To the Top of the World (and Back) | Living North

To the Top of the World (and Back)

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Alan Hinkes
There are 14 mountains in the world over 8,000 metres high. They’re all perilous, they’re all challenging and they’ve all claimed dozens, if not hundreds, of lives. Alan Hinkes has climbed them all.
‘The only thing I class as failure is death. No mountain is worth a life. Coming back alive is a success; the summit is only a bonus’
Alan Hinkes

We caught up with the Yorkshire-born adrenaline addict to talk fear, frostbite and being avalanched in his underwear.

'Most people who try and climb the 14 eight-thousanders don’t do it,’ explains Alan Hinkes. ‘And the reason they don’t do it is because they get killed. That sounds a bit flippant, doesn’t it? But it’s true. I survived by the skin of my teeth.'

For the first time in several decades, 60-year-old Alan Hinkes, the first Briton to climb all 14 of the 8,000m mountains, is relatively safe. His quest to climb the perilous peaks (dubbed the eight-thousanders) saw him escape countless instances of mortal danger, one of which left him avalanched in his underwear. At 6,000m on K2, the most dangerous mountain in the world, he’d dug a narrow ledge into the snow and ice slope for his small tent. While lying inside he felt the vibration and heard the unmistakable roar of an approaching avalanche. He dove out of the tent and clung to the rope fixed at the back of the ledge, flattening himself against the ice wall as the avalanche poured over him. Its force almost sucked Alan off the ledge, but against all odds he survived. 

Unfortunately he ended up buried thigh-deep in snow, which had set around him like concrete. ‘It would have been rather ironic to be found a few years later by the next expedition as a corpse in my underpants. In retrospect, it was a fairly humorous close shave, and eventually some friends who were on a different ledge found me and helped me out.’ Joking aside, Alan admits the event left him shaken. ‘I did suffer from a form of Post Traumatic Stress. When I got back to base camp at around midnight, I remember lying in the tent on my own and starting to shake. I felt the fear then; you’re not human if you don’t.’

Alan’s quest (and regular endangerment of his own life) began many years before his attempts on K2. Growing up in North Yorkshire and attending Northallerton Grammar School, he first felt the mountain buzz very early in his school career. ‘I was very lucky in those days. The schoolteachers were fantastic and took me out climbing in the North York Moors, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. I just knew it was for me – I felt like I belonged up there. I joined local clubs and started going out with some friends from home, and became more self-reliant. I had a pretty traditional apprenticeship, in that sense.’

Alan went on to pursue a teaching career of his own, teaching outdoor pursuits, field geography and geology at a school in Hexham. But it was never a long-term plan; he knew he wanted to be in the mountains. ‘I always knew I didn’t want to get trapped in a teaching job for 10 years. I always said that after three years, I’d resign and have a year off to climb mountains. It’s all very well saying that when you’re a young graduate and you’ve just landed your first job, but your pay cheques keep coming in and you’re on the career ladder and you get comfortable. Eventually I realised I’d overshot what I’d originally set out to do, and stayed teaching for seven years. I was offered a place on an expedition, and I knew I had to resign and accept the opportunity.’

Once he’d left teaching, Alan became a mountain guide to fund his training and expeditions, as well as writing a regular magazine column in his spare time. Having gained knowledge and experience climbing in the Alps, the Andes and the Greater Ranges (such as Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount McKinley), Alan’s apprenticeship was complete. He was ready to tackle his first eight-thousander: Shishapangma. 
The eight-thousanders are an entirely different ball game. Their summits all reach into what’s known in the climbing world as the death zone: an unforgiving environment in which your body starts to rapidly deteriorate. A human being cannot survive for more than a couple of days at such altitude. There are no rescue teams or helicopters (they have an operational ceiling of 6,500m). Simply surviving takes tremendous effort, both physically and mentally. Breathing and movement are difficult and slow, sleep is virtually impossible and the cold temperatures, often reaching -40C, freeze exposed flesh. ‘Climbing at extreme altitude is agony,’ says Alan. ‘Sheer torture. You’ve got to like a bit of suffering to do an eight-thousander. Maybe it’s a bit masochistic, I don’t know.’

On his first 8,000m expedition to Shishapangma in 1987, Alan was part of a post-monsoon Polish international expedition, joined by mountaineering legend Jerzy Kukuczka. ‘I was fortuitous in that I was part of a Polish-led expedition. They had stacks of experience so I learned a lot. I climbed Shishapangma alpine-style without a tent, bivouacking out in the open in just a sleeping bag and a cover. It was minus 25 degrees. My climbing mate ended up getting frostbite and having his toes amputated. That taught me a lot about not being quite as gung ho when the mountains are so much higher.’

And how did it feel to reach the summit? ‘It felt good, but even then I was aware that I had to get back down. The summit feeling is always tempered. It’s not over until you’re sitting in base camp eating eggs, chips and chapattis.’ It was tough – tougher than he’d imagined – but Alan was hooked. ‘I went for my second eight-thousander straight away without coming back to Britain, so essentially I did them back-to-back. I’d got the bug; they were the ultimate challenge. I knew I wanted more, even though there’s a lot of suffering involved. Just experiencing all of the dangers, especially with those legendary Polish climbers on my first two, was brilliant. I wasn’t scared, just in my element. Now I’d be horrified to have to do what I did then.’

Although Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and it was an incredible feeling to reach the summit (‘For that moment in time, you are the highest person on the planet’), Alan’s biggest nemesis was K2. ‘To a proper climber, K2 is the gold medal of the mountains. It’s much steeper, so the rock climb is technically more difficult, it’s got a higher avalanche and rockfall risk, and the weather is far worse. I first saw K2 from Broad Peak, the mountain next to it, and as soon as I saw it I thought, “That is the mountain to climb.” I knew I had to try, even though at that point I hadn’t decided to do all 14. It’s nearly as impressive as Roseberry Topping. Joking!’

But Alan did go back to K2 more than once. In fact, it took three attempts for him to reach the summit. ‘They weren’t failed attempts. The only thing I class as failure is death. Even if I don’t reach the summit, I’ve made it down alive, the mountain is still there and I can try again another time. I probably would have made it to the summit on the first attempt if it weren’t for another expedition that had an accident. One of them was exhausted, collapsed and fell 12,000ft to his death, and his mate was about to do the same. We had to help him down, which took about 10 days. After that the weather window had closed. 

‘The second time I backed off because the slope felt too dangerous and I had a feeling it would avalanche. I couldn’t accept the risk. Two Spanish people I met on the climb continued on the following day. It avalanched. One was killed and the other staggered back. The latter ended up having all their fingers and toes amputated. By the third time I had a lot of local knowledge and seized my opportunity. That year, five of us summitted and eight were killed trying. That’s how serious K2 is.’

On an eight-thousander, the chance of death is high. Staggeringly high. But Alan beat the odds. ‘I mitigated the risks and offset a lot of the dangers. I was always prepared to back off, because no mountain is worth a life. Coming back is a success; the summit is only a bonus. Too many people focus on the summit as the end point, and don’t worry about the descent until they’ve reached the top. By then, it’s too late. The summit is only halfway, which is why my focus was always on base camp and made sure I had enough left in me to make it back.’

Climbing an eight-thousander is hell. That much is clear. So why do some people thrive in that kind of perilous environment? ‘It is rather salutary. It forces you to confront your own mortality – coming across bodies on the mountain makes you realise just how dangerous it is. I think I put that kind of fear and upset into a little box somewhere in the back of my brain, but some people just can’t accept that level of risk. I won’t say I was never scared, but it was always where I wanted to be. I was in my element. At the time, I wanted that danger. It sounds like I’m a drug addict, doesn’t it, which I’m not (apart from tea, coffee and wine). It was something I just had to do. It was my drug. 

‘I went on an expedition once with an American friend, who was technically a very good climber, both on ice and rock. But he had serious culture shock and couldn’t handle the squalid conditions living away from civilisation for months at a time. He wanted to be in America driving along the highway, getting out of his car, doing a climb, getting back in his car and going home for a shower. He couldn’t cope with the mental and physical deprivation on expeditions.’

At the top of every mountain he climbed, Alan took a picture of himself holding a photograph of his daughter Fiona. She means the world to Alan, which is exactly why he’s the first to admit his mission was inherently selfish. ‘Of course it was selfish. Fiona needs her dad. But a lot of things we do are selfish – blokes that ignore their daughters to play football and go to watch matches are just as selfish. I wouldn’t have been the person I am now if I hadn’t done it, or if I’d only climbed 12 or 13 of them. I did it for me.’

Alan knows he climbed all 14, and that’s why he’s happy and content today. He’s even got an OBE and an honorary fellowship from the University of Sunderland to celebrate his achievement. But in the murky mountaineering corners of the internet, some doubt has been cast over whether or not he really reached the summit of Cho Oyu (which is, ironically, one of the easiest of the 14). This doesn’t frustrate Alan, though, because there is absolutely no evidence to back the claim. ‘If they can find someone who was actually on the summit waiting for me, and I never turned up, fair enough. If not, what right do they have to say I wasn’t there? Who even disputed it to begin with? I’ve never heard anyone explicitly come out and say, “I’m the one who doesn’t believe you.” That’s the problem with the internet – somebody starts a malicious rumour and it spreads so quickly. When I climbed Cho Oyu, nobody questioned it. It was more than 12 years later when somebody disputed it. There’s nothing I can really do about it, and I don’t really care, because I did it for myself.’

So after reaching the summit of Kangchenjunga on 30th May 2005, the final eight-thousander on his tick list, how did Alan feel? Euphoric? Relieved? ‘I felt incredibly satisfied and fulfilled. It was a sense of freedom, I suppose. Freedom from the risk of being killed, and freedom to do whatever I want. The first thing I did when I reached base camp was call Fiona and say, “I’ve done it.”’

And if he had to do it all again, would he? ‘God no! I wouldn’t go back to K2 for a million pounds.’

8000m: Climbing The World’s 
Highest Mountains by Alan Hinkes, 
£25 Cicerone
Twitter: @AlanHinkes
Web: www.pro-trek.co.uk

Published in: June 2014

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