In less than three months’ time, intrepid amateur climbers Tom Lancaster, 27, and Jonny Briggs, 29, will undertake a rather unusual challenge: racing against each other to become the first person ever to climb the height of Mount Everest on an artificial wall. Their mission will involve 738 ascents each on a 12-metre-high indoor climbing wall near Reading, UK, during which time they will rack up a cumulative height of 8,854 metres and at least 15 hours of continuous climbing. Whoever completes the challenge first will set a new Guinness World Record.
It’s a strange challenge – many keen and ambitious climbers might simply wish to work towards the real thing. But, for Lancaster in particular, the task has less to do with winning “15 minutes of fame”, as he puts it, and more to do with celebrating the life of his school outdoor activities tutor at Marlborough College in Wiltshire, mountaineer Rupert Rosedale, who died in an avalanche on Ben Nevis in 2009.
The Longest Climb, as the challenge has been named, is dedicated to Rosedale’s memory and one of the main aims is to raise funds for Mountain Rescue England, a charity that coordinates mountain search and rescue missions across the country. Lancaster and Briggs are also hoping to raise funds for Amnesty UK and Heart UK and, so far, have collected £1,545 from supporters.
The pair started training in December 2009, with a view to undertaking the challenge in June 2010. But they suffered a number of setbacks, including injuries, and delays to their schedule caused by construction work at their London climbing centre. After a three-month break, they started training again and have finally settled on the weekend of March 11/12, when they will climb live at the British Leisure Show at Royal Windsor Racecourse.
You’ve been into climbing and outdoor activities since you were young. Have you always wanted to do this particular challenge, or is it only since Rupert died that you’ve thought of it?
Actually I decided to do the challenge for two reasons: the first was to commemorate Rupert in some way, but the second is harder to explain. For some reason I’ve wanted to scale the height of Everest on an indoor wall ever since I first started climbing when I was 14. For some unknown reason the idea has been in my head since then. It’s quite bizarre because climbing indoors is an entirely different thing from climbing outdoors, where you have to factor in so many more risks – the weather, the rock face, for example. The challenges of indoor climbing are more related to speed, technique and fitness-building – some people would say that it’s not really climbing at all. But nonetheless, I’ve always wanted to do it.
Then, when Rupert died, the news hit me quite hard. I can honestly say that he was one of the most important people in making me who I am – almost as much as my parents. He taught me everything I know about climbing, and other stuff about outdoor survival, for example, and because of who he was as a person, I really identified with him and he became more like a friend than a teacher. This was true for others, not just me – he was just a very special person. So when I heard the news that he’d been killed, I wanted to do something in memory of him, and I thought, why not do the ‘Everest’ challenge? My colleague, Jonny [Both Lancaster and Briggs work in film editing], is also a keen climber, and we’ve climbed a bit together at the Castle indoor climbing centre in north-east London, so I mentioned the idea to him, thinking he’d say how ridiculous it was, but in fact he agreed to do it with me!
Did you ever consider climbing Mount Everest for real?
Climbing Everest has never really interested me because a) it’s phenomenally dangerous and the danger is uncontrollable – technically it’s not that hard but it’s tough because of the weather and the altitude – and b) because it’s hugely overcrowded. The last thing you’d want to do while climbing up a mountain of that scale is to have to queue to get over a rock outcrop – and I’ve heard that does happen. Also, people treat it with such disrespect, you see these pictures of detritus all over the place – it just doesn’t interest me. That’s not to say I don’t love mountaineering but, for me, being outdoors is about feeling that you’re somewhere nobody has ever been before rather than following a well-trodden path.
Once we’ve completed The Longest Climb I’m hoping to get back into climbing outdoors. I used to do more of this when I was younger but, in recent years, other areas of life, work for instance, starts taking over and so indoor climbing is all I’ve really managed to do on a regular basis. I’d like to spend time climbing in South America, and other places in the Himalayas too, but just not Everest!
How are you and Jonny preparing for the challenge?
It would be great if we could get some kind of corporate sponsor as then we could concentrate on training full time. But as it is we both have permanent jobs so we have to fit it in when we can. At the moment we’re climbing about three times a week and doing gym and cycling sessions on top of that. Part of the reason why we took three months off last year, apart from the injuries and delays, was because we were beginning to get tired and frustrated with the climbing and also just a little bit sick of each other – we were spending so much time together! But we started training again a few weeks before Christmas and will ramp it up in the weeks leading up to the event. The thing with climbing indoors is that there are no real dangers. There is technical skill involved that we will need to practise, but essentially it’s an endurance test – we will be doing the same, relatively easy, route over and over again.
But ultimately, the most important thing for me is raising the profile of the challenge. I want to make it as big as possible so that we can raise as much money as possible for the charities, which is why we set up the website and the Facebook page and have appeared on regional radio, and generally led a national campaign to promote The Longest Climb. The way I feel about it is this: If we don’t raise much more money than what we’ve raised now, but we complete the challenge and one of us gets the record, I would consider it all to have been a failure. But if we fail at the challenge but raise masses of money, it will have been a success.