Belfast architect Dawson Stelfox: the first Irish man to climb Everest 20 years ago

In an extraordinary candid interview Dawson Stelfox tells Una Brankin about the gruelling conditions he endured on his epic ascent of Everest

Dawson Stelfox takes a path to the summit of Everest
Dawson Stelfox traversing towards the summit of Everest at approximately 8,680 metres. Photo: Frank Nugent
ALBERT CLOCK

The rock steepens and you see no way up. Then instinct kicks in and you fight your way through the crux. A barrier is broken, confidence gained. The essence of climbing is in that act.'

These are the words of Dawson Stelfox whose most frightening moment of his historic Mount Everest expedition in 1993 came near the bottom of the famous Himalayan peak.

Eerily, it was an out-of-body experience in the snow and thick cloud that saved the life of the affable Belfast-born architect.

"I was lost – I'd come down too far on my own and I was very tired," he recalls now, almost 20 years on, from his office in Belfast's Gasworks. "I was like a little boy, not sure of where to go, when I suddenly I got this bird's eye view of my location. I was looking down on myself and I could see I was too low down and how to get back."

He pauses, remembering.

"I can't explain that – how does the mind do that? Other climbers have reported similar out-of-body experiences in extreme conditions. Of course it could be attributed to a Guardian Angel or someone looking after you from above. I tend to think of it as something extraordinary the mind can do."

Had the fear made him pray for help?

"Not in the conventional, formal sense ... but I was very much aware of the strength and over-view I received coming from somewhere in my mind. I do believe in the wonders of creation. I'm open minded about what or who is behind creation – I respect it and I love it; I have a deep respect for nature and its power and majesty, if you will."

At 35, Stelfox became the first Irish man to reach the summit of Mount Everest on May 2 1993, a day that also made history in another way. Back home that afternoon Mary Robinson was shaking hands with the Queen, the first Irish president to do so with a reigning British monarch.

Co-incidentally, the news of Sir Edmund Hillary's ascent to the top of the famous Himalayan peak came on the same day as the coronation of the Queen on June 2, 1953.

Stelfox marked his own historic day 20 years ago by placing an expedition pennant rather than a Union Jack or a Tricolour at the apex of the summit.

"There's a nice historical symmetry with the two events," says Stelfox from his office in Belfast's Gasworks. "Both in the Irish and the British sense. I carry a passport for both Britain and Ireland, and we were an all-Ireland team. Things were still quite political back then and it was an Irish expedition from a geological point of view, but we didn't want to use one flag or the other. So down went the pennant instead."

Stelfox's awe-inspiring story is told in the newly published Everest Calling by Lorna Siggins, an Irish journalist who accompanied the eight-man team on the climb. They took the more difficult route to the forbidding summit from the north-eastern side, retracing the steps of Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine and George Mallory, who disappeared mysteriously on the mountain in 1945. Mallory's bones were found on the north-east ridge in May 1999, yielding no clues to his death.

Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man ever to conquer Everest, had to take the less treacherous south side for political reasons; westerners weren't allowed into Tibet in the early 1950s.

Conditions on the 1993 expedition were difficult: one climber said walking in the snow was like wading through nitric acid. Dermot Somers, who also worked on the Everest Calling book, described the experience of sleeping on the mountain: "You're buried in a tight little tomb with the relentless, indifferent, couldn't-care-less snow banking up against it; at first it presses in the sides like a tightening ribcage, you whack the fabric and the dark shadow slides back, only to pile deeper, wider, denser. Gradually it lies against the domed curve of the roof, blocks the phantom light, and weighs down on the lungs."

I tell Stelfox it sounds like a frozen nightmare and wonder if he ever felt like jacking it in.

"All the time," he admits, amused. "You feel like giving up all the time when you're ascending. Big mountains are uncomfortable places. You get lots of bad weather and there's lots of waiting around and feeling frustrated. You have to have patience, or stubbornness, more to the point, and you have to plot your course to be in the right place at the right time."

What set the Stelfox team apart when they encountered bad conditions was their unselfish sacrifice of individual opportunity in order to support the success of the overall expedition. They believed the way you climbed was more important than getting there at all costs. There were no serious injuries incurred on the climb, just a bit of frost nip and altitude sickness. Avalanches were inevitable.

"After snowfalls there are always significant fall-offs," says Stelfox, matter-of-fact. "You have to know exactly where to be in advance. We got caught up in one at the end when we were coming off the mountain, when a lot of snow fell on the lower slopes but at that stage we had fixed ropes in place as a safety measure and we were clipped onto them but we were embedded in hard snow and it was still quite scary.

"The biggest problem though is wind. They're really quite high up there and you don't know whether your tent will survive them at times. You can be awake all night holding onto the tent. You're not in control; the elements are and you're just hanging on.

"Twenty years ago it was very difficult to predict the weather exactly. We had a satellite link to the Met Office and occasionally got general information, not very specific. You have to prepare and adjust to the extreme climate on a mountain that big and you have to get the timing right, so you get there before the monsoons in June."

Himalayan climbing has always been marked by extremes of tragedy and triumph: in May 2011, father-of-three John Delaney became the first Irish person to die on Everest. Death is a distinct possibility on this giant rock, where oxygen deprivation means the body and brain are literally dying the higher the climber goes and the longer he stays there.

Knowing the risks at first hand, wasn't his wife Margaret, a fellow climber, up the walls with worry?

"There's a very real fear of death," says Stelfox. It's a serious place and a very hostile environment. You can take precautions but there will always be deaths. Margaret was worried, yes, but understood the lure of the Everest. We met climbing.

"I had practically no contact with her at the time. We had a satellite phone the size of a suitcase with an aerial stuck on it at base camp and we had radios on the mountain, and we'd some communications with RTE and Downtown Radio, for occasional reports. But it wasn't like now, when you can stand on a summit and talk over your mobile phone."

He was gone for three months in total for the Everest expedition, one month travelling into the Himalayas, two months setting up camps and acclimatising and going up and down, and one week climb to the summit.

So no home cooking or take-aways for three whole months. What did he live on up there?

"You eat less the higher you go – your body loses the ability to process certain things like chocolate – you could go off that completely because you can't process the fat. We stuck to basic carbohydrates and soup, and Complan, would you believe it, the carb drink. And we ate a lot of Bewleys fruit cake. That stayed quite good. You lose the taste for a lot of things so stuff like tinned mackerel was a real treat because of the intense flavour."

No nips of brandy?

"Absolutely not! Not until we got back anyway and were celebrating. Alcohol and altitude don't mix well."

Now 55 and living in Lambeg, Stelfox has plenty of wear and tear injuries from his mountaineering but nothing serious enough to stop him climbing and hill running, both for fun and for fund-raising. He has no desire to climb Everest again but is planning to go to the Alps in the summer with his sons Rowan (19) and Aran (17), who is very active at Royal Belfast Academical Institution's mountaineering club, and to Nepal with Margaret in October. He scales smaller peaks regularly and loved 'ice climbing' in the Mournes during the recent heavy snowfall.

The unusual Stelfox name comes either from French Normandy or Scandinavia – it translates as 'short sword' in Danish. In another significant co-incidence for this record-breaker, his grandfather came from Cheshire to take up a job in the gasworks in Belfast in 1854. Stelfox has an office there – he is also one of the leading conservation architects in Ireland.

He led the restoration work on Parliament Buildings at Stormont after the fire there in 1995 and adapted the Commons Chamber for the Assembly. As as well as high profile projects in the City Hall, Ulster Hall and Queen's University's Great Hall, he has worked on the restoration of the Nomadic ship (now in the Hamilton dry dock in Belfast), built by Harland and Wolff at the same time as the Titanic, to carry first and second class passengers out from Cherbourg to the big liners.

He's currently restoring the interiors – they were originally designed to the same standards of the Titanic – for the opening to the public by June. He's also busy with plans to restore the old library at Queen's.

The rescue of the Albert Memorial Clock was a career highlight for the architect and stone restoration expert. Almost as soon as it was built between 1865 and 1870, the 141 foot high clock tower – originally built on mud and out of soft Scrabo stone – began to lean.

By 2000 the problem was so serious that the future of Belfast's then most famous landmark was under threat.

"The feedback we got from the Albert Clock restoration in particular was huge. Like a lot of buildings when they're dirty and run down, worn out from industrial pollution or even derelict, nobody notices them at all. But once they're repaired and cleaned and put to new use, then people actually see how wonderful they are.

"I still smile when I go past the clock because it looks so well. It's so dramatic. There's no comparison to how it was before we cleaned and repaired it. Back in 1870, when it was one of the tallest buildings in the city, it must have been incredibly dramatic.

"The pleasure in working on historic buildings is giving them a new lease of life and seeing new generations enjoy them, such as the new public cafe we incorporated in the City Hall, which breaks down the barriers of such an imposing building."

Satisfying work, but Stelfox's enduring passion – which began with rock climbing and trekking in Belvoir Park as a daredevil child – is for mountaineering. It must be hard to beat the experience of standing on top of the highest mountain in the world.

"It was 35 degrees under but there was hardly a breath of wind," he recalls. "It would've been literally unbearable with high winds. The view was stunning, just stunning. We could see the curvature of the earth. To see the scale of things from that high above takes your breath away.

"It was a very spiritual and a very emotional experience. In many ways you transcend everyday living. You feel like you're on a different plain. That's partly lack of oxygen to the brain but you are very much aware of how small you are and how fragile you are in the extreme face of nature."

following in Dawson's footsteps

In the two decades years since Stelfox's groundbreaking success in May 1993, several Irish climbers have conquered Everest. Pat Falvey climbed it twice; Noel Hanna five times; and Clare O'Leary became the first Irishwoman to reach the summit. Lorna Siggins's book Everest Calling notes how commercial climbing has invaded Everest to such an extent that 'bottlenecks' occur on the mountain. Recent climbers have described the experience of having to clamber around other climbers dead on their fixed ropes, passing them on the ascent and on the descent.

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