Cool Conversations: experience the mountains during lockdown by social distancing Kenton Cool-style

So far I’ve not been finding lockdown too bad. I don’t know whether this makes me unusual.

I know I’m lucky in many respects. We have a nice garden beside the river here in the Cotswolds and we’re able to go for a walk or a run from our door without meeting anyone. Although I’m currently between contracts, I have the kind of job that it’s easy for me to do from home using cloud services and videoconferencing apps. I’ve been doing a day or two a week from home for years, so adapting to five is no problem at all.

I’ve also got plenty of things to keep me busy on the writing front. I’ve just finished the revised digital version of The Baruntse Adventure and have started work on the paperback version. I’ve just finished auditioning for the audiobook version of Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest (which was great fun) and I’m starting to work with my narrator this week. I’m helping a fellow indie author by beta reading her novel.

I’ve also produced this amazing wood pile, so I’m certainly not bored or going stir crazy.

My amazing wood pile, lovingly handcut without a chainsaw in sight
My amazing wood pile, lovingly handcut without a chainsaw in sight

Of course, there are some things I used to do that I can’t. There are some lovely pubs around our area that are now all closed. I can’t head out into the mountains for some more strenuous hillwalking, and I certainly can’t jet off to the Himalayas for any amazing treks and climbs. I’ve had to abandon all those travel plans for the foreseeable future.

But strangely, I don’t find that I’m missing those things. I’m actually quite enjoying this surreal, easy-paced, more relaxed existence that has been forced upon us. I know that not everyone finds themselves in a situation where they can adapt so easily. For many people things are hard right now and there are many others who won’t live to see the end of it; I certainly haven’t forgotten those things and I take nothing for granted. But I do wonder if I’m just an outlier or whether this feeling of peaceful contentment is more common?

Another thing I’m not missing are the various mountaineering lectures that I frequently attended in London. Now, mountaineering lectures are something that can easily adapt to the strange new world of social distancing. You don’t need to get everybody together in a room. You can do it all online; there’s no issue with space, nobody has to go anywhere, and people can easily ask questions using the chat.

I’ve had so many things to keep me occupied in the last few weeks, that I haven’t gone looking for online mountaineering lectures, but I’d welcome any recommendations. In the meantime, in this week’s blog post I’m going to give you an example of my own. I happened to notice this one because it’s taking place locally to me, but it’s online, so all of you can join from wherever you are in the world.

One person who isn’t so happy about lockdown is 14-time Everest summiteer and mountain-guide-to-the-stars Kenton Cool. Kenton should be on Everest right now, making his 15th ascent. Mountain guiding and the travel industry have been hit hard by the lockdown. It’s an industry that simply cannot operate at the moment, and one that’s going to require much more significant change if (as seems likely) we emerge into a very different post-lockdown world.

Watch on YouTube

But Kenton is cheerful and adaptable, and for now he has been finding other ways of keeping himself occupied. Outside of guiding, he is a prolific public speaker, with a diverse range of shows and anecdotes he can dip in and out of. I remember first seeing him years ago, before this blog even existed, lecturing on his ascent of the north face of the Eiger with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. I’ve since written about a couple of his other shows, about the time he took an Olympic gold medal to the top of Everest, and when he gave the annual fundraising lecture (about his life story) in aid of Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust.

He’s a talkative, funny and engaging character, and he’s been taking advantage of these traits to turn himself into a bit more of a talkshow host, something we’ve discovered he would be able to do quite well.

Just down the road in the old Roman town of Cirencester, in the heart of the Cotswolds, is the Barn Theatre, a state-of-the-art community theatre and registered charity. In common with many entertainment venues across the country, it has had to cancel most of its shows and is relying on donations from loyal supporters to survive the lockdown.

Being new to the area, I’ve not been there myself, but I’ve parked my car in the car park across the road a few times. It’s a striking, modern building, and I certainly intend to go there when all this is over.

Kenton is obviously a fan. Now that he’s at a loose end and all his expensive high-altitude mountaineering equipment is sitting unused in his garage, he’s been popping down to the Barn Theatre every Thursday and doing his bit to support it.

Now, like most of you, I’ve been wrestling with the rules of social distancing and what is and isn’t permitted. What is considered an essential service and what has to shut down? I don’t know whether Gloucestershire Police consider it an illegal public gathering for two men to meet up once a week and sit 2m apart in an empty theatre while their conversation is beamed across the internet, but they seem to be interpreting the rules sensibly and allowing it to go ahead.

The Barn Theatre has been surviving with a series of online events since lockdown started, but Cool Conversations (6pm every Thursday, UK time, on their YouTube channel) is the one we’re interested in.

The format is straightforward. Kenton and the Barn Theatre’s artistic director Iwan Lewis sit on stage, separated by a tent and all Kenton’s unused mountaineering equipment, and chat for 45 minutes about Kenton’s expeditions. The tone is light-hearted and bantering, like two blokes down a pub. Both of them are comfortable and relaxed in front of camera, and chat easily as though no one is watching. In the first episode, the conversation covered such mundane outdoor topics as tin cups and how they burn your lips, grimacing your face into a suitable pose for a manly photo, and digging snow pits for Sir Ranulph Fiennes so that he doesn’t appear too tall (the third one probably isn’t so mundane).

Superstar mountaineer and artistic director Iwan Lewis sit 2m apart on stage, separated by a tent (Picture: Barn Theatre, Cirencester)
Superstar mountaineer and artistic director Iwan Lewis sit 2m apart on stage, separated by a tent (Picture: Barn Theatre, Cirencester)

There are obviously some other people involved in the production, who sit in a room somewhere, furiously surfing the internet as the conversation flits from topic to topic.

‘I think we’ve got a photo of that somewhere,’ Iwan says from time to time, and the screen is magically replaced by a photo of the topic in discussion (like a tiny polar explorer only coming up to Kenton’s shoulder because he’s standing in a pit).

The second episode continued in a similar vein. After a rather less pleasant opening involving toilet business on a portaledge, the banter resumed. At one point Kenton started hectoring Iwan about skiing holidays in Wales (in case you hadn’t guessed from his name, Iwan is Welsh).

‘Skiing in Wales – what, on slag heaps?’

‘I hit a fence and had a scar for the rest of my life,’ Iwan said, pointing to his chin.

‘That’s a poor quality scar,’ Kenton replied. ‘I can’t see it from here.’

As a master banterer myself, I quite enjoyed the tone of the discussion, and could quite happily watch every episode of Cool Conversations if it continued like this every week. It clearly wasn’t to everyone’s liking though, so for the third episode they decided to dial things up a notch by…

DUH, DUH, DUUUUURRRR!!!

Inviting superstar mountaineer Nirmal Purja (a.k.a. Nims Dai) onto the show, the former special forces Gurkha soldier who made history last year by climbing all fourteen 8,000m peaks in under seven months (something I also wrote about here).

Nims is Nepali. Nepal is also in lockdown, with no flights in or out of the country. I expected him to be calling in from an apartment in Kathmandu, but it turns out that he’s sitting on a comfy living room somewhere here in the UK. He has a big grin on his face and looks rather like Lewis Hamilton, unshaven with baseball cap and earbuds like earrings.

‘I’m interested in his name “Dai”,’ Iwan said. ‘Is he Welsh?’

‘He’s not Welsh. He’s as far from Welsh as you can get,’ Kenton replied.

‘As far as you can get – what’s that supposed to mean?’

Watch on YouTube

This time the format of the show changed significantly, and Kenton revealed yet another string to his bow. Instead of 45 minutes of Iwan interviewing Kenton, Kenton turned host and interviewed Nims. He’s a good interviewer. Although he was the one asking the questions, it was a conversation between friends.

I posted a question for Nims when they asked for them on the Barn Theatre’s Facebook page, but I’m kind of glad it wasn’t read out. Although it would have been an interesting question (what other great Sherpa mountaineer does he most admire and why?) I always find it dull when TV and radio hosts start reading out questions from viewers and listeners. Much better for the interviewer to keep the conversation flowing naturally.

Cool Conversations is free for anyone to watch, but at the end of each episode they ask for a donation to help the Barn Theatre survive the pandemic. At the end of the second episode, Kenton even offered up signed copies of his book for people to request over social media. Apparently, he has a stack of hardbacks at home. By selling these copies, all proceeds can go to support the theatre instead of Amazon.

And here’s a thing. It turns out that Kenton literally lives two fields away from our new home in the Cotswolds. So a few days later, two mountaineers with 15 Everest ascents between them, one of these from the north side of the mountain (that was my contribution!), crossed one field each to exchange contraband (it felt like that, anyway – I don’t know if meeting for book deliveries is considered an essential service).

‘Have you got a pen?’ Kenton said.

‘You mean you haven’t signed them?’ the other mountaineer replied.

‘I didn’t know what you wanted me to write inside…’

‘Just your name.’ And then ‘er… no, I’m not carrying a pen.’

So Kenton turned around and carried his books back across the field. Hopefully he hasn’t flogged them yet. I read his book a few years ago anyway and still have it on my Kindle. But I did make a donation to the Barn Theatre’s appeal – if nothing else, for the entertainment that is Cool Conversations, every Thursday on the Barn Theatre’s YouTube channel.

You can watch all previous episodes of Cool Conversations on this YouTube playlist here, although the interview with Nims didn’t seem to be working last time I looked; I don’t know if this is just a gremlin or the Barn Theatre couldn’t afford his fee.

Mountain guide to the stars, Everest superstar, prolific public speaker, and now talkshow host – I wonder if Kenton can sing and play the guitar too? Why not tune in to find out. We may not discover this on tomorrow’s show though, when it’s rumoured their guest will be TV hardnut Ant Middleton.

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