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Former Cambridge University RUFC and England rugby sevens star Ollie Phillips breaks world record on Mount Everest for Wooden Spoon charity

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Ollie Phillips in Nepal with the back drop of Mount Everest. Picture: Wooden Spoon (10028863)
Ollie Phillips in Nepal with the back drop of Mount Everest. Picture: Wooden Spoon (10028863)

"Brilliantly brutal” was Ollie Phillips’ most telling description after earning a place in the Guinness World Records.

The 36-year-old is not averse to scoring tries – in the free-flowing world of sevens rugby he captained England and was sevens world player of the year in 2009.

From those days wearing the red rose in such humid climes as Dubai and Hong Kong, you wonder whether Ollie ever imagined he would become the first and only person to get touchdowns at the North Pole, Everest Base Camp and Everest Advanced Base Camp.

The unbelievable hat-trick has been achieved by the Queens’ College alumnus, a winning Cambridge University RUFC Blue in 2017, as part of the history-making LMAX Exchange Everest Rugby Challenge.

Arranged by the charity Wooden Spoon, which uses the power of rugby to positively transform the lives of disabled and disadvantaged children, the aim was to break the world record for the highest ever rugby games in history, at 6,331m.

It was the brainchild of Ollie, to coincide with the Rugby World Cup in Japan this year, following his feats four years ago to play the most northerly game of rugby, at the North Pole.

“The aim is to try to do something every World Cup year,” said Ollie. “Try to do something that puts the charity on the map and it seems to be now that method kickstarted on the North Pole of playing the most northerly game in history.

“Then, we said can we play the highest game in history?

“It’s worth revelling and basking in the success of this because it was no mean feat in getting it all done.

“People thought I belonged in an asylum at the start [when he first suggested it], but as it started to move forward, people began to think about it and canvassed it to certain other people so it got some traction.”

The idea was spawned by Ollie three-and-a-half years ago and, once it had been costed and risk assessed, there was a realisation that it was feasible to achieve.

Once the logistics were put in place, such as getting a sponsor and finding someone to insure the challenge, in Ollie’s words, then came the fun of working out who would take part.

Former international rugby players Lee Mears, Shane Williams and Tamara Taylor were among those who joined the challenge.

Ollie’s background in the professional game meant that he had a natural fitness, but it was not as big a benefit as one might perceive.

“You’ve got to be fit, but when I say fit it’s not like you’ve got to be able to get to level 20 of the bleep test,” he explained.

“You’ve got to be capable of standing for nine hours a day and walking with 20 to 30kg on your back. But there is no way you can prepare for the fact that you will be doing it with no oxygen.

“It’s the real challenge of Everest – the fitter you are, the worse it is. When you’re super fit, if you say to a runner go for a two-mile run, they absolutely fly along, they struggle to handle the concept of going super slow.

“The problem with the altitude is that on the mountain for the first up to 3,000m you’re fine, but the moment you go above 3,500m to 4,000m, it hits you like a sledgehammer.

“If you’ve rushed that process, or if you’ve gone too fast and are a fit individual used to flying up those sort of things, it knocks you for six.”

It was the less naturally fit who struggled least, having no qualms of going at a slow and steady pace.

Queens' College alum and former Cambridge University RUFC player Ollie Phillips breaks a world record on Mount Everest (10027058)
Queens' College alum and former Cambridge University RUFC player Ollie Phillips breaks a world record on Mount Everest (10027058)

So, as can be imagined, it was not plain sailing.

Having created history by playing the highest game of touch rugby at Everest Base Camp, at 5,119m, the biggest test was to get 21 people to Advanced Base Camp for the next match.

There was plenty of drama as five people were ruled out through altitude sickness at Base Camp, while another had to be rushed to ICU after their lung collapsed and they went into respiratory arrest.

Having reached the Advanced Base Camp, they staged the game and Phillips touched down for Team Phillips, only for the Team Williams to get a try as the match finished 5-5.

There was a significant impact on the body of playing rugby at that height, which Ollie likens to the “worst case of man-flu in your life”.

“The best description is that it was brutally brilliant,” he said. “It’s so difficult to describe what the feeling is unless you’re there.

“The oxygen levels are just not there, so anything that requires any effort just absolutely nails you and zaps you.

“Playing rugby in that sort of environment is just brutal, there’s just no other way of describing it.

“Stood on Mount Everest, looking out having just set two Guinness World Records for the highest game of rugby ever played in history, you have to pinch yourself as to where you were.

“It was a massive wry smile, and a sigh of relief that we had pulled it off. We’d done the unpredictable.

“It was a world first, and we had achieved the impossible so all of that makes it even more rewarding.

“But at the crux of it all was to raise the profile of the charity and to raise a boatload of money.”

The challenge has so far raised more than £250,000 for Wooden Spoon, and the hope is to take that total to between the £400,000 to £500,000 mark.

Ollie, who will be back to run another Lion’s Den community event at CURUFC’s Grange Road in September, added: “I didn’t personally realise, but someone had told me that I’ve scored in all of them now [at the North Pole, at Everest Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp].

“I’m three from three so far so I’ve just got to keep up that try-scoring run.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there is an inkling in the back of my mind to try to do the South Pole at some point.”

To find out more about the challenge or to make a donation, visit everestrugby.org.uk.

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