How We Met: Matt Dickinson & Brian Blessed
Matt Dickinson, 46
A film-maker, novelist and mountaineer, Dickinson (left in picture) was only the fifth British climber to scale Everest's North face when he ascended its peak in 1996. His book and film on the subject ('The Death Zone' and 'Summit Fever') both met with acclaim. He lives in Spain.
I was approached by ITN in 1996 to make a film about Brian's [third] attempt at climbing Everest. I was a little sceptical, as one comes to Brian with previous images in mind; it was hard to believe this 60-year-old, 16-stone, larger-then-life thespian was serious. But when we met in the ITN offices – he was dressed like a rough-and-ready farm hand – I was won over by how passionate he was.
When you spend two-and-a-half months up on Everest, you need someone amusing and interesting in endless quantities, as you have so much time on your hands. Brian, thankfully, was the most extraordinary raconteur, entertaining us with streams of songs, anecdotes, and half-baked theories. I remember one day sitting at 23,000ft, freezing half to death in a force-10 gale, listening to Brian bellow out an X-rated story about Sophia Loren; the whole thing felt so surreal I had to pinch myself.
Brian had the right attitude and power – he's one of only a handful of climbers in their sixties to climb above 8,000m – but his age conspired against him. His health gradually deteriorated and, at 25,000ft, he turned back. I was gutted, as the whole film production had everything staked on Brian making the summit attempt. But we decided to keep going, and I switched the attention to [fellow expedition member] Alan Hinkes.
It was as a result of me summitting that we became friends. Brian had spent his whole life dreaming of achieving it, while it had never been the original plan for me. Yet he was so generous-spirited about it on my return that we kept in touch, and we've since became very close.
The most fascinating thing I've learnt about Brian is that he's actually a very quiet man, capable of sitting for hours in a trance, gazing at, say, a mountain, and those quiet times are important to him. Over the years we've climbed all over the world together; we're going to Sangay [an active volcano in Ecuador] next. But as for going back to Everest with Brian: in truth, he's too old now to try again.
Brian Blessed, 75
After training as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic, Blessed attracted a cult following thanks to roles including Augustus Caesar in the BBC series I, Claudius' and Prince Vultan in 'Flash Gordon'. Blessed is also an accomplished mountaineer. He lives in Surrey with his wife.
I went to Everest for the third time in 1996, with Matt filming my progress. It was a disastrous year; very cold, very dangerous and dead bodies were all over the place. Matt contributed so much to the expedition that it felt like he was born from an angel, helping with all the food and the oxygen, and I felt a great love for him develop while we were climbing up.
It was not a good expedition for me and I had to turn back [4,000ft from the summit]. But Matt has what it takes; he took my place and through sheer bravery, continued on. Everest is the goddess mother of the sky, and she loved Matt and looked after him, so never for a moment did I think anything would happen to him. Upon Matt's return to the UK I held him and held him until I almost crushed the life out of him, and I realised that I wanted to be instrumental in his life.
There are Everests everywhere in life, whether it's an old man [conquering his fear by] going out on a Zimmer frame or trekking up a volcano in Ecuador. We both feel that the greatest danger in life is not to take on those adventures.
Yet Matt's no adrenalin junkie – he's a spiritual junkie who, like me, loves life, and we've been through a lot together. We climbed up Mount Kinabalu [in Borneo] in 2007, both coming back down together, our legs temporarily paralysed by the effort. And on a trip to the North Pole I was in such pain from carrying too much weight that he put half my load on his shoulders. I was shattered by such care, and he made it possible to get to the North Pole that day. I have never had a son, but I look upon our relationship now as one of father and son.
He loves my stories and he sits there by my feet, astonished by my wild, atavistic tales filled with lust for life. But I also think he likes my quietness, too; back at the camp hotel, on Everest, he recalls me standing in a corner of the room, unmoving for hours, staring up at the mountain, and he later said to me, "I was transfixed by your grace and stillness."
Actors say to me, "Brian are you on our side any more? You seem to have become an explorer!" Hamlet said acting is holding up a mirror to life, but climbing Everest is life! I want to go back next year and become the oldest Westerner ever to climb it. And Matt will be there with me.
'Mortal Chaos' by Matt Dickinson is published by Oxford University Press, priced £6.99 (mattdickinson.com)
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