One of the foremost climbers in the world today, Mick Fowler, 52, was voted the Mountaineers’ Mountaineer by the British newspaper Observer in 1989. Author of Vertical Pleasure (1995) and On Thin Ice (2005), Fowler will give a talk in New Delhi on his expeditions to four mountains—Siguniang (6,250m), Kajaqiao (6,550m), Manamcho (6,264m) and the as yet unscaled Grosvenor (6,300m)—all situated in Tibet.
In an email interview, Fowler spoke about the Himalayas, the alpine style of climbing and the Indian bureaucracy. Edited excerpts:
Scaling heights: Fowler on the north-western face of Mt Grosvenor in the Minya Konka area. Mick Fowler
Is climbing in the Himalayas different from climbing elsewhere?
The Himalayas hold a unique mix of cultural and mountaineering interest for me. For those of us who are interested in technical climbing on sub-8,000m peaks, there are endless possibilities for exploratory new climbs in areas little influenced by the outside world.
Were the peaks of Kajaqiao and Manamcho in Tibet more challenging than, say, the legendary Matterhorn of Switzerland?
Very much so. The Matterhorn is much ascended and usually climbed in a two-day round trip from Zermatt. Kajaqiao and Manamcho were difficult to reach. They involved a plethora of permits and a two-day drive from Lhasa and took over a week’s round trip from the base camp in completely unexplored terrain. Technically, it made for a far more difficult climb than the Matterhorn.
Any highlights, dangerous or otherwise, while scaling these peaks?
Probably the most memorable was on the Kajaqiao climb when we were hit by a snowslide in the night. I was fast asleep in a small tent and my partner Chris Watts was in a snow hole (an improvised shelter dug in the snow). I had found the snow hole too claustrophobic and so had opted for the tent. The snow slide separated us, turned the tent over and lowered the roof of the snow hole. I will long remember waking up as I was lifted into the air by the snow and then searching in the dark for the remains of the snow hole!
How accessible is Tibet to mountaineers?
The China Tibet Mountaineering Association seems much more efficient than they used to be and as far as I am aware all areas are accessible. On my trips I have had to simply agree on a price with them and then wait to see if they are able to secure all the necessary permits. But charges are relatively high for peaks in the 6,000-7,000m range and permits are liable to be withdrawn or not granted at the last minute.
How would you compare the bureaucracy international mountaineers encounter in China, India, Nepal and Pakistan?
China has become easier, particularly areas outside Tibet. I have not visited Pakistan or Nepal for some years, but I understand the situation in both countries (Pakistan, in particular) has eased as they try and encourage more foreign mountaineers to visit. India is still notorious for its often inscrutable bureaucracy and for the number of forms that need to be completed. It is also expensive to visit areas where local government fees are involved.
What impels someone to scale a mountain, often putting his or her life at risk?
Mountaineering is just about the only thing that gets me off my bum and keeps me fit and healthy. Obviously, there are risks and I try and minimize these by careful selection of objectives. Ultimately, though, there is little to compare with the sense of satisfaction and well-being derived from choosing a challenging objective, spending a long time preparing, overcoming numerous challenges and finally succeeding.
Have technical advances and improved facilities made mountaineering too easy?
It is true that man now has the equipment (oxygen, bolts, etc.) to overcome just about any mountaineering challenge. But to me such guaranteed-outcome mountaineering has no appeal whatsoever. I think this view is increasingly shared by others, as evidenced by the increasing number of high-grade, high-altitude climbs being ascended in alpine style.
You were voted a Mountaineers’ Mountaineer. What sets you apart from most of your peers?
I suppose it is largely because I have always been doing something a little different. For example, I have climbed first ascents on chalk cliffs in England using axes and crampons (spiked footwear) and tackled the spectacular unclimbed sea stacks in Scotland, approaching them with a small inflatable boat.
When I started in the greater ranges, many climbing teams were using fixed ropes or siege tactics (involving a big support team and resources), but I simply tackled mountaineering as I had seen it practised in the Alps. This “alpine style” approach (two climbers, no fixed ropes and no support team) has gradually become the norm.
Mick Fowler will deliver a talk organized by the Himalayan Club on Matterhorns of Tibet on 12 September, 7pm, Gulmohar Hall, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi