Amid an honours list that includes the Rugby World Cup, the Heineken Cup, the Premiership title, 55 England caps and three more for the British and Irish Lions, failure is not an element that has featured prominently in the life of Josh Lewsey. At least not until last month.
It happened 6,000 metres above sea level, high on the slopes of Aconcagua. The sun was rising on the highest mountain outside of Asia and the summit was still a further 1,000m away through the thinning Andean air when Lewsey was told: enough. As his climbing partner Keith Reesby, a close friend since they met at Sandhurst's Royal Military Academy a decade ago, climbed slowly on, the guide instructed Lewsey to turn back. But Owen Joshua Lewsey, a man who once floored Danny Cipriani during a training ground disagreement, did not win all of the above by turning back.
"I had an argument with him," says Lewsey. "I said I'm absolutely fine and then he pointed out in his best Pidgin English that I had in fact fallen off the last traverse we'd crossed and perhaps wasn't as fine as I thought I was. I had advanced mountain sickness." He pauses and grins. "So he was probably in the right."
Next month Lewsey will have to face another guide on another continent. This time it will be 2,000m higher, on the North Col of Everest, the route that has haunted British moutaineering since George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared into legend 86 years ago.
If Lewsey's body once again cannot cope with the altitude it will bring a crushing end to his attempt to conquer the world's highest peak. "There is that fear," he says. "I do fear failure. This is not a rugby field, this is not something you're good at. It's a hugely humbling experience.
"As fit as you are – you could be the fittest person in the world – altitude just changes you. Your energy's depleted, your food's depleted. You have to go out in -30 to go to the loo. Cumulative fatigue weighs you down. It is humbling for me to realise that actually this is something I am pretty bad at. You get a girl who is, say, 52kg walking past you with a heavy pack on her back whistling and you're absolutely hanging out."
Lewsey is sitting in a pod in the Altitude Centre in Covent Garden, where he has been training. He and Reesby have just finished a two-hour session with heavy packs on a treadmill, kitted out with oxygen masks as an early aid towards acclimatisation. Back home in his flat he has been sleeping in an oxygen deprivation tent. Lewsey leans back in his chair and scratches his arm. "Is it a worry that I won't be able to take it?" Again he pauses. "Yes, a huge worry. We've been building up to this for a few years, but in the Andes and on K2 I had facial swelling. My body is not good at altitude. It's a big unknown. You can train as much as you want... you just don't know how your body is going to react. The fear of failure is there. The amount of effort you've put in... there are a lot of things outside your control. It is quite daunting when you are only a few days away from going."
On Tuesday Lewsey and Reesby, who is now a major in the Army Air Corps, begin their journey by flying to Kathmandu via Delhi. They will then drive north and eventually around the foot of Everest to their base camp, where they will begin a month's acclimatisation combined with ferrying supplies up to the various camps on the North Side. When all is ready they will return to base camp to spend five days resting and then cross their fingers and watch the weather, waiting to see if they can realise a dream.
"I have always wanted to do it," says the 33-year-old Lewsey, "ever since I was a boy, although Keith and I are both complete novices when it comes to mountaineering. Back in 2006 we went up to K2 base camp. We didn't tell people at the time – didn't tell Wasps, because technically it was a summer holiday – but it was a bit of a recce as to whether we wanted to do something bigger and better. It is an amazing opportunity to take – I've just finished my rugby and am starting on a new career [as a consultant with accountancy firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers]. This is scratching at the edge before finally becoming a proper adult, before real life kicks in.
"I spent summers as a child down in south Wales. Though they are not necessarily mountains, when you are four or five years old the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons seem huge. There was something quite alluring about them."
There is another allure for Lewsey. When they set out from base camp it will be to trace the route discovered by Mallory in 1921 and where three years later he and Irvine set out to try to become the first to the summit.
"The whole Mallory story is the most romantic, the most mysterious exploration question of all," says Lewsey. "It has never properly been solved and, in a way, that is the beauty of it. Did he get to the top? It's a lovely thought that a Briton was the first to the top. At the time they had such rudimentary oxygen and climbed up in a few Jermyn Street shirts and a tweed jacket. For our trip we are allowed one small box of luxuries – they took 12 cases of champagne, foie gras and white tie and tails. I love that – I love that age. I really admire people like Mallory and Shackleton. They were properly tough, awesome ambassadors for Britain.
"I like to think he made it, yes. It's one of those romantic tales. Mallory, Ernest Shackleton, all those people, they're heroes really. They went to do something because it was there – for no other reason at all."
That was Mallory's line; the three most famous words in mountaineering. "Why are you climbing Everest, Mr Mallory?" queried a reporter. "Because it's there," Mallory is supposed to have replied.
There is another famous Mallory line. "Have we vanquished an enemy?" he wrote after scaling Mont Blanc. "None but ourselves." It is a sentiment that Lewsey might have recognised when he was introduced to international rugby on the notorious Tour from Hell in 1998. He was one of the few newcomers to survive being hammered around Australia and go on to enjoy that highly decorated career for club and country, the high point coming on a damp evening in Sydney seven years ago when England won the World Cup. It is now nearly a year since he decided that he had had enough of the game that had been his professional life for 13 years.
"I've loved the last year," he says. "Rugby is for me one small part of a very big, diverse and interesting world. It is time I learnt something new. My mum always drilled it into me – there's more than rugby. When sport goes well it is the best job in the world, but when it doesn't go well you must have other interests.
"I went back to the club [Wasps] for the first time last week and was quite touched to see everyone. There are not many office jobs where you bond with your colleagues like you do in sport. Going back there made me contemplate all that again. I was fortunate to be part of a successful team, both internationally and at club level. You have to finish at some stage. I was fortunate enough to win pretty much every trophy in the game, but you don't get games like that every week – they happen maybe three times a year. That's 240 minutes a year. There is a lot of dross in the middle where you train all week and then have no impact in the game. But one day I might go back to rugby – I still care passionately about the national side."
Lewsey was in the Andes when the Six Nations began but returned in time to watch England lose to Ireland and France and draw with Scotland. Back in November, Lewsey had attacked England's coaching set-up, but he maintains that Martin Johnson, his long-time team-mate, is the right man for the top job.
"I have no doubt England are the best resourced team in the world, the wealthiest union, have the most players and the most competitive league in the world, so on facts alone they should be there as one of the best teams in the world," he says. "Jonno is a great guy. The France game showed we are heading in the right direction."
The criticism that has flooded England's way elicits a degree of sympathy from Lewsey. "You know the guys and you care about them. You do get a bit protective when you hear some of the criticism. Over a period of time there will be losses of form. You need to take a group of players and develop them together to world-class standard. I believe they can do that and if Jonno is given time he is the man to do that.
"I used to quite enjoy it [being criticised] – and had plenty of practice at it. If people had a go at you I liked to prove them wrong. It's like walking into a really hostile crowd. I absolutely loved it, thrived on it. But I'm out of that world now so I don't have to worry about it."
And with that he steers us back towards "the mountain". "It is a very different mindset," he says of what lies ahead. "You can become quite pampered as a professional sportsman. You have exactly what you need when you need it. Of course, it will not be like that on the mountain. You have to adapt to whatever's in front of you, bit like my army days really."
It was while training for that two-year spell in the Royal Artillery that Lewsey met Reesby. They became friends and have remained so despite their lives heading in markedly different directions. Together again, they are raising money for Hope for Heroes and Combat Stress, the charity for which Lewsey's wife, Vanessa, works. Combat Stress has existed in one guise or another since the end of the First World War, striving to help servicemen deal with the mental fallout from conflict and to understand how it manifests itself.
"Keith was shot in 2004 [while flying a helicopter in Iraq], and there are a lot of mates who have also been involved who have been touched physically, but mentally as well," says Lewsey. "When you deal with such proud, alpha males there is a stigma surrounding it. But what you have to remember is that it is a normal reaction to an abnormal circumstance. A psychological injury can be as disturbing as a physical one."
Maximuscle is assisting Josh Lewsey and Keith Reesby's Everest climb. Visit www.maximuscle.com
The Mallory route: Challenge of the North Col
Josh Lewsey will attempt the same route followed by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. The two Britons were last seen alive in 1924, scaling Everest's final peak, just a few hundred metres from the summit. Geologist Noel Odell watched the pair scramble over a rock-step in the ridge before they "vanished, enveloped in cloud once more".
Mallory's body was found in 1999, but offered no conclusion as to whether he and Irvine perished on the way up, or the way down. The Mallory, or North Col, route follows the path of this fateful attempt and is one of the more treacherous ascents of Everest. It is technically more difficult and is climbed far less frequently than the South Col route.
The biggest challenge to the North Col route are three "steps" on the final approach to the summit, which vary in height and exposure. Lewsey and Reesby are raising money for Help for Heroes. To donate text 60999 or visit www.mounteverestclimb2010.comReuse content