Mark Horrell interview taken in 2016
Mark has climbed many mountains all over the world and reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2012.
Mark, you have climbed some great mountains, do you have a favourite and why?
I’m more of a trekker than a climber. I go to the mountains for the scenery rather than for the technical challenge, but the best views are usually from the top, so a modest amount of climbing can be very rewarding. Some of my favourite expeditions have been to the trekking peaks of Nepal. These are peaks of around 6000m which involve a three- or four-week trek through mountain scenery which changes every day, and one- or two-day climbs to reach the summits, mostly on snow or glaciers.
Standing on the top of Snowdon in Wales did you ever think that in 10 years time this would be the summit of Mount Everest?
As anyone who has read my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest will know, the main thing on my mind during my first ascent of Snowdon was whether the bar would be open when I reached the summit.
I was a hill walker in those days. I didn’t even have a very good head for heights. It didn’t occur to me that I would ever be climbing high mountains in the Himalayas, or anywhere else. But after my first trek in Nepal (a group trek with a well known UK adventure travel company) I climbed Kilimanjaro, and by then I was already bitten by the high-altitude bug. I learned a few climbing skills and gradually climbed bigger and bigger mountains. I wasn’t much of a climber, but I seemed to be OK at excessively-high altitudes, so I kept going.
You climbed Mount Everest via the North side. Were you already aware of its pre-war history on that route?
I devour books about mountaineering history. You can ask me anything about the pre-War history of Everest by the north side, and I will happily answer blindfolded. I even know how many layers of clothing George Mallory was wearing. My dream night out would be a pub quiz on Everest history. Elizabeth Hawley, Reinhold Messner and the ghost of Eric Shipton would be on my team.
You had a little trouble getting your leg up and over on the Second Step. How easy would it have been to just give up and turn around at that point?
Some people will tell you I always have trouble getting my leg over. I was pretty scared at that point, but fortunately there were people around me who wouldn’t let me take the easy decision. I’m very grateful to them. It would have been a matter of extreme regret had I thrown away all the effort it had taken to get that far, just because I was struggling with a difficult climbing move.
Standing on the summit of the highest mountain on the world what was going through your mind?
It took me ten hours to reach the summit from high camp, over terrain that was mentally demanding as well as physically. I was exhausted, and I knew it could take me nearly as long to get down again (it took another eight hours). Chongba (my Sherpa companion) and I gave each other a hug and swapped photos. He seemed happier than I did, even though it was his 13th summit. We only spent five minutes on top.
A lot of things went through my mind, but the one I remember most vividly was that I could die up here and I had to get down safely. It was only much later that it occurred to me that Edmund Hillary had taken a pee up there.
How hard is it to force yourself to try and drink and eat in the higher camps when everything is a struggle?
Drinking has never been a problem for me, and I don’t just mean alcohol. Much of the time spent at high camp, the stove is rumbling away as we melt snow for tea and soup. I always drink copious quantities.
Eating is another matter. I’ve been on many expeditions now, but I’m still struggling to find an edible high-altitude food. Dehydrated meals look tempting on the side of the packet, but many of them taste like cardboard. I really have to force them down. It can take me as long as half an hour to eat a whole packet, and by the end I feel like I’m spooning up a bag of cold sick.
I ate very little on my six-day summit push, and was slowly starving. By contrast my tent-mate Axe was eating for New Zealand. One morning he even had a packet of chicken and rice for breakfast. It made a big difference, and he was much stronger than me on summit day.
During your two times on Mount Everest did you ever see anyone on the mountain who you think should not have been there?
I didn’t personally, but I was concentrating on my own climb and wasn’t really judging others. I climbed Everest from the north side in 2012. There were about 200 climbers on that side of the mountain, which was a manageable number. There were moments when I had to wait for people, but at no point did I think this person should not be here. All of our own team members had multiple 8000m peak expeditions and summits between us, including one who had already climbed Everest from the south.
I always climb with reputable operators who vet their clients. I tend to be one of the more experienced climbers. Every once in a while I come across someone who has signed up to an expedition a little beyond their level, but it’s rare.
The question of who should and shouldn’t climb Everest is a controversial topic, and you will get a different opinion depending on who you ask. There are those who oppose guided and commercial mountaineering on Everest on ideological grounds. As a commercial client myself I’m not one of them.
Unfortunately there is very little regulation on Everest, particularly on the Nepal side, which means there is nothing to stop inexperienced climbers and expedition operators being on the mountain. It’s a problem that is inevitably going to get worse, but that’s another story.
The press tend to give Mount Everest a bad time, they have mentioned that on both sides of the mountain you have to walk/climb over dead bodies during the climb, is this really true?
This is a complex and emotive subject that is hard for many people to understand because they are not aware of the challenges faced in such an extreme environment.
The short answer is yes, there are bodies on Everest because it is difficult and dangerous to remove them. If you reach 8500m or higher on the Southeast or Northeast Ridges you may have to walk past them. Eventually someone is aware and sensitive enough to move them out of sight. This is Everest’s equivalent of a burial.
No, you do not have to climb over them, and nor is Everest piled high with dead bodies as you will sometimes hear people say. There are less than 300 in an area that could house thousands of cemeteries. Most are in so inaccessible a location that they might just as well be a hundred metres underground.
Do you think that the Sherpas on Mount Everest are well paid and looked after by the teams that employ them?
That’s your third loaded question in a row, Colin. Are you trying to be Jeremy Paxman or something? 😉
Most Everest climbing Sherpas are extremely well paid compared with the average Nepali. I’ve never personally seen a Sherpa being badly treated by their employer. But there is more to it than that, of course. Some of the less reputable operators hire inexperienced Sherpas who are not as well paid, and the lack of regulation means that Sherpas are open to exploitation.
I can best describe the pros and cons by saying that most climbing Sherpas I have spoken to about this say they do what they do because it enables them to support their families and send their children to good schools. But they do not want their children to follow in their footsteps and become climbing Sherpas as well. Working on Everest is a route out of poverty for Sherpa families, and in a more stable state than Nepal, working conditions and safety would continue to improve over time.
So the short answer to your question is that it depends which team they are working for. If they are working for a reputable operator then yes, they are well paid and well treated.
Dead or alive, which climber would you have liked to share your Everest summit day with?
Tenzing Norgay. Not only was he arguably the greatest of all Everest climbers, but he also seemed to be the nicest guy. Most Sherpas I know always seem able to see the funny side of life, and I’m sure he would have been just the same.
How is your excellent book ‘Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest’ selling?
It’s doing OK. I love writing and would like to be able to make a living out of it some day, but I’m not there yet. It took me three years to write Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, but now I have to go back to work and earn some more money. It would make me very happy if someone read this and thought, he sounds like an interesting chap, I think I will head on over to Amazon right now and buy his book.
Apart from your own, do you have a favourite mountaineering book that you have read?
The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman is much better than my book. I know many people will hate me for saying this, but I believe mountaineering writers tend to take their work (and their climbing) much too seriously and need to lighten up a bit. It’s supposed to be fun, after all. I hope that one day there will be as many humorous mountaineering writers as there are humorous writers in the broader travel writing genre, or similar niches such as cycling literature. I’m trying to address this gap myself, but I hope more authors will join me.
Have you any adventures planned for the near future?
I’m investigating whether it’s logistically practical to ride a unicycle up Everest, as I understand the mountain is yet to see a first unicycle ascent. I’m also learning to juggle, as I believe riding a unicycle up Everest, dressed as a clown, while juggling ice axes, would be a unique first. After I reach the summit, I intend to leap off in a wingsuit and fly back to Kathmandu while making a phone call, which has never been done before. I have approached Red Bull for sponsorship (even though I would rather drink dog’s urine).
But seriously, I’m no pioneer, however tenuously. I don’t have a problem with people performing stunts or announcing obscure firsts to fund their passion, though it does sometimes turn Everest into an object of ridicule among those who don’t appreciate the true challenge of climbing it.
Nor do I raise money through sponsorship. I fund my travels and time for writing by the more usual means of working for a bit, saving money and then taking time off. I’m approaching a period in my life when I have to do the former, so the true answer to your question is that I don’t have any big adventures planned in the near future. I will work for a time, then think about where to go for my next adventure. But I will be based in Italy for a little while, so I intend to explore more of the Apennines, where there is some great hill walking.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
Yes I do, and it’s one of the few things I have in common with Jeffrey Archer.
For various reasons I believe the final sighting of Mallory and Irvine by Noel Odell was on the Third Step, and not the Second. I believe Mallory could have climbed the difficult part of the Second Step where there is now a ladder (not the easy bit that I struggled with) by standing on Irvine’s shoulders. This was a common climbing technique at the time. Having stood at the top of the Second Step myself and seen how close the summit looks, I believe it’s inconceivable a man as consumed by Everest as Mallory would have turned around. There were no major obstacles after that, so I believe they both reached the summit.
But this is all speculation. I could be completely wrong. There have been many theories advanced about the fate of Mallory and Irvine over the years, some more plausible than others. Perhaps this is a good time for me to suggest a new one. They stumbled across a yeti having a yak sandwich at Mushroom Rock, who agreed to give both of them a piggy-back up the Second Step in exchange for Irvine’s camera.
If you would like to find out more about Mark Horrell or buy his latest book then head over the his website at www.markhorrell.com