High and wry
'CURIOUS THINGS HAPPEN sometimes, when you're 30,000 feet [9,144 metres] up,' says Doug Scott - the first Briton to scale Everest and widely regarded as one of the most extraordinary climbers alive today.
'I was on Mont Blanc, asleep on a ledge that I'd cut out of the ice,' he says. 'I was dreaming that someone was telling me I wasn't paying enough attention to detail. I woke up and saw that I'd forgotten to connect my safety rope to the harness. Had I rolled over in the night, I would have plunged 3,000 feet [914 metres].'
'Curious' is an understatement, but this is typical of the way Scott, 64, brushes aside things that would panic ordinary people. Blessed with what the Everest Speakers Bureau calls 'a wit so dry it could mop up beer tables', Scott has completed 45 mountain expeditions, reaching the summit 40 times - half of which were first ascents. Each time the British climber pioneered a previously untested route.
He has more than his fair share of stories, thanks to a celebrated career in which he has conquered many peaks, including the highest summits on all seven continents: Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, Alaska's Mount McKinley, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus, Vinson Massif in Antarctica, Indonesia's Carstensz Pyramid and Mount Everest.
And, as the body gasps for oxygen and battles days without sleep, he's had plenty of strange moments. Take the so-called Inner Voice, for example ('a voice in your chest telling you what you must do next', says Scott), or the mysterious Third Man Syndrome ('someone whom you look to for comfort, confidence and sage advice, despite the fact that they aren't actually there.')
In the 1970s, his ragged beard, long hair, round glasses and fierce northern wit had many regarding him as the 'John Lennon of mountaineering'. In town for this week's lecture as part of Hong Kong's Royal Geographic Society's 10th anniversary celebrations, Scott - now with a shock of white hair - looks more an eccentric scientist, albeit a rugged version, whose spade-like hands could seemingly uproot trees. A fortune-teller once told his mother that she would have three sons, and the eldest would one day find himself in great danger, in a small shelter in a high place while the world watched his progress. This, of course, came to pass during his celebrated 1975 ascent of the southwest side of Everest with Dougal Haston.
Scott had by that time gained a reputation as one of the most free-thinking climbers of his generation. Having reached the summit too late in the day to make a safe descent, the pair were forced to camp out by making a bivouac. In doing so they became the first - and to this day, the only - men to survive a night at 28,700 feet (8,748 metres) without oxygen.
'We tunnelled into a slope 300 feet [91 metres] from the summit and stayed there for the night,' he says, casually, as if it were a case of parking at a roadside motel. 'We had no fuel to keep us warm, and up there's only 25 per cent of the oxygen you get down here, making it very hard to make the right judgment. It's a bit like having 12 pints on a Saturday night - you're pretty much out of it.'
Both climbers descended into a deep, hypoxia-driven state of hallucination.
'Strange things were beginning to happen,' Scott says. 'I was having a conversation with my feet. I was asking my right one, 'What are we going to do with the left one? It's not going to warm up.'
'The left one replied, 'Well you always kick rugby balls with the right foot, so use it.' So I rubbed the left one furiously with my right one to get some life back into it. That's how focused you are when you're up there.'
Dawn finally broke after what must have seemed an eternity up in the freezing, howling winds. The two climbers were not only alive, but had avoided frostbite. Scott's life would never be the same, as he emerged to a previously unknown scale of fame. 'It occurred to me that if I could sleep out there, then I could sleep anywhere,' Scott says after hobbling into a hotel lobby a few hours before he is due to deliver his lecture.
'From having gone to my limits for so long, the internal dialogue you have with yourself daily slows down. There's suddenly space between thoughts. You come back refreshed, with more enthusiasm. If you're too ambitious, too blinkered, you'll stumble and fall. If you let go of your ambition, then it comes to you like a gift.'
Complaining of a recent bout of arthritis, he pulls up his trouser legs to reveal surgical scars on his knee caps (both of which have been replaced by metal ones) and the places where four bolts hold each of his ankles together.
He broke both legs climbing The Ogre in Pakistan's Karakoram Mountain range in 1976, and made a gruelling eight-day descent on his knees. Scott brushes off such rigours in his characteristically matter-of-fact fashion, - including how his rescue helicopter crash-landed only metres from the landing site, with him on board.
Scott puts his success down to intuition as much as physical and mental stamina. 'Intuition is the distillation of experience,' he says. 'It implies that you're more likely to get this sort of thing happening if you've had a step-by-step approach to being there, if you've wrestled mentally with the situation you find yourself in.'
Yet his daredevil instincts haven't enabled him to reconcile himself to the exploits of his own children: three from his first marriage are all climbers, while the two boys he's bringing up with his second wife, Sharu - between homes near Britain's Lake District and in Nepal - are only just entering their teenage years.
'Rose is 26 and is into eventing [the triathlon of equestrian sport that combines dressage, cross-country and show-jumping],' he says, wincing and shaking his head. 'It's terrible - much more dangerous than climbing mountains. She had her pelvis flattened by having a horse fall on top of her once, she nearly died.'
These days Scott is heavily involved with his charity, Community Action Nepal which since its inception in 1998 has saved the lives of thousands of village children by cleaning up water supplies, as well as raising funds and building schools and health posts.
'We'd just climbed K2 in 1990 and were waiting in a village, and we found that there was more than a 50 per cent child mortality rate there,' Scott says. 'They were dying of enteritis because their water came through fields fertilised with excrement. We quickly raised #10,000 [$137,800] and built standpipes. Straight away, far more children were reaching the age of five and it made me realise how easy it was to actually make a difference.'
The charity also focuses on income-generating projects that enable young people to stay in their villages rather than seek work elsewhere, thus strengthening the community.
Yet the Everest that Scott scaled 30 years ago has also changed, much to his displeasure. The majority of climbers are now businessmen who are virtually towed up.
'You know - the types who are at the top of whatever their business is and who think, 'What next? I think I'll climb Everest.' And most of them get away with it. There's literally a groove in the snow that has been ground out by Sherpas and there's a handrail fixed.
'The public would think of a climber as someone who is taking responsibility for his or her life. But with these new ascents by non-climbers, they're not doing that - they don't have to make a single decision. As long as their equipment works and they're fit enough, they'll do it.'
It's a theme that Scott warms to both during the interview and his lecture, which sparkles with references to his exploits as well as his opinions on everything from the effects of landmines to the plight of Tibetans.
He fears that the world is sliding towards a collective nanny state - the pedestrianisation of mountaineering being a pet hate for one who broke so many boundaries.
'Unless we take risks in life, we can't expect to give ourselves any new possibilities,' Scott says, referring to a global culture where decisions are made with an eye on potential lawsuits. Scout organisations in the US are no longer taking their young charges climbing as a result.
'We are gradually immobilising ourselves - we're caving in to lawyers and we have to make a stand. Clearly, we're rapidly losing all initiative in the face of it. [The ancient Roman statesman] Cicero said that what has always fascinated man the most, is the unknown. Going around the next corner and wondering what's going to happen next and just dealing with it - it's unfortunately something that we are increasingly teaching ourselves not to do.'