Would you attempt Everest with next to no high
altitude experience. Mick Crosthwaite did...
Depending on your viewpoint, I guess Mick Crosthwaite is
either an inspirational figure or a daft idiot. Not, I'd
guess that he'd want to be viewed as either. At the age of
23, with precious little climbing experience, he chucked in
his lucrative job in the City, gave himself two months to
get fit and set off to climb the world's highest mountain.
That's either plain stupid - suicidal even -
or an admirable act of gutsy single-mindedness. Perhaps
Sitting across a pub table from him, I have trouble
stopping myself from popping the vital question: are you mad
or what? Instead I ask him the one that's been spinning
round my head since reading his own account of the trip in
autumn 1998 - why? Why would someone with just a
little high altitude scrambling and a smattering of easy
rock climbing under his belt go to Everest? And not even
with a guided expedition at that.
Mick looks like he's not quite sure himself. The desire to
escape from the high pressure insanity of his twelve-hour
day City slavery was one spur. A friendly rivalry with his
old friend Edward 'Bear' Grylls another. 'Bear had climbed
Ama Dhablam, which made me slightly jealous, but otherwise
he didn't have much more experience than me. So when he
phoned up looking for sponsors for his own trip to Everest,
I thought, well, why not?' So, two months and 15,000 quid
later he was at Base Camp.
I guess I was on a bit of a mission...
Did he have an accurate picture of the risks, I wondered.
'I was aware,' he concedes. 'But I didn't have a framework
to put it in. It's not until you're there that you really
understand it. I guess I was on a bit of a mission.
'When you get there, you're really aware. You see the
power of it [the mountain], the size of it. It lives
with you every day. Look up from Base Camp when you first
arrive and it's pretty terrifying. It's critical to have
faith in yourself.'
Interestingly he didn't read Krakauer's book before going,
'thankfully' is the qualifier he uses himself. Bell's
opinion that anyone put off by the book shouldn't be on
Everest anyway looms in my mind, but somehow I don't think
Mick would have been deterred. If there's one thing that
shines through in his own account of his time on the
mountain, it's that he's a stubborn, determined animal with
an inner steel that belies an unassuming outer shell.
Just as well really given the catalogue of misfortunes
that hindered his progress up the mountain. The first was
the thankfully brief collapse of a climbing partner from
dehydration above the Khumbu ice fall. But it was around
Mick's summit day that the gremlins really struck.
His ice axe was buried at Camp 3...
His ice axe - a critical piece of climbing safety
equipment - was buried at Camp 3 after being used to
anchor a tent and the replacement never arrived at the South
Col, leaving him to improvise a replacement with an old
metal snow stake and a piece of wood - some of the
world's highest recycling - then, nominated high
altitude Delia Smith by virtue of his position in the tent,
a pot of boiling water exploded, soaking his thermal layer
you don't need
too many kicks
in the bollocks'
'When you're at 8000 metres, you don't need too many
kicks in the bollocks,' he comments ruefully. 'Lots of
things seemed to be telling me to back off, but in that sort
of situation it comes down to determination and I wasn't
going to let these things get the better of me.'
Starting off from the South Col with fellow climber Neil
Laughton and a sherpa, Mick's problems continued as his
oxygen set developed a fault which reduced the amount of
oxygen reaching him and slowed his progress. On reaching the
balcony, a small hump on the SE ridge, he swapped masks with
a sherpa and continued upwards with a new cylinder.
As he reached the South Summit, a tantalising 100 metres
below the top, he realised that other climbers were turning
back. The team who had agreed to fix ropes between the South
Summit and the Step hadn't done so and rising winds meant it
was too dangerous to continue. Even worse, when he asked
another climber to check his oxygen supply, it became
apparent that he had very little left, moments later he was
totally without oxygen.
Concentration became more and more difficult
For most climbers, supplementary oxygen is crucial at
8000 metres plus - the climber is still breathing the
atmosphere, but the extra oomph from his or her set is
crucial. 'The immediate effect isn't dramatic,' says Mick.
'You don't collapse on the floor, but slowly thought,
movement and coordination become more and more difficult.
Fortunately the route immediately beneath the South Summit
was roped and I began to descend slowly and uncertainly,
carefully lowering myself on my arse.'
The most insidious effect of oxygen deprivation though is
what he calls: 'A sort of drunken acceptance. You just don't
care. It makes you totally indifferent to your predicament.
There's just a drunken acceptance of the position you're
I wonder aloud if more mountaineering experience might
have helped. If it might have made the action of climbing
more instinctive, but Mick reckons not. 'The lack of oxygen
is the real problem. You can't train yourself to be at that
altitude without it.' Though he does feel that there's
almost a two-tier hierarchy on the mountain. 'There's
definitely a barrier between the serious high altitude
mountaineers, guides and sherpas and the rest of us who are
just visiting. They're on a different
In all he was without oxygen for between 60 and 90 minutes
before being given a spare cylinder by a sherpa as he sat
bemused at the end of the fixed ropes. But by now Mick was
in serious oxygen debt. 'I was walking like a drunken man,
only able to take two or three paces before having to sit
down to recover. My legs were jelly and no quantity of will
power could override this.'
Fresh oxygen and food and drink at the Balcony revived
him considerably and he continued down, then with the South
Col and relative safety in sight, the snow softened by the
heat of the afternoon sun gave way beneath his boots and he
found himself sliding downwards.
'There was a surge of acceleration as the snow continued
to give way, then suddenly I lost control and found myself
slipping down fast on my front. Then I made the crucial
error of trying to slow down by digging in my crampons. As
they caught I started somersaulting through the air,
accelerating at a horrifying rate.
'In my absolute terror I lost all sense of horizon, I was
just tumbling through space in a totally uncontrollable
display of high altitude aerobatics, all the while horribly
aware of my circumstances and the terrifying prospect of
veering left and plummeting 2000 metres down the sheer
Kanshung face into Tibet.
I lost all sense
'As I landed on my front, aware of the jagged rocks I'd
passed on the way up, I held my hands out in front to
protect my face, as I felt the hard undulations of the steep
slope rippling under my body. Then, in a moment of relief I
felt myself slowing in a patch of softer, damper snow and
thought my ordeal was over. But the acceleration took me
'Then, to my incredible relief I slowed again and this
time came to a halt. I just lay there shaking, eyes closed
trying to take in what had happened.'
Incredibly Mick was uninjured and just 200 metres above
the South Col. Badly shocked and exhausted, he was helped
back to his tent by some Iranian climbers.
I decided not to make another summit bid...
Some 48 hours later he staggered back into Base Camp,
'More worn out and exhausted than anyone could believe
possible. Given the further possibility of delayed shock
from the fall, I decided not to make another summit
And that, six months later in a London pub, is a decision
that still holds good. Mick's mate 'Bear' Grylls summited a
couple of days later to become, at 22 the youngest ever Brit
on the roof of the world, but for Crosthwaite the extra 100
metres, he says, don't matter. 'It doesn't matter about
getting to the top, but giving it a go does. If you've found
out something about yourself, it doesn't matter if you don't
matter if you
Despite the protestations, it must be galling to have come
so close and the combination of cost, time and danger means
that he says he won't be going back just yet. For me, as an
interested, but detached observer, it seems that he's
trodden a fine line between adventure and terror. In his
written account he finishes by saying that 'Everest is a
psychological roller coaster. In my three months away I was
happier than I have ever been, more scared than I ever hope
to be again and more scared than any bond dealer could ever
imagine. Everest pulls no punches.'
The random terrors of the ice fall
Talking to him, it's as if the seriousness of the whole
thing has washed away any 'fun' element - he was, for
example, so frightened by the random terrors of the ice fall
that he couldn't sleep the night before any of his seven
return trips to Base Camp. 'Outwardly you become
blasé,' he says. 'But internally you never adjust.
There are house-sized blocks of ice toppling over up there
at the rate of one an hour.'
I'm reminded of something Steve Bell said: 'On Everest
you learn a great deal about yourself. In normal life you
can even pretend to yourself, but up there, there's no
facade to hide behind. You might be in for a bit of a
In the end it doesn't really matter if you think that
Mick Crosthwaite's as mad as a box of frogs or not. He's had
the guts and imagination, or maybe lack of it, to get up and
do something that most people think they can only dream of.
No-one's saying you should climb Everest, but Mick's story
shows that it's nowhere near as unlikely as you might think.
One phone call could be the start of a two-year road to
Thanks to Mick Crosthwaite for his words and
time. This article was first published in Adventure