Two young and motivated New Zealand mountaineers once decided that it would be a good idea to climb the Seven Summits in seven months, a feat they succeeded in doing in 1990. Those climbers were Rob Hall and Gary Ball.
Their quest became a public spectacle and gained national attention when they made a satellite linked phone call from the summit of Mt Everest to broadcast live in prime time news hour on New Zealand television. On their return home they were greeted by public parades and corporate sponsorship soon followed that would fund the remainder of their Seven Summit quest.
Exactly seven months later they completed their odyssey when they reached the summit of Vinson Massif, the highest mountain in the interior of Antarctica.
Gary Ball was the raconteur - the grinning bloke with a sharp tongue and a glint in his eye. He was someone with an innate ability to break down people's barriers and soon have them in fits of laughter - and usually at their own expense! He sported long blonde hair and oftentimes a bushy beard causing people to pigeonhole him as some sort of hippy yet were soon taken aback by his quick wit and private school intellectualism.
Gary’s profession as mountain guide and his passion for travel led him to climb extensively around the globe. His roving was usually funded by his work as a safety specialist for Italian scientists on their Antarctic geological programs each summer. He would recall that the highlight of his time in Antarctica included two weeks making first ascents with climbing legend Walter Bonatti in the Royal Society range.
Later Gary was to climb in Scotland, Europe, Indonesia, Argentina, Kashmir, Patagonia and Tibet with Himalayan expeditions to Kanchenjunga, K2 and Everest.
In contrast to Gary’s gregarious ways, Rob Hall projected himself as a studied and cerebral person with a very calm and considered disposition. A tall and lanky 6’4” frame supported a dark haired and bespectacled face usually accentuated by a wide grin and the trademark beard. What Rob brought to the table - that was less apparent in Gary - was an innate ability to organise and plan.
As a young lad Rob decided to leave school and took up a career in the manufacturing of outdoor clothing and equipment for a small New Zealand company called Alp Sports. By 16 years of age Rob had assumed the position of production manager and designer for the company and his studied approach and fascination with all things mountaineering enabled him to live and breathe that which he loved.
Age was no barrier to Rob moving on with life, he wasn’t going to wait until he was older before attempting challenges as it already appeared that he had mapped out his life’s path and he wasted no time achieving his life’s ambitions. He quietly began accumulating daring and groundbreaking ascents within the New Zealand mountains - all of which were well planned and executed of course! He continually pushed the boundaries of ‘current’ achievements and completed bold ascents such as the first winter ascent of the Caroline face of Mt Cook, the largest face on New Zealand’s highest peak.
A natural progression for his design and manufacturing skills led him to work for New Zealand’s premier outdoor equipment company, Macpac Wilderness Ltd. Here he held a position for 4 years before breaking away from established companies to start his own brand when he began manufacturing in Christchurch under his own label ‘Outside’. The move allowed Rob more time to pursue his own climbing interests and was no longer limited to the 50 week working year.
By the age 21 he had made the second ascent of the north ridge of Ama Dablam and the second ascent of the 7000m Mt Numbur in the Solu region. These ascents established him as a seasoned Himalayan climber and gave him the confidence and ability to move on to bigger things.
Like Gary had, Rob secured himself employment working in Antarctica as a field guide where he managed to make first ascents of remote and inaccessible mountains through the auspices of geological surveys.
The Himalayas beckoned again and Rob led expeditions to Annapurna and Everest, that whilst not successful, enabled him to develop his skills and knowledge in expedition climbing and leadership. It was on his third expedition to Everest in 1990 that Rob reached the summit of the world's highest peak for the first time, a feat he would achieve five times in total.
Buoyed by their successes, and enjoying their corroboration and the mutual respect they had for each others abilities, Hall and Ball felt a desire to utilise their skills as expedition climbers and recognised that their combined abilities gave them the insight into how to run successful and well appointed expeditions. With Gary’s extensive guiding background and Rob's entrepreneurial streak they formed a company in early 1991 called ‘Hall and Ball Adventure Consultants’ and established their base in the city of Christchurch in New Zealand’s mountainous south island.
Seeing no reason to start small, they immediately set about planning an expedition to Mt Everest the following year. Promoting their new venture they approached their collective and extensive list of contacts to enlist clients on their first ‘real’ commercially guided expedition. While they felt that their leadership on the 1990 expedition qualified as a commercial expedition 1992 was to be their first real guided trip where they advertised for people to take up the available positions.
It didn’t take long to pique the interest of potential contenders and once they had eliminated those without sufficient experience they had a group of 10 who would join them for the climb.
Recognising they could do with some assistance with the guiding they approached Kiwi guide Guy Cotter to see if he was interested in joining them. Guy was working for the military at the time, running the mountaineering program for the army adventure training centre. He was able to quickly arrange leave to go along as third guide for the duo.
Guy was a focused and accomplished climber who already had made an ascent in the Himalayas on a very steep rock spire in the Trango Towers group named Uli Biaho, with ascents in Yosemite and Alaska under his belt too. His focus had been less towards the higher peaks and more towards harder technical peaks, yet the reputation he had developed within the climbing clique as a tough and dependable climber and guide made him an ideal candidate to be mentored by the already experienced Himalayan veterans that Hall and Ball had become.
The 1992 Everest expedition was a raging success with Hall, Ball and Cotter reaching the summit with six of the clients and four Sherpas.
Hall and Ball had proved their ability to pull together a successful expedition with an attention to detail that was the envy of the other ‘start up’ guided expeditions that were beginning to stamp their mark at the same time. There were many firsts to the summit that day, first Israeli, first Belgian woman, first from Hong Kong.
Hall and Ball also guided guests on Aconcagua and Vinson Massif that year. Because of Rob Hall's extensive Antarctic experience he was able to assist the fledging aviation company Adventure Network International (ANI) to establish their program and find a suitable location for their basecamp on the Branscomb glacier, a camp still in use for the operation today.
The guiding team of Hall, Ball and Cotter returned to Everest the following year and seven of the team gained the summit. For Rob, the highlight was being accompanied by his wife, Jan Arnold, to become the second husband and wife team to be on the summit together.
Guy Cotter turned back to support a cold client just below the balcony and Gary Ball descended with sinus issues. Veikka Gustafsson, later to develop into a climbing companion of Rob Hall and to climb all 14 of the 8000m peaks, became the first Finnish person to climb Everest.
Whilst on an personal expedition to 8167m Dhaulagiri in 1993 with Rob Hall, Gary succumbed to the high altitude illness; pulmonary oedema. Unable to descend, Gary succumbed to the condition and passed away. This was a major blow for Rob, from a personal perspective as well as professional. Rob decided to continue operating the business now known simply as Adventure Consultants.
Rob Hall continued to guide the annual expeditions to Vinson Massif which became an annual event.
1994 on Everest was undoubtedly the best expedition in the history of the company with all six clients reaching the summit including Erling Kagge from Norway, who became the first person to reach the summit of Everest and both poles on foot. Rob had contracted the assistance of Ed Viesturs, an accomplished guide and high altitude mountaineer from Seattle as Guy Cotter was unavailable for this expedition.
Just a few days after they had descended to Base Camp, Hall and Viesturs went on to make an ascent of Lhotse, the world's 4th highest mountain.
Rob Hall succeeded in making an ascent of K2 later that year and was awarded an MBE for services to mountaineering. Later he ran successful expeditions to Cho Oyu and Carstensz Pyramid which became annually recurring expeditions for the company.
Viesturs, Cotter and Hall combined forces to run the 1995 expedition but deep snow and delays by other teams bringing up the fixed rope forced the group to turn around on the south summit. Guy and Lobsang Jangbu were fixing ahead of the group and when the decision was made to take the team down Guy turned back with the group while Lobsang went on to the summit alone. Guy and Rob rescued a French female climber who collapsed on the south summit whilst making an oxygenless ascent.
Rob again joins forces with Ed Viesturs and Veikka Gustafsson to make an ascent of Mt Makalu, the world's 5th highest mountain.
With neither Viesturs nor Cotter available in 1996 Rob employed Australian climber Mike Groom and NZ guide Andy Harris to work alongside him on the mountain that year.
Six climbers and two Sherpas reached the summit on May 10th but a severe storm engulfed the climbers on the mountain as they were descending. Rob tried in vain to assist an exhausted client, Doug Hansen, down the Hillary step in ferocious weather and approaching darkness. By evening, Rob was no longer capable of descending himself and remained on the south summit for two nights in the open. Attempts at rescue from below were thwarted by high winds and exhausted rescuers.
Andy Harris disappeared high on the mountain and was last seen climbing back up to the south summit to render assistance to Rob and his client. Andy tried desperately to save Rob but never made it back to south col. Meanwhile another struggle for survival was occurring 850 metres lower down the mountain on south col.
Members from both Rob Hall's team and Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness team had descended through the storm but had not located the tents on the wide expanse of south col. Huddled together they were sharing their remaining warmth in an effort to ride out the storm and await better visibility with which to locate their respective camps. Very late in the night Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev, a guide for Mountain Madness, came out and rescued the three remaining Mountain Madness clients from the storm but concluded that Rob Hall's clients, Beck Weathers and Yasuko Namba, were already deceased.
In what was later described as a miracle, Beck Weathers managed to revive himself and make his way back to the tent the following day and move into a tent. One day later he was escorted down the mountain by a rescue team that was made up of climbers from other expeditions that had come to the assistance of the stricken climbers. Beck Weathers was to survive but the final toll taken by the storm saw the loss of the two guides and two clients.
In the region at the time running an expedition to Pumori, Guy Cotter had been in radio contact with Rob Hall through the summit day. He quickly recognised the strife his friend was in and the following morning hiked the short distance to Everest base camp to offer what assistance he could to the team.
Coordinating as best he could from base camp, Guy tried in vain to arrange for Rob's rescue and the rescue of the survivors on south col.
As the last survivors descended the mountain, it was apparent the efforts of the rescue had taken its toll on everyone on the mountain and there was simply not enough able bodied manpower to bring the survivors down the complicated and broken Khumbu icefall back into base.
Guy made contact with Lisa Choegyal in Kathmandu with a request to secure a helicopter to collect the injured from the top of the icefall at 6000m. Lisa, an expat Brit who had been living in Nepal for more than 20 years, was well connected and managed to secure the support of the Nepalese military who flew a mission to collect Beck Weathers and Taiwanese climber Makalu Gau from the very top of the icefall in what was heralded to be one of the most daring rescues ever conducted in Nepal.
The fall-out from the tragedy was understandably immense. The world media was infatuated by the tragic events and many books were written on the subject.
For the high altitude guiding fraternity it highlighted many a shortcoming in the processes that were standard operating procedures at the time. The tragedy signaled a need for the industry to mature and much of that maturing came about in the aftermath of the events of May 10-12 1996.
Importantly, the competing commercial guiding operators came together and rendered their mutual support by shelving their own climbing plans to facilitate the rescue missions on the mountain throughout that event in ’96. The effort put in by guiding and Sherpa staff from teams other than those directly affected was phenomenal and not without personal expense of energy and resources. Their efforts will always be remembered and appreciated by those who survived and the families of those affected by loss. Highlighting the advantages of working together to share workload and support other operators when the chips are down ensures the whole industry now benefits through sharing of resources and information when in need.
On returning to New Zealand Guy Cotter received a huge amount of support and feedback from past clients who were saddened by the events that took place but also cognizant of the void that would be left should Adventure Consultants no longer be a player in the international expedition arena.
Reflecting on his own future Guy was still motivated to continue to practice the art of high altitude expeditioning, especially in light of his apprenticeship under the guidance of Rob Hall and Gary Ball.
Prospective clients who were already booked on future trips were still focused on continuing with their plans as there was sufficient momentum within the company already to carry on. In July that year Guy purchased the company from Jan Arnold and began the onerous task of rebuilding the company in respect of its founders.
Already the owner of a New Zealand based guiding company, Guy soon made the transition to the international arena.
Later that year the revitalised Adventure Consultants ran an expedition to Cho Oyu that was led by Ed Viesturs. Guy guided an expedition to Ama Dablam soon after and the following year he guided the three 8000m peaks; Everest, Gasherbrum 2 and Cho Oyu, finishing with an expedition to Vinson Massif.
Adventure Consultants had by now relocated its base from Christchurch to Wanaka where business manager Suze Kelly ran the administration component of the company whilst Guy was guiding internationally.
A New Zealand based climbing school and guiding service was added which proved popular in that it allowed future AC expedition clients to develop their skills in the same mountain range that a young Edmund Hillary forged his own prowess. A major benefit of developing technique and skills in New Zealand is the lower altitude of the mountains and the easy access to the training grounds offered by helicopter transport.
For his accomplishments the previous year Guy was presented the New Zealand Mountaineer of the Year Award.
In 1998 Cotter joined Viesturs and Gustafsson on an unsuccessful expedition to Dhaulagiri and later ran a commercial led trip to Mustagata in western China. Sadly that expedition ended in tragedy when one of the members removed his skis and stepped into a crevasse resulting in fatal injuries.
Later in the year Guy guided a team on Vinson where Doron Erel completed the Seven Summits thereby becoming the first Israeli to do so.
Guy went on to make the first ascent of Mt Slaughter in the same range (Ellsworth mountains) with Canadian Terry Gardiner.
The next AC expedition to Everest was led by Kiwi guide David Hiddleston in the year 2000. The group reached the south summit but had to return due to bad snow conditions.
In 2001 Guy Cotter ran a ‘commercially led’ expedition to Makalu that was intentionally a non-guided expedition being run for independent and experienced mountaineers only. The expedition succeeded when Guy, Takashi Ozaki and Lhakpa Dorjee Sherpa summited on 12 May. Lhakpa Dorjee became the only person to ever climb Makalu more than once and both times without oxygen!
The annual offering of trips gradually increased each year but was dictated by the amount of time required for the guides to develop the appropriate level of experience. Such a large repertoire of skills is required to run expeditions successfully that the pool of experienced guides was limited.
Unlike many other companies, AC did not want to employ ‘just anybody’ to lead their groups and this was a self imposed limitation to growth. Instead AC wanted to employ only internationally qualified mountain guides with the right attributes to deliver on the expectations that the company promoted itself on.
Unbeknown to many clients signing up for expeditions around the world, their guides have no formal training or assessment in guiding skills, they are merely climbers who get offered guiding jobs. As often as not they accept the work so they can achieve their own objectives.
AC could see that the quality of the staff is one of the major assets a company can have to set themselves apart from the masses and offer a unique service. Not only do expedition guides need to be extremely proficient mountaineers but they must be good people managers, financially prudent, good with logistics and adroit with strategic thinking.
These skill clusters are hard to find in a person and the company’s growth was limited to the number of ‘apprentices’ who made their way through the ranks to become expedition leaders.
Another philosophical approach unique to AC was very good guide to client ratios and small groups. Whilst many a prospective client will chose an expedition operator on cost alone, it was decided that quality was more important than quantity, and thus the AC philosophy was established.
New trips were added to the schedule through the early years of the new century including trekking options and ‘achievable’ peaks of lower altitude than the 8000m Himalayan giants.
Through a series of ever more difficult objectives, guests could now select a series of ascents to build their skills up to such a level that they could initiate their mountaineering career and follow through to achieve ascents of all the Seven Summits. This was well illustrated by Australian Anthony Baldry who, 18 months after starting his first training course with us, was standing atop the summit of Mt Everest having completed all of the Seven Summits as well as Ama Dablam and Cho Oyu.
By 2003 AC was offering the full compliment of the Seven Summits peaks with the addition of Elbrus to the yearly expedition calendar.
The Seven Summits became a focus of the company as many of its guests had chosen the Seven Summits as their objective. For many clients it was important to work with one company that they were comfortable with and whose ‘modus operandi’ seemed like a compatible fit. This was a shift in approach for the company that had its roots in the formula established by Rob Hall and Gary Ball; that was to focus only on the most difficult and technical of the Seven Summits being Carstensz, Vinson and of course Everest.
An example of the type of projects AC could now successfully run was illustrated by the program put together for high profile socialite Annabelle Bond from Hong Kong/UK. Annabelle approached AC to arrange a Seven Summits program with the aim of completing them all in one year. This was accomplished successfully. AC ran all the logistics on this personally guided series of ascents and provided a cameraman to film the adventures she encountered along the way. Annabelle was awarded an OBE for her accomplishments and for raising funds for charity.
With the Seven Summits being operated on an annual basis AC could now employ guides all year and support a team of six full time staff to coordinate all the logistics and liaison. Being a customer intimacy business enabled the company to offer guests private expeditions in addition to running the scheduled expeditions and treks.
By 2006 AC was running 23 expeditions a year and offered 42 distinct ‘products’ (treks, instruction courses, guided trips and expeditions). By the end of 2008 the company had run 127 expeditions and of the 15 Everest expeditions 12 had been successful resulting in 152 ascents of the mountain.