Matt Dickinson

Matt Dickinson Interview taken in 2008

On the 19th May 1996 Matt Dickinson reached the summit of Mount Everest via the North Col – North East Ridge route. He reached the summit a week after the terrible storm that killed 10 other climbers. Matt was there filming for Channel Four and National Geographic.

I think I am right in saying that before going to Mount Everest you had never done any climbing before. Once at Base Camp did you have any second houghts about what you had let yourself into?

I had made quite a few climbing films but I hadn’t been above 6000 meters before–in fact my previous highest point was the summit of Cotopaxi in South America which is 5897 meters. Definitely felt quite intimidated at base camp but I had an experienced team around me, including Al Hinkes, and that was reassuring. I had no idea how my body would react at altitude but I was determined to give myself a fighting chance through eating and drinking as well as I could. I still think hydration is the most crucial element in fighting altitude sickness.

Once you reached the North Col what were your thoughts at seeing the North Face up close for the first time? 

The North Face looks surprisingly benign from the North Col–being dramatically foreshortened. Then you pick up a pair of binoculars and start to pick out the camps and you begin to appreciate the vast scale of it. Then when you actually start up that snow ramp up the north ridge you feel destroyed by the altitude and your confidence is just sapped away. I had a massive struggle to reach our camp five and very nearly didn’t make it.  But then again, you are climbing at 7500 meters without oxygen at that point so I suppose it is hardly surprising to get a few pain barriers.

Which did you find the hardest, ascending the Second Step or descending the Second Step? 

The second step is a big psychological and physical barrier. At sea level it would be a breeze but it is well above 8000 meters and the ancient old ladder placed there by the Chinese is long past its sell by date to say the least. I had a moment or two when my crampon got stuck in the steel framework of the ladder. It’s a significant climb, given the context of the altitude and the equipment one is wearing at that point. Then when I was abseiling back down I smashed my knee against the rock face–so not my favorite spot on the mountain.

After all what happened on the 10th/11th May didn’t that put you off from continuing your climb? 

We were all affected by the events of 10th and 11th of May–on the North side people had been killed as well, although that didn’t get as much publicity as the deaths on the southern side. I think it made things tougher for all of us because it just re-enforced the mental doubts about the levels of risk involved. Some in our team were undoubtedly pre-occupied by the fatalities to the point where their own summit hopes were affected.

But, then again, everyone who goes to Everest knows that people are lost on the mountain every season. But it’s one thing to know that intellectually and another thing to see the bodies on the slopes.

On hearing the radio conversations from both sides of the mountain during the storm how did that make you feel knowing that there was nothing that you could do? 

There is a strong feeling of frustration on Everest when people can be in trouble so (seemingly) close–perhaps just a thousand meters above your position that the first reaction is to get out there and attempt a rescue. The reality is not so clear–that thousand meters could mean two days of hard climbing, even given that supplies and camps are equipped. The terrible thing about getting into trouble at high altitude is the speed at which a slight problem becomes fatal. Rescue often comes too late if at all. Very few climbers ever survive twenty four hours without food and water and shelter above 8000 meters–making rescue possible only if well equipped teams are right on hand and ready to act.

The Spring of 1996 is still spoke about today. Apart from the weather that we have no control over, what do you think needs doing to stop this ever happening again? 

It is down to expedition leaders to approach the mountain in a safe way, both in the matter of tactics employed on the mountain, and the use of accurate weather information. Leaders ultimately have the responsibility to bring back their team members alive, and a careful study of the tragedy of 1996 is a good place for them to start.

Were Channel 4 happy with the video footage that you shot? 

Both Channel Four and National Geographic TV seemed happy with the film. It has sold well around the world ever since–partly no doubt due to the notoriety of the 1996 year and the many other films which were made.

How long did it take you to physically and emotionally recover from your Everest expedition? 

It took about three months to feel physically and emotionally back to ‘normal’—if anyone can ever really get back to ‘normal’ after such an experience.

You wrote the excellent book ‘The Death Zone’ based on your Everest adventure. Out of all the other books that were written about the 1996 storm disaster which one do you think tells the story as it was? 

Of course Jon Krakauer’s book ‘Into Thin Air’ is the most famous book of that year. His account is a masterful piece of journalism.

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

I would love to believe that Mallory and Irvine climbed the second step. Undoubtedly they had the determination and the skills to attempt it. But my feeling is that the ‘lie of the land’ at that point would have lured them into bypassing–traversing the second step in an attempt to find an easier route further around the face–and then up onto the ridge. The step is a formidable–and evidently very time consuming–obstacle, and I think they might well have chosen the easier option–which the geography of the face invites at that point–to continue traversing in the hope of a snow ramp or gully further round which could get them safely to the ridge.

If you would like to find out more about Matt then please pay a visit to his website at www.mattdickinson.com