Rugby had controlled my life, I had gone into it straight from school, and overnight, if I didn’t play rugby, who was I?
Ex-Welsh rugby international Richard Parks was at a loss what to do when an injury meant he could no longer play the beautiful game. Inspired by a quote he heard at his grandmother’s funeral and a book by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the former rugby star decided to push himself to the limits and went onto climb seven mountains and reach the three poles in a record-breaking time. We speak to him as he prepares for his biggest challenge of all… climbing Everest without oxygen
The colossal rugby star was broken when the surgeon gave him the news… After playing rugby since the age of 11, the 31-year-old sports star was told that he would no longer be able to play anymore. After two operations that tried to rebuild his shattered shoulder, the surgeon explained that to Richard Parks that there was nothing more they could do – he wouldn’t be strong enough to play another game. The Welsh international admits that he hit a deep depression – without the sport that had been a large part of his life, he wasn’t sure who he was any longer. He was a sports star who couldn’t play sport.
But then when he was at his grandmother’s funeral Parks heard a quote that would inspire him, and combined with a book he was reading by Sir Ranulph Fiennes he found a new goal in life and set himself a challenge that would make any veteran explorer think twice. He used his insurance money, life savings, and his parents re-mortgaged their house so that he could finish the 737 challenge – climbing the seven highest mountains in seven continents and standing on the three poles in seven months. From the success of the 737 challenge, he then went on to ski solo to the South Pole.
He is now about to be the first Welshman to climb Everest without oxygen. He is carrying out the feat to help further research in dementia as Parks will collect blood samples and muscle tissue from the summit so they can see the effects on the body when it’s lacking oxygen. While he calls his training for the challenge “brutal” he doesn’t consider himself an adrenalin junkie. In fact, he explains that he is “risk averse”. His expeditions have only been a success because of his meticulous planning. We speak to him about the challenges that have helped prepare him for this moment…
Your first challenge was the 737 challenge – to climb the seven highest mountains on seven continents, and reach the three poles in seven months… How did you come up with the challenge?
I had been a professional rugby player for 12 years, played internationally, won cups, and had a good career, but it was taken from me through injury, I tore the cartilage out of my right shoulder, rendering it arthritic.
It was as if the bottom had fallen out of my world. At the time it was as if I had just fallen off the edge of the cliff emotionally, and I was lost and scared, angry and frustrated. I wasn’t ready to retire, and I hadn’t achieved what I wanted to. I didn’t know what to do with myself – it’s not often talked about in transition; the hardest thing for me was my self-image and my self-worth. Rugby had controlled my life, I had gone into it straight from school, and overnight, if I didn’t play rugby, who was I? It was a really difficult period for me. There was a sentence from my late grandmother’s funeral; the horizon is only the limit of our sight. This completely rocked me, and became the strap line for the 737 challenge, and also it has been a real life metaphor for me now. So that, and reading a book by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, gave me the courage and the inspiration to change my perspective and pick myself up and channel my energy into something positive, which was mountains! I certainly didn’t have a plan but once I learnt of the concept of the seven summits, it just completely captivated me. Seven is a lucky number for me too!
When did you decide to add in the three poles (North Pole, South Pole and Everest summit), as well as completing it all in seven months?
I think that is one of the real beauties of this story that I don’t often get the chance to share. It was a number of people that I met along that journey, all of who have now become friends – sponsors, employers, mentors, that evolved the project into the world first that it finished. I wanted to climb the seven summits, my mentor climber Simon Lowther suggested I add the North and South Poles and the graphic design company I was working with had the idea to do it in seven months. I never dreamt that completing that would change my life and open the doors that it has. I think that is why I feel so grateful, because the whole project evolved through the people that I met.
What training did you undertake?
It was nearly two years of really brutal training for that 737 challenge. It was through that journey, I realised I was pretty good at it. I loved it, and I could get into the right mindset to be able to perform well in extreme environments.
Which was the part of the 737 challenge was the most difficult?
If I had to pick, Everest and Denali were the toughest. Everest is wonderfully brutal, irrespective of what the media says about it, and what Hollywood has portrayed it as. Physiologically, we are not supposed to be at that altitude. Summit day on Everest was one of the toughest days of my life. I was the fastest summit of Everest that year from base camp. Normally people take anything from seven to nine weeks to summit. I summited in 25 days. But as a result of pushing my body that hard, I developed frostbite on my toe, which threw everything into jeopardy. I then fell into a crevasse on Denali, and that was probably the one singular scariest moment in my life. It was a horrific ordeal. But getting to the bottom of the mountains was just as tough as climbing them. I funded most of the project with my life savings and my parents even re-mortgaged some of their house to help.
How were you rescued from the crevasse?
I was with a climbing partner called Matt. The margins for things not working out are smaller as a pair obviously, but I was so lucky, an American team climbing behind us helped to facilitate the rescue, which took over an hour and a half.
In the documentary, you are still filming and making jokes despite what has happened and the terrifying prospect of the unknown in that crevasse. How did you keep such an amazing sense of humour?
I think a sense of humour is key to the emotional intelligence needed to perform in that type of extreme environment. It was a harrowing experience for everybody. I wasn’t able to climb up the rope as the rope had cut like a cheese-wire into the snow bridge. So the American team put a second rope into the crevasse, and I had to un-clip my lifeline from Matt, cut my sled away which was carrying all my gear, re-clip to the second rope, this all took nearly two hours, by which time I had lost all feeling in my fingers and toes. Once I was out, we had to make a really tough decision whether to abort or continue. We decided to continue. We built a snow anchor so Matt could abseil back into the crevasse to rescue my pulk [sledge], so we could continue. One of the biggest factors in my ability to manage that situation was a cold water immersion test that I did to prepare for the North Pole leg. Having been through that horrific deprivation training session, it gave me the experience; the composure and confidence to manage that type of cold, so I could stay calm and communicate, which is probably why I managed to keep a sense of humour down there!
What was the reaction like when you got home to Cardiff?
One of the objectives of the project was to support Marie Curie Cancer, and one of the reasons it took so long to recover and come to terms with the project was because I came home and had a hectic fundraising schedule, on average I did four events a week for 14 months. I am really proud of that – we raised over GBP360,000 for Marie Curie. I am really proud of the work the whole team put in, although I am the face on the tin, me climbing the mountains, I am really grateful to have such an amazing team around me. To properly sink in, it probably took the best part of a few years.
You then skied solo to the South Pole where you cut nine days off the British record...
In a single event, that was the hardest thing I have done so far. That was two years of planning. The Antarctica is a magical place, I love it, I feel so privileged to have seen it, I have been there three seasons now, it is incredible – it blows my mind that there are still places on our planet that are untouched by humans. There are not many places on the planet that in the same moment you can feel both the beauty and the brutality of the place at the same time. I feel very proud to become the fastest Brit to ski solo and unsupported from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. To take nine days off the record was amazing. Becoming the first welsh man to complete that expedition was another level!
How cold did it get?
The coldest temperature I experienced was -56.. With wind chill, it was probably even colder than that. The average temperature over the whole expedition was -29
When you reached the South Pole, how did you celebrate?
My logistical providers, ALE, were there waiting, they had been tracking me! One of the coolest taxis I have ever had, was the plane waiting for me. They knew when I was going to arrive. They had been reading my blog where I wrote daily snippets about the expedition. I had been clinically starving myself on a 4,000 calorie per day deficit. It was hunger like I have never experienced. I had a really bad day one day where I wrote in my blog about how I couldn’t stop day dreaming about a bacon sandwich. One of the coolest things then happened, the guys at ALE and Hannah McKeand (British polar athlete) were waiting with this sandwich that they had made for me. I called home and then had this amazing breakfast!
Tell us about your next challenge – climbing Everest without oxygen…
This project is a culmination of all my passions. Physically it will push me further than I have ever been before. It is going to be a world’s first scientific experiment. I am half terrified and half excited! I am also going to do this during 2016, the Welsh year of Adventure, and I am really proud to be an ambassador for that.