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Mountain man Lewsey tackles his biggest challenge

Bryn Palmer | 19:32 UK time, Wednesday, 24 March 2010

"I am not great at altitude," says Josh Lewsey as he sips a mint tea in a café on The Strand.

On the face of it, this seems quite an admission for someone about to tackle Everest. Even if he is a World Cup winner. Lewsey may have reached the summit of his sport, but this is the top of the world.

The former Wasps and England full-back must curb his natural competitive instincts if he is to succeed in a challenge far and above any of the peaks he scaled in his rugby career. The only prize for trying to beat everyone else up Everest is a serious case of altitude sickness and then evacuation off the mountain - if you are lucky.

"There is a fear of failure," Lewsey acknowledges. "There is also the fear of being crap at something. When you are used to playing sport and being physically confident in your own ability, and then you see a 52kg girl carrying half her body weight whistling away past you, and your lungs are burning and you feel as though you can't move...well, it is something you are not used to. But perhaps it is quite a healthy lesson.

"I take longer than other people to acclimatize. But we are in the Himalayas for two months, and hopefully that is long enough to give us the best opportunity possible to summit."

Only a year on from his final game for Wasps and the end of his professional rugby life, Lewsey is hoping to add another, significant, entry to his already bulging CV.

Josh Lewsey

With his former Army mate Major Keith Reesby, a Lynx helicopter pilot who was shot in the arm and chest on one of three tours of Iraq and most recently served in Afghanistan, he sets off next week to climb the world's highest mountain.

If all goes to plan, they hope to reach the summit, via the more difficult North Col from the Tibet side, sometime in May.

It will not be the first time the pair, who were in the same platoon at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst 10 years ago, have tasted life at high altitude. In 2006, when Lewsey took a summer off from the rigours of rugby, they trekked up to the base camp (at 18,000 feet, or 5,500m) of K2, the world's second highest peak, in the Karakoram Himalaya in Pakistan.

"We didn't tell people at the time, but that was a 'reccie' for something bigger and better," says Lewsey, for whom the experience was not wholly positive.

He suffered from a facial edema as altitude sickness set in, an experience he likens to "the worst hangover you've ever had, for five days solid, but as if you are suffering sea-sickness at the same time."

Not pleasant then? "Very debilitating," Lewsey confirms.

But that wasn't enough to put him off, and nor was his most recent experience. As a warm-up for Everest, Lewsey and Reesby set out to climb Cerro Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes last month, the highest mountain (almost 23,000ft, or 7,000m) in the world outside Asia.

Reesby made it to the top. Josh didn't.

"I got turned around [at 6200m] on summit day," Lewsey recalls ruefully. "What is scary is that I said I was fine. Our guide said I wasn't. There was a bit of an argument...Apparently I had fallen off a traverse in the wrong spot. Now if you do that higher up, there is no coming back is there? I was quite delirious as well..."

It is not a memory Lewsey wishes to dwell on, understandably. If he thought too hard about the consequences of a similar scenario on Everest, he'd never get on the plane, let alone make it to Base Camp.

Fortunately, he says, he hasn't had much time to contemplate the potential danger he is putting himself in.

Amid all the endurance training - daily running and cycling, exercising on low oxygen - and technical skills he and Reesby (both 'complete novice climbers' a year ago) have acquired in the last year, Lewsey has launched himself into a new career as a management consultant.

"The idea is that when I come back from the Himalayas I can hit the ground running, or at least pretend as if I know what I am talking about," says the man who has swapped his sweaty training gear for a sharp suit, dapper tie and shiny shoes, even if he is wrestling with the problem of a lost Blackberry this particular morning.

Lewsey does a nice line in self-deprecation but he has little to be modest about. He was only 32 when he 'retired' (a wholly inappropriate description of his post-rugby life), with a World Cup, Grand Slam, four Premiership titles, two Heineken Cups, a European Challenge Cup and 55 England caps in his locker, amongst other honours.

He could have played on, and remains in touch with his former team-mates - "mainly when they are having a day off and remind me that I am in the office". But for one so full of energy and ideas, seven years at the elite end of his sport (he only bought himself out of the Army the year before England's World Cup triumph, deciding he could not reach his full potential by continuing to combine both) was enough.

Josh Lewsey

"Leaving rugby was a big choice for me," Lewsey reflects. "I played it for 28 years and I absolutely love the game. But I wanted to go and do something different, and am delighted I made the decision when I did.

"It's a big cultural change, and very different to playing rugby for a living. I am thoroughly enjoying it but before I throw myself into real life entirely and the responsibility of a proper job and family life, I always wanted to do something like this."

'This' being Everest, the culmination of a dream that first took root as a five-year-old boy introduced to the Black Mountains of South Wales, from where Lewsey's mother hails. "They are not the Himalayas but when you are five or six they seem quite imposing. I have always found something quite mystical and alluring about mountains."

Having devoured stories of the great British mountaineers and early Everest expeditions, the emotive pull of attempting the same North-East Ridge route that ultimately proved fatal for the legendary George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in 1924, proved irresistible to the patriot in Lewsey.

He accepts there is a 'selfish element' to the challenge, but he and Reesby also hope to raise a mountain of money for Help the Heroes, the charity for British servicemen injured in recent conflicts.

"Keith and I were in the Army together and then I went off to play for my country on the rugby field, and he went off to fight for his country on the battlefield, so there is a bit of synergy there," Lewsey explains.

So how might one so driven feel about not reaching this particular goal? After all, "there are so many things that can go wrong - whether your body will cope with the altitude, whether you get ill or injured, whether you get the right weather window...climbing is just one thing."

"This is a real test, but if it was easy, you wouldn't do it, would you? You are not going to get many opportunities in your life and I want to take it while I can."

If he seizes it with the same alacrity he did the chances that came his way during his rugby career, you wouldn't bet against him.

* You can follow Josh's progress on Everest via

* If you'd like to make a £5 donation to Help the Heroes, text 'Everest' to 60999.


  • Comment number 1.

    I almost couldn't believe the guy in the first picture was Josh Lewsey. Looks like he's lost a bit of weight since quitting rugby.
    Good luck to him.

  • Comment number 2.

    I wish him the best of luck but hope his inexperience doesn't kill him or his fellow climbers.

  • Comment number 3.

    Good luck guys! And when you've done that, could you come back to Wasps? We've not been quite the same since you left!

  • Comment number 4.

    Best of luck to Josh and Reesby. Both have already done the country proud before and will no doubt do it again. Hope you raise lots of money for a very worthy cause.

  • Comment number 5.

    Good luck to the both of them!!

    Bryn I think you meant to write "country" not "county" in this part? >>>>>>
    "Keith and I were in the Army together and then I went off to play for my county on the rugby field, and he went off to fight for his country on the battlefield,

  • Comment number 6.

    Wow, this is quite a task that Josh is taking on. I have visited base camp on the Tibetan side and spent a few hours with an expedition who were attempting to climb the North Col. I discovered that the chances of a successful attempt are very low. The tiniest change in weather can cause disaster.
    I fear for Josh if he had to be turned around at 6200m previously. He's got another 2500m of altitude including the 'death zone' nearing the top.
    But i'm sure he wouldn't be taking it on if he didn't think he could succeed. Good luck to them and i'll certainly be sponsoring!

  • Comment number 7.

    I agree wholeheartedly with #2. As great as making lots of money for charity is, it's not worth potentially endangering the life of other people.

    Judging from his past issues at attitude it doesn't look like the odds are in his favour and frankly I'm amazed he's been allowed/able to get insured to attempt this.

    Hopefully if he does start to suffer he will do the sensible thing and go back down the mountain and not risk the safety of others on what is already a dangerous ascent.

  • Comment number 8.

    Good luck Josh ignore JimJones!

  • Comment number 9.

    What a guy, a credit to the sport and to England - good luck and no quick games of touch rugby on the summit!

  • Comment number 10.

    Best of luck guys.
    Even if they don't make the summit, I think they deserve credit for even feeling ready to take on Everest with so little experience behind them. I know I wouldn't feel able to do it.

  • Comment number 11.

    Frankly Lewsey should never have retired when he did.

    The way Johnson treated him was a disgrace, and as a Scotland fan I was really disappointed when he retired. Armitage wasn't close to filling his boots, but Foden is a character in a similar mould.

    Good luck to him.

  • Comment number 12.

    Good luck to the both of them!

  • Comment number 13.

    What a challenge for a great cause. Lewsey was an awesome player and if he puts the same amount of determination into this as he did into his rugby career he'll go some way to reaching the summit. Here's hoping that the elements don't conspire against him. My mate Ranny was looking good halfway up the Lhotse Face when a storm closed in and his party had to turn back. The best of luck to you Josh!

  • Comment number 14.

    Wish he had punched Cipriani a bit harder.

  • Comment number 15.

    jimjones has a valid point, Everest is no walk in the park seasoned pro climbers have died up there.
    Hypoxia leads to a state of euphoria, hence you do not appreciate the situation properly, I am sure they will have a team around them to call the correct shots if required, but all the best to the guys I hope they have great weather and a trouble free ascent/descent.

  • Comment number 16.

    Re: No 1) Gavelaa. You're right. Josh said he's lost more than a stone in weight since he retired from rugby last year, through all the endurance training.

    Re: 5) Chiko - thanks for spotting that typo - have now corrected it.

    Re: 2) JimJones, 6) jurynow and 7) Craig - Josh is well aware of the dangers, he is not entering it this lightly. He's done a lot of training at the Altitude Centre in London - - and they are going with a commercial firm who put the infrastructure in place. It is 'professionally led but non-guided' so they are responsible for getting themselves between the various camps. Josh says one of the biggest challenges is having to 'administer yourself' at altitude, which is not the sort of thing that tends to be mentioned much. As he puts it: "Things like going to the toilet into a bag when it is minus 30 outside...or you trying to control toilet paper in a howling gale!...things like that tend to grind you down over a period of time."

  • Comment number 17.

    All the best of luck, it sounds like a fantastic adventure.
    I wouldn't wish to be negative, but as some of the other posters here have mentioned it is a risky business. As long as you appreciate that you have to stay within your own abilities you'll be ok, because no matter how much organisation and support is around you up there you are way, way outside the normal safety net we live our lives in. I know from experience in this region that when things go wrong no-one else can save you so you've got to be fully self reliant.
    On a cheerier note the local people are fantastic and the views aren't bad either!

  • Comment number 18.

    Good luck Josh,will follow your progress with interest.I don't personally have any fear of heights,but l can sympathise with those who view of that,this is an awesome effort and for a very worthwhile cause...happy climbing!

  • Comment number 19.

    Go on Josh, hope you succeed on this incredibly difficult task. I doubt it will be more satisfying than breaking aussie ribs for a living though :)

  • Comment number 20.

    Not sure if it's such a good idea when the two lads have only one year's climbing experience to be going tackling Everest.
    Have a read of "Into Thin Air" for an account of how inexperienced climbers on Everest are a recipe for disaster.

    Everest (especially the Northern approach) should only be attempted after bulding up significant experience of climbing experience (and also ice-climbing experience). You can only do so much in training, and you really should to rack up plenty of mountain time on less lethal mountains before tacking one of the 8,000+ mountains.

    That said, best of luck to the two lads. Hopefully things will all go in their favour and they have a successfull expidition. Maybe they could even do the world a favour and stumble accross Sandy Irvine's camera on their way up!

  • Comment number 21.

    i literally only just got a 'bbc id' simply to write about this one article.
    This is because i generally believe josh lewsey to be the best full back to have ever worn the english journey or, dare i say, the best full back in rugby history. He is in close competition with christian cullen but, as a big follower of rugby, i rate him very highly. This, as well as being a big fan of his personality (through his book 'one chance',) made me want to show my support for his attempt to climb everest on this blog. If i could chose, truly, who i could meet in the whole world, now or in the past, this would be the guy, as he is an absolute legend. His tackle on matt rogers will forever be in my memory and i will support help for heroes through him.

  • Comment number 22.

    Good luck Josh and co. Interestingly enough Richard Parks the former Wales flanker is training for an attack on Everest along with both Poles and some other stuff.

    He has lost a load of weight whilst doing the endurance training too. Over 3 stone from his playing days apparently.

    Good luck and good fun to all you chaps on your adventures in the name of good causes.

  • Comment number 23.

    I think jackarmstrong93 is a bit deluded to think Lewsey is up there with the best full-backs in history. Did he ever see Serge Blanco play? JPR Williams? Jason Robinson? Matt Burke? Gavin Hastings and Chris Latham also. I am not sure Cullen quite makes it as he was a bit flaky under pressure. Lewsey's main quality was determination allied with mental and physical strength, but he didn't set the pulse racing when he was given the ball. He has a lot of medals in the cabinet, but he is not in the pantheon of greats.

    Good luck to him in the climb however. Unfortunately, if you are prone to altitude sickness there is only so much acclimatisation you can do. Some people are genetically predisposed to developing high altitude pulmonary and cerebral oedema and some are not. It appears Josh may be in the problem group. The power of positive thinking mantra of the 90s early noughties cannot overcome everything.

  • Comment number 24.

    juggernaut67, there is a reason why lewsey has so many medals, cause he is so damn good! he definately made mine and most of the crowds (whenever i went to Twickenham) pulse rise when he ran and why else would someone like jeremy guscott (quote) say "pound for pound probably the best player in Europe." It is up to ur opinion and Jeremy's but in my opinion, he was the best england had at full back without question. Just look at his tries and tackles on youtube, especially the hit on de villiers which was voted 'the best tackle ever seen at twickenham.'


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