Kenton Cool, the mountain man
PUBLISHED: 17:29 28 January 2014 | UPDATED: 17:31 28 January 2014
Kenton Cool has climbed Mount Everest an astonishing 11 times. But, as he tells Katie Jarvis at his Quenington home, you never ‘conquer’ such an intimidating place
You can look at the facts and figures that define Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. It’s 29,035 feet (8,848 metres) high but grows by a quarter of an inch each year. At its bleakest, the temperature can drop to -80F, with racing winds buffeting at more than 200mph. In Nepal, where it teeters over the border with Tibet, it’s revered as Sagarmatha – Mother Earth Goddess: the meaning of its Tibetan name, Chomolungma, is lost in the thickest of mists that wrap around its unthinkable peaks. ‘Everest’ is the newest title in its 60 million-year history, dating back merely to 1841 when Sir George Everest mapped it as part of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India.
But none of those facts tells you what it feels like to be up there, on top of the whole world. The great mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who, along with Peter Habeler, was the first to scale Everest without supplementary oxygen, said of being on the summit: “In my state of spiritual abstraction, I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits.”
A single narrow gasping lung.
So here are some more figures to make you gasp: 249 people (162 Westerners; 87 Sherpas) have died on its slopes from 1924-2013, mainly from falls, avalanches, exposure or altitude sickness. Almost all are still on the mountain.
Only journalists talk of conquering Everest.
Kenton Cool has climbed Everest an astounding 11 times. There are images of him I can barely look at – as a lone accessory on a sheer grey rock-face icing-sugared with snow, where the camera doesn’t even try to capture the depths stretching down beneath him. Depths that plummet like crazy visions of infinity. Or with his arms raised, triumphant, smiling and relaxed; the only clues to the fact that he’s in the Death Zone – dying second by oxygen-sucking second – are his frosted eyebrows, and the mesmerising view of whitened peaks dwarfed below his spare frame: a splash of red, black and blue in a scene nature intended to keep monochrome. But there he stands, the tallest thing in the world.
Inevitably, there’s one question that hovers above all the others. It’s a stupid one; but it’s one that intrigues me. “Is your name really Kenton Cool?” I ask. I mean, it’s just too perfect; the kind of name you’d choose if you yourself had created a man who shins up mountains as if catching the 6.43 to Paddington.
“It most certainly is,” he says, not the least affronted. “It comes from ‘Kuhle’, which was changed by my grandfather in World War 2, when he was living in London and working as a fireman… A German name back then wasn’t very cool, if you’ll excuse the pun!”
He’s incredibly approachable. The first time I set eyes on him is at a talk, celebrating the 60th anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s ground-breaking climb to Everest’s summit. He bounds into the packed auditorium, before the event begins, as if this fathomless energy could never be absorbed when his feet are in contact with the earth. He looks dapper; sartorially dressed; and makes straight for the youngest member of the audience. “Are you Kenton Cool?” the little lad ventures, staring round-eyed at Britain’s most successful Everest mountaineer. “I am,” Kenton replies. “And you’re Charlie? That’s a great name!” The awed six-year-old will remember this moment for the rest of his life. Who knows, those few seconds may even influence the course of his life.
On stage, that restless energy continues, played out in the form of tapping feet. Feet that should be feeling their way into the slither of footsteps in a craggy face. In fact, Kenton Cool is completely still for just one moment. And it’s a fascinating moment.
It’s when he’s speaking about the impact being in the Himalayas has on him. Not the majesty or the danger of the mountains, but the humanity of it all: the indigenous people, who share their nothingness without a fraction of resentment. Dirt-poor shepherds who see bearded, frozen climbers struggling back down, and whose response is to bake a sparse loaf of bread to break together.
“Ah,” someone points out to Kenton, a touch archly. “But you can come home. You can leave whenever you want to.” Westerners can dip into that poverty; be moved and humbled by it; and then come back to central heating and packed Waitrose shelves.
It’s a sentiment that stops Kenton Cool in his tracks.
“No one has ever challenged me on that before,” he tells me, later, as we sit in the conservatory of his house in Quenington. In the kitchen, his wife, Jazz – herself an accomplished sailor – is entertaining their children, three-year-old Saffron and baby Willoughby. “I always say I have this great ability to understand life, and how lucky we are to live in this wonderful place we call Britain. And then it’s pointed out to me, ‘Of course you appreciate it; you can come back to it.’
“…And that’s absolutely right. I don’t have to go and experience these things… That really did shake me.”
The point about Kenton Cool is that you don’t just get a climber, however great that climber might be. You get a philosopher; you get a thinker; you get a very human being – in the best sense of that phrase.
His passion for mountaineering started with hill-walking as a Boy Scout. Indeed, it was after a two-day expedition in the Peak District, waiting for the minibus to take them home, that he wandered into a branch of WH Smith and picked up a climbing magazine. There, on the front, was British climber Ben Moon, who’d just completed Hubble at Raven Tor – considered the hardest climb in the world, at the time.
“There was a picture of him hanging with virtually two fingers; he had dreadlocks, and he was wearing Lycra, which was all the rage back in the day; and this, to me, looked like the coolest thing known to mankind,” he remembers.
That image kick-started a career which has seen Kenton honoured as one of the world’s leading alpine climbers: the first European to summit Everest 11 times; the first non-Asian to summit Everest twice in one week. He made the first 3G call (to Jazz, of course) and sent the first tweet from the summit in 2011. The next year, he fulfilled a century-old promise to place a 1924 Olympic Gold Medal there, four weeks before the London 2012 Opening Ceremony. A professional mountain guide, rumour has it that his commercial expeditions to Everest cost his clients mid-six figures sterling. (Exactly why that is good value will become tragically clear later in this piece.) He also guided the notoriously vertigo-suffering Sir Ranulph Fiennes to the summit, as well as up the Eiger, raising £3m for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
Why did Sir Ranulph pick Kenton?
He smiles. “You want to go with the best!”
They met in Switzerland, where Kenton was a trainee guide and Sir Ranulph was a client with the company he was working for. “I was the newbie, who rocked up late because my car had broken down. I came rushing into the briefing, and at the end of the table was Ranulph Fiennes. I had had no idea he was going to be there and I was like. ‘Wow! Ran!’ He’s one of my heroes and I’d never met him before.
“I said to the head guide, ‘I really want to guide Ran!’ And he said, ‘No; you’re the new boy. I’m looking after him.’”
Kenton did, however, get to chat to the great man, and happened to say that, in terms of climbing ability, perhaps Everest wasn’t the pinnacle. Whereas the North Face of the Eiger still held allure for real, technical climbers. Six weeks later, the phone rang. “It was Ran, saying, ‘I want to climb the North Face of the Eiger. And I want you to take me up it.’
“When I asked why me, he said, ‘It’s quite simple. You seemed to be having more fun than anybody else when we were climbing together.’”
That was in 2007. The next year, the two made it to within 300m of Everest’s summit before Fiennes turned back. (“Getting to the top is optional; getting back down is mandatory,” as Kenton points out.) In 2009, they aced it.
And it still is fun for Kenton Cool. Although he inevitably risks his life every time he heads out on an alpine expedition – 37 of his friends have died in climbing accidents – this is a love affair; a compulsive love affair with mountains.
“When you come back off an expedition, you’ve got that buzz – you’ve survived; changed yourself; changed the mountain in some small way,” is how he describes it.
It’s also a very real story of friendship. He’s extremely close to Dorje Gylgen, his climbing partner, whom he works with every year and whom he admires for more than just his technical ability. “The thing with the Sherpa people is that it’s not about them; it’s about the family, the community. Dorje lives in Pangboche, in the shadow of Everest, in a tiny weeny house where he keeps yaks underneath to keep the upper part warm. And Dorje will work on Everest for one reason only – to give his children the best opportunity. Ultimately, he’d like to send them to the USA for education overseas.
“There’s so much we can learn from these people that we consider to be simple hill farmers. They’re all about family, community; their doors are always open. Then you come back to the UK and we’ve lost that focus a little bit. We call ourselves developed; we’ve developed so far that we’re no longer really in touch with what is important in life.”
There’s one point, during that aforementioned Everest anniversary event, when Kenton is asked if he’d ever step over a dying climber on his way to the summit. He says he doesn’t know. But, when we’re talking later, he admits he doesn’t know why he answered in that way - because he’s been in exactly that situation. And even though it meant the world to him, his footsteps stilled.
It happened last year – during Everest’s 60th anniversary celebrations – when he and Dorje achieved the extraordinary feat of summiting the three mountains of the Everest horseshoe – Everest, Nuptse (7,861m) and Lhotse (8,516m) - in a six-day first.
They were partway through – having ascended Everest and Lhotse – 30 hours without a break, when they came across Mr Lee. The Taiwanese amateur climber, on a cut-price expedition, had got into difficulties at high altitude. Rather than alert the HRA – the Himalayan Rescue Association - the expedition organisers had abandoned their client to die alone in his tent. Despite being exhausted, and in the middle of a record-setting challenge, Kenton could not do the same. In fact, he sat with the unconscious man for 16 hours, performing CPR and administering drugs in a desperate attempt to achieve the impossible.
He can’t talk about the experience without strong emotion welling up.
“Dorje was brilliant. Sherpas are superstitious about deaths, so I said to him, ‘You go up to our tent’ – which was 100 metres away – because it was pretty obvious that Mr Lee was unlikely to survive. Dorje, bless him, came back down in the morning with a big flask of tea.”
Kenton, on the other hand, had been up all night. “What compels you to sit with somebody for 16 hours watching him die?” he asks no one in particular. “I’ve always said that the first rule of first aid is not to put yourself into danger. Yet there I was, essentially putting myself in danger by sitting with him for, ultimately, absolutely no purpose. And I think it taught me a lot: that, as human beings, we find it incredibly hard to break away.
“The doctors [on the radio] kept telling me it was my call. I was having to inject him with dexamethasone. All sorts of things. I’ve injected an orange before, but it’s a bit different, having to stick somebody with hypodermics at 8,000 metres in pitch black when it’s freezing cold.”
He talks as if it’s happening in front of us. “And the doctors are saying, ‘Right; it’s your call!’ I can’t keep this up; I’m too tired; I’m exhausted. So you sit there and look at Mr Lee, and you’re thinking: Wow! If I stop doing this, he’s definitely dead. He’s definitely dead if I stop doing CPR.
“And what with his murmurings throughout the night and trying to keep him alive – just him and me and a radio talking to the doctors. You learn a lot about yourself and what is important. And I was thinking, if I keep doing CPR, he might just live...
“There is this respect for human life. We can’t quite let it go.”
The end of the story is that Mr Lee died, and Kenton went on to achieve the astonishing feat of the ultimate Three Peaks Challenge.
But what’s left is the anger. “Because it was totally avoidable. Mr Lee’s death was totally avoidable. If they had gone across to the HRA and said, ‘We haven’t got the logistics to do it because it was a cheap team; can you help?’, of course they would have helped. But they were trying to cover up their own inadequacies. There was this one person profiteering, by not providing Mr Lee with logistics.”
Kenton and Jazz are off with the kids to Magicland in Cirencester this afternoon: “Come the spring, daddy’s disappearing for six or seven weeks again to go climb mountains. So when I’m here, I try to be super-daddy, if I can. I’m sure the family would say otherwise!”
He’s not going to ‘conquer’ Everest. Because the mountain always wins. “And when we leave this planet, the mountains are still going to be there. So it’s not a competitive thing. It’s more of a loving relationship.
“I disappear to Everest every spring time and have an affair with this wonderful being.”
For more on Kenton, visit www.kentoncool.com
This article is by Katie Jarvis from the January 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.
For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis