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Top of the world

He’s rowed the Atlantic and spent a year living with a group of strangers on a remote Scottish island, but Ben Fogle reveals why his attempt to conquer Everest was his biggest challenge yet.

T here is one piece of advice that Ben Fogle’s grandmother gave him that he has never forgotten.

“She would always say to me, ‘Look up, Ben’,” he says. “Travel on any commuter train and you’ll see people looking down at their phones, their newspapers, their feet, anywhere. It is like we have evolved into a downward-looking species.”

Last year, his grandmother’s words were again at the forefront of his mind as he stood at the base of Everest about to embark on his biggest challenge yet.

In the weeks that followed he would battle avalanches, snow storms and a succession of faulty equipment, but all the time he was determined to fulfil a childhood dream and realise a promise he’d made to the son he would tragically never see grow up.

It was 2014 when Fogle’s life came crashing down around him as his eight-month pregnant wife was rushed to hospital. Shortly afterwards, the couple’s much longed for third child Willem was stillborn and no one was sure whether Marina would make it through the night.

The hours Fogle spent at her bedside in intensive care were some of the longest he’d ever experienced, but during those dark days he quietly made a pledge never to waste another moment.

“I stared at little Willem and made a resolution that I would live the rest of my life for the two of us, that I would relish every day.”

It was then that Fogle’s thoughts, not for the first time, turned to Everest.

“As a young boy, summiting Everest represented the pinnacle of human endeavour,” he says. “It required grit, strength, bravery and confidence. It was a mountain that attracted the brave few; the romantics pursuing their goal of standing at the top of the world.”

Following in the footsteps of his heroes appeared the natural next step for Fogle, who has always seemed a born adventurer. However, as a child he admits he was neither sporty nor academic and often found himself on the outside looking in.

The turning point came when he answered an advertisement looking for people willing to spend a year living on a remote Scottish island for a new BBC show called Castaway.

It was his big break and by the time the final instalment was aired, Fogle had been inundated with offers of work.

“It hit the sweet spot for reality TV,” he says. “It was in its infancy and I was lucky. Really, really lucky. There were 36 of us on that island and after 12 months, we were a happier, healthier, more efficient group of people. In some ways, I have been chasing that beautiful, simple life ever since.”

That desire for an off-grid life is why he rowed across the Atlantic and raced across the Antarctic with James Cracknell and it was why he found himself staring up at the peak of Everest with mountaineering expert Kenton Cool and former Team GB cyclist Victoria Pendleton.

He’d persuaded the newly retired Olympian to join him after meeting her at a corporate lunch event and together the trio spent two years training for the Everest ascent. Fogle admits what surprised him the most about Pendleton was her search for almost unobtainable perfection.

“During training we’d often climb mountains in record time. We would all be euphoric except for Victoria who would be criticising herself for the extra two minutes she spent stopping on the way up.

“It was so inconsequential, but Victoria never let it go. It was like perpetual disappointment.”

It’s something Fogle can to a degree understand. While he has come a long way from the kid who never got picked first for any school teams, the feelings of low self-esteem which plagued his early years haven’t entirely gone away.

“It has been a constant companion,” he says. “The inferiority. The failure. The lack of confidence. Those early failures damaged my self-esteem and I have spent my life trying to achieve and succeed as a way of ridding them. I will never feel truly content. I will always try to push myself more and take myself out of my comfort zone.”

Everest was also out of Pendleton’s comfort zone and unfortunately when her oxygen levels plummeted as the team reached base camp two she had no option but to abandon her attempt.

At Pendleton’s insistence, Fogle continued on, but for a while it seemed the mountain was against them.

“Nothing can prepare you for the avalanches which sound like Everest itself is roaring and when our oxygen reserves became depleted because of a fault on the bottles I honestly thought the summit had slipped from our grasp.”

However, despite the many and various setbacks at 7.30am on May 16th last year, Fogle found himself on the top of the world, the same spot Edmund Hillary had stood some 65 years earlier.

“The sky was crystal clear. There was very little wind and the sun was beating down on us. It was confusing and overwhelming. It felt like my epiphany. It was like a direct shaft of light from high above was shining onto me.”

It was by anyone’s standards an incredible achievement, but back home the post-expedition blues hit Fogle hard.

“Everest was much more than just a mountain climb. The lack of oxygen leaves many summiteers with brain damage of varying degrees. It took me many months until I recognised myself again. I was forgetful. I couldn’t focus. The world was slightly dream-like. I don’t think I left a piece of myself there, but Everest will always be a part of me.”

Almost a year on, life is back to normal or at least as normal as it gets for Fogle. He recently embarked on a new series of New Lives in the Wild, is making a documentary about man’s impact on Africa and he’s just released his first children’s book Mr Dog. There’s also a one-man tour, but at some point, he is planning to squeeze in a family sabbatical.

“I like the idea of a family adventure. Something we can share. Learn together. A memory that we can all share in later life. I feel so lucky to have spent time with people all over the world who have done just that. I want my children to have the same opportunities. Spelling and maths will only get you so far in life. Chopping wood, building shelters and foraging for your own food can get you even further.”

For the most part Fogle practices what he preaches, but his one weakness is a liking for vintage and antique ornaments, which is currently manifesting itself in an obsession for old model pond yachts.

However, when he goes to bed at night it’s thoughts of the next adventure which usually sends him to sleep.

“I still dream about Everest, but now it has contours and substance,” he says. “I can feel the sun on my skin and the snow beneath my boots. The scrape of the crampons. I find myself dreaming of the oceans again. Maybe it is a call. Sent from somewhere faraway.”

Ben Fogle, Tales of the Wilderness, Leeds Town Hall, March 8th; York Barbican, March 10th.