In 2018 Max Stainton-Parfitt became the first person with cerebral palsy to trek to Everest base camp on a horse. This year, a documentary about his experiences is being released, both in IMAX cinemas, and at home. FILMHOUNDS chatted with him about his experiences and the journey he's been on since he got home.
What initially gave you the idea of going to Everest? Why not somewhere nearer or easier?
I've always had this dream of going up a mountain on a horse, and it turned out that horses were present on the route to Everest base camp. People use horses a lot around there. Combine that with it being the biggest mountain in the world and you think “wow, this is a match made in heaven”. So lets combine this with a cool fundraising idea, and that's how the dream came together. After a year of pretty gruelling training I was on my way to base camp.
I noticed that there's quite a distinct shift in tone in the last 15-20 minutes of the documentary, where it moves from almost inspiration porn to more cynical in it's view of what you did. Was that intentional and why was the documentary approached in that way?
Yes totally intentional, and the intentionality around that comes from the cynicism I started to have and the questions I had around my motives and why I did it in the aftermath of the trek. And there was a couple of key moments that for me really started forcing me to question why I'd done it. The first thing was, I do it, I come back to lots of “Hooray!”s and “Well done”s and going on lots of news channels and blah blah blah that's all very exciting and fun. But then interestingly the comment or question I most often receive is “What are you going to do next Max?”.
I just had this mad idea, and the idea was there because I wanted to do something outlandish, and challenge expectations of both myself and my disability. But that's not who I was, I work in investing. I'm not a single faceted individual, I'm a multifaceted guy who had this impulse out of what I realise in retrospect was imposter syndrome. That's not all people should care about though, which started me on a path to re-evaluation.
Also in the aftermath of the trek, I ended up having to have some major hip surgery, due to the trip. In the run-up to that I was in massive amounts of pain, and then you combine that with an independent film which takes four and a half years to make because it's totally self funded. The director [Carl Woods] could see that, he was still following me and we were still trying to find an ending. So it felt disingenuous to not include that tone shift. To not include that emotional journey that I went on post Everest as well. And so that's very much the reasoning behind it. It might feel a bit bait and switchy, and I hope that's not the case. We just wanted to be true to the full story, and the full story did end up feeling like a bait and switch, for me, at the time.
Do you think if you hadn't gone into the industry you did [finance] you wouldn't have felt the need to do this? The culture you spoke of made me think of American Psycho.
I don't know really, I think maybe you're right because I picked one of the most macho, physical-centric industries in our economy. Other than pure sports or athletics. Add to that that I'm a small weird scrawny disabled Jew, and of course I don't feel like I belong here. Plus I'm a massive nerd, and I don't know what my expectations were but even in finance, nerds occupy quite a small section of the industry! You do come across a lot of macho guys, and so I'm not sure really, I always had that dream. So whether it's a reflection of wider society, or of the drive and impulse to make that dream a reality was a result of me being in finance, it's quite possible.
Did you choose finance in a way because of that culture? As a rebellious act?
Maybe, but I have also always been a really weird nerd about markets. I'm in my favourite job, being a nerd about markets. I came upon that and realised it was a weird nerdy passion of mine. I think the rebellious act was getting a degree, getting a masters. The path society often sets disabled people is to just focus on your physio, achieve these physical goals like walking and learning to get dressed, feed yourself with knifes and forks. I just thought, “why do I have to do those things?”. I get it on a physical level, but also I have a limited amount of time in my life to learn. Do I want to focus on learning, or do I want to focus on doing those things? You can't do both. Or at least you can't maximise doing both. So I chose to go down a different path, and I still am now.
Do you worry about people perhaps taking the wrong thing from the film?
Yes, sure, I think the worst thing will be after the premiere with the 30 minute Q&A afterwards if I get that question. “What's your next challenge Max?”. For fuck's sake, did you fall asleep in the last twenty minutes? That would be annoying and I would let rip at that point! The change is there for a reason though, and it's well outlined. We trust the audience to follow us along that journey.
I also noticed that you refer to yourself as “disabled” rather than “having a disability” do you consciously choose to use identity first language and why?
I've always said I'm disabled. I think “having a disability” has some issues as well. I am disabled and that's the truth. I suppose the more progressive way of saying it would be to say “society disables me”, and that's the societal model of disability. It's not your physical problem, it's society's problem. If I wanted to be super up to the minute that's what I'd be saying. I'm probably not the most au fait and up to speed with the latest on cutting edge identity politics. It's hard to keep up when you're trying to keep up with markets at the same time. I just use the language I've been using since I was a boy.
What do you think is a better way to challenge societal expectations of disabled people?
Obviously I've had this cynical turn, where I've questioned why society drove me to that. I don't think I have all the answers, but my thinking recently is just to be yourself. It sounds like a cliché, but capitalism only really values you if you're productive. If you want to/can participate in that and challenge stereotypes that way, amazing, go for it. I don't want to invalidate what I'm doing because that would be disingenuous but also similarly if you can't do that then live the best life you can. You're still breaking societal expectations, just in a different way.
I don't think there is a right answer. If there's one thing I learned from the film it's not to build up your identity as this antithesis to society. I think that's what I was doing at one point. I was going to be so rebellious and so different, break all these moulds, but I'd do that and then society would just move the goalposts. It was like “oh you're that guy now! You'll be doing that forever”.
That was key to breaking away from what I had been doing, setting up my identity as fighting against society and breaking moulds. I just said “fuck it, I'm going to do my own thing”. I think we could probably all try to do that a bit more. The way I did that was, and you can see reporters getting annoyed with this answer, starting a family. Getting married. Having a baby. That's what I've often said in those interviews and that's what I've done, and I'm incredibly proud of myself for having done that. Bringing up a baby as an inter-abled couple is fucking hard, in lots of ways it's way harder than Everest! And I'm proud of the decision I made to stop thinking about myself in that way.
So do you resent the trip or do you think you learned enough from it that it was worth it?
Over the last three or four years and in the depth of the pain before my hip surgery, I absolutely resented it. I was just thinking “what the fuck did I do?” I was on six pills of codeine a day, what had I done? But also I can't lie, has it opened doors for me? Quite possibly. So in some ways it did do what I wanted. If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self and say “don't do it”, I wouldn't listen to my older self anyway. What I resent more, is these ongoing societal problems. I resent that more than what I did.
How does Candy [Max's wife] feel about the trip now? And the friends that went with you?
Candy came on this journey with me of re-evaluating the trip. During my interviews she's basically my co-director and helps to craft my answers. Rightly so as my girlfriend and then wife, she has literally been at my side throughout all of this. During and post Everest. We're definitely on the same page. My friends have seen the effects it's had on my body, the person who has seen it the most is probably Carl [Woods], the director. He got some of those candid shots of me in a lot of pain and distress, and he was one of the few people who really did see that up close and personal. It's not necessarily something you want to share or show in gory detail.
Ultimately we've all gone on our own journeys.
My Everest is in cinemas 27 April 2023 and a special Q&A screening of My Everest will take place at BFI IMAX on 27 April 2023