How did you first develop your passion for mountaineering, which has led to a successful career with many personal achievements?
My passion for mountaineering began when I was a schoolboy at Northallerton Grammar School, North Yorkshire, in England. As a child, I had always been adventurous, exploring the countryside around where I lived. In my teens I was lucky enough to have teachers in the school outdoor activities club who took me hill walking and rock climbing. It was then that my love for the mountains and desire for adventure truly began, and quickly germinated into a passion, eventually becoming a way of life. I knew from the first time that I went into the hills that it was where I wanted to be. It was a kind of ‘calling’.
Going into the hills of northern England seemed like an exciting adventure and it still is; the hills are my happy place. Even in wet, windy and snowy weather, I enjoyed the challenge and learned to cope with the conditions. It was more committing than today as there was no GPS or mobile phones to call for mountain rescue. I learned to be self-reliant and developed a resilience that has served me well.
Sometimes, just for fun and practice, I would go into the hills and spend a night in a bivi bag – a heavy duty plastic bag or nylon sac about the size of a sleeping bag. I even practiced bivouacking on tiny ledges 25 meters and more up cliff faces. It was necessary to be tied on in case I rolled off the ledge in the night. All this was good practice for climbs in the Alps such as the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland.
Eventually I qualified as a Mountain Guide, an international accreditation or carnet coordinated by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA).
What has been the greatest challenge during these often very dangerous pursuits?
Climbing in the Himalaya and Karakoram mountains of India, Nepal, Pakistan and China/Tibet seemed like a natural progression for me. These giant peaks are even more challenging and remote, requiring serious determination and commitment.
The fourteen 8000m peaks are all in the death zone, an unforgiving environment, where your body starts to deteriorate. Humans can only live for a matter of hours in the death zone, probably 48 to 50 hours maximum. There is little oxygen in the atmosphere and the air pressure is a lot lower than sea level. There are no rescue teams, and it is not possible for a helicopter rescue at such a high altitude. Surviving is an arduous task, taking a tremendous effort, both physically and mentally. All water, which you must drink to prevent dehydration and stay alive, is frozen and requires laborious effort to melt it on a small stove. Frostbite is a real risk in the extreme cold: breathing is difficult, movement is slow, and sleep is virtually impossible.
Climbing at extreme altitude involves a lot of suffering, risk and danger. But I do not climb to die: I climb to live. Climbing enhances my life. To help me stay alive (especially in the Himalayas), I have a motto: “No mountain is worth a life, coming back is a success and the summit is only a bonus.”
One of my greatest challenges was K2, which is dubbed ‘The Savage Mountain’. It is not much lower than Everest, but it is more technical to climb. It has more difficult rock and ice sections, worse weather, more avalanches and rock fall, and a longer walk in. It took me three attempts to climb K2. You could say I dedicated (or donated!) three years of my life to finally summit this iconic and difficult mountain.
K2 8611m straddles the Pakistan-China border in the northern Karakoram and even though it is the second highest, is generally thought of as the first prize, or the gold medal by mountaineers. On my first attempt, I had to rescue another climber, and on my second attempt I turned back very close to the summit as I thought the slope was avalanche prone.
I never focus on the summit, rather I focus beyond the summit back down at base camp and celebrate when I am safely there with a mug of tea. Some climbers focus on the summit and do not keep enough mental or physical reserve to descend. For me a mountain is a round trip, not just a climb to the top. No mountain is worth a life or a finger or toe to frostbite. I have avoided frostbite and got all my digits.
My final 8000m peak was Kangchenjunga, with a summit of 8586m. The third highest mountain is only fourteen meters lower than K2 and turned out to be just as difficult, with more technical climbing higher up above 8000m. Kangchenjunga was a difficult and serious grand finale finish for all fourteen 8000m peaks and becoming the first Briton to climb the world’s highest mountains.
Where in the world is your favorite place to explore?
I still enjoy being in the mountains, and there are many unclimbed peaks in the world and lots of other unclimbed mountain faces. There are many nooks and crannies, hills and dales in Yorkshire, Cumbria and the north of England waiting for me to explore and enjoy. Overseas, the Swiss Alps are particularly special, including the iconic mountains Eiger and Matterhorn. I have also recently returned from a thoroughly enjoyable visit to Zermatt. Nepal is another wonderful country to trek through and visit with friendly people, as are all the Himalayan and Karakoram regions.