The Mountain Man
Boisdale Life talks to Britain’s greatest living mountaineer, Kenton Cool
April 8 2020
BY TIMOTHY BARBER
Kenton Cool, 45, is one of the world’s leading alpinists and mountaineers, who has climbed the summit of Mount Everest more times than any other Briton. In 2007, he even summitted twice in one week. He has led Sir Ranulph Fiennes up the mountain twice, and was also the first Brit to ski down a mountain more than eight kilometres high. He spoke to Boisdale Life on his return from his thirteenth Everest ascent, alongside the TV presenter Ben Fogle, this summer
Boisdale: After you’ve been up Everest 13 times, does it become routine?
Kenton Cool: Absolutely not! It’s life stripped bare up there: you’re not worried about your tax return, or your deadline or whatever other noise we all have in our lives. For a moment you’re in your own little bubble in which you’re completely focussed on the now. And when you’re on the summit, it’s still fabulous. I think routine would lead to complacency, which is one of the most dangerous things in the world. As soon as it sneaks in, you start cutting corners on things, or making mistakes. And if you make a mistake on Everest, it bites you very hard and someone normally ends up dying.
B: Is mountaineering more about physical or mental ability?
KC: Both of course, but on the big peaks, those who get to the top are the ones who have the mental stamina and fortitude to see it out, because it’s very easy to find an excuse to go home. A lot of it is actually patience: You have to be prepared to wait out the weather and bad conditions and wait for the right time, and that can take weeks.
B: How did Ben Fogle measure up as a climbing partner?
KC: I’ve known Ben for many years, and he’s exactly the person you’d hope him to be: He’s very charismatic and very caring, and a nice person to hang out with. That’s really what you need in a climbing companion. The Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendelton was also with us, although she didn’t summit, and Ben’s father-in-law even came along for some of the way. Ben and I, and our cameraman, summitted on 16 May, which was the busiest day ever for the Everest summit, though it didn’t feel that way to us. We got ahead of anyone who may have slowed us up, and it felt like a great day in the mountains.
B: We hear a lot about long queues on the mountain, about litter and dubious operators. Are the scare stories true?
KC: Everest isn’t a rubbish tip as many people think it is, and Ben himself has talked about the very positive experience he had. Having said that, the industry is getting slammed, and I think to a certain extent rightly so. At the moment there’s a lot more local operators coming into the market, who potentially don’t have the depth of experience or attention to detail. While some of my colleagues and I might turn down clients who we think aren’t up to it or need more experience, all of a sudden there are operators who are looking for profit margins, who will take almost anyone.
We’ve seen a big explosion in the Indian and Chinese markets for adventure travel, so I’m worried we see more and more people on the mountain who don’t have the experience to be there. But that’s also the wonderful thing about mountaineering as a sport: if you want to attempt these mountains with very little experience, that’s up to you. My only caveat is: Don’t draw other people in and put them in danger through your own actions.
B: What’s your approach as a guide?
KC: I work with clients one on one, in a very bespoke manner. With Everest, the expedition might be five weeks or so, but that’s the culmination of two years’ worth of preparation together. I used to rock-up in Kathmandu, meet five or six clients whom I’d never met before, and then be expected to take them up Everest. But I had a near miss with Bonita Norris several years ago [Norris, then 22 and the youngest British woman to summit Everest, injured her back on the Hillary Step and had to be rescued by Cool and a Sherpa team]. I looked at the industry and thought there must be a better way.
When you’re climbing one of the world’s most dangerous mountains, you need a level of service that’s second to none. It means the likelihood of success is increased, but the risk involved is negated that much more. We’re a team climbing as friends, rather than a guide and client who don’t know each other.
B: What does the two-year prep entail?
KC: We might start out going to Chamonix for some climbing, to see i f we can bond together, and what your mental and physical abilities are. By the time we get to Everest, we’ll have climbed in the UK and Europe, we’ll have been down to somewhere like Bolivia, and will have already been to Nepal. If you give me enough time over those two years, I can take you to that mountain and you can legitimately say that you deserve to be there.
B: Where is somewhere more unusual that holds a particular allure for you?
KC: I’m excited about going back to Alaska soon. I spent time there in the early 2000s, and the space and beauty of that wilderness is extraordinary. You can fly to Anchorage, and almost from the city limits you are in raw wilderness where you can see bears and whales breaching, as well as climb mountains and go fishing.
The great thing in Alaska is that you can hop on a ski plane and get dropped right in the Alaska Range. There’s no 10-day trek to basecamp, which you have to do in the Himalayas. Last year in Papua I climbed the Carstensz Pyramid, an amazing limestone mountain, but we had to trek through the jungle for eight days to get there. I hated it. River crossings, leeches, creepy crawlies, the humidity ruining all the equipment – it was hideous. As it happens, the UK is great for climbing, particularly North Wales. You could go hiking up Snowdon, but some of the hardest rock climbs in the world can be found there. The UK has small mountains, but when it comes to climbing they have big punch.
B: You were the first Brit to ski down an 8,000-metre peak. What was that like?
KC: As a mountain guide, skiing is a discipline you have to have, though it was always a weak point for me as I came to it late. But I like challenging myself. It came to my attention that no British person had ever skied an 8,000-metre peak, of which there are only 14 in the world. So we went to Choy Oyu in Tibet, the sixth-highest mountain in the world, which is a good one for skiing. I was the weakest skier in the team, yet I ended up being the only one to ski down. But in order to ski down, you’ve got to get to the top, and I ended up doing it on my own. You ski down the whole way to the snow line – but it’s not exactly knee-deep powder snow. It’s combat skiing. I was living in Chamonix at the time and everyone there was amazed – I was considered such a rubbish skier.
B: What other summits are on your list?
KC: Gasherbrum IV in Pakistan is not an 8,000m peak, but it’s a mythical peak to the climbing community. I wanted to climb it in 2006, but we couldn’t make it happen. It’s remote, hideously hard, very dangerous and has only really seen one true ascent, which is considered one of the seminal ascents in the Himalayas. I’d still love to get there to try the west face, but I’m not sure I will.
In 2000 I was on the first ascent of the Arwa Spire in northern India. To enter a valley that almost no one has ever been into, and then get on a peak that no one has ever attempted, where everything is virgin, and to reach its summit after two years’ of effort... It’s a self-centred sense of accomplishment, because it doesn’t mean anything to the wider world, but it gives you an incredible sense of satisfaction.
B: Do you see mountains as something to be conquered and subdued, as in the phrase “Man Versus Mountain”?
KC: No. It was Edmund Hillary who said, “It is not the mountain we conquer, it is ourselves.” Ultimately, nature is always going to win. I always say with Everest that it’s not a case of us saying, “We are climbing Everest.” Rather, we are allowed to sneak up a flank of Everest if we’re very respectful, and when we get to the top we should humbly run away very quickly before she changes her mind. Mountains will be there long after the human race has vanished, and what we actually achieve on those mountains is virtually meaningless. But the self-satisfaction is certainly powerful.
Kenton Cool is a brand ambassador for Land Rover and Montblanc watches. For his ascent of Mount Everest, he wore the Montblanc 1858 hand wound watch.