Ian Woodall

Ian Woodall Interview taken in 2010

Ian Woodall first climbed Mount Everest via the South East Ridge as the leader of the first South African Mount Everest expedition in 1996. He went back in 1999 and reached the summit again this time via the North East Ridge. He is married to the climber Cathy O’Dowd.

In 1996 you were the leader of the first South African Mount Everest expedition. Just before your summit bid you received an unexpected phone call to wish the team good luck by the President Nelson Mandela. How much of a shock was this?

The call actually came through while we were making are way back up the mountain after the big storm and we were only at our advance base camp in the Western Cwm (6 500m). But it made a huge impression on me because here was a world leader who was prepared to come out publicly and support what we were doing, and let’s remember, we hadn’t done anything yet, we were still near the bottom of the mountain. All we said we would do was not give up. All we said we would do is just go back and try again, and that was enough for him to reach out and create a moment that we will never forget.

Not going into any details, but some people made you out to be the bad guy during the terrible storm that happened on Everest in 1996, today, 14 years later is this topic still spoken about or has it all been put to rest? 

I think it’s important for every individual to realize that no one is above criticism. And if it proves that the criticism is constructive and comes from a knowledgeable and well-informed source, then it should be taken on board and acted upon as a means of self-improvement. If however the criticism turns out to come from ill-informed sources, or people with their own personal hate agenda, then it should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves. With regard to 1996, I have seen very little well-informed or knowledgeable criticism, but buckets loads of the other.

You have stood on the summit of Everest twice, in 1996 and 1999. While on the summit did you take your oxygen mask off at any time and if so what was it like? 

I took my oxygen mask off during both my times on the summit. For about forty minutes in 1996 (we had a lot of radio calls to make!) and for about ten minutes in 1999 when we were on the summit for a much shorter time. As we were pretty much stationary both times I didn’t feel any noticeable difference with it being off, although I’m sure I would have if I’d started moving without the mask.

Did you find either the South East Ridge or the North East Ridge route to be any easier than the other? 

I found the north side a much harder climb, but that’s largely due to the fact that I’m a pretty piss-poor rock climber and the second and third steps are incredibly exposed if one isn’t completely comfortable climbing rock in double boots, crampons, thick mitts, and a twenty pound rucksack!

Did you personally suffer from any medical problems during both of your times while on Mount Everest? 

I got frostbite on both feet when I went outside three times during the storm of 1996 with wet boots (does that count as a medical problem, or just plain stupidity?), and I caught a really bad chest infection just before our 1996 summit attempt, but other than that I’ve been pretty lucky with my health on the mountain (fingers crossed!).

Which part on Everest did you find the scariest to climb, the Khumbu Icefall, the Second Step or the Hillary Step? 

The second step – no contest!

This year (2010) 13 year old Jordan Romero from USA is aiming to climb Mount Everest. What do you think of this, is 13 too young? 

I have more than enough problems running my own life – I would never be presumptuous enough to tell anyone else how to run theirs, thirteen or not!

Dead or alive name one climber you would like to stand on the summit of any high mountain with and why? 

Other than the obvious choices of my wife Cathy O’Dowd, or my climbing partner Phuri Sherpa, it would have to be Mal Duff – better to burn out than to fade away! Great character, great friend, great man!

You are married to the famous climber Cathy O’Dowd, do you both get the chance to do much climbing together? 

Our respective jobs mean that we both travel a lot, but when we’re at home in Andorra we climb every day together in the summer and ski every day together in the winter.

Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?

No I don’t. Not because I don’t think they were capable, they were certainly both much better climbers than me and I groveled my way up (no fixed ropes we could trust when we climbed it), but simply because I don’t think they went that way. The route over the second step is not the obvious way to tackle the north East Ridge. We go that way now because the Chinese pioneered the route, and they only went that way because they had the benefit of aerial photography. Route finding for the first time I don’t think GM and AI would have found the second step which is the key to the ridge. (Please someone find the camera and prove me wrong!).