Sean James Interview taken in 2017
Sean James is a professional mountain guide and reached the summit of Mount Everest on the 16th May 2017 via the North Col – North East route.
What age did you become interested in mountaineering and what was your first big climb?
Firstly as a child I was a kayaker and we used to go a lot with the family as my dad took groups out on the sea. At university I initially took French and Spanish because I liked travelling but decided I’d rather work outside. A friend suggested I should take up climbing to compliment the water sports. So at 21 I moved to Sheffield in 1992 and did some more time at university, like all climbers. While studying I met a great friend and super technical climber / caver, Tim Gould who worked me through the lower grades and took me on my first introduction to Alpine climbing. He also guided me through the initial instructor qualifications.
As my climbing got better, I dropped Tim (only joking) and climbed mostly sport routes for the next 8 years with Paul Reeve, another friend in Sheffield. In his own style he introduced me to winter climbing in Scotland. We would get up early and climb 2 massive routes on the North Face of the Ben and be heading down before most people had finished their first.
My first big rock climb that I had to put a lot of thought and effort into was Body Machine 7c at Raven Tor. Coincidentally I also did my last serious rock climbing at Raven Tor around 2002 after doing Mecca 8b+ as my fingers and elbows couldn’t keep up any more. A crag that has seemed to bookend my rock climbing nicely.
Probably the first serious mountain route I remember was the north face of the Eiger, again with Paul. We still climb and plan a lot together.
I’ve always been lucky guiding and Adventure Peaks have given me some of the greatest trips. So a lot of the big mountains and 8000m I’ve done have been as work. Recently I personally organized a Manaslu trip with 3 friends and it was awesome as I could speed off. I also did it without oxygen.
Probably one of the hardest, out there trips was up the east ridge of Logan in the Yukon. We were successful but the weather and conditions were the craziest I’ve seen. We flew in and didn’t see another person till we flew back out. It was pretty close.
In 2015 you were at Base Camp on the North side of Mount Everest when the deadly earthquake happened in Nepal. Was there much damage done on the North side?
At base camp there was no physical damage apart from rocks rolling down the sides of the valley. The base camp is huge and flat so we were in the middle and untouched. We felt the full force of the 2 massive tremors and many small tremors for the 10 or so days that we were stuck there. Our equipment was abandoned higher up the route as it was too dangerous to get it.
We had communication so could inform our families immediately we were ok. Our 7 Sherpas were not so fortunate as all infrastructure was down in Nepal and for many weeks couldn’t find out if they still had houses or how their families were. Unbelievably some climbers at base camp still were prepared to ask the Sherpas to continue even though the death toll in Nepal was nearing 9000.
I live in Dubai and we can only raise money there through the 5 or so official charities so you can’t directly say it is for Nepal. To get around this I published a book “From Dubai to Everest”. It’s available from Amazon or direct from me and all the money above the Amazon costs goes to help Nepal.
Does a disaster like this ever make you think ‘what the hell am I doing here’?
Not at all. It could happen anywhere. I didn’t even think about it then or when I go back. I live in Dubai and have felt quakes frequently so knew what it was.
The most dangerous sport I do is triathlon. I’ve had more serious crashes on my road bike than ever I’ve been in the mountains.
This year (2017) you guided a team to the summit of Mount Everest. What experience do you require your members to have before attempting a climb like this?
The team this year was one of the best I have worked with. 1 client, a good friend Tony I had successfully guided on Cho Oyu before in 2014 so we felt comfortable straight away. The others had had below average experiences above 8000m but more importantly were super supportive of each other, attentive, motivated and willing to listen, participate and follow me and the Sherpas. On top of that they were collectively some of the fittest and strongest clients I’ve had.
Everyone has dreams and there is too much Everest bashing these days especially by people who haven’t done it or who have previously made a living from it and now think they can act as guardians and force their own desires on everyone else. If someone told me I shouldn’t be doing something because I haven’t done enough on their list if criteria or didn’t fit their expectations I would not be happy. Each person comes to Everest with a different background and journey therefore the decision to accept them commercially should be discussed individually and be a very personal one.
Life would be very boring and nothing would be achieved if we didn’t stick our necks out.
Did you have any problems with the weather at any of the camps?
Looking back I can’t remember much really bad weather. Remember I’ve climbed a lot in Scotland. Every group on Everest had forecasts from different sources and they often varied. We did have a lot of high winds most times at the north col but managed it and still got our acclimatization in. Our tents stayed up when needed so can’t complain. On the final rotation we headed up on goodish weather predictions but the forecasts changed and summit morning the winds were predicted to come earlier than expected. It was a close call but about 16 climbers were at high camp and we talked to each other. My group left at 7pm on the 15th May and summited at 2.30am to avoid the forecasted high winds the next morning. By 5pm on the 16th we were all back at ABC. A tremendous effort. Those guys would do anything. Our Sherpas put in extra effort to go back up to c2 and bring all the group gear down over the next few days while we partied at Bc. The weather did get worse after that and some of our tents were ripped. I think the next summits were not for a week.
Next to the ladder on the Second Step I imagine there are loads of old worn out ropes still in place. Does it get confusing at that altitude to which one you need to clip onto?
There are lots of ropes on all mountains now especially Ama Dablam and Everest. Only really on summit day could it be confusing but nobody had any problems. All the teams were very impressed with the Chinese and the rope fixing teams on the north this year.
Which did you personally find the hardest, ascending or descending the Second Step?
Really None were that hard. They are fully fixed with ropes and ladders. If you’ve climbed 8b+ and have a bottle of oxygen and a jumar it would be embarrassing to say that climbing a ladder is difficult. I’ve done 8000m peaks without oxygen and many marathons and Ironman so really if you are a guide on Everest you can’t be crawling up on your knees or writing articles that say it is the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
There were some queues of people coming up as we went down because we were so early but we managed the situation. It was very friendly on the north side this year. No need to make a drama out of it.
What was your favourite meal while at Base Camp?
The group gelled so well together that all climbers took turns cooking. One day we had a dinner party and invited some friends over. Jon Gupta and Mollie Hughes. Killian and Seb were there. Pete Whitfield. During the day the clients took over the kitchen, supervised by the cook and did an awesome 3 course meal. It was so successful that Tony, an ex professional chef took over the kitchen again just before our final rotation. His chicken and sauce was a different level. There is a lot of time to fill on expeditions.
During your whole Everest climb did you have an issues with your oxygen apparatus?
No issues at all. I’ve used oxygen a lot before and Phurba Wangchu our Sherpa is very experienced and doesn’t miss a trick. We had some leaky bottles at ABC when we tested them so obviously didn’t take them any higher. We all had 3 bottles for summit day but I ended up stashing one full one below 1st step in the way up as carrying 3 was so heavy. I picked it up on the way down and never used the spare I was carrying so only used 1. Nobody had any complaints and we always check and practice a number of times. You’d be foolish not to.
Name one item in the future you would like to see be made smaller or lighter for mountaineering?
For Everest it doesn’t really apply and equipment is actually going the other way. Getting larger. Many groups have huge super dome tents that you can get the whole team in at the north col and high camps on all the major expedition mountains now.
For personal climbing when I have to carry my own stuff I can’t really see how it can be smaller or lighter and warm and safe at the same time. Climbers love little catchphrases: “Fast and light is cold and miserable.” If you’re pushing the limits on mountains maybe you need special stuff.
Everest is a pretty standard route. It’s like bicycles in amateur racing, it’s nearly always the engine that makes the difference.
I’ve been climbing a lot with my girlfriend recently and as I get to carry the ropes always they do seem heavy. but I’ve climbed on thin ones and they are a bit unnerving.
Would you ever consider climbing Mount Everest via the South side?
I hoping to do it in 2018 or 2019. Failing that I’d do the North side again.
Who is your mountaineering icon dead or alive?
I don’t believe in icons. I read a lot of books from Messner and Bonnington when I was younger but when I got older I don’t particularly like their ideas or attitudes now. I still have a good image of Viesturs but haven’t met him yet!
Being from Sheffield Jerry Moffatt is a good friend and has some special energy that captures people imagination. if you count the routes he did in Wales as mountains, I would like to have achieved what he did.
Is climbing Mount Everest more of a mental or physical challenge or both?
Depending on the person and their strengths, as a guide you have to have a different approach to them. Someone can be very physically fit and capable but not believe they can do it. Likewise someone could just scrape by and be the slowest and last in to every camp but also they might be the person you want to spend the most time with and that keeps the group together. If you’re both unfit and emotionally stunted then you haven’t got a chance but you’ll enjoy the trek in maybe! Being away with strangers for 2 months can be demanding.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
Of course their names were in the summit book right next to that lump Brian Blessed. I’ve no idea. How can I possibly know if they reached the top. The next generations will always achieve more and more and make it look easier. If it wasn’t done in the 20s it was definitely done in the 50s ( unless they find new proof) so that’s what I tell people if they ask. Recently I was at a NatGeo art gallery in Las Vegas that sells expensive prints and was looking at a moon landing print. The salesperson came over and engaged me in small talk thinking I would spend 1000s on it. When she found out I was in Nevada to climb at Red Rocks, she tried to impress me saying that they also had images by “Cory Richards, the first American to climb Everest”. I did smile. I left her after asking if the Americans really had landed on the moon.
If you would like to find out more about Sean James then head over to his website at www.mymountainhighs.com