Rob Casserley Interview taken in 2018
Dr Rob Casserley has reached the summit of Mount Everest an amazing 8 times. He has also climbed many other mountains such as Cho Oyu (three times), Manasalu, Denali (twice), Ama Dablam and Aconcagua (three times). He is the Co-founder of the company Trek8848.
What made you give up being a surgeon to become a general practitioner with a specialist interest in altitude and expedition medicine?
I took a year off work in 2002-3 to try and climb the seven summits. I had been developing an interest in the mountains following my medical school elective to Peru and Bolivia in 1999, where I successfully climbed Huyana Potosi. The sense of achievement on looking back at the mountain from La Paz, was far greater than that from most other things I had achieved in life to that point. I knew that I was hooked.
Having obtained my surgical qualifications (MRCS) in 2005, I was looking for a job as a registrar in General Surgery. Unfortunately – or fortunately as the case may well now be(!) – the government changed the way that medical training was controlled (modernising medical careers) – and effectively there was little chance for me to gain the registrar post in surgery that I had wanted.
Despite this, I needed an “out” – a way of gaining a medical qualification that would allow me to travel and pursue my passion of climbing and my now burgeoning interest in altitude and exercise physiology. General Practice was the answer and the rest is now history…
At what age did you have an interest in mountaineering and what was your first climb?
My first climb was Mount Kenya. I was in the Royal Engineers and we were on a construction tour to Kenya. For adventurous training, we had a number of options – but Point Lenana on the mountain seemed the obvious choice to me. I found it tough, but managed to get to the top. I can’t really say that I was “into” mountains thereafter. I am someone who loves a physical challenge and I think I saw the mountains as simply that.
But after travel to Bolivia in 1999 (for Huayana Potosi) and then Tanzania (for Kilimanjaro) – I was starting to get hooked. The mountains are in such amazing parts of the world. Add to this a chance meeting in my house job year (Aug 2000 – July 2001) with someone who had tried to climb Everest for £8000 on an unguided expedition (much less than I had been led to believe), a discarded map of Everest in my hospital accommodation and the pre-requisite read (at the time) of “Into thin air” – probably were the straws that broke the camel’s back. I was all-in on the dream of climbing Everest and I have never looked back.
Apart from mountaineering what other interest do you have?
I love any endurance sport. I have completed about 7 Iron man triathlons, compete often in Ultra marathons and any chance I have to get out with my wife, Marie-Kristelle and my dog, Pemba – I take. I now live in Québec, Canada – so I’m trying to get to grips with cross-country skiing. I’m pleased to announce that I no longer look like a new-born calf when I’m “skate” cross-country skiing!
All your climbs on Mount Everest have been from the South side, have you ever considered the North side?
Of course. I’d love to do the North Side. For someone like me, I imagine that it would be more tailored to my style of climbing. I seem to have a big engine at high altitude, so a long summit day which can be the case on the North East ridge would probably suit me.
Opportunities to climb Everest have presented themselves only from the South Side to date.
Expeditions with Kenton in 2007 and 2008, Sir Ran (and my close friends Paul Trumpelmann and Tanner Bixler) in 2008 and some close friends from the States (Brandon and Christine Chalk) and the UK (Fi Ramsden) in 2010 were all planned climbing the South East Ridge route. So that’s where I went. But I guess the main factor for repeatedly returning to Nepal has been Henry (Todd) our Sherpa Team from Pangboche and the general ambience and cultural richness of the Khumbu Valley. My apprenticeship on Everest has been under the guidance of Henry – a man with a knowledge and understanding of the mountain, second to none.
You have stood on the summit of Mount Everest 8 times, were they all as good as the first time?
Ha! The first time was definitely not the best. It was probably the closest I have come to physical and mental exhaustion and near death (or so it felt like!) – with terrible weather, relatively long queues, exhausted oxygen reserves at the South Summit coming down and a snow-blind Sherpa (Ang Nuru – now my life-long friend and co-founder of Trek8848). It was not the perfect scenario and after 21 summit day hours, I was at my physical limit. Worse still – there was no view from the summit… This was not the best!
In 2006, 8 days after my near miss on Lhotse, I summited with 4 climbing buddies and our Sherpa guides. There were no other people on the route that day from memory and we had the summit all to ourselves. The views were incredible, with a carpet of cloud at around 6000m and the summits of Makalu, Kanchenchunga, Cho Oyu and Shishipangma, piercing this velvety white covering of the Tibetan plateau. This summit sticks in the memory. 2007 and 2010 brought double summits and the joy of climbing with close friends – each summit special for different reasons – all with great views. My last summit on 19 May 2012 leaves me with some regrets. There were simply too many people chasing their summit dream on the same day – and the inevitable bottle-neck at the Hilary Step lead to 4 people not making it back down alive. These were not noble deaths. It was a perfect summit day. Lessons could and should be learnt from days like this. As I was hanging over the South West Face of the mountain on the “down” rope on the Hilary Step – I was questioning the sanity of doing this year after year!
In 2014 and 2015 – I was involved in some of the worst tragedies on the mountain and left without summiting both years. The serac fall from the west shoulder of the mountain in 2014 lead to the deaths of 16 Sherpas. The earthquake and subsequent ice collapse from Pumori destroyed large swathes of Base Camp and killed 18 people, 3 of whom were part of our team – Pasang Temba, Tenzing and Kumar. These tragedies will be imprinted upon my memory for the rest of my life…
In 2007 and 2010 you were the first Western climber to achieve double summits on Mount Everest. What was the reason for going back to the summit for the second times?
How should I answer this? George Mallory may have responded with “because I can”. I guess the measured response would be this: In 2007, illness split Kenton’s team in two.
There was a large weather window available to us, so we really wanted to offer a second summit attempt to those who were ill during our first summit push. The weather was good, it had never been done by a westerner before, Kenton and I felt good – so why not?
It was draining psychologically, tough on my upper airway (I was coughing up castes of my trachea on the balcony (8500m) – and almost choked to death whilst enjoying the view) and by the end of it, my body and mind told me I had done something “outside of normal”. It felt pretty cool at the end of the expedition to be part of a “first” – but in reality – I was the 3rd person on the day to achieve this feat, behind Willie Benegas and Kenton. I stuck to the task on the second summit day (24th May 2007) and am proud of what I achieved – but our achievement honestly pales into insignificance compared to the superhuman feats of some of our Sherpa colleagues guiding at high altitude. Double summits happen regularly for them, so I can’t get too carried-away by what we did.
In 2010, an unexpected request by Mike (Kobold) and his then girlfriend (now wife) Anita – gave me the chance to join our first summit team. Anita almost died at Camp 2 after summiting on the 17th May. We successfully revived her. Intra-venous dexamethasone into her external jugular vein, a number of cycles of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation and the amazing care from Thundu and Namgel during the night helped save her life. In any normal year, this would be enough for anyone. However, I was there to climb with my friends Brandon, Christine and Fi. James Stearns too. So, a day after my return to Base Camp, I picked myself up to make the play for a second summit. We tried on the 24th.
High winds and some snowfall made me pull the plug on our summit attempt that night below the balcony. I was sure that the next day would be better. The following morning however, an adverse weather forecast made me question my decision. We were the only team at the South Col other than that of Dave Hahn. A cooler and more experienced Everest guide you will not meet. “Rob” he said, “I’m going to stick my head out of the tent at the time, and if it looks good, we’ll set-off. If it turns on us, we’ll just come down”.
Common sense is often overlooked and underrated. This was the best advice ever, and we made the summit in good time on the 25th May.
My second double summit was almost complete and I have to admit to taking a few beers on our return to Base Camp!
You first climbed Mount Everest in 2003 and your last climb was in 2012. Do you intend to climb the mountain again?
Never say never. I would love to climb high again – but equally I want to be a good husband and I realise that this is ultimately a selfish pursuit. Marie-Kristelle gains nothing from me being away from home for 2 months at a time and my colleagues at work don’t really appreciate what I do outside of the Emergency Room (where I now work in Québec). Henry has now “retired” – but I still think that I have unfinished business on the mountain. So, let’s see…
You have been through the Khumbu Icefall a lot of times. Was your last climb through the Icefall still as scary as your first time?
It’s never scary. I would rather say that it is exhilarating. I loved the ladders, prided myself on swift anchor changes and have always been entranced by its beauty and yet overwhelming menace. I always respected it and always would, whether on the first expedition or my last. It has always engaged me and each time I passed through it, I was well aware that I was doing something special.
Going toilet, especially ‘no 2’ at the high camps must be a nightmare. How do you cope?
With a “shit load” of wet-wipes and a stiff upper lip!
Being a Doctor you have probably seen many medical issues while on Mount Everest but have you had any of your own while on the mountain?
I touched on this relating to my second summit on 24th May 2007. The cold dry air inspired during the first expedition triggered a level of inflammation in my trachea. By using supplemental oxygen once again on the second summit caused the lining of my trachea to gradually slough off. Sat at the balcony, marvelling at the view, I started to cough. I coughed and coughed and coughed and then something entered my mouth. I gasped for air and as I breathed in, the lining of my trachea blocked my airway. I literally was choking on my own trachea! I forced myself to cough again and fell onto my back to try and expel this foreign body. Something or someone was looking out from me and I was able to pull out a perfectly formed tube – the lining of my trachea. For a couple of weeks afterwards, I had no voice and a very high-pitched cough. A close-call and something that I still reflect upon!
The Hillary Step is said to be the last hurdle before reaching the summit. How did you find climbing it?
I honestly think that the psychological barrier is harder than the actual step itself. Getting to the step from the South Summit – a route which has stacks of exposure and some tricky footwork – is arguably harder.
Dead or alive which climber do you most admire and why?
There are just so many, but Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner sticks in my mind. The first woman to climb the 14 8000m mountains without oxygen. Humble, kind and just a fantastic athlete. It was a great pleasure to meet her a few years ago whilst climbing Everest.
You are the Co-founder of ‘Trek8848’, can you tell us what type of treks it offers?
We’re a passion project really, but we are able to run a trip to the Khumbu most autumns. We offer treks to the Khumbu predominantly – although occasionally we have organised trips to Aconcagua and Elbrus. We are a company run by Everest summiteers (myself, Kevin (Vann) and Ang Nuru – the co-founders of the company – all summited together in 2003). We are passionate about the Khumbu – its people and the mountains. Our bottom-line is not our spreadsheet – more the ability to share our passion for the region with our expedition participants – and to give back to the Sherpas and the porters from many origins, who have had such a positive impact on our time in Nepal.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
Having never climbed the North East ridge, it’s hard to have a strong opinion, but I feel that the odds were stacked against them, particularly at the second step. Would we be still talking about Hilary and Tenzing in the same way if they had died on the way down? For me, an Everest summit – the first or the 5 thousandth – can only really count if it successfully returns to Base Camp. It has to be considered a return journey in my mind. As Henry once said to me as I was considering continuing on, on my Lhotse summit push with only one crampon – “better to be a live lamb than a dead lion” – advice that I have always heeded.
If you would like to find out more about Dr Rob Casserley then head over to www.trek8848.com