Ascent Into Hell by Fergus White: An authentic account of climbing Everest

Way back when I published my journal The Chomolungma Diaries in 2012, there were very few books (if any) about climbing Everest that had been written from the perspective of a commercial client.

Yes, there was Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, about the disastrous Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness expeditions of 1996, probably the best-selling mountaineering book ever written. But those weren’t really the words of a commercial client. Krakauer was a commercial client in the literal sense, but chiefly he was a journalist who had been sent to write an exposé about commercial Everest expeditions for Outside magazine. He didn’t have much empathy with his teammates, and made little attempt to talk to them about their motivations.

In 2012, the voice of the commercial Everest client was almost invisible. Guided climbers were derided in the media but never asked for opinion, except to provide soundbites for stories that had already been written. This was one of the reasons I started my blog in 2010; the commercial client’s perspective has been an enduring theme of my blog throughout its existence.

Everest (left), Lhotse and the Khumbu Icefall
Everest (left), Lhotse and the Khumbu Icefall

Fast forward to 2020 and things have improved somewhat. Commercial Everest expeditions remain controversial, but the media has gradually learned about their values and virtues. In the old days, alpinists and professional climbers were the only people asked for an opinion; their opinions were invariably negative because commercially guided expeditions are contrary to the spirit of alpinism.

IMHO, the 2014 Everest avalanche and subsequent Sherpa strike marked a turning point. Journalists weren’t equipped to analyse the nuances of such a complex tide of events, and the tried and tested technique of simply trashing commercial expeditions was exposed for what it was: poor-quality tabloid journalism.

After 2014, journalists realised they could learn a lot more about Everest from guides and expedition operators. Some even worked hard to provide the Sherpa perspective too. Commercial clients were still the last to be asked; even now, they are often quoted to criticise other commercial clients rather than provide an alternative perspective (you can see a recent example in this article by the otherwise excellent Amelia Gentleman, the journalist who exposed the UK’s Windrush scandal).

If you want to get the commercial client’s perspective in bite-sized format, you’re still better off reading blogs such as mine than traditional media.

Books are another matter. Since I published The Chomolungma Diaries in 2012 and Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest in 2015, there have been many accounts published in book format of climbing Everest from the commercial client’s perspective.

One book that has been a runaway success since it was published in 2017 is Ascent Into Hell by Fergus White. It’s a book I’ve been intending to read for a while now, and I finally got round to it while in Scotland last month.

Ascent Into Hell by Fergus White, also available on Kindle
Ascent Into Hell by Fergus White, also available on Kindle

The book has much in common with The Chomolungma Diaries. It’s also written in diary format, and its use of the first person present tense, gives the writing an immediacy, as though you are Fergus’s travelling companion. It concerns a commercial Everest expedition, in this case the 2010 Peak Freaks expedition, led by Tim Rippel. And it’s a no-bullshit portrayal by someone fully aware of his own inadequacies.

But there are contrasts too. Fergus’s book is a little more serious than mine, though there are moments of humour too. This fact is evident from the blurb, which is written in a style that appeals to a different audience. My blurb is semi-frivolous, underlining that this is also a humorous book; Fergus’s blurb is written more in the manner of a ripping yarn (in fact, our accounts have more in common than the blurb might lead you to expect).

Fergus describes a south-side expedition, while I climbed Everest from the north. I knew quite a few of my teammates from previous expeditions, but most of Fergus’s team are strangers. The organisation appears to be a little more chaotic; they had a few more hiccups than I had to contend with (of which, more later).

One of the more immediate contrasts (to me, at least) is our relative experience and motivations for climbing Everest. I gradually worked my way up to Everest over a 10-year period, from shorter treks and climbs, to trekking peaks, then several 8,000m peak expeditions.

From a simple reading of this book, Fergus’s only mountaineering experience prior to attempting Everest was an aborted attempt on 7,161m Pumori the previous year. If this is true then it’s extraordinary. For one thing, Pumori is a poor choice of warm-up peak for Everest. Its steep terrain means that it’s more technically challenging – potential Everest climbers are better off focusing on hard physical challenges at high altitude than technical difficulty. It’s also known to be loaded with avalanche risk, which means there’s unlikely to be much opportunity to climb high.

More importantly, without the necessary practice, Fergus would be likely to have all sorts of difficulties climbing steep terrain using crampons and coping with nights at high altitude. It’s possible that he’s being diffident, and has more experience on snow and ice than he’s telling us about. But if it’s true then I take my hat off to him for what follows; he’s obviously a quick learner.

Fergus’s motivations are also a little different to mine. For me, Everest was the end of a long, 10-year journey. Had I not succeeded, I would have been disappointed, but I would also have had the consolation of appreciating all that happened along the way.

Fergus makes it clear from the start that climbing Everest is the be-all-and-end-all:

Ambition drives us forward, takes us to unexpected places, faraway lands. The acceptance of trying and failing defines those who follow a dream. But trying and quitting, I’ve never been good at that.

This attitude turned me off to begin with. The first few pages had me feeling that there’s no joy in the exercise. But as I read further, I became carried along by the ups and downs, and found myself warming to him. He is honest – he doesn’t try to hide his inadequacies or lack of experience. On the contrary, he describes them in all their detail. As he gradually works his way up the mountain, there is no attempt to exaggerate or ‘big up’ his achievements.

The writing made me feel nostalgic for my 8,000m peak expeditions (I did 5 in 6 years between 2009 and 2014). I could relate to the small successes and minor hardships that might seem trivial but are a big deal at high altitude: establishing a high-camp routine, boiling water and forcing down a meal; climbing out of your sleeping bag to go to the toilet or fill a bag of snow for drinking water; the joy at reaching the high point of an acclimatisation rotation without any altitude symptoms.

I could also feel every ounce of pain when things weren’t going well: the days when climbing a steeper section has you gasping with exhaustion, when you slow to a crawl; when reaching Camps 1 and 2 seems a Herculean struggle; when the cold has your fingers wracked with agony and you have to stop for 15 minutes to warm them up; when you’re so dehydrated that all you can think of is water.

Fergus describes all these little things in graphic detail. Far from being bored by them, I found it fascinating. It brought me into the story. This was somewhat reassuring, because I go into the same level of detail in my own diaries. As the story progressed and he comes of age as a climber, I found myself rooting for him.

There were also places where his story crossed my own. One of the subplots of Ascent Into Hell is Fergus’s teammate Carina Räihä’s race with Anne-Mari Hyryläinen to become the first Finnish woman to climb Everest. It was a race that created a fractious rivalry between Peak Freaks and Anne Mari’s team Altitude Junkies. I climbed Manaslu with Anne-Mari and Altitude Junkies the following year (2011). This rivalry was a frequent topic of conversation in the dining tent, and it was interesting to hear the other side of the story (which was surprisingly consistent).

While this is a true story, not all characters in the book are given their real names. Carina Räihä is ‘Charlene’, a popular name among Finland’s Australian community (I’m guessing). Interestingly, Tim Rippel is referred to throughout as ‘Ted’. I had already worked out that this was Peak Freaks and that Ted must be Tim. The use of a pseudonym led me to conjecture that not all is going to go well.

In Jules Mountain’s book Aftershock, about a 2015 Everest expedition, Russell Brice, the owner of Himex, is referred to throughout as ‘the expedition leader’. Jules later falls out with Russell big time over whether their expedition should be cancelled when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rips across Nepal, killing 19 people at base camp and rocking the Khumbu Icefall with frequent aftershocks (hint: it should).

Fergus’s relationship with Tim isn’t quite so prickly, but it’s not exactly rosy either. The chaotic nature of their expedition blesses the book with a great storyline with many twists and turns. Tim stays at base camp during the summit pushes, and the success of the expedition falls on the shoulders of his two lead guides Hugo Searle and Angel Armesto. Eventually Angel bears the responsibility alone while Tim gives instructions from base camp that not all team members on the mountain agree with.

Fergus ends up having an eventful summit push. Hypoxia means that his account of events above the South Col is slightly surreal and vague. I don’t want to spoil things by telling you what happens, but this part of the book is a real page turner. I had a late night, sitting up to find out what happened next.

There are also twists in the denouement which Fergus handles with honesty and sensitivity. I wish all accounts of climbing Everest could be this authentic.

The Chomolungma Diaries: Climbing Mount Everest with a commercial expeditionAll in all, I highly recommend this 5-star read. If you’re looking for an authentic Everest double header then you could also download The Chomolungma Diaries (which is currently available FREE as an e-book) and read them one after the other.

WARNING: Some of the comments below this post contain plot spoilers.

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7 thoughts on “Ascent Into Hell by Fergus White: An authentic account of climbing Everest

  • October 14, 2020 at 7:04 pm
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    I went to buy this and found I already had it! Maybe I should actually read it. I really enjoyed your diaries, after all.

  • October 15, 2020 at 4:08 am
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    I’ve only been as high as the summit of Island Peak but would have had aspirations to go higher had I not already been well into my sixties. I’ve read many books about high mountain adventures but this one is the most detailed and the most honest about struggles and inadequacies that I’ve ever read. I was captivated from the start despite being put off a bit by the title. After reading it, I find the title to be perfect.

  • October 15, 2020 at 7:31 am
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    Hi Mark, I clicked on the link to find my free e book of The Chomolungma Diaries, but all the options appear to require payment. Have I missed something?

  • October 15, 2020 at 7:58 am
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    Which one are you clicking on? I’ve had a quick look and all the ebook options still look free to me, although Amazon does have a habit of changing prices without telling the author.

  • October 23, 2020 at 5:29 pm
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    Fergus feels he has to climb Everest after he had reached 6,300 m altitude the year before. He has money to burn. The book is rich in dialogue/exchanges which get tiresome after a while.

    What is striking is that he spent almost 2 months in and around and above BC and does not know the name of his Sherpa who has been assigned to him. It gets so funny, or should I say embarrassing, that on summit day he comes into contact with some unkown person on South Col of darker skin complexion who turns out to be his personal guide for this very special day. He did not know him until this moment.

    It gets even better. Fergus can not unclip and clip his carabiner to the ropes. His Sherpa has to do it!!! The good news seems to be, Fergus manages to climb Everest. Perhaps I had the wrong edition but my book does not show a single summit photo.

    The beauty and ridiculousness of commercial expeditions.

  • October 24, 2020 at 7:12 pm
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    It’s true that Fergus’s attitude to his summit-day Sherpa seems a little offhand, given the help that he receives. In his defence, there does some to be tension between the guides and Sherpas, and one the guides created a sense of mistrust in the clients (I re-read the passage in question, and Fergus makes no mention of the Sherpa’s skin complexion – that appears to be your own embellishment).

    More generally, it’s not always easy for clients to form a relationship with their Sherpas, especially in larger teams such as this one. This is because they dine, sleep and climb separately. This is more the fault of the operator than the clients. In fact, several of the climbers on Fergus’s expedition hired personal Sherpas to climb with them throughout. Fergus did form a relationship with these Sherpas and mentions them often by name.

    Having said that, some operators are better than others at forging stronger client-Sherpa bonds. I was lucky that the company I used for most of my 8000m peak expeditions was one of the better ones in this respect. I knew must of our Sherpas well across many expeditions, often dining, climbing and sleeping with them (though not in the Biblical sense 😉 )

    There are many reasons climbers struggle with equipment on their Everest summit day: cold (frostbite and frozen metal), hypoxia, darkness, wrestling with big mitts that allow no manual dexterity, or stagefright with a queue of climbers waiting behind you. In Fergus’s case it appears to be a combination of a least three of these. Nothing is easy above 8000m; the simplest of tasks at sea level can take on a whole different compexion when your brain is fuddled by extreme altitude.

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