Kenton Cool And The Legend Of Everest

The UK’s Top Mountain Guide And 11-Time Summiter On Selfies, Everest Movies, Sir Ranulph Fiennes And The Politics Of Guiding Paying Guests Up The World’s Highest Mountain

The Tibetan side of the Everest. Credit: iStock/RichMatts

Words by Sam Haddad

Kenton Cool was never fussed about climbing Everest. He didn’t like “the commercialisation surrounding it, the costs, the hubbub, the attraction to the non-climber…” The highest mountain on the planet was everything the young climber was not. He preferred first ascents on less well-known peaks in the Himalayas and Alaska. Yet when the opportunity to guide a team to its 8,848m summit came in 2004 he couldn’t quite bring himself to resist its iconic lure.

He’s now been to the top of the world 11 times, which is a British record. He also completed the first Himalayan Triple Crown, by climbing Nuptse, Everest and Lhotse back to back in 2013, alongside his friend and climbing partner Dorje Gylgen. Following the release of his autobiography One Man’s Everest, and while cinemas are showing Everest, a Hollywood hyper-dramatisation of the 1996 disaster which killed eight people, we chatted to Cool about that mountain…

Myth and hoopla have shrouded Everest since Edmund Hillary from New Zealand and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first reached the summit in 1953. Perhaps even before then when the British first sent a reconnaissance team to it in 1921. As the veteran climber Alan Arnette says: “A search of Amazon shows 15,282 books with Everest in the title or description…” An editor of a well-known adventure/climbing magazine told him: “If they put Everest on the front cover, it will be their best selling issue of the year.”

It’s the same online, where stories about Everest provide publishers with web traffic gold. In March this year an article about human poo on Everest was the most-read story of the day on the BBC, Guardian and our own website Mpora. I’ve often wondered why it captivates us so, is it really as simple as it being the tallest mountain!? It seems so obvious but then maybe that’s exactly the point.

At the time of our interview, Cool hasn’t seen the new movie Everest. “I should watch it,” he says. “But I genuinely don’t watch too many climbing movies anymore, they disappoint me.” I ask why? “I’m so in love with Everest. I’ve read a lot of literature around it, predominantly historical books from people like Sir Francis Younghusband, who went there in 1926. The movies just let the mountain down a little bit.”

How so? “When Hollywood try to over-glamorise it, it takes away from the mountain itself. The mountain is glamorous enough. She’s epic enough, she doesn’t need to be dragged through the gutter and sensationalised because she’s sublime, she’s beautiful and hopefully they realise that, whoever’s made this new film.”

What have previous directors got wrong? “A lot of the time people don’t really get the mystique of mountaineering. [Filmmakers] need to go and live in a mountain resort to get what it is that people are drawn to. Whether that’s Telluride or Boulder or Chamonix or the Himalayas…”

Having never wanted much to do with Everest, as a young climber he was more about rock and ice climbing with friends, then first ascents of peaks such as Annapurna III in Nepal. Cool’s change of heart came when he first stood on the summit of Everest. In his book he writes of that feeling: “What a hypocrite! I love it…I want to be here and nowhere else… it feels wonderful. I am walking in the footsteps of some of my heroes.” As he took in the ridiculously beautiful 360-degree panorama he said: “I feel as though somebody has punched me in the stomach. The Chinese believe that mountains connect earth and heaven. Standing on top of Everest, who would disagree?”

His deep love for the mountain led him to become the UK’s premier Everest expedition leader. The Telegraph reports he can command six-figure sums for a summit attempt and has an 80 per cent rate of getting clients to the top. The average is 65-70 per cent.

Jon Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air, who was on the 1996 disaster climb and features, albeit against his will, in the new Everest movie, which he describes as “total bull”, has always been critical of novices who pay a lot of money to climb Everest. This week he told the LA Times: “Everest is not real climbing. It’s rich people climbing. It’s a trophy on the wall, and they’re done.” While The Guardian reports the Nepalese may begin to stop novice climbers from climbing to the summit.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given his job, Cool is defensive of the paid-client, as long as they’re well prepared. He says: “The media often slams these wannabe climbers, citing that they pay their way to the top. Well perhaps they do; but they still have to step out and do it – no amount of money will help you make that physiological move.”

Cool has guided the wonder-explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes there twice, with Fiennes poetically describing the summit as “the closest you can get to the moon by walking.” Cool says of Fiennes: “He amazes me. I’ve climbed with some of the best climbers in the world but the move that he made on the Traverse of the Gods [when Cool led him up the north face of the Eiger in 2007]…” Fiennes suffers from vertigo and had to make a step where you could see 2000 feet straight down. Cool says: “It’s probably the most impressive climbing move I’ve ever seen, because he was utterly gripped by fear but he made himself do it.”

Some in the climbing community see Cool’s life as a premium Everest guide as selling out. The well-respected climber Doug Scott, who was the first Brit to summit Everest, once told him he was: “Wasting the best years of [his] climbing career shuffling up Everest taking paying clients.” Cool’s response is that he needs to pay the mortgage, though some would rather he “lives in a van and strips away any materialistic wealth…” It makes him wonder why. “There is some strange stigma attached to having a nice house and being financially secure; as though this is somehow not being true to the values of climbing.” An accusation never levelled at the surfer Kelly Slater, for example.

I ask Cool how the Internet and social media has affected the Everest experience? “Five years ago, I remember vividly when you could first get a cell signal at Base Camp. It was such a big thing for the local people, I’ve got a video of Bim my local cook dancing with joy because he could now ring his children from Base Camp.”

“A lot of people say you shouldn’t have social media and phones in the wilderness but it’s development and it’s going to happen and who are we to say that developing nations shouldn’t have all the mod cons that we have? We’d be arresting their development.”

“On the downside, news gets out really quickly on Everest. So the last few years bad news has got out fast. The 2013 fight between [Swiss climber] Uli Steck and the Sherpas, the avalanche in 2014, this year’s earthquake.” The latter saw Cool lose three good friends, who were Sherpas and at Base Camp when the avalanche struck.

In an era where people book holidays with professional photographers thrown in to ensure their travel snaps are perfect, has social media also affected what people want from an expedition? Can people get obsessed with getting selfies on the summit I ask him? “A little bit. I get really cross when you’re trying to pack to climb up through the ice wall early in the morning and someone’s like I’ll pack in a minute I’ve just got to finish my blog off. It’s like, ‘Clue in a bit here!’”

“And as a society I think we’re glued to the phone a bit much. I was walking into London today across Vauxhall bridge; it was a beautiful day but everybody is head down looking at phones, it’s sad. And that’s what’s starting to happen on some of the big mountains. People aren’t socialising with the other groups as much they stay quite insular in their tents tapping on blogs and Facebook. I mean you can get Facebook at Base Camp now. Yes it’s great I’m on it myself but at the same time let it go…”

As for selfies, he says: “There’s no photograph of Hillary at the summit because Tenzing didn’t know how to operate a camera! I always wondered whether Hillary regretted not having a record. But of course he knew he was there… Why do we need a selfie? You take the moment away in your mind. It becomes part of you, precious and life-affirming.”

Has he ever wanted to ski down Everest?

“No I’m not good enough. I skied down Cho Oyu in 2006, the sixth highest mountain in the world and Manaslu, the eighth highest. They were logical ski peaks but personally I don’t think Everest is a logical ski peak.”

And is the top of Everest the most beautiful place on earth? “How do you quantify that!? Everest is amazing. The top of the world is unique but I’ve been to many beautiful places. The Cotswolds where I live is beautiful, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Bhutan, that’s amazing. I’m in love with the Khumbu Valley in Nepal but then the Indian Himalayas are beautiful too. So many places around the world… I was down in Uruguay before Christmas, there’s stark beauty down there. There are too many to mention, the world is a beautiful place, go out there and explore it more!”

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