Guy Cotter is the director of New Zealand based guide service Adventure Consultants. A 30 year veteran of leading mountaineering expeditions and climbing all over the globe, Guy has climbed the ‘Seven Summits’ including 4 climbs to the top of Mt. Everest. Fourteen years after his first Everest summit climb he completed his Seven Summits quest by climbing Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Denali, Kosciusko, and the Cartensz Pyramid all in 2005. Recently, he has been leading ski trips to the South Pole and Antarctic Peninsula. Guy will be presenting a show on his worldwide travels on Feb. 16th at 6pm at the Wildflower Lounge at Snowbird as part of the Utah Adventure Journal Speaker Series.
-Your favorite place to climb/ ski/ trek?
There are so many amazing places in the world to be in the mountains that I don’t have a favourite place but I do always like to discover new places and try to work out how best to get around the terrain. I’m not a snob when it comes to terrain, it doesn’t have to be super gnarly steep or the deepest snow or the absolute highest or most extreme, I’ll take any terrain and enjoy what it has to offer (but deep, steep, high and gnarly are all good when you get it!)
-Most memorable climb?
Most memorable climb was Makalu, the summit day unfolded in such a way that the summit was elusive all the way until the last few feet, then I knew I’d make it.
Most spectacular was waking up in the middle of the night at Gasherbrum basecamp in Pakistan to see an incredibly large avalanche come off a nearby peak down-valley from camp. When it hammered into the valley floor it started its own electrical storm that flashed on and off for about a minute with pops and flares as the snow cloud billowed out across the valley floor. If it had come down in the daytime I wouldn’t have seen it.
-What is the most dangerous situation you’ve experienced in the mountains?
There have been a few dangerous situations to deal with and I really think the most hazardous are the ones I didn’t recognize and to this day may not have been aware of how close I was… One that springs to mind was in Antarctica when I went a looong way into a big crevasse as we were ski touring out after completing a first ascent of a peak called Mt Slaughter (loved the name so thought we’d better climb it!). We were descending in perfect weather when an inversion layer developed that we had to navigate through as it was complete white out. We were roped up and using a GPS to navigate. I was out front being given directions, left or right, by my partner behind. We had about 70’ of rope between us as we were towing sleds and knew there were some big slots in the area. All of a sudden the floor dropped out and I was free falling – then gradually stopped. But then I was flying again thinking my mate was coming in to-but then I stopped again dangling in this huge hole. I climbed out about 60’ to the crevasse lip. I’d lost a bit of gear but was essentially unhurt, a lucky escape.
– You’ve climbed Everest 4 times now. What keeps you coming back to the highest peaks in the world?
I’ve been on Everest as a guide. Initially I was more interested in technical climbing but found I enjoyed the challenges of high altitude climbing and helping other people achieve their goals. A lot of guiding is about understanding how people operate and then giving them the knowledge they need to go from where they are now, to where they need to be to be able to climb at altitude safely. I enjoy the challenge and to see the transformation of people along the way. It’s often not apparent at the start of an expedition who will do well and who will not. There’s a lot more to it than being fit and strong, the best athletes sometimes fail because they are in too much of a hurry and can’t relax when they need to recover.
-Everest expeditions have been booming in recent years, as well as attempts of the Seven Summits. How do you see these mountains and routes dealing with the increased traffic?
I think it’s a little self-regulating. My personal belief is that we should have smaller groups and minimize our social and physical impacts. There are quite a few well known operators out there who will book as many people as they can onto an Everest expedition. The sad fact is that a lot of commercial operators use a model than is primarily about making money and that requires large teams and the use of Sherpas as guides. In my view this puts the Sherpas in compromising situations and overruns the mountain with lesser skilled climbers with very little experience at altitude. These expeditions have a very high rate of frostbite and other issues as a result. I do find it difficult to understand why people will skimp when there is so much at stake – but that’s human nature!
I think Everest has seen its greatest numbers and the numbers seem to be steady these days. Everest gets the focus because there are so few summit days in a year whereas other mountains have a longer summit period and that spreads people out more.
-What have you not done as far as climbing or expeditions that you’d like to do in the future?
As long as my body holds up I’ll keep going into the mountains. It’s more about being in the mountains than specific objectives I want to tick off. I’m off to Nepal this year to attempt Manaslu, another of the 8k peaks. I would keep doing several expeditions a year if I could get the time as well as cragging which I still enjoy although I’m not climbing as well as I once did but I’m comfortable with that.
-How has the climbing culture on Everest changed since the tragic death of Rob Hall in 1996?
The passing of Rob Hall and Scott Fisher was a defining time in the evolution of expedition guiding. My belief is that pioneers often push the barriers, sometimes with dramatic or tragic results, and the lessons learned forge the development of the industry or activity from then on. These days the safety record on Everest is much higher because you have a lot of collective knowledge and systems that work. Success on expeditions is primarily about management. It doesn’t matter whether you’re solo or in a large team, you have to know what you are capable of and understand the environment you are in and use the right systems and techniques for the task at hand. What I really like about running expeditions is that you need to be flexible in your planning so you can change the game plan at a moment’s notice. If you’re too locked into your planning you’ll not be able to cope when the situation changes- which it always does on a mountain.
-It’s a dangerous and deadly business climbing high peaks. How do you mitigate the risk?
I believe it’s about having the most experienced and qualified people you can get for the job and ensure a good ratio of support for each expedition. The best guides utilize historical events to alert them as to when things are beginning to go wrong as they will recognize the initial warning signs and have a game plan specifically to address that issue. That game plan may mean descent which may mean upsetting people who have their sights set on the goal but a good guide can shoulder that. Team members must be appropriately experienced for the task. People are usually not aware of the capability of the guides and guiding operation they are with until things begin to go wrong and they see strong effective leadership. Most of our clients are intelligent people who are managers themselves and the last thing they want to see is poor ineffective leadership.
-Best/worst thing about being a guide?
Best thing is getting to go lots of amazing places and get to know some amazing people. Worst is when you lose close friends.
-What do you see as the future of the guiding business, and Adventure Consultants?
Guiding will continue along the pathway it is on. Many people come to us to do the likes of the 7 summits and when that’s been completed they move on to another activity. I think it’s cool that people are getting as much experience out of life that they can and even though it’s not my own approach, I appreciate that people are all different and just because they go about things differently doesn’t mean their approach is any less valid than my own! As people get less time to become accomplished expedition organisers and leaders themselves it will make sense to join guided and commercially led teams to the bigger peaks. I think more people are discovering climbing these days and know it’s something special, but in reality most people are not robust enough to get seriously involved and it will remain the domain of oddballs like us to enjoy the great peaks of the world!
-What are your connections to Utah?
I had the pleasure to work with Lori Adamski-Peek on some photo shoots she was doing for GAP/Athleta in New Zealand. Her tales of the good snow and wonderful resorts were too difficult to ignore so I’ve come out with my partner Suze for some turns and a look around the region. Of course we’re also keen to catch up with (local guide) Anna Keeling who I’ve known since I was at school and get out with her for some of that legendary touring you have around these parts.