20 April 2010 by Pete Mathers
What first got you into climbing?
I had friends from America coming to visit me in Perthshire and I realised to my horror that I didn’t know Scotland that well. I was so embarrassed I thought I had to do something about it. I figured that if I climbed all the Munros – the 283 hills in Scotland over 3,000 feet – I’d get to know the country. I was in my early thirties. I’d been sporty at school but I was never a hill walker. It took me ten years to complete them all; I loved the hills, the outdoors and the freedom.
You then set out to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. What first put the idea in your head?
Once I’d finished the Munros it was a case of, “Well now what?”. A friend suggested that I climb the highest peak in Europe. I began looking for a guide to take me up Mont Blanc but soon learnt it wasn’t Europe’s highest peak – it’s Mt Elbrus in the Caucasus in Russia. Coming down from Elbrus I was asked if I was doing the Seven Summits [Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mt Vinson in Antarctica, Mt Everest in Asia, Carstensz Pyramid in Australasia, Mt Elbrus in Europe, Mount McKinley in North America & Aconcagua in South America]. My heart just leapt and I knew my next goal.
Did travelling to such wild and remote locations throw up any unusual challenges?
Lots. Carstensz Pyramid in West Papua, Indonesia, took two attempts. The first time we were staying in the jungle with a tribe. The men wore penis gourds and had painted bodies; the women wore raffia skirts and slept with their pigs. They fed babies on their right breast, piglets on their left. Three days in, the village chief told us to flee for our lives. Tribesmen were approaching who were said to be cannibals. The next year we tried from the other side. The challenge there was the largest open-cast copper and gold mine in the world. Nineteen thousand men work in the mine; no women are allowed and we had to get through it. A couple of local lads tried to smuggle us through in the dead of night. As we neared the far side – after about six hours in a lorry – we were suddenly fired upon. The driver panicked and we were forced to flee on foot up a mud track.
What kind of training did you do?
At the weekends in Scotland I used to walk the Munros with a rucksack full of phone directories. After work, in the dark, I’d walk the forestry tracks around Aviemore with a weighted pack, dragging a car tyre full of rocks behind me.
How did you acclimatise and did you ever suffer from altitude sickness?
There isn’t much altitude training you can do other than acclimatising on the mountain. I suffered a little on Mt Elbrus and again on Mt Kenya, my warm-up for Kilimanjaro, but after that I was actually ok. I used oxygen on Everest, but then only in the death zone above 8,000 m.
You reached the top of Everest on 16 May 2004 on your second attempt. What stopped you the first time?
In 2003 I got as far as the Hillary Step, about 300 vertical feet from the summit, but bad weather forced me back. I had my own Sherpa but communication was nearly impossible. It was windy and dark. I had an oxygen mask on, goggles which had frozen up and layers and layers of clothing. The wind started to come up as we approached the South Summit. As dawn broke it was getting stronger and people were starting to turn back. I dropped on to the summit ridge and more people were turning back, knocked off their feet by the wind. There were four or five climbers waiting at the bottom of the Hillary Step. Nobody was moving. We were constantly being blown over and I thought, “This is just daft”. I turned back with my Sherpa but coming down from theSouth Summit we both ran out of oxygen. My Sherpa pulled down his mask and shouted through the storm. “You die. I die. We both die. I go.” And off he went. He left me at 28,000 feet with no oxygen in a storm. I had to get back down to the South Col at 26,000 feet. I don’t remember much of that descent. There were three abseils to do and I don’t remember doing them. Someone somewhere must have been looking after me.
What possessed you to try it a second time?
Before I’d even got down to Base Camp I was thinking about how much I’d miss the Sherpas– even though one of them had left me. We’d been living with them for about two months and had got to know them really well. I was so sad to be saying goodbye that before even reaching Base Camp I decided I’d be back the next year. It just goes to show you how nuts I am.
What did it feel like to finally reach the summit?
Fantastic. We set off through the night from the South Col as before, saw a beautiful dawn break and got to the summit at around seven or eight in the morning. I plonked myself down but couldn’t look up. I couldn’t work out what to do. I still had my goggles on,my oxygen mask, three hats, three pairs of gloves… My Sherpa helped sort me out. He took my camera and insisted that I look up. It was only then that I took in the view. Looking out across Nepal and the Tibetan Plateau was absolutely awe-inspiring. An amazing feeling of warmth came right up through me, a kind of inner calmness. It was the end of a long journey: Seven Summits in seven years.
Has climbing Everest changed your life?
Certainly things have happened that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t climbed Everest. I think the street cred has helped me in business. Before Everest I set up my own hr consultancy. I now run a Change Management business, setting up alliances between partnering companies. I’ve even had a book written about me, The Sky’s The Limit, and do motivational talks to companies and institutions. And of course I’m still climbing.
And finally, what do your friends and family think of you having such an extreme hobby?
My friends think I’m mad but they’re very supportive. I’ve never been married – never met the right man – but I think that’s helped me in my climbing. It’s a pretty self-indulgent thing to do. If I’d been married and had children I’m not sure I would have done it. It’s tough on those you leave behind when you’re off on an expedition. My mother died before I reached the top of Everest, my father before that. I thought of them both as I sat on the summit.