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Seven summits and a funeral.

Ulf Carlsson and Denali.

Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of my completion of the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on every continent. I can never think of that day without remembering a face behind a veil and the chill of English rain.

On 29 May 1997, Swedish mountaineer Ulf Carlsson and I reached the summit of Denali in Alaska via a two-day ascent of its West Rib. The weather had been perfect for several days, but now it was deteriorating, denying us a view from the top. It started to snow. We’d left our packs at the foot of the final ridge and on the way down we had a moment of panic until we found them. Using a compass to guide us through the white-out, we located the edge of the plateau and followed it, the wind forcing us to walk with a wide gait as we staggered along the brink of an invisible abyss. Just before reaching a post marking the descent to the top camp on the West Buttress Route, we met two British climbers. They were going up.

Today, 29 May 2022, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of a mother’s son. I’ve thought of his mother every year since I saw her at his funeral, standing, fragile yet resolute, in the pouring rain as his coffin was lowered into the sodden soil of an Aldershot cemetery. Someone held an umbrella over her. Beneath her black hat and through her water-streaked veil, her face seemed as pale and unmoving as marble; perhaps, as a military mother, she’d been prepared for this.

A young soldier also stood among the mourners. His face was bruised from a recent battering, and one of his legs was in plaster. Propped up by crutches, he failed to disguise his pain, although whether from his injuries or from survivor’s guilt it was impossible to tell. After their fall, he’d found Mark lying on the snow slope with the rope caught around his neck.

The guard of honour fired its three-shot salute, and the rain poured even harder, smacking loudly on hats and umbrellas, rattling the new leaves of early summer. Without a coat, I was soaked to the skin. But I didn’t care about my suit. All I cared about was the conversation I’d had with Mark and his friend when we crossed paths on North America’s highest mountain two weeks before.

On the summit of Denali. I was the 40th person to complete the Seven Summits.

We could hardly hear each other beneath the rip and tear of the wind. Shouting through the airborne grains of snow the two young soldiers seemed happy to see us. They congratulated us on our climb, and we shook hands. It was late afternoon and conditions were getting worse, but they were upbeat, their eyes alight with summit fever, and they were determined to press on upwards. Ulf and I wished them good luck when we should have said something else.

In the grief-stricken midst of Mark’s mourners two weeks later, I was cold again: cold from the rain pelting my head, cold from the sodden shirt clinging to my chest, cold from the knowledge that a few words of persuasion might have prevented all this. Drenched in regret, I watched in guilty silence as Mark's mother said goodbye to her son.


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