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Ranulph Fiennes for Everest 2005 - interview with guide David Hamilton
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Oct 7, 2004 15: 56 EST
Published Sep 9 2004

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 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. The interview is interesting in several aspects, among other it's an insight to the world of high altitude guiding.

Kindly enough, ExplorersWeb was offered the first scoop on this interview from the Fiennes media team, but it's a long chat, so we broke it up in three parts. Here goes part 1 of 3.

Wouldn’t advise young people nowadays to make the same choice

Q. Many people who work a 9 to 5 office job might question your sanity, spending all of your days in the hills, in poor weather and at high altitudes. Others are probably quite envious of the life that you live. At what stage did you stop treating mountaineering as a hobby and realize that you could also make a living out of it?

A. I never actually made the decision consciously to not have a proper job and live all my life in the Himalayas. I kind of fell into it, which in my position now, 20 years on, looks kind of foolish, and I probably wouldn’t advise young people nowadays to make the same choice. I was working in London in publishing. I climbed every summer in the Alps for four or five years, wanted to go somewhere further afield, found a few friends that wanted to go to Pakistan and we spent three months there in ’87.

Got up one and got avalanched down another

Tried three mountains. Got up one and got avalanched down another and did everything wrong, took the wrong equipment, the wrong food. But at the end of it I discovered I’d learnt a lot about how to do it successfully and wanted to go back the next year. And I realized that I wouldn’t be able to get a sensible job and get time off to go to the Himalayas. So I started looking for a way of funding another climbing trip. It seemed that if I went out and ran a couple of treks in this area that I’d got to know, that would fill up the first part of the summer, and then with a few friends, later in the summer we’d go and do some hard climbing.

The first five years I just led trekking trips and all of my climbing was with friends. Then some of the trekkers started saying “would you take us climbing?” So gradually I got into doing 6,000m and 7,000m peaks and eventually up to 8,000m. I’m really quite unusual in that I’m probably the only guide working in the Himalayas on serious high altitude mountains who hasn’t come through the Alpine Guiding school.

Aged 43, I’m still there

Q. How do you physically and mentally prepare in the run-up to a big expedition?

A. That’s an interesting one. I used to be quite a keen runner until five years ago. I’d run over 40 miles a week, do a couple of marathons a year, often coming in at around 2 hours 40 minutes. I was a fit runner and that was all of my sport. I had a knee problem and I had to stop running, and now basically I do no pre-expedition training whatsoever. But because I’m away on so many expeditions, the fitness is continuous. I arrive on a trip and the clients all start talking about all the training they’ve been doing in the preceding months and I start getting a bit worried because it’s a lot more than I’ve done. And then when we actually get out on the hill, I don’t have any problems being out in front, so at the moment, aged 43, I’m still there. As the years go by I’m going to have to do less trips and a bit more training in between.

With regards the research and planning of an expedition, this can sometimes start six months before the trip. This preparation is equally as important as the physical and psychological training.

Comfort zone

Q. I guess your comfort zone is that much larger than most people’s and certainly much wider than your clients.

A. Physically, yes. I think I’ve seen pretty much every type of client and every type of issue or problem a client can present. Everyone requires individual care and attention, but if you’re a doctor and you’re new to the job, every time you see a patient, you’re worried that they’re going to present something you’ve not seen before. When you’ve been in the job for several decades, you’re almost guessing what the issue will be before they come through the door.

Hello, my name is David, I'll be your guide in the death zone

Q. Do you have much contact with the clients prior to the start of the trip?

A. It varies from trip to trip. On the whole it is not normal procedure within the industry. A fair number of the clients I see are repeat ones who’ve either been with the company before or they’ve been with me before. There is a mechanism: my personal contact details are circulated a month or two before the trip and I also have theirs. On the whole, however, not many of them avail themselves of this.

“Am I going to be the slowest?”

Q. Do you prepare your clients in advance of an expedition?

A. The clients will have had a dialogue with the office staff at Jagged Globe, most of whom are very experienced climbers in their own right. The staff will have explained to the clients the experience required for a particular trip and outlined administrative issues such as itinerary details and the equipment required. When I get the group together for the first time, I explain the nature of the trip and ask them to give their feedback. If there are any issues they have relating to it, they can either discuss them in the group discussion, which will happen every day, or if there’s anything that they’d rather deal with on an individual level, we do it then.

I don’t think there’d be a lot of advantage in developing a one-to-one relationship with many clients on a trip well before the trip, before they get into the context of how the other people are working. Common anxieties like “Am I going to be the slowest?”, “Am I the oldest?” and all the rest are much better dealt with when you actually see who the people are.

A Himalayan expedition leader has to live with the people for two months

Q. When you’re guiding a high-altitude climb, what sorts of things are you looking out for?

A. Himalayan guiding is very different from the Alps. In the Alps, the guides will often pick up the client at the cable car station and they’re going to do a one or two day climb. The guide’s job is mostly safety-orientated and it’s not always necessary to build a deep understanding of the client’s abilities or motivation. You make the call on whether to go on or not on fairly simple safety criteria.
On the other hand, an expedition leader has to live with people for two months. In order to be able to make the best decisions and advise them as accurately as possible, you really have to understand why they’re there, what they hope to achieve and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

So when it comes to difficult decisions half way into the trip, you’re not just talking to an anonymous person. If you’ve got to discuss an issue with two or three clients, you should know enough about them to a) know how to present it most favorably and b) be able to have a fairly sound idea about how they’re going to react. So the Himalayan guide only spends ten or twenty percent of his time on actual nuts-and-bolts guiding decisions. The rest of the time is client care and management.

Part 2 tomorrow, part 3 Sunday

According to the BBC Ranulph was “kicked 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, courtesy Jagged Globe.
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