Harry began his career in the Royal Marines as an Arctic survival instructor and later served with the British 22 SAS. Harry subsequently became an IFMGA Mountain Guide and in 1988 completed the first traverse of the Three Pinnacles on Mount Everest’s NE Ridge with Russell Brice. Russell Brice, known as ‘the Everest guru’, went on to establish HimEx, the most experienced commercial guiding outfit on Everest and the expedition and logistics lynchpin for Martin and Terry this year.
In 1993 Harry became the second Briton to have summited Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen. Harry was the Adaptive Grand Slam team guide on both Mount McKinley and Elbrus.
Harry offers us some fascinating and uncensored insight into the Everest climbing scene and how things are on the change…
What / when was your first trip to Everest and how many times have you climbed/ been involved with Everest expeditions since?
I have been to Everest to attempt the summit 7 times but have been on the mountain 9 times in total, 2 of those with filming expeditions.
My 7th time was in 2012 with the Walking With The Wounded team which included Martin - they were also climbing with Russell and HimEx. Russell made the decision to cancel the entire expedition and all summit bids due to safety issues - more specifically the notoriously dangerous route through the Khumbu ice fall which was even more unstable than usual, with heightened avalanche risk due to warmer than average temperatures.
How has Everest and Base Camp changed since you first lead expeditions there with Russell? Is it still a place you want to be?
It has got an awful lot busier, and not in a way that makes me want to be there now. The number of people at BC each year, and most concerningly the number of climbers who aren’t competent or well prepared, increases dramatically every season.
There are now so many operators and service providers which are badly run and which cut corners in every possible way. It isn’t a place or an industry where short cuts can be taken, and the potential results are catastrophic. The local government struggles with significant corruption issues – they say they are trying to clean themselves up and that they are improving each year but the truth is that don’t care and nothing is changing. Everest is a cash cow for them and I don’t see it improving – they have no need to change as long as tourists continue to want to climb Everest and trek in the local region. The Nepali government will try to push operators out who have the highest safety standards – the western operators such as Russell - as those are the operators who are pointing fingers at the government issues and behaviour.
The western operators have spent the last 4 decades striving to improve safety standards for their climbing clients as well as for their staff – notably operating methods, the provision of rope fixing practices and access to the best kit, equipment, sanitation and food.
”I fear that with the explosion of clients on Everest - many of whom want the cheapest ticket possible for a quick summit win and don’t undertake adequate research into the varying providers, or have sufficient experience to enable them to make decisions regarding the provision of logistics operators– that safety standards and the integrity of operators will actually decline”.
Many operators are working hard to collaborate with others to continually augment the safety and standards on the mountain, but some local operators are so cheap that this will ultimately put huge pressure on the western outfits to cut their costs just to remain in the market - it’s just not viable any more.
People want the kudos of ‘bagging the summit’ and demand the safety net which goes with the higher priced and most experienced operators. They want the base camp wifi, the most experienced guides, the most varied food, hot showers and the highest standards in Sherpa assistance, but they don’t want to pay the price which goes with it. The local/ inexperienced outfits claim that they offer the same as the most advanced on the mountain – and clients fall for it - they don’t know where to look or how to ‘read the small print’.
“People will always want to climb Everest and that won’t change, but I fear a cataclysmic disaster if the western operators have to shut up shop due to being pushed out”.
Why does Russell and HimEx stand out from other Everest operators?
I have known Russell since we climbed together in 1988. He was already operating in the Himalayas then - doing climbing trips on his own and marketing smaller trekking expeditions. Since then he has developed the whole model for Everest expeditions, as well as other mountains, and many have copied his business model.
Russell is a perfectionist. He is a mountain guru who changed the levels of expertise which were required to even operate in these areas, and he continues to challenge the client who feels they can do anything but without the desire to undertake adequate training to justify their place on these mountains. The 8000 metre peak playground is a serious one, with life and death consequences.
Russell has always strived to bring safety to the highest possible level and it is what he is known for. Other operators are constantly following in his wake. Russell collaborates with other operators, but everyone still looks to him for the final say - he is the outstanding guy in the Everest story.
There are lots of other fantastic logistics providers – such as Eric Simonson and IMG (International Mountain Guides), Guy Cotter and The Adventure Consultants, but all of the well run operators collaborate and play nicely together - they realise that the sum of all parts is greater than the individual operator. Everyone has different styles but Russell is uncompromising and he stands out.
“Russell is known as the ‘Everest guru’ and all of the other major operators look to him to make the final say given his unrivalled experience and unwavering integrity. He isn’t even doing it for the money, he doesn’t make any!”
What will happen when Russell stops? Is there any plan for succession?
I hope that the Adventure Consultants and IMG might stay in the business and try to fly the flag for sanity and safety. If they drop out, it will descend into the lowest order and we will see many cataclysmic disasters to come.
What are your thoughts on the criticism of those with injury and disability taking part in extreme expeditions?
I don’t agree with any of it. If someone wants to attempt something and they are well prepared, expertly trained, and seeking advice and help at every stage - whether they are sailing, mountaineering or cycling, I think they have a clear right to do that in a sensible way. As long as they have managed their injury and are as well prepared as they can, that’s amazing. Many able bodied climbers are far less prepared!
Mark Inglis was the first double amputee to summit Everest and he set the standard for others to follow suit, and has inspired many others. He was a hugely experienced climber who was stuck on Mt Cook (New Zealand) in bad weather and sustained amputations as a result of monstrous frost bite. He strove to continue to climb as part of his therapy and rehabilitation and he is an incredible example to many.
What do you think has been the most valuable training / experience which Martin and Terry have undertaken with you and why?
There is so much that we have done ! I climbed Denali (6190m) in Alaska with Martin and Terry but on different trips. I summited with Martin, but with Terry we experienced terrible weather which thwarted our summit bid. That mountain and the climbing experience was the most valuable for both of them in terms of preparation for the Everest environment. The Denali climb involves fixed roping - it’s tough, you’re working hard and with no Sherpa support. Rappelling work for people like Martin - who has the use of only one arm - is a massive challenge and this is the nearest thing to the Lhotse face on Everest for him. For Terry too – it was a monumental challenge and achievement – for Martin to reach the summit and for Terry to get as far as he did.
What is your best bit of advice for Martin and Terry as they prepare to climb the ‘big hill’ this year?
There are so many ‘last tips’, but ultimately, the most important thing is that they look after each other and remember that there is a lot more to come home for than just a successful summit.
Martin, Terry and the AGS team are hugely grateful to all of their supporters - most notably Olympian Homes which is providing the sponsorship to enable the summit team to climb with the best and safest operator on the mountain. We can’t thank you enough.