By Kenton Cool | Written by Jamie Maddison
I was slightly dismayed that my beloved sports mountaineering and climbing were not represented in the Olympics any longer. This 90-year-old story seemed to me to be a great opportunity to celebrate mountaineering in the Olympic year.
For me the story started in 2010, when Richard Robinson – a colleague of mine who works for an advertising company – began researching the Olympic Games for one of his clients. He’s a very good family friend and one day I got an unexpected telephone call from him: ’What do you know about thirteen Olympic Gold Medals that were awarded in Chamonix by Barron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic games, to the 1922 British Mount Everest Expedition?' Despite forging a career as an Everest guide, and having previously lived in Chamonix for a number of years, I had to plead my ignorance of this historical event. And so Rich filled me in on the unique story:
In 1924 Baron Coubertin awarded Olympic Gold Medals to the 1922 British expedition for their outstanding feats on the slopes of Mount Everest. Although the expedition wasn’t successful in reaching the summit, it had smashed all sorts of records: they were the first team to set out specifically to climb Everest; the first team to climb above 8000 metres; the first team to use supplementary oxygen; and the first team to use down-filled clothing. Their achievements ran parallel to what Coubertin himself was thinking when he redesigned the Olympics in 1896. His ethos was ‘higher, faster, stronger’, and the higher wasn’t the high jump or pole vault it was aeronautics and alpinism. He thought those two disciplines truly encompassed the spirit of the Olympics and so – looking across the fours years between games – if a mountaineering ascent in that time was judged worthy enough the team would be awarded a medal.
The interesting part of the whole story though was this. Lt. Col. Strutt – second in command of the 1922 British Everest Expedition – was presented the medals by Coubertin at the closing ceremony of the 1924 Chamonix Winter Olympics. Whilst receiving the team’s Gold Medals, Strutt and Coubertin got chatting and struck up a pledge between themselves. Strutt promised on behalf of Great Britain, not just on the team but on heads of his entire country, that at the very next opportunity Britain would endeavour to put one of the Gold Medals on the summit of Mount Everest in celebration of Coubertin’s recognition of their efforts to conquer ‘the third pole’. That year, 1924, there was another expedition to Everest – the fateful one where Mallory and Irving disappeared – but no medals reached the top. Fast forwarding to the 1930s, these teams never quite achieved the same height records of their predecessors; they didn’t summit. Then the war came along and the whole story had got lost in time.
As the years passed the thirteen Gold Medals disappeared into family attics and archives and, as we know, when the successful ascent of Everest finally came in 1953 none of these medals went with Hillary and Norgay to the top. The pledge had become all but forgotten.
Jumping quickly from the past to the present day, 2012 was obviously going to be an amazing year for Britain and its athletes, but I was slightly dismayed that my beloved sports mountaineering and climbing were not represented in the Olympics any longer. This 90-year-old story seemed to me to be a great opportunity to celebrate mountaineering in the Olympic year. So myself and Rich Robinson and myself started researching the whole story. Could we find a Gold Medal? And if we could find a medal, could we take it to the top of Everest and fulfil the pledge?
It took quite a while to track where any of the thirteen accolades had got to. But we persisted, and started scouting through various archives, finally chasing a few of the medals down. We found one in the Royal Geographical Society, another in the Gurkha Museum in Winchester. However the medal we finally used came through the family of Dr Arthur Wakefield, one of the 1922 mountaineers. His grandson Charles now lives in Toronto, Canada, and kindly decided to loan us the medal. So we had a medal, had the back story, had the reason to do it and – with nine ascents of Mount Everest under my belt already – I had no doubt that I was the right person to take on the expedition. Now we had to deliver the pledge, to take Arthur Wakefield’s medal right to the roof of the world and honour those amazing men of 1922. I wanted someone with me to record it all for a possible documentary so I asked the adventure cameraman Keith Partridge to come with me on this mission. He very kindly accepted.
And so we embarked on the expedition, my tenth to Mount Everest to date. Normally an Everest ascent wouldn’t have been that much of a story but this year proved to be a very interesting, (read a difficult year, one newspaper even described it as the most treacherous year ever) on Everest. Right from the word go the mountain proved herself to be a tricky customer. There were a lot of bad incidents reported in the press early on – a Sherpa fell off the ladders and unfortunately died – and people were muttering from the start that this really wasn’t a good season in terms of conditions underfoot. Then Russell Brice – one of the big, well respected operators on Mount Everest – decided to call it a day with his expedition, so the Walking with the Wounded Team went home.
This sent big ripples through the community at base-camp as to whether the mountain was actually climbable this year. But, like with many of these things, being very patient pays dividends. I’ve climbed a number of 8000m peaks and although I’ve got a bullish attitude often enjoying being one of the first to the top – getting myself and my clients home early before there’s any problems – it became quite apparent to me this year that the softly, softly approach may be the better option. To put the season in further perspective, last year I when I climbed Everest we actually managed a 23 day round trip; I left Heathrow and was back home three weeks later after successfully reaching the summit… a world record time. By contrast, this expedition lasted eight weeks and the main reason for that was the weather. Everyone at camp was just sitting, waiting for the good conditions to come in.
And so we embarked on the expedition, my tenth to Mount Everest to date. Normally it wouldn’t have been that much of a story but this year proved to be a very interesting, if not a very difficult year, on Everest.
The first summit window appeared very late, May 19 to be exact. On that day huge queues formed high on the mountain, and the photographs of them made it into the press worldwide. Thankfully, Keith and I were still down at base camp, drawing on my years of experience on the mounatin I decided to miss the first window because of the dangers the crowds were going to create. It had been evident that there were a lot of people on Everest this year and everyone was vying for that first summit window. Summit fever had taken hold in the camps and that’s one of most dangerous things that can happen on a big mountain. So as soon as the first good weather came everyone rushed straight up the mountainside. Waiting an extra five or six days before our own attempt, we witnessed the resulting carnage coming back to camp. Climber after climber returned back down the slopes with frostbite; bitten fingers, noses, toes, all because people were caught in these queues for hours on end. It was horrifying, like a scene from a battlefield… and totally avoidable.
We started our summit attempt later, on May 25, and the whole thing seemed to be going according to plan. We climbed successfully up to the South Col, where spent a day resting and recovering and also doing some amazing filming. Then we left super early at 7:30 that night to get ahead of any likely crowds. We finally approached the top after an ascent that had gone really smoothly, too smoothly in fact. We actually had to spend almost an hour just beneath the summit sitting in the snow in a little wind scoop waiting for the sun to rise because we had climbed too fast, we wanted to film on the summit and we couldn’t do that in the dark. I’d expected the route to be jammed with people marching their way upwards in the dark, but that never materialised and it became apparent that we were going to have the summit largely to ourselves; Keith, myself and two of my Sherpa friends.
The sun finally did come up, which was lucky as were freezing to death, and Keith filmed some of the most amazing shots of the sun rising over the Himalayas. We then had a little ceremony at the top with the medal, which had been blessed by a local Lama. The expedition had been quite an emotional roller coaster for me: it had been on, been off, been on, been off, two years in the planning, then to finally find myself here on the top with the medal was quite humbling. Of all the summits I’ve got on Everest, this one was one of the most emotional for me. It was because of what the medal stands for. The guys of 1922 were really very remarkable climbers; even though the hadn’t reached the top they deserved the gold, their expedition of 1922 became the bench mark of mountaineering endeavour. They were the very best at what they did, and their pledge on behalf of Great Britain deserved to be fulfilled. I just felt very privileged to be the person who could finally do that for them.
As I left the summit on the way down I realised I couldn’t see out of one eye. I could close my right eye and everything in my left eye seemed like looking through a glass of milk. I had no peripheral vision, I couldn’t see anything clearly. My trusty Sherpa friend Dorje, who I’ve summited Everest with five times now, was just a blur even at close distance. I got pretty scared up there. My sole drive became to just get down the mountain as quickly as I could and I actually ended up going all the way from the summit to base camp in a single day, in the hope that my eyesight might recover. It turned out to be quite an epic descent going down the ice-fall as it was getting dark. The ice had changed, I was on my own, and then – quite humorously- I got a telephone call from the BBC halfway down: ’Kenton we hear that you’ve fulfilled this amazing 90-year-old pledge to put a gold medal on top of Everest, can you tell us a bit about it?’ ‘Actually guys, this isn’t a convenient moment for me. Can we perhaps do this later?’ ‘Actually, we’d quite like to go live right now.’ ‘Oh God.. all right then.'
In the end both Keith and I got down fine (Keith descended to Basecamp the next day) and my eyesight did return after a few days. The doctors at base camp came to the conclusion that it was probably a frozen cornea from my eye’s exposure to the prevailing wind when we had been sat down in the snow near the summit. But temporary blindness aside, we’d set out to do exactly what we wanted to do without any major incidents. We’d managed to successfully avoid the crowds, the trauma and the avalanches that surrounded Everest this year. Then when we finally got back to Kathmandu, the cherry on the cake was getting a phone call from Lord Coe himself, to congratulate us on our achievement. He saw the project as a kick-start to the Olympic Games and it was really nice to get recognition from the LOCOG chairman for what we had done.
Once back in the UK I handed back the medal to Charles Wakefield on top of Great Gable. We chose the iconic Lakeland mountain because if you go up there you’ll find a plaque in honour of the fallen club members of the Fell and Rock club. This tribute was unveiled by Charles’ grandfather, Arthur Wakefield, whose medal we had carried right across the world to Everest and its top. The plaque was unveiled on June 8, 1924, the same day Mallory and Irving were last seen going for the summit of Everest. It had been rainy and windy – an atmospheric day all round – and to be here right at the heart of where English rock-climbing began seemed like the aptest place in which to hand the medal back to Charles. We’d fulfilled the pledge, honoured the word of my Everest predecessors on behalf of our country and got back safely. I really couldn’t have asked for anything more.
My sole drive became to just get down the mountain as quickly as I could and I actually ended up going all the way from the summit to base camp in a single day, in the hope that my eyesight might recover.
Kenton Cool is an IFMGA World Mountain Guide, Mountain Climber, Ice Climber, Adventurer, Public Speaker, Broadcaster & 2012 Olympic Torch Bearer.
Kenton is one of the world’s leading alpine climbers with 10 Everest Summits under his belt amongst other incredible feats of human achievement. Find out more about Kenton on his website kentoncool.com or follow him on Twitter @KentonCool
Jamie Maddison is a writer, photographer and all round aspirant explorer. He cut his teeth in the big wild world of journalism working for the British rock-climbing magazine Climber. He has written for the likes of Geographical and Hidden Europe and is Joint Editor for Sidetracked.