Kenton Cool is one of the world’s most accomplished and in-demand mountain guides, and has climbed Everest an incredible 13 times. Here he tells us about the importance of getting along with clients, the sadness of leaving his children before going on an expedition — and why he thinks there really is a Yeti out there somewhere...
What was the first mountain you ever climbed?
I use the word ‘mountain’ quite loosely, it was more of a hill, really, in North Wales, when I was about 13. I was a boy scout and we trooped up in the pouring rain — and I thought it was awesome. We got soaking wet, we couldn’t see anything, the sandwiches were soaked and I just thought it was the best thing ever.
When did it turn into a serious hobby?
Quite a bit later when I was about 17. A friend from school took me to a climbing wall in London, which I loved, and from there we went down to the South Coast of England in his mum’s car to climb some cliffs. Things quickly escalated that summer; having finished my A-levels I went to the European Alps for the first time and then two years later I organised my first Himalayan expedition. I’ve been on an expedition pretty much every single year since.
Who foots the bill for these adventures?
For the first 10 years I was working on building sites and doing a lot of window cleaning at height to get money to fund my expeditions, and then by the mid-2000s that shifted a bit and I started to do more stuff as a professional mountain guide. If you’re clever about it, then being a guide doesn’t necessarily have to impact on your personal climbing enjoyment — so, for instance, the two times I skied down 8,000m peaks, both times were commercial trips and I had paying clients with me.
What should a good mountain guide bring to the party?
First and foremost, you’re hiring a mountain guide to keep you safe. People sometimes get a bit confused, they might say, ‘I hired a guide to get me to the top of Everest, or to get me up the north face of the Eiger.’ No, that’s not actually the case. You’re hiring a mountain guide to bring you back through the front door at the end of an amazing adventure that is packed full of fun that perhaps pushes you beyond what you thought you were capable of.
Is there something specific that you do that makes you extra special?
I always say to my clients I’m here to keep you safe, to bring you back home. Secondly, I’m here to fill your life to the max with fun and adventure. And then thirdly, I’m here to get you to the top of mountains. And if we fulfil the first two but not the third, you know, that’s not the end of the world. It just so happens that I’m also really, really good at facilitating number three as well.
What’s the trick?
I work in a very bespoke manner, so for example I am the only person that works one-on-one with a client who wants to climb Everest. If someone wants to do that, I spend two to three years building a relationship with them before we go. I invest my time and my energy into them so that we have a meaningful relationship and also to make sure that we do get on well and will have a good time together.
I honestly believe that I offer the best service on Mount Everest, and that comes with a price. So clients are often high net worth, sometimes ultra-high-net-worth individuals. The stuff I do in Europe, well, that’s a bit cheaper, so there’s more of a cross-section of people.
How much might it cost to climb Everest with you?
It’s very much down to the individual. If you’ve already got a huge breadth of experience, the fee for that client is probably going to be a lot less than if you come to me and you’ve never put on a pair of climbing boots before, because obviously that’s going to take longer to bring you up to speed. You can go to Everest from as little as about $40,000 if you join a team; the only thing I would say is I am significantly more than that — well into six figures and beyond.
Does that make Everest a wild, impossible dream for most people, then?
People can get cash from all sorts of weird and wonderful places. Because it’s Everest, if you want to go there but don’t have the cash, you can still fundraise. Companies are still interested in being associated with Mount Everest.
What was your scariest day at work?
Had lots of scary moments. We had quite an interesting one on Everest last year; I was there with Ben Fogle, the TV presenter and broadcaster, and we had a catastrophic oxygen delivery failure (Ben’s breathing kit broke twice). It happened to other teams, too, and a lot of them turned around; we didn’t, and although it was never a case of me thinking that anybody would die, it really put the summit attempt in jeopardy. I came back with a few more grey hairs on my head.
Is ‘falling off’ part of the deal when it comes to mountain climbing?
It doesn’t really happen on Everest. As a rule, we try to avoid it when we’re working, but of course it can happen — you fall into crevasses when you’re crossing glaciers and things like that. But it’s more likely if you’re doing personal climbing and taking on overhanging rock faces. You push yourself to the very limit, you climb very hard routes and you fall off.
How scary is that?
Most of the time you can fall relatively safely — although it’s still scary — but there are other times when it doesn’t go quite right. I’ve got quite a lot of metal in my legs from falling off in North Wales many years ago and hitting the ground.
What’s the hardest part of the job?
Leaving my family. I have got two young children and a lovely wife and some of these expeditions are long. When you shut the door and you leave on an expedition there’s always that moment’s worry: will I come home?
Is it also difficult telling paying clients that they’ve got to abandon their summit attempt because it has become too dangerous?
If I have to say it’s not happening today or I think we’re best off going back down to base camp, then generally that’s not even questioned because we have a deep relationship. But they are awkward conversations and you can often see disappointment in the eyes of the client — because they know they’ve got to re-motivate themselves both physically and mentally to do it all over again. I was with Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton on Everest last year and she had some medical issues which inhibited her climb. It was very hard for me to say, ‘I think you should go home.’
Do you think there’s a Yeti?
Of course there is! Perhaps not the Yeti that we all love — the beast on two legs, the abominable snowman — but I do believe that there’s something that lives in a remote part of somewhere like Bhutan, a white bear-like creature. Speak to Sir David Attenborough — one of my heroes — about it; he’s adamant there’s one as well.
Finally, it’s obviously not heights that bother you — what is it you’re secretly scared of?
Well, this will make you laugh given that most of the readers are in the UAE — it’s sand. I wouldn’t say I am scared of it, but I don’t like the sound of it when you walk across it, and I don’t like the feel of it on my legs. So beach holidays, much to the disgust of my children, don’t really happen in our household.