Nine Lives by Robert Anderson: Everest from all angles

I don’t often accept books for review – not because I’m not interested, but because life is short and there are too many books I want to read.

Sometimes, however, I make an exception, like when Robert Anderson offered me a copy of his latest book Nine Lives, released last year by Vertebrate Publishing.

Robert is something of a rarity in mountaineering circles: a hardcore alpinist turned commercial expedition leader. This makes him uniquely qualified to see Everest from all angles – as, indeed, he pretty much has. While there are other expedition leaders and Sherpas who have climbed Everest more times than he has, there are few (if any) people who have attempted the mountain by so many different routes and climbing styles.

Nine Lives by Robert Mads Anderson
Nine Lives by Robert Mads Anderson

He also writes a regular blog about climbing the Seven Summits (called, appropriately, Explore 7 Summits), which is sure to be of interest to a few readers of this one. While I write from the commercial client’s perspective, he provides the expedition leader’s. He’s also able to name drop in a way that I can only dream of (for example, his post about his top 5 Everest books describes his meetings with all of them, some of whom are close friends).

Robert is probably best known for leading an expedition to climb Everest by its East or Kangshung Face in 1988 with a mixed team of two Americans (including Robert), a Canadian and a Briton. It’s an expedition I’ve written about in a previous post. It was only the second ascent of this face, and by a new route directly to the South Col then up the Southeast Ridge. Although Robert didn’t make it to the summit on that occasion, the expedition was successful, and Stephen Venables became the first Briton to climb Everest without oxygen.

Not making it to the summit and going back to try again is a major theme of the book. Legendary Himalayan chronicler Elizabeth Hawley once told him that he probably had the record for the most times on Everest without reaching the top.

The Nine Lives of the title represent his first nine expeditions to Everest. He introduces the book by saying one of the most frequent questions he gets asked after telling someone he’s climbed Everest (apart from ‘what was it like?’) is ‘have you ever almost died?’ I must confess, it’s not something I’m often asked myself, but there’s a reason why Robert is. His first eight expeditions were sufficiently dangerous for him to consider that he used up one of his allotted lives on each.

Each expedition was unique in its own way. He started off with a team of like-minded alpinists on the West Ridge Direct in 1985. After his finest hour on the Kangshung Face in 1988, he found himself on the North Face or North Ridge six times between 1990 and 1999. Each of these expeditions had its own twist. Sometimes he climbed solo, once in winter, and each time on a slightly different route. He even spent one expedition in his own special gully which he named the Anderson Couloir.

Then, by chance, he was drawn into high-altitude guiding, something that was anathema to his earlier self. His previous experience raising sponsorship, then organising the logistics, and then climbing during his own expeditions meant that he had the ideal skill set. He was also good with people. He discovered that he enjoyed being an expedition leader, and finally got to climb Everest at the ninth attempt, guiding clients, including Sibusiso Vilane, the first black African to climb Everest, up the Southeast Ridge in 2003.

As well as focusing on a particular expedition, each chapter of Nine Lives explores a sub-theme connected with the circumstances of the expedition, such as intuition, partnership, perseverance, friendship and loneliness.

Nine Lives is Robert’s fourth book. I read one of his earlier books To Everest Via Antarctica, which he wrote in 1995, a few years ago. As you might expect, given they were written a quarter of a century apart, they are very different in both style and quality.

The North Face of Everest, the focus for several of Robert's expeditions, with the Great Couloir (or Norton Couloir) left of centre and the Hornbein Couloir extending into the Super Couloir right of centre.
The North Face of Everest, the focus for several of Robert’s expeditions, with the Great Couloir (or Norton Couloir) left of centre and the Hornbein Couloir extending into the Super Couloir right of centre.

I have to say that Nine Lives is a much better book. His earlier writing style could be described as more lyrical, reflecting a fondness for poetic language that is fashionable in more recent mountaineering and nature writing. We are all different and I know some people prefer this style, but to my ear it can feel a little forced.

By contrast, Nine Lives is a more readable book than his earlier work. It is written with a simplicity of style that is no less profound, but it enables you to immediately picture a scene without having to concentrate too hard.

For example, here is Robert describing the extreme cold of Everest in winter, when he invited a Tibetan dog into his tent to help keep him warm. There is no poetic language or flowery metaphors; just a piling up of statements, one on another, until you feel that cold like you are there with him:

‘The dog woke me up. Nose in my ear. Trying to warm up. Understandable, as even inside the tent it was horrifically cold. Being in a sleeping bag that rose nearly to the tent ceiling was definitely preferable to being a thin Tibetan dog. I put on my down suit and wore it to breakfast. We huddled around the stove burner as wind flapped the cook tent. There wasn’t much talking; morning coffee and then a welcome round of pancakes ensued. It was too cold to hang out, there was no such thing as a rest day. The altitude meant we were above anything that could be considered a resting place.’

Nine Lives also has a more coherent overall theme. While To Everest Via Antarctica is based loosely around climbing the Seven Summits, it has a tendency to go off on tangents, such as when he describes a holiday in Crimea after climbing Elbrus.

Nine Lives has a strong theme about survival while climbing Everest in the most extreme, self-sufficient and challenging manner. But it also describes Robert’s transition as a climber through a change in outlook, from someone upholding the most rigid principles of alpinism – who believes that using oxygen is cheating and only a new route will do – to someone who discovers his true vocation as a high-altitude guide leading others up the easy routes.

It’s refreshing to read a book about Everest that affords the same dignity to a commercial ascent up the Southeast Ridge with ordinary folk such as my dear old friend Bunter, who reached The Balcony with Robert in 2010, as it does to a death-defying dash up the Kangshung Face with the great Stephen Venables.

I had a particular interest in reading about Robert’s transition to commercial guide, because I’m lucky to have been led by him on two expeditions with the UK mountaineering operator Jagged Globe. It was interesting to reflect on how the experiences he described in the book have influenced his guiding style.

I’ve noticed over the course of many expeditions with different leaders and different operators how some guides err on the side of caution, while others are more determined to put their clients on the summit when conditions aren’t perfect. While I’ve never climbed with any guide who I would consider unsafe, I’ve certainly climbed with some who are more willing to take risks.

Robert Anderson (right) with our Russian guide Andrei during an acclimatisation hike on Peak Lenin
Robert Anderson (right) with our Russian guide Andrei during an acclimatisation hike on Peak Lenin

My first expedition with Robert was to 8,201m Cho Oyu in 2010. It was a big group of 15 clients with widely different levels of experience. Snow conditions were difficult that year, and the constant avalanche risk effectively closed the mountain before we had a chance to sample Robert’s guiding style.

Peak Lenin in 2015, however, was a different story. Once again we had a large group of 12 clients of differing abilities, but we did get a chance to make a summit attempt.

7,134m Peak Lenin in Kyrgyzstan is considered one of the technically easier 7,000m peaks, but it features a very long summit day – 1,200m vertically and 5km horizontally, nearly all above 6,000m. Our own summit day had the added disadvantages of taking place in a whiteout on a cold and windy night after fresh snow.

I was running on empty for most of the climb, acutely aware that at some point I might need to turn back before it was too late. Often on these marginal summit days, it’s the guide who makes this decision for you, but not this time.

Somehow I battled on. At 12.30, after 8 hours of climbing, I found myself on a snow plateau at 6,900m in the lead group with our Russian guide Andrei and four other clients. A short distance behind us, Robert was forging onwards with a group of three slower clients. Most of the team were beyond exhausted, and we still had to reverse that 8-hour climb to get back to camp.

Faced with such a large group of tiring clients, many guides would have wavered, but Robert and Andrei were more confident and determined. As long as we were prepared to continue, so were they.

We descended as a group when another client and I decided that 6,900m was enough. It was a long retreat. Two members needed to be short-roped. One fell on an exposed section called The Knife and was held by Andrei above him on the rope. I recovered on descent, and was able to linger at the back and help another member with his pack. Darkness fell, and we eventually arrived back in camp at 7.30pm, after 15 hours of climbing.

At 6,900m, things had felt marginal to me. But we had all returned safely, and Robert’s nine Everest expeditions had made him better than anyone at judging the risk. He knew there was still some fuel to spare. It’s likely that some of us could have reached the summit, but I wasn’t disappointed. It felt like the decision to descend had been ours.

Robert is certainly one of the more determined guides that I’ve climbed with, and after reading Nine Lives I now know why.

It’s unusual for Vertebrate, one of the world’s top publishers of mountaineering literature, to publish a book about Everest. Their recent climbing narratives have tended to be more esoteric. Perhaps Nine Lives marks a shift towards mountaineering books aimed at a broader audience.

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2 thoughts on “Nine Lives by Robert Anderson: Everest from all angles

  • July 29, 2021 at 8:20 am

    Had the pleasure of spending a day walk in the Peak District with Robert on a JG pre-trip get together. He was there as the Everest exped leader for the following spring and I was just prepping for Island Peak (which still hasn’t happened, damn you Covid!). A genuinely nice man, who was interested in listening to what you had to say and a few stories to tell himself. A Great day out.

  • October 30, 2021 at 7:05 pm

    Nice, I’ll have to check it out. I mostly familiar with his early attempts through the lectures and writing of his climbing partners.

    One comment on the overly lyrical style we see in much contemporary climbing literature, I have a similar annoyance to contemporary climbing video production -If they have a preference on a loud contemporary soundtrack during climbing scenes instead of the sounds of rock, ice and especially wind -I usually hit the eject button early. For filmmakers to abandon senses and experiences when climbing for the disruption of the modern world with sound is so strange to me. Being too lyrical and poetic (where they drift from how it relates to climbing) is essentially doing a similar diversion. I would prefer in each case to present the experience, and perhaps some context to their personal/internal condition and leave the conclusions and how to feel about what has been presented for the viewers and readers.

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