Second in our series of interviews with our favourite local characters.
Anyone who has ever attempted to run up Primrose Hill, and has then stood at the top gazing at the view, hands on knees, panting for breath and feeling pretty darn pleased with themselves, will have felt on top of the world.
Primrose Hill’s very own Daniel Hughes knows that feeling too. However, he knows it from actually being on top of the world. In May of this year, he climbed all 8848m of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. With a Comic Relief Red Nose, to be placed like a cherry on top. This was the culmination of his Everest Million campaign, two years in the making, and at the cost of his own cash, sweat and tears.
One has to ask why. Daniel made the time to meet me at one of his favourite local haunts, Anthony’s Deli on Regent’s Park Road, to tell me all about it over a latte.
To make this ambitious project work, Daniel took unpaid leave from his full-time job as an airline pilot in order to train for his Everest expedition and to promote his cause, covering his own costs so that every penny raised would go to Comic Relief. He explains: “I’ve always done my bit for charity. At school I did the Duke of Edinburgh Award, helping kids with an Epilepsy Ride, shopping for the elderly; I’ve run marathons. So I’ve always done my bit to help others. Then I got married, and had the slightly crazy idea to book three months off work to have some kind of adventure.”
Daniel set off with his wife Carali on this ‘three month extravaganza’, traveling across South America. It was a particular experience on this trip that moved him deeply and set in motion the chain of events that took him eventually to the top of Everest. Daniel described what happened:
“We travelled through Chile and Argentina and reached the border between Argentina and Bolivia. On one side it’s all internet, high speed roads, coffee shops, really westernised; but then you go across this bridge into Bolivia, and it’s as if you’ve entered a different world. The main highway is barely navigable. Sixty per cent of the population is below the poverty line, and you’ll see these ladies, in their Bolivian dress, hats, multi-coloured shawls, sat there on the side of the road, trying to sell a packet of biscuits for 15p, to make some sort of living. The Bolivians are very humble, very endearing people.
“Then we went to Potosi, a mining town. They’d been mining this one mountain for 500 years, and things have barely changed. They’re still at it with pick axes; it’s all manual, there are no hard hats. It’s pretty grim. There were kids loitering around the mines, and I remembered one boy in particular, cowering inside this mining bracket, the boy who’s in my signature picture. These kids come of age at 11 or 12, and start working outside the mines, then a few years later they move into the mines. After that they’ve got 10 years before they die of some sort of chronic illness. They have very short lives. If you’re lucky you end up in one of the profitable mines where there’s more machinery, but the other side of that is that it’s 50C in those mines, and you will die of arsenic poisoning at some point.’
The bleakness and poverty of existence in Bolivia was overwhelming for Daniel. “It’s really sad, and that just stuck with me for the rest of the trip.”
So how did Comic Relief come into it?
“The company I work for has a partnership with Comic Relief and it just seemed to make sense. It’s a shame Comic Relief don’t have projects in Bolivia, but ultimately the projects which my company and Comic Relief support are to do with children, so it seemed really fitting for me to try and support Comic Relief.”
How did the idea to put the first Red Nose on Everest take shape?
“The plan was for me to climb Aconcagua in Argentina – the highest mountain outside the Himalayas- and put the first Red Nose on top. This was January 2011. Then I wondered if anyone had ever put one on Everest, and no one had. Next we came up with the whole idea of one Red Nose, one million people, one Pound each.
“I decided that if I was going to do this, I would put everything in to it. Carali and I spent £20,000 of our own money on all the training, because it was really important to me that every penny should go to Comic Relief. I wasn’t in this for a free climb, or to just go on a jolly, so I said I would do all the training and all the other climbs, and if I could get sponsorship for Everest I would do it, if not I wouldn’t, simple as that.”
How do you organise a climb up the highest mountain in the world? Can you just turn up unannounced and crack on?
“When you climb Everest, you pretty much have to go with an expedition company, and they cover the cost of the permit which, depending on the size of the team, cost $7000 – $10000.”
“At the time, it was just all about the red nose. I sent out hundreds of customised letters to companies, like FedEx for example, saying I would deliver the first Red Nose to Everest, but that wasn’t enough. I had to think about what else I could do to elevate it; and that was technology. I guess I’m a bit of a tech nerd, like most guys, and the thing that hadn’t been done before on Everest was a video call. I was trying to get one Pound off one million people, so I needed to make people feel as though they were part of the team. That was when I started introducing all the trackers and Tweets.”
It’s harder isn’t it, to get a million people involved, rather than a smaller number of people giving a larger sum of money each?
“Well, with all the live broadcasts I’ve done, my reach will have been tens of millions of people, but only three thousand people have actually donated. The ratio of people actually physically seeing me, to those donating, is minuscule. I think the pound idea was really nice, because it’s simple, but getting people to actually grab their phone and make them want to donate that pound, was extremely difficult.”
What did your wife think of all this?
“Well, we talked about it, there was a lot of apprehension. Same with my parents; they were very, very nervous.”
Sometimes people don’t come back from climbing Everest, do they?
“No. When I left, eight people had died already this year. I know two people died the day I climbed.”
“Well, what you don’t really hear about is the people who injure themselves, like my team-mate. He got frost-bite on several of his toes. It’s a very serious place, safer than it was twenty, thirty years ago, with some of the technologies, the oxygen masks, some of the kit, but ultimately these mountains will take you life in a heartbeat.”
The weather can turn, can’t it? Is that the main difficulty?
“Yes, it’s the weather that kills people, especially on Everest. So yeah, my family were very nervous, but they could see this wasn’t just a whim, this was something that was all-consuming for me. But by the end they were really positive, 120% behind me. Ha, arbitrary percentage.”
Was this a do-or-die endeavour?
“Ultimately, the money for me was the important factor of Everest. If I didn’t get to the top I would be disappointed; if I didn’t raise £1m I would be devastated. I wasn’t prepared to lose fingers or feet, or my life, to put a Red Nose on top of a mountain. We had very established gates. We agreed that if we weren’t at the South Summit by 8am we would turn around. To make sure that you don’t make stupid judgements. For a lot of people who climb Everest, the pressures are about fulfilling a life-long dream. My pressures were the sponsors, the Red Nose; I’d built up this thing around me. I wanted to deliver for my sponsors and everyone following me.
“These mountains take you to such extraordinary places: the people, the geology, and obviously Everest has got a lot of history that I’m slightly in awe of. You think, ‘wow this is really hard for me to get up,’ and you think of those guys with all their kit in 1953. I felt quite privileged to be there, really.”
ILovePrimroseHill was following his relentless training; did it stand him in good stead?
“I think so. I rocked up in physically good shape, and I was confident that I had the right skills. There were over 350 climbers at Base Camp, but at the end there were fewer than 250. One hundred people had either quit or hurt themselves. One company started off with seventy-three climbers, but by the time it came to the summit period they only had about thirty left. Certainly the fitter you are, the more chance you’ve got. We were the only commercial team where everyone got up, and we had all been training for six months, a year, if not more.”
Carali was with you up to a certain point?
“She came to Base Camp, which was really good. I’m glad she came. It was nice that she could see where I was. She’s really happy that she came. I wanted her to see Nepal and to experience what I was going through. Obviously it did make the whole goodbye process a lot harder. It was pretty hard because you just don’t know if you are going to some back; you might come back and you’ve got bad frostbite, literally life-changing things can happen out there.”
Interviewed since his return by, amongst others, the BBC, CNN and now iLovePrimroseHill.com, Daniel has been bemused to be labelled as a ‘British explorer’. “I’m an airline pilot by trade, so it’s quite funny, quite flattering”
What are his next challenges?
“From a mountaineering point of view, I’m retired. I’d never do Everest again. It’s a pretty crazy place.”
Well most of us will never do it in the first place.
“Ha, yeah, I’d recommend that.”
Is that like Steve Redgrave saying if you see him get back in a boat, shoot him, before winning a fifth gold?
“Well I still want to raise the million. I’m up to £47,500 now, so I really want to break £50k.”
Daniel is clearly not ready to hang up his crampons, however.
“I’m supposed to be retired, buying a house, all that sort of stuff, but my mind’s whirring, and actually I’ve had so many offers of support that I think I almost owe it to myself to do another one. Now I’ve got a really good foundation, so with the next one I might actually make the million quid. If I did do something else, I would pitch it so I get the charity fully behind me. I think that’s where I struggled really. It’s a bit unfortunate that the timing wasn’t during Comic Relief week.
“I found that personally quite hard, because there I was, literally giving my heart and soul, every penny I had, unpaid leave, all this sort of stuff. I’ve struggled with that.”
Having started the campaign from his home in Chalcot Crescent, Daniel moved away briefly, but is now settling down again in Primrose Hill. What does he like about the area? “The park! Every day we go for a walk up the hill or around Regent’s Park. It’s an oasis of calm in a manic city. And of course the independent shops and pubs.’ Daniel’s favourite pub is the Lansdowne, where he has a Turkish pizza habit, his record being two for one meal. Anthony’s Deli is also a favourite for their large sandwiches. The calories for all that training have to come from somewhere!
With donations currently standing just above £47000, Daniel is disappointed to be so far off his original target, but is now gunning to at least break through the £50K barrier. This is where you come in. He only wants a single pound per person, but if you can do better than that, I’m sure he would be delighted. A great guy, inspired by experience, raising funds for a great cause. Text Nose70 £x (x is the amount) to 70070, or click below and give. Tell him I sent you.
© 2013 iLovePrimroseHill.com all rights reserved.
Images courtesy of PSR Photography and Everestmillion.com