Remembering Doug Scott CBE

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 in 1987 to what was then the last unclimbed route on Everest – the north-east ridge. I couldn’t have done too badly – he sent me a postcard from Advance Base Camp describing the conditions on the mountain, and how well the team members were working together. He asked me again for subsequent climbs, including Jitchu Drake in Bhutan.

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.

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