Fame is a four letter word

Posted by Ed Douglas on 22/08/2005
Photo: John Coefield.

In early June Alan Hinkes became the first British mountaineer to climb the 14 8,000m peaks and was almost ignored by the press. Why is it that the media choose to ignore the stories that matter to climbers? As Ed Douglas explains, the world’s first climbing celebrity has the answers.

So who was the first climbing celebrity? Who was the first to thrill large audiences with their stories of adventure and write a bestseller? Chris Bonington? Or someone from an earlier period, like George Mallory? In fact, you have to go back to 1852, when a former medical man turned journalist called Albert Smith took to the stage. And the only mountain he ever climbed was Mont Blanc. His lectures on this one outing ran for over six years, earned him, in today’s terms, millions of pounds and made him a star.

Until Smith arrived on the scene, the embryonic sport of mountaineering had been a private affair, confined to elite, well-educated circles. Smith was hardly working class, having trained as a medical man in Paris before articles in The Lancet led on to his preferred trade of literary hack. But there was something ‘common’ about him that rankled, particularly with his colleagues on the new satirical magazine Punch. In a nutshell, Smith wanted to be famous and make pots and pots of money. And he had a novel idea of how to do it.

As a young doctor in Chertsey thrilled by stories of the earliest climbing pioneers, Albert had entertained his sister with a show and tell, featuring panoramas he’d constructed and painted of Mont Blanc. He did something similar about a trip he himself took to Istanbul, producing an entertainment that people would actually pay to watch. Smith realised that making his own ascent of Mont Blanc could give him the material to do something extraordinary.

True, there was little new about his climb, made in August 1851. It was merely the fortieth ascent, and remarkable only for the vast quantity of supplies his – let’s count them – 20 guides insisted on taking. These included 60 bottles of vin ordinaire, six bottles of Bordeaux, 15 bottles of St George, three bottles of cognac, 35 small fowls and 20 loaves of bread.

Smith seems to have contemplated turning back at the foot of the Mur de la Côte, since he was stumbling and desperate for a nap. (Glancing at the list of refreshments above might offer an alternative diagnosis to altitude sickness.) But what are 20 guides for, if not to drag you to the summit? After descending, Smith indulged himself by continuing the tradition of having cannons fired to celebrate his achievement. This annoyed John Ruskin, who happened to be staying in Chamonix at the time. But it’s what Smith did next that really irritated the great and good, if not the general public.
Hiring the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, Smith commissioned an extravagant set as a backdrop to his performance, including a mock-up of a Swiss chalet with a pool in front of it surrounded by real Alpine plants. In full evening dress, Smith performed a show of anecdotes, literary description, impersonations and ‘patter songs’.

His show was a massive hit. The Ascent of Mont Blanc was wildly popular with the public, and in the first two seasons alone more than 200,000 people saw it, earning Smith £17,000 – equivalent to over £1.2m in today’s money. There were shows evey evening, and matinees three times a week, a book in 1853 and numerous souvenirs. These included engravings, dances, stereoscopic pictures, plates decorated with Smith’s portrait, magic lantern slides, and even a Mont Blanc game. Ultimately, the 2000 lectures Smith gave brought him £30,000. His plan had worked.

Smith did have a little help. He was an old friend of Phineas T. Barnum, originator of The Greatest Show on Earth, and when Barnum was in town, Smith invited him along to the Egyptian Hall. Barnum got quite a shock. Several of the stories the impresario had told Smith over the years had been written into the Mont Blanc lecture. Afterwards, during dinner at the Garrick Club, Smith introduced Barnum to his friends as his mentor in show business, and acknowledged his debt to the American. “Of course, as a showman,” Smith told him, “you know very well that to win popular success, we have to appropriate and adapt to our uses everything of the sort that we can get hold of.” In other words, plagiarise.

Smith’s success with the public didn’t cut much ice with his contemporaries. Douglas Jerrold, a more successful colleague of Smith’s on Punch and a campaigner against poverty, thought Albert Richard Smith’s entertainment ghastly and crass. “His initials,” Jerrold mocked, “are only two thirds of the truth.” (Jerrold’s maths wasn’t razor sharp, but you get the joke. Now you can write the word ‘arse’ in any magazine, even Summit, which explains the long and miserable death of Punch.)

Jerrold was a good friend of Charles Dickens, who similarly disliked Smith. William Makepeace Thackeray despised him, which was pretty rich, given that Smith offered Thackeray a useful introduction to his friend Barnum. And although he was one of the founding members of the Alpine Club, younger climbers thought Smith and his hyperbole laughable.

What really rankled, of course, is that Smith was a commercial and popular success without going through the stress of being original, or even a ‘proper’ climber. There was a public appetite for stories of adventure set in spectacular landscapes that predated the growth of photography. Romantic notions of the sublime were popularised not in print but in entertainments, and Albert Smith’s success was one of the more spectacular results. Who cared if Smith wasn’t a real mountaineer? He gave people what they wanted.

More than a century and a half later, it seems not much has changed. The public still have an appetite for spectacular portrayals of adventure in harsh environments. In 2003, the IMAX movie topped $120m, making it, for a time, the highest grossing cinema documentary ever. In Britain, the BAFTA-winning Touching the Void has also drawn large numbers of the public, making it the most successful cinema documentary Britain has produced.

And yet there still seems to be a gulf between how climbing is presented to the general public and how it is experienced by us, the people who actually do it. Website forums can barely last a week without someone pointing out how newspapers get things wrong, how the general public have a warped sense of what’s important, and how the ‘wrong’ climbers seem to get publicity. The ghost of Albert Smith, it seems, lingers on.

When I call Alan Hinkes, he’s on his way to Doncaster to see his daughter and grandson. It’s a few weeks since he climbed Kangchenjunga to become the first Briton to climb the world’s highest mountains, the 14 Himalayan peaks over 8,000m. I can’t pretend I don’t feel a little nervous about this call, because what I want to suggest to Hinkes is that he’s not as famous as he might be. I’m not sure anyone who’s excelled at something is ever ready to hear that.

Worse, I want to ask him what he thinks about press reports that his climb of Cho Oyu is doubted. This claim had filtered into British national newspapers from the American website MountEverest.net, which presents itself as a site by climbers, for climbers. “Not so fast,” the website says of Hinkes’ claim to have joined American star Ed Viesturs on the list of those who have completed the list. “Alan might have one peak to revisit before he gets the golden key to the house of the elite. There is a controversy about his Cho Oyu climb.”

Not surprisingly, Hinkes can think of somewhere uncomfortable for MountEverest.net to put their golden key. For their part, the website says they draw their information from AdventureStats.com. And they get their info from Liz Hawley in Kathmandu. “Hinkes said that he ‘has no proof to have not been to the summit’,” the website explained, “and so he counts it a done deal. The statisticians didn’t buy it, and Alan was deleted on all of the Cho Oyu lists.” Well, not quite. In fact, not at all, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially if it makes an American climber look better?

You could, if you were an enterprising young climbing journalist with limitless resources and plenty of time, launch an in-depth investigation into whether or not Al Hinkes made the summit of Cho Oyu in 1991. But you’d be wasting your time. Climbing still works on the basis of honest self-reporting, and plenty of those on the list of 8,000m summit climbers have had ascents taken at face value.

“There’s nowt to lie about,” Hinkes says, sounding exasperated. “You’re only lying to yourself. It would be like trying to hide the fact you’ve murdered someone. It’s just barmy.” Hinkes points out that Cho Oyu is considered one of the easiest 8,000ers, and if he was going to tell porkies he’d pick one of the big ones, like K2. But he is still reeling from a demand from Liz Hawley that she see his summit shots before accepting his claim to have done Kangchenjunga. As it happens, Hinkes had taken video footage, but felt aggrieved that his word had been doubted. “We had a row about it,” he confesses.

The Victorian Albert Smith had a couple of dozen witnesses on the top of Mont Blanc to verify his story, but I don’t think evidence has much to do with this. I think the answer of why some climbers become celebrities and others don’t has less to do with controversy and more to do with who you are, at least in who you are perceived to be, and how you fit the mould of public expectation.

Albert Smith got ahead because he communicated directly to an audience eager for stories of adventure. His elitist detractors might have resented him, but Smith was an engaging, affable man who knew how to please. In the modern era, it’s climbers and adventurers who match the public’s perception of what a heroic mountaineer should be that get ahead. The public know what a climbers is, not what he does. They simply don’t have the knowledge to tell who’s good and who’s bluffing. And anyway, that’s not why they pay climbing attention. It’s the death-defying stuff that really fascinates.
Alan Hinkes is a plain-speaking Yorkshireman who is happy to admit his professional status and his interest in making a living. At one level, it is a lot more honest than the approach of other celebrities who create a mythological narrative around their adventures to sell them more effectively, just as Albert Smith did in 1852. On another level, it’s the antithesis of the heroic myth surrounding George Mallory, to which the public still clings.

On the BBC website, readers were invited to offer their thoughts on a North Yorkshire campaign to get Hinkes a knighthood. The response was almost unequivocal. Not only should Hinkes become Sir Alan, the media had done him an immense disservice by not reporting his achievement properly.

“Annabelle Bond was splashed all over the Sunday Times for doing the seven summits,” complained Matthew Scott. “What did Alan get? A tiny paragraph! This is a massive achievement that has gone largely unnoticed by the general public. It’s a shame because this man has accomplished an enormous challenge and should be rewarded for his grit and determination. A knighthood? At least!”

“If Alan had come from London then there would have been a lot more coverage about this tremendous feat on the television,” complained Alex Taylor. “He deserves a knighthood at the very least. Come on BBC, give him more recognition and airtime.”
Even discounting for the hypersensitivity of chippy northerners, there does seem to be a bias in the media for a particular kind of explorer. Hinkes himself says he recalls a quotation from the four-times Olympic gold medalist Sir Steve Redgrave commenting that he had to live near London because that’s where the sponsors are. This might confirm some elite climbers’ view of Hinkes as a hardened professional, but the reality is he is a naïve debutante in comparison to the real professionals of the adventure circuit.

Bear Grylls, for example, has a much higher profile as an adventurer, despite having climbed Everest as a client on a guided trip. (He has also consistently claimed an admittedly spurious record that was never his – as the youngest Briton to climb Everest.) But Grylls fits the popular imagination of what an explorer should be: public school, affable, and with a whiff of amateurish enthusiasm, but still an achiever. Rather like Albert Smith, in fact, which is why Grylls has his own television series and is a hit on the corporate lecture circuit.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dame Ellen McArthur, who really have achieved something new, also seem to find publicity an effortless foregone conclusion in comparison. You could argue that Hinkes should have got himself a decent publicist, given that Fiennes received more coverage for failing on Everest than Hinkes got for an 18-year high-altitude marathon. But you could also argue that the sport itself deserves some of the blame.

Climbing has always had a deeply ambivalent attitude to the media. Arthur Hinks, the waspish, self-important secretary of the Mount Everest Committee, thought it a disaster that The Times should be allowed – for a much-needed fee – to report on the early Everest expeditions. Many thought he was being typically snobbish, but a feeling persists that climbers don’t really care what the general public think about them, leaving the way open for genial characters like Albert Smith to prosper.

There is an argument that the BMC should help fill this vacuum. One member called the office following Hinkes’ success to castigate the BMC for not getting its weight behind his achievement. It is certainly rare for an organisation as large as the BMC not to have a press officer, but whether it should be publicising the achievements of individual climbers is open to debate. What is undeniable is that the current generation of talented young alpinists who are setting the pace around the world are almost unknown in this country, while Grylls and Bond are fêted in the Sunday supplements. Celebrity magazines are stuffed full of fourth-rate actors or musicians, but sportsmen?

Should we care? Maybe, but I’m not sure. Albert Smith is hardly known these days, even among climbers. He made a lot of money, but unhappily for him didn’t live long to enjoy it, dying of a lung infection the day before his 44th birthday. If he’s remembered at all, it’s as a cultural phenomenon rather than a climber. His courage was for appearing on a stage in front of hundreds of paying customers. And I for one would rather be on a mountain than contemplate that.



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