For a man in his 70s, Doug Scott shows no signs of slowing down; he is constantly busy. He has just returned from back-to-back meetings in Italy and is, at the time we speak, in the middle of a series of lectures celebrating his legendary ascent of Everest in 1975: Everest the Hard Way. The lectures are way of fundraising for Community Action Nepal (CAN), the charity that Doug helped create as a way of mountaineers giving something back to the Nepalese community. CAN’s patron is fellow climber Sir Chris Bonington, a good friend of Doug’s and leader of his much-celebrated 1975 ascent of Everest. Doug realised a long time ago that without the help and support of the local communities, many of the successful Himalayan climbs wouldn’t have happened. I’m talking to Doug through a contact at CAFOD (Catholic Aid For Overseas Development), which has partnered CAN to improve conditions for the rural poor, and they have jointly raised over £224,000 to build two schools in Nepal.
1994 saw their first project realised via profits from The Trekking Company, a pioneering advocate of responsible tourism, and topped up with donations they built a school and a health post and refuge shelters for the 300-plus porters, with good accommodation for the Western doctors. The environmental and welfare of Nepal are something that he is clearly very passionate about.
On top of the world
All the time I’m dying to ask him about Everest, which even for an armchair adventurer like myself still holds awe and majesty. It is, after all, the highest place on earth. I make the mistake of quoting a celebrity climber who had remarked that Everest wasn’t a terribly difficult mountain to climb. Doug is very quick, and passionate, to correct this. It turns out the ‘expert’ I am quoting is not quite as proficient as I would believe. I’m glad to listen as I’m expertly corrected. The main route to the summit isn’t a terribly challenging route, mainly because it has been kitted out with ropes and turned into an easy-access tourist route. It has become the bucket list adventure holiday choice of the Instagram generation. It is something that has had a detrimental effect on the environment, with litter and human waste having been a problem in the past.
Doug becomes clearly passionate when he answers my question about CAN having received an award as an advocate of responsible tourism. The actions are something that are obviously more important than the kudos, as Doug asks an assistant off-phone when they got the award.
Everest looms large in my questions, and I ask what was so special about his 1975 climb. He replies that the Southwest Face is still considered the ‘hard way’ to climb the mountain.
Everest: the hard way
Back in 1975 there had been six attempts on the summit before Doug and Dougal Haston had climbed and bivouacked on the South Summit at 8760m, the highest ever bivouac at that time. They had no sleeping bags and few oxygen tanks, two of the key pieces of equipment needed to combat the altitude and extreme cold that are the two dangers on Everest. It was late in the day and with the weather closing in, then had one last attempt to reach the summit. They made the summit late in the day, but without tent, oxygen or his down clothing Doug, together with Haston, climbed back down, hoping to make Camp Six before the light was gone altogether. They didn’t make it and had to excavate an ice cave to shelter from the extreme cold. In order to survive the night, both climbers had to keep moving and stay awake. To go to sleep would have meant death.
Doug makes it all sound very matter-of-fact and a little inconsequential. I find him very self-deprecating about his acts. The good thing for him, he says, is that the fame and prestige has enabled him to do something really worthwhile – his fame has funded all the projects. It is perhaps an attitude picked up from the local Nepalese who, when Doug returned to a monastery in 1975, had said to him, “You’re back from the summit. What’s so special about that?”
“So it was a little bit of a waste of time, not materially, as the huge press coverage helped to set up schools and outposts, hospitals and refuge shelters. Not to mention providing paid work for in excess of 300 porters, and airstrips and accommodation for Western doctors.”
The visionary climber
I ask him how his climbing style was – it has been described as ‘visionary’. It was as a result of his incredible Everest climb that he moved to a lightweight, Alpine style. He’d figured that if he could survive the extreme conditions of Everest then he would be OK for another climb in the same manner. He adopted a style where he and a partner would set off with one rope between them and all his equipment in a rucksack. There would be no sieging, no building of base camps and a long slow process of resupply and with no heavy oxygen cylinders.
After Everest, where he’d survived “without oxygen, sleeping bags and no frostbite” he knew he “would never need oxygen kit again”, “the burden [was] gone”. Lesser people would have probably thanked their lucky stars that they had survived, and would have made sure they had a surfeit of kit on future trips, but Doug is made of stronger stuff. Two years after Everest, he spent six days crawling down Baintha Brakk, known as The Ogre, after he had broken both his legs.
An obvious question springs to mind – does he still climb?, remarking how my own father is about the same age and has trouble negotiating the stairs. “Yes,” comes a very affirmative reply. In fact, he has just returned from a climbing trip with two of his trustees. Back in London, Doug relieves his daily stresses, and his backaches, by popping down to the Westway climbing wall. It is, he says, something that “takes him out of himself and reduces bad spirits”. He asks me if I’ve done any climbing, and I mention my terrible head for heights and my few attempts at a climbing wall. He surprises me by mentioning that he has a problem with heights when on man-made structures, particularly those with low parapets.
One final question – are there any mountains that Doug hasn’t conquered? He doesn’t pause for a second. He laments that he “never got round to climbing the huge peaks in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica.” He describes fearsome, “huge, ice-covered mountains up to 3,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level”.