DB - So, Rupert, you've summited Everest and Annapurna respectively, you regularly run 100 mile ultra marathons, been actively part of the military, and recently started a new business venture. Normally, people are happy with just achieving one of these things. Why is taking on all of these challenges so important to you?
RJW - Why are they important to me? I don't know, I suppose it's probably more so that these are the things that actually excite me. When I first had the idea of climbing Everest I was 22, the thought of having a proper job and doing ‘real’ things didn't really appeal to me and I wasn't really sure the direction to go.
But actually, one thing that did excite me was Everest, and that challenge. So I thought, better to go and pursue something that you're passionate, excited and motivated about, than something you're not because, essentially, that's where you're going to find success, enjoyment and fulfilment.
So, I went down that route of trying to climb Everest and doing everything I could to make that happen, and that has sort of led from one thing to the other. I joined military, because that was something that excited me at the time, and I definitely didn't want to sit at a desk and do something boring, I wanted to do something that motivated me.
And at that period of my life, that was something that motivated me.
DB - So then, how did you get into the 100 Milers then? Do you look at these as challenges and think I want to conquer them, because they are really hard by nature? Or is it just something that interested you and you've just sort of gone with it and then ended up loving the process?
RJW - I think the big thing is asking yourself whether or not you think you can do something like that. When I read about climbing Everest or joining the military, they're both something that I've always wondered whether or not I could do, and it's that sort of itch that you get from that that drives me.
I just think you need to try and scratch that itch and see whether or not it is something that you can do, so for me, I just wanted to see whether I could do it. I remember when I was in Chamonix, I was climbing Mont Blanc for first time, and I was there during the end of a race called the ‘UTMB’ (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) it's a 100 mile foot race around the local area, It's a huge event. I'd never heard of 100 mile racing before at all, I just thought the concept was absolutely mental! But at the same time, I thought, I'd love to know if I could do that?..and then that sort of planted a seed.
I'd never run to compete, I just ran because I enjoyed the meditation and fun of it, as well as to keep me fit and active. So after that, I thought I'd bite the bullet and just get on with it and do one.
I did my first one on the south coast, and as I was building up to the event I thought “am I going to be able to complete this?” “Is this something I can do?” I had no idea how to train properly and when I got there, I was really nervous, I thought to myself everyone looked like ‘proper runners’ and wasn’t sure I’d make it. I actually ended up doing really well, I came fifth! It was an amazing experience. Weird experience, but amazing.
DB - How long was the race in total?
RJW - That one was just shy of 20 hours.
DB - So how do you keep a focussed mindset when you're running for 20 hours?
RJW - Funnily enough, that one, I listened to an audiobook. But the reason was because I knew I had to keep my heart rate down, I had to keep my effort down, I had to just try and get in that mindset of just powering on and not exerting too much energy. So I listened to an audiobook and I tried to get in the psyche of just running smoothly and effortlessly. Now, that's easy to say, and there are elements of races that long where running does feel effortless, but you just got to get into the right mindset to try and tap into that, and once you're in it, it's amazing.
After that you're sort of just counting down checkpoints. Checkpoints are usually about eight miles apart, so maybe two hours in between. So you've got a lot of things to factor into that. You got to be all over your nutrition, you got to be eating enough and the right stuff. You've also got to be on top of your hydration, and keep thinking about fueling your body and putting in as little effort as possible, however whilst also trying to remain competitive. It's amazing! It's a really weird challenge.
DB - Okay, so this feels like a really cheesy, obvious question to ask, but, how would you describe the feeling when you summit a mountain, or cross the finish line of a race? Is the finish / achievement what motivates you? Or is there something else that keeps you going?
RJW - In a race, the finish line is where you expect to have given 110% and be absolutely dead on your feet, and that is the end of it. Whereas summiting a mountain, you're not at the finish line at all. 80% of deaths on mountains happen on the descent, you've got to be really on it, on the summit, there's a lot of danger on the descent, a shitload of danger.
I remember being at the top of Everest and I was absolutely exhausted, like, absolutely fucked! But I was thinking “right, I've got a got to get off this”. For context, I'd been climbing, I think for about 15 hours through the night, and the day before I had climbed up from Camp 3, that took about six hours. In between them, I was meant to be hydrating and getting food in for the 18 hour day ahead, and instead I had really bad diarrhoea, I couldn't get any sleep, all the food that went in me came straight out of me. All the water that went in me came straight out, I mean, I was not prepped at all, so when I got to summit, I was absolutely fucked AND I had to descend off the mountain safely. I was hooped, absolutely hooped. So the feeling of elation on the summit is more like “right, you’re up, now get down safely.” So no, there was no finish line on the mountain, it's just part of the journey.
DB - I guess I've never really thought about that, everyone, everyone talks about climbing a metaphorical mountain has been the pinnacle point, achieving something. In reality, that's not the case. You've got to get back down!
RJW - My mountaineering hero, Ed Viesturs says, you haven't summited unless you're back home. When you get back down to base camp, that's when you pat yourself on the back. But actually, to be honest, a lot of the time when you get off an 8000 metre peak, it's relief more anything that you're back in one piece.
DB - So you were actually up Everest in 2015 when the Nepal earthquakes happened. Can you describe how that felt when you were up there? And how did you deal with the issues at Basecamp?
RJW - So I was on North side Basecamp, on the Tibetan side, so at that point, I was going up the north side of Everest. We had gone up to 7000 metres the day before, came down, back to Basecamp, to rest and recover. It was a beautiful, clear day, blue skies, no winds, no clouds, just beautiful. I was in my tent, and all of a sudden, the tent starts shaking. I thought “that's a bit odd, what is that?” So I got out my tent, and I saw the rocks started coming down the side of Basecamp, and I just thought bloody hell, there’s been an earthquake.
There’s never been an earthquake before, this is pretty serious, and then it happened again. Afterwards though, it was very peaceful, very quiet, that was pretty much it. However, on the south side of Everest, where you have the big seracs, you have the icefall, there was absolute devastation. We didn't know this until we started getting the notifications on our phones from the news channels being like, “massive earthquake hits Nepal, 8000 dead.”
There was 20 dead on Everest, 40 Missing. It was just insane. There we were at base camp on the North side having this beautiful day, staring at Everest and yet on the other side, there's absolute devastation. I can't remember how many were made homeless. I think it was millions. It was an absolute disaster. On Everest, people I knew were missing, it was just absolute chaos.
Anyway, I was there with a British team and we were trying to see what we can do to help, we had doctors and surgeons etc with us, but there was nothing we could do. We couldn't fly or get a helicopter into Katmandu, because the airport had been damaged so badly. We were stuck at base camp for about a week, I think it was, because all the roads had been destroyed, it was a really peculiar experience. Eventually, we got back to China and flew back into the UK, but it was a very, very peculiar experience.
DB - I guess there wasn't really anything you could do at that point?
RJW - That was it. You just got to realise that you are at the mercy of these big mountains, whether there's an earthquake or not, your life is very fragile in that environment, and actually, sometimes you got to count your blessings and realise that you're very lucky to come away sometimes. A lot of stuff you take for granted, but that event put a lot of stuff into perspective…but not enough for me not to go back.
DB - I’m sure there have been many obstacles that have cropped up along the way, in achieving these feats. Could you tell me maybe your top challenge that you've had and how you overcame it?
RJW - I think the hardest bit of all with these adventures is often the fundraising. Trying to raise funds for these expeditions is really, really hard. You get a lot of rejections, and a huge amount of time and effort that goes into each application.
You're at the mercy of other people, and you can put as much effort in and feel like it’s going the right way, and then suddenly get kicked in the face! The fundraising is the hard bit for sure, the actual easy bit is on the mountain.
DB - You've obviously got this huge mental and physical resilience. How do you think what you've done in the past is going to propel you in the future?
RJW - I mean, climbing mountains and soldiering in many ways, it doesn't help at all when you look at business, in other ways, it does. I think I've learned a lot from working with other people, especially in the military. I’ve learned what I like and what I don't like in people, it made me realise the sort of people I can and can't work with, but I do think aside from resilience, it also gives you confidence.
I remember with the military, when I first started, I was incredibly intimidated by the characters around me. I remember thinking that actually there's no way in hell I'm going to pass this course.
But actually, one thing I did learn from that is just persevering. Just giving something your all. Eventually, these characters I was initially intimidated by, just fell by the wayside.
DB - So what's on the horizon for yourself, any future projects that you can tell us about or are they top secret? Is there anything that you're willing to share or excited about?
RJW - Well, fingers crossed, in spring I’m meant to climb Kangchenjunga, which is the third highest mountain in the world, and then, from the summit, I’m looking at doing an “FKT” (fastest known time) run back through the Himalayas, 300 miles back to Katmandu. I'm confident I can complete it, in what time and what state…I don't know. But that is the plan. I think my brother Will is going to join for the FKT, and film the journey.
DB - Amazing! That'd be one to watch for sure.
RJW - Yeah, that'd be it should be an epic adventure…but we’ll see.
DB - So last few questions, True or false
When training for your long distance runs. You've been cited, running, with your nose in a book.
RJW Ooo…I’m not sure on that one, maybe reading on my phone? I don’t think I ever ran with a book in hand, I quite like that though. I might just say yes. Yes, it is true.
DB - Halfway around your first 100 miler, you stopped for pizza and a cigarette?
RJW - Maybe that is true.
DB - Okay, true or false? You used to live with the Archbishop of Canterbury?
RJW - False…he lived with me.
DB - Rupert, it's always great to chat to you, the biggest takeaway for me from this is that put simply, being able to have the right mindset is the key. Once you have the mind right, you can go out and achieve some pretty mental things.
RJW - I tell you what, it's all very manageable. All this stuff. There's nothing special about it. It's just getting up and doing it.