James Ketchell Interview – The Ultimate Triathlon
Having already completed a climb to the top of the world and a 3000 mile row across the Atlantic, Britain James Ketchell has just completed the ultimate triathlon with an 18,000 mile round-the-world cycle.
James hit the record books after returning home at the end of January, having just finished the final leg of his epic journey. He became the first man to row the Atlantic, climb Everest and cycle around the world.
In 2007, James was involved in a serious motorbike accident when he was thrown off his bike at 70mph. That left him with a broken leg, a severely broken and dislocated ankle and a broken hand. He recovered despite being told he would likely face permanent walking impairment.
Just three years later, he single-handedly rowed 3000 miles across the Atlantic before taking on Everest (known in Nepal as Sagarmatha, which literally translates as ‘Goddess of the sky’) just a year later. He then returned home to prepare for the final leg – a journey that would see him cycle through 20 countries including Ukraine, India, Malaysia, Australia and America – in just six months.
We had the pleasure of speaking to James, who kindly gave up his time to answer a few questions for us. You can read our interview below.
Overall, the generosity and kindness that was bestowed on me in every country I cycled through was just amazing.
James selected the ELIFAR foundation as the beneficiary of his fundraising. ELIFAR is a small charity which helps to improve the lives of children and adults with severe learning difficulties and associated physical disability. You can help out by donating here.
You can find James on Twitter @CaptainKetch
Ste Rumbelow – Is the situation on Everest really as bad as it’s been suggested – are there queues for summit attempts or has it all been overplayed?
James Ketchell – In recent years there have been pictures appearing with queues of people but in reality it’s not always like that. When I reached the top it was just myself and my sherpa and I think only around twenty people summited that day. It’s very much dependent on the weather as in the last couple of years the weather has not been quite so good meaning the window to successfully summit is massively reduced. This has a knock on effect in that everyone on the mountain will be trying to go for the same summit window which is what causes the queues of people. It’s not always like that, Everest is a massive place and you can’t really grasp the size of it until you are there and ordinarily there is more than enough mountain for everyone to go round.
SR – What would you say is a better quality to have on Everest – physical or mental strength?
JK – Tough question as in this case, you need both. Your mind will only get you so far if your body is unable to acclimatise. I know people that are mentally incredibly strong but have been unsuccessful on Everest as they have just not been able to acclimatise. Personally I do believe that mental strength would be more of an advantage as the oxygen systems are becoming lighter and so much more efficient that it takes a slight edge off the physical side. Mental strength is useful for being able to put up with sleep deprivation, the cold and not beating yourself up mentally when things are not going so well, which at some point will happen.
SR – Everest summiteers are praised for making the top but how much do the climbers themselves owe to the Sherpas?
JK – A massive amount, as there are very few climbers that would be able to stay alive and make it to the top and back down without a team of sherpas. For me they are the real heroes of Everest and climbing at high altitude in general. Their strength, determination and general demeanour is something that I’m in awe of.
SR – I saw a quote from you that read: “the Atlantic row was actually quite enjoyable,” which I believe makes you not only the first person to row the Atlantic, climb Everest and cycle around the world but also the very first to suggest rowing the Atlantic is enjoyable. Since you enjoyed it so much, which moment was your favourite?
JK – There are so many moments that I remember but one that stands out for me was lying back on the deck one calm night in the middle of the Atlantic when the moon was shining bright. There were literally thousands of stars shining in the sky and shooting stars were flying across the horizon as they were burning up on entry into the earth’s atmosphere.
SR – You rowed 3000 miles, which is an equivalent distance to going up and down the length of Great Britain nearly five times – what on earth occupied your mind throughout the journey?
JK – I tried to use the time constructively so I devised a list of things that I wanted to do when I eventually returned home. Every time something came in to my head I would write it down ending up with one gigantic to do list. Listening to music and writing blogs took up a fair bit of my mental time as well. It was very common for me to think about my friends and family members whilst I was rowing and wonder what they were getting up to.
SR – With the boat being thrown around and even turning over, how did you manage to get any sleep knowing nobody was in control?
JK – That was easy – after twelve hours rowing you can pretty much sleep anywhere and in any position. Whilst rowing the Atlantic I experienced tiredness to a completely new level. You also gain a lot of confidence in the boat and after a while I didn’t even realise the boat was moving around. It’s amazing how human beings can adapt to situations that you would not think possible.
SR – Planning a short bike ride can be challenging enough for some but how did you go about drawing up a route for an 18,000 mile epic?
JK – This was quite tricky but breaking it down into sections helped. First of all I decided which countries I wanted to visit and what would be the best time of year to cycle through those countries. It’s quite tricky to go around the world without experiencing a summer and winter at some point. For me I decided not to plan every single road I was going to ride but have a rough plan for each country and be flexible and willing to adapt on the go. It’s inevitable that the route may change due to circumstances that are out of your control. Whilst cycling through Thailand I was forced to take a two hundred mile diversion as violent protesters clashed with government officials over the price of oil and were purposely blocking a major road linking Thailand and Malaysia.
SR – It appears at first glance that you kept the kit you carried down to a minimum – how did you avoid having two huge panniers on the bike?
JK – Ultimately I was able to do this because every bit of kit I used was purposely selected for its light weight and compact advantage. Having been on various expeditions before I had a pretty good idea what I needed and what I didn’t need. There were times when I would pick up kit on the go and then leave it with someone when I didn’t need it anymore.
SR – Do you have a favourite country that you travelled through?
JK – For me it’s not really about the country, it’s more about the people, as that’s generally what shaped my opinion of a country. Personally I really like Asia, that was fantastic, the weather and people were just brilliant. Overall, the generosity and kindness that was bestowed on me in every country I cycled through was just amazing. I will be paying forward favours for the rest of my life.
SR – You picked up a pretty nasty injury in 2007 after a motorbike accident – did that moment flick a switch that said you needed to do something life changing?
JK – Yes for me It did although I always knew my brain functioned in a slightly different way to other people’s. I get a great deal of enjoyment out of doing things that would be most people’s worst nightmare. After the accident it just made me take that first step and things just went from there really.
SR – What made you choose to do this ultimate triathlon in the order you did? Was finishing at ‘home’ on the bike anything to do with it?
JK – Initially when I set out to row the Atlantic I wasn’t sure about the cycle but everything just came together. Finishing back at home was something that I wanted to do and it felt very special when I cycled up through Greenwich park, seeing everyone waiting for me.
SR – Across all three stages, what has been the scariest moment and did you ever want to quit?
JK – When I was coming back down from the summit on Everest I was quite sick and the fact that I was really struggling did scare me. I’ve never wanted to quit though as I wouldn’t want to let the people down who have supported me when so many turned me away to begin with.
SR – A lot of adventurers take something to remind them of home when they’re away. Did you take anything with you?
JK – No I don’t take anything with me, personally all I need are the good memories in my head.
SR – If you could give one piece of advice to someone wanting to undertake an epic challenge, what would it be?
JK – Don’t be afraid. You can generally achieve a lot more than you might think. Taking the first step is the hardest part and above all, enjoy every minute of it as you’ll never get that time back.
SR – Simply, what’s next?
JK – I will be rowing the Indian ocean in April 2015. Check out www.nothings-impossible.co.uk