During life in the time of the novel coronavirus, people make do.
An ultramarathoner whose race was canceled ran 100 miles in rural Florida. Another ran 262 miles to win the Quarantine Backyard Ultra in his northern Virginia neighborhood.
And then there’s Rob Ferguson. A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and ambassador for Arcteryx, he is a photographer and writer who says he likes to focus on the human side of adventuring, telling stories of climate change, sustainability projects and coping with extreme environments.
When his trip to Nepal to chronicle how Everest is being cleaned up in the Tenzing Everest Challenge was postponed, he climbed the mountain differently, going up and down, up and down, up and down the steps of his suburban London apartment building.
He used a half-flight of the stairs to the second floor because that was all the camera recording his accomplishment on Zoom could capture. After 24 hours and 30 minutes, he had ascended and, of course, descended, the mountain.
“Basically,” he said in a phone interview from his suburban London home, “I went up and down eight steps 6,506 times.”
There’s a lot to be said for climbing Everest in your stairwell. It’s cheaper, it’s warmer, it isn’t icy or snowy, there’s less danger of dying, it requires less gear and no oxygen, it’s far less scary and there are no crowds, no trash to leave behind on the mountain. The downside? The view leaves a lot to be desired and there’s numbing tedium.
But there was a larger purpose to Ferguson’s climb. He was raising money for the Royal Medical Benevolent Fund. He set out at 7:15 a.m. on April 9, with Jenny Wordsworth and Lucy Aspden accompanying him via social media.
“Basically, these were the three people stupid enough to put their hand up” to do this, Ferguson joked. Their purpose was to highlight what “people are going through in lockdown, as well as to raise money” for the “legacy care that will be required” once the pandemic eases.
“I’m a qualified physiotherapist and one of the other team members is married to a doctor,” Ferguson, 51, explained, adding that he has been working with the National Health Service. “What we’ve done during the pandemic is basically taken off one hat and put on another hat that is more useful to society.”
Although Wordsworth and Aspden had to drop out, Ferguson kept going and going, finishing at 7:45 a.m. the next day, covering 58,058 feet for an ascent and descent of the mountain from sea level to its peak.
Ferguson also made the “climb” barefoot.
“When I first started going up and down the stairs, I did one flight in my trainers and it was making this tapping noise on the stairs as I was coming back down again,” he said, “and I thought, ‘That’s not going to work over 24 hours or something,’ so I took my shoes off and did the rest of it barefoot.”
Ferguson “stopped every 50 or 100 flights of stairs for a drink or a little snack – the longest was for probably 10 minutes, so it was pretty much nonstop” over the nearly 25 hours. Along the way, there were plenty of times he considered quitting the quest.
“I’d be fibbing if I said that stopping hadn’t crossed my mind. I had about 1,000 flights of steps to go and in the early hours of Friday, it did feel like a fairly insurmountable task with about four hours of going up and down still to do. I did toy with the idea of stopping and thought, ‘I’m not going to make the 24-hour mark.’ There were a number of factors that kept me from stopping and one of them was that I was kind of used to going through that moment from the expeditions I’ve done. There’s always that moment when you’re left to your own devices and the voices in your head can tell you to do something. It was a matter of pushing through that. I thought that the people we were doing this for didn’t have that luxury of quitting.
“Even when I’ve been in Norway or the middle of the desert in the U.S., there has always been the option to stop. It may not be the preferred option, but you have that choice whereas the medical professionals and drivers and cleaners and cooks and all the people supporting the machine that is fighting COVID-19 don’t have that option. They can hit that wall and the only choice they’ve really got is to keep going.”
He pushed past and, when he finished, he wanted a shower.
“I washed my feet. I went for a bit of a walk outside and I looked back at the stairs and I had another go,” he said. “I just wanted to do it again and see if I hated it. But it was fine.”
As for what comes next, that depends partly on the coronavirus. He’ll continue to work with the NHS and do some modest planning.
“We’re due to go hopefully over to Nepal in October,” he said. “If not, it doesn’t matter. If not, we can in 2021 – the mountain will still be there. The people will still be there and one element of the story I’ll be addressing is the post-COVID world.”
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