George Atkinson Interview taken in 2011
On the 26th May 2011 George Atkinson became the youngest Briton to have scaled Everest at the age of 16. He has also recently achieved his goal to become the youngest person in the world to have climbed the Seven Summits.
Thank you for your time George, lets start with the obvious, where most of your generation are interested in more ‘down to earth’ pursuits, why mountaineering for you?
Mountaineering was a sport I became interested in because of my father, this doesn’t mean I was pushed into it but he introduced it to me, after this mountaineering became something my father and I did quite often so this is partly why I like the sport. I like mountaineering because I feel it is very different to other sports.
Instead of testing yourself against somebody else you test yourself against the elements. I like this idea of being tested by the world rather than other people. It’s also a sport that you can enjoy at every level, whether it’s walking through the less serious country side with very little to carry and with less danger or summiting 8,000 meter peaks, there is no pressure to perform at a high standard all the time, I’ve always set my own goals and targets which gave me an immense sense of freedom.
Having completed the ‘Seven Summits’ so early, do you feel a sense of anticlimax creeping in now that it’s all over and what could fill that void in the future if so?
There has been a slight anti-climax in my life since completing them but I don’t see it as being a problem. There are always going to be new challenges to do and new places to go. For the time being I’m about to go back to school which will be very different from what I’ve just been doing but I try not to think about it as an anti-climax just as a new opportunity, I can’t re-live the past, the only thing I can do now is try to make the best of the present and I intend to. If I ever feel the need to do something more exciting then I’ll find something.
Travelling around the world to many places, how did you cope with the stresses of bureaucracy, logistics and any barriers you personally may have faced?
I’ve never had to deal with the actual logistics and bureaucracy myself because I’ve always been with organized expeditions but there have been times when things have been complicated. The biggest challenge of bureaucracy was when I climbed Aconcagua. The age limit for climbing the mountain was 18; I was able to obtain special permission however. This meant that my father and mother had to get a public notary to witness my parent’s signature on document that said that my parents wouldn’t hold the Argentinian authorities responsible. Before going we thought that we had sorted out all the issues of bureaucracy before going. We later found out that all our work hadn’t been enough. As it turned out the document wasn’t enough because we also needed another document to prove the first one was genuine even though the embossed seal of the public notary was technically proof. This meant my father and I had to find another solution fast. This meant that there was a time when I didn’t think I was going to be able to climb. In the end we were allowed to climb with the promise that the right document would arrive.
Being ‘in the field’ so much and were you ever overcome by a sense of isolation (such as in Antarctica) and opposite to that, can you describe any amusing experiences you saw (or did) in your travels?
It can be quite isolating being cut off from the rest of the world in the way I have been on some of these mountains but you’ve always got the team, even if they’re maybe not your first choice of people to be with all the time they still do give you some comfort. There have always been times which have been amusing but one thing that has really stuck in my mind was when I was at Everest base camp. Half the team was sitting down in the mess tent while there was a snow storm going on outside. Once it was over some of the water dripped through the tent onto the chairs and two of our team sat down on these chairs, this was probably funnier to watch but it broke the tension slightly.
Does it distress you that while your mountaineering is demonstrating the better side of today’s youth, recently others of your generation are ‘letting the side down’ in many places across Britain with rioting and criminality? What would you say to them if you could?
I would say that I don’tblame them for getting involved in these activities butI can’t condone there actions, people in our society have so many more opportunities and freedoms than people around the world and by going down that path the only people they will really hurt is themselves. I would also ask them to find a different outlet. Everyone has a lot of potential in them and everyone should find what makes them unique and what they can achieve.
Lets turn to Mount Everest, you summited via the famous North East Ridge route and your christian name is ‘George’, were you aware of the history involved of the route you were following starting in 1924?
I had done some research on the route before I set off on my expedition. I knew the George Mallory tried to traverse the very same ridge and if he had made it then he would be the first person to have summited Everest. I am proud to have done the route that a great British climber had dared to go even though the conditions in which I did the route were a lot more favourable e.g the ladder. I decided to also research the Chinese expedition because of the ladders at the 2nd step. They had summited because they had carried a ladder with them all the way to the 2nd step. Reading about both of these gave me an appreciation of the difficulties of the route.
While on the route did you stay on the ‘standard’ line, treading the same path as others before, climbing the ladders etc or did you choose your own way?
I felt it as best that I stay on the path that everyone else took. The ridge doesn’t run all the way up to the summit uninterrupted. There are many places where the ridge falls away into drop and it would have been more complicated to find my own path up there especially in the dark. I also followed the same route because I had no intension of climbing the 2nd step via any other route than the ladder. The impression I got was that it would take a very experienced climber to do it by any other route.
Can you recall the times you took to reach the 1st step from your highest camp and from there the famous 2nd step and onto the summit?
I can remember the summit day quite vividly. When I was climbing I didn’t actually know I had passed the 1st step when I had because it was dark when I passed it and there had been difficult sections which involved some climbing before the 1st step so I though it was just part of the route. I thought at the time that the steps would be very different. I remember the 2nd step the most clearly because this was the hardest and I ran into some difficulty while I was climbing because I got stuck on a ledge for 5 minutes. There was a blind corner which we had to climb round which led to a ledge, I was able to climb up round this corner but once I had I was so scared because I found myself looking over a cliff into an abyss. I knew there must have been a couple of hundred meter drop at least that I couldn’t see. The climb from the 2nd step to the summit was truly memorable because of the views that I was seeing. I hadn’t seen these below because it was still dark but I will never forget that last section. The sun rose and everything changed. I could see everything in a clear orange glow which looked spectacularly amazing; it was very hard to keep going by this point because of the exhaustion and from the want to look around at the views.
Andrew Irvine was only 22 when in 1924 he climbed with Mallory up that route and yourself almost 17 your ages are closer than many older climbers, so can you describe to readers any advantages or disadvantages of such ages when climbing Everest via that route?
I think one advantage that young people have that people who are older don’t have quite the same capacity for is ambition. I think that the young dream more about what they want and what they want to achieve which drives them on more. We also have more energy in some ways and will push ourselves slightly further. I would say that the biggest disadvantage is ability of knowing our limits is not as acute as someone who is older. This would mean that we might push ourselves when it’s not appropriate and not push ourselves hard enough when it is.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
I believe that they could have made it over the 2nd step. I know George Mallory was one of the great climbers of the time and they would have had the expertise to but it could be said they weren’t living in the right time because the equipment they had would be considered poor by today’s standards. If they had been caught in bad weather then they could have easily died before they reached the 2nd step. Even with good weather conditions they could have got crippling frostbite which would prevent them from ascending the 2nd step so it would be impossible to say but I like to think that they did get above the 2nd step.
If you would like to find out more about George Atkinson then head over the his website at http://george-seven-summits.blogspot.com