Stuart MacDonald Interview taken in 2011
British mountaineer Stuart MacDonald is the director of Avalanche Academy Ltd, an Avalanche Training School in Chamonix. He also reached the summit of Mount Everest on the 22nd May 2007.
You climbed Mont Blanc at the age of 17 did this kick start your climbing career?
I had been rock climbing quite a bit in my early and mid teens. When I was 15 I got to spend 6 weeks in Yukon, Canada in the summer. Most of the time we were in the middle of nowhere, and I had never seen such raw beauty. At that point I as hooked on the outdoors, but my first visit to the Alps at 17 opened my eyes to Alpine Mountaineering. I had no idea that such spectacular mountains existed in Europe. That was definitely the point that climbing took over.
What other mountains have you climbed and do you have a favourite?
I’ve climbed quite a lot of peaks around the world. If I had to name a favourite it would either be Mount Roots on South Georgia or Mount Foraker in Alaska. Roots was a first ascent, and a very memorable trip. Foraker was unique for the super-committing feeling of the climb. Both trips are very special to me.
Can you name one climber, dead or alive who you would like to share a tent with at Base Camp?
For me, if I could share a tent with either Pete Boardman or Joe Tasker I would be a happy man. Both were big inspirations to me as a young climber. Their achievements were so far ahead of their time I would love to spend some time with them and see what made them tick.
You took the South Col – South East Ridge route to the summit of Everest, which part of the climb did you find the hardest?
I didn’t find any part of the climb technically hard – in fact I seldom clipped the fixed lines and preferred to solo (even getting a telling off from a Sherpa on one occasion). Physically I found the journey to Camp 3 up the Lhotse face pretty tough. I had been suffering with the Khumbu Cough for weeks and felt terrible.
If it wasn’t for the altitude, do you think that Mount Everest is an easy climb?
Is Everest easy? Ignoring the altitude? In the Alps it would be PD (same as Mont Blanc) via the South Col/SE Ridge. However, you can’t gnore the altitude! The altitude is what makes an ascent of Everest as serious as it is. It should not be under-estimated. If it goes wrong, you are a long way from help.
Sherpa’s work hard on Everest, do you think they get fairly paid and looked after?
The Sherpa’s do work hard. I think most of the companies operating there do look after them and pay them well. Most earn more in one trip than their families do in years. Market forces dictate prices in Nepal just like they do in Europe. If no Sherpa’s will do the work, wages would rise. However, most are drawn to Everest by the high pay, and the chance to make a name for themselves as a strong High Altitude Sherpa. Many are able to afford to look after elderly relatives and send their children to good schools.
What was the weather like once you reached the summit and how long did you stay there for?
The weather on the summit was sunny and clear with just a light wind. I must have stayed there for at least 25 minutes. After leaving the summit I actually stopped at the South Summit for over an hour to wait for a friend who was moving very slowly. I had promised him I would not go down without him. Interestingly, while I sat there for an hour dozens walked past me. Only two asked me if I was ok.
Was there anytime while on Mount Everest that you had feared for your life?
No, not at all. Personally I felt completely in my comfort zone at all times. The only tough parts were the illnesses and the altitude. I did get the feeling that a lot of people there were way out of their depth. Many of them really had no idea what they were doing and were just being spoon-fed all the time by their guides. They were operating with no spare capacity at all – hence at the South Summit they walked past without stopping.
You have set up ‘ Avalanche Academy’, what is it all about?
Avalanche Academy is my new venture. Over the past few winters I have found myself doing more and more Avalanche Safety Training with off-piste skiers and boarders. So I decided to specialise and have a dedicated training team running courses throughout the winter in Chamonix. Many different Guide Bureaus offer similar training, but it’s the usual story – Jack of All Trades, Masters of None. I think we deliver really high quality courses at a very affordable price. We cover everything from avalanche avoidance to dealing with full-on rescue scenarios. Students tend to have a real wake-up call on our courses and go away far more knowledgeable and better equipped than before.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
No, I don’t think they made it up the second step. The evidence seems to suggest that they slipped on the descent. When the timings of their last sighting and where Mallory was found are taken into account it points to the likelihood that they had already abandoned the summit attempt.
If you would like to find out more about Stuart and the Avalanche Academy Ltd then please pay a visit to his website at www.avalancheacademy.com