"My mother says I was a strong baby who craved attention. I would rock my cradle this way and that so she was forced to come to me between feeds," says Doug Scott. The 59-year-old British mountaineer tells this story as a strangely modest refutation of his humility.
Scott quit crying a long time ago. Instead, he concentrated his energies on climbing. Growing up in post-war England-his father fought in World War II-he found solace in the hills and mountains around his home. Scott climbed more and more and in 1975, on his second Everest attempt, Scott, with his climbing partner Dougal Haston, became the first Briton on top of the world. He hasn't looked back, and is one of only a few climbers (52 or 62, depending on how you're counting) to complete the seven summits, the highest points on all continents. All in all, Scott has had what he simply describes as "a good run of climbing". And he's got a lot of attention. The quintessential Himalayan climber, Scott's humility, strength, and courage on the mountain, his numerous first and difficult ascents, mainly in the Greater Himalayan Range, have earned him a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). "I think that means I'm not quite a Lord," says the long-haired climber whose yellow backpack and casual T-shirt belie his fame.
When he's not climbing a remote Himalayan pass or growing organic vegetables at home in Nottingham, England, Scott travels the world giving lectures about his experiences in the mountains, including in Nepal, where he has returned regularly since his first Everest attempt in 1972. The "merciless passage of time" and 30 years of playing club-level rugby have taken their toll on the climber, making it easier and more enjoyable for him to just trek the mid-hill regions of the country where few tourists go, but where most Nepali porters come from.
"For most people in these places, every day is an adventure. You work so hard, the last thing you want to do is go off climbing. People are hard pressed to feed themselves and their families, threatened by floods and drought. despite all this, it is amazing how collected, spontaneous, and genuine people are. It may sound a bit trite, but it's a privilege to stay in their homes." This isn't idle trekker-talk either: Scott is doing his bit for communities in the Solukhumbu, Sindhupalchok, Kaski, Dhankuta and Langtang areas. As chairman and co-founder of Community Action Nepal, a not-for-profit organisation, he organises projects in sustainable health and education. CAN's first goal, following in Mike Cheney's footsteps, was ensuring that porters receive a fair wage for their labour. But, Scott says, in the face of Nepal's climbing hierarchy and the tendency to look after the welfare of one's immediate family rather than the larger community, it's been an uphill task. Still, he enjoys being in the area, close to nature, in the middle of spontaneous everyday village life. "Life expectancy is not so great here, but people live life fully, with total attention. They do everything with such grace and economy of effort, getting far more out of it."
High up on the mountain, Scott manages to live like that, if just for a while. "I get grumpy when I don't climb," he says, meditating on the changes that climbing has seen in recent times. "I'm sure those who started the British Alpine Club [of which Scott is president] in 1859-doctors, lawyers, parsons-professionals who wanted a break from the city-would have frowned on people like me, professional climbers who make a living by talking and writing about mountaineering." He takes with a certain equanimity the media-driven transformation climbing has undergone from being weekend recreation to an eminently marketable and glamorous sport. He's pleased that there are still thousands who enjoy the adrenaline rush of conquering a small rock face. "On weekends they push themselves to their physical limits. They return on the bus, their bones aching, but with a glow. They come back to do what they have to do with a renewed enthusiasm. It's a quick fix solution."
It's a solution that Scott seeks when the internal dialogue, the chatter and the trivia of daily life overwhelm him. Working new routes, uncertain faces that no one's done before, going up a mountainside finding a line of weakness, wondering where to spend the night-this is not everyone's idea of fun, but for this man it is all exhilarating. "You're so focused on surviving, it stops the internal chatter. I do start to see a bit of what is normally hidden." Scott knows what he wants out of climbing and he's fine-tuned the experience over the years.
It was during the descent from Everest, when Scott and Haston were forced to make a hazardous bivouac in a snow hole at the extreme height of 8,750 m that it became clear to the climber that with a bolder approach based on better techniques and improved equipment, the menace of high altitude climbing could be handled. After Everest, an elite international group of which Scott was a leading member began tackling the highest peaks in the rapid style used in the Alps. Success followed on Xixapangma (Southwest Face), Shivling (East Pillar), Kussum Kangguru (North Summit), Nuptse (North Face) and notably Kangchendzonga, where his ascent of the North Ridge in 1979 with Joe Tasker and Pete Boardman ranks among the great Himalayan climbs-it was the first time one of the big three peaks was climbed by a small team without oxygen. In a postscript to his Himalayan Climber: A Lifetime's Quest to the World's Greater Ranges, Scott's description of the climb is almost poetic. "On Kangchenjunga, when we had made the decision to have one last try and found that the wind had eased, it was like the parting of the Red Sea, a brief and precious lull, granted only to us, when for a few hours we were able to advance to the top of that great peak and return unscathed."
Scott's confidence and instincts honed through years of climbing around the world-the Sahara, East Africa, Iceland, Canada, Alaska, the Soviet Union, the Hindukush, Karakoram-have helped him survive near fatal accidents. In 1977 he broke his legs while abseiling down after summitting the Ogre in the Karakoram with Chris Bonington. The painful journey back to Base Camp took eight days and was partly accomplished by crawling down the glacier and moraines to reach Camp. It was a lesson in humility. Everest had made him arrogant. Says Scott in his book: "It was a severe lesson which I was lucky to survive and am not anxious to repeat."
Today, Scott, who climbed most of the continental summits without even considering the seven summits challenge-he thinks it's a "disreputable concept"-is concentrating on discovering smaller, unclimbed peaks in Tibet, Bhutan, and north-east India. A typically good climb in recent years was his 1998 ascent of Drohmo opposite Kangchendzonga where he left the margin of safety satisfyingly narrow, but without closing the gap. "The walk from South Pillar to central summit took four days. It was totally satisfying," says Scott.
Each time he's back from a climb, there is a glow. "You return a lot more aware, with more enthusiasm to do what you've been doing before. There's more tolerance, more compassion." Then, his self-deprecating smile appears again: "It doesn't last too long, though. So you have to go again."