WHEN ADVENTURE CALLS... (by Jason Whyte)
"So, can I sign up for it?" I asked my wife.
“You do remember that I’m pregnant?” She replied.
“And that the baby is due in March next year”
“Which is also when you are proposing to be in Nepal?”
“Will you be back before the due date?”
“How big is the margin for error?”
I checked the email again. “About two weeks”
“Will I be able to get in touch with you if I need to?”
“It says they will have a satellite phone for emergencies.”
“Okay, you can go.”
My wife, I hope you will agree, is a keeper. My employer had a partnership with development charity VSO and had arranged a charity trek to Everest Base Camp. I couldn’t resist. The smouldering ember of adventurousness in me had been rekindled.
I’ve always been a sucker for a physical challenge. As a schoolboy, I decided I was fed up of being afraid of heights, so I took up rock climbing. At university, I was too unco-ordinated for rugby or even rowing, but found my niche as a lineman in an American Football team, where my size, speed and willingness to run into other people were useful assets. Earlier in my career, I’d completed a string of annual 24 hour charity walks, covering up to 50 miles to raise money for the Rainbow Trust children’s hospice.
But for the last few years all I’d done was cycle in to work a few days a week. A decade or so of long hours and pizza in the office had taken their toll on my waistline. How the heck was I going to get fit enough for a trek that would start at 2,600m and climb as high as 5,650m?
The first step was to commit properly to the cycling. My rules were simple, and driven partly by having a job where I couldn’t entirely guarantee my location from day to day. Because of that, I never left my bike, clothes or laptop at the office: if I cycled in, I cycled out, and all my gear went with me. I also (long before COVID-19 made them de rigeur) wore a mask, because it’s not a great idea to ride through London’s smog without something to filter out the particulates and dust in the air.
But to reduce the risk of backsliding, I borrowed a trick from World Pursuit Cycling champion Graeme Obree. Obree was famous for many things - his unique riding positions, his world 1 hour distance recrord, his self-made bikes and constant clashes with the competitive cycling authories - but the one that stuck in my mind was his approach to training. He only trained when his body felt right for training, but to ensure that he didn’t just bunk off, every morning he would get into all his cycling gear, get his bike out of the garage and go down to his front gate and only then decide whether to train or not.
It worked a treat, and my cycling became much more consistent.
One of the trekking group also discovered a gym with a hypoxic chamber that could simulate being at 3,000m. I signed up, explained what I was doing, and asked for a training programme. Most of it was fairly straightforward weight training, but it finished with a gruelling ordeal: three sets of interval training on a Concept II rowing machine in the hypoxic room. One minute on, 30 seconds off, times 12. Rest, repeat. Rest, repeat.
If you’ve ever used a Concept II, you’ll know that it’s one of the most demanding exercise machines out there. The first minute was fine. And the second, and the third. By the fourth, it was getting hard to match the pace of the earlier intervals. By the eighth, I was digging deep into my reserves of energy and willpower. By the eleventh and twelfth, I would happily have paid someone to kill me rather than do another set.
A few weeks later, at my check-in with my trainer, I admitted that I had only managed the full three sets on a couple of occasions, though I had done at least one and usually two. It wasn’t the sets themselves, but amount of time it took to recover between them.
“Oh,” she said. Then, “Hold on a minute”.
She came back with my programme sheet.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, “I meant to write down ‘one set of twelve’ but I wrote ‘three’ by mistake.”
She was a bit distraught, but I was delighted: I was ahead on my training.
It paid off. Despite being the oldest trekker in our group, I was able to keep up with everyone except the guy who commuted by canoe every day.
I was feeling pretty good about that, until I decided to support one of the group who was struggling up the 400m vertical climb from the river crossing at Phunki Tenga to the Tengboche monastery. She had been persuaded to join the expedition by her rather sportier new boyfriend, and for the sake of their relationship I thought I should help. In the process, we realised the secret of high altitude walking: find a pace that you can keep up for 20-30 minutes at a time. It doesn’t really matter how slow it is, as long as you keep moving. By taking that approach, she went from the back of the group at the start of the climb to just behind our canoeist at the top. I’m also pleased to report that they celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary this year.
Four years after we went to Everest Base Camp I found myself preparing to climb Aconcagua. Jez, my tent mate from the Everest trek, had caught me in a moment of weakness and persuaded me that that was to be our next adventure. In fairness, my beloved Harlequins had just won their first Premiership title and we were enjoying the win on the hallowed turf of their home stadium.
I was four years older, but more pertinently I was working out of town in Edinburgh without good access to a gym. I took a folding bike up with me and began cycling along the canal from the Gyle, where I was working, to my hotel in the city centre. On days when I couldn’t cycle, I ran the city streets in the early morning, usually aiming to finish by running up the steps that link the Grassmarket to the top of the Royal Mile.
It was enough, but just barely. I made it to the top of Aconcagua, along with two others from our group of six, but I was low on energy coming down and twisted my knee slipping on a loose rock. The descent, running ahead of a snowstorm to our high camp, was at once a dull slog and a scary ordeal. I could walk well enough in a straight line, but I couldn’t put any twisting force through my right knee, which meant that I had to crab sideways around the frequent zigzags on the route. My overworked left leg refused to co-operate and I fell over from sheer exhaustion at each turn.
Eventually, I sat in the snow and told my fellow trekkers to leave me. This was a stupid thing to do, but fortunately we were literally a stone’s throw from the camp - if it hadn’t been snowing, I could have seen it from where I was. The guys helped me up and I stumbled the last few hundred metres to safety.
I got away with it, but the important lesson is that you can’t skimp on fitness when it comes to adventure.
Sadly, challenges like Aconcagua are expensive, and with a changing role I slipped out of the exercise habit. I started COVID-19 lockdown in the worst shape of my life - tipping the scales at 117kg (or nearly 260lbs, in American money), bulging out of my jeans and unable to keep up with my kids as they ran around the rugby pitch.
But how I turned that around is a story for another time.
Jason has been a keen user of outdoor kit for over three decades. Mostly he wears it for coaching rugby, cycling between his children’s weekend activities or taking family walks. But he’s also done longer expeditions, including walking the Scottish West Highland Way with his son, visiting Everest Base Camp and climbing Aconcagua.