Gavin Bate Interview taken in 2014
Gavin reached the summit of Mount Everest on the 20th May 2011. He is the owner of Adventure Alternative and has climbed all over the world.
You reached the summit of Mount Everest on your sixth expedition to the mountain. Was there a big relief in having reached your goal after having tried so many times?
There was a relief, yes, but Mount Everest never became my nemesis, it was more like my mentor. Looking back now I can say that it was far better to have made six expeditions instead of just one, as I was always more interested in the aesthetic of it all. The experiences I had will keep me in stories for my grandchildren!
I don’t think I ever suffered from summit fever; five times I reached just a hundred or so metres below the summit and five times I turned back, I know the value of patience on high peaks! There was a big sense of pride from having organised all the expeditions myself too.
Three of the expeditions were without the use of bottled oxygen, of which one was using only one camp above base and another was a traverse without using any camps. I knew the probability of summiting was very low without this support or with Sherpas, but it’s the coming back down that is mandatory. Looking back now, there relief is in never having hurt myself.
I climb because I love nature and mountains adapting to that environment and being right at the peak of my awareness and capabilities. Being on Everest enabled me to experience that feeling many times, so in retrospect I’m very happy it took all that time. Sometimes, sitting in a tent looking out over the mountains, you never want it to end. It’s such a simple and perfect existence. My journey with Mount Everest was worth it all, and it gave me a platform in life that I never anticipated.
How hard is it to make the decision to turn back when so close to the summit?
Mostly the decisions were obvious and unsentimental. I have done enough high to know that you don’t compromise on mountaineering principles even if it’s a hundred metres away from the top of the highest mountain in the world. It’s always going to be there.
In 2000 I got to the south summit and was feeling absolutely great. I was on a mission to do the seven summits in one year. The climbing leader John Barry said that I couldn’t go up because I had a cough. I felt greatly maligned but you don’t disagree with the guide in that situation. I descended by myself while the others summited. It was very hard to turn back.
In 2002 my friend Will dislocated his kneecap at the base of the Second Step and I faced a huge dilemma because we were without bottled oxygen and climbing by ourselves with one camp at 7900 metres which suddenly seemed a long way away. Turning back from the summit that time was easy, my friend’s life and our survival were obviously more important.
In 2005 I used only one camp below the Lhotse Face and I did my own carries and used no bottled oxygen. There was a long queue on the Step so I decided to turn around rather than wait, which I considered to be a dangerous move. I was very happy to go from Camp 2 to that height and back to base in 32 hours, but I was in a hurry to get back down because I’d met my future wife on the walk-in and she was waiting for me!
In 2007 I attempted a traverse of Everest from north to south without any camps or bottled oxygen. Pasang Tendi Sherpa was my ‘shadow’, complete with a bag of oxygen just in case! I climbed Cho Oyu first and spent six weeks on Everest training and felt extremely fit. On my summit cycle I climbed with almost no breaks at all and a rucksack with everything I needed, it was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Then I collapsed with a pulmonary oedema at the Second Step, it was very sudden and dramatic, and a lonely spot for this to happen. I remember the view down the north face was truly wonderful. Just as I thought I was done for, Pasang appeared out of the mist and put me on oxygen and we had a long memorable descent, most of which I spent on my backside. The decision was made for me, and I had to make a hard phone call to my girlfriend from 7500 metres knowing that I might not make it.
In 2009 and 2011 I decided to use oxygen and take clients with me, which meant that all my energies were on getting them to the summit. Pasang was with me again, now Director of my company in Nepal and we had wonderful times together. Unfortunately my oxygen mask froze up in 2009 and I turned back in order to allow the Sherpas to carry on with the clients, and then in 2011 I got to the summit on a lovely day, fittingly alongside my friend Pasang Tendi. It was a quality mountain day and one I will never forget. I felt as if I had deserved it after all the years.
The cliché is that it’s all in the journey, and it is true. Many people associated turning back from the summit as a failure but to get as far as summit day is in itself an achievement. Success on summit day is a combination of many factors dove-tailing perfectly and with the requisite dose of good luck on your side. So all in all, I’m very happy with the journey and as always, the best things in life are worth waiting. The girl who I met on the 2005 trip has seen me through four Everest expeditions and is now my wife. I think our children will have a great story to tell of how their parents met.
You have raised in excess of half a million pounds for your Moving Mountains charity at www.movingmountainstrust.org What happens to the money raised?
Moving Mountains has always provided me with the extra motivation to climb and do expeditions and I would never have raised as much if I’d summited the first time. The Moving Mountains brand was greatly helped by my expeditions, which is a nice way of combining passion with a cause.
The list of what we do with the money at Moving Mountains is very long, it’s probably best to visit the website, but in Nepal I’ve seen the money build hydro-electric power plants, schools, monasteries and provide investment capital for many businesses and social enterprises. The region where we work in Juving has become a thriving area and families have been moving back. This year we are opening a small hospital and next year we are starting to build the first tourism college in the Himalayas.
In Kenya there is twenty years of work in health, education and social development, and in Borneo we plant 15,000 trees a year in the jungles of Sarawak.
In all cases the projects are owned and run by local stakeholders and we promote a high level of good governance and transparency. I have spent my whole life working in international aid, as well as tourism and obviously climbing, so I have strong principles over how a good charity should be run. Thankfully I have some pretty amazing people working for Moving Mountains who have all shown amazing dedication and commitment. Climbing Everest was as much to give them the motivation to continue the good work.
Pasang Tendi Sherpa reached the summit of Everest with you. Have you built a good relationship with Pasang that will last a lifetime?
Pasang is the brother in law of Ang Chhongba Sherpa who is one of my best friends. It was Chhongba and his wife who, during a trip to Ireland, recommended that I climb Everest with Pasang for the 2005 trip which was a bit more difficult than the usual. We have climbed the mountain together three times now, and of course he saved my life in 2009 when I had the pulmonary oedema, so I am indebted to him. I am godfather to his daughter who is named after my wife, and we will bring our own children up partly in the village where he lives. So I hope there is a link there that will last beyond our lifetimes.
It’s important that we see beyond the mountain, and to the relationships that are formed on its slopes and the consequences of standing on its summit. I believe it’s how we act differently when we’ve come down from the summit that matters. In all my years of climbing and guiding it has always been more important to remember the people I shared the experience with and how you let the experiences make you a better person. I’d like to think that you come away with a bit of wisdom after all that effort and dedication!
Of all your times on Mount Everest is there anytime that you thought you might not make it down alive?
I have very strong memories of standing at the Second Step asphyxiating on a lot of gunk that was coming out of my mouth. The pulmonary oedema struck fast and, looking down the vast north face at the Rongbuk Glacier far below me I did think to myself that maybe “this is it”. It was a very hard descent, but of course I’d helped Will down with a dislocated kneecap in 2002, so I knew a bit about hard descents. You just have to knuckle down and do it. In truth those moments are highly liberating and inspirational; I didn’t believe I wouldn’t make it down, but I was in a moment of extreme danger and I suppose it was my inherent optimism that kept me going. There is a strong survival instinct in all of us, so although I quailed at the task ahead of me in both cases, I didn’t give up. At times like that you simply have to believe in yourself.
Was there any piece of clothing or equipment that you used where you said to you ‘this is useless, I must change it for something else’?
My oxygen mask in 2009 when the inlet valve froze! I certainly felt very annoyed with that piece of equipment at that moment, but I don’t blame all oxygen masks. It was as usual a combination of factors on that day and I should have been more observant on the day.
I tend to use equipment and clothing until it falls off me, I think it comes from the days I wore socks on hands for gloves when I was climbing as a young man. A lot of my clothing for the trips to the Greater Ranges is made by Berghaus who used to supply me in the early days. That kit is still going strong. For example my Berghaus Extreme rucksack has now been on six Everest expeditions and I still use it today. I do often say that I need to change it for something else but I am very sentimental about those items and I can’t quite bring myself to throw them away.
What was your time like standing on the summit?
Extremely emotional; it was perfectly clear and almost windless. While I was walking the last metres above the Hillary Step I thought of all the moments that had led to this one, and all the people who had helped me along the way, and all the people who had used my trip to fundraise for Moving Mountains. I thought about my staff and best friends in Northern Ireland who have managed the office during six Everest expeditions, and seen me through all the ups and downs along the way.
I felt that my small adventures had been a springboard for so many other things. All that money from climbing a mountain had built so many schools and clinics and it had literally moved mountains for so many people living in poverty. I know that it sounds a little self-congratulatory, but I did allow myself a moment of ‘sitting on my laurels’. Believe me, it didn’t last long!
I also had clients to deal with and a lot of logistics to get off the mountain with everyone intact and all the kit. So the training kicks in, and you do what’s needed to get everyone down, I used every ounce of experience and knowledge that I had. You look to every step.
But irrespective of the negativity surrounding Mount Everest nowadays, it was a proud and happy moment. Not unlike the feeling I get when I stand on any mountain and take in the world around me.
The Khumbu Icefall is known as a beautiful but dangerous place. You have made the trip through the icefall many times, is every time just as scary as the first time?
A question that people on Everest often ask themselves is this: does the likelihood of dying in the Icefall increase the more times you go into it? A statistician would answer that the likelihood remains the same on the first time as on the hundredth time. Try telling your head that! When you start in amongst the toppling cathedrals of ice and those places with ominous names like ‘popcorn’, the sheer objectiveness of the danger and the potential randomness of being caught in a sudden avalanche, is a very salutary experience. It’s ridiculous really that people do it.
I did almost hold my breath during those few hours crossing ladders and ascending this crazy frozen tongue spilling off the side of the mountain. I was scared plenty of times and anyone who acts complacently in the icefall does so at their own risk.
In 2009 I was one of the first to come across the debris from a large avalanche in the Icefall and ended probing the area for survivors. I remember finding a single plastic boot that had obviously been pulled off someone’s foot. I couldn’t imagine the force it would take to remove a tightly laced plastic boot from your foot. So yes, I have known fear in the Icefall.
You have climbed by both the South and North routes. Do you prefer one route to the other?
The biggest difference in my memory between the north and south sides is the cold. On the SE ridge you get the sun warming you early on, and all the psychological benefits of seeing the sunrise. On the north side you climb in shadow until you get onto the northeast ridge and I remember the numbing cold well.
There is a certain romanticism about the north side, a sense of wildness and exposure on that vast face that you don’t get on the SE ridge route until very high up. The face is hugely foreshortened from a distance, but it is like being an ant on the mountain. The distances are long, and the angle looking down the face when you’re up high is steeper than you’d imagine. I always felt far more remote on the north side, and that was a big attraction to a mountain that gets discredited for being over-commercialised.
On the south side there is more activity because it’s busier, more support in the way of fixed lines, and more diversity as each section of the mountain reveals itself. Each has its own character. The Icefall is like Russian roulette on crampons, then there’s the huge valley cracked from side to side with crevasses under the scorching heat of the day, then the great wedge of the Lhotse face with a tiny camp hacked into the side of it and a pistol shaped rock to overcome halfway up, followed by exhilaration of the South col and what looks almost like an entirely new mountain to climb beyond. Yet that final 848 metres has features that would make it a good day out anywhere in the world; but with the yawning drop at your feet as you clamber over the Hillary Step, the knowledge of where you are adds a frisson of extra excitement.
I can’t think of the north and south side routes without considering with or without oxygen bottles. Climbing without oxygen is as different to climbing with oxygen as chalk to cheese. Doug Scott said that we only start climbing when we unclip from the rope, and he is right of course, as was Messner when he talked about the purity of climbing without oxygen. I have always been hugely influenced by the aesthetic of the climbing style, and by climbers like them who took that step into the unknown. I spent a lot of time on both routes reflecting on my own attempts to live up to those ideals and those ambitions and in that respect I don’t have a preference for either route, I would simply approach each differently and try to do it right.
Which did you find the hardest to do, ascend the Hillary Step or the Second Step?
The Second Step would be the hardest in my opinion, but I didn’t get to the top of it before the oedema overwhelmed me. I thoroughly enjoyed the Hillary Step in 2011, I felt strong and all the factors that make up summit day had dovetailed together well.
It’s hard to say which is the more intimidating of the two really. The view from the Second Step is right down the north face and there’s a lot of air beneath your feet. On the Hillary Step there’s a very satisfying sense of getting your hands on the rock with some big drops on either side. I have not free-climbed it, but I did avoid chugging up the fixed line!
In 2005 your Everest climb was to use only one camp at 6400m and no supplementary oxygen, with a fast alpine-style summit bid in 32 hours. Where did this idea come from?
I also used the original 1953 base camp several miles down the valley, so it was quite lonely initially and that extra couple of miles trek up to the icefall meant leaving my tent at before midnight to get up to Camp 2 before the sun split the stones and turned the whole place into a nightmare of slush and tottering seracs.
The idea came from the fact that I had done an alpine-style summit of Cho Oyu without any problem and also that my friend Will and I had successfully used only one tent on the north side in 2002. I felt confident that I had the strength to use just one tent if I climbed by myself on the south side. My rucksack weighed 32 kgs to Camp 2 which for me was a great sense of achievement. I feel quite strongly that I want to know I can climb the mountain by myself.
This harks back to some strong opinions I have about climbing which are all to do with the importance of knowing that I have the abilities and competences and the confidence to climb by myself, even on a mountain like Everest.
I learnt these principles from a lifetime of reading, and over the years I gravitated towards the likes of Doug Scott, Messner, and more recently people like Steve House, whose approach to climbing is one I wanted to emulate. The concepts of climbing without bottled oxygen, without people carrying my bags, and in an alpine style all contribute to my feeling of doing things in the right way.
After this climb in 2005 I was giving a lecture at the Birmingham NEC and both Doug Scott and Chris Bonington were speaking as well. After my talk Doug came up to me and shook my hand. “No’bad, lad” he said, and I was very happy. We’ve since met quite a few times and I did have to tell him that it was his stories and his principles and indeed his work with Community Action Nepal that made the biggest impact on me, both as a young boy with all my dreams yet to come to reality, and then as an adult with the ability to make the right choices as to how I would make them happen.
Do you have any plans to return to Mount Everest?
My answer for some years would have been “no”. I look back on thirteen years of my life when Mount Everest was a big factor in my life and the work of my charity. But now I have changed my mind, I would love to go back. I found that the experience became more profound the older and more experienced I got.
Everest introduced me to my wife; we met on the trek into base camp in 2005 when I was climbing alone. When she went down to the valleys to help build the hydro-electric power plant that my climb was funding, I started writing to her and giving the envelopes to porters who I knew from the village. Eventually I asked her to come back and meet me on a specific date on the bridge just above Deboche. I had no idea if she would be there, but I was so excited I arrived a day early. As I turned the corner, there she was standing in the middle of the bridge having also arrived a day earlier. She came back to base camp and we spent a wonderful time together. Eight years later we got married and now we are expecting our first child.
Everest has given me so much, so many great memories and so much fulfilment and happiness. For a while it became somewhat of an obsession, but that perspective has changed now. When I return it will be in the manner of revisiting an old friend and with all the care and respect that nearly twenty years of trips on high mountains has given me.
Plus of course I still want to summit by the north side..
Dead or alive which famous climber would you of liked to of shared your summit time with?
Definitely Doug Scott. He was my climbing hero during a childhood that began with hill walking in Scotland. It continued through years of winter climbs and alpine trips with socks on my hands because we couldn’t afford proper gloves, all the way to climbing Mount Everest. I could only ever dream of being as good a climber as he is, but I’d like to think that on a good day I could match him for strength and willpower! We would be able to support each other on summit day.
I was lucky enough to hear George Band speak before he died in 2011 and I think that sharing the summit of Mount Everest with such a warm and self-deprecating man would help to ensure that you come back down with the right perspective on how to conduct yourself in life afterwards.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
I think that in the right conditions they would have had the capability and strength to climb the Second Step but so many factors have to dovetail together perfectly on an Everest summit day in order to get to the top and back down again safely, that I suspect it did not happen. This question is really one of head versus heart; the romantic notion that they did summit is very attractive, but the reality of the difficulty is hard to ignore. That is why I prefer to remain with the mystery of not knowing.