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This Adventurer Is A Death-Defying Veteran At 23

On a mission to raise mental health awareness, 23-year-old Alex Staniforth has bounced back from bullying and defied disaster on Everest to become a record-breaking adventurer and award-winning fundraiser

At the age of 18, when most of us were attempting to break free from adolescence, Alex Staniforth was attempting to climb the highest mountain on Earth. An earthquake and massive avalanche – resulting in the tragic deaths of 16 sherpas – forced him to abandon the attempt, but Staniforth was undeterred and returned to Everest the following year… only for the same series of events to unfold again. On his second attempt, three sherpas lost their lives and Staniforth was left stranded on the mountainside for two days. He had survived the two deadliest years in Everest’s history.

Despite those experiences, the mountain remains at the summit of Staniforth’s ambitions. However, in recent years his attention has been focused far closer to home and in July 2017 he became a record-breaker: climbing all 100 UK county tops in just 72 days – the fastest person ever to do so. Motivated by memories of childhood bullying and a recent history of mental health issues, he has raised over £85,000 for charity, and hopes his endurance challenges can encourage others to open up about their own, personal struggles.

I’ve been on expeditions with people three times my age and found that experience and mindset matter most

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Q: Have your Everest experiences made you more fearful, or more determined to return and reach the summit?
A:
‘They definitely gave me a bigger respect and appreciation for the environment we were in, but more importantly they changed my perspective on life. Our first expedition in 2014 ended badly when an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall tragically killed 16 climbing Sherpas, the day before we arrived at Everest base camp.’

‘In 2015 we returned and were moving through the Khumbu Icefall to Camp One. I was climbing alone about 30 minutes from camp when a colossal earthquake hit Nepal that morning. Our team got hit by a big powder avalanche and for the first time in my life I genuinely believed it was all over. We were unhurt but trapped at Camp One (6,050 metres) for two days with aftershocks and the constant threat of avalanches. We had no idea that base camp below had been obliterated like a bomb blast by a much bigger avalanche, sadly taking over 20 lives. Those sights will be printed in our minds forever.’

‘I realised how we’re in control of so little around us and rather than waste energy being fearful about what could happen, to focus on what we can control and live life to our fullest potential. It hasn’t really changed my view towards the mountain although the sense of achievement now would obviously be so much bigger than it would from getting to the top first time, and would probably bring some closure to the whole experience.’

Q: As an adventurer, does the fact you’re 23 years old help or hinder you?
A:
‘It has pros and cons. Being younger usually means being doubted, but age has never mattered to me, personally. I’ve been on expeditions with people three times my age and found that experience and mindset are what matter most. It can be harder to be taken seriously sometimes, but equally people are usually more supportive and willing to help, especially when finding sponsorship and raising money for charity.’

Q: You were the victim of bullying when you were younger – has that experience fuelled your determination to achieve the extraordinary?
A:
‘Initially, discovering outdoor adventure and exercise was a way of “fighting back” and proving the bullies wrong. It gave a sense of achievement and confidence that the bullying took away from me. We don’t always get to choose our challenges in life, but we can choose how we respond.’

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Q: You Climbed The UK to get ‘every corner of the UK talking about mental health’ – what’s your own experience with mental health issues, and how has adventure helped?
A:
‘Mental illness has affected me since childhood and to this day, in various ways. I suffered with anxiety and panic attacks resulting from childhood epilepsy, then a running injury in my teens triggered depression and an eating disorder which still affect me regularly today.’

‘I don’t think mental health issues really go away completely – we just learn to manage the peaks and troughs better. Outdoor challenges and running have been my way of doing this. It’s not a cure, but the endorphins and fresh air give me a reason to get out of bed and see the world more positively. Climb The UK was about encouraging others to discover the benefits of the outdoors for themselves and showing that it’s not a sign of weakness to speak about mental health.’

Q: How tough was CTUK, physically, and was there a county that stands out as the hardest to summit?
A:
‘Obviously I can’t compare it to climbing Everest but Climb The UK was definitely the hardest challenge yet. For 72 days, it was the daily grind of cycling up to 120 miles, walking/ running up to 22 miles, climbing two or three mountains in one day, and sometimes enduring 18-hour days in the worst weather the UK could throw at me. There were days shivering in a sleeping bag with a chest infection, a sprained quad muscle and hypothermia in the middle of nowhere – sometimes it got too much and I ended up sobbing like a baby, alone on a mountain!’

‘Like most challenges it’s 90% mental and 10% physical – my legs just kept going, although I lost over a stone and was so exhausted I literally fell off the bike at the foot of Snowdon.’

Q: What’s next for you?
A:
‘This year I’ve been writing my second book, Out of my Mind, about Climb The UK and the link between the outdoors and mental health, which will be published next Spring by Trigger Press. Next year I’ll be trying to break a world record (watch this space) as well as the 2:45 mark at London Marathon, before my next big endurance challenge to raise more money for mental health.’

Alex Staniforth is an ambassador for YHA England & Wales, Ellis Brigham and The Westgrove Group. He released his first book, Icefall, in 2016, and has raised over £85,000 for various charities and causes. Find out more at Alexstaniforth.com.

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