Part 3. John Hawkridge: In the Shadow of Everest

All the Way to the Top

John was convinced that climbing Ben Nevis alone in one day would be his “ultimate performance” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 173). However, in November/December of 1988, only 15 months after his Ben Nevis climb, John would set out on his greatest journey yet, “through the Himalayas to Kala Patthar 18,000 feet in the very shadow of Everest” (BBC, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988). 

Chris Bonington, a friend and fellow mountaineer, knew about John’s love of Everest and his ambition to see the mountain. He helped him plan the climb to Kala Patthar, as he himself had climbed Everest in 1985. In a short documentary about John’s journey, produced by the BBC in 1988, Bonington describes how their plan developed: 

“I first met John in July 1987, and together we climbed Ben Nevis. At the summit I learned his ultimate ambition: he wanted before he died to see Everest from a light plane. By the end of that day, we’d ditched the idea of flight. John Hawkridge might, we convinced ourselves, journey to the Everest base camp on foot. (Bonington, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988)

John took time to plan his 45-mile journey carefully and decided that he would attempt to complete this climb in “[f]ifteen days with about three days to acclimatise where we’re not actually walking” (Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988). This climb would not be easy. John would have to account for various modes of travel to get him to his starting point, cover the treacherous roads within the climb to Kala Patthar, and ensure he carefully acclimated to the altitude to avoid altitude sickness. Despite all the challenges that lay ahead of them, Chris firmly believed that his friend could make it to Kala Patthar:

“He’s got a tenacity and a drive that the good climber needs, and in some way, I think he’s had to get across even more barriers [than he thought] he’ll be even more dogged, perhaps sometimes almost more dogged that is good for him but I think that he’s certainly got the ambition and the drive, I mean he’s got the drive and the push […] to climb to Everest.”  (Bonington, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988)

However, before John could consider beginning his journey to the Himalayas, he had to consider his own health. Before the climb, John had been struggling with swelling and leg pain. To help combat this swelling and prepare for his walk, John visited Saint Luke’s Hospital for hydrotherapy appointments, where, with the help of his physiotherapist Sarah Denison, John worked to build strength in his legs. Despite the tremendous amount of pain these sessions put him through and the slow degradation of his muscles due to his condition, John never let this deter him from reaching his goal: 

“Everybody has to accept that from a certain point in their life, it’s downhill, together with the deterioration that I’m suffering at the moment, I hope that going to Everest will help to accept this gracefully. I’ve b’in [been] in a wheelchair once, and I know what it’s like, and someday I’ll probably be in a wheelchair again, but this is not something that frightens me at all.” (Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988)

Once John felt in good condition, he set off to the Himalayas to begin his journey. John had climbed independently before and did not want to rely too heavily on others, but Everest is not a trail that should be attempted alone, and his companions on this trip would be there to support and guide him. Besides Des Seal and Mark Stokes - the two Cameramen who helped to film John’s journey - John also had the assistance of a Sherpa guide, Yongdon Sherpa and a young Sherpani (Sherpa Woman) Anbeauty. Yongdon, who previously worked as an interpreter for the Dalai Lama, would be John’s guide and companion on his journey. He would help by translating and guiding John through the local areas and villages, but also Yongdon would assist John with moving his legs and keeping his spirits up on more challenging sections of the climb. Anbeauty would help to carry the bags, set up camp, and cook. While Yongdon and Anbeauty would be John’s main companions on his journey, they would not be the only people John would meet along the way to Kala Patthar. Despite John’s preference for independence, he was grateful to have both of them to support him throughout the climb:

“Youngdon’s attitude is great, but he does have a tendency to dote on me; either I reject this outright, or I accept it and use it positively. The teams starting to pull together now […] Anbeauty, she’s a real good-looking girl, only seventeen and Anbeauty’s job is to carry a load and to cook, she also helps with things like putting the tent up and mekin’ [making] sure that camp is comfortable.” (Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988).

Never one to miss an opportunity, John decided to take a brief detour and go white-water rafting first, then made his way via plane to the small village of Lokla, where he would begin his journey. However, arriving in Lokla came with risks, as the landing could have been more generous surface area-wise. John said that the “landing strip at Lokla is no more than a ledge on a mountainside; it’s at an angle of 12 degrees; in fact, it’s a bit like landing on a ski jump”(Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988). One safe landing later, John was back on the ground, ready to climb. The route would take him “north through the steep Kersey valley; he’ll then face a stiff climb up to Namcha Barwa and beyond the Khumbu glacier; from here, he can head for Kala Patthar”. (Bonington, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988) 

Even before John had left Lokla, he ran into a familiar face from the climbing world, Al Burgess. John had admired Al, as he and a group of other climbers had been among the first British teams to brave Everest. Al was one of the few survivors of this group, however, as his climbing colleagues Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker and Al Rouse had passed away in climbing incidents. Joe and Peter went missing on the 17th of May 1982 and were last seen around 8250 meters on the North-Eastern Ridge of Mount Everest, where they attempted to traverse The Pinnacle's unclimbed side. Al Rouse was involved in the K2 disaster in August of 1986, where a group of climbers attempted to ascend without a permit or oxygen tanks and then tried to descend after conditions became unbearable and many became ill with altitude sickness. According to the group, Al was left behind as he was in agony and too weak to continue.

After conversing with John, Al Burgess commented that:

“People with John’s condition don’t survive out here; they’re not allowed to survive. He can certainly cope with the terrain, and I think he’s got the guts, by look of it, to keep going; the only thing against him is – you know – how long it’s going to take him.” (Burgess, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988).

Despite Al’s tentative take on John’s chances at making it to Kala Patthar, John simply said: “Nowt like a bit of encouragement” (Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988), and carried along his journey. While many climbers chose to stay in teashops or small village areas, John was determined to “rough it” (Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988) and camp out along the journey; this came with the advantage that John would not have to make it to more populated areas that would have diverted him on the path. While the climb was not always easy due to the ever-changing and unstable terrain and the constant worries of altitude sickness the higher the climb ascended, John felt confident in his walking abilities:

“[Although] I was aware of the altitude, I was able to walk at a really steady pace and stay within my body’s capabilities. This came as a great psychological uplift, as problems from the start could have really demoralised me. The climb to Namche Bazaar, there are obstacles still to come; perhaps I speak too soon, but conditions underfoot have been far better than I expected; however, the number of rickety bridges and places where the path is merely a ledge with a fearsome drop at the edge have been far greater than I anticipated. Danger is never far away.” (Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988).

John faced many trials along the first section of his walk: uneven ground, steep inclines, and busy passageways; however, the bridges would prove to be one of the biggest challenges:

“I made sure to harness up to it for safety’s sake. When I stepped out onto this bridge, the first few feet wont’[wasn’t] difficult at all, and then suddenly, this chasm opens up beneath ya [you], you can feel the bridge sway a bit, the fear really grips ya [you]. It came to one part where there’s a little bit of broken board; as it happens, it’s dead in the middle of the bridge on my right, so I had to deviate to the side a bit. Although these sides support looks fairly safe from a distance, they actually offer very little protection.” (Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988).

John ended up shuffling along the bridge, as it was not stable enough to walk. He would have to use alternative methods of climbing many times along his journey to Kala Patthar.  There were many treacherous areas along the walk where the terrain became too difficult, and he would use his arms to help pull himself along. However, loose rocks and debris would make this challenging. At other points, John would enlist the help of Yongdon to move his legs into better positions when John could not manoeuvre them himself. While not all the roads had much foot traffic, John did notice that the locals would watch him as he walked:

“In Kathmandu, nobody gave a second glance to any physical problems I might have, but on the trail, this has been exactly the opposite, every Sherpa, Sherpani, in fact, every person that we’ve seen, they all come out to have a look at me. In fact, some have a technique of standing there and staring for ages, then they go (John makes a noise that’s halfway between a tut and a kiss sound five times) really, I don’t know what it means, but one thing is I definitely feels there’s no malice whatsoever in it” (Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988).

Despite the many onlookers, John felt no worry or shame in continuing his climb, accepting help when needed and ensuring he pushed himself while maintaining his limits. As he climbed higher, the concerns of altitude sickness became more prominent, but John monitored himself carefully, and with perseverance, John could continue his journey and enjoy the more stable aspects of the climb. 

However, the higher altitudes began to slow John’s progress, and when he reached Lobuche around 14 to 16,000 ft, John realised that he would not be able to keep on schedule. He had a choice to bunker down for the night or accept a lift from other expedition porters, who would carry him through the evening to Gorak Shep, where he could continue his journey to Kala Patthar on foot and keep to his fifteen-day goal. John carefully rationalised his decision:

“My goal is getting nearer, to start with, the terrain is absolutely superb and isn’t difficult at all, but the sheer fact of altitude is knocking hell out of me. I am taking around six to ten steps, perhaps covering a few feet, then stop, rest, and regain my composure. We have to cross a massive Glacial Moraine, and time is running out. I realise that I’m not going to make it. I have two options: either I accept a lift by porters, or I hole up for the night and take my chance, but I need to make the best progress I absolutely can over this terrain by this evening, cause from my own psychological point of view I don’t want to be carried than is absolutely necessary. “

(Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988).

John’s decision to go with the porter was not an easy one to make. However, rather than seeing this as a defeat, John realised that the help he received was just another part of the journey. After another day’s walk, John, Yongdon, and Anbeauty reached Kala Patthar, and John had achieved his goal. Gazing up at Everest after a long and complicated journey, John put a Union Jack on one of his walking canes, a flag to mark his momentous achievement.

John’s journey to look upon Everest was motivated by many factors: his love for climbing, the inspiration of his fellow climbing peers, his self-determination to keep pushing past his limits, and his infatuation with Mount Everest and what it stood for. However, John’s journey to Everest was also a pilgrimage, one he successfully completed; a pilgrimage dedicated to those he has loved and lost and these who have inspired and supported him throughout his life:

“Life’s really a hard thing; you know you’ve got to be hard with yourself an’ to decide what you want out of life, and I decided that I wanted an awful lot out of life, uhh, not involving other people but involving myself and the only way to get this was to grab life by the horns and go for it. My walk to Everest, you know, is a pilgrimage to the people that I’ve watched, and I’ve followed on expeditions to Everest, and it also had great, signifi-significance to me, in respect of people like me’ [my] brother that have helped me, and there have been other people an’ [and] you know this is my way of in-keeping faith with what they do.” (Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988).

The Road Goes On 

Once John reached Everest, he said:

"It's [Everest] everything that I expected it's fulfilled, an ambition which I had an' [and] all the hard work, which I've thoroughly enjoyed, has all been worth it, and I'm here looking at Mount Everest, and nothing could be greater in the world for me. […] I uhh-got to Everest, and I just can't see anything after this is just the end of the road. Just take life as it comes now, see what's in store."  (Hawkridge, Everest the Hardest Way, 1988).

Now that John had climbed to Everest, a mountain many aspire to, he believed he had done. He had climbed the most revered mountain in the world, the climb to end all climbs. However, while John may have made peace with his condition and the slow decline of his health and mobility, he wasn't quite as ready to hang up his walking boots as he believed.

John would continue to climb even after his pilgrimage to the world's tallest mountain. 

John’s determined spirit and passion for nature would be an inspiration for many, but he had no such ambitions. In John’s own words: “I would much prefer to be of some inspiration to others in their quest to live a full and satisfying life rather than an example to be copied or followed.”  (Hawkridge, Sticks and Stones, 15)