Listen to this article
A British climber and former president of the Alpine Club, Scott has reached the summit of more than 40 peaks. He has made all of his climbs without the use of artificial oxygen, apart from his ascent of Everest.
In 1975, I went with the British Everest Expedition to climb the Southwest Face of Everest. There had been six attempts before and there was great uncertainty about whether we’d do it, but the trip was well organised by Chris Bonington.
The main problem was the rock band – 1,000ft of rock that goes across the Southwest Face. Paul Braithwaite and Nick Estcourt got through the rocks – and Dougal Haston and myself followed through, got above the rocks and made Camp 6 for the first time. After two days up there we made it to the top, but not without difficulty. Dougal’s oxygen set failed – it gunged up with ice, which we freed by banging it against the rocks – and there was a lot of deep snow below the South Summit. We didn’t get to the South Summit until 4pm but we thought we’d just keep pressing on.
It was a fantastic experience, getting to the summit. I know some climbers say, “Oh Everest, it’s just another mountain,” but I don’t know anyone personally who hasn’t been dramatically changed by it. We were there at 6pm, hence a wonderful sunset – and we could see a great stretch of the planet in front of us. You can see the curve of the earth from up there, and the clouds forming below in the valleys in Nepal. We felt part of something much bigger than ourselves – part of nature in the raw.
We returned at 7pm, but our head torches failed. Coming down the Hillary Step, we had to bivouac 100m down from the summit, without oxygen or sleeping bags. We dug into a snow bank and spent nine hours sitting on our rucksacks. We emerged groggy but without frostbite.
Dougal and I were looking out for each other, and with him I had this calm prescience that it would be OK. We’d reached the end of our physical endurance, but other things kick in: you feel that a comforting presence is there with you. At one point I could see myself from above – when I was stumbling too close to the edge on the cornices, I told myself to get back in line. Later, when I reflected on the climb, that did seem a bit odd. But I was on a high for weeks. It was the best four days I’ve ever had on a mountain.
Doug Scott is speaking at ‘First on Everest’ at the Royal Geographical Society on November 17
The South African climber is the first woman to climb Everest from both sides. She made her first ascent in 1996.
Under apartheid it was very difficult for South Africa to get permits in the Himalayas, which is why it was so far behind other countries in having a go at the big peaks.
In 1996, the first South African Everest expedition was put together. Three months before departure there was a competition to find a woman to join the team. I had started rock climbing when I was 18. I thought what the hell, and applied. After a test trip to Kilimanjaro I was taken on, but very much as an apprentice. That’s how you learnt in those days – you simply went with people who were better than you.
I really didn’t think I would get anywhere near the top. We spent three months (the team had to retry several times due to illness and a storm) with an incredibly simple focus – you sleep, you climb. I just liked being out there.
The further we got up the mountain, the more confident I became. But I didn’t actually believe it was going to happen until the summit day. You can’t see the last piece of the climb until you get there – for months everybody had been obsessing about the famous knife-edge ridge and the rock climb in the middle called the Hillary Step. It was 8am when I finally crossed the South Summit – and for the first time I saw the ridge and the step and thought, I can climb that. That was two-and-a-half hours short of reaching the summit.
The expectation was almost the best bit. The knife-edge ridge is like walking on a footpath running through the sky. The view is extraordinary: you can see for hundreds of miles.
It’s well known that a disproportionate number of accidents happen on the way down – so we were terribly conscious of not screwing it up. But one member of our team, British climber and photographer Bruce Herrod, disappeared within 12 hours. It was devastating. He was found a year later below the Hillary Step.
The thing about mountaineering is that it doesn’t come with rules and regulations. We had everything from the hippy guys to the army-trained leader in our team, and it just didn’t work.
I did Everest again two years later to climb the North Ridge. We failed on our summit day. We were only two hours from the top, and we found an American woman lying on the mountainside. She was on her own, and had been up there for days. We tried to help, but she died anyway. That was the end of that – we were on the edge of hypothermia, and I just couldn’t step over her dead body and keep on climbing. In the end, I climb for the joy of it.
Cathy O’Dowd is performing a musical interpretation of a storm on Everest with pianist and composer Annie Hogan at the Kendal Mountain Festival on November 18
First time on Everest: Advice from Sir Chris Bonington
Someone who is already a climber but who would really like to go to Everest needs to take it in stages. If you haven’t been to the Himalayas before, go on a trip where you climb a 5,500m-6,000m peak. Then I’d strongly recommend climbing Kilimanjaro or Aconcagua. Then do Cho Oyu, which is just over 8,000m. And then go to Everest.
If you have done practically no climbing at all, my strong urging is to build it up steadily. Even if you’re only interested in the Himalayas, go on a trekking trip to one of the easier peaks first. You’ve then got a sporting chance of getting to the top.
Personally, I would also like to see regulation in Nepal and China for western guides and Sherpas. I’d also like to see one guide per client – it would be elitist, in that it would be more expensive, but it would be a hell of a sight safer.
Chris Bonington is patron of the Kendal Mountain Festival