People in creative fields are often curious about with what keeps high-achievers going in challenging or even dire situations, so to get some answers we talk to British mountaineer Alan Hinkes.
Alan is the only Briton to have climbed the world’s highest mountains. These are the 14 8000 metre peaks in the Himalaya and Karakoram. And they are the most dangerous mountains on the the planet. Alan faced death, extreme cold and overwhelming physical and mental challenges to achieve his position as one world’s greatest mountaineers.
Alan made his epic ascents in what were often near-impossible conditions. It’s a tale of dedication, hard work, and focus. It’s the story of an 18-year journey to join an elite group who have completed mountaineering’s most distinguished goal.
When Alan climbed all 14 mountains he became one of only 12 people to achieved this feat – the same number of people who have stood on the moon. Today, about 20 people belong to this exclusive club. But many climbers perished in their attempts to reach the summits of these magnificent mountains.
Experience and mentors for the journey
In your early days, before beginning the 8000 Metre Challenge, you were with Cleveland Mountaineering Club (CMC). Out on expeditions, you had access to older, more experienced climbers. These people were, in effect, your mentors. How important were these relationships in helping develop and strengthen both your skills and determination?
Older climbers did influence me and CMC was a good influence and teacher to me. So I guess you could say that these people were like mentors, and yes, the relationships were important.
Watching and learning from others is an important part of the journey. It helps you develop your own skill and style. It’s about evolving, not copying.
To get the best from good mentors, you need a real desire and appetite to learn, but also to be safe. Anyone can be unsafe, I reckoned. I took pride in developing my skills and being safe.
It was also good to see how others led. I later realized that being a leader can be a thankless task – as usually someone wants to criticize or think they can do it better. Being part of a team needs understanding – you often have to do things for others – not for yourself.
One of the most important things I learned is that forward planning can help keep you alive – especially when it comes to the attention to detail. With any high-risk venture, you need to be versatile and prepared to change direction if necessary.
You started hiking and climbing in North Yorkshire, then the Lake District and on to the Pennines. Next came the Scottish Highlands in winter, the Alps, Andes, and then Himalaya. How valuable was the experience of progression to you and your final triumph?
I served a traditional apprenticeship. I learned to suffer in all kinds of conditions, including bad weather such as blizzards. But that hardship paid off, because it meant that I developed a tough mental attitude – determination and resilience.
The early experiences I had and the progress forward meant that when the time came I was ready – mentally and physically – to make the leap forward to more demanding (and sometimes brutal) environments.
Some of the experiences you describe in your book sound like pure hell! The slow descent from your successful climb up Shisha Pangma must have had you wondering if you’d ever get back to base camp. And your description of your bitterly cold overnighter on the way down from Annapurna gives readers the impression that a couple of days in the Gulag would have been more pleasant! In moments like those, what really kept you going?
There’s no doubt that I’ve had a few epics. There were long descents in blizzards, where it was hard to see our tracks. I had a few close calls with avalanches, and one avalanche buried my tent; I escaped within minutes. On Annapurna when we got to the small tent I knew I was relatively safe, so another uncomfortable night out was not a problem.
I know that some people think that there is something indefinable or magical about achieving great things, but for me it is simple. RMA/PMA. And that stands for Right Mental Attitude/Positive Mental Attitude. That is the key.
You have to combine RMA/PMA with optimism, positivity, and resilience. Whatever you set out to achieve, see it as a challenge, not a chore. You have to want it and you have to want to do everything that’s necessary to make it possible. By framing things that way, I was able to successfully climb all 14 8000ers, and return home safely.
K2: Lessons of failure and disappointment
I’ve read that Everest and K2 aren’t even the same sport. K2 mountain was a tough challenge for you and it took three attempts before you summited. How did you maintain focus on that goal of summiting K2 after initial difficulty and disappointment?
Yes, K2 is steeper, has worse weather, and is difficult to access. But for me, K2 was the mountain I really wanted to climb. I was determined. Some people said I was obsessed. But I don’t believe I was obsessed. Obsession is irrational and, in mountaineering, can lead to failure and death.
In the end, it was pure Yorkshire Grit*, along with determination, resilience, and hard work. I dedicated three years of my life to K2 and finally climbed it.
The times when I turned back without reaching the summit . . . well, of course, there was an initial feeling of disappointment. But if you stay focused on the disappointment and think of your first attempts as failures, then it’s hard to move forward. You just end up making it really difficult for yourself.
With K2, I didn’t focus on disappointment. The first two descents were successes in their own way, even though I didn’t summit. I had arrived back at base camp safely with all digits intact. I was healthy and set about regrouping mentally and physically. Those first two attempts were in effect preparation for the third attempt. And on that third expedition I successfully summited and returned home safely.
In fact, I got a risk management award from Outdoor Sportsman of the Year in 1995/6 for wisely backing off twice and finally succeeding at climbing K2.
Be mentally tough
You once said mental toughness is as important as physical ability. How did you prepare yourself mentally on summit day when your thigh muscles were burning and you were gasping for air in the oxygen-starved Death Zone?
Mental toughness is important – there are plenty of super fit climbers who can’t hack the stress of an 8000er. You need to be able to ‘suffer’ – perhaps I like a bit of suffering!
You can get worn down by the constant high-danger factor of avalanches, rockfalls, crevasses, extreme weather, and the very real chance of death from acute mountain sickness (AMS).
Anyone who is going to embark on a risky journey, whether as a mountaineer, some other high-risk sport, or an entrepreneur, must be able to cope with a higher level of stress than the average person. If you can’t endure discomfort or pain, you won’t make it.
For me, the secret is being able to rationalise the risk. There’s also a bit of cognitive dissonance in there, too. In my mind, I am able to compartmentalize the anxiety/fear. If you’re focused on fear or anxiety too much, you’re letting it dominate and there’s a risk of it overwhelming you. So you have to be able to put it aside. And at times you have to know when to overcome it to push on and survive. What I say to anyone embarking on a major challenge is: Don’t think too much when you have no alternative.
And as I mentioned earlier, I drew on my right mental attitude and positive mental attitude. Every peak was a challenge, and I single-mindedly focused on that challenge when things got tough.
All this comes with experience. A track record of climbing and being successful, and tackling more difficult peaks meant that I developed my intuition, gut feeling and instinct. When things were high-risk and death was a reality, I could read a situation, even when I was extremely exhausted, and know how to respond.
The entrepreneur: Strategies for the long term
Your mountaineering philosophy is that you measure success by a safe return to base camp, and that reaching the summit is a bonus. But some people get so focused on a goal that their vision narrows and they somehow can’t see imminent danger. When you’ve been intensely fixed on goal but the risk is high, how have you been able to make that decision to retreat and let go? What guidance can you offer to both mountaineers and entrepreneurs to help them avoid being blinded by obsessive focus to the point where they are behaving recklessly?
For me, this was clear. You must always look beyond the summit and save enough energy mentally physically for the descent. The summit is not the end.
With your analogy – the mountaineer and the entrepreneur – you need to understand your full journey, the beginning, midway points and end. You need a strategy to get started and a strategy to see you through. Be prepared to make continual adjustments, big and small, to keep things on track and stay safe.
Lofty goals? Go for it!
How did you feel when you got back to base camp after successfully summiting the last of the 14 8000 metre peaks – Kangchenjunga?
When I got back to base camp after that last 8000er, it felt like freedom. There wasn’t really a sense of relief or anything like “Thank God it’s over” or even an anticlimax. It was really a sense of fulfillment and freedom. I felt grateful to have survived. I had completed the challenge I set for myself and I felt happy. I was free to do anything I wanted.
The important thing is that I have done what I wanted in life, and anything else I do is a bonus. So if someone wants to really do something in life, be an entrepreneur, start a business, and it’s realistic and they have the ability, I say do it! Be positive, stay focused and build up experience and endurance until you’re ready for your grand challenge!
What did you have to put aside to reach your goal? Some might use the words “personal sacrifice”. Maybe you don’t view it that way. Or do you? Did the time away from home feel like a sacrifice? Were there ever times when your daughter, Fiona, resented the long absences? How did you explain what your quest meant to you while supporting her, too?
To me I’m not sure it was a sacrifice because it’s what I wanted to do – a kind of calling. Yes, I have given up a lot of what other people have – but are they happy? I know people who have lived a big part of their lives without thinking about what they truly wanted, or without going for it. In the end, it’s about self-knowledge and understanding deep down what you want to do. Then the preparation begins.
I know that some people think of mountaineers as selfish, but then everyone is selfish. Oftentimes mountaineers are away from friends and family for long periods of time, with limited communication.
But no-one gets into mountaineering with a death-wish. Yes, mountaineers love the risk. If you take that away, then it’s not thrilling. The best mountaineers want to return to their family and friends. They will savour the risk while climbing with care.
I’ve never had a death wish; I have a life wish. I don’t climb to die – I climb to live; climbing enhances my life.
I never wanted to leave Fiona fatherless, and thankfully I didn’t. She knew that, and she understood what my quest meant to me. There were times when she was worried, and times when it wasn’t easy for her. But she is strong and managed really well. I’m proud of her.
Which mountaineering books and films are your favourites?
I enjoy to a lot of the older mountaineering books, the ones written by pioneers. As a young Alpinist I was influenced by the books of Reinhold Messner. I appreciate the books by legendary Austrian mountaineer Kurt Diemberger. Let’s Go Climbing by Colin Kirkus is one of my favourites.
Outside of the mountaineering world, who have been the biggest influences on you, your thinking, and how you approach life?
My gran. She worked hard and her philosophy was simply to get on with stuff. Just do it.
Mountaineer Alan Hinkes
Alan works as an outdoor equipment technical consultant, writes for magazines, and lectures on his exploits. He is an accomplished cameraman (filming 11 documentaries), photographer, author, motivational speaker, environmentalist and mountain guide.
In 2006, Alan received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to sport. He said that receiving the award from Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, London, made him more nervous than climbing a mountain.
You can share Alan’s amazing mountaineering journey in his book – 8000 Metres: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains. This is a must-read for arm-chair mountaineers and entrepreneurs alike.
*Yorkshire Grit – referring to the hardness of the people of Yorkshire, who’ll never be ground down.
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