GEORDIE STEWART - ADVENTURER
On 26 May 2011, aged 22, Geordie became the youngest Brit to have climbed the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. Now an officer in the British Army, Geordie continues to pursue his passion for adventure and sport. Currently based in Norway, he cross-country skis everyday and plans to run the Marathon des Sables in 2016. I talk to him about his inspirations, motivations and adventures.
Geordie is running late, he is rushing back home after a long day cross-country skiing on the Norwegian slopes with the Light Dragoons Nordic Ski Team and a little out of breath when I finally get hold of him. As it happens I have also recently taken up cross-country skiing, however my training so far has been confined to lapping Hyde Park with the London roller ski club so I am finding it very difficult to suppress my envy at Geordie’s current lifestyle. He assures me that it is not all fun and games, however I am struggling to see the cons of his job from a small, dingy office in London.
Strangely enough, it was while reading about Geordie’s seven summits challenge that I stumbled across Dunhill’s short film on Lee Jackson, a British biathlete, and first became inspired to try cross-country skiing. It is a beautiful film that really captures the physical challenge and stunning scenery involved in the sport. I am interested to find out what whetted Geordie’s appetite. It turns out his motivations are very similar to mine. He says it is an “awesome” sport because you “have the rawness of being outside and the physical challenge of using your whole body.”
Geordie is best known for his mountaineering exploits. At the tender age of seventeen he embarked on a quest to accomplish his dream of summiting the highest mountain in all seven continents, having been inspired by Bear Grylls’s book ‘Facing Up.’ I was eager to find out if Geordie’s admiration of Bear had wavered at all following recent criticisms of the authenticity of his shows and his decision this summer to maroon his young son on a rock as part of a lifeboat rescue.
It quickly becomes apparent that Bear can still do no wrong in Geordie’s eyes and remains a huge inspiration for him ten years on from first reading ‘Facing Up.’ He has met the former SAS reservist several times and is no longer simply another fan. Indeed he tells me that he recently “called in a favour from Bear” and asked him to speak at Sandhurst.
Geordie’s defence of the man is well rehearsed, as he had to deal with many cynics at Sandhurst. He describes Bear as an incredibly “kind, religious, selfless and determined” man, and says no one can deny that his achievements are “incredibly impressive.” I have to agree, ultimately Bear Grylls’s long and wide ranging list of achievements are incredibly impressive and you will struggle to find anyone who has done more to persuade people to join the scouts or get out into the wilderness.
Geordie and I share an interest in history as well as endurance sports, having both studied the subject at university so I wonder whether, like me, he is fascinated by the tales of courage and tragedy from the golden age of alpinism.
It turns out that he is not just interested, he is completely obsessed with them. Geordie’s family recently moved house and while he was moving his bookshelf from one house to another he was amazed at the vast catalogue of books on mountaineering he has collected over the years.
The seven summits became an obsession and as part of that he immersed himself in literature on the history of alpinism. He found the story of Mallory and Tenzing’s famous Everest expedition particularly inspiring. He says Mallory is the “ultimate British hero” in many ways because he had that “delightful British air about him and determination to never give up.” He also looks up to Shackleton, who he describes as an “icon of leadership, selflessness and determination.”
Geordie says he would recommend to anyone considering an endurance event or challenge to build up as much knowledge and expertise as they can in the build up to the event, as good preparation is the key to success.
When I ask about modern day inspirations, Geordie mentions Ueli Steck, the lightening fast Swiss alpinist, who holds speed records on the North Face trilogy in the Alps. It is a different playing field for the likes of Ueli, it is not like the 60s and 70s when new routes were being pioneered on big mountains. However, boundaries are being pushed in a different way, the speed you can summit a mountain.
He also singles out Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, the first woman to summit the 14 8,000m peaks without the use of supplementary oxygen, and Reinhold Messner, the veteran Italian mountaineer, who he says is on “a different level” and in many ways the epitome of mountaineering.
I am keen to delve deeper into what motivates Geordie. After all, it is unusual for a seventeen year old to become obsessed with the idea of completing the seven summits challenge. Most seventeen year olds I know have very different priorities and dreams. He nonchalantly says that he fancied doing something “different” on his gap year and the seven summits sounded like a “cool challenge.”
There is no doubt that the seven summits is a “cool” idea, but it is also an expensive one. Everest alone costs upwards of £20,000 so just getting to base camp is often a huge challenge in itself. Geordie needed sponsors, however persuading companies to buy into his dream proved to be an “infuriating” process. It was very long and demoralising, he had to deal with a lot of rejection despite putting together what seemed like perfect pitches.
I suspect there was more to Geordie’s motivation to summit Everest than him simply wanting to be different. Later on in the interview I think he reveals the real driving force behind his thirst for adventure. His approach to life, he tells me, is to experience as many different things and meet as many different people as possible. You have one shot to live an interesting life, so he strives to do as much as he can with some cool people. That doesn’t necessarily mean thrashing yourself in an ultra-marathon; it could also be going to Tanzania and driving around in a car for a few days with friends. Although somewhat of a cliché, I wholeheartedly agree with his attitude to life.
Geordie was mesmerised by the beauty of some of the places he visited on his seven summits challenge. Antarctica is an incredibly pure place, like no other place in the world, he says. His favourite time was early morning; he would go out for a cup of tea when there is beautiful sunlight and pristine snow. He says the views on Everest are “magical”, you see great Nepalese spikes everywhere you look. He has also been to the jungles of Indonesia where he met tribes whose culture was completely different to anything he had seen previously and spent time in the lush African savannah.
I am interested to hear Geordie’s views on altitude and physical preparation for mountaineering. While chatting to a family friend in the local pub over Christmas about a new lamp he has designed we somehow managed to get sidetracked into talking about mountaineering. It turns out he has summited some of the highest peaks in the world, however if you were to look at him you would be none the wiser.
As a carpenter he lives an active, outdoor lifestyle, but is ultimately an ordinary, slightly overweight, 50-year-old man, not a finely tuned athlete. He told me the key to his mountaineering success is that he is “healthy”, rather than “super fit”. In fact many of the very fit endurance athletes he has been on expedition with have suffered at altitude and failed to summit.
Geordie says he too has seen many incredibly fit triathletes and marathon runners shut down at altitude while a middle aged overweight man is completely fine because for some reason his body can pump the oxygen around his body more efficiently at altitude. He thinks that in reality high altitude mountaineering is more of an endeavour than a sport.
Ultimately there is very little you can do to prepare for altitude because it is largely down to genetics. For instance the Sherpa community’s propensity at altitude is greater than anyone else in the world. They have a greater lung capacity and their heart is better able to cope with a lack of oxygen.
It is interesting to hear Geordie eulogise over the Sherpa community. He says he has a very “close bond” with them; they are the most “ferociously determined and selfless” people he has ever met. I have often thought it unfair that Sherpas’ risk their lives to help foreigners achieve their dream of reaching the summit but are valued as little more than work horses so it is pleasing to hear Geordie speak so fondly of them.
Jennifer Peedom’s fantastic documentary SHERPA brought into sharp focus the growing resentment amongst the Sherpa community at their image as smiling, uncomplaining work horses willing to risk their lives for meagre reward. The film focuses on the avalanche in 2014, which tragically killed 16 Sherpas, and the Sherpa strike the tragedy provoked. The unfair treatment of Sherpas working for the glory of rich tourists is now in the global spotlight, so one hopes that working conditions for Sherpas will improve in the not too distant future.
Geordie summited Everest in 2011 on the second attempt, just a year earlier he had been forced to turn around within sight of the summit. I ask him how he recovered from the disappointment of the first expedition’s failure and found the motivation to go through the agonising process of raising funds for a second attempt.
He says it took a lot of self-reflection and re-evaluation to get to a place where he was happy with the choices that he had made high on the mountain but also to get to a stage where he could look forwards. There was a picture taken of Geordie exactly at the point he turned around on the first Everest attempt. He became obsessed with that point, it was the background photo on his laptop for some time, and when he passed it on the second attempt he says he knew he would make the summit.
In the past Geordie has said it was his fate to summit Everest, I am interested to know whether he genuinely believes that. He doesn’t know if he is a fatalist but in that moment on the summit of Everest the stars seemed to align for one reason or another. It was the perfect ending for his amazing journey.
Geordie learnt a great deal about human nature from his expeditions. He saw amazing acts of selflessness, human courage and endeavour but also amazing acts of selfishness and people’s desire to achieve genuinely cloud their human essence. He says he has seen many a climber blinded by their ego and their desire to achieve their dream.
In my experience, ultra marathon running is ultimately an individual sport, however you form such a strong bond with the other runners you almost feel as if you are part of a team. I wonder if mountaineering is similar? Geordie says it is in the sense that you are always looking out for the other members of your climbing group. Furthermore, there are times when you are roped together and your live depends on your team mate. However ultimately mountaineering is also an individual pursuit, after all someone isn’t going to climb the mountain for you.
I ask Geordie what he thinks the future holds for Everest? Much is written in the press about how the challenge has been diluted by the commercialisation of the mountain. The crowds and the rubbish are ruining Everest in many people’s eyes.
Geordie plays down the rubbish and crowds argument. He climbed Everest from the Chinese side and said he saw very little rubbish. Furthermore there was also a big clean up on the Nepalese side the year he summited. In terms of the crowds, Geordie says it is unsurprising that there are occasions when there are a lot of climbers on the mountain at the same time because you can only climb Everest when the weather is suitable. So if you have 300 climbers wanting to summit and only two weather windows, obviously there are going to be crowds.
Ultimately there are always going to be people who want to climb Everest. For some people it represents a huge amount of endeavour, physical effort and achievement. If that is the case, there is always going to be people who want to climb it.
Geordie loves life in Norway where the culture involves playing sports and outdoors activities. It is the perfect place for training for his next challenge, the Marathon des Sables, a grueling five stage ultra marathon through the Sahara desert. It is often dubbed the toughest footrace in the world however it would take a brave man to bet against Geordie completing it.