Meet the quadriplegic climbing the height of Everest on his parents' stairs
© Ed Jackson
Three years after cutting his spinal cord in a swimming pool accident, former rugby pro Ed Jackson is turning his parent' staircase into the world's most iconic peak for charity.
Every athlete has their own Everest. For former professional rugby player and quadriplegic Ed Jackson right now, it’s the set of stairs in his parents' house in Bath, which, this week, is standing in for the world’s biggest mountain – all 29,029ft of it. He's raising money for NHS-affiliated charities and Wings for Life, a not-for-profit that funds research into spinal cord injuries.
This climb will not be easy. Four days, 5,783 trips up and down a 16-step staircase, 89,056 steps in total. It would be a big enough test for even the most able bodied of athletes, let alone a man who, only three years ago, suffered life-changing injuries when he dived headfirst into a deceptively shallow pool at a friend’s house, cutting his spinal cord in half.
He was millimetres from death: “I saw blood and went to swim out but I couldn’t," he recalls of the moment he sunk back dizzy-headed staring at the surface, hoping somebody would see him. "Luckily my dad came running. It only felt like 15 minutes between the pool and the hospital, but my dad would later tell me it was a couple of hours, as the ambulance had to stop and I was resuscitated three times. I'd lost half my spinal cord; any more you are going to die because your body goes into shock. Seven hours later, after an operation through a microscope using robotics to pull bits of bone from my discs out of my spinal cord, I was still alive."
True to the competitive nature of an England rugby youth international, who signed with Doncaster Knights in 2010, followed by spells with London Welsh, Wasps and Newport Gwent Dragons, he never once let the injury get the better of him. He fought and he fought – first with the wiggle of a toe, then by setting bigger goals. Despite being told he would never walk again, within one year of his accident, Jackson climbed Snowdon, and by 2020 the mountaineer had even added the 21,247ft Mera Peak in the Himalayas to his list.
But now comes a far different test for the 31-year-old mountaineer. Beginning on the morning of Tuesday, April 21 and, all going well, finishing at 21:00 on Friday, April 24, he'll be ascending and descending the height of Everest from sea level, camping out at the bottom of his stairs each night and keeping viewers up to date with his journey on Instagram. And here's how he plans to do it...
I’ll effectively be doing it on one leg
"Not that the challenge was easy to begin with, but I’ll basically be doing 89,000 reps of single-leg squats, while trying to drag my body up and down the stairs. Luckily I’ve done quite a few single-leg squats over the last year, so my right leg is a bit of a beast. It hates me for what I put into it. I also don’t have any sensation in it because of my neurology, so I don't know it's tired until it just stops working all of a sudden because I don’t feel that lactic acid build-up. I’m hoping I don’t go backwards down the stairs too many times. I do have double handrails on my staircase and I know it quite well, as I used it quite a bit for my rehab when I moved back with my parents, so it’s a bit nostalgic."
Spreading out the challenge will help
"If I'm doing it all on one leg I need to be tactical and spread my journey out. I want to do it in four days, not two weeks, mind. It's all a bit of an unknown and I’m not sure how my body will react. You aren’t dealing with altitude and cold temperatures on a staircase of course, but I’m actually covering a lot higher than you normally would climbing Everest, because the basecamp is at 5,500m, whereas I’m going from sea level. I'll be tapping into the experience I had on Mera Peak last year, where I was one of a handful of people from 14 or so to make the summit day [when it was] -25 degrees Celsius.
I’ll basically be doing 89,000 reps of single-leg squats, while trying to drag my body up and down the stairs
"I’m hoping I can cover 400m in one hour. Obviously if my body deteriorates that timeframe might lengthen, but the plan is to start at 8am every morning, do the first 400m before 9am, put it on social media channels, such as Instagram LIVE, and encourage other people to join in, and stay fit and healthy in the house, and maybe even raise money themselves. The aim is for six one-hour climbing sessions, a couple of two-hour sessions thrown in as well, and then another live session from 5.30pm to 6.30pm, so when people finish work they can do a bit of exercise and join in."
Climbing might help me regain bodily functions
"The party line with spinal cord injury is that you have a year to recover and, after that, you won't see much change. Three years down the line, my recovery has slowed down, but when I do see any change it seems to be after I’ve gone through these very stressful, neurological situations on climbs. On my left-hand side I have to wear a foot support, otherwise I’d be dragging it, and I'd long thought that I was going to be wearing it for life. I hadn’t seen any flickers. Then, after I got back from climbing Mont Buet in France in 2019, I walked to get something from the car without realising I'd left my foot support, and walked outside just fine. When I twigged and looked down I saw my foot was suddenly coming up without support. It was unreal. I do tend to see changes after I’ve put myself through these tests of endurance, so it'll be interesting to see what happens with my body after this one."
My body burns calories three times faster than the average climber
"When I was climbing in Nepal last year, I was measuring my calories quite carefully. On average I was burning 11,000 calories per day, while the average person in our group was burning 3,000-4,000, so you’re looking at three times the amount of a normal person. I also have issues with temperature regulation – I don’t sweat from below the nipples anymore. There are a lot of strange by-products that come with spinal cord injuries, and my body is not very good at dispelling heat. It's good in the cold but not in the hot, and unfortunately, it’s going to be 23 degrees on Thursday and I’m doing it in the house, so it could be sweaty."
It will be mentally extremely draining
"I know a few people who’ve done similar challenges on their staircases, and they've told me it's not only harder than you think physically, but it's mentally gruelling. One of the hardest things is the monotony. For me, it's 2,783 trips up the same set of stairs. At least in the mountains you’ve got things to take in and look around. Which is where social media can help. We’re dressing my bulldog up as a yeti, and I know my family have planned to surprise me with stuff as I’m going along. I'll also be speaking to people who’ve climbed Everest for real. My past experiences on mountains will be a big help too, that self-talk that goes on in your head. I don’t know if it comes from being a rugby player before, but I weirdly like going to those dark places and having that demon on your shoulder saying, ‘Give up, give up.' But you beat it back and carry on."
You often tell yourself that you’ve hit your max, but you've probably got another 40 percent. I felt that certainly when I was in intensive care, and my back was against the wall, and I’m sure it’ll come into practice in the next few days
The key is to keep well fuelled throughout
"Good nutrition and hydration will play a big part, just like they do when I do these climbs for real. I’ll be drinking Red Bull throughout the challenge. I’ve had a case delivered so I’ll be drinking them throughout, more and more as the week progresses. Food-wise, I burn a lot more calories than the normal person, as I move very inefficiently, so over the challenge it’ll be about getting volume of calories in and lots of sugar, energy and protein bars. The bottom of my stairs is actually right by my parents’ fridge, but I don’t think they want me to be emptying it every two hours, so I’ve brought some supplies in. I’ll also be taking advantage of the fact I’m near a normal kitchen and don’t just exist on rice as I’d normally have to if I was in Nepal."
I want to get people off the sofa
"Being in lockdown is something I’ve been oddly prepared for – when I broke my neck three years ago I was in the hospital for four months, isolated inside my body for quite a long time, and in my house in a wheelchair for a year, so it doesn’t feel too weird for me being stuck at home for a long period of time. I learned different tactics to keep entertained, which are all coming to fruition now. My wife takes the piss out of me for reframing things to see the positive side but I had to, otherwise it would have had an effect in my recovery. So hopefully this challenge can get people off the sofa. You saw what Captain Tom Moore did walking laps in his back garden just before his 100th birthday, inspiring and galvanising the nation. I’m not saying it’ll be anywhere near that level of success but hopefully the challenge can inspire some people."
Social media will help feel like it’s a team effort
A big part of this challenge is doing it to hopefully inspire other people that they can overcome certain challenges. What’s really rewarding is when certain people message you to say, ‘Thanks, this has really helped me and now I’m going to start pushing myself’, whether that’s overcoming a mental hurdle or a physical hurdle. Obviously I like the physical aspect and the rush of endorphins, but it goes back to my professional rugby career and team sports – I enjoy doing it with people, and every time I’ve stood on a mountain I’ve been with people who have been very poignant in my journey. Being able to walk up and down the stairs was something that didn’t look likely for such a long time, so to know how fortunate I am gives you a kick up the arse."
This challenge is just another way of keeping moving forward
"When I was in hospital after the accident and hadn’t moved yet, I would spend every waking moment staring at my toes telling them to wiggle, then passing out after an hour because the concentration was so intense. But slowly but surely it worked. I redefined what my own mental capacity was. You often tell yourself that you’ve hit your max, but you've probably got another 40 percent. I felt that certainly when I was in intensive care, and my back was against the wall, and I’m sure it’ll come into practice in the next few days.
"When you break your neck you still dream of being able bodied for a few months – or at least I did – which is cruel as you wake up every morning in hospital thinking you're normal and the situation hits you again. Now I very rarely dream that I’m very able-bodied, and things change, you adapt. You have to make it your new normal so you can get on with life. I’m at that stage now. Year one was like, ‘I can’t believe this is all happening.' Year two was more, ‘I can’t believe only two years ago I was playing rugby, I wish I still was.' And now I think, ‘I’ve got loads of mountaineering stuff I’m enjoying.' When that three-year anniversary came around the other day, I realised I hadn’t been looking back in a long time. That’s the first time I’d been like that since the incident."
The real Everest isn't far away
"I had Mont Blanc lined up for this June, but that's now been pushed back for a while. Eventually my goal is to become the first quadriplegic to climb Everest. People who have had a complete spinal cord injury aren’t lucky enough to be able to challenge themselves in the same way, and I feel a privilege and purpose to fly the flag and put the flag on top of mountains to raise awareness around it, and that’s a big driving force for me. I remember all the comments coming through when I told the world I was going to climb Snowdon. The support of people getting in touch made it feel as if there was a group of us recovering, not just me, and I hope it will be the same with this challenge."
Ed Jackson is an ambassador for Wings for Life, a not-for-profit spinal cord research foundation with the single mission to find a cure for spinal cord injury. Since 2004, Wings for Life has funded life-changing research projects and clinical trials around the globe, with significant breakthroughs being made. To find out more go to wingsforlife.com.