How Yorkshire grit helped Alan Hinkes climb the world's highest mountains
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 February 2014
Only a handful of mountaineers have climbed all the world's five-mile high peaks and even fewer have lived to tell the tale. Alan Hinkes tells Terry Fletcher how Yorkshire grit kept him alive
Alan Hinkes ought to be dead. Even he is not quite sure why he’s not. Mostly it is undoubtedly due to years of hard-won experience, much to an astonishing resilience and at least a little to pure luck. Perhaps the rest is thanks to old-fashioned Yorkshire grit. As a high altitude mountaineer he has spent a lifetime flirting with danger, especially during an 18-year-long campaign to climb all the world’s highest peaks which exceed 8,000m (26,246ft) and which kill so many of their suitors. He finally achieved his goal in 2005 when he stood alone on the summit of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. Caught in a blizzard of swirling snow and ice, he recorded a message on his digital camera, unsure if they were the last words he would ever speak, then headed downhill into the storm.
These summits, thrusting up more than five miles to the heights where passenger jets cruise, into a realm luridly – but aptly – called ‘the Death Zone’. At such heights, where winds regularly blow at more than 100 miles an hour and temperatures drop to -40 degrees C, there is so little oxygen that the body cannot maintain itself. Instead it starts to shut down and quite literally die. No one can survive there for long and life expectancy is measured in hours. Now eight years later he has finally told the story of how he climbed them, often alone, in a new book 8000 Metres - Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains.*
It was in 1986 that the Italian Rheinhold Messner became the first to climb all 14. In the quarter of a century since only 30 others have emulated that achievement, scarcely enough for a rugby match. It is in any event a game that could never take place. Some have since died in the mountains and others sacrificed frostbitten fingers and toes to their dream. At the time Hinkes decided to try to climb them more men had walked on the moon than had reached all 14 summits.
It was an odd ambition for a lad who had taken up climbing while at school in his native Northallerton. But from the start he had enjoyed testing himself against the elements, venturing out onto the North Yorks Moors in driving rain and mist, honing navigation skills and sleeping out in all weathers. After he began rock climbing he added bivouacking – sleeping on small ledges high on the crags, tied on with ropes. It is an essential skill on Alpine faces but few do it in Yorkshire.
Hinkes says: ‘I like being out in bad weather. I enjoy a good battle with the elements. You might have an uncomfortable night, you might be shivering but as long as you can protect yourself from the wind you will at least survive. I knew this would be good practice for the bigger mountain faces.’
He trained as a teacher and used the long holidays to climb notorious Alpine north faces such as the Matterhorn and the Eiger – ‘like climbing a giant tombstone’ – but soon that was not enough and in the mid-1980s he resigned to retrain as a mountain guide. He got the taste for bigger and bigger objectives in Africa, the Himalayas, Andes and Rockies but always the 8,000m peaks beckoned. ‘I felt they were the ultimate test of resilience, stamina, skill and endurance. It is not possible for a human being to survive for long above 8,000m. Simply surviving takes a tremendous effort both physically and mentally. Breathing and movement are difficult and slow, sleep is virtually impossible and the cold will freeze exposed flesh. Frostbite is a real possibility, often leading to loss of frozen fingers and toes or even limbs.’
That Hinkes still possesses a full complement of digits is a tribute to his belief that on an 8,000m peak survival is success enough, the summit is a bonus. His motto was that no mountain was worth his life. It created a sometimes uneasy mixture of caution and fatalism. Throughout his 27 expeditions he showed great discretion and a willingness to retreat. Yet he also appreciated that some risks were unavoidable and must be accepted, such as the time he decided there was a 10 per cent chance a huge snow slope would avalanche but pressed on up it. ‘Why I thought that was acceptable I’ve no idea. You would not get on a train that had a 10 per cent chance of crashing,’ he says.
So why did he live when so many other talented and skilled mountaineers – many of them his friends - died? ‘I don’t know. Maybe it is partly luck, anyone can be hit by a falling rock, but you sometimes make your own luck. Maybe it was just Yorkshire grit and a determination to keep going and survive.’
Partly too it may be because he took a photograph of his daughter, Fiona, to each summit. She was little more than a toddler when he began and today is a mother herself. ‘I had to come back for her,’ he says. ‘Mountaineering is a very selfish activity but she gave me a selfless reason to survive.’
The achievement of his goal has not dulled his passion for the hills and one reason the book has taken so long to complete has been his constantly ‘going out to play’ on trips to smaller peaks and to the British hills or just around his home in Richmond.
‘I still love climbing but nothing would induce me to go back on an 8,000er. I would not go back on K2 (the world’s second highest and generally accepted as the hardest) or Kangch. They are just too dangerous.’
Today he still makes his living guiding and lecturing about his climbing. In other countries, those who have completed the 8,000m peaks are national heroes, with lucrative sponsorship deals yet in Britain Hinkes is largely unknown outside the world of mountaineering. After his success he was awarded the OBE - a stark contrast with the knighthoods lavished on more mainstream sportsmen. But Hinkes says: ‘It seemed to bother other people more than me. No Frenchman has yet climbed all 14 but when he does he’ll be more famous there than Beckham is here but that’s just the difference in how mountaineering is seen in both countries. In the end I did not do it for fame or glory or money. I did it for me.’
8000 Metres. Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains by Alan Hinkes (Cicerone £25)