By Sam Huby
Doug Scott, who has died from cerebral lymphoma, was widely regarded as one of the world’s leading high altitude mountaineers and big wall climbers.
His place in the pantheon was secured at 6pm on 24th September 1975 when Scott and Dougal Haston became the first climbers to ascend Mt Everest via one of its major faces, and incidentally the first Britons to set foot on the world’s highest point. A team of 18 plus 33 climbing sherpas, multitudinous porters, drivers and liaison officers, a BBC film crew and a Sunday Times journalist, not to mention 24 tonnes of equipment, formed the body of the pyramid of which Haston and Scott were the apex. The expedition made household names of the two climbers and the expedition leader, one Christian Bonington. Nearly half a century later with more than 40 expeditions to the greater ranges and 30 odd first ascents to his credit, ‘Everest the Hard Way’ was still the default publicity headline for Scott’s numerous lectures and public speaking engagements.
Yet the ‘75 expedition marked the culmination of the era of big military style expeditions laying siege to the mountains. The rest of Scott’s many notable ascents were completed in a pure alpine style. The man himself attributed this development to an unplanned bivouac without oxygen or sleeping bags (and remarkably without frostbite) 100m below the summit, the highest ever. As he said later, the experience "really widened the range of how and what I would climb in the future”. He never used bottled oxygen again. His climbing career maps almost exactly onto what was arguably the second golden age of British alpinism and its advances in technique, ethical standards and difficulty. In 2011 his contribution was recognised with international mountaineering’s highest honour, the Piolet D’Or Lifetime Achievement Award. The citation described his climbing and personal style as ‘visionary’. From Baffin Island to Tierra del Fuego, and most especially in the Himalaya, he was a leading advocate and pioneer of lightweight alpine style ascents.
This wasn’t his only, or even his most important, legacy. After years of projects and fundraising to improve the condition of the populations of the areas where he climbed, he set up Community Action Nepal in 1991 to provide direct support to schools, healthcare and community projects in a neglected and often turbulent region. Thirty years on CAN has delivered over 45 successful projects in Nepal including 20 health posts and 15 schools. Until the end Scott’s public appearances and lecture tours continued to raise vital funds for the organisation. Indeed only a few months ago he was leading CANEPAL’s biggest social media campaign to date, encouraging the public to ascend the height of Everest by climbing their own stairs. Despite his illness Scott made his own indoor climb wearing the down suit he wore on the summit in 1975, describing the experience as “hellish”.
Scott’s death at a ripe age surrounded by friends and family gives the lie to the old saw that there are old climbers and bold climbers but no old, bold climbers. Not to say the toll hasn’t been heavy, three of the leading members of the ‘75 expedition died in the mountains within a few years (Mick Burke within days on a subsequent summit push, Nick Estcourt and Haston before the turn of the decade). Other climbing partners, including such luminaries as Al Rouse, Ian Clough, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker were similarly lost. Yet Scott’s age is a matter of record and even a cursory glance at his list of ascents can leave no doubt as to his boldness. He came close of course. Second only to the Everest ascent, the newspapers’ favourite Scott story is that of his descent of the Ogre with two broken legs after the first successful winter ascent. He is survived by a handful of legends from that era including SW Face veterans Tut Braithwaite and the evergreen Bonington. Yet with his demise, despite the sometimes stunning achievements of subsequent generations, it feels as though we are passing a little further out of an age of giants.