Searching for Sisu in St Andrews

Geordie Stewart conquered Everest while he was studying at St Andrews.  Having graduated, and become the youngest person to reach the highest summits on all seven continents, here he tells us more about how life at St Andrews and the friendships he forged whilst at University helped him achieve his goals.

Aged 17, despite no climbing experience, I read a book about Everest and decided I wanted to climb the Seven Summits ­­– the highest mountain on every continent.

Everest Summit

Geordie and the University of St Andrews on the Summit of Everest

Prior to starting at St Andrews, I had reached the highest point in Europe, Africa and South America. My naïve optimism and ambition had thankfully aligned successfully.

Old Course

With friends in St Andrews

In my first year I booked to climb Denali in Alaska, a famously demanding and unpredictable mountain. To prepare for the sled-pulling requirements of Denali, I rigged up my harness to the front of a small wooden sled and got friends to sit on the back while I dragged them up and down West Sands. For them this entailed the relatively simple task of staying still, putting on a set of headphones and enjoying the view of the Auld Toon as I toiled away up front. Unsurprisingly I got some very odd looks from locals who, however accustomed they were to erratic student behaviour, had probably not witnessed this sort of thing before.

Sisu is a concept at the core of Finnish culture and roughly translates as grit, perseverance and resilience. It is the strength within all of us to push beyond our comfort zones and endure when the situation dictates. We all have sisu but do not always require it.

Sisu was turning around 150m from the summit of Everest aged 21 when I realised, as a relatively inexperienced and young climber, it wasn’t safe for me to make the top and descend alone.

Post-Everest 2010

After 2010 summit attempt

Sisu was the psychological battle I had in my own mind when I returned to the UK having not summited but got so close. It was trying to battle with the decisions I had made and trying to use that failure as motivation to continue with this ambition.

Vinson Summit

Vinson summit, Antarctica

After successfully reaching the summit of Vinson (Antarctica) and Carstensz Pyramid (Australasia), I returned to Everest in 2011 sponsored by St Andrews. I reached the summit and became the Youngest Brit to climb the Seven Summits and the Youngest Scot to climb Everest.

It was one of those very special moments that I never thought would materialise after years of fluctuating emotions and whimsical ambition. I unfurled a University of St Andrews 600th Anniversary banner, a proud moment as a third generation student at our wonderful university.

I spent over an hour on top of the world with my wonderful Sherpa and had a surreal satellite phone conversation with my parents before heading back down again.

Everest Northeast Ridge

Everest North East Ridge

The years of looking for sponsors, of ignoring the doubters and making sacrifices thankfully came to a successful conclusion. Those four years were about searching for sisu at different times for different reasons. It was as much the mental struggle away from the mountains as it was the physical hardship in the thin air of high altitude. Through amazing friendship and support by the University, my dream became a reality.

In Search of Sisu Front Cover

You can read more about Geordie’s journey in ‘In Search of Sisu: A Path to Contentment via the Highest Point on Every Continent’, available via his website, www.geordiestewart.co.uk

It records Geordie’s record-breaking journey and has been endorsed by Bear Grylls, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Professor Louise Richardson.

“I will always remember the moment I learned that Geordie Stewart had successfully reached the summit of Everest. It was an extraordinary achievement from an exceptional young man, and St Andrews rejoiced in his success.

 “In Search of Sisu is a blisteringly honest account of what it took to make it to the top. Inspiring and surprising by turn, each page bears testimony to Geordie’s courage, determination and resilience.”

Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford
(Previously Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews)

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Two Boys on a Bike for Sight

Two students at the University of St Andrews, Merlin Heatherington and Alex McMaster are soon to embark on a unique challenge: cycling from Cairo to Cape Town on a tandem bike, distributing over 2000 life saving medical devices along the way. They are looking to alumni to support their journey by providing places to where they can ship maintenance packages, a friendly face along the way, and through donating to the project.

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The ambitious and admirable project, entitled ‘Arclight Tandem Africa: Two Boys on a Bike for Sight’ will take them on an eight month, 10,000km journey along the River Nile, through the Ethiopian Highlands, across the plains of the Serengeti and through the Namib desert, traversing 11 countries, including Ethiopia, Malawi and Namibia.

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The inspiration for their adventure came when medical student, Merlin, heard Dr Andrew Blaikie’s lecture on eye-care and diseases of the eye, in which he spoke about the Arclight, a device carefully designed by the Global Health Team here at the University of St Andrews. Merlin was particularly interested in the topic, and used his medical dissertation to investigate low-cost tools to help people use the Arclight.

The Arclight itself costs just 1% of traditional tools used for the same purpose, and is lightweight and durable, as well as being solar powered, making it perfect for low-resource environments. Furthermore, it takes only one hour to train a group of 20 people in diagnosing the main causes of blindness and deafness in such settings.

Merlin and Alex have therefore dreamt up a project in which they will distribute these Arclight ophthalmoscopes along the length of the African continent. They plan to carry a few hundred devices with them, and send packages of the devices to pre-planned stops along their route. They also have extensive plans to educate and train health workers and medical students who will receive an Arclight.

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According to the World Health Organisation, 80% of blindness is preventable, and the boys are therefore determined to reach some of the most medically deprived regions in the world with this life-saving tool. Alex and Merlin are seeking to make an impact on the provision of eye-care in the areas that they visit, contributing to the Vision2020 goal to end preventable blindness worldwide.

The boys have planned visits and distributions in advance and also aim to obtain feedback and follow-up after they deliver training to the medical students and health workers.

Both Alex and Merlin admit that there will be challenges along the way, and that spending eight months camping and sleeping under the stars, or in difficult conditions in densely populated cities will not be easy. However, the pair are driven, excited and optimistic about the trip: because they have already shared a flat and completed tandem adventures across Spain and Scotland, they know that they can work together to successfully overcome any challenges.

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Alex and Merlin have a huge support network that includes the University of St Andrews, Saints Sport, the University’s R&A International Scholarship, the Scientific Exploration Society and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. Merlin was awarded the Scientific Exploration Society Gough Explorer prize for 2018.

In addition, the boys have been receiving mentoring support and advice from Scottish endurance cyclist, Mark Beaumont, who holds the world record for solo cycling the route from Cairo to Cape Town in just 42 days, and cycling around the world in just 79 days.

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You can follow Alex and Merlin on the lead up to setting off on their adventure in October at: www.arclight-tandemafrica.com, and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

How you can help?

If you are St Andrews alumni and live along their route, Alex and Merlin would be delighted to hear from you. They would love to be able to meet along the way – should their schedule allow it. They are also interested to hear if any alumni who live along the route may be willing to take in packages of equipment and supplies for them.

If you would like to support the project, Alex and Merlin are raising funds on SaintsFunder, the University’s new crowdfunding platform. You can support them at https://spsr.me/tkDU

Good luck Alex and Merlin!