Alan Hinkes On... The Road To Becoming A Record-Breaking Mountaineer - Outdoors Magic

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Alan Hinkes On… The Road To Becoming A Record-Breaking Mountaineer

As part of his regular column on Outdoors Magic, the first and only Briton to have climbed all 14 of the world's mountains over 8,000m looks back on the early days of his mountaineering career

Mountaineering is me. I am at peace in my comfort zone in the fells, hills and mountains. But I was not born in a mountainous region. My hometown and where I was brought up is Northallerton, a relatively flat area situated between the Yorkshire Dales and North Pennines to the west and the North York Moors to the east. As a child I was outside at every opportunity and have always been adventurous. With my mates we would wander the countryside building dens, climbing trees, wading becks and generally doing stuff that would be called bushcraft these days. Yet I always felt drawn to the hills. On family drives I would eagerly look at the fells and notice people on top of them, my mind would wonder what it was like and I wanted to be up there.

In my teens I got the chance to take up hillwalking and rock climbing with the outdoor activities club at Northallerton Grammar School. Some of my first trips, which were mini expeditions to me, were on the North York Moors. We would go to a small outdoor centre based at Danby Fryup, which is a secluded dale in the heart of the North York Moors. Great fun and experiential learning was had mastering map reading and navigation and surviving night exercises on the Moors in the often wild November weather. I loved every minute of it and knew from the first time that I went out that it was where I wanted to be – it was a kind of ‘calling’. It often seemed to be wet and windy, but that did not put me off and I quickly learned to cope with and enjoy inclement conditions.

The seed was well and truly sewn and quickly germinated into a passion eventually becoming a way of life for me.

Geography was my favourite subject, to this day I love maps and find them interesting and fascinating. I quickly became competent at map reading and finding my way in the hills. I would often go out alone in poor visibility to practice map, compass and navigation skills. I revelled in the challenge and inclement weather and was developing an innate resilience and determination which went on to serve me well.

Related: Alan Hinkes On… Hillwalking in the Falkland Islands

Sometimes, just for fun, I would go out for a survival experience and spend a night in a bivi bag – a heavy duty plastic bag about the size of a sleeping bag. I would learn about exhaustion, exposure and hypothermia, how to keep myself warm, dry, comfortable and alive. Sometimes I might have an uncomfortable wet night and I might be shivering and anticipating the dawn, but I learnt that as long as you can protect yourself from the wind chill you can survive.

On the summit of Everest after climbing the mountain via the North Ridge (Mallory Route)

As I progressed to rock climbing and mountaineering I practised bivouacking on small ledges 25 metres up cliff faces. Cramped on such a rocky eyrie, I had to be tied on all night, lest I roll over and fall off the ledge. I knew that this was good practice for when I would go to the bigger mountain faces in the Alps, although the Himalaya seemed an unattainable dream.

One of my first big mountains was Helvellyn in the Lake District. On a school camping trip a group of us went up via Striding Edge. It was a wet and windy day and I was nearly blown off in the crosswind, but even this did not put me off. I wanted more and I yearned for bigger, more testing challenges.

“There is something satisfying and refreshing about tackling desperate winter weather.”

My first rock climbs were on the sandstone outcrops of the North York Moors and gritstone in the Yorkshire Dales. Nowadays, the first taste of rock climbing for most people is on an indoor wall before they go outside. I also climbed on higher more serious 35 metre limestone cliffs. Here I could stretch the rope out on longer more serious routes and experience ‘exposure’ the term climbers use for the big drop below your feet. Controlling anxiety and fear when in such exposed positions, high above the ground, is an essential element of rock climbing.

Alan on the summit of Kachenjunga with a picture of his daughter and grandson.

The Scottish Highlands in winter was my next step where I learned snow and ice climbing techniques along with survival skills such as snow holing and avalanche awareness. Serious and committing mountaineering adventures can be experienced even on the relatively low Scottish mountains in winter where conditions can be Arctic-like and should not be underestimated. Daylight hours in that part of the world are obviously short in the middle of winter and learning to cope with poor visibility, gale-force winds, blizzards and darkness on a 900-1000 metre Scottish mountain is excellent practice. Such early testing experiences – minor epics, as climbers call them – certainly stood me in good stead for what was to come in the Alps and Himalaya. You could say that I served a traditional apprenticeship, progressing and learning and gaining experience as I moved to bigger and bigger hills until I got to the biggest hills in the Himalaya (mountains are only big hills!)

I still head out to battle blizzards on British hills; there is something satisfying and refreshing about tackling desperate winter weather, when hills that are easy under summer conditions become serious mountains.

My first forays to the Greater Ranges of the Himalaya and Karakoram were to 5000 and 6000 metre peaks. Again I was serving an apprenticeship, building up my experience. I also started making my living from the mountains, becoming a British Mountain Guide, which is an international accreditation UIAGM/IFMGA. This meant I could work in the Alps, I also started working with outdoor companies such as Fjällraven and Hanwag and giving public talks

I spent a lot of time away on expeditions. An 8,000m attempt can take three months from Britain to Britain. But it was where I wanted to be. I was happy even though I was acutely aware of the extreme risks and danger. Psychologists might say I was showing cognitive dissonance, willingly accepting the danger and risk of death. 

I do not have a death wish though. Climbing enhances my life: I do not climb to die, I climb to live. My motto is that no mountain is worth a life, coming back is a success and the summit is only a bonus.

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