BMC member Scott Mackenzie recently journeyed to the top of the world, and was kind enough to take us along for the ride! His recent summit of Mount Everest took him past the infamous Hillary Step, which is reported to have changed as a result of the 2015 earthquake. We tracked Scott down to find out more.
First off, what’s your background?
I’m a Brit with a good amount of experience rock climbing, skiing, mountaineering (and plenty of epics to boot). I’ve climbed for about 15 years in total, starting in the UK, before visiting the Alps, Andes, Himalayas, Karakorum and a few other awesome places over the years. Iran especially was a stand-out destination.
What made you want to go for the big tick of Everest?
As a kid I was completely addicted to expedition climbing books and have an embarrassingly large collection. I read them all and many were about Everest or the 14 8,000m peaks. The history of the people and places is staggering. At the time, the dreams of countries stood on the shoulders of these people. I never actually imagined I’d climb Everest, I just liked to read the books. But, as I grew up, I came to realise that I wanted to visit Everest to experience the mountain.
The North is just as exciting as the South, but I had a chance to go to the South this time. I knew only of the places on the South through books, but now I’ve been through them all – the icefall, the Western Cwm, Camp 3 on the Lhotse Face and the South Col, the Balcony, the South Summit, the Hillary Step. Amazing. I was able to stand on the summit for 45 incredible minutes.
WATCH: Scott on the summit of Mount Everest on BMC TV
This was your second time. You were there for the avalanche in 2014. This time, Ueli died. How did that affect the basecamp atmosphere?
I was there in 2014 attempting a no-O2 ascent on the South Side with a friend called Chris Handy. On the second day in base camp, there was a big avalanche which killed a lot of people in the icefall. It was awful. This year, I was lucky to get a chance to come back – it was all rather last minute with only a month’s notice. I thought very hard about it – it wasn’t a simple “Yes” – the decision weighed heavily.
I found out about Ueli when I was in Camp 2, as I stood watching the sunset making a radio call back to Tim in base camp. I could not believe the news coming out the radio and was lost for words. Ueli. My mind just couldn’t process it. The first thought that came to me was for his wife. I’d met Ueli a few years ago and climbed with him in London at a climbing wall. He was an inspiration.
Which company did you go with?
I went with Tim Mosedale from Keswick. He works with Himalayan Guides in Nepal and has years of experience out there. Tim is a small but very solid operator and does Everest and Ama Dablam each year.
How does it work: do you climb with a Sherpa the whole time?
Typically clients climb with a Sherpa only on summit day, but depending on their experience there are all sorts of bespoke options. I was comfortable on the mountain as I’ve climbed plenty in the past. On summit day I climbed with Dorje – 13 times to the summit!
What condition was the mountain in?
Excellent conditions through to Camp 2. The icefall, which I thought was madness, was apparently in good condition this year. The Lhotse face was very icy this year, but the rest of the route was great. A lot of snow up high slowed things down, but did make for easy passage over what is left of the the Hillary Step.
Is it true that the Hillary step has collapsed: what’s that section like now?
It’s true, but being my first time I don’t have much to compare it to. It looked to me like there had been some rockfall, probably in the 2015 earthquake, leaving some big boulders and unstable ground. The route for us was up a simple snow slope, shown in the attached picture from Tim’s Go Pro. The Go Pro flattens the view out, it was a bit steeper than it looks and is certainly ‘one up, one down’. Scary for big crowds. There were 27 of us in total on summit day, I can’t even comprehend 200+.
The Hillary Step from Scott's recent trip. Photo: Tim Mosedale
Tell us about your summit day, how did that pan out?
On summit day, we left at 10pm from the South Col after spending hours hydrating through the day. Very quickly after leaving, myself and Dorje caught up with the queue of climbers heading up to The Balcony. The queue was moving very slowly. It wasn’t cold or too windy, but a lot of snow crystal was blowing around. After some time, we unclipped from the ropes and climbed around the group of climbers on the fixed lines. It may sound a little reckless, but the terrain was safe enough and there is a balance between staying clipped in and going so slowly you risk later running out of oxygen.
Soon after climbing past the group, we continued out front eventually reaching The Balcony at 2am. Drink water, eat gummy bears. Tim wasn’t far behind us also passing the big group. A couple of hours later we all made the South Summit. This section was the crux by far with deep snow and endless slopes tormenting the mind. From the South Summit the technicality of the route increased moderately and things became interesting working along the Summit ridge. Tibet on the right, Nepal on the left. Suddenly we were at the Hillary Step and climbing through onto the final summit slopes. These went on for some time, longer than I expected. We passed some rocks with a rock type I wasn’t familiar with – it looked almost like polished marble. For the whole climb we’d been in and out of the clouds, but no more than 30 metres from the summit everything cleared and we had a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring view of Nepal and Tibet.
After 45 minutes on top, in around -30 degress with little wind chill, we set off and passed people climbing up the ridge for their own summit bit. This is where the danger is – even with 27 climbers on our summit day it felt crowded with many sections one up one down.
By mid-morning we were back in Camp 4, rehydrating and resting before continuing on to Camp 2; a 2,500m descent. By 6am the following morning we left for base camp and one last trip through the icefall...
Sum up reaching the summit in three words…
Oh my god.
What was the strangest thing you saw on Everest?
Incompetence. People having their harness and crampons put on, short roping in the Western Cwm, general poor mountain safety awareness.
Whilst we’re at it, one of the best things was working with the British Army Gurkhas and Jagged Globe. These guys were brilliant and helped open the mountain after the first bid to fix the ropes to the summit failed. They came together and helped make it happen – what an awesome team of people.
You climbed Broad Peak in 2011 under your own steam. How did the two experiences compare?
Very different. I feel like the overall risk was higher on Broad Peak and the exhaustion levels felt far greater when we got back to base camp. On Broad Peak, I had very severe dehydration and on Everest I learned from that and drank four litres before the summit bid.
That said, Everest is so high, simple mistakes can have major consequences. Mentally Everest was a big challenge (eight times through the icefall) and the descent back to base camp is huge.
Did you take out BMC insurance?
I sure did. I was on an existing BMC annual alpine ski policy and I took out Everest expedition insurance.
I live in Chamonix, so there is plenty to go at… although the summer belongs to my wife after all the time away!
So… what grade would it be at Stanage?
The hardest single move was probably from the Bergschrund onto the Lhotse Face… with a jumar. Last time I checked, Stanage was a jumar free zone… let’s keep it that way!
JOIN THE BMC: Save 50% on your first year's membership
The BMC works for mountaineers like you. Benefits include:
Access to BMC Alpine/Mountaineering travel insurance
£10m worldwide Combined Liability insurance
£10,000 Personal Accident insurance
Find out more about BMC membership benefits
WATCH: BMC Insurance: built for the mountains BMC TV
GET THE KNOWLEDGE: BMC resources for mountaineers
Essential winter know-how: Whether you're a seasoned winter warrior or just taking your first icy steps, we've got a mountain of essential skills & equipment advice right here on the BMC website.
Winter Essentials DVD: This DVD follows a group of winter mountaineers on a typical day out in the Scottish mountains, and shows the essential skills and techniques.