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Ranulph Fiennes for Everest 2005 - interview with guide David Hamilton, final
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Sep 12, 2004 08: 13 EST

A cousin to actor Ralph Fiennes, Ranulph Fiennes has been dubbed "the world's greatest living explorer" by The Guinness Book of World Records and knighted by the Queen of England. The Brit is clearly a famous profile in the world of Adventure.

This coming spring, Ranulph is off to climb Everest with the Jagged Globe outfit. That's pretty cool, considering the man is 60 years old and suffered a heart attack last year.

Here's the final part of the first interview in the upcoming Fiennes Everest saga; Adventure travel writer Simon Harris-Ward interviewed mountain guide David Hamilton about life at 8,000m and his forthcoming Jagged Globe expedition to Everest with Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

Thereís a pecking order

Q. How might you spend your evenings when you are on an expedition?

A. The guides donít have a lot of free time. If in an evening you go around and have a ten minute chat with everyone in the party and thereís nine of them, whilst to them itís only ten minutes, to you itís an hour and a half. So there are always things to do.

And if Iím not checking with the clients, Iím building a strong rapport with the sherpas, making sure theyíre OK. Thereís a pecking order. The sirdar, the chief sherpa, will tell you ďEverythingís fine, go through meĒ, but sometimes you go behind his back and you talk to the sherpas. Are they OK?

Behind the scenes

Maybe one of them, his boots donít fit, but he says the sirdar doesnít like him so he wonít give him a new pair. You need a happy team. The guide who knows the names of all the sherpas, knows their villages and their family history, is going to be able to get these guys to work that much better.

So while the clients are listening to music and reading books, Iím usually running around behind the scenes, trying to check that all these little things are OK. Or if I donít think the cookís doing their best, Iím trying to teach him to prepare new things in the kitchen. Thatís something Iíve done before.

Youíve got to be able to prove that you can sleep comfortably

Q. How many separate camps do you tend to set up on the north side?

A. On the north side, everything happens from Advanced Base Camp, which lies along a long gentle glacier above Base Camp. From there, thereís the camp at the North Col at 7,000m, and we will use another three camps at 7,400m, 7,900m and 8,400m.

Over the whole course of the trip, on the south side youíll do maybe three or four return trips to Camp Two, two return trips to Camp Three and then one trip to the final camp, in preparation for the summit. And on these earlier ones youíre moving small amounts of personal equipment, while the sherpas move the bulk, and youíre getting used to being in that environment.

Youíve got to be able to prove that you can sleep comfortably at any given camp before you think about moving on to the next one. The routine would normally be that you go for a high camp for the first time, spend the night and then come back down to rest for a few days. You then go back to that same camp, sleep the night, go up to touch the next one, come down to sleep the night again and then next time you sleep one higher. So thatís how your 20 days of walking out of the 60-day trip will work.

Your first couple of trips will just be a night out of Base Camp, then itíll be two nights out, then three nights out, and once everybody has been to camp three and shown that they can move quickly enough and competently enough, youíll got for the summit push when the weather forecastís right.

25% summit

Q. Approximately how long does summit day tend to be?

A. On the south side youíre generally looking at about a 10pm start and summiting around 8 or 9am. So youíre looking at 10 or 11 hours on the way up and another 4 or 5 on the way down. On the north side, the camp you start from is higher, the groundís maybe a little more technical, but on the way down you tend to miss out that top camp and lose height more quickly.

Q. Fiennes has so many notable achievements under his belt, including the Guinness Book of Records accolade of being the worldís greatest living explorer. Itís very easy for the layman to automatically assume that heíll make the summit, when in reality we know that nothing is ever guaranteed. In your opinion, what are the three biggest challenges facing Fiennes, or indeed anybody who is about to climb Everest for the first time?

A. Thatís a difficult one, because it means if he does succeed, people wonít be interested, but if he fails that will be the big story, and I think youíve got to bring it down to the fact that, out of all the climbers that go to Everest each year, only about 25% make it to the summit. The better organised expeditions have a higher success rate, but overall, most people donít make it.

50% newbies

Itís normal on a trip like this that at least half the people have done a previous 8,000m mountain, which, although itís not essential, if someone comes, having summited or got close to the summit of another 8,000m mountain, it means theyíve learnt to deal with a lot of the basic issues: coping with the duration of the trip, keeping hydrated and well fed.

Iíve had clients fail on big mountains because theyíve simply not been able to eat or drink enough at Base Camp. It sounds unbelievably simple. Also, not being anxious if youíre hoping to go for the summit in the middle of May and the weatherís not right and it becomes a week or two later. Some people are able to be quite calm and wait for that and other people get more agitated. All things which I suppose seem quite obvious when youíve been there a lot before.

The clients on the whole think itís only a physical thing. Theyíve been running, swimming, cycling and they arrive on the start line believing theyíre strong enough to power their way up to the top of the mountain. And often what Iíve got to do is get them to sit down and refocus and actually learn to eat, learn to drink, and learn to rest. When it comes to it, theyíve obviously still got to have the strength, but you can dissipate a lot of your strength through nervous exertion at the wrong time.

Team ethos

Q. Ran Fiennes has spent a lot of time on solo expeditions. On Everest heíll clearly be working within a team environment. How important is the team ethos?

A. On something like a guided Everest trip, being able to work effectively as part of a team is very important. I hasten to add that Fiennes is a great listener and was very responsive to the Jagged Globe guides training him in the Alps recently, so he will score very highly on attitude.

Experienced explorers know that you will have days when youíre moving a lot better than the next guy and itís a good idea to stop and help him because you never know when youíll be the guy going slow who could do with a bit of help as well.

The importance of building the clients into a team varies by mountain ranges, maybe less so on some of the Nepalese ones because the sherpas come into the equation. You do get situations where somebodyís excessively strong-willed and does not want to cooperate with other people, but if you can pair them up with a competent sherpa, they may be able to go on and achieve.

The whole sociable thing

On some of the other trips Iíve done where there are not any sherpas, the team works as a team and if someone isnít felt by the others to be adequately pulling their weight, itíll make it difficult for them to get anywhere. Plus thereís the whole sociable thing. If youíre going to be eating in a mess tent for two months with a bunch of other people, you donít really want to be the one with the reputation for being difficult, because youíre not going to have as enjoyable a time as everyone else.

You get a group and I tell them theyíre not all going to get to the top, but I want them all to go home feeling theyíve had a worthwhile experience and enjoyed the atmosphere of being there. Feeling youíve been able to contribute to other peopleís successes can, for some people, be as much as theyíre going to get out of the trip.

If everybody comes and theyíre only going to be happy if they get to the top, then almost by definition, as more people donít get up than do get up, youíre going to be sending home a lot of unhappy people. So trying to help people get some satisfaction out of the experience, without necessarily being the one on top, is probably an important part of the job.

Everest vs. the Poles

Q. Fiennes has spent much of his life on expedition. That said, heís not your classic mountaineer. How do you think Everest will compare with his polar trips? After months of trekking across Antarctica, will Everest be a breeze by comparison?

A. Physically, yes. I think he might be surprised, certainly in the first half or two thirds of the expedition, how little physical activity there is compared to a polar trip. When it actually comes to those couple of days when you go to the top camp and the summit and back down, yes it is physically pretty tough, but thereís mental things as well. There are obviously psychological factors on the polar trips, but youíve only really got two options. One is to keep trekking and the other is to stop and pull the pin in your EPIRB and ask someone to come and get you. And those are your two choices.

Everest is a bit more subtle. There are issues like: some of the others in the team are going for the summit in two days; should I go in two days or am I not quite feeling up to it? Would I be better trying two days later? The advantage of waiting two days is that I might feel a bit stronger by then; the disadvantage is that the weather might not be right.

Now I am there to advise and guide people, but those personal decisions about when they go are things that have to be made individually, and in some ways are maybe a bit more complex than some of the polar decisions. Polar achievement usually happens through just sheer guts and determination. There are some very strong people whoíve failed to get up Everest and some reasonably weak ones whoíve managed, and thatís all to do with subtleties of judgment.

Everest vs. a heart attack

Q. Although itís not something I want to dwell on in any great detail, I must mention Fiennesí recent heart surgery. Is this something at the back of your mind, or is it not even an issue for you?

A. No, itís not as far as Iím concerned, because I am leading the people who turn up. The Jagged Globe doctor, David Hillebrandt, has looked at the Fiennes stuff and said, as far as heís concerned, Fiennes is capable of participating. Heís got more knowledge in that field than me. I will look at how the team walks from Day One and those who are going strong enough will have a chance to go higher. And those who appear to have a problem will receive assistance.

Obviously, reading through the doctorís notes that I have on all the clients, if I think I can see a reason why someoneís not moving well, then Iíll discuss that with them, but the medical history isnít weighing on my mind at this stage.

The Brits vs. the World

Q. Does Jagged Globe have any particular ethos or approach to mountaineering expeditions that sets them apart from other companies? Why work for them rather than for one of the large US companies that dominate the industry?

A. I think thereís quite a big cultural difference between what British clients and what American clients expect. Iíve worked with Americans, but Iím happier working for a British company with predominantly British clients, although we do get an international cross-section. I think Jagged Globe were among the first people, certainly in Britain, to attempt to bring some of the professionalism of the Alpine guiding scene to the greater ranges.

Obviously there are a lot of differences, but prior to them, the guided trips tended to be Alpine guides who were looking for a way of financing their own 8,000m climb, rather than guides who were prepared to go back to the same peaks again and again with clients, passing on their experience.

10 Grand vs. 50 Grand

Thereís quite a bit of divergence between the more professional trips, which are providing better and better facilities and services, medical facilities, oxygen, hyperbaric chambers, every client on the mountain having a radio, every client having a sherpa, sat phones, email at Base Camp and a high ratio of western guides. Those are the more expensive trips.

And at the other end of the market, people are just buying a permit and selling clients really quite cheap places on Everest. There will be people on Everest who are going for a couple of thousand dollars. The success rate of people in these groups is considerably lower and the accident rate seems to be a bit higher. However, those cheaper trips are still growing in number, because obviously there are more people with $10,000 than $50,000.

"The guide on the Himalayan trip is there for his brains"

Q. Have you any plans to ascend all 14 of the 8,000m peaks?

A. No, Iíve no ambition to do a mass amount of 8,000m peaks. Iíve had a great time climbing almost full-time for 18 years. Iíd like to be able to pass my experience on to other climbers in some context. Although the guide on the Himalayan trip is there for his brains as much as his leg power, thereís always a time when being able to pick up and carry someone whoís having a problem off the mountain helps, and itís easier for a 30 year old to do that than a 50 year old.

Iíve done an 8,000m expedition every year since 1997 and I might do one or two more, but I think I might be interested in moving into more of a training role, training up guides who are going to be doing these things.

Guiding "the world's greatest living explorer"

Q. Well, when it comes to guiding the worldís greatest living explorer up the worldís highest mountain, it certainly sounds like youíre the right man for the job.

A. My climbing CV, which is out in the climbing world, is just numbers, whereas for the population, whether youíve climbed x peaks of y height or u peaks of z height is irrelevant. I think Iíve led something like 14 expeditions to peaks over 7,500m, which is a bit of an odd way of putting it. Most people think of 8,000m. Itís just that Iíve done quite a few seven-and-a-halfís. But anyone whoís been out there and done it knows thatís quite a lot of plodding.

Iím not Britainís most experienced high-altitude climber, obviously thatís Alan Hinkes, whoís gone down a completely different route of trying to do all the 8,000m peaks himself. But Iíve certainly done more high-altitude guiding than anyone else in Britain. There might be ten other people in the world whoíve done as much, and theyíve got to be American.

According to the BBC Ranulph was ďkicked out of the SAS for deliberately blowing up a Twentieth Century Fox film-set in Castle Coombe, Wiltshire," starting out a long career of adventuring. In 2000 Ranulph had a near tragic accident in the Arctic and last summer he suffered a heart attack, yet this April he was out there again, running in the Redmoon North Pole Marathon where he finished second. He has traversed the South Pole twice, once in 1980 and then in 1992, as well as traveled to the North Pole in 1982.

Interview made by Adventure travel writer Simon Harris-Ward. Image of David Hamilton in the Khumbu Ice fall, courtesy Jagged Globe.

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