The son of billionaire adventurer Richard Branson was overcome with acute altitude sickness atop the summit of the famed Matterhorn on Wednesday and was airlifted to safety while his helpless father looked on from a helicopter.
After running, rowing, cycling and hiking from London to the bottom of the Matterhorn as part of the Virgin Strive Challenge, Sam Branson began getting ill just before reaching the summit of the iconic 14,692-foot mountain peak bordering Switzerland and Italy.
"For Sam, things were going quickly downhill [after summiting]," Richard Branson wrote on his blog. "Altitude sickness gets worse as you try to fight through it–so by the time Sam completed the Challenge and reached the summit, he hardly knew where he was. He had a blinding headache and could only briefly look up and take in the open blue sky. Having seen the Matterhorn dominating the view for weeks, he wondered briefly where it had gone!"
Kenton Cool of Dream Guides determined it was too dangerous to try to descend with Sam, so he called in a rescue helicopter.
"Sam was finally taken off the mountain, hanging outside of the helicopter, which was as terrifying as the altitude sickness," Richard Branson wrote. "I watched all of the drama unfold and felt totally helpless."
Sam and Cool talked about the circumstances and the rescue in this video released Thursday by the Strive Challenge:
"I don't really know what to say right now," Sam said in the video. "I feel really mixed emotions and also no emotions whatsoever at the same time. I went up the Matterhorn feeling strong and progressively started to get weaker and weaker.
"But the team managed to push me farther and farther up, and I managed to eventually reach the summit. I don't even know what the view was because I was convulsively crying and hacking. I think the altitude [sickness] hit a certain stage with me where Kenton was really worried about me going down."
Sam said he was more scared about getting winched off the mountain by a helicopter than summiting the Matterhorn.
The Virgin Strive Challenge 2014 involved a team of 10 people whose goal was to reach the summit of the Matterhorn from London "entirely on their own steam" while raising money to help young people in the U.K. develop life skills needed to reach their potential.
They ran, rowed, cycled, hiked and climbed more than 620 miles with climbing the Matterhorn being the crowning achievement. But it was difficult for Sam to enjoy the moment.
"I don't feel a massive sense of achievement," Sam said. "I feel really happy that I pushed myself to the summit, but I think I'm so physically and mentally exhausted right now I'm just a bit blah."
It was easy to determine how Richard Branson felt. Like any other concerned parent, he felt very relieved.
“Having experienced eight helicopter rescues myself, it clearly runs in the family,” Richard Branson said. “I joked with Sam that I hoped this would be a one off and not the first of eight for him too! Our appreciation for the rescue services resulted in Virgin sponsoring the London helicopter rescue service for many years.”
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