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Home > News> Big Story > Doug Scott: Celebrating the late Himalayan mountaineer's life of high adventure

Doug Scott: Celebrating the late Himalayan mountaineer's life of high adventure

With the death of legendary climber Doug Scott at the age of 79, the world has lost one of the giants of Himalayan mountaineering

A pioneer of Himalayan mountaineering, Doug Scott passed away on December 7 at the age of 79. (Photo: Getty Images)
A pioneer of Himalayan mountaineering, Doug Scott passed away on December 7 at the age of 79. (Photo: Getty Images)

There are those who rejoice on reaching the top of a mountain; then, there are those who relish the adventure, whether they reach the summit or not. Doug Scott, who died on December 7 from cancer at the age of 79, belonged to the latter.

With his passing, the mountaineering community has lost one of the finest of their tribe, a pioneer who flourished during the golden generation of Himalayan alpinism. Most would remember Scott as the first Briton to summit Mt. Everest in 1975 alongside his climbing partner, Dougal Haston. To Scott, that remarkable feat, however, would have been a footnote in his larger career and interests.

Ever since he took to climbing, Scott never quite craved the limelight, and chose, instead, to focus on the little things that made a climb successful. As he once told this writer, Scott believed that “a climber is someone who is forever making judgments as to where to go, when to go and when to retreat.”

In hindsight, it almost seems like Scott was destined to flourish amidst the lofty heights of mighty mountains. While he celebrated his 12th birthday in Nottingham in England, over in Nepal, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to stand on the summit of Everest. Just a year later, Scott would deliver newspapers before school and use the handy pocket money to fund his early climbing trips to the Black Rocks in Derbyshire; the initial scrambles pulled off using a sketchy clothesline as a climbing rope.

From the beginning, Scott was drawn to exploring rock faces, and to a desire to escape a conventional career. Through the 1960s, Scott made thrifty trips to remote mountains in Chad, Turkey and Afghanistan, before announcing his arrival as a serious climber by recording the first British ascent, in 1970, of the Salathe wall on the El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley in the US.

Two years later, Scott, now a recently-married young man who was workng as a school teacher, found his life changed when he was invited on a high profile international expedition that was attempting the unclimbed south-west face of Everest. By his own admission, he didn’t think he would go, given his domestic situation. At the time, it was big wall faces that interested him more than high peaks.

While sitting in the bath one day, he received a call from the legendary climber Don Whillans, who finally convinced him to join the expedition. None of the team-members made it to the top, but that year, Scott discovered the life of a climber: he had spent almost nine months away from home, climbing in the Alps and in Baffin Island, apart from another unsuccessful attempt on the same route on Everest. The south-west face of Everest teased him, and climbing it soon became an obsession.

In 1974, Scott pulled off a daring first ascent of the east ridge of Changabang in the Garhwal Himalaya in Uttarakhand alongside a small Indo-British team that also featured Haston and Chris Bonington. Scott and Bonington would go on to make a formidable climbing pair in the years ahead, starting with another attempt on Everest that the latter led in 1975. This time, Scott would not be denied.

Throughout that autumn, Bonington’s team worked on the south-west face, stitching together a route to the summit. On September 23, Haston and Scott just about survived a high altitude tragedy in their tents thanks to a leaking stove. The following day, they set off on a final push to the summit. By 6.30pm, they were thumping each other’s backs having reached the top of Everest. A talented photographer himself, on the summit, Scott pleaded with Haston to make a photo of him for his mother.

Dougal Haston's photo of Doug Scott on the summit of Everest. Scott had shared the image with the writer of this essay.
Dougal Haston's photo of Doug Scott on the summit of Everest. Scott had shared the image with the writer of this essay.

That image is today a part of a mountaineering legend: Scott standing in the snow on the roof of the world, his gloves off, an oxygen mask in his hand the only sign of where he was and what he had just accomplished. But it was what happened next that firmly established Scott’s reputation as a mountaineer.

By the time Haston and Scott descended to the South Summit, around 100 metres below the main summit, it was getting dark. Soon, their oxygen tanks ran out. Given the circumstances, the two climbers decided to halt for the night and bivouac in an ice cave that they had dug out on their way up for precisely this eventuality. They had no tent or sleeping bags, and soon, no gas to melt snow.

Settling down on their rucksacks, Scott stuck his feet in Haston’s armpits, intermittently rubbing his extremities vigorously to prevent frostbite. Haston’s oxygen-starved imagination summoned up a fellow climber, Dave Clarke, from thin air, with whom he engaged in a hearty conversation.

Scott, on the other hand, had a conversation with his feet. He hallucinated that his feet were individuals with contrasting personalities; his left foot an introvert of sorts and “slow to warm up”, and in need of some extra attention to survive the freeze. The hallucinations deepened even as Scott and Haston contorted themselves into every possible position in the hope of getting comfortable and warm, and, most importantly, to stay awake. At first light, after spending nine hours in temperatures that dropped to 30 below zero, they summoned the last dregs of their energy and climbed off the mountain. Scott had ticked off his first 8,000er. But a more intense battle with survival lay in store.

In 1977, a climbing holiday took him to Baintha Brakk in the Karakoram in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. Popularly known as the Ogre, the 7,285m mountain is a formidable fortress of ice, snow and rock. He summited the peak along with Bonington, and, with the light fading, Scott hurried to descend to the safety of their camp. During one rappel, he slipped and found himself oscillating towards the rock face below. He eventually stabilized, but only after smashing into the rock face, breaking both his ankles. Over the next seven days, Scott crawled down the mountain or was lowered on ropes by Bonington wherever possible. Bonington was in pain himself, having cracked two of his ribs.

For survival, they made a meal of discarded tea bags and sugar cubes, and another time, ate from a trash bag containing rice and cigarette ash. He was eventually flown out of Pakistan and his ankles had to be operated on. The recuperation took time, but just a year later, Scott was back in the Karakoram, this time attempting to summit K2.

Doug Scott climbing The Ogre in 1977. Scott had shared the image with the writer of this essay.
Doug Scott climbing The Ogre in 1977. Scott had shared the image with the writer of this essay.

Despite his many Himalayan successes, Scott was no peak bagger and preferred to work with an intimate group of trusted men, rather than big teams such as that on the Everest expeditions. In his lifetime, he managed to summit just four of the fourteen 8,000-metre mountains. But three of those ascents were via new routes, including two lightweight alpine-style expeditions on Kangchenjunga and Shishapangma. He also attempted K2, Makalu and Nanga Parbat on multiple occasions, and though the summits eluded him, Scott was content with having given the climbs his best. What made him most happy was the fact that until the late 1980s, only one team was allowed at a time in the Himalaya and Karakoram each season. He loved the fact that the teams had the mountains “to ourselves, with time to stand and stare and reflect on all and everything.” In recognition of his accomplishments, Scott was awarded the Piolet d’Or lifetime achievement award in 2011.

Scott had an engaging persona. A giant of a man, whom Bonington once compared favourably to a Himalayan bear, his hardy exterior contained an ocean of compassion within. The shaggy beard and flowing hair clubbed with thin-rim round glasses often left a few wondering when John Lennon had taken to mountaineering.

Scott was lean and towering, with a booming voice, even at the age of 76 when he visited Mumbai three years ago. The thick mane was gone, as well as the beard. But behind his spectacles shined the same twinkling eyes from his younger days, evoking both enthusiasm and mischief. He had a larger-than-life presence and never shied away from an opinion or just good old banter.

In 1989, Scott founded Community Action Nepal (CAN) to give back to the people whom he had met on his Himalayan expeditions, the Sherpas who had made his climbs possible. Even after being diagnosed with brain cancer this year, and restricted to the ground floor of his home in the Lake District in England, he was summiting again, this time, a staircase.

To raise funds for CAN during the lockdown, Scott donned the famous down suit from his Everest summit in 1975 and climbed the stairs in his home in the Virtual Everest Challenge, inspiring hundreds of people around the world, including Bonnington to do the same.

Given his illness, it was perhaps his toughest climb yet. His wife, Trish Scott, joked that the suit was “flimsy” and wondered how he had survived an open bivouac in it on Everest. But, as a member of a generation of groundbreaking British climbers, many of whom died young on the mountains, Scott maintained that on that epic climb, as in life, “the quality of survival had been good.”

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.

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