Newsletter 1518 April 2010
Russell is the owner of Himex and has been leading expeditions to the Himalaya for more than 16 years. The 57-year-old was born in New Zealand and now lives now in Chamonix with his wife. Russell’s first trip two Everest was a very special one. In 1981, he came here together with his climbing mentor, Paddy Freaney, to climb the treacherous and difficult West Shoulder of Everest.
The team reached an altitude of 8,400m and had to abandon the expedition. After that he summited Everest twice –in 1997 and in 1998. Since then he and his team of guides and Sherpas have learnt a lot about climbing at altitude, which makes him one of the most successful expedition leaders on Everest. Up until last year, Himex organised expeditions on the north side in Tibet, but after the mountain was inaccessible for commercial teams due to the Olympic Games in 2008, Russell decided to move his operation to the Nepal side.
In 1995, Russell climbed the Southwest ridge of Ama Dablam in a record 3 hours and 20 minutes.
How did you get into climbing?
When I was 16 years old, I went on a climbing course in New Zealand. The leader Paddy Freaney and I became very close friends. We did mad things together and we managed to climb thirty 3,000m peaks in New Zeland in one season. In 1980, we opened a new route on the North Ridge of Ama Dablam, which was the fifth overall ascent of the mountain.
However, my very first time in Nepal was in 1974, when a friend and I helped Ed Hillary build the hospital in Phablu. We worked on the school for a couple of weeks, which was followed by a trekking tour through the Khumbu. My first Himalayan peak was actually Kala Patthar, which offers great views of Everest. In 1979, I came back to guide an expedition to Lobuje East, Island Peak and Parchamo.
Once I had noticed that I performed very well at altitude, I wanted to help other people achieve this amazing goal of climbing Mount Everest – so I decided to run commercial expeditions. I also organised trips to Shishapangma in Tibet and Cho Oyu, which I have actually climbed nine times.
Everest was never a childhood dream for me - I just started working there. In 2003, I made a conscious effort to double the size of my expedition and take up to 24 people. However, in order to do that safely I knew that I had to stay down and orchestrate everything from base camp.
Do you miss the climbing on Everest?
Yes and no. I miss going up there, but then again, I have a lot of young guides, who are actually much better than I am. I am happy to go to the mountain every year and I really enjoy doing the logistics, which is a huge challenge.
I don’t think I will try to climb Everest again. I also tell people they should not go up when they are over 60, so I have to stick to my rules.
How are you feeling about having left the Tibet side of the mountain?
I was very sad to leave Tibet. We had a lot of friends and we provided work for the people there. And even though my Sherpas are closer to home when they climb the south side of Mount Everest, they don’t actually like going through the Khumbu icefall.
Last year we spent a total of 3,400 man-hours (including Sherpas, clients and guides) in the icefall. It you multiply that, then the icefall is actually not that dangerous.
The Sherpas are pretty quick and they take about 2.5 hours to go through the icefall, however, I worry every time when they leave base camp for Camp 1. This year, I will be very strict and if they have not started moving from Camp 1 by 6am, they will have to stay up there for another day.
What is the big difference between the north side and the south side of Everest?
The main difference is that the north side is more difficult higher up than the south side. On the north side you have the three steps, which are tricky and often cause a bottleneck. The south side is trickier further down, where the climbers have to manage the Khumbu Icefall and the Lhotse Face.
What I preferred on the north side was that I could communicate and see the climbers with my binoculars from the North Col at 7,000m. Here in Nepal it is more difficult as once the climbers have reached the so-called ‘Balcony’, there is no more communication.
One thing we have to get better at on the south side of the mountain is organising the rope fixing. In Tibet we had a good system and I hope we can adopt the same system here.
How long had you not been to the Nepal side of the mountain?
Two years ago, I went back to the Khumbu for the first time after about 16 years. I had to cancel my expedition in Tibet as the Chinese authorities had closed the route for their own team to carry the Olympic torch to the summit. I was on a bit of a loose end and decided to go trekking in the Khumbu, which I absolutely loved. I had a lot of ideas and during the trek I came up with a plan on how to run expeditions from this side. One of my ideas was to climb Lobuje East for acclimatisation purposes. It is much better and safer than going through the Khumbu Icefall. For safety, you should minimise the amount of times you have to go through the icefall.
Did you use to take anything to your summits?
I disagree with taking things to the summit and leave them there. I don’t even agree with leaving Buddhist prayer flags on the top. It is not necessary.
Do you have any plans to climb another big peak in the future?
I might climb Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world. If I actually get to the top, Manaslu would be my 14th 8,000m peak (Russell says with a cheeky smile). With Cho Oyu nine times, and Everest and Shishapangma, I only need to get to the top of one more 8,000m peak to reach my 14 8,000ers.