James Suenson-Taylor goes beyond the comfort zone

9 November 2012

While he may be getting on a bit, the well-heeled and adventurous James Suenson-Taylor reveals why age shouldn’t be a barrier to awarding yourself a gap year.

I can't go on. I'm lying face down on the ice, gasping for air as my heart tries to jump out of my chest. This is a lot harder than I expected. I'm on my way up the North Col of Everest, attached to a fixed rope at 6,700m, and my body is screaming at my brain to turn round and head back to Advanced Base Camp, where I can hear a hot cup of tea and a comfortable sleeping bag calling to me.

As the burning sensation in my thighs begins to subside and my heart rate unwinds, I question the sanity of the motives that have brought me here. Sure, I wanted to take myself out of my comfortable lifestyle, but this is beyond the limit. God didn't design my body to live at this altitude, where the oxygen is less than half that at sea level. Each lungful of air simply fails to fuel the engine, and I end up panting like a rabid dog as my respiratory system works twice as hard to keep me alive.

Gap year: big decision

The journey here began three years ago, when my wife Debbie and I decided to take a gap year. We both have a love of travelling, but hadn't done much since we were students, other than the normal holiday break, and yearned to have another go before we became too decrepit. We had both lost our fathers, but our mums were still upright, and the youngest of our five children was about to leave school and go on his own gap-year travels.

"I keep reading how 50 is the new 30, and on that basis, we were ideally aged for a spot of irresponsible travel."

"I hope I die before I get old," sang Roger Daltry, which is all very well when you're in your 20s, but Debbie and I straddled 50. But I keep reading how 50 is the new 30, and on that basis, we were ideally aged for a spot of irresponsible travel. Living in the leafy London suburb of Surrey, we could think of 100 reasons not to do it and only one in favour, but we pressed on: we rented out our house, found friends willing to look after the dogs, parked the cars and bought a couple of backpacks.

The biggest issue was how and what to tell the kids. We spent hours rehearsing a little speech and trying to anticipate all their questions. We thought we would do it over a Sunday lunch, a time when we all gather together with boyfriends/girlfriends, catch up on what we're all up to, throw around gratuitous advice and have a vigorous debate on some random topic that comes up in early discussion.

"We have an announcement to make," I said.

"Debbie's pregnant?" suggested Harriet, helpfully.

"No, we're going off on a gap year," I continued, and told them all about it.

There was a stunned silence until Andrew asked: "Can I have the Porsche?"

"You're mad - you're too old!" said Lauren.

On the whole, judging by their faces and body language, it wasn't well received. We were going to do something from which parents are banned, like dancing to Abba or having sex. We were officially an embarrassment. Interestingly, the children's friends thought we were really cool, but I suspect that was because we weren't their own parents.

Embracing lifestyle changes

I am now living outside my past comfort zones. On planes, I no longer turn left and head for the comfy chairs with waitress service, but turn right and take a seat in steerage. We have forsaken the linen sheets of an emperor bed with an en suite power shower for the simplicity of a hostel where we spend the night fighting for a share of the duvet. We have relinquished pretentious restaurants, where the food has more flavour in the menu descriptions than on the plate, for get-what-you're-given, hole-in-the-wall eateries.

Three years later, having got used to living from a backpack, roughing it through 111 cities in 23 countries on all seven continents, my view on life has changed. I realise I don't need the toys I have accumulated or the material possessions and clothes that demand so much space and money.

"Having got used to living from a backpack, roughing it through 111 cities in 23 countries on all seven continents, my view on life has changed."

I resolved to rid myself of as much as I could palm off at a reasonable price, given that politicians have managed to strangle consumerism during our absence. Over the years, I have single-handedly kept the automotive industry in profit, but I don't need the car any more.

Right now, however, I could sure as hell use a snowmobile. I drag myself to my feet. I've got to manage another rope length. All that stupid management mantra started to fill my head:

"How do you consume an elephant? Slowly and one bite at a time... Long-term success is made up of a series of short-term outcomes... blah, blah, blah." So, I would struggle up one rope length at a time, then I would slow down: I had been in a rhythm of 15 steps up the glacier followed by ten breaths' rest, and now I would swap that round.

But this is the price that has to be paid in exchange for enjoying some of the finest views nature has to offer. At the head of the North Col ice wall stands the upper reaches of Everest. It sits proud and grandiose, resplendent in its clothes of white velvet that struggle to cover its black skin. Its peaks and edges have been sharpened by the most powerful forces nature can muster. The summit looks an impossibly steep climb. From the top, the trademark plume of ice crystals stretches powerfully from the North East Ridge, driven by the jet stream that patrols the highest reaches of the mountain.

To our west, rise the grey walls of Changtse that strain a mere 7,583m into the sky, a minor Himalayan peak, but still higher than any other mountain range elsewhere in the world. To our east, are the brilliant white slopes that lead to the summit of Kardapu, standing guard over the rolling Karda glacier.

Everywhere we look, walls of snow, ice or rock tower above us, and we have no sense of the height at which we stand. We are dwarfed on all sides, cradled in the palm of the greatest mountain range on earth.

Past influences

As I gaze upwards, I am overcome by a sense of history. This place has witnessed some of the great heroes of the past; people who inspired a generation as they strove to achieve what no man had managed before. Above us, on the steep, pristine-white slopes on which our predecessors had suffered, many had failed but all had believed.

"Above us, on the steep, pristine-white slopes on which our predecessors had suffered, many had failed but all had believed."

That we could stand on this spot was a result of their struggles. Their lessons provided today's opportunity for hundreds of would-be summiteers, and their sufferings were our debt.

Thanks to them, I have been able to abandon my comfortable home and come here to witness the great summits of the earth that loft into the sky, reflecting glittering diamanté-like snow crystals in the morning sunshine. I wobble to my feet again, my mind still winning the battle against my rebellious body. It's time to go another rope length


Mount Everest, a symbol of inspiration for mountaineers and CEOs alike.
Everest base camp, 5,200m above sea level – a world away from the comforts of leafy suburbia.
James and Debbie Suenson-Taylor.