Pride And The Fall
Kenton Cool – The Early Years
Portrait by Martin Hartley
In 1996, when Kenton was twenty-two years old and fresh out of university, he and a group of friends travelled to North Wales to collect sponsorship kit one week before an attempt to climb the south-west ridge of The Ogre in Pakistan. Deciding to make the most of the trip they planned to climb around Llanberis, on the northern edge of the Snowdonia National Park. The extract below from Kenton Cool’s memoir, One Man’s Everest, picks up as they arrive at the climbing spot.
We decided to go to the area called Colossus Wall, a 50-metre- high sheer face, an unusually steep wall for slate. It’s south-facing and it’s exposed to the weather, meaning that although it gets the sun when it’s out, the Welsh rain that falls all year round is usually seeping out of the wall somewhere, making the already slippery slate even trickier. Spillett was raring to go and wanted to do a route called Ride the Wild Surf, which is an E4 – testing but nothing drastic. I decided I’d do an easy E1 or E2 warm-up route called Bella Lugosi is Dead with Carolyn, but it didn’t go well from the start. I wasn’t feeling the movement; instead, I was feeling awkward and clunky.
I don’t regret anything, but I look back on it now and I kick myself. I should have cooled it. I should have been sensible, weighed up the situation, said to myself, ‘I’m off to Pakistan next week: I don’t need this.’ But I was young, I had a rabid competitive spirit and at that time I would pick up any gauntlet. Spillett, geared up and launched up Ride the Wild Surf quickly, which upped the ante for the day. Nearby there was an E5 route called Major Head Stress: aptly named, in retrospect.
We were looking it over when a couple of climbing friends, Chris Barnes and a guy everyone knew as Mad Max, appeared. I quizzed them about the climb. They said it had some very widely spaced expansion bolts in it, so it was not super hard, but quite bold, which is my forte. So that was it. I decided I was going to do Major Head Stress. I was going to do it – or rather we were going to do it, myself and Carolyn – and that was that. I had made up my mind and when that’s done I’m immovable. Get this done. Bragging rights for later, and then straight back to the café for a mug of tea.
I sat down and pulled on my boots: Boreal Lasers. All these years later I still think they were my favourite boots – I loved them. I racked up with the equipment I thought I’d need. I wouldn’t need a lot with the bolts in.
An E5 is a hard route for me; at least, it was at that time. But the start was really pretty easy. I was at around 13 feet high, nothing much in the scheme of things, and there was a very obvious crack in front of me. Above, at maybe 30 feet, was the first bolt winking at me, egging me on; just one or maybe two tricky little moves and then I’d be on an easy-looking ramp line, stretching up to the bolt. I tried to get to the slight broken ramp, teetering on small holds with my feet. Carolyn was belaying below me, holding the ropes. I grabbed the big nuts, which always sit on the right-hand side of my harness, looking at the crack to assess the size. I grabbed the nut, the one I thought was the right size, and offered it up to the crack. It was too big.
What I should have done then was swap the nut for the slightly smaller size nut. I distinctly remember thinking, ‘I’ll just swap it for a smaller one.’ But then the confidence demon on my shoulder whispered, ‘You don’t need it; just two moves and you’re on the broken ramp and it’s easy up to the bolt.’ I put the wires back on the harness and, committed, made one move. I reached up and pulled on the hold above. I was just making the move… And then I was airborne.
It was so slow. I was maybe 12 to 14 feet up, no higher, but it seemed to take for ever to hit the ground. On the way down I was just thinking, ‘This is going to hurt.’ I had no idea.
There was an explosion of pain as my heels hit the rocky ground. Nineteen years later it still hurts.
I hit the ground and crumpled, and, weirdly, immediately got back to my feet before slumping back down to the ground. Pains shot up both of my legs; it was as if somebody was ramming hot pokers through my heels, through my knees and into my thighs. I lay there on the floor, looking up at the grey sky. The first thing going through my mind was ‘I’ve fallen off!’ I couldn’t believe it. I had fallen off! Then I saw Carolyn peering over me.
Spillett was still climbing, high up on Ride the Wild Surf, he might even have been at the top. But very quickly Chris and Max were there. (Years later, over a beer, Max and I were reminiscing about the fall. Max, who happens to be a doctor, said, ‘Mate, I took one look at the state of your feet and thought, “He’s fucked.” ’)
I immediately went into denial. I didn’t want to believe I had seriously injured myself. ‘How can I possibly be hurt? I fly to Pakistan next week!’ I thought. I was going to be climbing an amazing mountain called The Ogre. An outrageous climb. There was no way that I was not going to be on that plane.
I’m not sure who called the ambulance, because, as I lay there, the pain was unbelievable, blotting out everything around me. About the only thing that I was conscious of was that I was wearing my boots, and I really liked those boots, and if my feet swelled up too much by the time I got to hospital, they would cut them off, and I wasn’t having that. I sat up to remove them, but as soon as the boots came off, my ankles ballooned. It wasn’t the cleverest thing to do. Max, Chris and Carolyn made me comfortable. By now, Richard Spillett had come down the incline with his wife, and between them all they made a nest for me out of blankets, and raised my feet. We were quite high up in the quarries so we had to wait a considerable time for the ambulance guys to arrive. It wasn’t a massively easy place to get down from. There was some chat about exactly how they were going to do it and it seemed to take for ever for anyone to make a decision. When the ambulance crew finally got there, we had to make our own way down to the road as the terrain was too tricky for them.
Chris, Max, Sara, Spillett and Carolyn carried me down, literally in relays. Two of them linked arms and they carried me. It took them a long time to negotiate the inclines. Somehow, in amongst the howling pain, I kept it together. They finally got me to the road after a huge effort and handed me over to the ambulance guys. ‘At last, the professionals,’ I thought. The first thing the professionals did was bash my ankles against the ambulance door and it felt as though I’d just fallen off the bloody route again. They slid me into the back of the ambulance, Carolyn jumped in, and then they put me on gas and air to help with the throbbing, intolerable pain. It had an amazing, immediate effect, the pain suddenly easing off.
The ambulance took me to Bangor Hospital, and I was rushed into A&E and immediately taken through to X-ray. I must have looked slightly mad because I was sitting there with a big smile on my face as the rather attractive radiographer came in. ‘What on earth have they given you?’ she said. I didn’t care; I was away with the fairies.
When the consultant appeared, both of them started to study the X-rays. I didn’t like the silence. ‘How do they look?’ I asked, desperate to find out what the damage was. ‘I’ve just sprained them, haven’t I? I know it’s probably a bad sprain but I’m going to Pakistan next week on this expedition…’
The consultant looked up from the X-rays and stared at me as if I was crazy, which I suppose I was a bit by that stage.
‘No. You’ve smashed them. You have smashed your heel bones.’ He showed me the X-rays, which made no sense to me at all. He pointed to the heel bones as if I should know what I was looking at and shook his head. ‘I’m really sorry, you’re not going anywhere. You’ve pulverised both of your heel bones.’
By this point I was utterly confused, bewildered and frightened. Not frightened about my injuries but frightened about not being able to climb. I was given all sorts of injections, put into a hospital bed and wheeled to a small ward of maybe eight beds. I had never been in hospital before.
Carolyn appeared, and then the Spilletts turned up, and Andy McNae – the guy that we had gone to meet who had all the sponsorship kit – and they were all hanging around the end of my bed. I remember being really anxious that no one should go anywhere near my feet; I didn’t want anybody knocking them – maybe it was a throw-back to the ambulance men. I wanted them anywhere but the end of the bed. There was a Euro ’96 match on that night. I remember Andy’s big grin as he said, ‘I’ve got to go. I want to see the footie.’
My world was spiralling out of control but everybody else, it seemed to me, was just carrying on as normal. They all disappeared for an evening in the pub, while I was left there not quite knowing what had happened or what to do. I kept thinking, ‘It’s going to be fine; bones heal, that’s not an issue. It will be fine.’ But then a wave of anxiety and despair washed over me, the dark realisation that things might not be fine. At this stage, I thought, ‘Oh God, I suppose I had better contact my parents.’
On Sunday evening everyone had to go back home, leaving me completely on my own in a Welsh hospital. I didn’t know anybody, I had no visitors, so I had no distractions from my thoughts. I’m a very positive person, but this was completely out of my control. Cracks were appearing as the reality of the situation started to sink in.
I lay there in bed, wondering how this had happened to me, what had I done wrong. How had I ended up here?
Read the full story: One Man’s Everest: The Autobiography of Kenton Cool
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.