Adventurer James Ketchell has made a living out of bouncing back from adversity. Could he be Britain’s most resourceful man?
Ten years ago, James Ketchell was recovering from a motorbike accident that almost cost him his life. The 100mph crash left him with broken legs and a shattered ankle – injuries so severe that doctors said he might never walk normally again. Instead, after years of rehab, physio and training, he became the first person to climb Everest, row the Atlantic and cycle round the world in a feat that’s been dubbed ‘the ultimate triathlon’.
Ketchell has since joined the small but rapidly expanding ranks of those who make their living as adventurers. Like fellow Scout affiliate Bear Grylls and presenter Ben Fogle, he spends his time planning and executing daring escapades around the world. Unlike these media-savvy explorers, though, Ketchell often sees bad luck and circumstance get in the way of his ambitions.
He was involved in a dramatic rescue when an attempt to row the Indian Ocean went awry, and in July had to abandon plans to row unsupported around Britain after becoming ill en-route. In other words, he’s no stranger to adversity. Perhaps that’s why he’s become an inspiration to the thousands who follow him in the media and on his blog.
“Things will always go wrong at some point, that’s just life,” he writes. “This is one lesson that has really stood out for me. Maybe you will lose your job or be rescued in the Indian Ocean, it’s inevitable there will be times when no matter how hard you try, things just don’t go your way. Having the ability to keep going when things are not going your way is crucial. Someone who reaches their goals will have an ability to keep working and moving forward when they’re down.”
It was this motivating philosophy that inspired Ketchell to get up from his hospital bed after that horrific motorbike accident and start training to fulfill a childhood ambition. He’d always wanted to row across the Atlantic. Now he decided to use that dream as a goal to get him through the long process of physiotherapy and rehabilitation. It took three years, but in 2010 he left La Gomera in the Canary Islands with the aim of rowing the 3,000 miles to Antigua. The initial intention was to team up with another athlete for the adventure; “but for some reason,” he says, “nobody wanted to join me.” Undeterred, Ketchell decided to make the attempt alone, a feat that only a few hardened souls had pulled off.
It took him 110 days, four hours and four minutes to make the crossing. There were a few touch-and-go moments – not least running out of food 200 miles from Antigua and narrowly avoiding a collision with a 300-metre-long oil tanker – but he describes the whole experience as ‘actually quite enjoyable’. The success inspired him, and when a friend asked if he’d like to climb Everest the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.
“I was so exhausted, I was struggling to stand up and with every breath I took, my lungs were working overtime to absorb as much oxygen as possible. My body and mind were in a place that I’d never been before, but I was somehow managing to function”
Tackling Everest doesn’t just require incredible physical resilience – it’s also very expensive. It took Ketchell six months to raise the £28,000 to fund the trip, and he came hair-raisingly close to failing in his summit bid. It was more physically challenging than he could have imagined, with low oxygen levels making every step a battle. “I devised a strategy,” he says. “I would take 10 steps, rest, another 10 steps and rest and so on. I knew this method would eventually get me to the top – I simply repeated the process and kept going. It was a long slog through the night – around nine hours from Camp 4 to the summit, but I reached my goal! “I was so exhausted, I was struggling to stand up and with every breath I took, my lungs were working overtime to absorb as much oxygen as possible. My body and mind were in a place that I’d never been before, but I was somehow managing to function.”
Ketchell and his Sherpa, Dorje, arrived on the summit at 8.30am and stayed there for quarter of an hour, admiring the view from the top of the world and taking a few photos before beginning to make their way back down. Almost immediately, though, Ketchell realised that there was something wrong. “As soon as I tried to move, I realised I could hardly take one step without needing to stop for breath,” he says. “Initially I thought I just needed to get back into a rhythm of moving, but things did not get easier. I repeated my 10-step routine, but not knowing what was wrong and why I couldn’t breathe was extremely disconcerting.”
The pair managed to make it safely down to base camp, but back in England Ketchell was told that he was lucky to be alive. X-rays showed that his left lung was black with infection, probably contracted during the ascent of Everest. Doctors told him that adrenalin had masked the effects – and the adventurer believes that his 10-step strategy could have saved his life. “It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to achieve, if you are continuously taking steps towards your dream and never stop, you will always reach your summit,” he says.
“Imagine riding 100 miles a day for half a year – 18,000 miles is a long way. I hit a massive wall at the halfway point, just before America, and it struck me that it’s taken a while to get halfway through and I’ve still got to do it all over again”
Ketchell carried on dreaming. Stuck once again in a hospital after his return from Everest, he began to work on plans for his greatest adventure yet – an epic round-the-world cycle ride. He knew that no other athlete had ever rowed the Atlantic, summited Everest and cycled around the globe, and that becoming the first would catapult him into the history books.
The third leg of this ultimate triathlon began in Greenwich Park in June 2013. It took eight months to complete the 18,000-mile globe girdling trip, averaging 100 miles per day and passing through 20 countries. Ketchell said to Cycling Weekly, “Imagine riding 100 miles a day for half a year – 18,000 miles is a long way. I hit a massive wall at the halfway point, just before America, and it struck me that it’s taken a while to get halfway through and I’ve still got to do it all over again.”
Ketchell dealt with the mental pressure by developing a strict routine. He made sure that he was on the bike by seven or eight every morning and cycled until around seven each evening. At night, he stayed with host families who he met through Warm Showers, a website that links touring cyclists up with local hosts. There were plenty of bumps along the way, of course. The potholed roads in Ukraine slowed his progress substantially, and in India his front bike wheel was destroyed by a tuk-tuk. India also taught him not to wear Lycra shorts. “I was getting unwanted attention, guys were coming up to me and asking if they could touch my legs,” he laughs. “The guys that could speak English were like: ‘Are you like Superman?’ I was going almost as fast as people on their mopeds and they had never seen anything quite like it!”
Despite potholes, incredulous locals and more than 100 punctures, Ketchell arrived back at his Greenwich start point in February 2014 – eight months after setting out. The group awaiting him included an American Warm Showers host, who had flown from Phoenix to see the end of the adventure, and members of the Scouts, for whom he’s an enthusiastic ambassador. His three-prong achievement went straight into the record books, attracting the interest of big media outlets and prospective sponsors. The question on everyone’s lips was: what was he planning to do next? Ketchell had an answer. He had already been working to raise money for the ELIFAR Foundation, a charity that helps to improve the quality of life for disabled people. With this in mind, he decided to team up with a friend who suffers from epilepsy and row 4,000 miles across the Indian Ocean. The idea, he says, “was to prove that despite having epilepsy or a disability there is no barrier to pursuing one’s goals.”
For the first time, but not the last, Ketchell was destined not to achieve his ambition, as 250 miles offshore, weather conditions suddenly changed. The wind rose, the sea became increasingly rough, and eventually a huge wave hit the boat’s beam and overturned it. Ketchell’s rowing partner was thrown across the cabin and sustained a concussion-causing head injury, prompting a dramatic mid-ocean rescue. It wasn’t how he hoped the trip would end – but he was quick to see the positive side of the experience. “It certainly made me realise just how lucky I am to be doing the things I love for a job,” he says. “Prior to the rescue, I was always preoccupied, chasing sponsorship deals and generally trying to make various things happen. I still do all of the above but before, I was blinkered and was only looking at the things I didn’t have, instead of what I have been fortunate enough to do over the years. Things will always go wrong at some point, that’s just life!”
Ketchell’s ability to look on the bright side has stood him in good stead. Both his big projects of 2016 – firstly, an attempt to cross the Atlantic in a pedalo and secondly to row over 1,800 miles around the British coastline – have been stymied. The first came to a conclusion when his pedalo partner was taken ill 600 miles into their trip. The second has been suspended after Ketchell came down with a serious urine infection and was forced back to dry land for treatment.
Through these setbacks, though, Ketchell has proved that he possesses an almost superhuman ability to bounce back from adversity. It’s no surprise that he’s forged a successful secondary career as a motivational speaker – he’s certainly motivated Vauxhall employees, who have pledged to match the 2,000 miles he planned to row round Britain in aid of children’s charity Over The Wall. Ketchell’s aim is to encourage others to live life by his own philosophy. “If you don’t think you’re where you should be, you need to look at what you’re doing and, often or not, you’ll find your actions will affect your outcomes dramatically,” he says. “Never give up!”
Follow James Ketchell’s travels on his blog at www.jamesketchell.net