Remembering Doug Scott CBE

December 8th, 2020

Others will remember Doug Scott purely in mountaineering terms, and surely that is right, as he was undoubtedly the most accomplished British mountaineer of all time. Many of his climbing companions describe him as visionary, and while that undoubtedly applies to the way in which he approached mountaineering, to my mind, it stretched to something far more.

I met Doug Scott in the mid-1980s. We had a mutual friend in David Oswin, who ran photographic and walking holidays in mountainous parts of the world, and whom I’d met on a very early press trip to Iceland. We got on well, and soon I was helping David with copywriting for his brochures as well as becoming tour leader for some of his trips, while Doug had gone with David on one or two promotional jaunts, notably to Iceland, before progressing to leading some of David’s trekking holidays. This was the forerunner to Doug setting up the Specialist Trekking Cooperative, which subsequently became Community Action Treks.

I wanted to become a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and that required me to find two existing Fellows to propose and second my application, and to provide a reference as to why I should be admitted. David had agreed to be my proposer, and when it came to finding a seconder, he said “I know, I’ll ask Doug.” And so it was that my application to be admitted to the Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society was seconded by one of the world’s most famous mountaineers. The RGS could hardly refuse me, could they? And they didn’t.

Doug was still climbing big mountains in those days, and he first asked me to help out with a bit of publicity when he was planning an expedition to an unclimbed peak in Bhutan called Jitchu Drake. I couldn’t have done too badly, as he asked me again for a subsequent climb.

I stayed at Doug’s house in Cumbria several times over the years. When he was married to Indian mountaineer Sharu Prabhu, his house had a timber beam stretching across the stairway to the upper floor. Mere mortals would duck slightly to avoid making contact, but Doug, even then still smoking evil-smelling French cigarettes, would do a number of pull-ups as he passed. I could barely manage one!

But one moment which sticks out was when I was nearby, visiting David Oswin with my wife, and daughter Aislinn, then a small baby of just a few months. We’d had an evening meal, progressed to a few drinks, and Doug joined us later. Aislinn was a bit fretful and not settling down well, so my wife brought her downstairs and tried to soothe her to sleep, but Aislinn was having none of it. “Come here, child,” said Doug as he took hold of Aislinn, cradling her against one shoulder. Within a minute she’d quietened down, and within another minute or so she was fast asleep. Having performed a minor miracle, that might have been the point when you’d expect Doug to hand Aislinn back to her mother, but no, we carried on chatting away, with my daughter fast asleep on the great man’s shoulder for a good hour. Others have spoken of the extraordinary Zen of Doug Scott, but this was it in action!

With Doug’s world increasingly intersecting with the tourism industry as he started organising his own trekking holidays, I remember us meeting up at the World Travel Market in London and wandering around the stands. It’s a fascinating experience tagging along with someone instantly recognisable, and seeing the reactions of people. Some just stood slightly open-mouthed and pointed as we walked past, while one woman came up to Doug and said “What was it like on top?” She had of course omitted to say on top of what, but obviously she meant Everest. Doug’s response was typical understatement: “A bit cold!”

And then in 1996 I led one of Doug’s treks in Nepal. Actually I was more a guest tour leader, taking over from the editor of Trail magazine, who should have gone as it was a Trail reader offer trip, but he had to pull out. As Trail’s equipment and travel editor, I was the logical choice to take his place. And while I did visit Doug for a briefing beforehand, in fact it wasn’t too onerous a task – the man actually leading the trek was Ang Phurba, one of Doug’s support climbers on the 1975 Everest expedition.

Before setting out on the trek proper to the holy lake of Dudh Kund, in Everest’s back yard, we went off the beaten track to a village called Ghunsa, where Doug’s charity had built a school and medical centre. Nepal is, of course, one of the world’s poorest nations, and while villages on the main trekking routes don’t do so badly, those further away have a much tougher life. Doug had started out installing clean water supplies in various villages, then progressed to building schools and medical posts. His passion for helping the Nepalis was absolute, and the gratitude felt by the people whose lives he touched was equally profound.

We’d visited Ghunsa because as a journalist, there was a story for me to tell, and the stunning welcome we received from the villagers made it all the worth telling. But for me to be the recipient of gratitude for other peoples’ generosity was overwhelming. The whole village turned out for us, the children sang and danced, and everyone in the trekking group was garlanded. Some moments in life slip happily into the sidelines. That one didn’t.

I came home from that trip to Nepal with two things – one of which was uninvited. Shortly after arriving back home I went down with a severe illness subsequently diagnosed as Q Fever. I even know where I contracted it, from the day I took our group to Bhaktapur, the ancient capital of Nepal, on a holiday when livestock had been slaughtered in the streets.

The other was the determination to do what I could to get Doug Scott’s efforts recognised in the wider world. As a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, I put forward the Ghunsa school project for a special award, and was delighted when it won. The grand award was to take place at the 1996 World Travel Market in Earl’s Court. Doug and I had already agreed to meet up an hour before the award ceremony, and so it was that we sat down at a small table on Iceland Tourism’s stand. They plonked a couple of glasses and a bottle of Brennivin, Iceland’s famed lethal herb-infused vodka, between us, and left us to it.

There’s another story to tell about the way I ended up having to be carried out of Earl’s Court by security guards, but the important point is that the BGTW award was the first of many major recognitions of the incredible work done by Community Action Nepal.

I last saw Doug when he came to Norwich five years ago to do a talk, fundraising for CAN. It was weird, but whenever he phoned me up over the years, I knew instantly it was him before he spoke. Or at the very least he would just say “Clive…?” and I knew it was Doug. On this occasion, he’d had about 20 bookings for his talk, which was a bit light. Could I do anything? I guess it wasn’t much, but in 24 hours I managed to circulate his press release locally and boost the numbers up to around 40. And I helped to diagnose a slight technical hitch in the computer projection equipment on the night. The audience, of course, was absolutely enthralled with Doug’s talk, as was I.

The world of mountaineering has indeed seen the passing of an absolute titan, but the impoverished mountain people of Nepal have lost their champion. Long may his influence continue.

Everest 45 years ago

September 24th, 2020

To my left is Doug Scott CBE, who 45 years ago today (24th September) stood on the summit of Everest with Dougal Haston to make the first British ascent. Not only that, it was the first ascent of the south-west face, a route which many had deemed impossible (it hasn’t been climbed many times since). They arrived on the summit as the sun was going down, and with not enough time to get down to their top camp, they instead spent the night in a snow hole 100 metres below the summit. With no sleeping bags, and despite their bottled oxygen running out, they survived the night, and without frostbite!

Many have climbed Everest since via the technically undemanding “tourist route,” with Sherpa assistance and fixed ropes – but that’s light years away from the monumental achievement of the 1975 British South-West Face Everest Expedition. Doug’s other exploits have been the stuff of legend, too, and his climbing style has been described as visionary.

Doug was still climbing big mountains when I met him through a mutual friend in the mid-1980s – he seconded my application to become a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and it was my pleasure to help out with a bit of PR for a couple of his climbs, and later, when he started to organise trekking holidays, along with his charity Community Action Nepal, which has built many schools and health centres throughout Nepal. I even got to be guest trek leader on one of his treks!

Poles apart

February 18th, 2020

I’ve been using trekking poles – either telescopic or folding – for decades. Originally developed from ski poles, the idea of the trekking pole is to give you stability when you’re out hiking in rough terrain. That could be in the mountains, where a pair of poles can improve your balance and give you the equivalent of four-wheel drive to help you on steep uphill slopes. But they’re also extremely handy going downhill, where it’s like you’re carrying your own set of banisters downstairs. On less hilly but no less tortuous terrain, trekking poles take some of the load off your leg joints – especially good if you’re backpacking – and they add an extra level of security to stream and river crossings.

Note I’ve said “a pair of poles.” While you can buy them singly, and one is better than none, a pair is more than twice as good as one! There are many variations on the types of poles you can get, from the materials they’re made of, to the way they pack down when you’re not using them and thus more likely to have them carried within or attached to your luggage. There are plenty of websites which can offer advice on how you choose what type of pole to go for, but the purpose of this post is to go off somewhat at a tangent.

Apart from seeing an increase in the use of poles out in the countryside, I’m seeing more and more people using them in urban settings – the older generations particularly. With rubber feet attached to the sharp tungsten carbide tips, you can wander along the streets and even in shops without causing any damage. But what I have seen amongst this level of user is frequent misuse of the wrist straps. So many times I’ve spotted where people have simply put their hands through the Nylon loops without thinking that there’s a right way and a wrong way to use them.

A lot of downhill skiers dispense with wrist straps on ski poles for the very good reason that if they take a tumble, a pole attached to each wrist could be more likely to cause an injury, so best be able to jettison them as you fall. But with trekking poles, the idea is to put weight on them, and while you can certainly do that while holding the hand grips, the wrist loops make it so much simpler – provided you remember to put your hand into the loop from underneath. So if you lift your hand up without grabbing the hand grip, the pole will dangle by its strap from your wrist. Then when you bring your hand down to hold the hand grip, you can pull on the trailing end of the strap to adjust the fit for comfort.

With your hands properly located in the wrist straps, you can put lots of weight on the pole without having to hold on to the hand grips that hard, and if you stop for a moment to take a picture, your poles are still attached to you ready for action. While it might seem obvious to many users, I wonder whether the manufacturers of trekking poles are missing a trick by not including these basic instructions on how to locate your hands correctly in the wrist straps.

Remembering Dresden

February 13th, 2020

When I visited East Germany in 1986, this statue of Martin Luther stood in front of all that remained of Dresden’s Frauenkirche, destroyed by allied bombing in February 1945. The post-war Communist authorities had wanted to clear the site to turn into a car park, but realising that might be a step too far, instead preserved the ruins as a war memorial. After reunification, moves to rebuild the church gathered pace. Construction began in 1994, with the completed church rededicated in 2005.

Read about my visit to East Germany in the Kindle book One of our Balloons is Missing.

Getting wider

December 9th, 2019

Friday 6th and Saturday 7th December saw another landmark moment in the Team Britannia round the world powerboat Excalibur’s construction – she gained an extra two metres in width! Fitting the inflatable tubes (also known as collars or sponsons) was backbreaking work carried out in horrendous weather. Why not wait until a sunny day? It had been planned some time in advance to take advantage of the tide times – depending on which side of the boat is being worked on dictates which side of the dock she has to be moored, and once floated over, we then have to wait for the tide to go out and for the boat to settle in the mud before the heavy work begins.

With the coated material sponsored by Orca, the tubes were assembled for us by Henshaw Inflatables Ltd (Wing). Each one is 19 metres long, weighing 250 kilos, so just manhandling them was a major effort! There are 116 fixing bolts per tube, all of which had to be drilled, tapped and special inserts fitted into the hull to accommodate the bolts. After floating the boat over to the opposite pontoon, Alan Priddy, Elliott Berry and John Garner braved the pouring rain and howling gale to fit the starboard tube. “To say it was a struggle is an understatement,” says Alan. Meanwhile, we also had a working party inside the boat – Steve Mason and Alan Goodwin completed the two two-berth cabins at the rear of the wheelhouse before moving on to the stairwell and front cabin.

After a night spent on board, which included sampling some of Team Britannia’s excellent freeze-dried meals, the boat was floated back over to the other side of the dock for the port tube to be fitted. With Elliott Berry’s place taken on Saturday by Andy Reid, they managed to get finished late afternoon just before a storm came in and the light went. We also had a steady stream of visitors, including Dave Stanway, one of our competition prize winners. We should add that corporate sponsorship opportunities for Team Britannia and Excalibur’s round the world record attempt are still available, so if you or anyone you know might be interested, please do get in touch.

Launching Excalibur

October 7th, 2019

Getting Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat Excalibur into the water after over three years in a shed in a boatyard on Hayling Island was a painstaking affair. The following video, about four and a half minutes, provides a flavour of the afternoon.

Excalibur hits the water!

October 3rd, 2019

It’s tempting to describe the launch of Excalibur on October 2nd in Churchillian terms – “not the end, not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.” The operation to move Team Britannia‘s superboat out of her shed and into the water was a slow, careful and painstaking operation which took the entire afternoon. If you’ve ever watched the filming of a movie or TV production, it was a bit like that – long periods of waiting around (for the watchers, not the crane crew) interspersed with short bursts of activity.

The stern support blocks were replaced by a trolley assembly, and then with a single sling from the crane taking the weight of the bow, the remaining support blocks were removed. At this point, one of our crew was busy with a paint roller applying antifoul to the small sections of hull previously obscured by the blocks.

Then, slowly, very slowly, Excalibur was inched forward until her bow was suspended over the edge of the quayside. At this point she was lowered onto blocks once again while the crane crew changed their lifting gear to fit two large strops around the boat. And then she was up in the air, and very gently swung round over the quayside into the water, and mooring lines made fast. Somebody wondered why we didn’t crack a bottle of champagne over her, but that’s something we’ll save for when we have a proper naming ceremony. It certainly felt a bit strange simply stepping across onto the boat’s aft deck instead of having to climb a ladder. All credit to our fantastic welders – as Slava helpfully pointed out yesterday after checking inside the engine room: “She’s not leaking yet!”

The boat was moored at the quayside outside the boatyard on her first night in her new environment, then moved to a mooring at the adjacent Hayling Yacht Company for the remainder of the work to be carried out. There’s still a lot to do before she’s ready to commence sea trials, but having got to this point is an accomplishment in itself, and it certainly spurs us on to the next stage of the project.

The Big Red Boat

September 19th, 2019

With a week to go until her scheduled launching, things have been moving swiftly at the boatyard where Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat Excalibur is being finished off. The last couple of weeks or so have seen fairly painstaking work, filling and fairing the hull – filling in any minor dips and smoothing out any lumps. This week the lower section of hull has had its first coat of antifoul, while the upper part has been wrapped.

In a process often used with powerboats, the hull has been encased in sheets of what Blue Peter might describe as “sticky back plastic.” It makes for a superb durable finish, and achieved in a fraction of the time it would take to paint.

The wheelhouse and superstructure will receive its wrap early next month, once we’ve taken delivery of the special glass being used to make Excalibur’s windows. At that point, the boat will be in the water. In the meantime, the end of this week sees the massive Castoldi jet drives installed again for the last time. There’s still a lot to do to get the boat ready for its first sea trials, but we’re definitely getting there.

Excalibur: the clock is ticking

September 10th, 2019

Since the completion of all major welding on Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat Excalibur, attention has turned to getting her ready for launching, and at the time of writing, that’s scheduled to take place at the end of September. While the below waterline antifouling is now going to be paint, the rest of the hull and wheelhouse will be wrapped in a bright red vinyl. Even so, preparation remains the same, with every square inch of hull being faired and filled in order to remove high spots and fill shallow areas to even up the surface. It’s all about providing the least resistance to movement through water, and of course to present the best finish aesthetically. The last few days have seen Alan Priddy, Wayne Priddy and Steve Mason hard at work, helped by willing volunteers.

“Using a grinding machine is a physically demanding job,” says Alan. “It’s important that the visible sections of the boat are as close to perfection without grinding down the thickness of the metal.” With the top part of the hull finished, Steve Mason set about painting the more intricate parts which can’t be covered by the bright red wrap.

Further work on the boat will be needed after launching before she’s ready to commence sea trials, but at least people will see her in all her glory, and realise that when we say we’re going to do something, we do it! It might even persuade one or two potential sponsors to jump off the fence and commit to supporting us.

Coming soon to an ocean near you

July 22nd, 2019

I’m rather mindful of the fact that recent progress updates on Team Britannia’s round the world powerboat project have been largely the same: “By the time you read this, Excalibur will be afloat.” And then of course it isn’t. And while completion of the boat has not been without its delays due simply to the fact that we’re building a one-off which departs from the norm in both design and construction, the bottom line has been – as you might expect – money. Fortunately we have a lot of supporters who’ve maintained faith in the project, and while lean times have forced us to suspend building operations every so often, it has only ever been temporary.

A summer resumption of activity in the boatyard has seen the hull and wheelhouse finished off, with just the transom to fit to make the boat watertight. Then comes the exciting part where the boat is wrapped – bright red for her topsides, and black below the waterline using a special hydrophobic antifoul material. We’ve also hosted a number of open days this year to which members of the public, supporters and partners were invited, and they’ve been well attended – even when the weather hasn’t been up to much. But the reaction from everyone that sees Excalibur for the first time is pretty much the same: “Wow, it’s big!” And visitors with boating or engineering backgrounds all remark upon the quality of the construction and attention to detail.

We’ve also made it easier for people to become involved by launching a competition on our website, with two crew places per round the world record leg as main prizes, and short trips out in the boat for runners-up. And even if the idea of a trip on the boat seems less than appealing, each entry is rewarded with 25 shares in Clean Fuel Ltd. Their pollution-busting technology forms a cornerstone of the entire project, and has the potential to clean up internal combustion engines without any mechanical modifications, so everyone’s a winner. Once Excalibur is in the water and operating from her base in Gibraltar, with a projected attempt in 2020, that round the world record may finally be on its way back to Britain.