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Ranulph Fiennes for Everest 2005 - interview with guide David Hamilton, part 2
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Sep 10, 2004 08: 01 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 second 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.

Size matters

Q. Is there a typical sized group for a Himalayan expedition?

A. If it’s a very technical climb it might be four. If it’s not at all technical it could be eight or nine. If the numbers go to more than that, on most peaks there’ll be two guides. And that’s western guides. There will of course be trained locals who you can delegate some things to. But a group of eight to ten, including one or two leaders for an 8,000m peak is pretty average.

Who’s the one that’s tripping over rocks

Q. Clearly there’s a lot to do when guiding clients up an 8,000m peak. How do you strike a balance between keeping your clients safe and happy and finding time for yourself? Why are you not constantly running around at altitude and getting AMS from the exertion?

A. The duration of the trip certainly helps. On something like Everest, on the south side it takes you a week just to walk to Base Camp. So there’s seven days in which, on some days you walk with this guy, on some days you walk with that guy. Who’s the person that’s jumping happily from stone to stone because they’ve got good balance? Who’s the one that’s tripping over rocks because they don’t have?

You see all these things and you use them to decide how you’re going to work on the mountain. So you put the most competent people with a sherpa and ask them to walk to Camp One. You then stay with the less competent people and identify who needs additional training. It’s a case of knowing the resources that you’ve got and working out the best way to use them.

One step at a time

Q. When attempting Everest, it has been suggested that climbers focus on the process and not the goal. Do you subscribe to this theory, or do you take more of a long term view of each ascent?

A. I’ve never actually put it in those kinds of terms. The way I try and deal with a long expedition is “one step at a time”. I suppose another way of looking at it would be that, for the first week, all we’re going to do is get to Base Camp, and we’re going to do that as efficiently and effectively as possible.

And we’ll discuss it if necessary, but we’re not going to talk about what happens in week 3, 4 or 5. Once we get to Base Camp, we discuss and we work on how to get everyone to Camp One most efficiently.

People can use a lot of nervous energy in the first week asking “Are we going to do this or this on summit day?” and I would normally try and stall these conversations and say to them that we get everybody to Camp One and we get everybody to Camp Two and we do all these things as efficiently as possible.

Who's going fo summit?

And then we see who is going for the summit, which might not be the whole team. If there are some people who’ve got some really complicated theories on how they’re going to get to the summit and it upsets everybody else and they talk about it on week 1 or week 2, when it comes to week 8, they might’ve already flown home and everyone else has got unnecessarily anxious. So I just try and keep it simple.

Elimination Everest style

Q. As a guide, ultimately it’s your call when it comes to matters of safety. Have you ever had to send somebody down against their will?

A. No. The people who are moving well and who are capable become the summit party. If you identify someone who, for whatever reason, you think is not going to be safe or is not going to be capable, they will encounter situations well before summit day, which will make them realize that they’re just not going to make it.

If they’re struggling to get to Camp Two, then they’re struggling to get to Camp Three, the ideal situation is they would come to me and say “Look, I don’t feel up to it; can I bow out on summit day?” which is much better than me saying “I’ve been watching you and I’m telling you, you’re not going”. Generally, common sense prevails and people realize their own limits.

Q. When it comes to trying for the summit, it seems there’s an element of self-selection.

A. Yes. I’m sure in the history of Himalayan guiding there have to have been cases where the guides have said to someone “You are not going on” and they’ve been really angry at them, but it’s never happened to me personally.

Wedding invitations

Q. Do you have any interests outside of climbing and mountaineering? What does a person like you do to relax?

A. In the past I used to do a lot more, but I just have a quiet time at home these days. I’ve just had a short holiday in Europe on a boat, which was nice. With Clare, I go for a walk around the woods at the back or an hour-long cycle along the canal. I don’t do serious fitness training, but I typically do a short walk or a bike ride every day or every second day.

There’s a lot of admin preparing for trips, sorting out after, organizing slides to give talks, staying in social contact with dozens of clients who’ve become good friends, getting invited to their weddings and things like that.

Everest 2005 - switching sides

Q. You’ll be approaching Everest from the north this time around. Who makes that decision?

A. I discussed this with Simon Lowe, the Managing Director of Jagged Globe. This will be my eighth 8,000m expedition and I had the option of either not doing an Everest trip at all in 2005 or leading the south or leading the north. I know the south route well, having done it twice, but I felt that it would be personally interesting being on the north side.

I’ll be relying on my experience, but also the research that I’ve been doing. While I was over in Chamonix, I was talking to one of the main guides who’s on the north side every year, talking over how we can best cooperate and what the issues are. I’ve now got more than enough to be able to give the clients a positive, life-changing experience.

The Everest formula for success

Q. How do the two routes compare?

A. Historically the north side would always have been said to be more difficult, with less chance of success. However, I think in the last five or ten years, particularly because of the example of a small group of guides who go back every year, they’ve finally got it.

I think the guides got the handle on how to run the south side well 12 years ago and that achievement for the north side just happened in the last six or seven years. They’re using the same western guides, the same sherpas and they’ve come up with a formula: where to put the camps, how much oxygen to use, how to read the weather patterns. Weather forecasting has got a lot better. So, I think the reputation for being difficult, dangerous and a low chance of success, which the north side had a decade ago, has reduced quite a bit.

The difference between the mountains and the poles

Q. Clearly there is no such thing as a “typical” day on Everest but is it possible to give a rough outline of what future climbers might expect within a 24 hour period?

A. The secret to climbing Everest is being able to rest. It’s different from a polar trip, where every day you’ve got to put in the miles and any miles you miss out one day you’ve got to make up the next. On Everest you will spend at least 60% if not 70% of all the days above Base Camp resting, either resting in Base Camp or resting higher up.

The activity only comes around on average every third day. It’s about being able to relax, not be anxious, spend your time in the tent eating enough and drinking enough, just personal maintenance, looking after yourself, which is one of the areas where I think Ran Fiennes should do very well.

Although he’s not done a lot of time in the mountains, he’s done masses of polar expeditions, where making sure your equipment’s dry, making sure you eat and drink enough, is absolutely crucial. If you can do that on Everest, you’re half way to climbing it.

The North/South difference

The days you do move, on the southern side the heat is more of an issue than I think it is on the northern side and most of the movement between camps is done in the dark, at about three or four in the morning, maybe to do a seven hour journey. You’re aiming to reach the camp by nine or ten in the morning, and then spend your time during the day sheltering from the sun.

On the north side, the winds are a bit stronger and the weather’s a bit colder, so perhaps that need to avoid the sun isn’t as important and you’ll be doing more walking during the day, maybe starting at dawn, rather than before.

Sunday part 3 (3) - final about the upcoming Everest 2005 expedition.

Interview made by Adventure travel writer Simon Harris-Ward. Image of Ranulph Fiennes, courtesy alite.co.uk.
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