Tuesday 1 March 2011

Doing something mad to beat dementia

I sometimes wonder how different my life might have been if I had ever possessed the slightest ambition for anything beyond a comfortable chair in which to read and write.

Not that I have had the opportunity for any such reflections over the last week, when I have been busier than the proverbial one-armed taxi driver with an embarrassing itch.

The reason? To reveal that I must break my own self-denying ordinance against writing about what I do for a living. But since this is my 250th column in this slot, and I have never yet mentioned Greggs’ delicious sausage rolls or DFS’s fine sofas, perhaps I may be forgiven.

Ever since it floated on the stock market in 1984, I have dispensed PR advice to Iceland, the frozen food retailer. And what has been making me so frantic is their founder and Chief Executive Malcolm Walker’s announcement last Friday that he has finally gone completely off his chump and is off to climb Everest. Aged 65, with almost no previous climbing experience.

The reason for the 'almost' in the previous sentence: Malcolm and Richard Walker on top of Kilimanjaro last month

Why would anyone want to do that? It’s right up there with bungee jumping, skydiving and potholing on the long list of things I have never felt the slightest desire to do. Some people feel they are not properly alive unless they are putting their lives in danger. Me? The most alarming thing I have ever done was going on the creaking old Victorian cakewalk at the Hoppings when I was about eight. I dread the day when my son is old enough to start agitating for a trip to Alton Towers.

I think I know what started Malcolm off. Another client and friend of mine, Lord Kirkham, took him to the North Pole last year, and someone casually mentioned that fewer people had stood at the Pole than on the summit of Everest.

But there is a crucial difference: you can reach the North Pole by helicopter. They cannot operate anywhere near the top of Everest because the air is too thin, which is why there is no hope of rescue if something goes wrong, and why the frozen bodies of around 150 climbers litter the route to the summit.

One of the first of these, George Mallory, was discovered in 1999, 75 years after he and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine were last seen heading for the summit ridge. His wallet was well preserved in the pocket of his tweed jacket, but missing the picture of his wife that he had vowed to leave behind at the top.

Since then, and the triumph of Hillary and Tenzing in 1953, climbing Everest has become rather more routine. Each year commercial tour operators guide parties of climbers to the top. Sherpas renew guide ropes leading all the way to the summit, and check the aluminium ladder leading up the Second Step. (The old joke about the Irish Everest expedition that gave up 100ft from the top because they had run out of scaffolding seems not so far from the truth.)

Disneyland-like queues of inexperienced climbers waiting their turn here can defeat even the most determined summit bid.

But Everest imposes almost impossible demands on the human body and there is no getting away from the fact that it is an incredibly dangerous place to go.

Malcolm and his son are climbing for an excellent cause: to raise at least £1 million for Alzheimer’s Research UK to fund research into early-onset Alzheimer’s, which can wreck the lives of people as young as 40.

With dementia soon set to claim its millionth victim in the UK, few families are immune to its effects. Unless research advances, almost one in four of us will fall victim to dementia ourselves.

So if you have time, do take a look at www.icelandeverest.org.uk and perhaps think of making a donation. I have.
Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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