Kenton Cool is one of Britain’s best-known high-altitude mountaineers, perhaps the best known of all. He has a record number of British ascents of Everest (12), he once guided the famously fingerless Sir Ranulph Fiennes up the North Face of the Eiger, and he has made a number of notable first ascents in the Himalayas and Alaska.
Yet for some reason I’m not quite able to put my finger on, he reminds me of Alan Partridge, the cringingly hapless TV-show host played by Steve Coogan. Perhaps it’s the facial expressions that are Coogan-like, or perhaps it’s the exaggerated way he injects humour into his talks, which don’t always work and some people might consider awkward. Or perhaps it’s his tendency to be forgetful, which occasionally results in gaffs.
For example, there were one or two historical inaccuracies in the lecture he gave earlier this month, and he occasionally forgot the names of people and places.
“Who first climbed the South Face of Annapurna?” he asked the audience. There was a pause, and I thought about shouting out Don Whillans and Dougal Haston, but I didn’t want to sound like a clever dick.
“Exactly – Bonington and Scott,” said Kenton.
Chris Bonington did lead the expedition that made the first ascent of the South Face of Annapurna, but it was Whillans and Haston who reached the summit. Doug Scott wasn’t there.
There happened to be a member of that particular expedition attending the lecture, and Kenton had met him beforehand.
“Kelvin, where are you?” he said. “Can you raise your hand?”
An arm went up near the front.
“Which year was it you climbed Annapurna, 1960?”
“Oh dear, I’m sorry. That was a bit rude of me!”
Perhaps it’s mannerisms like this that remind me of Alan Partridge, or perhaps it’s just his comedy name, which sounds like it should belong to a fictional P.G. Wodehouse character rather than a real person. Whatever it is, I should probably show a little more respect. Kenton is a talented climber who has led an interesting life, and is an entertaining speaker.
I returned to the UK on 8 June to vote in the general election (speaking of comedy), and when I heard he was doing a talk that evening at the Royal Geographical Society to raise money for the Himalayan Trust, I knew it would be a perfect way of avoiding politics for the evening.
I’ve seen Kenton speak a couple of times before, once about his ascent of the Eiger with Sir Ran, and another time about his expedition to take an Olympic gold medal to the summit of Everest. He has done so many talks on so many different subjects that he has an effortless ability to ad lib, and only loosely follows a script.
This particular talk was an account of his life, and was based on his autobiography One Man’s Everest. I know this because I have read his book, and although I enjoyed it, I couldn’t help noticing he’s a far more natural speaker than writer. Many of the jokes and anecdotes which light up his talks would have added colour to his book, but he left them out, for reasons that perhaps only his publisher can explain.
This was his most Partridge-like performance yet. This may have been made more obvious by the audience. Himalayan Trust lectures tend to attract an older, more-educated demographic, who have grown up watching Steve Coogan’s TV show Knowing Me, Knowing You … Aha! and are more likely to regard modern climbing fashion with bemusement.
An example of this was the promotional video Kenton used to begin his talk, which featured a hard rock soundtrack and growly Hollywood-style voiceover.
“Explorer … Adventurer … Pioneer … introducing Kenton Cool”.
As the narrator spoke these final words, a close-up of Kenton looked up against a dark background, sporting a goatee beard. Many people in the auditorium burst into spontaneous laughter, which I’m guessing wasn’t the reaction the director of the film had intended.
Kenton did the next part of the talk with a massive close-up of his face filling the screen behind him, a choice of photo that may have been a result of vanity or a sense of irony, or something in between. It turned out to be irony. After Kenton finished introducing himself, he turned around to face the screen.
“God, I’m handsome,” he said.
There were more elements of self-parody in his introduction. He has an accent that’s not quite posh enough to be considered posh – someone from a state school trying to be posh, perhaps. He revealed that he comes from Slough, a drab Berkshire town that was the setting for Ricky Gervais’s comedy The Office. He explained how he came by his name. His grandfather was German, and moved to Britain after the Second World War, so he had to anglicise his name. His parents were big fans of the radio show The Archers.
“Kenton Archer was a bounder and a cad,” said Kenton.
He discussed some of his early climbs in Scotland and the Alps and – I swear – described one of them as “spiffing”.
“I’ve just been reading the Famous Five [by Enid Blyton] to my daughter, and they use ‘spiffing’ quite a lot. What a marvellous word,” he said.
The talk picked up as he described his climbs in the Karakoram and Himalayas. He had a moving encounter with a shepherd boy in Pakistan (not what you think – the boy spontaneously offered them food and shelter). Then he embarked on his first expedition to Nepal with three friends, young, inexperienced, but determined. They completed a new route on the north face of Kusum Kanguru – no mean feat – but made some hapless mistakes. One of his friends broke his helmet, so he used a spare pair of socks to protect his skull. Then he lost his gloves, and had to use the socks to protect his hands from frostbite.
“And then we fell into the bergschrund on the way down,” said Kenton. “Anyway, it was a bloody good trip.”
He returned from Nepal full of hope, but came down to earth with a bang – quite literally. He fell off a route while climbing in Wales and broke both his feet. This section of Kenton’s talk featured a couple of clownish stories, one about hobbling down an escalator to get on a train, and another about crawling along a trail in Scotland to get to the foot of a climb. He got a few laughs from the audience, but the stories took a while to describe, and he ended up running out of time later in the talk.
It takes a special type of person to have the guts and determination to come back from such injuries, and climb at the same or a higher level again. The crawling in Scotland incident brought one of his regular climbing partners, Ian Parnell, into the story. Parnell apparently thought that anyone with the determination to crawl to a climb when he could barely walk would make a good climbing partner. When Kenton had recovered they joined up to climb in the Alps and then Denali National Park in Alaska.
Kenton loved Denali because you could fly straight onto a glacier, and didn’t have to do any of the boring bits trekking into the mountains across moraine. But this part of his talk was a little more controversial. Modern Denali climbers are presented with a green bucket at the start of their expedition by the national park authorities. It’s known as a Clean Mountain Can (CMC), and you can probably guess its purpose – to keep the pristine mountain environment free of human waste. The authorities weigh the bucket at the end of the expedition, and if there’s not enough waste inside it then climbers face a fine.
I don’t know anyone who objects to this system, but Kenton climbed Denali in the early days of the green bucket, and he returned with an empty one. He grumbled about the fine.
“I believe there is too much regulation now,” he said. “I believe there should be no rules in mountaineering, and this is going to be a bit more contentious when I come to talk about Everest.”
We never got to hear this discussion though.
Kenton introduced a new character to the audience, the American climber John Varco.
“He’s such a redneck,” said Kenton. “He probably voted Trump.” (Note to my American readers: this is a popular stereotype in the UK.)
They climbed another new route in the Himalayas, on Annapurna III. There was another clownish story about Ian Parnell’s sliding gloves. They nicknamed the gloves the timebomb, because they kept sliding down the shafts of his ice axes as he led up an ice chimney. Kenton embellished the story with dramatic gestures, miming the strike of an axe into ice above his head and hauling himself up.
These stories were entertaining, but we had so many of them that we ran out of time. Kenton had to whiz through the Everest stories, probably the part of his talk that most people wanted to hear.
We watched dramatic footage of climbers passing through the Khumbu Icefall on ladders. He confirmed that the Hillary Step is “significantly altered”, and he had a heart-warming anecdote about phoning his mother from the summit during the first of his twelve ascents.
“Mum, I’m on the summit of Everest!”
“Oh, that’s nice, dear. Your dad’s just popped out. Can you phone back in fifteen minutes?”
There was just time to rush through his ascent of the North Face of the Eiger with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. We watched more dramatic aerial footage of Kenton, Fiennes and Ian Parnell traversing along the Eiger’s summit ridge, which ended with a photo of the three of them beside Sir Ran’s giant banner for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
“Ah, perhaps I shouldn’t be showing that one at a fundraising event for the Himalayan Trust!” said Kenton.
The talk ended to rapturous applause. Rebecca Stephens came on the stage, the first British woman to climb Everest and one of the Himalayan Trust UK’s principal trustees.
“Thank you, Kenton, for finishing so promptly. For a minute I was worried we might be late for our restaurant reservation.”
It was all very English.
But I should end by saying that, much as he may remind me of Alan Partridge, I have great respect for Kenton Cool. He is frequently criticised in the climbing community as someone who had the ability and adventurous spirit to be a true alpinist, pioneering new routes on unclimbed peaks, but who chose to “sell out”, by guiding clients up the standard route on Everest instead. He has a gift for marketing and putting himself in the public eye, which probably doesn’t help in this respect.
Kenton has never been embarrassed about this, and in some ways this makes me respect him more. I believe that mountaineering comes in many shades and styles. It’s not about who you impress, but how much enjoyment you get out of it. Kenton lives an interesting life, which happens to involve climbing Everest again and again. There’s nothing wrong with this. He has made a success of it, and the mountaineering world needs climbers like him, who do it unashamedly, and inspire people of all levels.
He may not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that he’s good at what he does. Personally, I always find his lectures entertaining, and I’m sure I will go to more.