■ The adventurer and TV presenter, 44, on climbing Mount Everest, unexpected friendships and writing goodbye notes to his kids
Why did you decide to climb Mount Everest?
I dreamed of climbing Everest ever since I was a little boy. I remember looking at photographs of those early heroic expeditions and I never dreamed I’d have the chance to do it. The opportunity arose and I seized it. I’ve always tried to live my life having no regrets. It was a personal dream and we also did it in support of the British Red Cross, who have been very active in the area following the earthquake and ice fall that devastated Nepal.
How did you bump into fellow presenter Ant Middleton? Is Everest very busy?
The bizarre thing was, Ant and I were in tents next door to each other. Base camp is two miles long with 1,000 people there but it’s quite higgledy-piggledy — it’s on a moving glacier and it’s a temporary village for two months every year. It’s a very busy mountain nowadays.
Do you have much in common with him?
I’d never met him before. We like to push ourselves — we have that in common — but he was in the Special Forces while I’m a TV presenter who makes shows about labradors.
How has Everest changed you? Apparently you’ve been crying a lot…
It leaves you feeling emotionally drained, especially the higher you go and the more time you spend in the Death Zone. I wouldn’t say I’ve been crying all the time but I’ve felt a bit more fragile than I usually do. Having said that, I’m in Bulgaria now, hunting with a wild woman for eight days, so I’m back to normality with the day job. I just feel like I’m in a slightly drunken stupor all the time.
Does everything feel like an anticlimax?
No, but some people who have done a big challenge come back feeling down because they’ve completed their dream and everything seems a bit dull. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to throw myself back into doing New Lives In The Wild. The intensity of the eight weeks on the mountain and the fear, adrenaline and lack of oxygen all leave your brain a bit foggy. There’s a statistic that 12 in 13 people who have summitted Everest come back with brain damage. So I can attribute a little bit of that to my brain having changed due to lack of oxygen.
Did you know that before going?
I knew it would have a profound impact.It’s called the Death Zone for a reason — your body starts to destroy itself. But it will recover. The brain can regenerate in the same way you can lose a massive amount of weight during a challenge but your body will recover. I look at it that my brain has lost a bit of weight but it will recover in time. I knew it would have an impact, I just didn’t expect it to be as profound.
What if it’s permanent?
It won’t be. It’ll be temporary. It’s not the same as suffering a brain trauma in an accident. Whenever you put your body through an extreme experience, there is physical and mental damage. It’s an integral part of expeditions. It’s not like the Hollywood ending where you come back with a beard and that’s it. There are always deeper scars than that.
You wrote letters to your wife and children in case you died. Was it worth risking death?
Life is all about calculated risk. I wanted to do Everest because I felt I could limit the risk sufficiently by surrounding myself with world-class experts. But there’s still a risk. The letters I wrote were because I like to plan meticulously. You have to think of absolutely every eventuality. It’s the same way I have life insurance — the letters I wrote were no different to taking out life insurance. Everest was more of a risk than I thought it would be but I’m a better person for doing it.
How has the experience changed you for the better?
I have a calmness in me. It’s like I’ve done everything I wanted to do in my life — because I never believed I’d do it. It’s given me perspective. It’s made me realise what an amazing family I have and what a lucky life I have.
What challenges are left?
I’ll always want to test myself but not on the scale of Everest any more. I’ve rowed the ocean, I’ve walked across Antarctica.I’d love to go away and take my family to a wilderness somewhere and experience that with them for a year.
What has your career in showbiz taught you?
To have a thicker skin and be more resilient. I’ve always been a bit fragile about personal criticism. People might see someone who climbs Everest and think they have skin like a rhino — but that’s for the Piers Morgans of this world. I’m a bit more precious than that.
■ The Challenge: Everest can be seen on CNN International at various times until July 19