Interview with extreme explorer Bob Bhania from Shenley
PUBLISHED: 09:42 20 June 2017 | UPDATED: 09:42 20 June 2017
Facing a life-defining moment at 54, Shenley's Bob Bhania decided to tackle mountains. Now 60, he is nearing completion of the very rare Explorer's Grand Slam - scaling the highest peak on each continent and reaching both Poles. Lorenza Bacino met the remarkable explorer
Bob Bhania wasn’t sure he’d live much longer, let alone be where he is now – on the cusp of achieving the Explorer’s Grand Slam. Back in 2010, lying in a hospital bed, weighing just seven stone and recovering from life-threatening throat surgery, one thought kept recurring to him: ‘If I died tomorrow, what do I wish I’d achieved?’
‘I literally began pulling out the tubes and wires attached to me and told the nurse I was off to climb Mount Everest,’ the 60-year-old laughs. ‘She looked at me as though I was mad, but I got dressed and walked out.’
He enrolled in a rock climbing course and began serious training for the highest peak on the planet.
‘I was born in Kenya and as a kid I used to scale up drain pipes to the roof of my house and stare longingly at Mount Kenya in the distance. So I found rock climbing quite easy,’
The father of two grown-up daughters who runs a finance, property and leisure company, who is, by his own admission ‘impossible to have a relationship with’, made his first climbing expedition from Nepal just a year after his hospital treatment.
Training, with Bronte his German shepherd alongside, is now part of his daily routine. It means getting up at 5am, donning a 100lb backpack and running three to five miles. He then pulls a lorry tyre in a harness, before carrying it, to strengthen his shoulders and build up endurance – all on limited rations to replicate the negative calorie intake he deals with on treks and climbs. Training lasts two or three hours, then he’s ready for his day job.
Bob’s initial plans to scale the extremely tough north face of Everest were thwarted by an avalanche, which killed the sherpa who was to be his guide. Then came the devastating 2015 earthquake in the region. Undeterred, Bob began what he calls ‘warming up’, with smaller European expeditions – up Mont Blanc, the Eiger and the Via Ferrata, an effort that raised £1m for prostate cancer equipment for the Chase Farm Trust.
2015 was pretty busy. He trekked aross the Arctic to the North Pole, climbed Africa’s highest peak, Kilimanjaro, and Denali (Mount McKinley) – the highest in North America, all in a single expedition.
Finally, last year, he achieved his dream of climbing Everest’s north face from the China/Tibet side. The same year saw him scale Mount Elbrus on the Russian-Georgian border in the Caucasus, and Carstensz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya) on the island of New Guinea in Papua Province, Indonesia. This leaves the South Pole and its highest peak, Vinson Masif and Argentina’s Aconcagua before the end of this year to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam. Only 16 people in the world belong to this exclusive club, whose members have successfully tackled the highest peaks on each of the seven continents and reached the two Poles.
Recalling his biggest challenges so far Bob says, ‘Carstensz was really tough as we trekked through the jungle for 10 days, waking up with leeches falling off our arms and legs, and there were snakes and spiders of unimaginable proportions. It’s also technical right the way up – all rock and no ridges to help you climb.’
Each phase of an expedition is meticulously planned. The Everest spring expedition window is around 55 days, so climbers need to be in-situ by the end of March. The summit window can be a matter of three or four days and the descent must be underway by 2pm as the weather is liable to change.
‘On my first Everest climb, it was hard walking past the dozens of dead bodies, frozen in time along the way. Rainbow Valley is the biggest active mass grave in the world – full of dead people in bright clothes. When you reach ‘Green Boots’ on the north face, you know where you are as he’s been a landmark for the past 15 years. It sounds cynical, but you’re in a bubble, you’re exhausted and you have to get on with it. You have to tell yourself you might die on this mountain and this means you don’t take unnecessary chances.’
He says he quickly learned that passion and romance won’t get you up a mountain.
‘You need willpower and determination to succeed. You must also learn how to breathe properly – not in the quick and shallow way we normally do. And you need to learn to sleep and eat, which is nigh on impossible at altitude. This is crucial, as your body has to prepare for unprecedented levels of exhaustion.
When I fell down a crevasse and was suspended head-down from a rope, I had to keep calm if I was going to survive. I call it ‘flow’ – the fourth dimension of our human instincts to ‘flight, fight or freeze’, none of which were going to help me at that moment. I liken it to what happens when you gaze into a flickering flame. In that split second you focus and that was what enabled me to think clearly, avoid panic and ultimately get out of a life-threatening scenario.’
This mindset also helped the explorer on his North Pole expedition when he and his guide tried to hide from a marauding polar bear.
‘As it swung its giant paws at our ice block shelter for five hours in the hope of an easy meal, I remember sitting in utter silence, not afraid or panicked, not anything at all. I focused on a saying tattooed on my arm which states This too shall pass. And so it did. I put a bar of chocolate and dried apple pieces under my armpit to thaw out for later, so you see, I was already thinking beyond the present moment to the next stage.’
Even when not on the menu of a polar bear, these are lessons Bob applies to everyday life too.
‘I don’t want any regrets. We have the power of choice and we can choose to dispose of negative thoughts that prevent us doing things. I ignore people who tell me I shouldn’t do what I do because I might die. I know I’m privileged, and it’s humbling to see how simple a life many people in Africa or in the Himalayas lead. It erodes your ego. I believe more humility means less ego and that’s no bad thing.’
He adds that he learned empathy from the exhaustion of oxygen depletion. When lying in a tent, unable to move a muscle on descent of Everest, he likens the experience to how the long-term sick may feel – trapped by their circumstances.
‘I’m lucky. I have time to breathe, to live, to make decisions. That’s why I help charities raise money - I believe in giving people a chance to breathe.’
How does he account for his boundless energy, curiosity and determination? ‘I must be one of the 20 per cent of the population known to have the so-called ‘restless gene’ (known as DRD4-7R), which scientists explain gives people an overwhelming desire to seek out new horizons and challenges. Either that or I’m crazy,’ he laughs.
Not stopping at the grand slam, Bob’s challenges for next year are all lined up, and include running the North Pole Marathon, plus the Marathon de Sable – a six-day sprint across the Sahara. Oh, and he’s getting a team together to climb K2. Anyone interested?