How to mountaineer, according to Everest connoisseur Kenton Cool
World-leading mountaineer Kenton Cool reveals the mental and physical challenges required to reach Earth's highest point...
image Elia Saikaly
words Emily Clays
I’ve always been enthralled by Everest. Maybe it’s the intensely spiritual nature of the Himalayas, perhaps it’s the morbid curiosity about the death zone, or it could be I’m just entranced by nature’s most foreboding expression of itself. Though a mention of mountaineering might bring to mind a dramatic ascent of the Hillary Step, there are many different types; from summer hillwalking to technical alpine climbing to, yes, death-defying Himalayan expeditions. Mountaineering is more accessible than you think.
Kenton Cool has climbed extensively around the world, with over 44 successful expeditions under his belt where he has established new routes and first ascents on peaks in Alaska, France and India. He’s the only Brit to have skied down two 8,000m peaks and has mounted Everest 16 times, once guiding Sir Ranulph Fiennes up the world’s tallest summit. He’s also a highly engaging and inspiring motivational speaker, with his ultimate goal being to inspire the next generation.
I caught up with Cool a few days before taking a mountaineering trip of my own to Chamonix in the French Alps so that I could find out his tips for mountaineering, and what it feels like to be on top of the world.
How did your mountaineering start?
I started off at Brunel University which had a state-of-the-art climbing wall, then became a bit of a climbing bum and began rock climbing with a friend on the south coast, the Peak District and Scotland. They all offer incredible climbing feats, and beautiful views. It was a combination of everything I loved. But I just thought – I had to go to the Himalayas.
How did you learn to climb?
I learnt through trial and error. Nowadays you can be taught the skills, but it comes with a price tag! I found the best way to learn is with peers and to not overthink it. Mistakes are part of the adventure. You can find a million reasons not to do something, and those reasons are always from overthinking.
What was your first expedition?
When I was 19 I went to Pakistan to try a few ascents but we got our arses kicked. It was really hard work, but I fell in love with Pakistan. The whole trip cost £500, and the most expensive part was the airfare. Adventure doesn’t have to have a price tag. We just had this amazing adventure – no cook, no mess tent, we did everything ourselves.
What advice would you give young people who want to start climbing?
I tell everyone to get out to Nepal because I love it there but you can even take yourself to Pembrokeshire. Camping is about £10 a night and you don’t need state-of-the-art equipment unless you’re doing high altitude. My father was unemployed and we had no money but I still did trips, they didn't have to be expensive; we used to hitchhike from Leeds Uni to North Wales and wore whatever we liked. Mountaineering is an anarchistic space that attracts outliers, you can go to India and climb 5000/6000m peaks and it’s not going to cost you much at all, and it’ll be a journey that’ll enrich your life.
What has climbing taught you about yourself?
Pretty much everything. Unbelievable highs and the lowest of lows. Mountaineering strips everything back. It’s you, your climbing friends, Mother Nature and that’s it. It’s very humbling. No matter how good we think we are, we’ll always be grounded by mountains. They were there long before humans and will be there long after. There’s a force that lives within the mountains. They’re alive. They highlight the insignificance of us as individuals and as a species.
You've summited Everest 16 times. What's its allure for you?
Everest is a majestic place, it’s so full of culture and history. It’s a Gone Wonderland – It was the bottom of the sea and now it’s the top of the world, it’s nature doing what nature does best. It has this hidden force. Its traditional name is Chomulungma, which translates directly to Mother Goddess of the Sky. It was named way before 1953 when George Everest surveyed it as the Earth’s highest point.
How do you feel on a high altitude ascent?
Before the ascent, anxiety. Fear about leading clients even further into the death zone. It’s a very desolate place. Camp 4 on Everest is always windy. The South Col is the lowest point between Lhotse and Everest, so it’s never calm. There’s always a sense of unease, and it feels very hostile. I’m never super comfy there. Bodies scatter Camp 4 and above – they’re an unsettling yet stark reminder that Everest is an incredibly dangerous place. That keeps you sharp.
How do you cope with it?
You never get used to seeing bodies, but the mind generates a defence mechanism. Losing 40-odd friends does harden you and so when I do come across bodies I’m able to shut it out. Don Cash [a 55-year-old climber who died attempting a summit in 2019] is sat looking out down the Khumbu, and it looks like there’s just somebody there taking a rest. His body is perfectly preserved other than some wear to his down suit.
Do you feel a spiritual presence on Everest?
It’s definitely a spiritual place. At the beginning of every expedition there’s a puja ceremony performed to offer homage and prayer to the Gods, and ask for safe passage. That’s very important to the Sherpa people. They won’t ascend without completing the ritual. However, Everest doesn’t seem to have a sense of anger.
There are religious mountains though, like Machapuchare, also known as Fishtail mountain, in Nepal. No permits have been issued to climb it, as it’s said to be a sacred home to the Hindu god Shiva. Similarly, Kanchenjunga, referred to as the “Abode of Gods” holds a significant religious importance. When it was first climbed they deliberately did not set foot on the very top. No-one is allowed to climb it above 5000m from the Indian side and it’s banned completely from the Bhutan side.
How does it feel standing on the highest point on Earth?
It's quite remarkable. It's surreal, so quiet and serene. You’re never going to get that feeling again. There’s of course a feeling of self-satisfied elation and pride, and also relief. Some clients get to the top and mentally check out. It’s bittersweet; it signifies the end of the expedition and I love expeditions.