This month CNN will broadcast a three part-series that chronicles Victoria Pendleton and Ben Fogle’s attempt to scale Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world. Radio Times spoke to the Olympic cycling champion about the challenge – and why she is still coping with depression after she was unable to continue
As she sobbed into the shoulder of her expedition guide she said: “I feel like such a letdown… It’s the first time in my life that I’ve felt my body is failing me… I used to feel like a superhero.”
From superhero to sub-zero. Crippling altitude sickness meant the two-time Olympic gold medalist in cycling couldn’t continue her attempt on the summit with her friend Ben Fogle. To climb any higher would have risked death. Fogle eventually made it to the top, but Pendleton was airlifted to safety. An athlete programmed to succeed now had to accept failure.
Today, drinking nothing stronger than water in a London bar six weeks after her “spiritual and emotional” adventure, the 37-year-old admits that she’s still struggling. “I’ve been suffering with depression since I got back from Everest. I feel psychologically and physiologically damaged. It’s really put me through the wringer, and that has been harder than any disappointment about not making it up to the summit. It’s like I’ve taken a real battering. I’ve never felt so overwhelmed with illness.”
Pendleton, who’s always exuded a mix of steeliness and fragility, has long been open about her mental health issues, even once revealing that she self-harmed over the suffocating pressure that accompanied her Olympic dreams. This time, she says, the depression was brought on by hypoxia, the debilitating condition that struck at over 21,000ft on Everest with her body deprived of an adequate oxygen supply.
“I came back with chest and ear infections that took three weeks of antibiotics to get over, and that on its own is enough to send you into despair. I had it in my sinuses, I couldn’t hear anything. I had other things going on too because nothing heals, a cut or a blister, at that height.”
(c) Fisher Creative
Doctors put her on medication back at home in Oxfordshire, explaining how oxygen deprivation can trigger depression. “But I felt even further away from myself then. They’ve assured me that it’s quite a normal thing and in time it will pass. I’ve been having good days and bad days. You just have to grin and bear it.”
She finds keeping herself busy helps. “DIY, mowing the lawn, pressure-washing the windows, riding the horses, anything,” she laughs. Pendleton, who since retiring from cycling has done everything from twirling on Strictly to riding with distinction over the jumps at the Cheltenham Festival, may still look thin and a mite peaky but she’s like a big kid as she enthuses about her latest plans.
There’s polo, skateboarding and surfing; retraining two retired racehorses as eventers; her dreams of getting into motor rallying and endurance motorcycling. She even reckons she might do some more mountaineering.
No cycling, though. Once the fastest sprinter in the world, she laughs that she’s “like a bag of potatoes on wheels” these days.
That insatiable competitive spirit never disappears, though. Is there another Olympics in her? She says that laser surgery has given her 20/20 vision, so she likes the idea of clay-pigeon shooting. And there’s always equestrianism – she tells herself: “Nick Skelton won showjumping gold at 58, didn’t he, so there’s still time!”
But, actually, what she loves best now is the shock of the new. “I like to make the most of opportunities. I’ve got balls, I’ve been told! If you’re willing to put yourself out there and to fail just to experience something, then it’s all worth it.
“I Iike a focus and a purpose. I’ll find another one and I’ll pursue it. My biggest fear is that I’m like Peter Pan. I just want to keep doing what I do for ever, being able to do new sports, try new things. Even if I’d conquered Everest, I’d have still come down and said, ‘OK, what’s next?’”
The three-part Everest documentary was filmed by a CNN cameraman who followed the climbing team all the way to the summit. For Pendleton, it involved an 18-month mountaineering education in which she’d learned to leap across 100-foot deep crevasses “in the biggest, most dangerous ice fall that you will ever travel through” but now she’s sanguine about the fact that failure “wasn’t about my commitment, focus or fitness, but my physiology and genetics”.
The key moment came at the expedition’s second camp when she stumbled into the tent she shared with Fogle and struggled to undo her jacket. She thought nothing of it, but that lack of co-ordination and “a horrific headache, like knitting needles sticking in the back of my skull” were telling signs of hypoxia.
“You act like you’re very marginally drunk, it’s not unpleasant, you’re not totally suffering, but signs of the onset of a cerebral edema [swelling of the brain caused by excess fluid] are very subtle. You have to rely on others recognising it.
“Everest is not a mountain to be tried with. She’ll decide if you’re going to make it or not. People think I must be reckless, but I’m Captain Sensible. It wasn’t the kind of decision to be gung-ho about. It’s not about winning or losing a game; it’s life and death. And no amount of ego or arrogance can get in the way of a decision like that.” And, anyway, she rationalised, it was just “another snowy hill”.
Pendleton may be down, but she’s quite irrepressible. “For anybody out there, I’ve been depressed, insecure, had low confidence and that was even as a world champion – yet I still won. So I want that to be a message to people. Just because you don’t have a perfect day every day, it doesn’t mean you still can’t achieve your dreams.” “Queen Vic” will keep chasing hers, even if not to the roof of the world.
The Challenge: Everest is on CNN Saturday 30th June at 1.30pm, 4.30pm and 8.30pm