Matthew Dieumegard-Thornton Interview taken in 2013
On the 19th May 2012 Matthew reached the summit Mount Everest via the South Col at the age of 22.
Unless you have a healthy bank account how difficult is it to get sponsorship to climb Mount Everest in today’s poor economic times?
They often say that there are two groups of people who want to climb big mountains and achieve similar feats. There are those who have the money but not the time, and those with the time but not the money, rarely people have both.
Obviously if you are lucky enough to be in the group of people with a huge amount of disposable income, there’s generally a way to find the time, however for those without the necessary money, fundraising and finding sponsorship is nearly always the key. Ironically many of the climbers who go on to tackle Everest are as prepared as they can be for the mountain, and it’s often finding the sponsorship which kills the dream. Nowadays though, that’s all part of expeditions, and even to make it as far as Everest base camp on an expedition to attempt the summit, you need more than just fancy climbing skills. On top of everything a climber needs for such a challenge, you also need a good business head to secure any form of financial investment.
In my quest for sponsorship, I contacted between 2000 and 3000 individual companies which eventually became a fulltime job, 9-9 everyday including weekends. There really aren’t any ways to describe how difficult and often demoralising the road to financial backing is, but out of all the companies I contacted, I received roughly 1000 individual rejections, and only signed my sponsorship contract with Yell 2 weeks before I left for Everest.
In my case there were 4 main reasons for that success, mainly perseverance, a lot of luck, the right place – right time case, and perhaps a small element of business acumen demonstrated in my proposal which took over a month to draft.
And as in many industries, it’s often not what you know, but who you know.
All I can say is good luck to anyone going down this road, it’s certainly tough, but in luckiest of cases, really can turn the dream into a reality.
Was there any reason that you climbed via the South Col and not the North Col?
Plenty. Firstly Henry Todd operates on the South side of Everest, and having seen quite a few other operations on Everest, I wouldn’t go with anyone else. Secondly on the North vs. South debate, Tim Mosedale gives a comprehensive roundup of the options: http://www.everestexpedition.co.uk/everest_south_col/south_vs_north.htm But in my case, aside from having a good team, there were a few other reasons for choosing the South over the North side. In no particular order, the South side obviously has a more southerly aspect compared to the North, so it’s generally warmer with more hours on sunlight, and also less windy.
Then there is the route itself. Even before you get to base camp, the walk-in is important, and on the South side, there is the beautiful trek up through the Khumbu in comparison with a long and rough drive over the Tibetan plains to reach base camp on the North side. I have been lucky enough to trek the Khumbu a few times now, and the magic of the place and some great memories gave me ample reasons to return.
Then on the route itself, although there is the danger of the Khumbu icefall, nowadays that part of the route is ‘relatively’, and the number of times moving through that section is always kept to a minimum. Higher on the mountain, there is also the prospect of the elevation at ultra high altitude. On the North side, almost as soon as you are above camp 3 and on the ridge proper, you have a constant steady rise in altitude which means that if you come in to difficulties near the summit, it will take a long time with much difficulty to get down to lower altitudes. When compared with the South side, once you are past the South Summit, it is straight down to the South Col – if you were desperate, you could even bum slide like Reinhold Messner did after his ascent without supplementary oxygen.
Having said all that, I have a friend attempting Everest from the North side this year, so each to their own.
Did you have any problems with the altitude apart from the usual headaches etc that nearly everyone suffers from?
Not really. After plenty of trips to high altitude now, I’ve got quite good at looking after myself, administering antibiotics, and generally taking care of altitude related symptoms such as sleep apnea which causes awful insomnia at new high altitudes. It all comes down to personal admin. My first ever climbing guide taught me that, and it basically boils down to looking after yourself without relying on anyone else unless in an absolute emergency. If you can take care of yourself, you can avoid most problems.
Your personal Sherpa, Cheewang Dorjee had already reached the summit of Mount Everest 7 times. Did you bond with him right away and if it wasn’t for Cheewang Dorjee do you think you would have reached the summit and got back down alive?
Interestingly I only saw Cheewang a few times before the summit push, and he was quite reserved and quiet. It was only once we were back down and safe that he opened up; it always felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, but it was only when I got back to base camp that I realised I was that weight, and his duty to help me get to the summit and back alive was a huge responsibility. As with any Sherpa that you share such an experience with, they become your brother. Unfortunately one of our Sherpas from Baruntse died in 2012 on Manaslu, and on hearing that news, I knew what it was like to lose a brother like that, truly gut wrenching.
If I hadn’t had Cheewang, I still think I would have summited and got back down alive, simply because I would have been pared with another fantastic Sherpa. On Henrys team, every Sherpa is fantastic, but of course, Cheewang in my eyes was the best.
If I hadn’t had a Sherpa though, I wouldn’t have even ventured above base camp – they truly are the life of the mountain.
On your descent from the summit you were stuck above the Hillary Step due to the amount of climbers still coming up. What was it like waiting in such a dangerous place?
Since the level of oxygen is so low at that altitude, the experience wasn’t as scary as you might imagine. I knew exactly what was happening, and that if we didn’t move soon, we could quite easily run out of oxygen and start to succumb to frost bite, however the state of hypoxia caused by oxygen deprivation numbs out much of the danger, and so as I stood there, it was almost in a drunk like state. I knew exactly where I need to go and what I needed to do, but I wasn’t in too much of a rush to do anything. I was also exhausted and generally fatigued, so the more time I spent resting, the better it felt.
Of course when looking at the pictures, it was stupidly dangerous. There were essentially too many people on a route which was only meant for one way traffic at a push, sometimes not even that.
Other than the impending danger of a whole series of ultra high altitude related illnesses, the view was simply beyond description, so staring out at the world and seeing the curvature of the earth was a good way to count the time away.
In ‘Trek & Mountain’ magazine you said “Climbers of all abilities, many who shouldn’t have been above Base Camp, were scratching around, fumbling and being foolish, selfish and dangerous”. Do you think that there should be more of a vigorous selection process for future Everest climbers?
This is a tough area and steeped in the ethics of mountaineering. Of course the above view is only my opinion, and I know others have much stronger, and even opposite opinions with regards to novice climbers. If you use the analogy of driving though, if there were no driving tests, then everyone with enough money could go out, buy a car and drive unchecked on the roads. This is currently what’s happening on Everest, and ultimately it’s down to the responsibility of the expedition outfit to stop people going on the mountain who haven’t even worn crampons before. Henry has quite stringent entry requirements, and a good team to boot, however there are many other teams such as Asian Trekking who are notoriously bad for allowing pretty much anyone who has the money to climb on the mountain. This is fundamentally wrong, and although climbers certainly have the initial responsibility to ask themselves whether they have done enough to prepare themselves for the climb, it is ultimately down to the expedition outfitter to vet the climbers prior to allowing them anywhere near the mountain. This may sound harsh, but take the example of Shriya Shah-Klorfine, she was on Everest in 2012 with Utmost Adventure Trekking, and she had never done a single climb in her life, had never worn crampons, and yet had the ambition of climbing Everest. This article and video makes appalling reading but highlights the blasé approach by many companies: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2012/09/13/shriya-canadian-everest-fifth-estate.html
Ultimately, Shriya was not only putting her own life in danger, but every other climber around her. Sadly, her life was easily saveable. All Utmost Adventure Trekking needed to do was give Shriya 2 years of expedition experience on smaller peaks, building up to Everest. With even this short period of experience, Shriya would have stood a much better chance of surviving.
It is said that to reach the summit of Mount Everest you have to pass a number of dead bodies. Did this make you think ‘why am I here’ at any time?
Actually I didn’t see any bodies on the ascent. Mainly because it’s mostly dark when you are going up from the South Col, but on the descent I did see 2 bodies lying in the snow about an hour from Camp 4 on the Col. It was a sad sight to see, and I hadn’t expected to see them, but through the foggy view of hypoxia, I was still quite calm. I think many humans have a morbid fascination, especially in a situation like that which you wouldn’t ordinarily see in everyday life. Although the bodies were facing downwards, they looked peaceful and could easily have been sleeping had it not been for the exposed skin which had been bleached white by the intense UV rays.
Unfortunately this is part of high altitude mountaineering, and as peaceful as their final resting place looked, I simply knew that I didn’t want to die there.
In 2014 you are hoping to climb the beautiful mountain Ama Dablam. How much of a technical climb is Ama Dablam compared to Mount Everest?
Yes, I’ve got a few bits in the pipe line. I would quite like to go to the South Pole at some point, and have been thinking about that recently, however it’s difficult to get see past the gimmicky ‘last degree’ expeditions, and expeditions on bikes etc… When I venture south, it would be for a pure human endeavour, hopefully pushing the limits along the way and giving some contributions to science.
In the immediate future though, Ama Dablam is on the horizon. It’s a stunning mountain and despite having seen it a number of times now, it never fails to impress me with its stunning lines.
Ama is a much more technical climb, far beyond anything on Everest, with the saving grace being that it isn’t as high. Still, it is mostly fixed ropes, so it’s another step up from Everest, and the route to more technical peaks in the Himalaya and Greater Ranges.
I’m currently planning the climb with a friend for the autumn of 2014, and in the meantime, spending as much time as I can climbing Scottish winter routes in preparation – Scotland could really prepare you for anywhere remote and extreme in the world.
I believe that you have a book out very soon about your climb. Can you tell me more about it?
Yes, it’s called Dare to Dream, and is currently in the middle of a long edit. I’m currently going through the process of finding a literary agent to get the book into publishing.
Dare to Dream starts with my own personal introduction to mountaineering at a young age, my incompatibility with heights, followed by the journey to the top of the world. Three major expeditions are documented, firstly in the little known Kyrgyzstan, secondly in Nepal to a remote range of mountains, and finally to Everest itself, with each period of time in between expeditions revealing a new set of challenges, both physically and emotionally, to overcome.
Despite being a mostly humorous Bill Bryson type works, there is also a serious underlying theme of the difficulties of undertaking a challenge of such magnitude, and the often ignored after effects of venturing into the so-called Death Zone.
Update since Interview: This book is now available to buy and download at www.smashwords.com/books/view/307225
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
Having not seen the Second Step personally, I can’t say how difficult it would be to free climb, although I know Conrad Anker had a few difficulties doing it in ‘The Wildest Dream’. It would seem that given their primitive equipment and the fact that they were literally climbing up into the unknown, the odds were stacked against Mallory and Irvine. Throughout human history though, there are countless tales of heroic achievement, and so I am generally quite careful about using the term impossible.
Whether they did make the climb or not, there is something in the ability to romanticise about not knowing the fate of these true explorers which makes the story so compelling. Because of this, a rare book, ‘Mallory of Everest’ by Showell Styles is still one of the best works I have read regarding Everest.
If you would like to find out more about Matthew then please pay a visit to his website at www.matthewdthornton.com