Last month I broke the habit of a lifetime and gave an interview to the mainstream media about Everest. Now I can’t claim to be fighting off interviews with a sawn-off oxygen cylinder, but I do get a handful every year. I always say no. It’s a habit that started after the 2014 season, when journalists were competing to write the most insulting pieces they could about Everest climbers. The nadir was this shocker by Tanya Gold, which was so radioactive that they will be rebuilding hospitals in Chernobyl before her old office at the Guardian is declared safe.
A couple of friends were interviewed back in Kathmandu in 2014, only to find their names quoted in articles like that one. I didn’t want to be a soundbite floating around in somebody else’s septic tank, so I just got into the habit of ignoring the questions. If I had something to say then I could write it myself.
Times have moved on. We’ve had yet another controversial Everest season, but these days journalists take a more nuanced approach. Outside Magazine doesn’t have an editorial line like they used to any more. Like them, most journalists make more of an effort to understand the situation from all sides before filing their copy. Some of them even try to find out a little about you before asking for a quote.
Back in those days journalists would listen to operators, but commercial clients weren’t looked upon as human. That’s changed now. Of course we’re human, and we have brains and feelings too. Last month I was surprised to receive a list if questions that mentioned my book and even hinted that they had read my blog.
I broke my habit and spent an evening writing out some answers for them. The result was this article by Business Insider. If you take a magnifying glass to the piece, you might find my name mentioned somewhere in the avalanche of copy advertising Adrian Ballinger and Lukas Furtenbach’s trips (again!) But they did link to my book, so I am grateful of course, even if it doesn’t sound like it to you.
Anyway, what about that wasted evening I spent answering their questions when I could have been working on my own writing?
Of course, those answers I gave them didn’t have to be wasted. Business Insider’s readers might not give a toss about Mark Horrell’s opinion, but readers of the Footsteps on the Mountain blog surely would, wouldn’t they?
So here, without further ado, is the first ever interview with Mark Horrell (apart from this one on Mount Everest the British Story – thank you, Colin – sadly now only available on the Internet Archive).
BI: Your book, Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, details your ten year journey to climbing Mount Everest. In what ways did you prepare for the climb?
MH: Thanks for asking. I started out as a hiker rather than a climber and I worked my way up gradually by hill walking, high-altitude trekking, climbing Kilimanjaro, learning the basic climbing skills, then gravitating to big, multi-day expeditions where I had to carry my own equipment. I also had several attempts to climb other 8,000m peaks before I attempted Everest.
As you mention, the whole process took ten years and I was already some way along it before I realised climbing Everest was achievable. You talk about preparing, but as anyone with unusual hobbies will tell you, it’s as much about leading an active lifestyle as consciously preparing. I was actually injured for several months before my Everest expedition and found myself unable to train, but I was mountain fit from other expeditions that year, and it was much more important what I did in the three years leading up to Everest as what I did in those last three months.
BI: What motivated you to climb the mountain?
MH: It was motivated by my love of mountains and a wish to challenge myself a little bit more each time. I’m not a serious technical climber, so difficult walls like El Capitan aren’t on my radar. But Everest is more about physical fitness, determination and an ability to endure hardship. I gradually got better at those things over time until I realised Everest was a realistic goal.
BI: Which commercial expedition did you use to climb Everest? How did you discover it?
MH: I used a company called Altitude Junkies, run by a British guy called Phil Crampton who has lived most of his life in New York. When you do enough commercial expeditions, you get to know about the best companies by talking to fellow climbers. I have used many different operators over the years. Altitude Junkies was recommended to me by my friend Mark who climbed Gasherbrum in Pakistan with Phil. I ended up doing several expeditions with them and got to know their Sherpas well, so in the end they were an easy choice for Everest.
BI: What are the benefits and drawbacks of using commercial expeditions to scale Everest?
MH: For Everest it’s really only benefits and no drawbacks. Unless you’re Reinhold Messner or one of a handful of elite climbers who are capable of climbing Everest in alpine style, the mountain is so big that everyone needs some form of support.
The benefits are too numerous to list but they include help with logistics and government paperwork (which is substantial), base camp support (food and comfort), physical support from climbing Sherpas (who load carry tents, oxygen and supplies and set up camp), climbing support such as helping with rope-fixing where necessary, access to dedicated weather forecasts, and the expert decision-making of guides who have many years of experience climbing 8,000m peaks.
Most important of all is safety. The most important thing isn’t reaching the summit, but getting home in one piece. We often hear about fatalities on Everest, but rarely do we hear about the many successful rescues each year of climbers in difficulty. The best guides are experts in recognising altitude symptoms and recommending preventions and cures. And the best Sherpas are experts at helping exhausted climbers down safely; they have not only helped many people to achieve a dream, but saved many lives.
BI: You have written posts that have a more negative reception to Into Thin Air and ways disaster porn can misinform readers on Everest climbing. Would you say the criticism of companies that sign up climbers is overstated? Why or why not? (Editor’s note: they are talking about this post here.)
MH: I re-read Into Thin Air a few years ago and I think it’s a really great book. We can argue at length about whether Jon Krakauer drew the right conclusions about who was to blame – and many people have – but at the end of the day I don’t think this is helpful. Although the risks remain the same, every death is due to a different set of circumstances.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that books like Into Thin Air – about mountaineering disasters – misinform readers, but they only paint one small part of the picture. Books and articles about death sell, but climbing accidents are rare and climbing a big mountain is also an enriching, life-affirming experience. I sometimes wish people would pay more attention to the positive aspects.
I don’t think criticism of companies who sign up inexperienced climbers is overstated. I don’t think there’s a single company who isn’t guilty of signing up someone without enough experience, but the best operators will vet their clients and some are better than others at this. When I climbed Lhotse with Altitude Junkies in 2014, all five clients had climbed Everest, but at the other extreme I believe there are some companies now that are signing up clients without any vetting at all. It’s become a free for all. I see the experienced western operators gradually becoming fed up with the situation and withdrawing from the south side of Everest. This is leaving the way open for cheap Nepali operators with a different set of ethics.
But it’s not just operators who are to blame. There is not enough respect for Everest any more. There are clients who haven’t bothered to serve their time or do their research about what climbing Everest involves. The media are too ready to say that it’s become too easy to climb Everest when it hasn’t, and this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of inexperienced climbers trying when they’re not ready.
I believe the biggest problem is the Nepalese government, who have failed to address the problems and introduce any form of regulation. There is too much corruption and incompetence at the heart of government. Sadly, I’ve been following it for many years now, and although the problems and solutions aren’t hard to identify, nothing ever happens and I don’t see it changing soon. On the contrary, it seems to be getting worse.
BI: How implicit are commercial expedition companies in the recent deaths on Everest? What other parties should be blamed for the recent deaths, or should we not put blame on anyone altogether?
MH: Climbing Everest is a risky activity but most risks are manageable. Every commercial expedition company has a responsibility to manage the risks and ensure a duty of care to their clients. Most deaths are preventable. Every commercial expedition company who loses a client has a duty to examine the reasons and see if there is anything they could have done to help prevent it.
But at the end of the day, every climber is responsible for their own safety. Experienced climbers know when it’s safe to push on and when it’s time to turn around. Far too many deaths occur on Everest because climbers are not wise enough to turn back and end up paying the ultimate price.
BI: How much was the bottleneck to blame for this year’s number of deaths? What else could have caused the deaths? Were there any natural elements that could have played a part?
It’s difficult for me to say without examining each death and seeing to what extent the victim was trapped in a bottleneck. But bottlenecks are just one of the hazards, and arguably they are among the least frequent and most manageable.
Other hazards include giant crevasses, towers of ice toppling in the Khumbu Icefall, avalanches, rockfall, falling through a cornice (snow overhang) on the Southeast Ridge, falling off a cliff, oxygen deprivation, exhaustion, altitude sickness, frostbite, high winds and losing your way in a blizzard.
Prior to summiting with 234 other people on 19 May 2012, my own team of experienced climbers had a meeting at base camp to discuss our summit day. We all agreed that the bottlenecks predicted on 19th posed less of a danger than the winds predicted on 20th. The bottlenecks this year on the 22nd were predictable. The good operators managed this hazard by ensuring they carried enough oxygen to cope with queueing for several hours.