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Everest Diary 1: UCD graduate Rory McHugh aims for top of world

Part one: A former poker player whose love of risk extends to the outdoors

Rory McHugh at the poker table in 2006
Rory McHugh wants to climb the highest mountain on each continent
The spectacular sight of Mount Everest at sunset. Photograph: Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images
Rory McHugh training in Snowdonia

What makes a former UCD graduate, turned banker, turned poker player and turned banker again, decide to spend the best part of €40,000 and three months of his life to tackle Everest?

When George Mallory, who perished near the summit of Everest in 1924, was asked by The New York Times why he wanted to climb the mountain, he famously said: “Because it’s there.”

There are times when I too have asked myself why I would want to fight my way up a mountain with the outcome so uncertain and, in extremis, potentially fatal.

For sure, love of the mountains and outdoors, of physical challenges and pushing myself to the limit, is part of it. But I know it’s more complex than that and I suspect the answer also lies in my past and my appetite for risk and adventure.

In 1979 my parents moved to Alexandria, Egypt, with three small boys when I was only three. My father, a UCD engineering graduate, was asked to manage a Philips TV factory there. My scattered memories include travelling in the desert, seeing Mount Sinai at sunrise, monkeys in the back garden, the Nile, crocodiles, the valley of the kings.

At eight I moved to Buenos Aires, where we went on long road trips, from the icebergs in Tierra del Fuego to stomach-churning rides across the high passes of the Andes. Next, it was Singapore and an opportunity to explore Asia. On a school trip age 13, I trekked up Kinabalu, which at 4,095 metres is the highest peak in South East Asia.

As an Irishman brought up in the international system, I followed my elder brother to UCD to study commerce and Spanish. A career in banking beckoned, first in Dublin’s IFSC and then, following a Masters in finance at Smurfit, the bright lights of London and Investment banking. I enjoyed some good years at Barclays Capital.

Then I took my first major alternative tangent and headed off into the wild, embarking on a four-year odyssey as a professional poker player.

Focusing primarily on No-Limit and Pot Limit Hold’em cash games from 2004 to 2007 was a dream. Rising stock and property markets, coupled with the rise popularity of online and televised poker, meant there were easy pickings and fun games from Vegas to Dundalk.

I travelled extensively, at one point backpacking from Mexico through Central and South America, paying for the trip along the way. I found a great game in the casino of the five-star Hotel Panama in Panama City. That evening I retrieved my backpack from a sweaty six-bunk dorm in a run-down hostel around the corner and enjoyed a nice bath in the large marble tub of my complimentary suite. One of the unusual perks for combining backpacking and high stakes poker! Casinos like to keep high stakes gamblers nearby.

Stormy night

Throughout my time in Latin America I never missed a chance to trek, bike, or dive. I also got into mountaineering back then. I remember making for a 6,000-metre peak in Peru, sharing a tent with a 70-year-old Czech gentleman called Ianos, whom I had met only a few days earlier. It was a stormy night on the icy side of a volcano in the Salina y Aguada Blanca national park and our tent was collapsing under the weight of fresh snowfall.

Communicating using a mix of German and sign language, I was amazed as Ianos, eyes wide with excitement, rattled off the names of the 14 highest mountains in the world. It was a world I knew nothing about. I was 29 then and quite fit at the end of six- months trekking and backpacking, but the next morning he destroyed me, breaking trail in fresh snow three-feet deep and not missing a beat. I slipped on a ridge that day and plunged an ice axe into the side to hold me; he just turned and grinned as he saw I was back on my feet.

I returned briefly to Ireland in early 2005 but was straight back on the poker trail, this time with long-time friend from UCD, Paul Kearney. We settled for a time in Panama. We played wherever we could sniff out a good game: Panama, Venezuela, Vegas, Atlantic City, Peru, Costa Rica. Online as well. I was writing a poker book, we had plans for an online poker business and we got perilously close to buying the Peacock, a British pub in Panama which we were going to turn into Panama’s first Irish pub. Only at the last minute did we discover the pub had been the victim of three armed robberies in the previous six months. Six months later we were back home.

The romance of playing poker in Latin America was hard to rekindle living in a rented one-bedroom council flat in Islington. The good runs were great but the inevitable slumps were excruciating. I was falling out of love with the game and lifestyle. I decided I’d buy a bike and cycle to Paris for an upcoming poker tournament series.

The poker was a washout. I left the city determined to make a change and cycled east. Over the following months I meandered all over Europe on two wheels and eventually made it as far as Budapest. I only called it a day on account of a lost wallet and bank cards. My time on the road had been a revelation, just heading east without agenda or destination, often crossing countries without a map. Now surprisingly I found I was ready for “real” job again.

Successful period

It was late 2007 and the financial crisis had taken hold. I joined first Bradford & Bingley, and then RBS and despite the well documented ailments of the institution, I had a successful period there working with some great individuals, rising to the rank of managing director, running teams across those parts of the banking world which mean little to those outside – structured derivatives, FinTech, and non-bank lending.

At the same time, I continued to cultivate my love for long-distance cycling, trekking and mountaineering. But the bike rides and the treks were getting longer and the mountains getting higher. I continued my eastward bike ride on successive trips from Budapest on to Sofia, Istanbul, and eventually Tbilisi in Georgia. I trekked in Burma, Ethiopia, Cuba, and Uganda.

As for high-altitude mountains, what started in 2004 in the Andes continued in 2010 with Kilimanjaro. At some point after Kili I heard about the Seven Summits for the first time – a challenge which involves climbing the highest mountain on each continent. I knew that Kili was nothing compared to the bigger challenges but I had enjoyed it and wanted more.

Summit number two was Aconcagua in Argentina, which at 6,962 metres is the highest point outside of the Himalayas. It didn’t demand any technical mountaineering skills but was a great introduction to the rigours of high-altitude expedition life.

Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus was next, although it took two attempts. At the first try, with the normal route on the south of the mountain closed because of terrorist activity, we travelled through the north side. My climbing buddy for the trip, Bernie, unfortunately injured his knee before we even started in a football match against a team hastily assembled by the Russian army (we won 3 -2).

Higher up the mountain I came down with a horrible stomach bug and with Bernie already enjoying the high life in St Petersburg I decided it was best to join him. The following year I returned alone, hired a Russian guide and went up the south side. We waited for the terrible weather to pass, but it never did. On the last day before my visa ran out, we attempted to summit.

Howling wind

But with the howling wind intensifying and thunder and lightning too close, Genya, my guide, who had not wanted to leave the refuge in the first place, told me in no uncertain terms I could stay on the mountain on my own if I didn’t follow him down right then. But I was not going to let an expired visa stop me; three days later we summited on a beautiful sunny day, barely a breeze. Patience is key in the high ranges.

Denali in Alaska was the next big one on the list in 2016. Following an extra-long 14-hour summit day during a storm, heavy winds and low visibility, and complex issues with team members, I got into my sleeping bag in a tent I was sharing with Dan, a young American student from Chicago. Despite my uncontrolled shivering I couldn’t take the smile off my face. We had just summited North America’s highest mountain and all I could think of was “Everest is on!”.

I can’t believe that it’s finally happening. I am on my way to Kathmandu and in two months’ time the dream is that I will be on top of the highest mountain in the world. I’m constantly being asked what next: the one thing I can say is that I doubt I’ll be settling down in front of the fire quite yet.

Rory McHugh is climbing Everest in aid of Rory’s Nepal School Project with Child Rescue Nepal, to build schools in off the beaten track villages not yet recovered from the 2015 earthquake. He’d also greatly appreciate your support on virginmoneygiving.com/letsbuildschools