The extraordinary Ed Jackson, a quadriplegic ex-rugby player who scaled Mount Everest at home

Rugby

On a bright Thursday afternoon, Ed Jackson wears a thick brace on his left leg as he limps up the staircase of his parents’ home one step at a time. He propels himself up with his right leg, his left dragging behind him until he reaches the top.

It’s three weeks ago, and thousands are watching on social media as Jackson beams a smile, turns around and descends before clicking a hand tally taped to the right-hand railing at the bottom. Two thousand laps done. Seven hundred and eighty-three to go until the summit.

A spinal injury in April 2017 shattered Jackson’s professional rugby career and left him paralysed from the neck down, classified as a quadriplegic, unable to move any of his limbs. He has spent the past three years shocking doctors — maybe even himself, too — by climbing mountains. Now, he is scaling Mount Everest in four days … on his stairs.

The target is set: 8,548 metres, 5,566 flights of stairs and 89,058 steps.

It’s Day 3 of Jackson’s climb and his body is aching. That doesn’t matter. He has a challenge to conquer and over £30,000 in donations to Wings For Life, a spinal charity, willing him on. The plan is to get up at 4 a.m. tomorrow, partly because he is way behind schedule and has promised himself that he will finish by mid-afternoon, but also because he always sets off early on summit day to make sure the snow is frozen at the top. Jackson is trying to keep this challenge as authentic as possible, even if it is a bit tongue-in-cheek at times.

He couldn’t take himself to Everest amid the coronavirus shutdown. So he brought the world’s tallest mountain to himself. Jackson has been sleeping in a tent in the living room with the A/C cranked up, metres from where multi-coloured Nepalese prayer flags are hanging at the bottom of the staircase. The 31-year-old has been wearing a thick puffer jacket and goggles, sometimes even snow boots. They’re primarily for fun, but also for protection — Jackson has been caught in two “blizzards” so far. The first was a surprise attack of cotton buds blown into his face; the second, a bucket of ice, although that one was maybe more of an avalanche.

Climbing the stairs might seem easy. It still is for Jackson. But doing so for 12 hours a day, battling the mundanity of repetition, as well as the aches, pains and blisters that come with it, is not so easy. Small streaks of blood stain the white walls along the staircase railings. But Jackson just smiles through it.

He’s come too far already.

A former England youth international, he was enjoying a relatively successful professional rugby career at Welsh side the Dragons. But, on April 8, 2017, his career came to a sudden halt. He jumped into a deceptively shallow pool at a friend’s BBQ and immediately knew something was wrong. The accident left him paralysed from the neck down. He had to be resuscitated in the ambulance three times.

“My dad [a retired doctor] and my friend had pulled me to the surface, and then a lady held my head at the edge of the pool,” Jackson tells ESPN. “But my dad knew to keep me still. A lot of damage caused by spinal injuries happens after the accident. I was lucky that I had a doctor there from the start.

“The doctors told me that I was [effectively] the worst case you can get. Everyone who has a spinal cord injury has a scope of recovery, but fortunately, I had enough still attached. I still had some scope for improvement.”

Three days later, he started a blog. The first post was titled, “This is my road to recovery…” He had been told by the doctors that there was a very real possibility that he would never walk again. Uncertainty surrounded his journey from the start. He had an incomplete spinal cord injury, meaning that he could have some recovery. From there it was about maximising that chance.

The blog entries, posted every couple of days or so, have a single theme and they’re uplifting in a unique sense. His sadness and shock were obvious at first. But then his toe twitched — he labelled himself a “toe wriggler” — and it gave signs that he could recover. “Be happy that you can wiggle your toe, not sad that your legs don’t move,” he wrote. Right from the start, his attitude was to improve his condition.

Six days after the incident he posted a picture of himself smiling while wearing yellow bunny ears on Easter Sunday. He wrote: “My mum put these bunny ears on my head because she knew I couldn’t take them off… If you can’t laugh, you’ll cry.” The blog was like a life raft to him, posting each night as the hospital lights went out and visitors went home.

It was just short of three months before Jackson left rehabilitation in a wheelchair, and nine months in total to finally ditch the chair, too. His determination, almost blind ambition, willed him to improve, but that’s when he set out to mark his improvement. He would climb Mount Snowden, the tallest point in Wales and in Britain outside of the Scottish Highlands, its tip at around 1,085 metres tall. He was yet to walk a mile without becoming too tired to go on, so it was a tough ask.

“I’d said it, so then I had to do it. It’s kind of the way my brain works,” he says. “It’s the same as what is happening right now. I went into this [stair climb], I was just going to climb the height of Snowden. And then, two hours later I was doing Everest and a four-day expedition and camping at the bottom of my stairs.”

An inspired 70 people joined his trek to the top of Snowden in April 2018. The feeling of his first summit was overwhelming. Amid an achievement that he would scarcely have believed 12 months before, having closely documented his journey up until then, he ran out of words. “At the time it was the hardest thing I’d ever done,” he says. “I had an emotional breakdown at the top. It wasn’t sad tears; I just turned around needing to address everyone at the top and I just started crying.

“People were putting booze in front me, and it was the first time in a year that I’d had a drink, so I was quickly pissed — we still had to go all the way back down again.

“There were hip flasks, someone even brought a bottle of champagne and glasses. I was like: ‘How much of a middle-class ascent is this? Who gets a bottle of Bollinger out on a summit?'”

To climb a mountain is one of the most identifiable senses of achievement. It was only right that Jackson climbed taller ones. A year after Snowden, he led a group of ex-rugby players to the top of Mont Buet in France’s Chablais Alps. There were two failed attempts at Gran Paradiso in Italy’s Graian Alps due to bad weather. His greatest achievement to date came last October, when Jackson climbed the 6,476-metre-tall Mera Peak in the Himalayas. Not everyone on those treks made it to the top. Jackson, somehow, always managed to achieve it. Climbing his stairs is just his latest expedition.

Although his recovery has been remarkable, the accident has left Jackson with Brown-Sequard syndrome, a neurological condition. His left side does not function well, physically; his right side does but has no sensation. He only wanted to raise £2,000 at the outset, but word of his challenge spread and calls with F1 driver Alex Albon and UK fitness sensation Joe Wicks lifted his profile even higher. He even chatted to Sir Chris Bonington, once the oldest man to ever successfully climb Mount Everest, who told him to take one step at a time.

“There is no rulebook for a quadriplegic climbing the stairs a couple of thousand times,” Jackson says. His estimates for pacing were slightly high in the first place; each day gets tougher, and Day 3 has been no different. After roasting marshmallows at the oven next to his tent the night prior, Jackson sleeps before getting up a little later than planned, at around 4.30 a.m. He begins the final push, using just a head torch in the pitch-black darkness. Having reached £30,000 entering the final day, he has to get moving if he is to finish by 4.30 p.m.

He completes the first 100 flights by 6.30 a.m. A few Instagram stories and a livestream later, he is now just a couple of hundred flights away from reaching the summit. There is a rectangular window facing the top of the staircase, visible only at the top. It looks out high onto the surrounding trees and paths below. More money flows in throughout the day until it tops £40,000 just hours before the finish.

In April 2019, Jackson told The Guardian that he wanted to become the first quadriplegic to climb Mount Everest. He does not seem so confident now. “I wouldn’t just do it for me, that would be a bit reckless because obviously, it is very dangerous,” he says. “But the further I go, it’s all about raising money for other people and inspiring others to do more than they think they can. [Climbing Everest] would do that. I just don’t know if my body would allow me to do it.”

You’d be a fool to rule it out, though.

Jackson limps the final few steps of the staircase at 4.07 p.m. as the Queen track “We Are the Champions” blares in the background. Stair Everest complete.

“What a weird four days,” he says. But he is not done yet, as he posts later: “Right what’s next? Thinking Tour de France around the parents’ kitchen… I think I need a beer first though!”

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