Alan Hinkes has summited all 14 of the world’s highest mountains, yet his success is not celebrated by all
By rights, Alan Hinkes should be furious, raging, spitting pitons. Having devoted much of his life to climbing the 14 mountains above 8,000m, the no-nonsense Yorkshireman, 59, has just released a monumental book of essays and photographs on the Cicerone imprint describing each ascent in vivid detail. Yet despite this weighty slab of evidence there are still those who don’t believe he has climbed all 14. Look him up on Wikipedia and next to his 1990 ascent of Cho Oyu you’ll find the pernicious little word “disputed”. He also features on several lists of “climbers who have summited 13 of the 14 8000ers”. It’s unlikely that any of the people compiling these lists have climbed even one 8000er, let alone 14, but is Hinkes angry at having his achievements questioned by lesser mortals? Is he heck.
“It’s funny how people always seem to believe the naysayers,” he says, with a wry chuckle. “To say I haven’t climbed a mountain... well... they have to be there, on that summit, so they can say ‘I was waiting for him and he never got there.’ Otherwise they’re just accusing me of being a liar.”
The way Hinkes describes his Cho Oyu ascent in 8000: Climbing The World’s Highest Mountains (Cicerone, £25), there’s little room for debate. Unlike some of the other mountains he’s bagged, which have small, well-defined peaks, Cho Oyu has a flat, featureless summit which Hinkes likens to “an expanded Ben Macdui plateau.” When he got there in 1990 the visibility was poor. The European climbers he was with had turned back, but Hinkes deemed conditions “not as bad as I have experienced on many winter hills in the Scottish Highlands” and pushed on alone.
Finding nothing to indicate a summit, Hinkes writes, “I spent at least an hour and a half covering every inch of ground on the summit plateau until, in the end, I was absolutely certain that I could not get any higher. There was no more uphill.”
When I ask why he didn’t take any photographs, he says he was in a virtual white-out so there would have been no point – “nowt to see”. Plus, he says, this was only his third 8000er – the thought of bagging all 14 hadn’t crossed his mind, so he didn’t feel the need to provide evidence he had been to the top.
“There was no need to prove anything ’cos I was doing it for me,” he says. “If people don’t want to believe me, that’s their problem.”
Does he have any plans to go back to Cho Oyu to get a confirmed kill? “I don’t have to get a confirmed kill,” he replies. “I’ve done it.”
The great irony is that of all the 14 climbs described in Hinkes’s book, Cho Oyu is the easiest. That is to say, it’s still a nerve-shreddingly hazardous undertaking, but a little less nerve-shreddingly hazardous than the rest. Fixed ropes are in place on the steeper sections and there is no exposed summit ridge to fall off or get blown off. The final part of the climb, Hinkes writes, “is like an extreme altitude fell walk”.
If Hinkes was going to lie about reaching the top of an 8000er, K2 would have been a smarter choice – that one nearly killed him several times. He aborted an attempt in 1993 so he could rescue a stricken climber he found on the approach to the summit, and in 1994 he was avalanched while lying in his tent at 6,000m, ending up buried thigh deep in snow wearing nothing but his underpants. Finally, in 1995 he made it to the top (and with a group of Dutch climbers to bear witness, too) but a little porky pie would have saved him an awful lot of trouble.
Talking to Hinkes, though, you really do get the impression that he’s in it for the love of the game alone. When he says “I’m not like [Reinhold] Messner, I’m not famous or wealthy” there’s no sense of bitterness – he’s simply stating a fact. He points out that nine French climbers have been killed attempting to do what he’s done. “No French person’s done all these 8000ers yet,” he says. “Any French person who does it will be as famous as Beckham is here and nearly as wealthy, but I haven’t done it for those reasons. I couldn’t care less if people believe me or not, quite frankly. The book’s there and that’s that.”