Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The 2012 Hillary Memorial Lecture

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the 4th annual Hillary Memorial Lecture, in aid of the Himalayan Trust. Hosting the evening was Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to stand atop Everest and top of the bill was the British climber Al Hinkes, still the only Brit to have summited all 14 of the worlds 8000m plus peaks*. However, to start the evening Rupert Band, the son of George Band OBE, treated us to a reading. Rupert took the stage, and read to us an extract from his father's diary where George had written about his summit-day experience on Kanchenjunga. There then followed a short film in tribute to George, who died last year. George was the youngest member of the 1953 Everest team and went on to be the first to summit Kanchenjunga along with Joe Brown in 1955, although in deference to local beliefs they did not actually touch the summit. He also went on to be one of the driving forces of the Himalayan Trust and President of both the BMC and Alpine Club. The film was, in most part an interview of Sir Chris Bonington talking about George interspersed with old footage of the man himself. One clip in particular showed how the world of climbing has changed, there was Mr Band being interviewed following Kanchenjunga dressed, smartly, in a suit, shirt and tie without a hint of a sponsors label, bring him forward 50 years and he'd be standing there in technical clothing festooned with labels. Which would we rather I wonder? 

Then it was the turn of Mr Hinkes to take to the stage, having had some contact with Al through the twitterverse and having already formed the opinion that he is a thoroughly top chap, I was looking forward to hearing him speak. Al comes across as an affable, likeable Yorkshireman, he is, you get the impression, rather proud of his Yorkshire heritage. His speech although sometimes a little hurried is warm and funny. His lecture, he informed us, would, although taking in each of his fourteen massive achievements, revolve around his ascent of Kanchenjunga. He regards Kanch as the gold medal of high altitude mountaineering, more challenging than K2 and certainly more difficult than Everest.

The lecture took the form of a showing of a programme from ITV filmed mainly by Al himself, with a pause every few minutes for Al to give us an insight into what we had just seen. It almost felt like we had been invited in to the Hinkes' household to view the film and although my initial feeling was "Oh, right, we're just going to watch a TV programme..." the presence of, and explanations from Al, made it an enormously enjoyable, funny and informative evening. There was the obligatory gory shot of an injury, sustained in this case when Al fell from a trail and speared his leg on a branch, he told us that had he fallen just a little further to one side the branch would have speared his scrotum, prompting Al to raise the question,

"Can I say Scrotum in the RGS? Anyway imagine the trouble if it had speared my scrotum and ripped my Gonads off?”

From one whose experience of “high altitude” mountaineering stops some 18000 feet below that of Alan Hinkes achievements, I was enthralled by his story. Over 18 years he battled to achieve his goal, overcoming three major injuries – as well as the branch/nearly scrotum incident, his first attempt at Nanga Parbat ended in prolapsed disc and his first attempt on Kanchenjunga ended with a slip into a crevasse and a broken arm. He is not one for grand gestures, not one for carrying a Union Flag to each summit rather; he carries a picture of his daughter as inspiration to make it down again. He, like Ueli Steck, considers that no mountain is worth a digit, never mind a life.

Al ended his lecture with Whymper’s famous quote,

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

This sums up my overriding impression from Al Hinkes – there’s always a reason to come back. Thanks Al, a great lecture.

*Al’s 14 8000 footers -
1987 - Shishapangma
1988 - Manaslu
1990 - Cho Oyu
1991 - Broad Peak
1995 - K2
1996 - Mount Everest
1996 - Gasherbrum I
1997 - Lhotse
1998 - Nanga Parbat
1999 - Makalu
2002 - Annapurna
2004 - Dhaulagiri
2005 - Kanchenjunga

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