This interview with Bob Kerr is one of an ongoing series I do each season with Everest climbers. Not the famous, sponsored ones who get plenty of publicity but the regular people, who often have full time jobs, full time families and climb for the love of the climb. I welcome suggestions for anyone climbing in 2013 I should interview. Now here’s Bob:
For many Everest climbers, the idea was set in their mind as a young child. Sometimes it came from a TV show, a newspaper article or a poster they saw in school. Then there are other motivations.
Bob Kerr, living in Scotland saw mountaineering as a way to overcome fear. To say he has embraced his plan with fever is an understatement as he has now climbed 6 of the 7 Summits.
Bob has been a member of the Assynt Mountain Rescue Team since December 1999. He tells everyone that he joined the mountain rescue team because “I like the values of mountain rescue – unpaid volunteers helping out those in need. I hope that if I am ever in need in the mountains then someone will give up some of their time to help me.”
A very active climber, Bob has completed the Scottish Munros (282 Scottish peaks over 3,000 feet) and scaled over 700 of the 1554 Marilyns (relative hills of Britain).
Please meet Bob Kerr:
Q: You set your sights on climbing Everest at age 12. What was your inspiration back then?
At around age 10, I had realised that I had a fear of heights. I started to work at overcoming this fear by starting to do some hillwalking and gradually pushing myself to address this issue. At age 12, I quietly set myself a goal in my mind to really overcome this irrational fear. The goal was to climb Scotland’s highest mountain Ben Nevis by the age of 16, to climb Mont Blanc by the age of 30 and to climb Mount Everest by the age of 50.
At the time I didn’t know how I would achieve these things or how I would find the finance or whether it was possible but what I did know is that surely by aiming to climb Everest it would help me overcome my fear of heights. So the goal was set and this has inspired me and driven me on to gradually achieve my objectives. I now have a healthy respect for heights and at age 35, I have plenty of time on my side to achieve my goal of Everest.
Q: Having climbed 6 of the 7 thus far, what was your most interesting climb?
This is a hard question. Each of the other continental high points have had various interesting aspects to them but if I had to choose between them all then my ascent of Carstensz Pyramid in 2008 probably has to win as the most interesting climb, so far, of the 7.
I was privileged to have trekked into Carstensz Pyramid from Ilaga with members of the Dani tribe and we had a brief delay on route following an encounter with the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka) who are fighting for an independent Papua. The trekking allowed us to get to experience the country properly and get to know the Dani tribe – this was much better than flying in by helicopter but a bit riskier. After 9 days in the country, we finally got to the mountain, the climbing was good and the tyrolean traverse at altitude on the summit ridge is probably the most exposed thing that I have ever done.
Q: Living in Scotland, you have many wonderful training opportunities. Do you have a favorite training area?
Scotland is an amazing country to live in and the training opportunities are vast. My favourite training area is the mountains of the far north of Scotland, partly because they are my local mountains but also because they are not too busy. I am often seen popping up my local Munro called Ben Hope (927m). This year I have ascended it in the dark after work and also wearing an elevation training mask set at it’s maximum so the summit of Ben Hope recently felt like 21,000’ for me.
Q: OK, can you tell us about that mask you are wearing in this picture?
As most people know, Scotland does not have the highest mountains in the world, although they can be very challenging. The highest mountain we have is Ben Nevis which is only 1,344 metres or 4,409 ft high. When training for an ascent of Everest, the training would be to spend lots of time at high altitude getting a work out.
Unfortunately, I have to hold down a full time job, so the closest that I can come to high altitude training between work periods is to use an Elevation mask. This mask is a training aid that provides significant resistance to breathing. The maximum setting with the Elevation respirator gives an effective height increase of 18,000 ft so allows the mountains of Scotland to be ascended as if they were Himalayan foothills. The mask makes an ascent of a mountain much harder work for your lungs but is great training for high altitude. I’d recommend others thinking about attempting high altitude peaks to consider trying this as a tool for training your lungs.
Q: Can you share your thoughts on selecting to climb from the North side?
I debated long and hard which side to attempt Everest from. There are pros and cons on both sides.
The main pros that I could see of going from the South side are that it is the warmer side of the mountain and that you can rapidly descend from the summit back to the South Col so that you minimise your time above 8000m in the death zone. However the main negative aspects that I saw were that it is the busier side of the mountain so there are more likely to be queues on the mountain and I didn’t fancy taking the gamble of passing through the Khumbu Icefall multiple times.
The main pros that I could see of going from the North side are that it is quieter so potentially less queues and overall I felt that there was less objective danger lower down on the route where you spend most of your time. It is also significantly cheaper to book onto an expedition on the north side. However the main disadvantages of the north side are that it is colder and that you spend more time above 8000m on your summit attempt. Also some of the hardest sections on the northeast ridge route are also above 8000m.
As I am a self-funded mountaineer (or is that self-debted?) then the opportunity to attempt my dream of climbing Everest was more achievable financially from the North side. So following careful deliberation of all of the risks, issues and financial aspects I opted for the North side. The North side also has lots of history associated with it and it will be good for me to imagine first hand what the mountain must have looked like for Mallory and Irvine during their early expedition to attempt Everest and who knows, I might even find their camera when I am up there.
Q: Any thoughts on if Mallory & Irvine summited?
I’d like to think that perhaps they did summit. It is nice that there is an air of mystery about who actually first stood on the summit of Everest. Once I have seen firsthand the route that Mallory and Irvine took then perhaps I will have a more informed thought on this subject. Perhaps they did but a truly successful summit means returning to tell the tale of adventure.
Q: You are a professional Radiation Protection Adviser. Any concerns about this issue above 8000m?
There are many hazards in the mountain environment and cosmic radiation exposure is not at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Above 8000m, it will not be main concern. In a paper that I presented at an international conference in 2012 I estimated that a typical ascent of Everest would result in a radiation dose of just over 1 milliSievert (mSv). This is defined as a ‘significant’ dose under the UK’s Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999.
The chance of 1 mSv of dose from an Everest expedition resulting in a fatal cancer is significantly less than the other more imminently dangerous hazards on Everest (e.g. AMS, hypoxia, falling, avalanches, etc) therefore I am not greatly concerned about the radiation dose that I will receive on Everest. However I am interested in what dose will I actually receive during an ascent of Everest and hence I will be making measurements of radiation dose rates and determining cumulative radiation exposure during the expedition using various technologies.
The intention is that this information will be fed into a future scientific paper that can help inform expedition companies of the magnitude of actual radiation hazards to their employees and to provide data to support the basis of future legislation.
Q: Last question, do you have a favorite piece of gear you use on all your climbs?
On all of my expeditions to date, I have taken a small Scottish saltire flag with me. This flag is looking a little battered now but it has been up 6 of the 7 summits plus the highest mountain in the arctic circle and Mont Blanc. It will be coming up Everest with me, hopefully all of the way to the top.
Q: Any other thoughts for us followers this year Bob?
Who knows what this Everest season will throw up at us all. My main thought, that I hope everyone else on the mountain will also have, is something that George Bakevich from the USA said to me, quoting Ed Viesturs “Going up is optional, coming down is mandatory.” Those words of advice are now strongly embedded in my mind and I’m sure that adherence to that advice will help me return safely from the mountain which both my fiancée Sarah and I refer to as “The Big Hill”.
Best of luck Bob on competing the 7 Summits. Bob is climbing with Adventure Peaks from the North side. You can follow Bob on his website.
Memories are Everything