The two things I miss most since moving from London to the Cotswolds are live jazz and mountaineering lectures. Imagine my delight then, to learn that Kenton Cool would be giving a lecture about Everest a few fields away from where I live.
The venue in question was the Far Peak Climbing Centre in Northleach, a town best known as the setting for the hilarious BBC comedy series about life in the Cotswolds, This Country.
Northleach is a sleepy little market town with all the basic facilities such as shops, pubs, a post office and… a climbing wall. I knew about the climbing wall; I’ve not been tempted to use it as there are lots of nice horizontal footpaths around here. I didn’t know that the climbing centre also has a cafe/bar style venue that hosts live events. It’s a relaxing place. You can take your pint to your seat and enjoy the show. I will go there again.
The announcer introduced the show by explaining that they hadn’t provided a microphone tonight because they’d been told that Kenton doesn’t need one. He also said that Kenton would not be talking about himself. This proved to be largely true, although you can’t not talk about yourself in a lecture about Everest if you’re Kenton Cool.
For regular readers of this blog he needs no introduction. For those of you who stumbled here by chance after typing short history of Everest into Google, he is a British mountain guide who has reached the summit of Everest 16 times (or 17 times if you’re reading this next year).
He has been accused of being a one-trick pony where mountaineering is concerned (somewhat unfairly). But he’s no one-trick pony where public speaking is concerned. This was the fourth talk I’ve seen by him, and each one has been about a different subject (you can read reviews of two of them here and here).
As the title of this post suggests, this particular talk wasn’t about any of Kenton’s climbs. It was a history of Everest from the early days right up to the present.
You may be thinking, Kenton Cool isn’t one of the world’s leading Everest historians; he’s a mountain guide. This may be true, but he is a very entertaining speaker, and you could argue that there is no one in the world better qualified to present a history of Everest live on stage.
He proceeded to romp through the subject in hyperactive fashion, starting with the geology of how Everest and the Himalayas were formed. He moved on to the discovery and naming of Everest in the 19th century by the British Survey of India, before covering the pioneering expeditions to climb it in the 1920s and 30s.
There were times when he was forgetful. He could have done with a prompter and sometimes had to sift though the wad of notes that he clutched in his hand to check a name or a date. But I wasn’t fact checking. There were a few pauses while he tried to remember something; the odd mistake when he got it wrong. For example, he recommended that we read The Great Game by John Hopkinson (I’m pretty sure he meant by Peter Hopkirk, a great book). At one point he even briefly forgot the name Edmund Hillary, surprising for a man who has climbed the Hillary Step 16 times. But these minor slips weren’t really important. I can understand them anyway; I have mental blocks myself from time to time and I haven’t been to extreme altitude anything like as much as he has.
We came here for entertainment and to learn a little for good measure, not the other way round. And the story was in general historically accurate (with one notable exception). About 10 minutes in, Edita whisperered to me ‘he’s like a stand-up comedian’. I agree with this assessment. He is a jovial, enthusiastic character who cracks jokes, jumps around and waves his arms a lot. Occasionally his voice shot up an octave or two in the manner of Barry Gibb, like when he said George Mallory’s enormous ice axe looked more like a pole vault pole.
His subject matter was maybe a little dry for this sort of performance, but he made the most of it. His jokes were greeted with silence to begin with, though there was one notable audience reaction, a loud groan, when he made one about Andrew Waugh, the Surveyor General who first announced the height of Everest.
‘It was 29,002 feet,’ he said, ‘so you could say that Andrew Waugh was the first man to put two feet on the summit of Everest.’
There were more laughs in the second half after we’d warmed up a bit and had more beer. Kenton was by now hitting his stride. He took his shirt off for the second half (it’s OK, ladies, he had a tee-shirt underneath) and strode around the stage a bit more.
The talk was accompanied by many historic photos. He spoke about the 1953 expedition to a backdrop of an exhausted Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans at the South Col, the two climbers who paved the way for Hillary and Tenzing to make the first ascent two days later. Then he showed that photo of Tenzing holding his flags up on the summit.
‘Interestingly, there is no photo of Hillary on the summit.’
‘But only because Tenzing didn’t know how to use a camera, nothing sinister,’ Kenton continued.
By now a few of us were chuckling along with his comic timing. He moved on to the American expedition of 1963, when Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld made their great traverse of the West Ridge and South-East Ridge. He talked about the British expedition of 1975, when Doug Scott and Dougal Haston climbed the South-West Face and became the first British climbers to reach the summit. Here he paused to provide some background to the photos on the screen. He explained how the iconic image of Haston climbing a snowy Hillary Step is actually two photos stitched together. And he pointed out the tripod in Scott’s summit photo, left by a Chinese team earlier the same year, thus providing proof of claims that had been doubted.
He talked at length about Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, the men who finally proved that climbing Everest without supplementary oxygen was possible when they made their ascent by the South-East Ridge in 1978. He described their contrasting personalities, one an ambitious publicist, the other laidback and reclusive. He made plain his admiration for Messner’s solo ascent from Tibet in 1980, made during the monsoon season when Everest is usually abandoned.
‘There was no other person on the mountain. That was the ultimate Everest ascent: totally solo, by a new route, without oxygen. It has never been bettered; it’s likely it will never be bettered,’ he said.
These were Everest’s well-known stories, but Kenton also found time for a couple of the more eclectic expeditions that are not often talked about. These included that of Maurice Wilson, who flew a plane solo from Britain to India in 1934, hoping to crash land on the slopes of Everest and climb to the summit (he died). They also included Yuichiro Miura, who skied down Everest in 1970, made a film about it and won an Oscar (he survived and climbed Everest again in 2013 at the astonishing age of 80). Both of these expeditions provided Kenton with moments of comedy.
The only time Kenton’s enthusiasm wavered was towards the end of his talk when he came to the commercial era. This is a subject too complex to go into deeply here, but if you’re a regular reader of this blog then you will know that I’ve written about it hundreds of times over the years. It’s an era mired in controversy which only seems to deepen every year.
It’s possible to argue that the history of Everest ended some years ago. Nobody has climbed a historic new route on Everest for a long time, though one or two people try each year. Climbing Everest now belongs to people like you and me, with less (and in some cases very little) climbing experience, who pay commercial outfits and guides like Kenton to help them achieve the dream of a lifetime.
I can understand this view, but you can also look at it another way. The commercial era is an essential part of Everest history, one that is more about the innovations of commercial operators and the ascendancy of the Nepalis than the achievements of individual climbers. Some may find this less interesting than the early history, but there are still many uplifting human stories hidden within it (and as a commercial client who has written a book about climbing Everest, I would say that, wouldn’t I).
Kenton didn’t really go into these stories in much depth. It’s not that he doesn’t have them. He’s a mountain guide; not all of his ascents will have been straightforward and many of his clients will have needed to dig deep. He did show us a photo of Ben Fogle on the summit, a celebrity I know, but probably the nearest thing the celebrity world has to an ordinary guy who does extraordinary things. He also paid due tribute to Dorje Gyalgen Sherpa, with whom he climbed the Triple Crown of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse, and who reached the summit with him last year.
‘That’s me on the summit with Dorje,’ he said. ‘But my 16 summits aren’t such a big deal when you think that Dorje has now climbed Everest 20 times.’
When he talked about this era, I sensed that his enthusiasm for Everest is waning. He didn’t sound very happy about what the mountain has become. Every year it gets more crowded, and every year there is a greater number of inexperienced clients and operators. He had a sympathetic audience, but there will doubtless have been people sitting there thinking that as an Everest guide he is part of what Everest has become. My view, however, is that experienced guides like Kenton are not the problem. It is the inexperienced operators who are, and the government who take their permit fees and refuse to regulate to make things better. Everest needs more experienced guides like Kenton, not fewer. Unfortunately more and more of the experienced operators are pulling out. After 16 ascents, perhaps for Kenton this decision isn’t far away either.
I think it was right that he kept this section brief. It’s a subject that requires a lecture all of its own to do it justice. He did make one very important point. That all too many people are going to Everest these days with something to prove, chasing fame and fortune. He explained that climbing Everest should not be about bragging to your friends and followers, it’s all about embracing the experience, and being a part of an amazing place.
This is my own philosophy too, as many of you will know. It’s a few years since I was on the 8,000m peak circus myself, but back then I felt that the braggarts were just a small percentage getting a larger share of the attention. I would like to think there are still very many humble people on Everest embracing Kenton’s words.
It’s a pity that he chose to end his talk with a popular conspiracy theory about Sandy Irvine’s body that has been doing the rounds recently. Sandy Irvine was the climber who may or may not have reached the summit with George Mallory in 1924. His body has never been found, although there have been unconfirmed sightings, some of which are likely to be true. It’s possible that he was carrying a camera that could provide proof of their ascent.
There is a theory that was amplified in a book published last year (and which received some media attention) that Chinese climbers found Irvine’s body along with the camera many years ago. They removed it and destroyed the evidence. This may or may not be true. There is also a theory that COVID-19 was manufactured in a laboratory in Wuhan. At the moment both of these theories are unproven and there is not enough reliable evidence to accept them as fact. Until there is, the story about Irvine’s body doesn’t really belong in a lecture about Everest’s history. The rest of Kenton’s talk was excellent, well-balanced and accurate and it was a shame to mar it in this way.
My only other criticism is that the talk was a bit too long. With a half hour interval it ended up being 2½ hours. Luckily our seats were comfortable. I believe this may be the first time Kenton has given this particular talk and we were the guinea pigs (though I prefer the term trailblazers). He is intending to take the show on tour later this year. If he’s thinking of chopping it down a bit to make things shorter then the unproven conspiracy theory is a good place to start.
In any case, if you get a chance to see it (or any talk by Kenton) then I highly recommend it. Not many people can keep you entertained on stage for 2½ hours without singing a song. These type of events are few and far between in this sleepy part of the Cotswolds and we thoroughly enjoyed it.