Kenton Cool: 'When I come home my wife says her most difficult child has returned'
He's conquered Everest 11 times, despite life-changing injuries, but mountaineering maestro Kenton Cool tells Hannah Stephenson why being a devoted family man can sometimes be the biggest challenge of all
Tough, muscular and chisel-jawed, Kenton Cool certainly has the face for television - you can imagine this Everest-conquering macho man taking on fantastic challenges in the face of adversity.
But, while he's done a little broadcasting, he laughs at the suggestion that he could be dubbed the "Bear Grylls of the mountain", even though he's conquered Everest 11 times - a European record - and climbed with the great and the good, including guiding Sir Ranulph Fiennes to the world's highest peak.
"I was wondering when Bear's name was going to pop up," says the 42-year-old, chuckling. "Whatever we think about Bear, he's done a brilliant job of encouraging the next generation into adventure and I think that's hugely commendable."
Sir Ranulph describes Cool as "the best alpine climber of his generation", a quote emblazoned on the cover of his memoir, One Man's Everest, which charts Cool's various amazing journeys over the mountains of Nepal, as well as expeditions in Alaska, France and India.
He has dabbled in broadcasting, reporting live from the mountain face of the Eiger with Fiennes in 2007, as well as capturing high-altitude footage for a BBC Everest documentary, and played a stunt-double on several mountaineering films.
"I quite enjoy TV work, it is interesting and I like challenging myself, but the only reason I'd do something like that is if I was trying to inspire the next generation. I'm a true believer that to be outdoors is the greatest classroom. Unfortunately, I don't believe the next generation appreciates that.
"I certainly don't see a career on TV. I don't own a TV for a start. I never have. I don't know where people find time to watch it."
Cool by name and nature, not much fazes him when climbing. He's seen people die on the mountain, and once spent all night trying to save the life of an injured climber on Everest, performing CPR for more than an hour before realising the man had died. That remains one of his most traumatic experiences.
Yet his own career could have easily been cut short when, at 22, Cool fell 14ft from a rock face in North Wales, shattering both heels.
"It was June 29, 1996," he recalls. "It's etched on my memory." Doctors initially said he was never going to climb again.
"I felt abject terror once I'd been told the extent of my injuries. I'd been in denial for about a week in hospital in Wales, then a consultant from just outside London broke the news in a barbaric manner.
"I couldn't take in the brutality of what he was saying. My whole life revolved around climbing. I had found my purpose in life, my passion," he says.
"As it began to sink in, I got really angry that this man had the audacity to pull my life away from underneath my feet. Once I'd pulled myself together and wiped the tears away, I became so determined to prove him wrong. I suppose I should be thanking him.
"Once I get the bit between my teeth I become very tenacious. I'm like a pit bull, I don't let go, and that determination gave me the drive."
He was in a wheelchair for three months. The pain was unbearable, but after numerous operations, his heels were built up with surgical steel, which he still hopes might eventually be removed.
"I still sometimes use a stick when I'm walking in the mountains. It's still an issue today. My heels hurt constantly, especially when I'm wearing smart shoes. You see me in flip-flops and trainers a lot because they're slightly cushioned."
While Everest has become increasingly popular with people seeking new thrills, not everyone is as prepared for the risks as they should be, he continues.
"You have to be really careful. Sometimes people don't have an understanding of the risks involved. They think Everest is an adventure playground, which it is, but it's a very dangerous playground. There's no safety net. No one's going to come and pluck you off the mountainside at 8,000 metres."
Having a wife and two young children at home in Gloucester has made him review his priorities.
"I'd be deluding myself if I said it hadn't," he reflects. "Now that there's Jazz (his wife), and Saffron and Willoughby (their children, aged five and three), I'd have to be a very selfish individual if I still thought just about me. When I go with paying clients, I have a duty of care and I'm more cautious, but when you go to the mountain with friends, your level of risk acceptance is potentially a bit higher. That's been altered by getting married and having children."
Jazz, whom he met in a bar in Chamonix on a ski holiday, doesn't climb.
"However, she has done a round-the-world yacht race, so she gets the adventure thing and she's incredibly supportive," notes Cool. "There's no way I could do what I do without the support of the family. She's my biggest critic, my biggest fan and my biggest supporter."
He spends nearly half the year away, with Jazz keeping things ticking over at home.
"They become the three amigos and Jazz says they get on very happily without me, which kind of hurts," Cool jokes.
"I do get homesick but I am able to shut things off. My wife sometimes calls me an emotional retard. I just think I'm better at compartmentalising my emotions. When I return home after a spell away, Jazz says her third and most difficult child has come home."
Cool's love of the great outdoors began when he was growing up in rural Buckinghamshire, with terrific access to fields, woods and farmland nearby. He joined the Scouts and at 15 conquered his first mountain in Snowdonia, and was soon tackling harder climbs with pals in the French Alps.
"In the mountains, I feel at one with everything. It puts a really good perspective on life and what's important. The accountant may be knocking at my door wanting my VAT returns, and it's a big deal for him, but when you get in the mountains all that fiddle-faddle gets stripped bare and the things which truly matter become important."
One Man's Everest by Kenton Cool is out now, Preface, £20