Touching The Sky
An Interview with Kenton Cool
‘There’s something pretty cool about sitting on top of a mountain. And when that mountain is Everest that’s about the coolest feeling you can have in terms of climbing,’ muses Kenton as we wait patiently for the feeling to return to our numb fingertips.
We’d just finished snorkelling through the glacial waters of the Silfra Rift as part of a Land Rover adventure weekend in Iceland. Next on the list was ice climbing but, due to the insane weather conditions that we’d been experiencing, this wasn’t looking hopeful.
As the sun tried it’s best to fight through the clouds we nurse a cup of coffee and I ask him about living a life involving extremes in conditions and altitude.
John: So how did your love of mountaineering come about?
Kenton: Well, I grew up in London where there are no mountains at all – which just goes to show that you don’t necessarily need an ace gene or have amazing circumstances to do amazing things.
In my teens I was introduced to hillwalking as part of the Scouts and I absolutely loved it. I always wanted to climb the steepest trails and routes. I went to university and studied geology and still find that side of things fascinating. But afterwards I became a bit of a climbing bum and decided to follow my passion around the world.
I became an early adopter of many techniques. For example on Denali Diamond (a massive south facing route on Mount McKinley) we adopted a ‘single push’ style in which you climb and climb until the climb is finished. During the summer months in Alaska there is almost 24hr daylight so it enabled us to push hard and fast. The first ascent of this route took 18 days. But using this technique we skimmed this right down to just four and a half days.
Also, we took this concept to the high Himalayas in 2003 and did a coveted first ascent of Anapurna III South West ridge with Johnny Varco and Ian Parnell. The route took 10 days and as a result we were nominated for the Piolet D’or which was a huge moment for me.
And so how did this become so focused on Everest?
I suppose it’s in the high Himalayas that I’ve carved a niche for myself. I first went there when I was 19 and I fell in love with the people, the place, the culture and the religion. There’s something that’s just all encompassing about the place. And in the last few years – 10 years to be precise – it’s become Mount Everest.
You’ve climbed it a staggering 11 times! Does each time come with a new celebration or, now that you’re a guide, are things different?
The first time I went to Everest was for work as a guide and basically I’ve always guided on Everest. The good thing about this is that it gives you a good reason to constantly return to the mountain. And of course it is hugely expensive to climb it so guiding alleviates that issue! The difference with each trip comes with the people that you are climbing with and of course the weather conditions. The challenges and feelings are therefore always different so I’m super excited to be returning to Everest this year.
And you’re a bit of a skier too I believe?
I’m not the most accomplished skier by any stretch of the imagination but I decided to go out and grasp life by the cahoonas and enjoy every aspect of the sport and the environment that I operate in. My mandate in life is all about having fun. If you are not enjoying yourself in what you are doing then you should have a long hard look at why you are doing it. Because we only have one shot at life and once it goes, it’s gone. So yes you could say that I ski a fair bit!
I’m always one firm believer that you have to challenge the status quo of every day life. And it’s something I’ve always done. One of my biggest challenges that I set myself was to ski down some of the largest mountains in the world, including Cho Oyu in 2006 and in doing so I became the first Brit to ski an 8000m peak.
We peer through the clouds and the snow is swirling around us in the strong winds. Kenton points out a blurred feature in the distance which was our destination for the afternoon. Today’s ice climb isn’t looking likely at all.
I love climbing frozen waterfalls continues Kenton. There’s something quite ephemeral about climbing them. For a few brief months of the year can you climb frozen water, picking your way up almost unlocking the puzzle of nature and finding the easiest way up these beautiful formations. But of course it’s all totally dependent on the fickleness of mother nature.
I’m pretty sure there’s a huge amount of discovery still to be done in the mountains. Where do you see the next big goals – for you and for the climbing community? Have you got your eye on something in particular?
The great thing with climbing is that there are more 6500m peaks in the world that are unclimbed than there are climbed, so when people proclaim that ‘adventure is dead’ they’re clearly not thinking outside the box. Just off the top of my head there’s the north ridge of Latok One in Pakistan which has had 22 attempts in the past 20 years and the highest point reached was achieved in the first expedition up the route. It thwarts expeditions every year. The west face of Gasherbrum IV in the Karakoram range is another one. But the one that I’m personally interested in is the highest unclimbed mountain in the world – Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan, near the border with China. However, climbing peaks above 6000m in Bhutan is banned for religious reasons (the local customs consider these peaks to be the sacred homes of protective spirits).
So there are still many great last problems in climbing. And with each generation, with improved technology and understanding and knowledge, great problems fall but there are still a lot out there.
My next project in the pipeline is the Himalayan Trilogy. Last year I completed the Triple crown by successfully climbing Nuptse, Everest and Lhotse in one single push from base camp, alongside my friend and climbing partner Dorje Gylgen. I intend to enchain the three highest mountains, Everest, Kanchenjunga and K2 in one continuous journey over three months.
Yeah, people are already saying this is impossible. Well, what do we know about impossible? Impossible means nothing unless you actually attempt it. Plans are well underway so all I can say for now is watch this space
Do you feel you are within your comfort zone whilst at high altitude? You are pretty use to extremes for sure. Is there anywhere where you feel you’re outside of your comfort zone?
Not really, we work in a dangerous environment but we do it because we love it. I have a passion for mountains and a passion for life. And fun. And combining this makes for a dream job really.
What will I say is this: you’ve got to challenge yourself and make sure you don’t just sit within that comfort zone. Try new things, try different things, because if you don’t do that then you stagnate and become mediocre. And no one wants to be just mediocre!
Try new things, try different things, because if you don’t do that then you stagnate and become mediocre. And no one wants to be just mediocre!
Kenton Cool is one of the world’s leading high-altitude climbers. He has successfully climbed Mount Everest eleven times. He was first introduced to mountaineering when he read about Hillary and Norgay’s first ascent on Mount Everest in 1953.
Since then, Kenton hasn’t looked back. He has climbed extensively all over the world – establishing new routes and first ascents on peaks in Alaska, France and India. In 2003, he was nominated for a Piolet d’Or award for a route on Annapurna III. Kenton is also one of the world’s most sought-after guides and In 2007, he successfully guided Sir Ranulph Fiennes up the North Face of the Eiger before leading him to a successful Everest summit in 2009.
Produced in partnership with Land Rover and the new Discovery Sport.