Ed Jackson – Mountains, Motivations & the Man

In this second part of our interview with Ed Jackson, we uncover his motivations, perspective on life and what’s next for this inspirational adventurer.

On 8th April 2017, Ed Jackson suffered a horrific accident in a swimming pool that ended his impressive rugby career and left him paralysed. On 1st April 2018, he summited Snowdon to the amazement of his doctors. Four years on, this rugby player turned mountaineer has set up his own charity called ‘Millimetres to Mountains’, and has teamed up with Berghaus to create adaptive clothing for his adventures.

Ed, how do you push yourself to overcome mental blocks – those times when you’re thinking, I can’t do that or I can’t go on?

Part of it is through the experience of being in positions before and then overcoming them. And I think a lot of the things that I’ve had to do, especially early on in my accident, and the effort I had to put in and also defying the odds. You’re telling yourself that you are not sure if this is possible, but your brain will always give up before your body. And it’s trusting that you can always achieve more than you think. Then you think, what’s the worst that can happen?

A lot of the mountains I’ve tried to climb, I haven’t got to the top of – like Gran Paradiso was our third attempt. That’s just that’s just the way it is. That doesn’t mean you failed. It just means you’ve learned a bit and you’ll come back and do it again. It’s just part of the process. And actually, you learn more from the things you don’t complete, or when you fail, than you do from when you complete it. So all you can do is try, and through the experience you learn more about yourself. I always want to take on things that I’m not sure if I can do or not.

In terms of personal development, you shouldn’t know whether you can do it or not until afterwards, because then when you achieve it, you feel amazing. But if you don’t achieve it, that’s fine. It’s just a step towards eventually getting there.

You’re very positive! Is that fundamental to your character?

Yeah, I think that hasn’t always been the case. But when you have your perspective changed a lot when you lose everything, you have to come to terms with the fact that you might just be quadriplegic for the rest of life with someone feeding you. When you make peace with that, which I probably did after about a week, I didn’t like it, but had to come to terms with it, and after that, everything’s been a bonus. So the fact that I can just wobble to the toilet now makes me happy because I realised that that’s not always a given.

Before, it used to take so much more than that to make me happy, you know, I’d have to win trophies or whatever it might be. So you get this whole new layer of appreciation to your life, which is something that can happen post-trauma. It’s called Post Traumatic Growth and I’ve taken quite an interest in psychology and philosophy since. All of those mental processes I experienced was a way of my brain protecting me and the realisations I’ve made. The perspective I have on life wasn’t through effort, it was my brain sort of just reacting to a traumatic experience and I feel very fortunate it has reacted the way it has. But yeah, my wife will tell you I can be annoyingly positive sometimes.

Do you think perspective on things is one of the most important things you can have, say as a tool?

Yes. Yeah, for sure. So as a charity we work on three P’s, which is perspective, progress and perseverance. And that leads to positivity. And perspective, for example, is understanding how lucky you are to be where you are right now, no matter who you are, like, just to be alive. We spend our whole lives looking up at what other people other people have got, or where we want to get to, and then it makes us reflect badly on where we are right now. And it’s good to have dreams and aspirations, but if you’re not starting from a level of appreciation and perspective, then you’re going to spend your whole life chasing something because you just want the next thing, and the next thing will always make you feel like you’re behind.

Whereas if you take some time to look down and realise where you’ve come from, other people’s situations and build a level of appreciation from where you’re starting from, then you can spend your whole life level pegging it and end up being in a better place as you move forward. The other thing is progressing or moving forward, which is really important. I think we, as human beings, want to keep moving forward. But people think that means the next job title or bigger house or new car, but it’s not. Mentally developing as a person, learning, taking on challenges, getting out of your comfort zone, understanding more about yourself, helping other people move in the right direction, moving together as a group moving forward as a group; all of these I find are way more powerful than even just doing it individually. But it’s building those bits of progress in.

And there’s some important life hacks. Say they’re stuck in a job that they don’t really like, but it pays the bills, and it’s a necessity. If they can pick up a creative practice, like writing or designing or playing a musical instrument, and they’re progressing in something, it’s keeps them in a positive mental state. And then doing something with purpose is the other thing. To me the word purpose is quite complicated, but quite simply for me it means: are you doing something that benefits other people? Do other people rely on you? It doesn’t have to be necessarily a practical sense, but do other people rely on you emotionally? Are your relationships strong? Do you have a group of friends who you can support? Do your family need you? So for me when I had a complete lack of purpose, when I felt that everyone was just doing everything for me, and you know, I couldn’t do anything for myself, I found that purpose again, through sharing my story and it helping other people.

That feeling of losing purpose, and then finding it again, the first time someone says, “Wow, that really helped me” or “Oh, my God, that’s what I was missing”. For me that almost became addictive, hence why I’ve ended up with a charity. I’m not Mother Teresa, but it helps other people and it helps me massively as well as it has given me purpose, too. So they have become the three anchors we use for the charity – perspective, progress and perseverance. We help people who have been through trauma and lost those things to rediscover them and in turn their own self.

Do you get the chance to speak to people who have been through their own trauma to see how your support has helped them?

All the time. I spend most of my time speaking to people who’ve been through traumatic injuries. Because the spinal units know me, I get people get directed towards me, like if anyone breaks their neck in the UK, I hear pretty much first, which can be traumatic. Some of them are really hard stories to hear, especially if the support networks are not there.

It’s been really hard over the last year with COVID, because people haven’t been able to go in and visit. And you know, I’ve learned so much with having my family and friends being there every day. But it is such a privilege to have the kind of conversation with someone which does happen, you know, reasonably regularly, where it’s like, “I don’t want to live anymore. I’ve given up like what what’s the point” and then you end the conversation 20 minutes later and they’re like, “thank you, I’m really going to give this a go”. And you just show them that there’s light at the end of tunnel.

I see that as the biggest gift ever to be in a position where you can build that much purpose from helping other people. But people did it for me, that’s why I know it’s possible. I had other mentors that got in touch with me that I was lucky enough because there was a bit of a shop window because of being a rugby player. People heard about it and then people came out of the woodwork to know I’ve been there before. And I know the power of it. So then I passed that on and I spend a huge amount of time doing it.

Now it’s not just spinal cord injuries, but now as a result of the book I’ve had so many people get in contact saying how it’s helped them or they’ve given it to a family member or friend who is struggling. It is fantastic to hear that it’s helped them through whatever they’re going through, which is the sole reason I wrote it, just to try and do that.

As part of your new found passion for mountains, you planned a trip to the Alps with legend, Leo Houlding. How did that come about?

So last year, I climbed a mountain called Gran Paradiso in the Alps, and the plan for me was I always wanted to try and climb Mont Blanc. Eventually, I never knew if I’d ever get to a position where I’d be physically able to do it. But you know, you’ve got to have those goals.

I made the mistake of doing the Pennine Way two weeks before I went out to climb Gran Paradiso, and that obviously took a huge amount out of me. And I really struggled, I got to the top of Gran Paradiso, but it was tough. And the mountain guide basically said that there is no way I’d be able to do Mont Blanc. I thought to myself, okay, that’s fair. It was a bit upsetting, but I was like, work towards it, maybe in a few years’ time. And then I spoke to Leo because we’d become friends but on social media; we hadn’t met yet. I told him what had happened. I was like, yeah, well, I’m not ready, I’m not able to do it. And he was basically like, to hell with that! We’ll get you up there. So we put a plan in place in a typical Leo way and started training. I went up to the lakes, walked with him and a guy called Adrian Nelland, who’s a head of the British Mountaineering Association. Both hadn’t climbed Mont Blanc either so the game was on.

So we came up with a plan to give myself the best opportunity to get to the top and set a date and went out there. Then on the trip, we knew the weather could always be an issue. We gave ourselves a week to plan the last three days and when we arrived, we looked at what the weather was doing and it looked pretty bleak. At the back end of the week it turned out no one was on the mountain. We were going to need at least three days up there, but not even the pro climbers were up there because of the weather so it was out of our hands. Because they knew that was potentially an option, Leo and Aidan decided to take me up a couple of other mountains in Switzerland and push me in ways I’d never imagined doing!

I knew the Mont Blanc route off by heart because I’ve been studying it for the last year. On the other mountains however, we did things that were way, way beyond that. And I came away from that week with my mind blown, and with a massive new sense of confidence of what I might be able to do in the future. I had never considered that I could do anything technical; I was effectively focussed on high altitude walking, yet they got me climbing that week.

We had to work ways around it, we had to use knee loops and different strategies and Leo was teaching me different stuff and different knots to use on the ropes. They were working it out at the same time as I was working it out, and it was just really fun. But also terrifying, you know, I’m looking down, there’s like 1000ft drops of exposure, and I’m thinking, I didn’t sign up for this! There was one bit where we were climbing on the mountain call the ladder, Aladdin horn and we got towards the top, and you’re on this snow slope, and then you hit cliff face, and the summit was just here. But it’s like 20/30 metres above you, and Leo said I’ll go up first, so he skipped up it and obviously roped up. And then he’s like 10 metres above and I was tied to this rope. And there’s a drop of about 1000ft there. And you’ve got to climb the cliff in there. And he’s like, right, okay, now just swing out.

And I said I weigh twice as much as you for a start. I don’t understand how you know how strong these ropes are. I think, it is bonkers that this is probably the fifth day I’ve spent with this bloke and I’m about to swing out in mid-air. But for some reason, I just sort of trusted them and just went out. It was incredible to experience all of these things that I never imagined I’d ever do. I’ve got these aspirations in my mind of things I might be able to do and might be capable of, and yet, we ended up doing things that I never thought I would be able to do. I went out there to try and inspire other people to get outside of their comfort zones. But actually what happened was that they inspired me to get out of my comfort zone. So even though we didn’t summit the mountain, it was incredible.

So you’ve written a book. How did it come about and how long did it take to write?

So I started keeping a blog in hospital. After about nine days after my accident, I was using Alexa to keep voice notes because my family and friends would leave in the evening. I needed a way to mind dump to be able to get to sleep because the night times were the hardest as you didn’t have people to distract you. I wasn’t going to show anyone them – I was just transcribing voice notes. But I woke up one afternoon, two and a half weeks after my accident and one of my friends had been through all my voice notes, we just sat there in my bed reading them all as your mates do and I said ‘that’s private!’ He said two things: one, you’re really weird, and two, you should make some of this public because it could help someone that was spending time in hospital or who’s had a traumatic experience.

I was really reluctant. I’ve kind of been brought up to not show any weakness, and it’s a big issue for young men. It’s why suicide is the biggest killer. It’s like people can’t talk about their emotions; particularly as a rugby player, you spend your whole life being told to never show any weakness, even if you’re injured. And I found that tough, but then I was persuaded to put it out there. I couldn’t look at what anyone was writing back. I didn’t want to see what was happening. I posted it in the evening and put it to one side. After about a week, Lois my wife was like, you need to see what’s happening. I’d say show me and there were like 10,000 people following the blog. And then all these messages from people getting in contact to say it was either helping them or they were giving me advice, because they’d been through it before. And all of a sudden, I had this network of people that I could lean on like peer support, because I wasn’t being completely open and honest with my family about the way I was actually feeling because I didn’t want to upset them.

But when I had people that that were independent, if you like, and they could speak from experience too, that support just made such a big difference to me. So I kept it up. And I kept the blog going daily for nearly two years. And then it moved to weekly. And then I was approached by a publisher to turn it into a book because it was a reflective account of what I’d been through. It was day by day. So it was like actually what happened that day. When reading it back, I couldn’t even remember half of it. It shows how much you forget.

Do we dare ask what’s next on the agenda?

There’s always something to keep me busy actually because I work for Channel 4 on the rugby. So, we’re just entering the rugby season now which means I’ll be working weekends.

The next big challenge is in March next year, I’m going to try and climb Himlung Himal, a 7000m mountain on the Nepal/Tibet board, which would be the first spinal cord injury attempt above 7000 metres. I’ll be going out with a small group of charity workers specifically to raise money for the spinal unit we support in Nepal. So we fund this activity over there to the tune of £30,000 a year to pay for all of their staff utilities, bills and costs. The unglamorous stuff that people often don’t want to fund as they want their name on a plaque or above a ward door. But actually, to keep the place running, you need to pay this stuff, so we support them with that.

But this Christmas, I’m hatching a plan at the moment. Myself and a mate are going to flesh out a Christmas challenge. He basically rang me and said ‘do you like Christmas?’ I was like, not really – good, me neither, let’s do something to raise money. So the plan at the moment is to complete the 12 peaks of Christmas where we climb the highest Four Peaks in England, Scotland and Wales. But we plan to do them in one hit, driving between them and sleeping as we go. We’ll do that in the week before Christmas, hopefully finishing on Christmas Eve. We’ll film it all and invite different people to come along on different mountains and also drop off some presents for ambassadors and some of our beneficiaries on the way as we’re driving past. We’ll have our Santa hats on and maybe speak to Berghaus about getting some red gear!