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Blood, sweat and frozen tears on Everest

For us students, climbing out of bed in the morning is wretched enough, climbing a mountain- well, that’s just… absurd.

Especially when that mountain is the highest in the world, capturing the dreams and imaginations of men all over the world for many years, its elusive summit only accessible to, it seemed, the Gods.

It is of course, Mount Everest – a mountain so high ‘no bird could fly above it’.

Alas, this interview is not about a student who managed to make their 9am lecture, but of a man who has been lucky enough to grace the ceiling of the world, not once, but five times.

Dr. Rob Casserley, a training GP from Kent, has done what many men spanning three centuries have dreamed of achieving, and seemingly by mistake: ‘I kind of fell into it by accident’.

Casserley first came to our attention at the Royal Geographical Society when he, alongside his climbing partner Kenton Cool, gave an enthralling lecture on the ‘blood, sweat and frozen tears’ that it took to climb Everest. 

Cool, the darling of the British climbing community, who has taken Sir Ranulph Fiennes to the summit of the Eiger, was the attraction that we were looking forward to seeing…

But it was the humble story of the man next to him, of a doctor holding down a full time job and managing to summit the world, which got our interest.

As a result, we contacted him (oh the wonders of Facebook), and he agreed to an article based on his experiences.

When the interview takes place, Casserley is still baffled as to why people would be interested in him. Yet, he’s climbed Everest with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, helped make a BBC documentary called ‘Everest ER’, is the first western climber (alongside Cool) to summit said mountain twice in one week and is now giving talks across the country to packed out lecture halls on his experiences.

He refuses to entertain the idea of writing a book – ‘no one would read it’, he claims – and describes himself as Ice Man from Top Gun: ‘the wing man, not the guy in charge’.

He also likens himself to an old American car: ‘not that technical but pretty robust’. When it comes to his climbing ability, he tells me that ‘ten years ago, if you’d have told me that I’d have summitted Everest five times, I would have said “never in a million years”’.

Thus, one can gather that Casserley, if not a Maverick or a Ferrari, is definitely humble. He agrees: ‘my life is not just about climbing, but it does allow me to appreciate what I have and what I could lose: my family and friends, and even the simple stuff like just being able to switch on the TV or go to the fridge. I appreciate everything more as a result’.

I ask him if his level-headedness disappears when the summit is insight, a common irrationality called ‘summit fever’.

‘What you’ve got to remember,’ he tells me, ‘is that summiting Everest is not a suicide mission. It’s a return journey’.

Is he fearless on the mountain? The answer is ‘no’, in fact, he describes his first summit as ‘bloody terrifying’. ‘There was a horrible storm, like the apocalypse or something. It was my Sherpa, Ang Nuru’s first summit too, we were kind of like two little boys very much out of our depth. I wanted to get down before I’d even got there’.

Asked if such a dangerous summit was worth it, he replies: ‘The first time was all just a bit of a blur, but it really gets you in touch with your own sense of mortality. Death exists significantly on Everest, it’s important to respect that’.

I ask why then, with all those risks, does he continue to put himself in such danger? ‘My worst fear is doing a nine to five, forty two week year with only a month off. I make my work work around my life, if that makes sense’. He goes on jokingly:  ‘I wouldn’t say my brain was up to much of a mental challenge these days, so I get a lot of satisfaction out of achieving something physical’.

Does the glory keep him going back? ‘Believe me, there is no glory. There are no screaming fans at the airport and my friends are long past slapping me on the back after all the trips I’ve done. I suppose it would be nice for my grandchildren to be able to say: “fuck me, granddad climbed Everest”, but apart from that, no one really cares!’

For a man that went from never having climbed a mountain, I asked him what his friends thought when he told them he was first attempting Everest: ‘They thought I was crazy. A lot of people thought I wouldn’t do it and so that spurred me on. I wanted to prove them wrong’.

So life on Everest: three months on a mountain with limited contact with the outside world. No clubs, no shopping, no cinema, no restaurants, and very little contact with loved ones back home, for nearly 100 days.

‘For me, life at base camp is fantastic – it takes life back down to the lowest common denominator of communication, of doing simple tasks that we take for granted back at sea level’, Casserley tells me. That’s all very well, but I’m really interested in the gory details of living in the mess tent, and serious lack of showers.

 As expected, hygiene is not high on most people’s agenda: ‘Some don’t even take a toothbrush! I’ll take 400 wet-wipes, deodorant, anything I can. Being clean, to me, is really important; it just gives you that extra boost psychologically. Kenton is the complete opposite, he thinks I’m mad, but you sweat like hell in the sun’.

I want to know if it’s true that in three months you will be lucky to take a shower. He says that’s hearsay, but then confesses, ‘it’s more like four times’. 

I’m equally intrigued by toilet troubles, and Casserley is quick to tell me that Bear Grylls’ account of ‘pissing brown gooey liquid’ when dehydrated on Everest is a typical dramatisation. ‘It’s not like that at all. We’ll boil up snow for hot water bottles so we’re warm at night, then in the morning the water’s cooled but not frozen and perfect to drink. It’s about using your head and your initiative’.

Everything freezing over night is, according to Casserley, one of the most demoralising things to deal with: ‘When you’re at camp three the tent can get disgusting: overnight your breath freezes to the walls of the tent, everything freezes. Then in the morning the sun heats the tent up and so you get this horrible condensation dripping over everything. It’s disgusting’.

So in the smelly, sweaty and cramped conditions of tent life, tensions in the group must be strained? Casserley, ever the optimist, thinks not: ‘You’d think so, but we’ve all got one set goal: to summit. So you kind of bond over that and you spend three months with these guys, you get quite close’.

Trying to probe him for juicy gossip of an Everest domestic is no use: ‘Actually’, he tells me, ‘maybe it’s because I’m a doctor, but if my companions are struggling, I kind of take strength from helping them out. I suppose adversity makes me stronger, it focuses you on the job at hand’.

So after six years on Everest, I can’t help but ask if it gets boring. The answer is obviously ‘no’. Casserley touches on more than just the exhilaration of reaching the summit, saying that the Sherpa culture of ‘gentle people who have deep beliefs and reverence for the mountains’ is what he appreciates the most, and is what he takes with him when he leaves.

Considering that above 26,000 ft climbers enter what is called the ‘dead zone’ due to the severe conditions and lack of oxygen, trying to summit without breathing apparatus and oxygen canisters is extremely dangerous, verging on suicidal. So, of course, Casserley made his un-oxygenated ascent in 2006 in order to ‘try something different’.

Casserley turned back before the summit. In hindsight this was fortunate; he later realised that lack of oxygen damages the brain’s grey matter, and considering his was ‘already the size of the walnut’, he didn’t much think it was worth the accolade.

As arguably the ‘world’s greatest living explorer’, I asked Rob why he thought Sir Ranulph didn’t summit on their attempt with Kenton Cool this year: ‘Ran is a great explorer, he’s done many amazing things, but sometimes the people you expect to summit, don’t. He raised a lot of money for Marie Curie Cancer Care and that’s the main thing’.

So after all this, what on earth could be next for the doctor-come-action-man?

Before I can even ask the question, he casually drops into the conversation that he’s attempting to row across the Atlantic Ocean next year, but not before he’s run the Milan marathon in under three hours, and lead a trek through Nepal.

In 2010 he’s to set foot back on Everest, and amongst all the adventure he still wants to qualify as a General Practitioner in ten months time.

Rob tells me that he’s not a sentimental guy, but does offer me this philosophy: ‘I think I’m an example that if you have a dream go for it, because if you work hard it will come true. I suppose luck is a part of it, but if you chip away at something, eventually you’ll achieve your goal.’

Casserley is undoubtedly (as far as us students are concerned) a freak of nature, but he also has a humbled approach to life in which one can still imagine him passed out on a Saturday evening after watching the X-factor, and then getting up on Sunday morning to do a twenty mile run.

With the BBC documentary soon to be aired and the publicity he will gain from his Atlantic crossing and further Everest attempts, Casserley will no doubt find himself a minor celebrity. Whilst he refuses to believe this himself, in a world where Bear Grylls, Ray Mears and Bruce Parry have ignited the nation’s passion for adventure, I can’t help but think that his humble existence will not last.

For now though, Rob insists he is going to carry on running marathons, climbing mountains, crossing oceans and saving lives…. you know, the usual.

Everest Er, to be screened on BBC ONE at 7pm is due to air soon. Visit www.everestchallenge.org to find out more on Rob and donate to Marie Curie Cancer Care.

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