Master of His Craft | How Training & Timekeeping Saved Craig Mainprize's Life at the Extremes of Altitude
When an injury cut short his promising mountaineering career, Craig Mainprize took up diving. Little did he know where it would lead…
We’ve teamed up with Seiko, who make the Prospex PADI Special Edition Kinetic Dive Watch to look at the challenges faced by divers, and why accurate timekeeping is essential in the most extreme underwater environments. Here Craig Mainprize, a Master Dive Instructor and a former mountaineer, talks about the skills needed to survive at the world’s highest altitudes and deepest depths.
Picture the scene. You’re diving in the icy waters off the UK coast, 35 metres down and several minutes away from the safety of the surface, when your breathing apparatus fails. You reach for your backup, only to find that it’s not working either. Many people would panic, but not Craig Mainprize. “It was, um... quite challenging" he says, describing the incident with masterful understatement.
"It was quite challenging. If you come up too quick from that sort of depth, then you'll be dead"
Without any air, every fibre of Craig’s body was screaming at him to swim for the surface, but his training told him that “if you come up too quick from that sort of depth, then you'll be dead." Ignoring his instincts, Craig forced himself to stay underwater and come up slowly, in order to avoid the deadly build of of nitrogen which leads to the bends.
“You've got to think of the logic behind it all," he explains. “Your body doesn't need the oxygen because otherwise CPR wouldn't work. So I knew I had enough oxygen in there, it's just the level of carbon dioxide which is making my body convulse to want to breathe. So... get over it. Breathe out as you come up, and come up in a controlled manner."
It’s strange to hear someone talk about a life-or-death incident so calmly. But then it was precisely this calm manner, born from years of training, which saved Craig’s life that day. As a Master Instructor, one of the UK’s most highly-qualified diving teachers, his deep theoretical knowledge and years of practical experience had equipped him (as far as possible) to deal with what was “an incredibly rare event". Without this complete mastery of his craft, it’s doubtful Mainprize would be alive today.
Incredibly, given his phenomenal skills in the area, diving was something that Craig only discovered later on in life. In fact, it was only when an injury cut short a promising career as a climber that Craig started diving at all. The mountains were his first love.
“I'd always been outdoorsy," he explains, “even at school. Then I went to Sheffield Polytechnic, as it was in those days, and of course you've got the climbing in the Peak District right next door. Sheffield, especially in the early 90s was incredible."
Climbing quickly became a huge part of Craig’s life and before long, he’d set his sights on one of mountaineering’s biggest prizes - the Seven Summits. “We were going to do the highest mountain on each of the seven continents within seven years. That was the original plan. Thinking of the ‘Seven in Seven’ in those days was a big thing," he explains.
He made a good start, successfully summiting Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro, but two years and two mountains into the mission, Craig’s goal was cruelly snatched away from him. “It was a stress injury. I'd torn the cartilage from my rib cage, and it just meant that you couldn't do anything too extreme that would cause that kind of exertion." He was, he says, absolutely gutted. Climbing was what he lived for. “It was just what we did," he explains. But although the injury was a blow, the time off left him with space to explore a new passion.
As he tells it, Craig discovered diving almost by chance. “We had a trip planned and then my climbing buddy disappeared. When he came back he said ‘I've just been scuba diving. You've got to go and do it.’ So the next weekend I did." He fell in love almost instantly - even after countless dives all over the world in the years since, he still remembers the first as one of his favourites.
“I was learning down in Cornwall, it was in the sea and it was shockingly cold and snowing. We did a wreck just off shore, an old submarine - and you could still see the valves and bits of the body work sticking out of the sand. That's really stuck with me. The fact that you could go and see something that's probably been down there 80-odd years or even longer. [Because of the shifting sands] I might be the first person that's seen that particular valve for instance."
Diving into freezing water when it’s snowing might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but for Craig it all felt very familiar. The thrill of exploration, of discovering new things and of testing yourself against the elements - these were the things that he’d loved about mountaineering.
On the surface, the two disciplines might seem completely different. After all, one is about getting as high above sea-level as you can, while the other is about getting as far below it as possible. But Craig soon realised the two sports had a lot in common.
“[They’re] completely, completely different, but so similar. Both of those are environments that are incredibly challenging. [You need] the right gear and the right training [and] it's about the challenge against yourself and against the elements."
Not only did they tick similar boxes for Craig, he also found they involved surprisingly similar skills. Organisation - having a plan and sticking to it - is key: “With mountaineering, you've got all the struggle and the strain to get to the top, to summit, and you're not on there very long before you have to start considering the elements and the dangers of coming back down again, which is often harder than going up.
"With both sports, accurate timekeeping is also essential - it can often be a matter of life or death."
“And scuba diving is exactly the same. You do all that preparation and you go and you do the dive. You get down to the bottom and you're only actually there a couple of minutes before you have to start considering the element of coming back up, which takes a lot longer than going down."
With both sports, accurate timekeeping is also essential. “When you're underwater you need to know the depth and time you're at. And over-running by a couple of minutes on some dives at different levels can be life-changing. So it is incredibly important to know what time it is."
On the mountain it’s the same. As Craig says: “If the sun gets too high and the face becomes more challenging you've increased your risk." And if you miss your summit time and fail to turn back early enough, you can end up climbing in the dark, or worse.
Craig remembers one incident in particular: “We were on the west face of the Eiger and we had a storm roll in. There were hundred mile an hour icy winds with sleet and it took us an awful lot longer to come down than we'd anticipated. That was quite a challenge. We were descending in the dark for some of it. We weren’t meant to be!"
As with his narrow brush with death while diving, it was a combination of logical thinking, problem solving but most of all, years of training which got Craig down in one piece. If there’s one thing that Craig has learned from his years in dangerous environments, it’s that experience and knowledge is key. “There's never a problem that can't be thought out, he says. “That's the mindset that you've got to have both on a mountain and underwater. You need the equipment to help you manage the situation [but it's knowing] how you apply it, and that's down to your experience."
There are very few people who can claim to have climbed some of the planet’s most serious mountains and also dived to extreme depths beneath the oceans. Craig Mainprize - who has climbed to 5,895 metres above sea-level and dived 54 metres below it - has done both. He’s not only lived to tell the tale, but relished the adventures along the way. The main reason for that? Whether it’s mountaineering or diving, he has completely mastered his craft.