The global mountaineering superstar Kenton Cool recently released his autobiography detailing his climbing exploits. On the dust sleeve of the book Sir Ranulph Fiennes is quoted as saying something along the lines of Kenton being the greatest mountain chap that ever was, and anyone saying different is a damned fool. Exciting stuff then. I’m waiting for the audio book version. Maybe Brian Blessed will narrate it…
The climbing press’s adoration for Kenton has always struck me as somewhat odd. Not because his achievements aren’t worthy; whichever way you cut it, getting to the summit of Everest 11 times has to be admired. It’s just that the cult of Kenton sits weirdly with me because I know the guy on a personal level. We cut our Alpine and Himalayan climbing teeth together in our late teens and early 20’s so I know the man behind the squared jawed patina of Everest glory and Land Rover advertisements. You see, I know the 2am Hacienda nightclub Kenton. I know the broken boned rehabilitation centre, wheel chair racing Kenton…to my mind he’s just a regular guy, the friend I once went on an anarchic mountaineering adventure with and who saved my dumb arse. This is that story. What it has to do with Avalanche Geeks will become apparent.
Kenny and I met back in 1993 at the end of a remote cul-de-sac valley in the Hunza region of the Pakistani Karakoram. We were on separate expeditions to climb the same obscure 6,000 metre peak called Shani. When I say expeditions, I’m probably being a bit generous. Kenton was out with a bunch of mates from Sheffield University on a shoestring budget and I was sharing a tent with my regular rock climbing partner from the North Yorkshire moors, as well as the occasional marauding yak. On the second day, the bastard ate half of our food supplies for the month (the yak not the Yorkshire man), so we ended up bumming Marmite and chapati flour from the Sheffield boys. It was the first time into the greater ranges for any of us and it was a baptism of fire. For me it was an introduction to the world of new routing alpinism on big mountains that Kenton was about to fully immerse himself.
Looking back now I guess it’s not surprising that a quarter of a century later it has ended up that I’ve become an avalanche educator and Kenton has become well… Kenton. Even then, his acceptance of risk and what he was willing to trade in terms of his life for the potential reward was way higher than mine; be it leaping off Yorkshire cliffs into icy pools of dark peaty river water or scratching together horribly tenuous first accents of mixed routes in the far north-west of Scotland. KC’s ethos was always ‘go big or go home’. Actually, it was more like ‘go big or die trying’. We even had a sweepstake running on how long he would live for; he’d taken some huge lead falls on Welsh sea-cliffs and by his own admission was experimenting with himself to see how far he could push things into the red. That’s the problem with Russian roulette: you can only play if you’re going to sit at the table. Incidentally, I won the sweepstake by claiming that he would probably live another year – by far the longest estimate, somebody I recall said he wouldn’t last another month!
Kenton gathering ice for the stove. We spent a week in the Hornli winter room in total.
Anyhow, I mention this not to big up KC; last time I checked Kenton’s self confidence was just fine, but to get us onto my favourite of avalanche subjects – risk, and in particular our personal risk acceptance within avalanche terrain. You see, part of the equation is not just your own risk acceptance but also that of your climbing or ski partner. For a happy relationship in the mountains your risk acceptance needs to be similar to each other. It doesn’t matter what that level of risk might be – it could be crazy high like KC’s was back in the day, or it could be that of a bearded religious studies teacher following a Wainwright hiking route. Either way, for the relationship to be in balance your risk acceptance needs be similar otherwise someone is going to be very bored and someone else, very scared! Even back then Kenny’s and my risk acceptance were very different. Think of me as the religious studies teacher but with better teeth and a healthier dose of nihilism.
So when I partnered up with Kenton for a winter ascent of the Schmidt route on the north face of the Matterhorn in January 1993 I should have known it was a misconceived plan. Of course I was only 23 so was as dumb as dog dirt, and therefore had little concept that the venture might see me dead.
Now, you have to remember this was the pre-Internet days: accessible information was as scarce as our competence back then, so we arrived in Zermatt without having even seen a route description. As I recall the topo that we took on the mountain was a photocopy of a book cover of the matterhorn with a line drawn with a biro meandering over the face…I mean seriously? We both kind of knew the north face of the Matterhorn was pretty meaty – one of the great Alpine north face routes, and that back then it was usually done in the summer – but it was only when we were making our way towards the gondola station that would take us on the first part of our journey towards the Hornli hut, and random people started shaking our hands and crying out: ‘Matterhorn’, that the scale of our undertaking started to become apparent.
Kenton at the base of the Schmidt Route prior to the accident
As it turned out it was the weather that conspired to both kill us and at the same time save us from our youthful inadequacies. Let me explain. We spent the first four days of our climb marooned in the winter room of the Hornli hut with our co-conspirators Andy Fowkes and his brother Rodger. For four days a storm raged around the mountain depositing nearly a metre of fresh snow on our respective routes. If we knew of such hazards back then – which of course we didn’t, we’d have realised that the 500 metre ramp of 45° angled snow that started our route would have been a likely death sentence by soft slab avalanche once we got onto it.
Kenton Cool and Rodger Fowkes checking the route at the end of the 4 day storm. Snow transport is obvious.
On day five we were granted a break in the weather. We’d been holed up with cabin fever in the Hornli and now were finally about to start our route. Can anybody count up the heuristics screaming out at this point? Laden down like a couple of hippies on their way to a music festival we ploughed a waist deep trench to the bottom of the route, staring cluelessly up into the barrel of the loaded gun above us. We crossed the bergschrund just in time for cloud to envelop us and the snow to start falling once again. We mused that it was perhaps just a passing squall, the final gasp of the storm, so we hunkered down on a hastily excavated platform side by side, lost in our private thoughts. My intuition said that this was not a good place to be and that it didn’t feel right.
The author as the storm hits
We talk about intuition on our advanced avalanche courses. We discuss the fact that intuition is a possible sub conscious feed back to something that you may have consciously missed, but can’t put your finger on. Intuition shouldn’t be ignored, but needs to be used correctly. We use the phrase: “Use intuition to say no, but never to say go”. Of course at the base of the route we were only interested in the ‘go’.
After an hour sat with our knees tight against our chins and our laps filling up with spindrift, there was no improvement and if anything, the storm was getting worse. We exchanged knowing looks and agreed to call it a day and head back to the hut. “Shall we rope up?” suggested Kenton – “ Nah, we can just follow whats left of our trench back to the hut” I replied despondently. I took one step downhill and disappeared from the world – plummeting unroped into the bergschrund.
I guess I fell about 30 feet into the mountain, landing on a bridge of powder snow in front of me and hard blue ice behind me which wedged me neatly into place. Both my legs dangled into inky blackness beneath me. If I looked hard enough I could just make out the faint glow of the Earth’s core. Not good. I tried not to breathe in case the contraction of my chest dislodged me and sent me into the abyss. After what felt like a inordinate amount of time Kenton’s head framed itself in the opening of the crevasse lip far above me. “Are you okay?” he called down. We had a short chat during which I pointed out that I felt the least okay that I had felt for quite some time. A rope was dropped and rescue was affected. We re-ploughed our route back to the Hornli, this time securely roped to each other.
Kenton Cool, Andy Fowkes (left) and Rodger Fowkes beneath the Matterhorn. The schmidt route follows the centre of the shaded face to the right of the central ridgeline.
Experience in the mountains is the culmination of making lots of dumb mistakes and living to the tell the tale. And good tales they make too. As long as we’re around to tell them of course. There are short cuts to experience…hire a guide, choose a great climbing partner – remember, one with a similar risk acceptance to yourself, and of course get educated, preferably by the best. All of our course dates for the Alps and Scotland are now posted and filling fast by people who have more sense then I did.