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Doug Scott: Mountaineering Legend 1941-2020

21 December 20 words: Mark Patterson

Earlier this month Nottingham-born mountaineering legend Doug Scott died from Cancer. Mark Patterson, a journalist who once interviewed Doug, remembers the life of a man who conquered Everest and captured the imaginations of the British and Himalayans alike...

A view of the Everest and Nuptse mountains that Scott and Haston conquered

Of all the people whose names decorate Nottingham trams none went higher or had a longer physical reach than mountaineer Doug Scott. In 1975 Scott and Dougal Haston became the first Britons to reach the top of Everest, and did so by the notoriously difficult south west face route.

Having lingered at the peak to savour the view and their victory, the pair began their descent but were soon caught out by fading light and forced to spend a night in a hastily dug snow cave 100 metres below the summit. Neither had their sleeping bags nor any oxygen left in their cylinders. It was the highest bivouac in history. One or both of them should have died from cold or slow oxygen starvation. Yet somehow the pair survived the night and began their descent to safety the next morning. A frost-bitten finger was the worst of their injuries.

‘Very few climbers would have endured what they had,’ wrote Chris Bonington, the expedition leader. When news of Scott and Haston’s ascent was made public they were declared heroes by the British media. Indeed, from that point onwards, Doug Scott himself became one of the best known Himalayan climbers in the world.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, even if you didn’t own a pair of walking boots there were two mountaineers you had heard of: one was Scott, the other was Bonington, who recognised Scott as one of the strongest climbers of his generation in the series of massive Himalayan ‘siege’ expeditions that Bonington organised and led.

Scott’s physical strength, skill, drive and powers of endurance were perhaps belied by his disarming appearance. In his ‘70s heyday, with long hair and spectacles, he looked more like the late ‘60s John Lennon - a hippy look that actually reflected Scott’s own nascent Buddhism and spiritual feelings about the mountains. It was a connection that verged on the supernatural as Scott has described how, when ascending uncertainly, not knowing which direction to go in, he felt a presence over one shoulder, guiding him in the right direction.

Climbing mountains gave him a broad, wide perspective on life that allowed him to let the smaller details fall into place. Inevitably, back home, he would lose this perspective and to regain it he’d have to go back to the world’s high places. Yet Scott was also sharply aware of the reality of poverty in the Himalayan countries that hosted his various big climbs, a concern which led him to found Community Action Nepal, a charity he supported until his death from cancer in December 2020.

Nor did he ever forget his roots in Nottingham, which is why the first thing he asked me when I met him for a long interview was how Nottingham Rugby Club was getting on. Photographer Mark Lee had driven the two of us up to Cumbria where Scott was then living with his second wife Sharu. Although Scott’s hair had long gone grey by then he was still a physically impressive figure particularly as his arms seemed to be longer, and his hands bigger, than anybody else’s I’d ever met.

Doug Scott in 2015: Creative Commons image

I could imagine, as Scott talked easily about his fond memories of Nottingham rugby, and climbing the Black Rocks in Derbyshire with his mother’s washing line, that his arms had become unnaturally long because of the effort of hauling himself up rocks and ice faces. This was not of course possible, but if his arms were indeed longer than normal then I could see how it would be an advantage in the climbing business.

Scott was in fact humble and self-effacing about his reputation for dealing with the physical aspects of climbing, as you hoped he would be. The reputation for enduring hardship was built partly on the 1975 Everest episode and partly on the time he broke both legs during another Bonington expedition, to the Ogre in Pakistan in 1977. On this occasion Scott and Bonington had reached the top but on coming down Scott smashed into the rock face during an abseil, breaking both legs above the ankles. He screamed out in pain, shouted ‘I’ve broken my bloody legs’ and lowered himself to a ledge.

Bonington soon came down and said to him, ‘Don’t worry, you’re a long way from being dead.’ With help from Bonington and other colleagues Scott crawled and abseiled his way down the mountain. It took two days. When I asked him about this Scott shrugged and replied, ‘We’d all make an effort to get home, wouldn’t we?”

I’ve wondered since whether his reply was the kind of pat rehearsed response somebody in his position would give, since long after his climbing adventures were over Scott was a regular on the outdoor lecture circuit, giving talks on Everest, selling signed photographs for his charity, and answering lots of questions.

He was still working for his charity before he died, raising money by climbing the staircase in his home because the cancer had stolen most of his mobility. In better days a few years earlier he saw me looking at a large photograph of a mountain, golden in a dawn or sunset, which hung in his home. Did I know what it was? he asked. It was Everest, scene of Scott’s greatest success and killer of many other brave climbers including cameraman Nick Burke, who was part of Bonington’s second summit team in 1975, and failed to return.

The roll call of death among Scott’s circle also included Dougal Haston, who was killed by an avalanche while skiing in 1977; Nick Estcourt, also part of Bonington’s 1975 expedition, who was killed in an avalanche on K2 in 1978; and Pete Boardman, yet another from that group who, with Nick Tasker, was lost on Everest in 1982.

Through skill, tenacity and luck (Scott was nearly killed by the avalanche that swept Estcourt off K2) Scott survived his adventures and lived into old age. Along the way he inspired thousands of those who heard him speak, improved the lives of people in Nepal and pushed the limits of survival in hostile environments. For all this, having a tram named after him seems rather basic recognition in the city of his birth and youth.                   

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