Mountaineer who made his hardest climb

CLIMBING some of the world’s biggest mountains is a risky business, but for Alistair Sutcliffe it saved his life. Catherine Scott met him.

Unlike the thousands who die or are left permanently damaged by a brain haemorrhage every year, Alistair Sutcliffe has lived to the tell the tale – and what a tale it is.

By his own reckoning, Dr Sutcliffe knows he should be dead.

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“I knew what was happening to me and I really thought that my time was up. Only a very small percentage of people fully recover from a brain haemorrhage,” explains the 46-year-old Whitby GP.

It was in February last year that Alistair suffered the severe bleed in his brain. Just three years earlier, the super-fit GP had become the first person successfully to scale the seven highest peaks on every continent in the world at the first attempt. An impressive feat for a full-time climber but when you are fitting expeditions around a busy GP practice and running marathons the achievement is even more remarkable. Little did he know that these high altitude adventures would one day prove to save his life in what would be his hardest climb.

It was a chance meeting with Sir Chris Bonington when he was 11 that inspired Alistair Sutcliffe to become a mountain climber.

“He was a friend of my friend’s dad. When I met him, he had just returned from climbing Everest and I got chatting to him. From that moment on, I wanted to find out what it was like on top of the world.”

While at medical school he joined the climbing club and spent his spare time scaling peaks. It was 15 years ago that he decided he wanted, in his own words, to “climb some high things”. He came up with the idea of scaling the highest peaks on every continent.

“I wanted to see what the world looked like from the highest points. I adapted quite well to the high altitude. When I was getting to 20,000 feet I was fine. I couldn’t work out why this was but I was just happy that I had a hobby that I had an aptitude for.”

And in 2007 he became the first person to scale all seven mountains on his first attempt, including Everest.

“It does take determination and skill, but there is also a certain amount of luck needed to complete them all on the first attempt. The weather has to be in your favour; there are a lot of factors to take into account.”

Dr Sutcliffe was just planning his next adventure, a traverse of Everest, when he suffered the brain haemorrhage.

“I was just stepping into the bath when I felt like a hammer blow to the back of my head. I thought this is not just a headache. When I stepped out of the bath my balance was all over the place and I knew I was having a brain haemorrhage.

“I was scared, probably because I knew what was happening to me, but I also knew that I had to keep as calm as possible or my blood pressure would rise and that would make things worse. Fifty per cent of people die in the first few hours – I knew the odds.”

Dr Sutcliffe, who was alone in the house, managed to phone his wife, Clare, a consultant at Scarborough Hospital who was all too well aware of the severity of her husband’s situation.

She called an ambulance, but the couple’s two dogs would not let the ambulance team into the house.

“They are normally such placid dogs, but it was if they knew something was wrong and they were protecting me.” A friend arrived to save the day and the ambulance went straight to Scarborough where Clare was working and then on to Hull.

“This was my end-of-life moment,” says Dr Sutcliffe. “I made a phone call to my mum and dad and said it’s over. It was very painful; parents don’t expect to bury their children.”

Doctors said he had suffered a large bleed in his brain and told Clare to says her goodbyes. “I could hear all this happening and it was very alarming. On the second night I lost my eyesight which was terrifying. I woke in the middle of the night and thought my eyelids were stuck together. But when I put my fingers to my eyes, they went straight into my eye balls. I thought even if I did recover I wouldn’t be able to do anything.”

And then something remarkable happened. An MRI scan revealed that Dr Sutcliffe had a secondary circulation system in his brain which was allowing oxygen to circulate, keeping him alive.

“This is usually associated with the foetal circulations system as there isn’t as much oxygen in the womb. Once we are born, it normally closes down because there is more oxygen around,” explains Dr Sutcliffe.

“Because I had spent a lot of time in places where there was a low oxygen level, they think this secondary circulation system opened up and clearly saved my life.”

For two days, Dr Sutcliffe teetered on the brink of life and death during which time he had a number of unexplained experiences which he recalls vividly.

“I am not a particularly religious man and I am a rational kind of guy. But things happened to me in those 36 hours which have left me very much sitting on the fence.”

Dr Sutcliffe recalls being in a tube which had a large clock at one end. When it struck 12, he felt pain. “At one end of the tube was pain – which meant life – and at the other end there was no pain, just a feeling of peace. I was so tempted towards the end where there was no pain. But every time I went towards it, the tube tipped that way which made it harder to get towards the end with the pain. The temptation was to got where the pain was less. But I knew that pain meant life and I was not going to let this kill me.”

Later, Dr Sutcliffe discovered that the drop in his vital signs during that time, corresponded with the time he was moving towards the end of the tube where the pain was less.

“It was a comforting place to be and not at all frightening, but I knew somehow that if I wanted to live I had to get back to the pain. Pain meant that I was still alive. It was really hard. My hardest climb.”

This is the title he has given to his book published next month. “I was in intensive care for two weeks and was then eventually allowed home although I was told not to work for six months. Although it looked like I was going to make a full recovery, there was a patch of my memory from July 2009 to January 2010 – just before the brain haemorrhage. I was worried that it if it happened again I would lose even more of my memory.

“I have done some pretty amazing things which I didn’t want to forget, so I thought it was a good time to write my memoirs. I thought I’d write a chapter on each of the seven summits I’d climbed and then I thought I’d add a chapter on the hardest climb – my climb to life.” A couple of his friends read the memoirs and encouraged him to send it to a publisher. He sent it to three and all expressed an interest.

“For someone who doesn’t write a great deal I was surprised and pleased at the response.”

Royalties from the book will go to St Catherine’s Hospice in Scarborough, a charity Dr Sutcliffe feels close to through his work. He has raised more than £50,000 in the past through his climbs and more than 40 marathons. This dare-devil GP has even motorcycled to Timbuktu after a throwaway comment from his wife.

Remarkably, just a year after he so nearly died, Dr Sutcliffe is back at work, in training for yet another marathon and planning an expedition to climb the north face of Everest, much against the wishes of his long suffering wife, Clare.

So does this rational man think his dice with death has changed him?

“I was always a believer in making every day count, now that is reinforced. I do not know if this all happened for a reason, although when Claire and I were skiing recently we met a man in his 80s who came up and asked me if I’d had a near death experience. I was shocked. He said he had written books about people who had experienced similar things and they all had a certain aura which we shared. He said they all went on to do great things.

“Clare is a religious person and she thinks he was my guardian angel. I don’t know. And I also don’t know if I am destined for greatness. But if I can save people through my work and help them by supporting St Catherine’s, that is great enough for me, but who knows.”

* The Hardest Climb by Dr Alistair Sutcliffe (£16.99) is published by Bluemoose Books on May 1, www.bluemoosebooks.com