered and cold and eventually the altitude really started to affect us as we reached the 5000m mark.
However, none of this was a negative. Just because something isn’t exactly how you imagined doesn’t mean it can’t still enrich your life with a plethora of incredible experiences.
It was still an incredibly challenging and rewarding trip. We got to meet lots of amazing people, experience new cultures and different ways of life. Learning how these people coped with life in such extreme conditions with such a basic standard of living. We trekked through dramatic jungle covered valleys that reminded me of Jurassic park, high mountain passes that revealed different snow-capped mountains around every corner, crossed glaciers on crampons, learned how to cook traditional dishes with the locals, walked through steep sided canyons along white water rivers and had views of the highest mountains in the world. It was an incredible trip.
Did you achieve what you set out to achieve?
The plan for the month was to do two treks. The first started just outside a town could Pokhara in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. This was to be a four to five day acclimatisation trek to give us some extra time at a safe but challenging altitude before the main trek. This went well, we went up too quickly in the first couple of days due to excitement and full tea houses so suffered a bit from headaches but essentially it was a successful trek to 4500m with incredible sunrise views of the Annapurna mountain range.
The main trek was the big one. This started at the mountain town of Lukla, famous for being the gateway to Everest and for its incredibly dangerous airport. This trek was to be 15 days long and culminated in the summit of Mera peak which is described as the highest “trekking peak” in the world at 6400m (21000ft).
If by asking did we achieve what we set out to you mean summiting Mera Peak then, no, we didn’t. My friend James suffered bad altitude sickness at a place called Khare which is the last settlement of tea houses before heading up to the fixed camps before the summit. This was at 5000m and we had to walk back down the valley quickly at night to get to lower ground and more oxygen.
I went back up while he had a few days rest. I made it to base camp at 5350m where I had one of the worst nights ever. I was in my tent for 14 hours where it dropped to minus 15 degrees causing my insulated water bottle to freeze and the air was so cold to breath that it made me cough consistently all night. My head was pounding with increasing pain throughout the night and my heart was beating so fast that I was too scared to even try to go to sleep because I was scared of having a heart attack.
Its amazing how much goes through your head when you have 14 hours in a tent feeling like that but one of those things was a decision to not go any higher, this was it. I wasn’t going to risk going any further, there is still a glacier crossing, one more camp then six hours of climbing at minus 20 before the summit, it was not worth the risk. This was my summit, my peak.
What did you learn about yourself the most?
As I said, 14 hours in a tent in those conditions takes your mind to places you didn’t think possible and I learnt a hell of a lot about myself that night. I mentioned earlier about my 20-year journey and I realised that night that over the years I’d been pushing myself to always go one further, always focusing on the next goal. I ran marathons constantly trying to beat my time, I did challenges constantly trying to make them bigger, harder and smashed massive targets at work but after achieving all of these things I was never completely happy, I never felt worthy of them.
That night I finally realised that I had been pushing myself further and further away from my true self, that 14-year-old kid that lost his mum, constantly setting myself bigger targets and never actually gaining fulfilment from them.
That night I realised that I don’t want to be that person anymore, it isn’t all about the quickest time, the longest distance and the highest peak. I like adventure but I come to these places to take in the views, witness the nature, experience the culture, get away from the crowds and immerse myself in the therapy that is the great outdoors. Adventure doesn’t have to be pushing yourself to the absolute edge. It is about all the things you learn and experience along the way. I know it’s another cliché but it’s true, “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”. I have spent a month in Nepal and seeing all the things I have already mentioned, that is the adventure, not the one day I might’ve stood on the top of Mera Peak. I had reached my peak and had an adventure doing it, that’s all that matters.
Contrary to all this, that morning when I got out of my tent, after my guide had given me some painkillers and the sun had started to thaw me out I felt a lot better, physically. He did manage to convince me, through my teary objections, to go a bit further up onto the top of the glacier to get the views of Everest. Fighting my feelings of selfishness and hypocrisy for denying my decision to go down we roped up and put on our crampons to climb up to above Mera La pass at 5600. It was worth it; the view was incredible. We could see five of the eight highest mountains in the world. I felt absolutely fine physically and was strangely unaffected by the perils of the night, my guide again tried to coax me up further, with the promise of medicine, to have a summit attempt. Two years ago I would have gone for it and I have no doubt now that I had a good chance of making it but I had made my decision and I was going to stay true to myself for the first time and walk away. Although it was in touching distance it felt like it was more important not to go for the summit than to go for it, I was making a statement to myself.
In your self-reflection how will what you have learnt about yourself change your mind set?
It’s had an incredible affect on my mind set. It’s funny, I went there with the hope of having an epiphany and finding myself but I thought it would come from the spiritual side of the Nepalese culture. It’s acknowledgement to how unhealthy my previous mindset was that it took a night of such extreme conditions to make me finally realise it! I am now much more open to listening to my gut and my feelings. Much kinder to myself in my actions and the way I talk to myself and much better at being present, enjoying the moment and not constantly pushing towards goals.
I am not saying don’t have goals and don’t work hard to achieve them, just don’t lose sight of what’s important along the way, enjoy all the moments of the journey, that’s where the learning is.
What advice would you give someone who is trying to reach their peak?
Well exactly that. Have goals, have ambitions and have dreams but just make sure you stay present, take the best out of every moment. If you don’t hit your goal that time, don’t berate yourself, be kind to yourself then at least you can say you have taken as much from the journey as you can. Everyone’s peak is different, everyone’s adventure is different.
Why is the journey more important?
Because you can learn so much more from the journey than the destination. I remember the last marathon I did, I had set my self an extremely tough target for someone of my ability to achieve but I had a tough training programme made up and followed it to a tee. I broke my target by just 35 seconds which was incredible and that afternoon I sat in the bath and just wept, emotion flooding out of me but at the time I couldn’t work out why. Yes, I had hit my time, but my mind set then was to think that should’ve been the outcome because that was what I had planned for. Now looking back I can recognise it was because that achievement wasn’t just about the time on the day. It was the months and months of training I had put in, the support, the people I had met that had helped and encouraged me, my wife, my friends, the new places I had visited for training runs, it was that whole journey coming out but I didn’t see it like that at the time. That’s why the journey is important because if you can be present on the journey you can be happier at the destination, wherever that ends up being.
When were you the most mindful?
Looking back now I feel I was pretty mindful throughout the whole trip. I was never in a rush, never complained that it was different to what I expected. I just enjoyed what was happening and was thankful to have had the opportunity to do it. I kept a journal for the whole trip as well which always helps remind you of your feelings. Obviously, the base camp epiphany helped emphasise all of this but I felt pretty good out there.
When were you most scared?
Altitude sickness in a tent at minus 15 degrees aside, the next morning in my delicate emotional state I was very scared of crossing the glacier. It looked so steep. From where we were looking it looked as if one slip and you wouldn’t stop sliding for a long time! I was also scared because if anything had happened it would’ve been so unfair on my loved ones back home, especially after how I had felt through the night. However, my guide insisted it would be perfectly safe and I was watching other people in the distance cross it with relative ease, so we went for it. Once on the glacier I was reminded how amazing the crampons gripped the ice and that the section we were crossing was wider than it looked so if you slipped you wouldn’t slide off the mountain.
That said, in the days after this section I heard about people that had suffered frostbite up there, witnessed many helicopter evacuations and heard of a local lady that had died from respiratory problems caused by the altitude at base camp the night after me. It is no joke up there and I was even more pleased with my overall decision.
How has high is your peak?
Good question. I know now that you can’t put a number on it. Your peak is how much you can take away from an experience. I have a motto that you can “reach your peak through adventure” and from this I believe that outdoor adventures can teach us a lot about what we need to help us reach our full potential not just how far, how high or how fast but in the doing.
Why is DofE important to you?
I didn’t have DofE at my school which was a shame. I did go to the scouts though and lived quite rurally so the outdoors was always a part of my life. My love for outdoor adventures really started though when my friend’s family kindly took me backpacking in the wilderness of California for a month when I was 16.
Since then the outdoors has done so much for me and taught me so much; resilience, confidence, problem solving, well-being, appreciation, the list goes on.
The DofE program encompasses all of this and much, much more. Its brilliant and I am so proud to be a part of it and help these students on their journey to get as much from it as possible. I have also seen the other side of it as an employer. I always looked on CV’s for extracurricular activities, in particular DofE, as I knew what it took to complete it and I knew the skills and qualities that it provides.