Richard Parks is on top of the world. Last year, the former Welsh rugby international completed a pioneering 7-month race to climb the highest mountain on each of the world’s continents and venture to The South and Geographical North Poles – a world first. Swide’s Hugo Mc Cafferty caught up with Richard on his return from his latest adventure.
The ascent of Richard Parks
If there’s a nicer guy out there than Richard Parks, then I haven’t met him. They say you should never meet your heroes as you will inevitably be disappointed, not so with Richard, he is everything you hope a man of the wilderness would be – brave, energetic and hearteningly humble.
Having only flown in from a challenging attempt at Mount Denali, the tallest mountain in the USA, an expedition that came perilously close to disaster and witnessed the death of four Japanese mountaineers on the same slopes, his readiness to engage in conversation speaks for his passion for what he does, and his other passion, to share it with as many people as possible.
Taking inspiration from the great Antarctic explorers, Captain Scott, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton, Parks adds a modern aspect to his adventuring by utilising social media to bring his experiences to the world in real time. The challenges are similar though and if for the great heroic explorers, gentlemanly conduct was paramount, they would approve of Parks’ demeanour, he is a thoroughly modern gentleman.
As much as he is flying high now, his journey started form the lowest ebb when, as a professional rugby player, his career was cut short by injury. In a dark period of depression, he gained inspiration from reading Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ book ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’ and a sentence from his late Grandmother’s eulogy; ‘The Horizon is only the limit of our sight’. Richard decided to confront his fears and set about creating his 737 Challenge. Two years before the challenge Richard had never set foot on a mountain, but he spent his life savings, moved back in with his parents and invested everything in training. From here the journey began and it shows no signs of stopping.
You were up Mount Denali recently and had quite a tough time of it. Can you tell us about that?
It was really challenging this year and in the few weeks that we were on the mountain we had a lot of snowfall and a prolonged period of low pressure which meant it was very cold about –20 to –25 ° C. Some days we would have over a metre of snow in 24 hours and pretty high winds on the mountain. So the conditions were really challenging. There were a lot of avalanches. That’s just the nature of the beast, any action you take carries risk and that’s the environment you exist in.
You didn’t make the summit this time. Does luck play an important role in what you do?
There is always an element of latent luck. We experienced that completely being stuck at 5000 metres for 2 or 3 days, not being able to climb up or not being able to climb down. We decided to try one long push to get off the mountain we climbed for 25 hours to get back to base camp to have the opportunity to fly off the mountain. It just seemed like the right thing to do to capitalise on that window of favourable weather and 24 hours later four out of five of a Japanese team died in an avalanche on that same slope. So there is an element of luck in it but in the end you control how the situation evolves.
Do you often have to make these ‘life or death’ decisions?
To be honest that’s one of the things that I enjoy most or take from the expeditions. Coming from a background of professional rugby I spent all my life competing against other people whether it be for selection on a Saturday or during a game. Now I really love and relish not competing. You can’t compete with the mountain and it would be naive to think you can compete with Mother Nature, in fact you have to work with the conditions, work with the mountain, which means you’re not competing with anybody but yourself, which is really different to rugby, that’s what I love.
When George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest he said ‘because it is there’, what would you say?
I really enjoy the perspective, the clarity that it gives me. An example would be that in society today all our attention and energies are taken up with so many different things, there’s so much information. I love the simplicity, when you’re in conditions like that it’s your tent that is your shelter, it is your sleeping bag that is warm and it’s your stove that you melt ice with to get water. There are difficult decisions to make, there’re not always life or death, but it is very different to normal life where your decisions don’t carry such major consequences.
Do you exist in two different worlds? One day you’re on the side of a mountain, the net you’re back in Cardiff, how do you marry the two experiences?
When I was younger I spent my time in professional rugby I was very much all or nothing. In some ways that mentality, well my stubbornness, has been really useful in my 737 Challenge and in pushing through obstacles and getting the fundraising done and seeing it through. But what I love about this chapter in my life is that you really appreciate things when you have or experience the opposite and I need and enjoy the wilderness and the self-reliance and the performance aspect too.
It seems you are very definitely on a journey, one that is as much spiritual as it is physical…
Absolutely, I certainly would consider the last three years of my life as a journey from rugby to this very different chapter in my life. When I was told I couldn’t play rugby any more because of my shoulder injury that was by far the darkest period of my life, I wasn’t ready to retire and I was pretty scared. But my overwhelming emotion at the moment is gratitude because for me it was a mixture of events; it was a sentence from my grandmother’s funeral ‘the horizon is only the limit of our sight’ that combined with the books I was reading at the time gave me, for want of a better word, the courage and the idea to channel my emotions and energies, which were pretty negative at the time, into something positive. For me the challenge was just a new skill, about learning the art of mountaineering and I feel really lucky that my journey has evolved through companies and individuals that I’ve met along the way, it feels very organic. I feel lucky to have found another sport, a lifestyle, another community that I love and that give me everything. I’m lucky in that I’m naturally very good at it but I’ve got lot to learn and I will be learning for the rest of my life. It’s a real privilege, there are not many people who can earn a living doing what they love doing.
There’s more to your work than just climbing mountains, you do it for charity…
My 737 Challenge was done to raise funds for Marie Currie cancer care, I’m very proud of that. My father is a cancer survivor and cancer has affected my family so for me it’s really important to give back as well and it’s been a very equal part of this physical journey, it’s also been equally tough at times and moving forward, there are so many charities I would love to support. It’s just nice to do something that isn’t driven by ego. We’re hoping to reach the milestone of half a million pounds before the end of July.
What have you learned about the great historical adventurers?
I left Cardiff to start my challenge a hundred years after Scott’s Terra Nova ship set sail from Cardiff and in the build up I a read a lot of books on the heroic age of exploration about Amundson, Scott, Shackelton and I was just absolutely captivated by the stories of their daring, sacrifice and their true spirit of adventure in the sense of really stepping into the unknown. Of all the legs of the challenge each one is special, each has its own memories and challenges, but Antarctica was really special. It’s a place that really touched me and in fact it’s still with me now. I’m working on an expedition to go back there hopefully at he end of the year or early next year. I really felt a sense of history and a connection with the past in Antarctica.
Whereas the great explorers lived in an age of chivalry and always conducted themselves with dignity. Things are different now, we have a different set of values. To you what does it mean to be a ‘man’?
I think is to aspire to make the right decisions based on strong morals. For me being a man is about humility, strength, adventure and compassion. There’s so much ego out there and I really think that humility is something we’ve lost. It’s a value that I have lived with even more so in the last few years in an environment that is so powerful, a mountain that can change so quickly, you feel so insignificant… that has helped me more than anything. Strength is important for a man, at the end of the day we are all evolved cavemen and you do need to provide for a family and strength is an obvious quality to aid in that. Adventure, or the spirit of adventure, trying new things, whether it be entrepreneurial or running a triathlon, that’s what grows us as people. Compassion; because it’s important to give back.
You are pioneering in sharing what you do through social media, does it play a big part?
Social media has played a huge part in the fundraising side of things, absolutely, but what I’m really passionate about is being able to share my experiences with others who are following on Twitter, on Facebook and through the website, that’s probably the biggest differences between the stories of the heroic age of exploration; the Scotts, the Sackletons and what I’m doing. In fact Scott’s Terra Nova expedition was pioneering in that it was the first expedition to have a photographer and a cameraman with them. But the ability to share in real time is something new and I’m passionate about it, it’s really powerful and will play a big part in what I would like to do moving forward. I’m developing new ways to share and report what I’m doing in real time, I think it’s massive.
So what’s next for Richard Parks?
I’ve got a few opportunities that have arisen as a result of the challenge but the one I’m most excited about is to write a book about my experiences and I’m really looking forward to sharing with everyone who has fought with me along the way the ins and outs of the challenge and what it was like. I have another idea for another big project, I’m not sure if it’s physically possible yet but… and one of the things I want to do in order to prepare myself is to organise an expedition back to Antarctica which I hope to do at the end of this year or early next year.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty
Tagged with: #EXHIBITION #INTERVIEW
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