GP interview - The mountaineering GP

GP Dr Alistair Sutcliffe was awarded the BEM, writes Oliver Griffin.

Dr Alistair Sutcliffe has had an interesting few weeks. Not only did he retire on 31 December 2013, he was also named in the New Year's honours list, being awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) for services to medicine and his local community.

A GP in Whitby, north Yorkshire, for 16 years, Dr Sutcliffe is modest when talking about his inclusion in the honours list. 'I feel like I was receiving the honour on behalf of the people of Whitby,' he says. 'They have all been a great support to me over the years.'

While this may be the case, his level of achievement is unquestionable. At 49 years old, Dr Sutcliffe has run an astonishing 89 marathons, 270 half marathons and a number of longer runs. These include 'The Toad', a three-day race along the towpath of the River Thames, and the Lakeland 50, a 50-mile race across some of the Lake District's toughest peaks, complete with more than 3,000 metres of ascent.

But perhaps his greatest achievement is to be counted among the handful of individuals who have completed the Seven Summits, scaling the tallest peaks of every continent, including Mount Everest.

'My favourite climb was Mount Vinson, in Antarctica,' he says. 'Its beauty is immense.'

However, mountaineering is not all breathtaking scenery and wonderful views; on another Seven Summits climb, this time on Carstensz Pyramid, Papua New Guinea, Dr Sutcliffe and his party were held captive for almost 13 hours by a gang of gun-toting bandits.

'You know you're in trouble when a 16-year-old is brandishing an AK47 at your head,' he says. 'It took a lot of very careful negotiating (to get away). I always carry a picture of my wife and dogs, as it makes talking your way out of tricky situations a bit easier.'

Fundraising

High-altitude mountaineering is just one element of Dr Sutcliffe's prolific fundraising. He has used expeditions and talks, and donated the proceeds of his best-selling book, The Hardest Climb, to raise £500,000 for St Catherine's Hospice, a charity with which he has a special affinity.

'A number of my patients have received excellent care from St Catherine's,' he says. 'It's something that I hold very close to my heart.'

What makes Dr Sutcliffe's continued fundraising all the more inspiring is that, in 2010, he had a subarachnoid brain haemorrhage. He believes this to have been caused by a fall sustained a week before.

'I was coming down the stairs when I tripped over one of my dogs,' he says. 'I fell over and struck my head on the banister.'

Miraculously, it was his history of high-altitude climbing that saved his life. Doctors treating him discovered that a posterior fetal communicating artery - a blood vessel found in unborn babies - on the left side of his brain had continued to supply oxygen to his brain.

This occurrence is only found in 20% of the adult population, as during childhood, the fetal artery closes down. However, the extra oxygen demands created when mountaineering meant the vessel in Dr Sutcliffe's brain had reopened and, in this instance, saved his life.

Retirement

Dr Sutcliffe's retirement is, however, a cause of sadness for him. 'I was very sad to retire,' he says. 'The partnership in Whitby is really great. I was sorry to leave, but symptoms caused by the haemorrhage were not conducive to working with patients.'

Now Dr Sutcliffe is looking forward to other challenges. Still a keen runner (he runs with his dogs every morning), he will be running the Lakeland 50 again this July.

When asked whether he would consider the Marathon des Sables - a five-day endurance race in the Sahara - he chuckles. 'I'd be interested,' he says, 'but I don't respond very well to heat; it's one of the reasons that climbing has been so good to me.'

If he does go, it won't be the first time he's crossed the world's largest desert. Another feat he completed in 2009 was a motorcycle ride to Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa, and back, covering 12,600 miles in 26 days.

'When I got back in the early hours of the morning my wife had to hose me down - I was covered in sand.'

Now he has retired, Dr Sutcliffe is not entirely sure what his next step will be, although he is keen to make a full recovery, saying he wants to sit back and try to get better. A budding guitarist, he tends to practise while his wife Clare, a surgeon, is at work.

'She doesn't know how many guitars I have,' he admits. 'I'm sure she'll read this, so I'd better not tell you, either.'

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