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/ Sunday Herald Article - Alan Hinkes

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DougG - on 23 Oct 2005
Highs and lows of extreme altitude mountaineering

Alan Hinkes not only deserves a medal, but recognition as well, says Fergal MacErlean

The Death Zone is a place the unassuming extreme altitude British mountaineer Alan Hinkes knows inside out. The term refers to altitudes above 8,000 metres where the human body rapidly deteriorates, and includes the world’s 14 highest mountains. In May, Hinkes entered the record books as the first Briton – and one of only 13 men worldwide – to climb these snow-clad giants, found in Asia’s Himalaya and Karakoram ranges.

He says Yorkshire grit drove him to keep going on Challenge 8000, as it’s dubbed, which the 50-year-old former geography teacher began on Tibet’s Shisha Pangma, the lowest of the 8,000m peaks, back in 1987. That was the year after the 14 were first completed by Italian climbing legend Reinhold Messner.

Despite a multitude of setbacks, near-death experiences and the loss of friends and peers, Hinkes persevered, reaching the top of his final mountain, Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest at 8,586m, and found a disinterested public. Now, at the start of a lecture tour, that may all change. Indeed, he received an award from the Royal Institute of Navigation, given by the Duke of Edinburgh, last Wednesday.

Chief executive of the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) Dave Turnbull says: “Alan’s ascent is a milestone. The effort required for success on just one of the peaks is considerable but to climb all 14 requires immense personal drive and focus sustained over many years. Many feel Alan hasn’t had the recognition he deserves.”

The BMC are debating whether to reward British mountaineers in a more formal manner along the lines of the French award Le Piolet d’Or.

Sir Chris Bonington agrees Britain’s mountaineers are not sufficiently recognised. While not wishing to detract from Hinkes’ “considerable achievements”, he is keen to stress “the drive of mountaineering is all about doing new routes in adventurous ways”.

“Even greater achievements are being accomplished by some of our young climbers who are doing some incred ibly difficult and challenging new routes on technically very hard peaks. Our very best climbers, people like Mick Fowler, get absolutely no coverage whatsoever.”

Whatever happens about recognition, Hinkes will always remember the drama of Challenge 8000. In 2000, he was beaten off Kangchenjunga by huge snow falls. In retreat, a snow bridge collapsed and he fell into a crevasse, alone, breaking his arm. He had to abandon a second attempt after contracting a virus.

On Nanga Parbat he succumbed to a regional hazard when he sneezed on chapatti flour and prolapsed a disc. He lay in agony for 10 days before being able to drag himself to lower altitudes and a helicopter rescue. He reached the summit later the same year.

He reached the top of Makalu, in 1999, after his third attempt, passing his rucksack from the previous expedition two years before, frozen into the mountain.

He even risked a hotel fire to retrieve film shot on Makalu. K2 also took three attempts and was very tough, says Hinkes. His second attempt of K2 ended when a climber fell to his death and Hinkes aided his partner. He returned in 1995 with his friend Alison Hargreaves, who died with seven others on the mountain.

His 2002 ascent of Annapurna via a new route in record time earned a world record. His third ascent of Kangch, as it is known, with climbing partner and friend Pasang Gelu, was the most testing of all. Gelu turned back near the summit while Hinkes pressed on into a blizzard, marking his way on the steep ground with 6mm cord.

“I don’t know of anyone who gets to the top of an 8000er just before dark, comes down on their own in a blizzard and survives. Realistically you know you’re dead. I started having a bit of a panic attack when I realised I wasn’t on Buchaille Etive Mor – I was on the third highest mountain in the world. But I came to me senses and focused on the descent.”

Adding to his troubles, even though he says he “was sort of enjoying the experience ’cos I’d pushed myself to the limit”, was the near certainty his partner was dead. But he caught him up on the descent and was overjoyed. “This overwhelming sensation burnt through my body. It was weird.”

So what next? Hinksey, as he’s nicknamed, says he’s hoping for some good winter conditions in Scotland. “I haven’t done Orion face direct on Ben Nevis for 11 years. I’ve done it twice and I think it’s one of the finest routes in the world.”

o Alan’s Full Monty tour: Oct 29, Stirling (Summits); Nov 2, Edinburgh (Tiso); Nov 3, Fort William (West Coast Leisure).
Doug on 23 Oct 2005
In reply to DougG: Also an article on the Edinburgh film fest, at http://www.sundayherald.com/52454 (and a Cameron Macneish piece on Glas Maol)
Humphrey Jungle - on 23 Oct 2005
In reply to Doug:

Article by Jeff Connor on Haston in the Scotland On Sunday. Talks to Doug Scott about him but no great revelations in it.

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