Authors: Bear Grylls
Blake wrote in the eighteenth century that:
‘Great things happen when men and mountains meet,
That is not done by jostling in the street.’
For the time being, though, I was doing my fair share of jostling – madly charging around, trying desperately to find sponsorship for the expedition. The sum of US$25,000,
when compared to the savings of a bottom ranked soldier, seemed as elusive as a pork pie in a rabbi’s kitchen. Painting pictures to large corporations of the benefits of sponsorship and
getting companies to catch the vision is the first and one of the hardest challenges of high-altitude climbers, and after 203 rejections it was beginning to take its toll.
Apparently it took Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken 1,009 ‘No’s before anyone would support his idea of fast-food chicken. Most of us would have thought that maybe we needed
to change our recipe. Like Colonel Sanders, though, this was my only card, so I kept plugging away.
Admin is most definitely my worst point, and I remember on one occasion dialling a number and speaking to someone who I thought was the marketing director of ‘North Face’ equipment.
After twenty minutes of exuding down the telephone about the expedition, they informed me that I was through to a Sheffield industrial cleaning firm, and could I please hurry up with my
I soon found that sitting at my desk with piles of proposals, numbers and names, was beginning to addle me in no uncertain terms.
I managed to escape from all this for two months during the build-up to Everest to join the team that was attempting to climb Ama Dablam. This was a commitment that I had promised Neil I would
undertake; he would be eager to hear how I performed. For me, this trip was also a chance to clear my head a bit amongst the madness of the preparations for Everest, and to put in some valuable
Fitness was going to be fundamental on Everest, and I was now spending as much time as possible climbing and going berserk in the hills of Wales and Scotland. But I needed also to be training at
greater heights. The other objective therefore of climbing Ama Dablam was to train at these higher altitudes and to see how my body would react.
Despite climbing with the Army and friends in European ranges, I had never been exposed to the extreme heights that Everest would present. If my body shut down, as can easily happen to people at
those altitudes, there would be no point pursuing the dream any further. It was how I would react that Neil wanted to see.
In the 1960s Sir Edmund Hillary, on seeing the great peak of Ama Dablam in the Everest valley, described it as ‘unclimbable’. Looking at her from the bottom, one can understand his
sentiments; she stands impressively and majestically pointing straight up into the sky 22,400 feet above sea-level. Climbing it successfully would be an essential step on the road to Everest, both
physically and mentally. This brought with it, though, a degree of pressure.
I spent five weeks living on this peak, pushing my body harder and higher. I was now testing my climbing skills to their limits, in situations where, rather uncomfortably, my life depended on
them daily. A lifetime of concentration became crammed into the intense hours on her face each day – it left my body drained of energy and strength. I could hardly even think about Everest
now. It was too large a step away. This climb itself was demanding my all. Unless I could perform here, what was I doing aspiring so much higher? Over and over I found I was telling myself, Just
concentrate on the now. This is where it counts.
Finally, by the grace of God, I was huddled on the summit of Ama Dablam. As I squatted there, I glanced left through my goggles, and through the haze of the mist and howling
wind I saw the peak of Everest slowly reveal herself. Strong, detached, and still two vertical kilometres above where I was now, Everest suddenly filled my mind all over again.
It had taken my all to be one of the few from our team to reach the summit of Ama Dablam, and now cowering there against the wind, feeling unable to take another step further, the sneer of
Everest way above scared me. But something was drawing me. I couldn’t explain it. It just somehow felt right. I knew that I would see the mountain again. For me, that time couldn’t come
Ten days later, back in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, the mass of Everest photos for sale in the market had me captivated again. More so now than ever before. To the commercial tourist, the
pictures were just pretty postcards on the stalls. To me, though, each one seemed to jump out.
I know it’s possible, I told myself. I’ve tested the formula, and it’s worked. Put up with the discomfort and the pain, keep going and never give up, and understand that if
you’re moving up, then you’re always getting closer.
Encouraged by how the climb had gone and this gut feeling that felt so strong inside, I returned home for the real phase to begin.
I was soon back in the ‘jostle’ of preparation. The team was gradually coming together now. Geoffrey Stanford, a Grenadier Guards Officer, aged twenty-seven, had
joined Neil and me. He had climbed a lot in Europe and had done some high-altitude research in the Himalaya before – spending six weeks at 19,000 feet studying how the body copes and adapts
to those sorts of heights. This, though, was to be his first attempt on Everest. His perfect manners and English exterior covered a grit determination; he was like a dog with a bone – a bone
he wouldn’t let go. A veritable British bulldog – but in black tie.
The final member of the team to join us was Michael Crosthwaite. I had grown up with Mick since I was a boy, and had climbed extensively with him over the years. Physically and mentally he was
exceptionally strong, and because I remember him having hairs around his willy at the age of eight (whilst I didn’t) I had grown up with an inherent respect for him.
Straight out of Cambridge University, and fresh into the City Stockmarket, Mick felt he was rapidly going stale. In his own words he felt he had been ‘swimming underwater for too long and
needed to come up for fresh air’. Of ‘fresh air’, we assured him, there would be no shortage. Thus the pull of Everest had her enigmatic way with him; he made the brave decision
to leave the City and join the team. The team was better off for it, and I was greatly relieved to have the company of a soul mate. With Neil and Geoffrey as such openly driven people, maybe the
two of us could be a more ‘relaxed’ dilution for any tension in the future. Time would tell.
And so the team was finalized. It was small, strong, and despite consisting of very different characters, was bonded by a deep desire to climb this mountain. Neil had had the foresight to keep
it small, the idea being that each member was to be capable of forming part of a summit team. We would need to work together, supporting each other constantly, and helping each other when required.
I suppose, in some respects, this is similar to how a troop of gorillas operates in the jungle – picking nits out from each other’s hair. In fact, thinking about it now, and remembering
the state in which we cohabited a lot of the time on Everest, I don’t think that this is too bad an analogy.
They say familiarity breeds contempt, but in the intensity of the relationships that we were to have, there was no room for this to be the case. We would be spending every day together for three
months, living, eating, sleeping and crapping in some of the harshest conditions this world offers. Such experiences make or break friendships. As a team we were well aware of the need for trust
and tolerance between us in the months ahead, and this needed to start now.
Three days after I had raised my first few hundred pounds for the expedition – a sum that felt like a drop in the ocean towards the total – I was loading some climbing equipment into
Neil’s car. My ice-axe accidentally scraped against the paintwork. Although my car is battered and covered in scratches which never really bother me, I knew Neil’s TVR was first of all
worth a lot more than mine and, secondly, was important to him. The next day, those precious few hundred pounds went towards paying for the repairs. This was somewhat depressing, but it was little
things like this that I felt would make the difference later on. Neil appreciated it, and remembered.
Over the years the Army had sponsored a considerable number of Everest attempts. Out of all of these, only one had ever successfully reached the top. ‘Brummy’ Stokes and
‘Bronco’ Lane, in the 1970s, reached the summit in atrocious conditions. The bad weather then drove them back. In escaping, they suffered very severe frostbite and lost several toes to
the cold; but they had heroically survived. Apart from this expedition, all the other military attempts had been turned away empty-handed; and much lower down.
One of the fundamental reasons, we believed, for this run of military sponsored teams not reaching the top was the size of their expeditions. They had always taken tens of people and mounted
huge assaults, with the intention of eventually choosing just two or three to actually go for the top. Within a military framework, this inherently bred excessive competition rather than mutual
support. In an environment such as Everest, this all too often spelt disaster.
Another mistake, I believe, was having too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Mountains are great levellers and care nothing for hierarchy – least of all ‘chiefs’. From my
time in the hills I have learnt a fundamental lesson: mountains are only ever climbed by ‘Indians’.
So we didn’t leave to any resplendent military fanfare. On the contrary, the Army understandably thought that we would go the same way as all the previous attempts. All we received from
them was a promise of a party if we returned alive. I guess that is the way the world works.
With the team established, we started to train together as much as possible. My old motto of ‘two steps at a time up the stairs’ wasn’t going to wash here. For months, day in,
day out, we’d train, focusing hard on what lay ahead. Weekend after weekend was spent in the hills of Brecon, climbing for hours at a time with rucksacks loaded with rocks and thick dusty old
books from home. I would then run for whole evenings during the week, along the miles of coastal hills in Dorset – cursing the British weather as I stomped across the steep fields.
Doing this endlessly, even when it was pissing with rain, cold and dark, and when all you really wanted to do was go out in London and be ‘normal’, was what would make the real
difference later on. This is simply self-discipline. I had lived this sort of life before whilst training for the SAS selection, and swore I would never live it again. Yet three years later, here I
was once more.
Mick and I worked a lot together, swimming countless lengths of the local pool – one underwater, then one on the surface, for hours at a time. This boosts one’s ability to work
without oxygen, making the body more efficient. Swimming in any rivers or seas was also fair game, but as it was winter, the excursions were rarely more than about three and a half seconds long,
before we would be seen running frantically back to the relative warmth of the car’s heater.
We would bicycle everywhere, run everyone’s and anyone’s dog round the woods in all weathers, until the ageing animals passed out with exhaustion. Even in dinner jackets, hills were
rarely passed unclimbed as we scrambled to the top of them – often resulting in us being obscenely late for the party.
Despite sounding a little bananas, it was in fact the only way we stayed vaguely sane in the middle of the struggle of organizing all the equipment and sponsorship, prior to departure. My
training was my secret escape, and, I guess, my chance to let go of all the tension that was accruing.
Time seemed to tick away with unusual speed. By now I had found one main sponsor, the Services charity, ‘SSAFA Forces Help’ (Soldier, Sailor and Airmen Families
Association), who backed part of my costs for the expedition. They proved great fun to work with, as well as being outrageously efficient. Yet despite having got some of the way with SSAFA, I was
still a whopping amount of money short.
Robert Louis Stevenson said that ‘to be idle requires a strong sense of personal identity’. Obviously I was lacking this identity in the last month or so before we departed, as I
roared around on my bicycle, trying desperately to raise the rest of the money.
All avenues were thoroughly explored, and on occasion Mick and I found ourselves in some quite bizarre situations, as we hungrily sought out the elusive ‘financial remedies’ that we
hoped would satisfy our Everest fever.
This eventually led to us both standing on the pavement outside Richard Branson’s house one cold and blustery evening, tucked behind a tree arguing over who was going to ring his bell.
‘We’ll do it together,’ we finally agreed. It was 10.30 p.m. and we both felt like novice cat burglars as we grinned nervously in the street outside.
‘On the count of three . . .’
We approached the door and rang his bell. The intercom crackled.
‘Ah, good evening, we’ve just popped round to leave a proposal for you, to see if Virgin might be interested in . . . click . . . Hello, hello?’
So before he had even heard what we had to say, Branson had rung off, assuming we were obviously there to sell him some toothbrushes or crimson dish clothes. But as he rang off, he made a fatal
error: by mistake he must have leant against the ‘door open’ button. Mick and I looked at each other inquisitively as the door buzzed away in front of us. A quick glance around and
without any further hesitation, we gave it a gentle nudge.
Seconds later, we found ourselves standing in Richard Branson’s hallway, looking sheepishly around at each other, as if going to see the neighbour to announce that you’ve just run
over their cat. We coughed loudly. And then a bit louder.
‘Hello, hello . . . um, Mr Branson? Hello.’
Seconds later a furious house-assistant skidded round the corner of the landing and charged down the stairs, rather like the head mistress of St Trinian’s. The two of us needed no further
coaxing; we dropped the proposal in the hall and legged it out, as the front door was slammed ferociously behind us.