Thursday, November 19, 2009

'Scribblings from the Surf' - Devon Life 12/09: North Devon's Extreme Adventurers

The sixth in a series entitled 'Scribblings from the Surf' for Devon Life. To read the article either click here, see the text below or click to enlarge the pictures of the original article below that. To see the whole series, click here.


Barrister and writer Tim Kevan meets an Everest mountaineer and the leader of the Lundy swim challenge

With the its surfing beaches and the rugged cliffs and Exmoor hills behind, it is perhaps no surprise that North Devon attracts more than its fair share of adventurers. Two such are Dr Rob Casserley who is about to row the Atlantic and then climb Everest for a sixth time and Paul Irwin who led the first swim from Lundy Island to Woolacombe. What they both have in common beyond stretching the limits of their own endurance is a desire to help the wider community through raising money and awareness of particular charities.

The Everest Summiteer
If you'd told Rob Casserley ten years ago when he was a medical student in Newcastle that by now he would have summited Everest five times he would have responded with disbelief. He undoubtedly had an aptitude for sport, having played rugby to county level at school. He had also climbed the trekking peak of Mount Kenya during a gap year which he took with the army. But it wasn’t until his elective as a medical student in Bolivia and Peru that he climbed his first serious mountain, Huana Potosi at over 6,000 metres. Kilimanjaro followed, after which he decided to take a climbing sabbatical in 2002-3 during which he climbed Europe’s highest, Mount Elbrus and the world’s sixth highest mountain Cho Oyu. Then, at the end of the sabbatical he reached the summit of Mount Everest becoming the 64th British summiteer.

Since then he has been on numerous expeditions but is best known for having summited Everest a further four times, most notably in Spring 2007 when he became one of only three westerners ever to achieve two summits in one climbing season. He did it in the space of a week which was memorably filmed for the TV programme ‘Everest ER’.

In 2008, he worked as the official cameraman and personal physician to Sir Ranulph Fiennes on his Everest attempt and in the process helped to raise £2.5 million for Marie Curie Cancer Care. This led the way for another great charity adventure Ocean 2 Summit which will start on 6 December. Rob and fellow North Devon medic Stuart Burbridge will set off from La Gomera in Gran Canaria in an attempt to row the 2,700 miles across the Atlantic to Antigua. This will involve some two months of a grueling rotation system in which they will alternate two hour rowing shifts and live off re-hydrated Army style ration packs. This will be followed in the Spring of 2010 with a joint attempt on the summit of Mount Everest. Once again they will be harnessing the goodwill and publicity which such an extreme adventure will garner in order to raise money for Marie Curie Cancer Care. As their fundraising website puts it with characteristic modesty, they are simply “two doctors from North Devon who have a passion about putting into the community as much as is possible, whilst putting our bodies and minds through some of the toughest challenges around.”

The Lundy Swimmer
Much closer to home but no less inspiring are the efforts of Paul Irwin and his fellow participants in the inaugural Lundy Swim Challenge which was completed in August and in the process raised thousands of pounds for the Children's Hospice South West. In fact after fellow team member and GP to the Hospice Dr Bruce Hughes came up with the idea, many people may have thought they were mad. I mean, four people swimming around twenty miles in a stretch of sea which has some of the biggest tides and worst currents in the world. But for Braunton-resident Paul it was the challenge he was looking for. He’d already completed triathlons at sprint, Olympic and half-Ironman levels and raised money for charities along the way. But above all he is someone who dreams of adventure, of pushing forward the frontiers and boldly going and suddenly here was an opportunity to complete a first on his own doorstep. No-one had ever swum from Lundy to Woolacombe and he therefore jumped at the opportunity to lead the team. Along with Bruce he then recruited Simon Mathers, a P.E. teacher at Kingsley School in Bideford, Jon Parker and a reserve swimmer and swim tactician John Jameson.

Despite the difficulties involved, they somehow managed to convince key sponsors such as Saltrock, Sailfish Wetsuits and Gatorade that it was possible and the show was on the road. Then, besides the arduous training, they needed to recruit not only a support crew but a small flotilla of boats as well. This was where the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place when Bristol Channel Charters, Rudi Lancaster and the indomitable Ilfracombe Yacht Club stepped up to the mark.

After that it was all down to the weather. When they set off for Lundy the conditions were sufficiently rough to bring down a number of the support crew with sea sickness. Oh, and there was just the small issue of a bunch of Portuguese Men o'War being washed up at Combe Martin on the same day. But hey, nothing was going to stop these North Devon pioneers by this point and despite the fact that the seas remained rough for the swim the next day, the team made it through to Woolacombe in just over seven hours.

As for what’s next, they not only intend to repeat the event and open it up to more teams next year but they also have another North Devon first planned which will be open to even more members of the public. Another crazy idea set to inspire the region and one which they intend to make public when the time is right. Now I admit that I’ve already been told but if I were to divulge it now they claim it would just spoil all the fun.

But there is one thing of which we can all be sure and it is that in Rob, Stuart, Paul and the rest of the Lundy swim team the spirit of George Mallory and the romance of adventure is not only alive and well but thriving in North Devon.

To support Rob and Stuart’s fundraising visit and to support the Lundy Swim Team’s efforts and for more information about next year’s events, visit

Tim Kevan is the author of the comic novel ‘BabyBarista and the Art of War’ (Bloomsbury) and the co-author of ‘Why Lawyers Should Surf’ (with Dr Michelle Tempest).

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