In July 2017, Alex Staniforth summited all 100 UK county tops in just 72 days. Learning through adversity, he’s also attempted Everest twice and successfully climbed a range of mountains, from Mont Blanc (4,804m) in the Alps, to Baruntse (7,129m) in the Himalayas, and he’s only 22.
Those Hard First Steps
Adversity adventurer, Alex Staniforth, is a young man who’s wasting no time in breaking the mould and getting stuck into the outdoors. In his debut memoir, Icefall, he wrote that: ‘[Life] is like fishing: you won’t catch anything until you start, and every year you get older is another year the fish might slip through the net’. So far, he’s launched four expeditions to the Himalayas and made two attempts at climbing Mount Everest, which ended with the two biggest disasters in its history.
It hardly seems possible that such an individual was once so overcome by personal difficulties. And yet, Alex’s story is one that begins at the foot of a seemingly insurmountable climb. Earlier in life, he suffered from crippling bouts of mental illness, epilepsy, stammering and bullying. Aged nine he couldn’t bear to be alone, for fear of being struck by an epileptic seizure. He used to hide in school toilets to avoid speaking in class and he would stutter too, whenever he tried to say his own name. He was bullied, both verbally and physically. As a result, he was left with low self-confidence and self-worth. He had every opportunity not to grit his teeth and start climbing. Instead, he turned his story into a challenge-defying ascent.
'[Life] is like fishing: you won’t catch anything until you start, and every year you get older is another year the fish might slip through the net.'
An Early Ascent
One lesson Alex had learnt from his difficult childhood was how to overcome the peaks and troughs of adversity. While he couldn’t control the kind of obstacles he faced, he could choose how he responded to them. So, aged 13, Alex decided to try paragliding during a holiday in Turkey, an experience that sparked a flickering interest in challenge and adventure. He then moved onto rock climbing, scuba diving, mountain biking, basically, anything that coupled an element of danger with a kick of adrenaline. Over time he found new and exciting ways to escape the difficulties of his childhood. In doing so, he began to redefine his limitations and his own previous idea of who he was and what he could achieve. In 2011, he embarked on the Three Peaks Challenge in the UK, before going on to climb Mont Blanc and Baruntse, aged 18. He wasn’t fortunate enough to have money handed to him so he funded these expeditions singlehandedly, using various local jobs and sources of corporate sponsorship. In 2014, he made his first attempt to summit Everest, which ended with an avalanche that killed sixteen people. In 2015, he returned to the Himalayas only to have his Everest attempt thwarted by a massive earthquake that devastated the country of Nepal. During the earthquake, an avalanche swept down over base camp and three team members lost their lives – Alex spent two days trapped at Camp 1.
Reaching The Mountaintop
Alex went on to write a memoir about his tousle with Everest and the tragedies he’d witnessed. His most recent expedition, which he completed just two months ago, was an attempt to climb all 100 UK county tops in 72 days. He called this the Climb the UK project – a human-powered adventure that entailed 5,000 miles of biking, walking and kayaking. It seems apparent that Alex wasn’t lying when he said that: ‘Everest is just one step on my journey.’ We recently caught up with Alex to discover what he’s learnt along the way:
What advice would you give to other sufferers of depression and anxiety? Have you found that adventure has been a remedy of sorts?
To be honest, it’s an ongoing battle and something I think never truly disappears, we only learn to manage it, but having goals I think is the best advice I can give. We need something to feel accountable for and positive to work towards, otherwise, mental illness can make it a challenge just to get out of the front door. And of course, to confide in someone. Even if people can only listen to your problems, you’ll feel so much better than keeping it to yourself. I know how daunting it can feel but speaking out is not a chip off the shoulder – it’s the greatest sign of strength. Outdoor adventure is undoubtedly a powerful weapon too. The new environment gives you something positive to focus on, milestones boost self-esteem, and harsh conditions build mental resilience to cope better with everyday life.
'On depression and anxiety: To be honest, it’s an ongoing battle and something I think never truly disappears, we only learn to manage it.'
Do you have a single memory that stands out from your travels?
I go into some sort of trance during big challenges and forget lots of things. I guess I’ll never forget the moment the earthquake hit Nepal whilst I was in the Khumbu Icefall and genuinely believed I was toast. But to focus on the positive. reaching the final summit of Climb The UK, Moel Famau in North Wales, with a huge crowd and bluebird skies, was like the Everest summit day I never had. Magic.
You’re a huge inspiration to many people, especially younger, aspiring adventurers. At such a young age, what encouraged you to go out and conquer these challenges?
Thank you. It’s hard to sum up in a paragraph, hence I wrote a book on it, but I found the outdoors by chance with paragliding in Turkey at 13. That was a life-changing moment as I first realised I could overcome things and prove myself wrong. The buzz and sense of achievement only fed a passion for the outdoors to find what else I could do. Climbing Everest first came to mind on a hill-walk in the Lake District at 14, and the top of the world the seemed the biggest thing of all to overcome. I found a confidence and drive to pursue this goal, and there was no looking back.
How did your latest Climb the UK adventure go?
Amazingly well thanks. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done with 18-hour days, 118-mile cycles, injuries and the worst weather the British summer could throw at me. I still can’t believe I managed to finish bang on my original 72-day schedule. It just proves that when things go wrong, there is always a solution. Relentless forward momentum became the mantra. After Cho Oyu, I had questioned: “Am I really making the biggest difference to others in a tent, up a mountain halfway across the world?”.
So, I wanted to do something closer to home to give other people the chance to get involved and take the conversation about mental health to every corner of the UK. I was totally blown away, not only by the diversity and adventure available on home soil but the support and generosity received along the way. Hundreds came out to walk/cycle with me, I gave talks to over 1000 kids at four schools, and nearly £24,000 was raised for mental health charity Young Minds. We really do live in an amazing country with great people – it’s a shame we often only hear the negative bits.
'I wanted to do something closer to home to give other people the chance to get involved and take the conversation about mental health to every corner of the UK.'
What’s next on the horizon?
It’s taken much longer to recover physically and mentally than expected. I need to take it all in, reflect, and enjoy the freedom of not having to cycle anywhere! For once it’s nice to finally reach a goal. In the meantime, I’m back running again, staying busy with motivational speaking, and working on my second book. Quite excited to be a finalist in the JustGiving 2017 awards too.
Too many people are climbing their own daily mountains with mental illness and I want to find other ways to help, as so much more needs to be done. Climb The UK will be hard to top but obviously, another challenge will follow. The bike is in the corner and keeps looking at me. It won’t be long until I give in. Keep tuned!
If you’d like to learn more about Alex Staniforth you can pick up a copy of his inspirational memoir, Icefall, on his website. It’s an inspiring, uplifting book, which tells the story of Alex’s relentless journey to the top of the world and gives testimony to the defiance of the human spirit.
You can also visit Alex’s website to find out more about his journey so far: www.alexstaniforth.co.uk