Alex Staniforth Interview taken in 2016
British climber Alex Staniforth was heading for Mount Everest in 2014 when an avalanche ended his climb before it started. In 2015 Alex was at Camp 1 when another deadly avalanche struck the mountain.
What made you decide to have a go at climbing Mount Everest?
A long story but like many people I had a spark of ambition and Everest became the ultimate goal that mattered to me more than anything else. Like many people I had a calling to this mountain I couldn’t put my finger on. I suffered adversity as a child including Epilepsy, speech problems, mental health issues and relentless bullying so the outdoors became a sudden escape and purpose. Everest just became the focus point of that and after deciding aged 14 I would climb Everest I never thought I’d be there just four years later. I have funded my trips through corporate sponsorship and so Everest became my ‘full time job’ for two years. It was about finding a way to get there or making one off my own back.
What training did you do to get in shape for the climb?
I changed my approach both times but focused on endurance – mostly by road cycling and Scottish winter mountaineering, with interval training and strength & conditioning work in the gym. I spent a month in Nepal attempting Baruntse (7129m) for prior altitude experience. In the build up to Everest 2015 I completed a number of bigger endurance challenges, including cycling 880 miles to Chamonix solo in 8 days. I’ve always believed that it’s 90% mental and 10% physical, so learning to suffer was most important.
You were 18 years old on your first Mount Everest attempt, what did your parents think about it?
Well I’m sure any parent would be extremely anxious but I’m very fortunate that mine fully supported my ambition from the start. None of my family are adventurers so can’t comprehend the challenges or risks in the same way.
In 2014 you were one day from Base Camp when the avalanche struck Everest and ended the expedition. What was going through your mind when you heard about the avalanche and how did you feel that the expedition had ended so quickly?
At the time it sounded like a minor event but by the time we arrived at base camp we realised the true extent of the tragedy and how many lives had been lost – the biggest disaster in Everest history. It was a feeling of shock to be honest and I remember the heavy mourning feeling at base camp very well. The reasons for ending the trip were different and more so due to a political hijacking by a few individuals that ultimately damaged the local community more than anyone, and that was the second tragedy of the season. Cancelling the expedition for this was a bitter feeling and seemed a bit pointless, it all got out of hand.
How long did it take you to come to terms with what had happen and decide to sign up for Everest the following year?
You quickly accept this is the nature of mountaineering and I think in my heart I knew I would return immediately even after witnessing such a tragic event. We always learn from these things and it was a chance to come back stronger. It also brought me closer to the Sherpa people and hence I started fundraising for them in the process.
In 2015 you climbed up through the Khumbu Icefall for the first time. How did you find this?
Surprisingly enjoyable and straight-forward. The second time I had a tough time with the altitude. It’s quite an enchanting place to be although you certainly have your eye on the seracs hanging overhead.
The earthquake that hit Nepal triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest while you were at Camp 1. Did you hear or see the avalanche?
There was avalanches all over the place, the most destructive being the one that destroyed part of base camp. I was just below Camp 1 when the earthquake hit. To be honest I never felt the earthquake. We got a huge blast of powder snow and I certainly felt that… considering our location I could only assume the worst and was amazed to get out of that unhurt. I think most of us thought we were toast. Compared to base camp we escaped pretty lightly.
Did you have any worries at being stuck in Camp 1 until rescue arrived?
The aftershocks were dropping avalanches at us from both sides, so we were like sitting ducks for two days. We had no full idea of the scale of what was happening below and to begin with had no idea when help would arrive, especially after a larger aftershock the following day ruled out the possibility of descending through the Icefall again. Personally I remember being in shock at the time and strangely don’t recall being particularly bothered at the time. There wasn’t anything I could do to change the situation.
The team you were with sadly lost three Sherpas during the avalanche. Did you get to meet these brave men?
Of course. I knew two from the previous year. Pasang Temba was a legend and unmistakable, although he never said much. Kumar really stood out amongst the group, everyone loved him and he was always beaming away. Sadly I never spoke to Tenzing who seemed a very promising young climbing Sherpa.
How different did Base Camp look when you arrived back there after the avalanche?
Like a plane crash, a war-zone… our own camp was unrecognizable and I could have walked past if not for following some of the Gurkhas. Never have I seen such destruction in my life and we didn’t really know where to start the clean-up. Everything from spades to shoes was scattered everywhere. A large section of camp was pretty untouched. The central area with our camp and other big teams (Adventure Consultants, Madison Mountaineering, Jagged Globe, Summit Climb) took the worst hit.
How did you feel for a second time knowing that the expedition was over?
Probably disbelief but the circumstances were completely different. At the time any thought of continuing climbing was gone. It was a real-life nightmare to be caught up in a disaster of that scale and obviously I just wanted to be home.
Your book ‘Icefall’ has sold very well since it came out earlier in the year. Can you tell us what the book is about and where we can buy it from?
The clue is in the title! Icefall tells my journey to Everest from the very beginning of overcoming adversity and actually making the goal a reality. It gives a full account of both the 2014 and 2015 disasters from my experiences and this I feel sets it apart from the typical Everest books. The name “Icefall” came to me as the location of the first disaster and my location in the second. It’s available on Amazon, PHASE Worldwide shop (www.phaseworldwide.org), a few independent bookshops, Kindle, at my speaking events and via my website www.alexstaniforth.com
Do you intend to try again on Mount Everest in the future?
Maybe, if the will to do so returns. The avalanche didn’t put me off. It’s just such a huge commitment that you need your head 100% in the game and you really have to want to be there.
Out of all the challenges you have done so far, which is your favourite?
Hard to say. Probably my Cho Oyu expedition this Autumn because I finally got chance to climb up high and experience a successful expedition, even if I didn’t summit myself – I reached 7125 metres before sadly having to abort my summit bid with AMS.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
I haven’t climbed the Second Step so I can’t really say. I would hate to think those guys summited and never got to claim it. I’m surprised we haven’t found conclusive evidence yet. Maybe we’ll never know.
If you would like to find out more about Alex Staniforth then head over to his website at www.alexstaniforth.com