Mountain man Lewsey tackles his biggest challenge
"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.
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.
"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 www.mounteverestclimb2010.com.
* If you'd like to make a £5 donation to Help the Heroes, text 'Everest' to 60999.