How does climbing Everest compare with winning a Nobel prize?

Apart from the occasional pub quiz, I’ve not won many things in my life. I did once win a tent in an outdoor website’s prize draw, which was a nice surprise. And in my twenties, I won a bottle of wine at a comedy club in London for making up a joke in the interval which everybody liked.

But when it comes to winning a prize for being good at something, that’s always been another matter. I don’t write the sort of books that will ever be considered for an award. I was pretty average at sport, and never played in a team that was good enough to win anything. Academically, I could pass exams without too much difficulty, but I just wasn’t outstanding enough to win a prize for being clever.

As for winning something really prestigious? Don’t be silly.

This time last week however, a strange thing happened. It was a Saturday morning, and I woke up dreaming that I’d won the Nobel Peace Prize.

‘Come again, you dreamed what?’ I hear you saying.

But it wasn’t a dream. Along with Edita and 18,000 of our colleagues at the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), I had actually been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

I was a Nobel Laureate.

Edita tries to unfurl her WFP flag in the wind on the summit of Everest (Photo: Edita Horrell)
Edita tries to unfurl her WFP flag in the wind on the summit of Everest (Photo: Edita Horrell)

I first joined WFP in 2016. Edita was already working at their headquarters in Rome. I was living in London and visiting her every couple of weeks. Then a role came up to join the team developing WFP’s new intranet site, a task I’m quite familiar with.

I moved to Rome and worked there for a year and a half. It was obviously a charmed place to work because we eventually won a prestigious Neilson Norman Intranet Design Award for our new site (another big team effort, and the first prize I’d won since that bottle of wine). I moved back to London after the project ended, but since lockdown this year I’ve been working remotely for WFP again.

But this isn’t about me. I’m one of the least deserving. You could argue that I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Others like Edita deserve it far more than I do. She has worked for WFP in many different roles since 2010. She has responded to many emergencies. More recently she has managed projects in West Africa, providing supply chain services to other humanitarian and development agencies. She has been deployed to Haiti, Niger, the Philippines, South Sudan, Zambia, Guinea, Nepal, Ecuador, Chad and the Central African Republic. There are many more at WFP like her, who have travelled to challenging places at short notice to get on with the job of saving lives.

Edita was at Everest Base Camp in 2015 when the Nepal earthquake hit, and survived the subsequent avalanche from Pumori that destroyed camp. She remained in Nepal for two months managing WFP’s porter project. Up to 20,000 porters who had lost their livelihoods when the trekking season came to an abrupt end, were employed to carry food to remote communities. She was in Ecuador climbing Chimborazo in 2016 when another earthquake hit. Again she stayed in the country to assist with the emergency response.

There are others equally deserving if not more so. In 2019 WFP assisted 97 million people in 88 countries. The overwhelming majority of WFP’s 18,000 employees are national staff who come from the communities where WFP provides assistance. Two-thirds of these are in conflict-affected countries, where people are three times more likely to be undernourished.

The award also honours the seven WFP staff who died on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 from Addis Ababa to Nairobi on 10 March 2019, those who have died of COVID-19, and all the staff over the years who have lost their lives in the course of their duties.

WFP provides cash for people to spend locally. In Bangladesh, cash grants allotted before floods hit allow families to prepare. (Photo: WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud)
WFP provides cash for people to spend locally. In Bangladesh, cash grants allotted before floods hit allow families to prepare. (Photo: WFP / Sayed Asif Mahmud)

WFP is widely known for being the UN agency best known for providing logistics in an emergency – one of the first agencies on the ground, ready to provide food whatever it takes, whether by aircraft, ship, truck or even crane. On any given day they have up to 5,600 trucks, 30 ships and 100 planes delivering food and other assistance in remote and challenging parts of the world. They are currently tackling ongoing emergencies in 20 countries or regions, the majority in conflict zones.

More recently, instead of providing food, WFP has been providing people with cash as vouchers. This enables them to shop for their own food at local stores and supermarkets, providing much needed cash to the local economy. In 2019, WFP provided $2.1bn USD of assistance to 64 countries in this way.

But it’s not just emergency response. In recent years WFP has been increasing its development assistance, helping developing countries to help themselves. They connect smallholder farmers to markets in over 40 countries. In 2019 they bought $37.2m of food from smallholders. More than ¾ of the food WFP buys comes from developing countries, saving on transport costs and boosting local economies.

In 2018, WFP developed 127,000 hectares of land and planted 7,000 hectares of forest in an initiative to improve countries’ long-term food security and resilience to climate change. WFP is currently helping 15 countries to forecast extreme climate events and take preventative action.

WFP also provides school meals to 17.3 million schoolchildren. This vital lifeline not only provides children with nourishment, but encourages parents to send their children to school instead of asking them to work, improving their education and long-term prospects. Since 1990, WFP has also helped national governments to build their own school-feeding capacity. More than 40 countries have since taken on their own school meal programmes.

11% of the world’s population is undernourished, but thanks in part to WFP, the world has made a lot of progress in tackling hunger. WFP helped to prevent potential famines in Southern Africa (1991-92 and 2000-01), Afghanistan (2001) and West Africa (2012). WFP also achieves its objectives cost-effectively. (Big thanks to Max Roser of Our World in Data for providing these stats, and for his support.)

We’re going through a period when the world appears to be becoming more divisive. In addition to this, the global COVID-19 pandemic has reversed much of the recent progress. These events have highlighted the need for global cooperation.

WFP has long campaigned for the recognition that conflict fuels hunger. This work came to fruition in 2018 when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution #2417, which recognised the link between armed conflict and food security, and condemned the use of starvation as a method of warfare, as well as denial of humanitarian access.

In its announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee praised WFP for ‘its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.’

But that’s enough of me enthusing about WFP. I haven’t actually answered the question I posed in the title of this post. Was it just a clickbait headline? Well, no, in fact. Much to my utter disbelief, I find myself in a position to answer it.

A camp for displaced people in Mali where ongoing conflict started in 2016. Many of the places where people suffer acute hunger are divided by conflict. (Photo: WFP / Aurélia Rusek)
A camp for displaced people in Mali where ongoing conflict started in 2016. Many of the places where people suffer acute hunger are divided by conflict. (Photo: WFP / Aurélia Rusek)

I never dreamed of climbing Everest as a child, but when I realised in my 30s that it was a realistic proposition, I spent ten years working towards it. When it came, it was the end of a long journey. There was relief, satisfaction, even a little elation when I was safely back down again, but there was no disbelief. I wouldn’t say that I always believed, but there came a moment when I did.

By contrast, the Nobel Peace Prize has come completely out of the blue, as it has for nearly all of my 18,000 colleagues.

On the other hand, like the Nobel prize, climbing Everest was also a team effort; I can’t claim the plaudits alone. I have always done my best to acknowledge the support I had from our Sherpa crew (especially Chongba) and the rest of our expedition team. We climbed as a team and shared our successes.

The Nobel Peace Prize doesn’t belong to any single person. It belongs to my 18,000 colleagues, to all of WFP’s supporters and partners including donor governments, to the NGOs who work with WFP to provide services, and the many individuals who have donated online to help tackle world hunger. It also belongs to the people WFP serves. It has given a warm feeling to many of us.

It’s become the fashion these days for people to say they are ‘humbled’ when they receive an award such as this. I think I know what they mean – that feeling that you don’t quite deserve it and find yourself in the company of others who deserve it more.

But I don’t really like using the word ‘humbled’ in this context. Humility is the opposite of pride, and while humility is a nobler sentiment, it is better to be honest. What I really feel is pride. I’m proud to work for an organisation where so many people work together to make the world a better place.

One of the objectives of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to eliminate hunger by 2030. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this a much more challenging target, but zero hunger is still an achievable aim in an increasingly connected world. The Nobel prize recognises that ending conflicts is a vital ingredient.

Note: This is a personal blog and I am writing in a personal capacity. Thoughts expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of WFP.

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4 thoughts on “How does climbing Everest compare with winning a Nobel prize?

  • October 18, 2020 at 1:00 am

    Congratulations to both you and Edita! You are quite the overachievers.

  • October 18, 2020 at 2:11 am


    Great post. The contributions of you and Edita and all the others who work with WFP to eliminate hunger and bring aid to those individuals around the world Who are so in need is an example of compassion that deserves to be emulated and supported by people able to do so.

    The power of compassion to help the one who benefits from its giving also helps the one who is moved to action by it.

    Compassion is unequaled in its ability to heal.

    Thank you, Edita, the WFP and all those others who are motivated to action by compassion.

  • October 18, 2020 at 8:17 am

    Fantastic post! It must be so much more rewarding helping all these people out than reaching the apex of a mere pinnacle. A hugely deserved congrats to all 18,000 of the team!

  • October 18, 2020 at 6:16 pm

    Congratulations! Fantastic news, what a great group you are, what a noble undertaking!

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