Briton on top of the world nears mountaineering history

Alan Hinkes, a former teacher, is set to make mountaineering history as the first Briton to climb all the world's mountains above 8,000 metres. Ian Herbert reports on his 21-year quest
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The mountain they call "Kangch" is not a place to be when the monsoons begin their spectacular progress out of the Bay of Bengal - which will be any time now. Mount Kangchenjunga is the Himalayan peak where any such weather system strikes first, dumping the snow and creating the avalanche conditions that have made the place a graveyard for around one in five of the 250 climbers who have risked its huge faces and unpredictable crevasses over the past 50 years.

The mountain they call "Kangch" is not a place to be when the monsoons begin their spectacular progress out of the Bay of Bengal - which will be any time now. Mount Kangchenjunga is the Himalayan peak where any such weather system strikes first, dumping the snow and creating the avalanche conditions that have made the place a graveyard for around one in five of the 250 climbers who have risked its huge faces and unpredictable crevasses over the past 50 years.

Alan Hinkes, a 50-year-old former schoolteacher from North Yorkshire, knows the perils of ascending the peak at this time of year. In May 2000, he nearly joined the legion of 40 souls lost to the mountain when a snow bridge collapsed beneath him and he plunged into a crevasse. He escaped with a broken arm.

Yet Hinkes is now back on the mountain: little more than 1,000 metres from the summit if the most optimistic estimates of his progress are correct and, in the words of the dedicated website, "just a step away from mountaineering history".

He is trying to become the first Briton (and only the 12th person in all) to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000-metre-plus peaks - "the eight-thousanders" as they are known to the mountaineering community. More people have landed on the moon than on all 14 summits, which are ranged across Pakistan and Nepal. In Kangchenjunga - the third- highest and most difficult after K2 - Hinkes has saved one of the worst until last.

He has taken on the mountain and lost twice before. A severe chest infection struck him down two years after the snow bridge escape. But history - if nothing else - seems to offer ground for optimism this time, since 2005 is the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Kangchenjunga by a British team, Joe Brown and George Band.

Like every other mountaineer, Hinkes knows that his body is simply not designed to function at Kangchenjunga's 8,586m altitude. His system will deteriorate as he struggles towards the summit and, should anything go wrong, rescue is impossible. Even helicopters couldn't reach him and, with a lack of oxygen and air pressure, his body would fail after a few hours. It is little wonder that the tiny portion of Earth above 8,000 metres is known as the "death zone".

But the end does seem to be in sight. Hinkes' sponsor, Berghaus, has just disclosed that he established his first camp at 6,000m last week and, after regathering his strength at base camp (5,500m), he is now in the process of creating a second camp, a little short of 7,000m. It is from there, that he hopes to make his final attempt on the summit. (This is the way all the "eight-thousanders" are conquered: no mountaineer may reach the top by simply striking out from base, since periods of acclimatisation are needed before recovery back at base.)

Hinkes, who is climbing with his friend Pasang Gelu, a companion when he reached the summit of his 13th "eight-thousander" last year, said: "I am hoping there won't be a need for a third camp but with conditions already threatening the lives of those around me I need to make a judgement call when the time comes. As I have always stated no mountain is worth a life. But having been [here] twice and failed before I have my sights set firm."

Heavy snowfalls have recently seen two injured members of a Swiss expedition rescued by helicopter - just before they reached the point of no return, he added.

Even through the filter of a commercial sponsor, Hinkes' trademark bravado was unmistakable. In a sport where the quality of an ascent is considered by many to be more important than the quantity, "Hinkesey" (as he is widely known) has found himself the butt of a few jokes - mostly along the lines of "Death Zone Hinkes" and his famous "peak bagging".

The curious indifference to Hinkes (and the absence of famous British names from the 8,000m list) has much to do with the perception in British climbing circles that mountaineering is a sport of exploration, designed for those who want to tackle new peaks or take challenging new routes up "old" ones. Most British climbers in the Himalayas concentrate their efforts on finding new mountains to scale and, when it comes to big mountains, many 25,000ft peaks are still there to be conquered, rather than the metric "eight-thousanders" which, by Himalayan standards, are neither sufficiently aesthetic nor solitary for some tastes.

Yet for all the scepticism, there is also a respect for the 21 years of courage and hard work that have seen Hinkes survive 25 expeditions to the 8,000m-plus peaks before finally arriving near the summit of what would be a historic achievement.

"In any other country Alan would be a climbing hero but in the climbing world he is rather derided for his slavish approach to this quest," said Stephen Venables, president of the Alpine Club, whose recent new ascent of Everest won the kind of acclaim that demonstrates the sport's appreciation of those who arrive in style.

"Our climbers just haven't had the staying power to see that kind of feat through. Alan is very close to something extraordinary."

"Just climbing one of these 8,000m peaks is astonishing," Bernard Newman, the editor of Climber magazine said. "What he has done beggars belief. Alan is a fantastic ambassador for British mountaineering - he deserves a knighthood for his achievements, whether or not he climbs Kangchenjunga."

For Hinkes, the feat of scaling all 14 mountains is an achievement to be cherished, just like climbing the Munros (the 277 Scottish peaks over 3,000ft). For many of his years on the mountain, it simply had not occurred to him that he could conquer all of the world's highest mountains.

By 1987, only two men - the Italian Reinhold Messner and the Pole Jerzy Kukuczla - had done so. But gradually he began reaching more and more of the summits - the Cho Oyu plateau in 1990, K2 in 1995 and Everest in 1996. By 1999, when he conquered Makalu in Nepal/Tibet, six other climbers had completed the challenge and the full 14 became his goal, too. He began ascending with a flourish: his climb to the top of Annapurna in 2002, was the first by a Briton in 32 years and in a record time via a new route.

The accomplishment has created a grim familiarity with death. There were few no more graphic reminders than the film shot last year at the summit of Dhaulagiri (the 13th of the 14) by Hinkes, also an accomplished cameraman who has produced 11 films for ITV. His film panned over the body of a dead climber with barely an accompanying comment.

Last year, a Spanish climber accused Hinkes of abandoning him, injured, 23,000 feet up K2 a decade earlier. The allegation, which Hinkes denies, does not tally with the rescue he initiated 12 years ago on K2 of another climber whose own partner had fallen to his death. This cost Hinkes his chance to reach the summit of K2, an achievement he would not accomplish until 1995 - the same year that his friend Alison Hargreaves died with seven others on K2.

Controversy has also dogged one of his 13 previous conquests - the ascent of Cho Oyu in 1990. Several of Hinkes's climbing party abandoned the peak in bad cloud and fog, leaving him to proceed alone for an hour to the true summit. Some statisticians have not bought his account of reaching it. Hinkes' account is confusing. He has said that he "has no proof to have not been to the summit". But he counts it a done deal.

In his ascent to the upper reaches of Kangchenjunga, Hinkes has already achieved more than most. Even the trek to base camp was a feat, on account of the Maoist rebel activity in Nepal. The Maoists had closed the roads out of Kathmandu, which forced Hinkes to take a helicopter to a position where he could begin trekking. Earlier last month, a convoy taking a Russian expedition out of Kathmandu was attacked by rebels.

The task ahead is still considerable as Hinkes journeys on up Kangchenjunga's south-west face - the same route pursued in 1955 by the party which first conquered it. Reinhold Messner, the Italian who became the first climber to notch all 14 peaks in 1986, said he considered Kangchenjunga to be the toughest. As the most easterly of the 14, it certainly brings more extreme precipitation than any of the others. Fewer than 200 peple have reached the peak, compared with the 1,500 who have ascended Everest, and the second ascent was made only in 1977 by the Indian Army. "It is just a very awkward bastard," said Mr Venables of the Alpine Club.

If he decides to journey straight from second base to the summit, Hinkes will need all the strength he can summon for an ascent that will include rock climbing and the trudge through the mountain's Great Snow Shelf. Luck will also come into the quest: he will need a day of clear weather if he is to progress.

But a rare luxury does awaits him, if he can reach the uppermost slopes. Since Kangchenjunga is regarded locally as a deity, the local government of Sikkim requests that climbers respect that belief by neither touching nor standing on the summit. Instead, like the select band of heroic mountaineers who arrived before him, he will be able to pull up short, contemplate what he has achieved and hope that he will make it back down to tell the tale.

To follow Alan Hinkes's progress towards the summit of Kangchenjunga visit: