Ellis Stewart interview taken in 2016
In 2014 and again in 2015 British climber Ellis Stewart survived the two worst disasters in the history of Mount Everest climbing whilst attempting to reach the summit of the mountain.
How old were you and what made you want to climb Mount Everest?
I was around 19 when I made a deal with myself to one day try and climb the mountain. I had been interested in all things Everest for a few years before that but it wasn’t until I attended a Doug Scott lecture that the seeds were firmly planted. I became obsessed/fascinated with the mountain from that moment on, and I was determined to climb the mountain at some point in my future.
On both of your trips to Mount Everest you went via the South side, had you considered the North side at all?
Yes initially all my planning and dreaming of climbing the mountain was focused on the North side. Like you I am deeply interested in the history of that side of the mountain. The whole Mallory & Irvine mystery intrigued me and I learned a lot more about the route through Tibet than I did through Nepal in my early planning. I had also dismissed the South side on account of the fact that an ascent from Nepal was considerably more expensive than from the North. The expedition guide I ultimately went to Everest with convinced me to switch my focus to the South side, where it was said my chance of success would be higher.
In 2014 you were just one day away from Everest Base Camp when an avalanche struck the mountain and 16 Sherpa’s sadly lost their lives. How did you first hear of the news and what went through your mind at that time?
I had just crossed the Kong ma la – a high pass at over 5,000m – and dropped down to the village of Lobuche when the news started to reach us. One of our porters told us there had been an avalanche on the mountain and that six Nepali mountain workers had been killed. As the morning progressed, the death toll began to rise and it became apparent that we were dealing with an appalling unprecedented incident. I felt numb at the news, and also deeply anxious knowing we were here to climb the same mountain that had just wiped out sixteen lives.
At Base Camp there were talks between some expeditions about continuing with there climb. Would you have continued if your team got the all clear to do so or did you in your mind know that your climb was already over?
That’s a good question Colin. One I have been asked before. I guess if the decision was taken to continue with the climb by the majority of the commercial operators including my own then I would have followed suit. It was a decision that wasn’t mine to make. If the Sherpa’s were willing to climb then the western climbers would surely have followed. As it happened no one was really willing to go near the mountain for a good few days out of respect for those lost. When the decision was announced that there would be no climbing on the mountain at all for 2014 I was happy to pack up and go home under the circumstances.
Arriving back to Hartlepool in England how long did it take for you to get back to normal after the tragedy and dissapointment on Mount Everest?
Another good question and in a way I have never really got over it, even now two and a bit years down the line. The events of that years attempt on Everest still play out in my mind from time to time. I regularly think about the senselessness in such a large loss of life, which keeps me awake for hours sometimes. I spent the rest of 2014 in a state of limbo, wondering what had just happened and why. I also did a lot of soul searching to see if the passion was still there to try again.
How did your wife Tamara react when you said you wanted to go back in 2015?
Initially not good, in fact I was pretty certain that if I did go back that it would signal the end of my marriage. Everest is a dangerous mountain, which is undeniable. The fact that a major incident happened the year I made my first attempt highlighted just how dangerous a mountain it is. Especially after I had convinced all my loves ones that nothing would happen. It was a tough ask getting my wife and family and friends onboard again after 2014.
In 2015 you were at Camp 1 on the South side of Mount Everest when an earthquake caused an avalanche which claimed 18 lives on the mountain. Camp 1 is just above the Khumbu icefall, it must had been a close shave for you?
It was incredibly close. There has not been a day passed since that I do not think about the events in the Icefall that day. I was nearing the top of the Icefall after a torturous several hour climb, when disaster struck. When the earthquake hit I was completely spent and running on adrenaline. I was with my guide when a powder avalanche hit us. I assumed we were about to buried by something much larger, such as a serac collapsing. When that never happened, it became a race to reach what we hoped would be the safety of the tents of Camp 1.
Was climbing through the icefall as frightening as it is made out to be?
On my first push into the Icefall a few days before the earthquake I would have said no. It was a stunning day with a clear blue sky and I felt full of excitement and adrenaline that I was finally moving through the Icefall. I found the whole route deeply intoxicating and I felt more alive than ever crossing the ladders that until that point I had only ever seen on a screen or in the pages of a book. On the day that everything changed a few days later, it was the scariest place I have ever been in my life. A thick fog filled the icefall all morning adding to the somberness what would become a tragic day.
Where there any fears at being stuck in Camp 1 for a few days waiting to be evacuated by helicopter?
Initially, as a team we didn’t know what had just occurred. It was about thirty minutes after arriving at Camp 1 that we discovered by way of radio contact with Base Camp, the full horror at what had happened down there. It was only then I guess that the thought that I could be stuck up here for sometime began to take over. As it happened we did end up being stuck at Camp 1 for a few days and it was one of the worst 48 hours of my life. Not knowing whether I would get out of the predicament I was in was awful to take, especially knowing what this would be doing to loved ones back home.
How hard was it to come to terms with not getting the chance to live your dream of standing on top of the world for the second time?
Once again for the second year running I became numb of feeling. Initially I wasn’t thinking about anything other than survival. It wasn’t until I was back home in the UK that I began to think about being denied my chance once again. It didn’t make sense that a mountain I had dreamed about climbing for years could be so cruel and devastating. In the two tragic years of 2014 and 2015 on Everest, just short of 40 people died on the mountain. People began telling me lucky I had been to survive both years. I have never seen it that way though. Only good luck and bad luck decided who survived and who died. I have always felt I was unlucky to be involved in the two worst disasters in the mountains history. I guess I always will, unless I ever go back.
You have just brought out a book called “It’s not about the Summit”. Can you tell us what it is about and where we can buy it from?
The book is my journey to the mountain in 2014 and 2015. It is a twenty-year autobiography in a way, detailing the steps I took to reach the mountain. It is not a climbing narrative of climbing the mountain, but more a look at the emotions and upheaval that can be caused by wanting to climb the highest mountain in the world. I have self published the book and it is now available for sale through Amazon online, in both a paperback and eBook format. I am very proud of it and I have poured a lot of my heart into it.
In an article on the Hartlepool Mail website you said “I can categorically say there won’t be a third attempt.” Does that still stand?
In 1996 in Atlanta, Steve Redgrave won his 4th Olympic gold medal in Rowing. In an interview he said “from now on if anybody sees me in a boat, they have my permission to shoot me” Four years later in Sydney he won his 5th gold medal. I guess I kind of feel the same way. When I came home in 2015 I was as done with Everest as it was possible to be. But…this mountain gets under your skin and into your blood. I still dream about standing on its summit and curse my misfortune at the fact that hasn’t happened. I am not saying I will be going back in the next few years but all I will say is ‘never say never’. Never is such a final word, one that is not in my vocabulary.
In the past couple of years I have brought a few Everest T-Shirts and a Hoodie from your shop Everest Dream, do you find that you sell more Everest related clothing than anything else?
In the past few years the Everest clothing did tremendously well and helped me with my expedition costs for both of my attempts. It was just an idea I had to give something back rather than asking for donations with nothing to give in return. I never expected it to sell in quite the way it did and as I type I am currently looking into reviving it as a stand-alone brand. It still sells well, even now so it would be foolish to stop it when the demand is still there. Watch this space.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
I have no idea personally. I am not qualified to say whether I think they did or didn’t. I would like to think they did. My heart tells me yes they did, but my head says a firm no. I guess the romanticism of it all is their everlasting legacy and the mystery of whether or not they did or didn’t may possibly remain forever. I know there are historians who would like this settled one way or the other, but I personally think it is best left that we don’t know. It would be awful to Hillary and Tensing if history had to be re-written.