Posts Tagged ‘Doug Scott’

Remembering Doug Scott CBE

Tuesday, 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 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.

Everest 45 years ago

Thursday, 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!

Doug Scott in Norwich

Friday, July 10th, 2015

My old friend Doug Scott CBE has been busy in the last few months fund-raising for his charity Community Action Nepal to help with earthquake relief in Nepal. CAN has been active in Nepal for many years, and had built schools and health centres throughout the country. Now after two devastating earthquakes, many of those have to be rebuilt. So far this current effort has raised nearly £1 million, and unlike any aid money channelled through the corrupt Nepalese government, every pound donated to CAN will get to help the people most in need.

And so Doug Scott came to Norwich with a new lecture entitled “The Three Peaks: Everest – K2 – Kangchenjunga”. He was of course the first Brit to climb Everest (Chris Bonington’s South-West Face expedition, 1975). You might expect lots of tales of scary moments and derring-do (of which there were plenty), but they were interspersed with philosophical and thought-provoking interludes, all illustrated with Doug’s stunning photographs. He’ll be taking the lecture to other venues around the UK – check the CAN website for venues and dates.

His Norwich lecture was run in conjunction with the Cavell Nurses Trust, which exists to help nurses who may have fallen on hard times. Nurse Edith Cavell was a Norfolk woman, the centenary of whose execution at the hands of the Germans in World War One is being marked this year.

Everest 60th anniversary

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

60 years ago today, on the 29th May 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stood on the summit of Everest. With the news announced to the world on the day of the coronation, it marked the beginning of the second Elizabethan age in spectacular style. For anyone interested in mountaineering, walking and camping, the first ascent of Everest was a kick-start to an industry producing outdoors equipment where the designs of many tents, sleeping bags and footwear had remained pretty much unchanged for 50 years.

While on a British-led expedition, Tenzing and Hillary weren’t themselves British. It wasn’t until Chris Bonington’s 1975 expedition that Doug Scott and Dougal Haston became the first Brits to summit Everest, climbing by the toughest route up the mountain – the south-west face. To this day, Scott and Haston’s achievement, along with surviving the unplanned highest overnight bivouac on record, remains an extraordinary feat of high-altitude mountaineering.

Back in the 1950’s, Nepal allowed just one climbing expedition on Everest per year. Now, of course, it is a very different picture. Expeditions to Everest produce a hefty chunk of Nepal’s tourist income. The South Col route up the mountain taken by Hillary and Tenzing is these days known as the “tourist route”, and while you still need to be fit and have plenty of stamina to climb the mountain, if you can afford it, you can join a guided expedition with minimal mountaineering experience. As ever, you also need to be incredibly lucky with the minute weather window, but these days, you also have the added problem of crowds. Yes, crowds! The only bit of technical climbing is a couple of hundred feet below the summit, a 40ft rock face known as the Hillary Step, and it’s here that a bottleneck can occur with climbers waiting their turn to go up also having to fit in with those coming down. Queues can sometimes be two or three hours, and people have actually died while waiting. When the temperature is minus 20 and your oxygen supply is limited, you don’t want to be standing around for hours getting exhausted and frostbitten.

Now there is a proposal to install a ladder on the Hillary Step so that tourists can descend without impeding the progress of those climbing up, hopefully reducing the traffic jam. Of course that might alleviate the problem, but it still doesn’t get round the fact that Everest has turned into a circus, and that these days, the majority of people climbing it aren’t even mountaineers, and think it’s just something on their “bucket list” to tick off. With thousands of feet of fixed rope and now possibly a ladder, it’s no longer a mountain for purist climbers.

Ten years ago I interviewed Doug Scott for a piece in The Times’ Everest 50th anniversary supplement, and he was scathing about the fashion for people coming to Everest to claim all sorts of spurious records, and the way people joining commercial expeditions expect the guides to be able to bail them out when something goes wrong. Since then, things have only got worse, but one thing remains the same – when you’re in the death zone above 26,000 feet, no matter how many people there are around you, when the chips are down you’re on your own!

Click here to read my feature in The Times’ Everest 50th anniversary supplement.

Decade Gazing

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

I guess this is something I should have done a few days ago, but then I’ve never been one to put a great deal of store in the concept of New Year. It is, after all, just a system of numbering.

Having said that, the past 10 years have been quite momentous ones for me. I thought the 90s were pretty amazing – I did a huge amount of travelling, became the first journalist to fly in a hot air balloon in Soviet Russia, descended 100 feet to the bottom of Windermere in a submersible, and led a trek in Nepal for Everest legend Doug Scott (in the process coming back with one of the most exotic diseases on the planet).

But the noughties saw a personal journey rather more intense. I’ve had a few sticky moments in the mountains, but nothing could compare to the brutal punishment of being tossed around in storms up to Force 11 in a 33 foot powerboat. Spirit of Cardiff was built to break the record for circumnavigating the world, and by accident, I found myself part of the crew.

Spirit of Cardiff in Gloucester, MassachusettsWe didn’t break the round the world record, but we still set more boating records than anyone else, including Ellen MacArthur. In 2000 we set the very first ever world record for circumnavigating the British Isles by powerboat. It’s been broken several times since, but no one can take away the fact that Spirit of Cardiff was first! And in 2001, we set the new world record for a powerboat transatlantic from New York to Lizard Point. Not only does that one still stand, no one has even tried to beat it.

Finding yourself in an angry ocean in the middle of the night, 300 miles from land, is one of those things that forces you to confront your fears. And yet I was less concerned about the many times I had to worry about that during my epic voyage around the world in 2002, than the moment in Sri Lanka when I found myself staring down the receiving end of an AK47, or being chased by a pirate boat in the South China Sea. Those are the moments that stick in my mind as rather more scary than braving Mother Nature at her most aggressive.

Spirit of Cardiff ended up being lost at sea, abandoned in a dramatic rescue in the North Atlantic. It was one of the few trips she did without me on board, and I’ve always wondered how I would have faced up to that one – where the prospect of not surviving was even more stark than the ones I had to face. After that I went back to rather more gentle travel journalism, but the intention has always been to come back for another crack at the round the world record.

In the end, it didn’t happen in the noughties, but the successor to Spirit of Cardiff is designed, and a lot of the groundwork has been done. Of course, finding sponsors with deep pockets in a recession is a pretty tough call. But you never know – it could still happen in the next year or so. All of which leads me to thinking that there’s only so much gazing backwards one can do – forwards is always much more interesting!