Wanaka climber 'back in the hot seat'

A milestone summit of the world's eighth-highest mountain last month put Wanaka climber Guy Cotter "back in the hot seat" and has reaffirmed his love for extreme alpine environments after years of injury-induced downtime. He talks to Lucy Ibbotson.

Guy Cotter has now ticked off five of the world's 14 8000m peaks, including Mt Everest four times.

Most recently, on May 11, he climbed to the top of Manaslu (8183m), during an expedition that marked the 20-year anniversary of his earliest Everest summit.

It was also five years since he last guided in Nepal and by far his biggest challenge since recovering from two major knee surgeries in 2009 and 2010.

"I had missed being in amongst the action, so to actually come back to it and find that I still really enjoyed it and I'm still capable of doing it is a good thing," the 49-year-old owner of Wanaka-based high-altitude expedition guiding company Adventure Consultants said.

Although ultimately successful, the expedition was tougher than anticipated and patience proved a virtue.

Acclimitisation efforts were repeatedly thwarted by heavy snow that kept the climbing party confined to the lower part of the mountain for weeks.

The delays meant four of Mr Cotter's five clients had to return home before the summit attempt, leaving only him and an Australian climber to push on towards the peak with their Sherpa team.

The group eventually reached their goal after ascending more than 1200m from camp three to the summit in a 14-hour period in order to beat bad weather closing in on the mountain.

They, along with several other less-equipped climbers who piggybacked on their route that day, were the only ones to reach the summit of Manaslu this season.

"We had some world-class climbers around us on Manaslu who didn't summit, so it's a reminder that it's not necessarily about being the fastest, strongest people, it's actually about making the right decision and getting your strategies right," Mr Cotter said.

"It was really satisfying to use all my skills and motivation to hang in there and use the right time to go to the summit and get a success."

Mr Cotter has always maintained a sensible dose of conservatism in his climbing career.

"In this game, failure does have very severe consequences, so you have to be prepared to push right up to that point but be prepared to pull back before you get over it, because if you get over it too many times, you're definitely going to meet your end."

He has had his own share of close calls, although "it's sometimes hard to tell what a close call is ... I think I've been able to avoid a lot of issues by being prepared to fail".

As he experienced with Manaslu, carefully planned trips could still be thrown off course by a multitude of factors, including weather and snow conditions, group size and gear, so "ongoing calculation" of a situation was vital, he said.

"A lot of the stimulation [of mountaineering] is about the logistics and strategic side of things as opposed to just the climbing. The climbing's the easy part ... if you get any of the other aspects wrong ... you'll fail in the quest to reach the summit.

"Climbing's one of those activities that people probably perceive as being the realm of hardy, thickset, chiselled-chinned people, but a lot of it is a mental game.

"A lot of people who actually excel at it might not have been considered athletes in any other realm or even consider themselves athletes."

However, even the most mentally prepared climbers still battled with situations "you don't normally get faced with in the everyday world", like encountering dead and dying climbers at high altitudes and weighing up the likely outcomes of rescue efforts against the professional responsibility of enabling clients to summit.

"We're not there as a rescue service to pick up every person along the way, so we do have to be selective, but we definitely do have to be prepared to make some of those decisions in the course of our pursuit."

Growing up, Mr Cotter was exposed to the mountains by his father Ed (85), a highly-respected mountaineer from Christchurch, who climbed alongside Sir Edmund Hillary on the Nepalese expedition that led to Hillary's Everest selection.

Mt Rolleston, in Arthur's Pass, was the young Mr Cotter's first successful summit at just 11 years old.

Further explorations of the area were made by catching a railcar there at weekends for climbing or tramping trips.

After leaving school, he moved to Mt Cook - which he first climbed at age 17 - taking up a job with the Ministry of Works, before spending time in Australia and the United States climbing recreationally.

Returning to New Zealand in 1985, he accepted an invitation to move to Wanaka to be a heli-skiing guide with Paul Scaife, who owned Harris Mountains Heli-Ski. Mr Cotter began guiding climbing trips during the summer and then formed Mount Aspiring Guides with Mr Scaife and Nick Cradock in the late 1980s, before becoming an internationally certified mountain guide in 1990.

In 1992, when he was running the mountaineering programme for the New Zealand Army adventure training centre, Mr Cotter was asked by Adventure Consultants owners Rob Hall and Gary Ball to guide with them on Everest - the company's first expedition.

The group summited, but Mr Ball died the following year during a personal trip to Dhaulagiri (8167m ) with Mr Hall, after succumbing to the high altitude illness pulmonary oedema.

In 1993, during another successful Adventure Consultants expedition, Mr Cotter had to descend Everest after reaching a point just 200m below the summit, to help an exhausted team member back down.

On a third Everest trip in 1995, he got within 70m of the summit before making the "conservative but correct decision" to turn around, because of delays caused by deep snow, slow rope-fixing progress and slow group members.

In May 1996, he co-ordinated a rescue effort from Everest base camp after employer Rob Hall's climbing party got in to trouble in a severe storm. Mr Hall, fellow New Zealand guide Andy Harris, of Queenstown, and two Adventure Consultants clients were among eight climbers who lost their lives in the high-profile climbing tragedy which gained attention from the world's media and spawned many books.

The fall-out from the fateful expedition was considerable and Mr Cotter was left to do a lot of soul-searching over his future career path. He purchased "the remnants" of the company from Rob Hall's wife Jan Arnold and set about rebuilding it.

"I was faced with a dilemma about whether I started a new company or carried on with Adventure Consultants but I felt that in respect for my mentors Rob and Gary I would continue with the Adventure Consultants.

"We still had a supportive client base who wanted to continue, even given what had happened."

However, he - like the rest of the high-altitude guiding fraternity - knew positive changes to promote a higher level of safety in the industry were needed after the 1996 tragedy, which had highlighted shortcomings in the standard operating procedures of the time.

"We needed that history to evolve with new standards and a different approach ... to enable us to continue in what is obviously a very hazardous environment."

High-quality staff, strong Sherpa support, robust safety strategies, revised procedures for dealing with ailing or tired clients and companies sharing resources and information has ensured that continuation.

Today, Adventure Consultants runs about 50 international expeditions a year on every continent on the planet, a climbing school, and guided ascents of New Zealand's highest peaks.

Mr Cotter's career highlights have included climbing Makalu in 2001, doing the first ascent of Mt Slaughter in the Antarctic, climbing at destinations across the globe and having "amazing adventures with all sorts of amazing people", and experiencing the "joy" of summiting Everest for the first time.

He reached Everest's summit a second time in 1997 and again in 2006 and 2007, and has also climbed the Antarctic's tallest peak Vinson Massif, Mt Kilimanjaro and Europe's highest mountain Mt Elbrus, and skied to the South Pole.

Although Mr Cotter spends less time in the mountains now and more time running Adventure Consultants, he realises the importance of the "figurehead" of the company remaining active.

"I do still see myself more as a mountaineer than a businessman and I only do the business side of it as a practicality to enable everything else to happen as opposed to focusing on financial rewards, which I recognise as not all that life's all about.

"I get more of a buzz seeing people come back from a trip, be it the guides or the climbers or both ... having had some of the best experiences they've ever had in their life."

His rebuilt knees held up well on Manaslu, although the descent along rocky trails from Everest base camp, where he spent time after the summit, caused "a bit of pain".

"I'm never going to be half the man I was but that's OK, there's still enough left to drag myself up the odd climb."

Relocating the company's office to a new Wanaka premises is Mr Cotter's focus during the next six months, before conquering more mountains next year.

"I'd like to keep doing it as long as I physically can ... it doesn't have to be to a high level in the future.

"I don't expect to be as physically capable as I was in my 20s and 30s. I'm happy with that, I just love being in the mountains."

-lucy.ibbotson@odt.co.nz