Alan Hinkes Interview | The Legendary Mountaineer on Everest, OBEs & How He Invented the Selfie
The legendary mountaineer on Everest, near-death experiences and how he invented the selfie
Words by Sam Haddad
Thumbing through Alan Hinkes’s twitter feed is like taking a whirlwind photo tour of Britain’s most beautiful hilltops. Helvellyn, Blencathra, Tryfan, Snowdon, Scafell Pike…they’re all there, in all seasons and in all weather. But what you won’t see much of is Hinkes himself. “I think selfies should be banned," the celebrated climber and mountaineer tells me in this thick Yorkshire accent.
“I'm a photographer and I take photographs of landscapes, which often include people, but I don’t take selfies," he says. Hinkes doesn’t like the way the landscape is relegated to the background in a selfie, or at times blocked out entirely, when it should be the main story. Though he goes on to dryly suggest he may have invented the selfie in 2005: “On the summit of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, I held my digital camera at arm’s length but I called it an ‘arm’s lengthie’. No one called them selfies back then."
Hinkes, now 62 and with an OBE attached to his name, had been climbing Kangchenjunga, which lies partly in India and partly in Nepal, as part of a bold attempt to climb each of the 14 peaks that are over 8,000 metres; the 8,000ers, as they’re known in climbing circles. He is the first and only British climber to have achieved the feat.
Few people take on even one of the 8,000ers, as you’re effectively climbing in the death zone with so little oxygen humans struggle physiologically to survive, so how did Hinkes motivate himself to take on the lot? He says: “Climbing the 8000ers was a very difficult challenge, it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t until I’d climbed eight including K2 (the hardest) and Everest (the highest) that I decided to go for all 14. At that time only five people had ever climbed them all." The list now sits at 33, though some climbers have had their climbs subsequently disputed if they couldn’t prove they were at the summit, as was the case when Hinkes climbed Cho Oyu.
“I think selfies should be banned."
Nonetheless it’s a pretty small club of climbers. What traits do they all have in common I ask Hinkes? “You definitely need single-mindedness to climb mountains, and I often think that Yorkshire stubborn focus on the summit has helped me. But are climbers more single-minded than other top sportsmen? I’m not sure. If you look at someone like Andy Murray and the sacrifices he makes to be the best, like being away from his family so much, then I don’t know."
“But you do need a certain personality to climb above 8,000m as you’re in the death zone. You can get summit fever and it can cloud your judgement. Most people that try to climb all 14 don't because they get killed (or stop or give in). Climbers often get killed on their 12th or 14th mountain. I’ve had quite a few near death experiences… descending Kangchenjunga for one. Most people get caught on the descent as they lose focus but I do feel I’ve had a sixth sense, an intuition that’s helped me."
“I’ve done 28 expeditions to 8,000ers. There were all successes. Coming back is a success and the summit is a bonus. No mountain is worth a life. I’ve never lost a digit to frostbite, I’ve got all my bits and digits intact."
Thinking of the high risks of say crossing the Khumbu Icefall at Everest or freak incidents such as the Nepalese earthquake, which caused an avalanche at Everest Base Camp, I ask how much of a part luck plays. “I always say you make your own luck but of course it plays a part in some instances. A girl died in a car crash near me in Yorkshire recently, if she’d left her house five seconds later she would still be alive. You can never control every outcome."
Would he ever climb Everest again? “I've been back since but you only need to climb it once to say you've climbed it and there are thousands of other adventures and mountains out there waiting to be climbed."
Hinkes recalls a happy childhood, with a lot of freedom to roam about in nature, building dens, exploring forests, climbing hills and scrambling up rocks. At 15, a teacher at his school in Northallerton got him into rock climbing and he grew quickly hooked. His love of clambering around rocks lead him to become a geography teacher, though he jokes that he stopped teaching: “When the government outlawed capital punishment." In truth it was when his climbing expeditions abroad grew more ambitious, and the summer holidays simply weren’t long enough to fit them in.
Throughout his climbing career, he’s worked with the charity Outward Bound and is a strong believer in the physical and mental benefits of getting young people outdoors and immersed in nature. He says: “I’ve seen first-hand what it can do for kids. They arrive crying because they don’t want to leave home and they’re used to city life but at the end of the week they’re crying because they don’t want to go back home."
"No mountain is worth a life. I’ve never lost a digit to frostbite, I’ve got all my bits and digits intact."
Hinkes is a firm advocate that those kind of experiences in nature offer something unique to people. He says: “Football, cricket, tennis…all those sports are good but they’re not in nature, and we know nature does good things to us."
He acts as a guide on the annual Fjallraven Classic a 110km hike through Swedish Lapland which is designed to give ordinary people a chance to get into the outdoors. He says: “It’s a great entry-level event for people wanting to get more serious about hiking. It really does feel remote."
And he’s pleased to see his beloved British hills busier than ever at the weekends. He says: “Perhaps it’s social media but there does seem to be a rise in awareness of the hill areas for walking and climbing or just a nice ramble."
Given Hinkes’s twitter feed photos and the fact he tells me he’s done a Park Run that morning it’s clear he still gets out in nature a lot but how does he feel if he can’t? “Enervated. Yeah I've got to get out. The Fells are my fix. Rock Climbing, fell walking, ice climbing. I feel less tired and more relaxed when I get out; refreshed and rejuvenated."
He tells me he sometimes goes out with friends but is happy hiking by himself too. “You’re often more approachable if you’re out by yourself, and I can hike at my own pace." Which in case you’re wondering is fast, by the end of a hill-walk he’s often running downhill.
He likes to walk away from the main routes too: “It makes things more interesting and the ground is often softer too, as most people prefer the paths." And he’d still take a map over GPS, even when he knows the route as he enjoys the practice of map-reading.
Has kit changed a lot in lifetime? “Definitely. I sometimes go out in shorts and t-shirt for the laugh, but all the high-tech kit makes a big difference. It’s made things safer, the improvements in waterproofing and windproofing, especially in seriously bad weather."
If Hinkes was getting into climbing now would he have been an aspiring Olympian, now that climbing is an Olympic sport? “No I’m probably not a good enough boulderer, I'm a mountaineer. I prefer rock climbing."
Will the inclusion of climbing in the Olympics get more people onto British hills? “The sports are different. Bouldering and Olympic sports climbing is indoors, it’s more like gymnastics. And if they want to win a medal they're not going to waste time outdoors when they could be training. It should help climbing walls though."
“Rock climbing is dangerous but indoor climbing isn’t in the same way. In the Olympics your risk of injury would probably be higher in something like horse riding or judo."
Is anyone impressing him in climbing right now? “Well Greg Boswell fights bears…"
And finally, I ask Hinkes what mountaineering and seeing the world from on high has taught him about life? “That life is for living. Carpe Diem. But also that it’s important to appreciate the small things, like a dawn chorus in spring or early summer or a skylark. That health and fitness is important but also that all of us humans need to chill out and get along." We may not have been to the top of the world but we’re firmly with him on that.