Interview: Mick Jackson, entrepreneur

SHE held his hand. Ten years on, it is this that remains Mick Jackson's abiding memory of the little girl who saved his life in the remote mountain wilderness of Kashmir.

It felt soft and spongy. Tiny. The hand of a four-year-old.

“She shook me awake," he says now, sitting on a stylish sofa in his flat in Glasgow's West End, a laptop filled with pictures of his 2001 trek to K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, balanced precariously on his knee.

“I opened my eyes and there was this wee face looking at me covered in dirt, with these wee spongy hands. And she put her hand out to me, made me stand up and led me to a stream and made me drink water. She saw I needed help and she wouldn't let me go until I did what I needed to do." He fiddles with the laptop and brings up her picture. A pair of huge brown eyes peers out of the computer. “She was brave and selfless," he says, gazing back at them. “And tiny. And wise. And what that child doesn't know is that she has inspired a banking revolution in 15 countries."

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Mick Jackson is not your average businessman. In fact he's not your average anything. Ruggedly good-looking with a loud, easy laugh that erupts from somewhere deep inside his chest, his life – first in a band, then as an entrepreneur and finally as a passionate humanitarian, has been anything but ordinary.

Now aged 41, he has set up several successful businesses and counts Sir Tom Hunter and Bob Keiller, chief executive of the Wood Group, as close friends. But it was his experience a decade ago, when he almost lost his life while climbing K2 - and saved another life in the process - that has come to define him and, he says now, guide him. “It wasn't just something that happened to me," he says. “It's what keeps me going. Every day."

Jackson comes from humble beginnings. His grandfather was working down the mines by the age of 12. His father was raised, he says, “in a slum". Jackson grew up in East Kilbride, and although he studied at Strathclyde University, he spent most of his 20s playing in a rock band that had, and he says this coyly, “some chart success". But he always had a passion for climbing. By the age of 30, he had set up an outdoor business, WildDay, and was spending most of his weekends up a mountain somewhere. “It's just the way it goes," he says. “You walk Ben Lomond, then you discover Glen Coe, then you do the ridges of Glen Coe, and then you do it in winter and off it goes."

For a climber, K2 represents the ultimate challenge. It is the toughest mountain in the world. One in three who go up don't come back down. Mountaineers regard its 8,611 metres with a mixture of awe and dread, a peak so remote that it takes six days hard trekking across a glacier before you even catch a glimpse of it. In 1995, the Scottish mountaineer Alison Hargreaves died during her attempt to conquer it. Her body was never recovered.

For Jackson, it was an adventure. His climbing boots were made by NASA. The marketing line was that if you lost your toes, you got your money back. He would take his laptop with him and run the business from the top of the mountain. He would send the world's highest e-mail. “In retrospect, I was going to put another notch on my belt," he says. “I was going to fulfill an ego or an ambition."

Before tackling K2 itself, he spent some time training in another part of Pakistan, where he met his guide, Sher. They didn't share a language, but they made each other laugh. So when he finally headed to the mountain, he asked Sher to come with him. “It was another three months work for him, and he was over the moon," he says. “He had a wife and two wee daughters, so it weighed heavily on me when I took him there, even though it was what he wanted to do."

He was part of a French expedition to K2 that involved 100 porters. It was so hot during the day that they walked at night. Boyish excitement was soon replaced by grim reality. “We got to this place called the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods. And at that point you turn left and there's K2, this almost mythical beast, rising in the distance," he says. “I got a sense of dread the likes of which I never could have imagined."

The following day, a 20-year-old Frenchman in the expedition ahead of them was found dead in his tent from a cerebral oedema, a fatal brain swelling that occurs in high altitudes. The Pakistani military sent a helicopter to take his corpse home to France and his broken-hearted parents. The expedition continued to climb. “People think mountains are serene but, underneath, all you hear are these huge, cracking sounds," he says. “There's this huge movement all around you. At times you'd have blocks of ice the size of family cars going right past you. And grown men whimpering like children. You're carrying 25kg, you've got a huge suit, crampons and two axes. And then you fall, and you're tumbling back, waiting to disembowel yourself. And then you have to try and get up. You're trying to make split-second life or death decisions when your brain's not working right."

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His most important decision came when Sher, the guide he had brought from the other side of the country, collapsed. He was writhing around in the ice, and none other than the Bulgarian minister for health, who happened to be on the expedition, diagnosed him with a collapsed lung. If he wasn't down from this altitude within 24 hours he was going to die. “So what do you do?" asks Jackson. The first option was to ask the Pakistani military to send a helicopter for him, just like they'd done for the young Frenchman. The answer was no. Sher was a Kashmiri tribesman. His life wasn't valuable enough to be saved. “I came off the phone and I looked at him, and he knew no one was coming," Jackson says quietly. “He just folded in on himself. And he looked at me and it was the look of a man going, ‘That's it. I'm never going to see my kids, I'm never going to see my wife. It's over.’"

Jackson's eyes are glassy as he says this. “If I'd left him there it would have haunted me forever. I'd never have been able to let it go." So he didn't.

Instead, he picked up Sher and carried him down the mountain. For four days. Four days of walking across the frozen glacier alone, carrying Sher on his back. Sometimes he held him up as he stumbled. And when it got really bad, he would drag him. “The only thing Sher said to me until he got down to an altitude where could breathe, over and over again, was, ‘I'm sorry Sir'. He gives a hollow laugh. “Can you believe that?"

He swallows hard and continues. “So you imagine carrying a guy through the most exquisite and terrifyingly dangerous terrain, and he's unconscious and all you can think about is that if this had been my grandfather or my father, he would have been left for dead. And you've got plenty of time to think about that. Over and over and over. It clarifies who you are and your deepest values. It cuts through all the transient nonsense in our culture. It cuts through to who you are."

What Jackson didn't realise is how ill he was himself. He had developed the Khumbu cough, a potentially fatal high-altitude bronchial condition. He would start to cough, and 45 minutes later he would still be going, his face purple, spitting up blood. He couldn't feel his fingers or his toes. He was dehydrated. And he started to hallucinate. “I was drifting in and out, and it was terrifying. I began to doubt that my life back here existed. Everything back here was a figment. My little nieces were Irish dancers and I used to see them dancing on the ice. And then I'd see my mum. And I'd think, ‘Is that real?' I just felt as though I was lost. Totally lost. That was terrifying. I don't know what I held on to. But something." He pauses for a long moment. “I don't know. I don't want to sound quasi-religious, but something. I knew I was doing it for a reason, but I didn't know what. I can't explain it."

When he had got Sher down to safety, Jackson was so discombobulated, he turned round and went back. Decided that this time, he really would climb the mountain. It was then that Jackson himself collapsed, and the little girl with the spongy hands, whose name he would never know, arrived to save his life. “She was this maternal figure," he says. “She didn't act like a child. She made me wake up. She made me stand up and led me to where I could drink water, waited until I'd drunk enough then looked at me to make sure she was satisfied I was OK. Then she gave me a big smile and ran away. And I made it back home."

IT WAS three months later that Jackson was sitting at home in Glasgow and a package of CDs arrived. The nerve damage he had suffered was so bad he still couldn't feel his fingers and toes, and he was having a recurring dream about carrying Sher endlessly down the mountain, through the icy wasteland. He was, he admits, “in a hell of a state". “This package arrived with all these pictures from one of the guys on the expedition, and there was one of this little child. The expedition had come across her and she was wearing what she was wearing when I saw her. I sat there and just looked at her face. I couldn't believe I was seeing her again. I just felt this enormous gratitude. And I felt that I had to do something."

Gradually, an idea began to form in Jackson's mind. One day, visiting a friend who ran a business, he asked how much she spent on office supplies. She made a few calls and found out it was £250,000 a year. He asked if she was emotionally attached to it. She said no. “I said to her, ‘If I can provide all this office stuff – I didn't know how I was going to do it – and I set up a foundation that will own the company – I didn't know how to do that – and I used all the money to help the poor – I had no idea how to do that – would you buy from me?' She said, ‘Of course I would.’ And that was it. I burst into action."

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WildHearts Office Supplies is now a highly profitable, multi-million-pound business with well over 1,000 customers. It supports WildHearts In Action, the charity Jackson founded and to which he now dedicates his life. The scheme is simple. Instead of giving out donations to needy causes, he gives out loans so that people in impoverished countries can set up their own businesses.

The average micro loan is £150. It is repaid and recycled three times a year, transforming an average of seven lives. They focus on loaning to women, and are now active in 15 countries around the world. This year alone they will help more than 100,000 people. As well as the office supplies scheme, WildHearts also incorporates the 45-mile annual WolfTrek, from Forres to Cairngorm Mountain, and WeeWalks, a set of fitness events for children.

One woman who has benefited from WildHearts is Hawa Kade-Wuru, who lives in Mankumu, a small village in Ghana. Jackson met her last year on a visit to the country when she dragged herself into the bank meeting on her hands. She was disabled, a beggar, but she'd been given a loan of £96 and used it to set up a spice stall in the local market. It is now the most profitable spice stall in the market, and Hawa no longer begs. She has already paid back her loan. After the meeting, Jackson sought her out and asked her, “‘Why did you set up a spice stall?" She looked at him as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “I cycled round the market and identified a gap,” she told him. He was blown away.

Now, inspired by Hawa, Jackson is bringing the WildHearts concept to Scotland in the form of the Micro-Tyco Challenge. “She embodies the spirit that our culture has lost," he says.

Starting in November, more than 100 teams from schools, universities and companies will be given £1 and challenged to turn it into as much money as possible. The profits will be plunged back into microfinance. The groups will be mentored by the likes of Hunter, Keiller and Jackson himself. The possibilities are endless. A trial run last year was so popular that Robert Gordon University and the University of the West of Scotland have made it part of their business degrees. “It's about realising what's possible," says Jackson. “Bringing creativity into your life and realising you've got your friends, your network and your know-how. And making everyone who is involved into global, ethical investors. Ultimately, it's about changing the way we think about money."

EARLIER this month, WildHearts got the green light in Pakistan. For Jackson, who since his return from his climb ten years ago has married and had a little boy, 22-month-old Ilyas, it was a huge personal achievement. A thank-you to the little girl from the mountains with no name and the spongy hands. He has never tracked her down. “It would be so difficult," he says. “She lives in this remote mountainous region. And if I did, it would probably scare her." But he has a dream that somehow, WildHearts and its microfinance scheme may one day help her. “Either a sister or a mother or a pal or her herself will get the benefits of the female empowerment and the mechanism to empower themselves. That would be amazing." He smiles at the thought.

And she'll just think it's something that has happened. She'll have no idea she's responsible for it." n

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