Climbing mountains is a family affair for neurosurgeon Dr Neville Knuckey. It was Neville’s wife, Jacquelene, who first suggested pulling on the crampons and he’s been following in her footsteps ever since.
“In 2010 Jacquelene heard about a bunch of kids climbing Mt Kilimanjaro on a cancer fundraising climb and she said to me, ‘why don’t we do that?’ Frankly, I couldn’t see the point but I’d been doing a lot of marathon running and hadn’t done one in Africa so we climbed it and enjoyed the whole business. Since then we’ve done two climbs every year.”
“Jacquelene’s actually a better climber than me. She must have some Sherpa blood because she’s less sensitive to altitude sickness, is quite strong when the mountain becomes steeper, and gets to the top before I do!”
“But the rest of our family’s not so keen. Our eldest daughter, Sarah, came with us on the first climb and hasn’t been tempted to do it again, and Samantha climbed Mt Blanc with us about four years ago and collapsed on the final ascent. She now thinks ‘four stars’ is roughing it and believes that parents who love their children shouldn’t try to kill them.”
Neville’s own background could best be described as ‘rough and tumble’.
“I’ve always been very physically oriented and loved the outdoors from a young age. I’ve run marathons, done the solo Rottnest Swim and a bundle of triathlons. I enjoy it and don’t see it as a chore because it’s all part of keeping fit and healthy,” he said.
“I’m 65 years old now so both my wife and I have what we call ‘rotating pain syndrome’. My left knee is a bit tricky so I can’t run anymore, I ruptured a lumbar disc while sailing and I fractured my pelvis when I fell off my bike. Cyclists and motorcars aren’t a good combination!”
Travelling to exotic locations is one of the fringe benefits of mountaineering.
“We’ve climbed a mountain range on every continent and completed four of the Seven Summits. One of those was Mt Kosciuszko, which some people scoff at because it’s only a bit over 2000m.”
Mountains are the boss
“For something completely different it’s hard to beat Antarctica. We sailed in a 60 foot boat to the peninsula, trekked and climbed for about a month and it was a stand-out trip. But I guess for the sheer beauty of the mountains, it would have to be the Himalayas. It really is high-altitude trekking and you soon realise that the mountain is the boss and you’re actually pretty insignificant.”
“You need to have a lot of respect for the mountain.”
One climb that Neville and Jacquelene won’t be attempting is Everest or, as the Tibetan’s call it, Chomolungma. It’s not for the faint-hearted and the last year where there were zero fatalities was 1977.
“We’re both fit enough, I think. But at 8848m it’s an extremely challenging climb and I’m not entirely comfortable with the rather mercenary philosophy underpinning many of the attempts on the summit. Some people haven’t had much climbing experience at all, they plonk down $100,000 and it’s the Sherpas who take all the risks and put their lives on the line.”
“Most of the time they don’t mind too much because they need the money but it doesn’t sit well with me at all.”
“Most people who get to the summit are in their 30s or 40s and there’s a pretty high carnage rate if you’re older than that. Put it this way, there are nearly 300 unrecovered bodies currently lying on the mountain.”
All in planning
Neville acknowledges the parallels between planning an ascent and preparing for a surgical operation.
“There’s a strong fit between the practice of neurosurgery and climbing a mountain. In both cases you have to plan very carefully beforehand and there’s also a match between one of the biggest risk factors in both endeavours, and that’s cerebral oedema. A swelling of the brain is often something we have to deal with in neurosurgery and there’s always the risk of hypoxia on a high altitude climb.”
“I’m actually giving a talk to the Neurological Society that embraces both mountaineering and neuroprotection later this year.”
Neville elaborates on his own trek towards neurosurgery.
“I was always interested in science at high school and a family friend suggested I think about doing medicine. When I was doing the usual registrar rotations in the mid-70s there was very little known about how the brain functioned and that fascinated me. I enjoyed the technical challenge, too.”
“We’ve got a busy research lab at the Perron Institute that focuses on neuroprotection, which I enjoy. If I had to go back in time and choose my specialty again I’d make the same choice, but I wouldn’t mind a bit less ‘on-call’ work!”
“I think about retirement occasionally and then I promptly forget about it. I tried working four days a week but it just didn’t suit me so now I take two longer holidays twice a year, which works really well.”
“We’re just about to leave on a trip to walk the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia, which runs along the spine of the McDonnell Ranges. And then in August we’re going to Pakistan to trek to the Base Camp at K2. It’s the second-highest mountain in the world, by far the most dangerous and we won’t be climbing it!”
Neville has some pointers for anyone thinking about pulling on the crampons.
“A simple 10-day trek is a good way to start to see if you actually enjoy walking every single day one after another. We’ve actually taken people on treks to Peru and Nepal, some people do it once and that’s enough for them. Not everyone likes a sleeping-bag, all your modern comforts are gone and altitude sickness is both unpredictable and unpleasant.”
“It’s a very basic lifestyle on the mountain. All you’re really concerned about is getting enough food and water and avoiding injury. When you return to modern life you suddenly realise that a lot of the things you’ve been worrying about aren’t all that important.”
Neville recommends two books on mountain climbing: Into Thin Air and Touching the Void.