Alex Staniforth: Endurance Athlete

The fact that Alex Staniforth was plagued by adversity and epilepsy as a child makes the twenty-three year old’s CV all the more impressive. He made his first attempt on Everest when he was just eighteen, but was halted by an avalanche that killed sixteen people. Returning a year later, he was one of the teams trapped on the mountain by the 2015 earthquake that devastated Nepal and took the lives of three of Alex’s teammates. He told the story in his debut book, Icefall (named after the Khumbu Icefall, an infamously dangerous glacier on Everest).

Having struggled with depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, Alex is a vocal advocate for mental health awareness. In July 2017, he raised over £25,271 for the charity Young Minds UK (and he made his way into the record books at the same time) by becoming the fastest person ever to climb all one hundred UK county tops in seventy-two days. Earlier this year, he organised Mind Over Mountains in partnership with Adventure Uncovered, an inclusive event to promote the benefits of hill walking for mental and physical health.

Between adventures, Alex is an inspirational speaker, spreading his positive attitude in venues from schools to corporations. He took some time to give us some words of wisdom about adventure, health and the importance of challenging yourself.

On Adventure

Unlike many adventure speakers I focus on the ‘why’ behind my adventures. My draw to the outdoors isn’t so much about the passion for the places or the activities themselves. It was somewhere I felt I belonged and felt free from adversity. In the mountains and trying outdoor sports I was discovering a confidence I’d never had before, and that was hugely exciting. There was this continuous drive to achieve and find what else I could surprise myself with. From then on, I found my own approval and wasn’t afraid of being different anymore.

Alex Staniforth Icefall book

"Besides walking the dogs in North Wales with my family, there was nothing particularly adventurous until I was about thirteen years old"

The reason that I started doing outdoor challenges in the first place was to overcome adversity that had held me back. I think this is more relatable and therefore more inspiring than just showing lots of cool adventure photos and trying to be something I’m not. I’m inspired by anyone who raises the middle finger to adversity. One of my biggest inspirations in the adventure world is Mark Beaumont, who continues to push the bar in endurance cycling. His Round the World in 80 Days challenge motivated me to take on a spontaneous mini challenge [ed. You have a strange definition of ‘mini’!] cycling 310 miles from home to Edinburgh. It took me thirty-one hours instead of my twenty-four hour target – but knowing the mileage that Mark was managing on consecutive days took away any excuses I had for not trying it.

Besides walking the dogs in North Wales with my family and blasting around on a mountain bike there was nothing particularly adventurous until I was about thirteen years old. On holiday in Turkey  there was a lightbulb moment where I went paragliding and it stepped up massively. That was quite an extreme sport and a big decision for someone so young to make. Then I started rock climbing, scuba diving and planned a solo Three Peaks Challenge for charity.  

On Pushing Yourself

Every time we overcome something it raises a threshold and we want to challenge our beliefs and capabilities even further with bigger challenges. I find it’s very important to have a goal or something to aim for so you can track progress and it will hold you accountable when you don’t feel like exercising. Equally, you don’t need races or the competitive side to be active. Personally I always prefer training alone but some people find the company of a training partner or club helps with motivation. Just be wary that if you depend on someone else and their availability, whether it’s going to the gym together or a run, you could end up being limited.

"Don’t be put off if the enjoyment doesn’t come immediately – it’s often a strange ‘Type 2 fun’ where the satisfaction of exercise comes afterwards! "

climb the uk success via Alex Staniforth

I do take training seriously but I wouldn’t say I’m an ultra athlete, and I’m cool with that. My tip for anyone wanting to get fitter (it’s important to use the word ‘fitter’ as it’s a lot more encouraging than being ‘unfit’) would be to find something that you enjoy, otherwise it will be harder to motivate yourself. Don’t be put off if the enjoyment doesn’t come immediately – it’s often a strange ‘Type 2 fun’ where the satisfaction of exercise comes afterwards!

On Health

I was very lucky that my epilepsy was mild. My first seizure was at eight years old so my memory is patchy. I can’t remember the type but I had several seizures over a fairly short period before eventually going on medication. That one didn’t stop another seizure so I started taking Carbamazapine instead. I remember coming off this within a year and I’ve been seizure free for nearly fourteen years now. Occasionally I still get short episodes of lightheadedness, bright vision and ringing in my ears, like the onset of a seizure, but it never goes further. I’ve always wondered whether the seizures stopped because of the medication.

There’s been no prejudice about my epilepsy during my adventures. It’s rarely cropped up as so many years had passed since a seizure and it didn’t concern me. Only a handful of people ever brought it up, such as my expedition leader who needed to check the history as obviously a seizure on Everest would be a very serious situation. Also one of the common medications for altitude sickness, Diamox, is also an epilepsy drug. Many people often assume epilepsy is a lifelong thing and did question this after some interviews or talks I did. Equally it hasn’t affected any of my challenge plans because I think it’s too unlikely to come back to worry about. As a younger child I remember the anxiety of everyday tasks, from riding a bike to swimming, and feel grateful to be seizure-free for so long. Otherwise things would inevitably be different.

For a few years I had kept my mental health struggles to myself and close friends. To write about anxiety and depression in my book was quite easy but I never went into much detail. My eating disorder, however, was a secret until last year. Even my family didn’t know. For some silly reason it felt shameful and awkward, which of course it isn’t – eating disorders can affect men equally. The difficulty of this openness inspired my fundraising for mental health in the first place.

"There’s been no prejudice about my epilepsy during my adventures... I remember the anxiety of everyday tasks and feel grateful to be seizure-free for so long."

Before starting Climb The UK it was necessary to tell my full back story and explain why the cause was close to my heart. It was a terrifying prospect. But the response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Straight away came messages from other people about their own eating struggles – from people I never even expected – and suddenly it was obvious that I had an opportunity to inspire and give people hope by facing this fear. It wasn’t such a lonely battle anymore. Each time I mention it, the fear eases a little more, and by opening up I know it will help other people to be open. One story becomes multiple stories that gradually make these conversations easier for everyone.

On Icefall

It was always an ambition to publish a book following Everest and I had a publishing contract before going the second time round, on the naïve assumption that I would be successful. Obviously the mountain had different ideas! On the other hand there are lots of (probably too many) books about reaching the summit. After the earthquake in 2015 I assumed the book wouldn’t happen, but straight away my publisher agreed that I now had an even better story to tell. Being involved in the two biggest Everest disasters in two consecutive years was a pretty unique experience that I was the first to write about. Naturally I wanted to tell the story of what happened on the mountain but my own life story before that hadn’t changed. Like with my speaking, I hoped sharing the whole journey could inspire other people to take on their life challenges by challenging themselves.

On Hiking Around the World

I climbed as high as Camp 2 on Cho Oyu (the sixth highest peak in the world) in Tibet mostly as extra preparation for my planned third attempt at Everest. I wanted to give myself the best possible chance, test whether the passion was still there, and felt that reaching the summit would ‘put to bed’ some of the experiences from the year earlier on Everest. Obviously, I can’t compare difficulty with Everest because I didn’t climb as high on Everest but Tibet in general is very different to Nepal in many ways. You drive almost all the way to base camp so lose the enjoyment of trekking that you get in Nepal and as a result the altitude hit me more quickly and much worse. I was very badly ill within the first week and thought it was all over.

" Helicopters are banned on Cho Oyu, so if anything went wrong it would mean being carried a few hours until a Jeep could pick you up."

Alex Staniforth on Everest oxygen

Tibet is a bit of a concrete jungle. Off the road though, Cho Oyu was a much quieter mountain than Everest and felt more of an adventure being so off-grid. Helicopters are banned so if anything went wrong it would mean being carried a few hours until a Jeep could pick you up. Advanced base camp was stunningly beautiful though. There’s always other teams on the mountain but much fewer than Everest, and our team were fairly contained. The mountain hasn’t got an Icefall like Everest but had similar challenges with an ice wall below 7000 metres.

On Climb The UK many of the county high points were laughably insignificant. But one highlight was Ward Hill on the Orkney Isles in Scotland. Almost 360° views of turquoise coastline, prehistoric culture and an easy stomp. Something about it just felt very surreal.

On Advocacy and Adversity

With epilepsy there is clearly a need for advocates and awareness about a condition that massively impacts the lives of many people. It’s important though to be focused on one particular cause to make an impact, and I feel that mental health has a much bigger and current impact on my life, and that I am more educated about it.

I would tell anyone who’s just been diagnosed to try not to worry about things you can’t control and take it one step at a time. It’s easier said than done but we often waste energy creating scenarios that probably won’t happen and there’s almost always a solution. And lastly to remember that we don’t always get to choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond!

Alex Staniforth on the summit of Moel Famau, N Wales - credit A Kozdyrk
Alex Staniforth on the summit of Moel Famau, North Wales, at the end of his Climb The UK Challenge. Photo credit A Kozdyrk

On the Future

I’m working on a new book as fast as I can but don’t want to give too much away. It will follow on from Icefall and will focus on last year’s Climb The UK challenge whilst telling an inspiring personal journey through mental health – but this won’t be your typical adventure book either. Keep tuned!

I’m hoping to set up another ‘Mind Over Mountains’ event to help more people get the positive mental health benefits from hill-walking and being outdoors. Please follow my social media channels for updates as it would be great to connect with people in the SYA community looking for opportunities to achieve above adversity and seize their adventures.

You can find out more about Alex on his website, alexstaniforth.com and follow him on social media here:

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