Ian Parnell, Neil Gresham and Kenton Cool
Having seen Ian Parnell in partnership with Sir Ranulph Fiennes in Buxton last year it was a real pleasure to see him back on stage in his "Michael Parkinson" role; leading from behind as he gently nudged and directed the evening along its path, keeping the headline acts on track while appreciative that maybe not everyone in the audience was clued up on the technicalities of the events laid before them. As with the Fiennes talk he grew into the role throughout the show, to the point that by mid-way through the second part he was very much one half of a double act with Kenton.
Neil Gresham - Rock, ice and deep, deep water.
The evening comprised of two distinct halves, separated not just by an interval, which saw 10 lucky audience members pick up draw prizes from Gresham and Cool's brand sponsors Sherpa Adventure Gear but in their focus. While Kenton's post-interval section was centred around his 10th Everest summit Neil kicked things off with a potted life story before moving onto more specifics of what he's been up to over recent years.
From the moment his Dad introduced a young Neil Gresham to climbing it became an all-consuming passion. From scaling the main tower at school as a 15 year old to his choice of University, climbing became his first, second and third life purpose. Training on home made boards on cellar walls beneath the streets of Sheffield and living in a house of 13 climbers Gresham reminded a spellbound audience that as recently as the early 90s Sheffield, the unofficial centre of UK rock climbing, didn't have a single indoor climbing wall - hardly believable given the explosion of facilities over recent years. Without even "preaching" Gresham highlighted the importance of training, something relatively new when he started but very much a sign of the changing times and changing emphasis as he followed punishing regimes based on Soviet era science to the extent of taking "Testosterone Rest".
Attention moved from indoor training to the rock of the Peak District and North Wales, using training more specifically as he would spend a month honing each move on an 8b problem. Inspired by the legendary Johnny Dawes' exploits he moved from Sheffield to North Wales, swapping Millstone Edge (which had inspired him as a 15 year old) for the dark, forbidding, slate of Clogwyn Du'r Arddu and a repeat of the awe inspiring E9 Indian's Face - a climb that "passed in a blur but every move remains etched in my memory".
If he had to choose a single aspect of climbing for a "Desert Island (Discs)", however, Deep Water Soloing (DWS) would be Gresham's unchallenged number one; with its "interesting psychology" that "combines every aspect from bouldering to big cliffs". Accompanied by some inspiring footage Neil led his audience through exploits as far apart as Lundy Island and Oman, instilling those watching with a feel of the freedom unroped climbing with the ocean as a "backup". Taking the dedication built over formative years of training, training and more training to new heights he demonstrated just how far a top athlete goes in pursuit of ground breaking lines with his home made platform hanging from a Pembrokeshire cliff face and abseiling to sea level with a dinghy on his back.
Completing Part 1 the audience got an indication of the all round skill set of a man described in Ian Parnell's opening speech as amongst the top two all round climbers in the World as he moved onto the world of ice. Relatively short in comparison to the rock and DWS sections the audience still got treated to a selection of icy routes around the world, from meeting Tim Emmett crawling on hands and knees to the stunning Bad Gastein Wasserfälle in Austria, where the route ends in a multi-story hotel car park - complete with a lift back down to the bottom to do it all again!
If Part 1 left the audience with one single impression it would be one of persistance and dedication combined with training. When a man photographs every move on a DWS route just to replicate them for winter indoor training you know just what it takes to reach the lofty position Neil Gresham holds in climbing's hierarchy.
Kenton Cool - Everest and the Olympic Challenge.
Following a short interval which saw the pair meet a group of awestruck Scouts and draw prize winners for a selection of Sherpa Adventure Gear kit Neil Gresham gave way on stage to Kenton Cool and a change of emphasis. Where Gresham gave an account covering 15 years Cool's section was more focused on a single event - his 10th Everest summit in the Spring of 2012.
Gresham and Cool met a group of Scouts durig the interval
Where Gresham's talk was linear, taking a chronological line from teenage years to climbing icon, Kenton Cool announced from the start that his section may become somewhat "random" and commenced preceedings with an account of climbing Denali Diamond with fellow stage occupant Ian Parnell. Where in part 1 Parnell's task was one of clarifying the finer technicalities to the audience and gentle nudging in part 2 he took on a more informal role that at times developed into a couple of long term friends having a chat.
While the prime focus was Cool's 10th Everest summit and the story of the fulfilment of a pledge made to the Olympics founder in 1924 it was also a chance to hear what drives a man to climb the same mountain ten times. Having spent a combined 19 months of his life with Everest Base Camp as a home the audience was left in doubt that Cool loves this mountain. Answering the inevitable question before it was asked he described how the feeling of summitting for the 10th time was no less pleasurable or awe-inspiring....."It's undiluted, my joy of climbing Everest is as strong after 10 years as it was the first time".
To hear that it took 3 trips leading on Everest before he felt "validated as a high altitude guide" was revealing....as revealing as learning that when Baron Pierre de Coubertin launched the modern Olympics with the motto "Higher, Stronger, Faster" it really did mean higher, as in higher in terms of mountaineering and aeronautics not high jump and pole vault!
Equally revealing were his feelings on the 2012 Everest season, a season which saw the mountain hit the headlines as hundreds of climbers were pictured queing for hundreds of vertical metres high on the mountain as death tolls rose. Describing it as a "tricky season" he showed a photograph of the Hillary Step where in his own words "I've seen less people in Meadowhall" before declaring "This is not an adventure anymore......I don't really know what it is" "I love Everest but when you see pictures like that where do you go? People died that day....is it worth it "? The audience learned, too, how it's not the altitude or the difficulties that scare Kenton on Everest but the ladders.... "I hate them, I really, really hate them" before recalling a dog that appeared at EBC in 2007. The dog attached itself to the team and followed him to the ladders in the Khumbu Icefall, reaching half way across a crevasse before looking down, freezing, then launching itself towards the other side. The dog made it, in fact made it as far as the foot of the Lhotse Face and 7000m before a Shepa picked it up and brought it back down with it in his pack. The dog returned next year!
One thing that strike's you when Kenton Cool talks is his overwhelming passion for the mountains, but he's also extremely entertaining. The story of sharing a tent with Ian Parnell and Ian trying to pee in a bottle midway up a face was recounted with all the style and timing of a comic genius and will live long in the memory, as will the thought of the dog launching itself across the icefall crevasse before trotting off to the Lhotse Face.
Difficult as it is to say, however, there was one slightly off-putting aspect of the talk as he moved onto the issue of the UK's honours system; light heatedly (I think) questioning why Chris Bonington had got a knighthood for summitting Everest while he had nothing for 10 ascents before moving on to Alan Hinkes' O.B.E. While there's been dispute over Hinkes' Cho Oyu ascent I felt uneasy at the amount of time spent on discrediting him 7 years later and repeatedly stating he'd only climbed thirteen 8000m peaks. To be honest Kenton doesn't need to do this, he has more than enough success and achievement banked himself to command, entertain and recieve the respect of his audience entirely on his own merits without putting anyone else down. It was unnecessary and left me feeling a little uncomfortable, but it was just a single blip in an otherwise excellent evening and of course it could quite possibly just have been a sense of humour failure on my part.