Who inspired you to get into mountaineering?
I’ve always been influenced by people who strive to do great things, so when I was growing up I was really inspired by Olympians, then as I got older and got into climbing it was people like Chris Bonington. I was mesmerised by the photographs of his climbs. Then when I got a little bit more into it I read up on people like Alex MacIntyre, who did really amazing things in the Himalayas. He was a huge inspiration.
What did he do?
He took an Alpine-style approach to climbing. He was one of the first to do this – tackling mountains in the Himalayas, but with everything he needed just on his back. Incredible.
What attributes would you need to be able to do that?
You need to be very adept, a huge amount of confidence and bravado, and big cojones. Unfortunately lots of the pioneers are dead now. When you’re doing what these guys were doing – and they really were at the cutting edge of what is humanly possible in the mountains – there are hazards that come with that.
What qualities do you have that helped you make it as a climber?
I’m very belligerent, I don’t like to give in and I never have. It’s all too easy to give up and go home, but I’ve always been dead against that – partly because I don’t like to fail in the eyes of my peers, partly because I don’t like to fail in front of myself.
You must form strong ties with fellow climbers.
You do, the bonds that you form in the mountains are second to none. You’re staring death in the face half the time – you’re scared, you’re frightened, you’re totally open to the elements and you’re sharing really basic human traits that you don’t see that often in everyday life. Once you’ve seen someone in a life-or-death situation, you have a much deeper understanding of them and you naturally form these unbreakable relationships.
Has anyone ever left you speechless with their generosity in the mountains?
On my first ever Himalayan expedition we had come off the mountain on the wrong side, and we had a three-day trek back around to base camp so we were exhausted. We had no food, and there was this shepherd boy who came out, and he invited us into his little ramshackle yurt and he shared what little he had with us, which wasn’t much. He let us spend the night there, and he showed us such kindness. We are so lucky, we don’t know poverty like they do there, and here was a boy who was willing to share everything he had with three strangers – that’s why I keep going back to the Himalayas. The mountains are amazing, but the people are unique too. They have such big hearts.
What have you learned about yourself from climbing?
One of the big things is humility. it doesn’t matter how amazing we think we are, there is always someone better than us, someone faster than us. On Everest it’s the Sherpas – they’re stronger than I am, faster than I am. And the mountain is much bigger than I’ll ever be. We can’t tame Mount Everest… no matter how big we are as a race, we will never tame nature. You are humbled by the mountains.
What does it feel like at the top of Everest?
It’s the most euphoric feeling you have ever encountered, but it’s tinged with sadness, fear and a feeling of utter insignificance. You realise that our time on this planet is so fleeting, and the sadness comes because you know it’s the end of the journey. You’ve still got to get down, and the fear is there because once you’ve achieved your goal, it’s natural to physically and mentally relax and that’s when accidents happen. Coming down can be way more dangerous.
Do you have a mantra that keeps you going?
“It will always end.” It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or where you are. You can be freezing your arse off in a bivouac but the sun will come up the next morning. There is always a finite end to physical and mental hardship. I live my life by that.
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One Man’s Everest by Kenton Cool is published in hardback by Preface, £20, and in paperback by Arrow in April. Buy on Amazon (opens in new tab)
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