Interview by Vertebrate Publishing, Sheffield England
- Friday 23 October 2020
In Nine Lives, elite mountaineer Robert Mads Anderson traces the story of Everest from the nationally supported expeditions of the 1980s to the commercially guided expeditions of today. The book also chronicles his personal account of the world’s highest mountain and explores what truly drives a human being to the greatest of heights. We caught up with Robert to find out more about his experiences of writing the book and tackling Everest.
What inspired you to write Nine Lives?
When I set off for my ninth expedition to Everest, Sandy Wylie – a good friend and Scottish stockbroker (also a dangerous profession perhaps) – said if I finally climbed Everest, it would be my ninth life. So the idea of a book with that title was born there. It naturally evolved into the highlights and memorable moments from my near-death experiences on Everest. Everest is a metaphor for life, and perhaps sometimes death. The higher you climb the closer together those two become.
You are the author of three other books, including Seven Summits Solo and To Everest via Antarctica. Was the experience of writing Nine Lives different to writing your other books?
Nine Lives was a very different book from my other books. I had the first few chapters written and put them on my blog, Explore7summits. Suddenly I saw people who clicked on the chapters were reading for 20-25 minutes with virtually nobody dropping off. That is pretty unheard of for the web. I have people from over seventy countries reading my work online, and like many audiences, on their mobile. To take the time to read an entire chapter on their phone means it must be good writing.
I also had an email from Dr Peter Hackett – someone who I had known for many years and is the world’s foremost high-altitude research doctor. He has also climbed Everest, soloing up from the South Col to the summit. He said, ‘I must say, this is some of the best writing I have enjoyed – ever! And not just mountaineering literature. Bravo!’Peter is both a man of few words and someone I’ve had a long respect for – so having that from him inspired me to keep writing, to get the rest of the story out there.
I’m a lifelong writer and have written everything from TV commercials, to documentaries, to magazine articles, to my four books. I like writing about adventures, but I don’t want to only write for, or have, a mountaineering audience. I want to write for people curious about life and the adventures and emotions we share in the heights. Everest in particular is more than a mountain. It is symbolic of human exploration, adventure, literally striving for the heights and in the end, it always seems, some good drama.
What is the significance of the book’s title?
The title helped guide my writing – the book has little about travel, planning, treks and logistics, unless it builds on the story of life-threatening or life-changing moments. I wanted to strip away the extraneous. Consequently, the book may suffer from being self-centred, but I think anyone who climbs Everest is so focused and driven, that the emphasis on self is inevitable. And perhaps there are some truisms in that focus as well. I had no desire to make the story melodramatic – but neither did I want to shrink from defining the moments as close to what they really felt like as possible. Everest is a very dangerous place.
Nine Lives recounts the life-defining moments on each of your expeditions to Everest (including near-death experiences). What was it like writing about these moments?
To define a moment well, it needs to be relived in the imagination. So writing up the moments is exhausting, and even more so in editing and reliving them again and again to hone the story. I was reminded as I wrote the book, perhaps nine times, I am ‘bloody lucky to be alive’, as one of my reviewers, Daryl Hughes, often said.
When you were doing research on Everest’s internationally recognised climbers, were there any stories that you found particularly interesting?
Everyone in Nine Lives I knew personally, so my research was more about writing and then sending it along for review – I wanted to make sure the story, through mine, was consistent with others memories. High altitude has proven to be a place where memories are formed very individually. Our ascent of the Kangshung Face already has two books about it, from Stephen Venables and Ed Webster. I wanted to make sure this added to that story, so all three of my teammates on that climb, including Paul Teare, read over those chapters.
I also sent along my summit chapter to David Hamilton, Fred Ziel and Sibusisu Vilane to read and provide input from our experience climbing together. I think the times I’ve been fortunate to share with Chris Bonington over the years have all been very memorable. From our first meeting in Base Camp, to his carrying our bags through Lhasa for us when we had frostbite, to stomping the streets of New York together when he was over for a lecture. He has been an ever-evolving source of inspiration on how to live a good life in the mountains, and then sharing that story with others.
Aside from being the world’s highest mountain, what is it about Everest that drives people to want to tackle it?
There are so few absolutes in life. Everest is an undisputed absolute – the tallest point on Earth. No matter the rest of your life, reaching the top provides a moment of achievement that is unequalled for climbers.
Do you think the book will inspire its readers to get involved in mountaineering (and to possibly even tackle Everest)?
If anything, I hope it will make most people think twice about it. That just doesn’t seem to be the case however.
You have thirty-two pages of great Everest photos. Are they all your own?
I’d love to have taken all those photos – and it was great going back over the years and finding the best ones. So while many of the photos I took myself, fortunately, I had access to some taken by my climbing partners. Ed Webster is an outstanding photographer and took the time to dig back into his archives and get me new high-res digital files. Then Stephen Venables added to this mix. And our climbing photographer Joseph Blackburn has always helped all of us out with amazing photos from the expedition.
On my final summit climb with David Hamilton and Sibusisu Vilane my camera froze, and David shared his full library of photographs – certainly great to have those from up high. Finally, I had a working camera on my second climb to the top and, knowing the route, took a host of photos all the way across that fantastic summit ridge to the top.
You have a long history of mountaineering and have gained experience in doing both solo and team expeditions. Which do you prefer?
I enjoy both climbing with others and soloing – for different reasons. You will never have stronger relationships, moments of friendship and greater moments than sharing a good climb with a good team and fellow climbers. If one wants a pure relationship with the rocks or a mountain, you go alone. And the penalties for not making the right decisions soloing are absolute, so it greatly intensifies the experience and the personal satisfaction. There is nothing more pure and joyful than a good solo climb.
What is it like to stand at the top of the world?
Perhaps the best feeling in the world. A moment of pure joy and completeness like no other. And not a bad view either.