“You get one shot at this and you have to make sure that you pack as much as you can into your life. I suppose my attitude to life is due in part to my dad dying when I was young. I think he got outside Ireland once to see a football match. And then my mother went to Lourdes after that, once. So they got out of the country once each. My mother once told me that my father had always wanted to see the Taj Mahal. Since I was a child he had been putting away a fiver every week in his dresser, God help him, so that he might go and see the Taj Mahal one day but he never got to. I went to see it about four years ago. I took a photo of him and a photo of my mother over there with me and then took a photo of them with the Taj Mahal in the background,” says Peter White, Sub-Officer with Dublin Fire Brigade. He’s been working for twenty-eight years for the fire & ambulance service but it’s his drive to explore the world that this interview will focus on.
Among many other feats, he has sat with the mountain gorillas in Uganda, sailed the Galapagos Islands, climbed the volcanoes in Ecuador, cycled a mountain stage of the Tour de France and is the former president & founder member of the Irish Whiskey Society. He has just summited Mt Fuji and Monch in Switzerland this summer. In a world that is obsessed with celebrity and celebrating mediocrity, Peter is a quiet legend. He’s a man that will surprise you some night in a pub with his tales. He doesn’t boast, he’s just someone that’s enthralled with life and adventure. He doesn’t really like social media and uses it under silent protest.
One thing you will learn about Peter is that he enjoys setting goals, accomplishing them and then moving on to the next. It’s in part down to his life philosophy, “I’ve a very blasé attitude to death. I don’t know if it’s the job that I’m in or the fact that my father died when I was young, perhaps a combination of both. Basically I’ve experienced a lot of death and continue to do so in my job. To me if it’s your time, it’s your time. I do believe in God, but I think that from the day you’re born, the day you die is mapped out for you. I’m a lot more afraid of growing old, to be honest. And no matter what you do, you’re gonna die that day, whether you’re at home, lying in bed or you’re climbing.” He’s driven to squeeze as much into his life as he can.
He’s always been into staying fit but the only time he tried fighting was as a kid via boxing and Tae Kwon Do but it was kickboxing in his thirties that piqued his interest. “I watched these guys do a couple of training sessions through the glass walls in the studio and I wondered if they were fitter than me or if I was fitter than them. So, I just said, “Right, I’ll go in there and see what its like. I joined kickboxing and realized after a couple of months, that I was fitter than 95% of them.” The next stage was to try competitive kickboxing and that journey reveals the true crux of Peter, “for two years, I got absolutely crucified, hammered because I was fighting people who were grades ahead of me. At that stage I decided, ‘right, I’m gonna keep doing this until I get a national title.’ I just focused on winning a national title and after about five years, I won a national title. Next I was on the Irish team. Then I got my black belt. Then, two days after getting my black belt, I packed it all in and I stopped kickboxing.” For Peter he accomplished what he set out to do and now it was time for a bigger physical challenge.
Climbing the 7 Summits
First a little bit of background to the seven summits. They are the highest summit on each of the seven different continents; Everest in Asia, Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Vinson in Antarctica and Carstensz Pyramid/Kosciuszko in Oceania. The goal is to climb them all. To date at least 350 people have climbed them.
The climbing odyssey began tamely fifteen years earlier when his work colleague, Martin Keogh, suggested that DFB do the four peaks challenge in Ireland for charity. We did this in 40 hours. As much as he enjoyed the challenge he found it easy. “I heard people talk about Kilimanjaro. Back then people weren’t doing it the way they are now, as in everyone’s climbing it! So, I said, ‘Right, I’m gonna go up…..and try Kilimanjaro.’ I really wanted to go to Africa anyhow. We went there for ten days and I found it easy. What I learned from that is that Kilimanjaro isn’t at altitude, you don’t need oxygen, but you do have thinner air up there. I started then looking at a mountain in South America called Aconcagua, it’s the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas. It’s big step up from Kilimanjaro.”
Aconcagua in South America
“I got snow blindness going up Aconcagua and I was stuck in the tent for two days. Stuart Peacock, a friend of mine who has actually climbed Everest three times, fed me. He did everything because my eyes were bandaged up, I couldn’t look after myself.” Imagine being that high up a cold mountain and then overnight losing your sight, it would be a terrifying ordeal but Peter’s paramedic training kicked in. “I knew what had happened so that took the fear out of it. The previous day I had come down from the camp and my goggles fogged up. I took them off for about ten minutes to let them clear and in that ten minutes I had damaged my eyes. I went to bed that night and I fell asleep, then I woke up an hour later and I felt like someone had poured sand in my eyes.”
Peter is a great story-teller, the intensity of his adventures are captivating. Sometimes you miss his dry wit because he makes everything sound exciting like how sanitation works up on a mountain! “When you’re up Aconcagua there are no toilets, this probably sounds disgusting but, because it’s a national park you’ve to sign up for two bags, one for your rubbish and one for your crap! Literally! You give your passport number and pay three hundred bucks which you will get back when you return the bags.”
He was up the mountain for three and half weeks or as he puts it, “you’re walking around with a bag of crap hanging out of your backpack. I was trying to crap into a bag in the windiest place I’d ever been, hoping nobody else was watching me!”
As if things couldn’t get any worse for him, the team, “got caught in a storm at about 6000 meters. It’s a storm that comes in off the Pacific called the White Wind, the Viento Blanco. It’s hundred mile an hour winds. There was a team of eighteen of us that night, half the tents blew away so the other guys had to come into our tents. It was so cold that nobody actually wanted to get out into the porch of the tent and cook. We all ended up lying in the tents for 24 hours listening to the wind hitting the tents and waiting for the tents to be ripped away. And if they had blown away we would have all died.” At that altitude at night with no proper light, we’d have never made it off the mountain. Yet despite all that, “even though it was so tough, I thought it was brilliant!”
Elbrus in Europe
Elbrus is not as high as Kilimanjaro but in a lot of ways it’s tougher because it’s covered in snow and because of it’s hard to reach location. You can’t get travel insurance if you go there because it’s so dangerous. It’s located near Sth.Ossetia which is in the Caucasus Mountains. “We flew into Moscow and then flew from there to this air strip in the middle of nowhere. Then we had to drive for about six hours. A mountaineering company in the UK arranged the whole thing. “When we arrived we were met by this guy called Alex T, an ex-military member of the Russian Special Forces. He was our guide, he carried a gun the whole time. We got stopped by the police about three times and every time they stopped us, he just put the gun in the back of his belt and went out. He had to pay a bribe to the police to let us keep going. Every night Alex cleaned his gun. He’d just take it apart and then reassemble it.” Thankfully they reached the peak so he doesn’t need to visit Alex again.
Everest in Asia
Everest is expensive to climb. “In 2008 it cost about 25 000 Euro or all of my SSIA savings, now it’s about 40K.” His first attempt to reach the summit didn’t happen in large part due to the Olympics. “People generally do Everest from two sides: you can do it from the Nepalese side or from the Tibetan side.” That year the Chinese were hosting the Olympic Games and they wanted to bring the Olympic torch to the summit so they closed the Tibetan side of the mountain because, “they didn’t want people up on the summit with Free Tibet banners.” As a result all two hundred climbers went to the Nepalese side but, “the Chinese apparently paid the Nepalese government 20 million dollars to stop anyone from climbing it until they summited with the torch” This was disastrous for Peter as he only had a limited amount of time. With mountain climbing you need to climb the mountain in stages so that you can acclimatise, the whole climb can take two months. Due to the Chinese closing down the mountain he spent eleven precious days in base-camp.
“I got to camp three, which was 7200 meters and having spent the night there, we departed for Camp 4 but my oxygen equipment failed soon after. We got to just below 8000 meters, which they call the death zone and I had no oxygen so when I got into camp four I was shattered. I actually collapsed, we were going for the summit six hours later. At that point I knew that I hadn’t got the strength to go for the summit. Had I not used all my days in base camp I could have rested there for a night or two and then gone.”
Despite that he pushed himself on. He climbed another hundred metres and then he heard the voice of his firefighting colleague Martin Keogh in his head. He had said to him previously, “‘you need all your fingers and toes to do your job. It’s not worth it to lose them because then you can’t do your job’. Only that I heard his voice I would have been willing to sacrifice a few fingers to get to the top.”
“The Sherpas are amazing. They are called the ‘Tigers of the snow.’ They get paid next to nothing though. When I was out there, they got paid about $5 a day for doing all the work and carrying all the stuff. There’s a lot of rich Americans that pay 75-80 thousand so that they only carry a container of water, camera and a rain jacket, the Sherpas carry everything else. That’s how some people actually get up to the top of Everest.”
The Sherpas just have a tourist/climbing window of maybe two or three months of the whole year, “they have to make their money there.” But he is keenly aware that their tradition is starting to fade, paradoxically due to the climbers. “The kids see us with iPads etc. and now that’s what they want. They’ve no interest in being Sherpas. There’s a way of life out there that’s slowly dying away because we’re going in there and polluting what they have.”
The Final Frontier
“Denali is the second coldest mountain in the world, after Vinson in the Antarctic. It was minus 45 degrees and there were avalanches but I got it done,” he says matter of factually. As soon as he reached that summit he was off to Australia the following year. “Kosciuszko is easy,” he laughs. Now he just has Everest and Vinson to do.
For some people, Peter’s antics may seem extreme, reckless even, but Peter is a man that believes in seeing as much of this world that he can. His day job as a firefighter has shown him how dark life can be, “I was even head-butted by someone I was trying to rescue,” he says. “These challenges that I set myself aren’t because I’m competitive. I just love the peace and quiet. I love that you get away from the hustle and bustle. When you’re out there, it’s just you and nature. You’re plodding along, just putting one step in front of the other and you’re at peace with yourself. You can’t hear anything else except nature. And I love that.”