Having recently achieved his ninth (yup, ninth) summit of Everest, Kenton Cool tells Trek & Mountain how he got to the top of the guiding game, and what the future holds…
Having successfully summited Mount Everest for the ninth time last month, Kenton Cool now holds the British world record for the most ascents of the world’s highest mountain. But though he’s best known for his exploits on Everest, Cool has also tackled a number of daunting first ascents across the globe, from the SW ridge of Annapurna III (for which he was nominated for a Piolet D’or) to Mount Hunter’s Moonflower Buttress in Alaska. Famously in 2007, he led Sir Ranulph Fiennes to the summit of the Eiger via its North Face and became the first British guide to lead a client to the summit via this classic route. He has also set up his own mountain guiding company, Dream Guides, and now divides his time between leading, climbing and encouraging others to get out into the mountains. We caught up with Cool soon after his return from Nepal, to chat about his mountaineering career so far and to find out what the future might have in store.
What and when was your interested first sparked in the great outdoors?
For me it all started with the Scouts when I was 15 or so, when I was introduced to hillwalking which I totally loved. As I did more, I wanted to walk up the biggest hills by the steepest routes, which in turn lead to climbing. Although I grew up on the edge of London I was lucky that we lived on the side of a farm so had lots of woods and fields around. I used to spend all my waking time outside playing; I think I was a nightmare for my mother, constantly coming home late for tea, covered in mud with holes in my knees. I look back on those days with very fond memories, I think the term ‘we were young and carefree’ sums it up very well!
When did you decide you like to pursue a career in mountaineering?
I didn’t really know what else to do! I was working as an industrial roped access worker (hanging off buildings and bridges with ropes) and had been for 6 or 7 years. I realised that this wasn’t a long-term solution but at the time it suited my needs well. I’d work for a few months then go on another expedition. It was while working in South Wales on a power station that the late Jules Cartwright offered a drunken bet about putting an application in to the British Guides with him. Never one to turn a challenge down, I accepted and the rest, as they say, is history.
Where were your first expeditions?
My first real expedition was to Pakistan when I was 19. I spent seven weeks there with some mates. Although we failed on the main objective, we did two new routes and repeated a third. We also spent a little bit of time trekking and hanging out with goat herders, which was pretty cool. I was sick as a dog for almost the entire time but it didn’t take away from the whole experience of it. We did everything on the cheap; the whole trip cost less than £550 including our flights, and almost everything went wrong at some stage, but it was amazing and set me up well for future trips.
What guiding qualifications do you have ?
I’m a full IFMGA guide; that’s the top gun of the guiding world, allowing me to work pretty much worldwide. I’ve been a full guide since 2006. Loads of people call themselves guides but there are only about 170 full guides in the UK, of which less than a 100 work regularly, all the rest of the ‘so called guides’ are instructors. It’s a bit of a bugbear of mine that a number of people use the term guide incorrectly, or worse, call themselves guides when they aren’t. Just because someone has climbed a few mountains doesn’t mean they should be allowed to take paying clients into the hills, yet that is what happens. We see it a lot on mountains such as Kilimanjaro, Island Peak, Ama Dablam and even Everest; it really makes me cross, but the public don’t realise the difference. It would be like me doing a first aid course then selling my services as a doctor. It’s downright dangerous!
What inspired you to start Dream Guides, and how are you different from other guiding companies?
Dream Guides is a friend of mine (Guy Willet, a guide and doctor) and myself. We started up the company because we wanted to offer small expeditions based around our own climbing and skiing experiences. I suppose we wanted to let people into our very own expedition world. We try to keep our trips small and bespoke, by doing this we hope that the clients become a team, not just a group of people thrown together for commercial reasons; we try to offer our own expedition ethos to others. The big way we differ is the size of teams – we’re certainly not a stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap outfit; we realise the mountains can be a very dangerous place and command the utmost respect. That’s why we only use IFMGA guides unlike most other companies. Mountains are unpredictable and you need everything possible stacked in your favour, and in our minds one of the best ways of doing that is using the best people for the job, and that is full guides, not some wannabe who states they are a guide.
How does guiding compare to climbing with friends?
They are two very different beasts. When you are with clients you are offering a service and therefore have a duty of care to them. Every single decision made has to be thought out and evaluated; let’s face it, there only needs to be a single mistake and the result could be very bad. In adverse weather or bad conditions it can be super stressful knowing that the other person is relying on you 100%. When I’m out with friends, usually we are all super experienced – often they are guides too – and although we are watching out for each other, there isn’t the same level of reliance. If we chose the wrong place to climb or ski that day then hey, so be it, it’s a mistake, while with clients you have to try and find the best conditions all the time, choose the best mountain for their experience and so on. A great day with clients is as enjoyable as climbing with friends but a poor one can rapidly change the whole feel of the day.
What is the most frightening situation you have found yourself in on an expedition?
That would have to be Annapurna III in 2003 (7555m). John Varco, Ian Parnell and I were climbing without Sherpas, fixed ropes or any of the safety nets that are considered the norm on Everest. We were climbing in alpine style, just three friends out on an adventure, albeit a pretty full-on one. It was probably day six or even seven from Base Camp and it had been a very tough one. We were trying to sleep on a tiny ledge hacked out of the ice. John had a terrible hacking cough and was spitting out blood and green slime, we were all completely exhausted and felt out on a limb. Both Ian and I were sure John was showing signs of pulmonary edema and weren’t sure if he was going to be alive in the morning. We were totally helpless, there was really nothing we could do for him apart from descend, but it was dark and our bodies were totally spent. It became one of the longest nights of my life.
Are you attracted to Everest for commercial or personal reasons, or both?
I first went there for commercial reasons, and while I still operate as a guide on the mountain my love for the place has grown through personal reasons. Missing a season would be a very hard thing to do. It’s not so much Everest, rather Nepal as a whole country. I really do think I’m totally in love with the people, culture and country. Yes I earn money through working as a guide, but I go back because I personally want to.
How long will you keep going back to Everest, and how many more ascents do you have in you?
I have a stock answer to this one! I’ll continue to climb Everest as long as I keep on enjoying being there. Physically I have lots of ascents still in me, it comes down to whether I want to be there. Climbing for me is fun and when it stops being so it’s time to do something else.
What percentage of a successful ascent is mental compared to physical?
On Everest I often say it’s about 80-85% mental. If you want it enough and if you manage things well then chances are a summit may be possible. With a little good luck thrown in and a good guide of course!
How does your family feel about your exploits?
My mother and father have always been totally supportive. My wife and small daughter are the same; it does help that I’m not really doing cutting edge stuff right now like I used to (although I have some plans coming up!). It’s really important to have the family on side as climbing can be a really selfish sport, mountaineering especially; to go away with issues at home really wouldn’t be a good situation. People often ask if things have changed with the arrival of my daughter Saffron but so far its not altered my decision-making on the hills at all – it just makes me want to return home as quickly as possible. I spent a mere 23 days on Everest this year door-to-door!
What is your most memorable expedition and why?
They all have been great in their own ways, I love being on an expedition but if I had to pick one then I think Annapurna III in 2003; it was simple, successful and life changing.
What is the best piece of mountaineering advice you have ever been given, and by whom?
“Getting to the top is optional, getting back down mandatory,” by Ed Viesturs.
Who has inspired you the most?
The list of those that inspire me is long. The very short version is: my mother and father, my wife, Alex MacIntyre, Peter Habeler, Andreas Heckmair.
What is it you enjoy most about climbing?
Well I could write a whole essay on that one… It’s such a great sport to be part of, in fact, it’s definitely more of a way of life than a sport. There are so many aspects to it; it’s got to be one of the most diverse activities in the world – each climb is quite different from another. For me the special thing about climbing is the places I have travelled to and the people I have met. Climbing totally defined my life for about 15 years and I feel enriched for that.
What are your plans for the future?
There is a saying I once heard which goes something like this: ‘To tell the devil too much about your dreams is to risk their loss’.