Before reading the situation that Darius Henderson so vividly describes, it is worth noting he is “not actually that great with heights”. And yet the former Watford striker happily recounts looking down at the following from a ridge on Mont Blanc.
“You drop one side, you’re gone,” Henderson begins. “You drop the other side, you’re gone. In terms of your pathway, where you are climbing you’ve got crampons on and, for anyone that’s worn crampons, you are prone to tripping. Because, if you catch your other foot with your crampon, you are going over.
“At this moment in time, this is probably the most vulnerable I’ve felt. I’ll never forget the guide turning to us and saying, with a very serious tone, ‘we have to stay as close as possible and make sure there’s no tripping, one foot in front of the other’. That’s while we can hardly breathe and your legs are burning.
“Literally one slip away from… that’s it, life over.”
And yet, Henderson is going back for more. Much more. The 42-year-old is currently training to become the first professional footballer to have climbed Mount Everest, ticking down a list of necessary challenges to ensure he is ready for the ascent in May.
A question that has been asked – to go with responses ranging from “good luck” to “you’re selfish” – is how? Why?
“To put myself in those scenarios, I’m already trying to question what is actually driving me to do this,” Henderson laughs. “It must be something I search out and look for in life. It does scare me a little bit… to overcome my fears is probably a driving force behind this, I can only put it down to that.
“Also, it’s not something within arm’s reach. I have to dedicate a lot of time to the training aspect, something that needs planning. It’s a sacrifice over a number of years. You can’t just sign up for Mount Everest. There’s a process and a journey, which takes a lot of sacrifice and dedication to achieve that end goal, so it’s kind of like reliving my life as a footballer. The training, the focus you need, the bravery, just in a different field.”
Henderson’s football career does inform much of this, right down to how you need to be a competitor. He admits there is the motivation to become the first player to do this, which also fits with a previous ambition.
“For me, the ultimate goal was to score in the Premier League. That was my ‘climbing Mount Everest’ when I was a footballer.
"I did that, and I think there’s less than 0.1 per cent of footballers who can say they’ve done that. Climbing Mount Everest, the odds to be able to say you’ve stood on top of the highest mountain in the world, the percentage of people is even lower.
“To be able to say ‘I’ve done Everest’… I wouldn’t say it’s selfish but it is ego-driven.”
You wouldn’t say Henderson has an ego from speaking to him and he laughs about the first time he got called “a journeyman” in his twenties, but that sentiment does point to a deeper reason for how his football career informs this. He says he badly struggled with retirement and went through a “grieving period”. Many former professionals would be able to relate.
Retirement… it’s like a family member or friend has passed and you’re looking at old photos of them knowing you’re never going to see them again
“What I missed was the routine, that purpose to be healthy, to go to work and so on. You lose something. Retirement… it’s like a family member or friend has passed and you’re looking at old photos of them knowing you’re never going to see them again.”
An agent and mentor with Unique Sports Group now, Henderson says he has only recently realised that going to games was like “kind of punishing myself”.
But why mountaineering and why now the highest peak of all? The truth was it was something Henderson sort of fell into, or perhaps climbed into, and it fits with his personality. He decided to go up Snowdon with a friend in January 2019, about a year and a half after retiring.
“Just jokingly walking up, we were like, ‘what’s the pinnacle of this?’ and it was Mount Everest. So, even from doing that, I was kind of working out is that possible? Could I do it? And how would I be able to do it?
“Snowdon was my first ever peak, then I really got into the national three peaks. It was a healthy distraction for me. A friend who shares the same ambition mentioned a place called the Altitude Centre in London. They put on the mask to see how your body responds. I only went to see how fit I was but then they were talking me through the journey, which I didn’t expect, and it was drawing me in.
“Then it was ‘alright, if that’s the end goal, let’s start ticking off the things you need to have done’.”
That was as recently as December 2021. If it feels like that’s strikingly quick, consider what Henderson has done in the meantime: there are days when he now goes up Snowdon three or four times, but that’s the least of it.
“I did a winter skills course in Scotland, which was brilliant. The weather was absolutely brutal. It’s more technical stuff, like ice axe arrest, sliding down a cliff face on your back upside down, walking up an elevation with crampons. Just the extreme weathers, the survival mode that puts you into. I absolutely loved it.
“Then my first high-altitude mountain would have been Mount Elbrus in Russia but, only a month before we were supposed to go, the war broke out. I changed that to a trip to Cotopaxi in Ecuador, which people no longer summit because it’s now a live volcano! It was then Gran Paradiso, Mont Blanc and over to Argentina for Aconcagua, one of the seven summits.”
Those are the tallest peaks on each continent, with Aconcagua at 6,961 metres. One of the requirements to scale Everest is to have made at least one ascent of over 6,500m. That very height seems to bring something out in Henderson.
Let’s face it, I’m not going there to die. I’m going there to summit and to achieve something that under 1 per cent of people are able to achieve
“I enjoy being in an environment where I can’t help but be in survival mode, in a tent, 6,000m in the air, freezing cold, minus 20, waiting to summit. You can’t sleep very well but it all adds to the theatre of being able to say you’ve done this.”
Speaking of theatre, there is otherwise silence in the room as Henderson starts to talk through what an “ice axe arrest” actually entails.
“It’s teaching yourself how to stop once falling. What people don’t realise is, coming down a cliff face, you can build momentum up pretty quickly. Panic would probably set in and you would do anything possible – or natural – but to have a more technical insight gives you a little bit more confidence. I’ve already experienced periods where you’re kind of ‘yeah, this is pretty scary’.”
It’s something you probably shouldn’t express to someone readying themselves to climb the highest point on earth but, on hearing this, it’s impossible not to think of all the cultural imprints of mountaineering shows like Touching the Void. The response is surprising: “It makes it more appealing to me!”
So how have those around him reacted, especially to something he was a complete novice at just over four years ago?
“You have conversations, it’s a real mix of ‘absolutely fantastic, good luck’ to ‘I think you’re selfish, nobody really cares’. I think that was from a place of love because there are dangers. I’ve got five children but then my driving force is to make sure that I’m fully prepared and as fit as possible because, let’s face it, I’m not going there to die. I’m going there to summit and to achieve something that under 1 per cent of people are able to achieve.”
This mindset was something his partner was able to recognise. “She’s been unbelievably supportive. She’s seen me retire, she’s seen me grieve. She’s seen me have no focus, no goal, and how that affects me,” Henderson explains. “I probably wouldn’t have got to this point without her so, hopefully, to achieve it and get down safely, she’ll definitely be one that I’ll be thanking.”
As for current players, those he works with are fascinated.
“They’re always questioning me, intrigued about what it takes. I’ve even got one player who said it’s something he would like to do when he retires. Now, if I’m advising a player and talking about lifestyles, when I’m living the right way and still looking to achieve goals, I think they appreciate that more.”
That’s what dictates Henderson’s next few months. He is already in touch with his guide, Lukas Furtenbach, the co-founder of Furtenbach Adventures, whom he decided upon after months of research. Henderson also has to look after his body but to a deeper degree than just climbing. As a six-foot-three, 15-stone former target man, he is “on the bigger side of what is ideal”. There’s then the fact that one reason he retired was because of his neck.
“I finished my career not being able to head a ball properly. I’ve got very little cartilage left on my C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae. So I have to be careful of my neck, just day-to-day, never mind climbing mountains.
While I’m doing these climbs, and I’m on the mountain, it is horrible, it’s gruelling, it’s painful, but to get to the top is all worth it
“So it’s finding this field where I can still push myself, but it’s not running around trying to head a ball. Physically, I’m on the bigger side of what is ideal for taking a body up a mountain.
“I will look to lose as much weight as possible for Everest. In my own head I can only imagine a boxer when he goes into camp before a fight. I put myself into a camp, mentally, where I will look to slim down so I’m not taking as much weight. Because over two, three, four thousand metres – never mind eight – it all adds up.
“Typically, [mountain guides] don’t weigh too much, their bodies are efficient. So I have to acclimatise. The trip will be a flash expedition so, from touchdown in Kathmandu and getting to the top and back down, we’ll be looking to do that in under three weeks.
“I’ve always pre-acclimatised at home with an altitude machine while on the treadmill, which helps your body adapt and create more red blood cells, as if you’re on a mountain. Before going to the Himalayas I will probably spend three or four days in the Alps doing some technical training and I’m considering going back to Aconcagua to get the height.
“Before we go to Everest Base Camp we will climb Mera Peak from days one to eight, which is 6,500m and once we get down from there, we will be helicoptered across to Everest base camp. That'll be days nine to 21. Furtenbach, who are different class, have done it all in 16 days, which is the quickest a company have done in terms of taking a group up.”
Up to the top of Everest. Even saying that – or “going to the Himalayas” – is quite a thought, let alone a challenge.
Henderson puts it in a unique way. “Since retiring, trying to find another goal, my ‘climbing Mount Everest’ became climbing Mount Everest.”
It puts being abused by a crowd on a freezing day into perspective.
“I loved matches, I loved competing, I loved the battle. While I’m doing these climbs, and I’m on the mountain, it is horrible, it’s gruelling, it’s painful, but to get to the top is all worth it. And to be able to say ‘I’ve done that mountain’.”
From the way Henderson speaks, it’s impossible not to think he’ll want more if he ascends Everest; that he’ll want to start going through the peaks in the manner of so many of the films and documentaries he’s watched.
He starts laughing as he begins his response.
“Well, I’ve not got there yet, so I don’t want to think too far ahead. I feel like I’m back in front of Sky Sports saying ‘one game at a time’! So I’m rolling back the years when I say one mountain at a time. I know the dangers. Literally, my focus is on Mount Everest now.”