Profile: Greg Mortimer

By Ross Taylor 16 March 2016
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More than 60 years after the first ascent of Mt Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, we talk to mountaineer Greg Mortimer about the first Australian ascent of the world’s highest peak.

THIRTY-TWO YEARS ago Greg Mortimer and Tim Macartney-Snape reached the summit of Mt Everest in the dying light of a post-monsoon day – below them an endless vista of snow-capped peaks and clouds spreading to the horizon. This precious moment at the top of the world was the culmination of an epic three-month expedition, during which they had battled bad weather, extreme cold, oxygen-starved air, avalanches, snow blindness and exhaustion.

“I look back on that time with extraordinary fondness,” says Greg. “It sits in a very large place in my head, in all our heads…what’s the word, something almost…organic developed under its own steam, and luckily in a very beautiful way. We smoked a bit too much dope probably, but we had a lot of fun on expeditions. Of course, we were serious, expeditions are angst-ridden things, but we also had a lot of good times.” 

Their 1984 expedition was the first Australian ascent of the mountain Tibetans call Qomolangma (Holy Mother). More significantly, the all-Australian team of Mortimer, Macartney-Snape, Lincoln Hall, Andy Henderson and Geoff Bartram had climbed a major new line via the North Face and Great Couloir in alpine style and without the aid of bottled oxygen. It was a remarkable achievement. 

But as they stood on the summit in the looming darkness they would have known that getting to the top is only half the battle. With bodies exhausted, dehydrated and clumsy with the altitude, they still had the descent ahead. Greg made it back to top camp that night, but during the night he began to suffer from altitude sickness, and while descending the following day disaster struck. Lincoln Hall wrote in his book on the ascent, White Limbo, “Greg was moving steadily and apparently under control when suddenly he caught his right crampon on his left boot and tripped, falling forward and somersaulting down the slope…There was nothing I could do but watch him slide towards the edge of the huge ice cliffs and certain death below.” 

Greg Mortimer profile

Lincoln Hall, Greg, Andy Henderson and a partially obscured Geoff Bantram share a laugh.

Of course, Greg is still with us. Despite his hypoxic state, he self-arrested with his ice-axe. The fall is one of several Greg has taken during his climbing career. Researching this article, I read that he had broken his pelvis falling off the Blue Mountains’ Three Sisters as a boy, gotten “messed up” in the Peruvian Andes and, in 2010, fallen while climbing in a remote Greenland fiord, breaking his back, eight ribs, smashing his head and heel, and collapsing a lung – an injury he is still recovering from. As a climber myself, this seemed like a lot of falls, suggesting someone who pushes himself too hard. I ask him about this. “Two things. I think that statistically I am pretty lucky to have had as few falls given the amount of climbing I’ve done. But I have had a couple of seminal events and yes, I think I have pushed myself too far – well, obviously, I fell off – but I have been prepared to do that. In the Everest case I pushed myself with my head beyond where my body should have gone, that’s what happened there, I was too wasted for my own good.” 

Of the two Everest summiteers, Macartney-Snape is renowned for being incredibly strong, with a massive set of lungs, aiding him enormously at high-altitude. I’m curious about what Greg considers to be his greatest strength in the mountains. “I’ve got a dull, pig-headed brain at altitude,” he says. “You know, it’s just bloody mindedness at altitude for me. I think technically, I feel confident and strong, and strategically, if you like.” But their success on Everest was also about the team: “What was extraordinarily delightful about that expedition was that we were, luckily, very like-minded in our approach to mountains generally. We all had the view that you would get to the bottom of the wall, put up your tent, roll a joint and sit back and watch for a while and see what it has to offer. And I think that was a very important ingredient in our success.”

Greg Mortimer profile

View from the top of the world: looking out from the Aussie team’s high camp, high up on Everest, to the mountains below.

Driving force

Mountaineers, whether they are as relaxed as Greg or as intense and serious as Reinhold Messner, are among the most driven people on the planet – you have to be to suffer the rigours of a big mountain. What does vary is motivation, and it makes me wonder what drives Greg. He responds to my question en route to Tierra del Fuego.

“Like Hydra, ‘being driven’ is a many-headed beast I suspect. I’m told that I am very task oriented. Once I lock onto a project I like to finish it and finish it well. But that is modern, market-based thinking, really. I figure there are only so many useable hours in a life, so when you commit to a mountain you may as well get it right and not have to go back. In fact, I have never gone back. That sounds a bit mechanistic but the deep joy of climbing to me is getting it right because all of the joys along the way (the friends, the angst, the beauty) become richer and more colourful when you get to the summit. So I love the intensity that is needed to get it right. And I have never found anything else that is as deeply satisfying and fulsome on every level, as being in big mountains.” 

Greg grew up in Sydney’s North Shore, a skinny, sandy-haired boy who learned how to climb with the Second Gladesville Boy Scouts, before honing his skills in the Blue Mountains. “I was very lucky that my folks would let me hop on the train and just disappear for the weekend as a 14- or 15-year-old,” he says. Perhaps it was this trust and freedom that inspired him to greater things.

VIDEO: Greg Mortimer discusses his summit of Everest at a talk in Sydney in 2016.

Endearing Antarctica

Before attempting Everest, Greg had climbed all around the world, building up the experience and skills that would stand him in such good stead in the Himalayas. He also discovered his other great love, Antarctica, working as a geologist for the New Zealand Antarctic Division in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It was after the Australian Bicentennial Expedition in 1988, when he climbed the first ascent of Mt Minto in Antarctica, that he got into Antarctic tourism. With his wife, Margaret, he eventually started Aurora Expeditions, taking people to Antarctica and other remote regions.

Greg sold Aurora a few years ago, but is still involved with Antarctic tourism (as I write this, he is on the way there to guide a trip for World Expeditions). I ask what keeps drawing him back: “Its complexity, I think. Because I have spent a bloody lot of time there – every season for the last 20 years – and I still haven’t figured it out. Maybe you could say it’s because you’re a slow learner, but it’s such a volatile place which is constantly changing. No matter how many times you go there it’s different each time; that’s pretty endearing. And the combination of having a group of people, paying customers, it’s very exciting, it’s exacting, engrossing and I find it a real blast seeing people’s responses to it as well.” 

You can imagine Greg would be a good guide in one of the world’s harshest environments. In 1990 he and Greg Child did the first Australian ascent of Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second-highest mountain and considered by many to be the hardest of all the 8000m peaks. Child, who lives in the US, tells me by email, “After the summit, as Greg and I ambled down in the dark during snowfall, losing our way until we saw the light shining ahead in the tent at 8000 metres which our friends had already reached, I began to flame out and was nearly ready to collapse. Greg remained strong and kept urging me a bit further, a bit further. His endurance impressed me, and it is not unappreciated nor to be ignored that he remained close at hand that night as we descended from the summit.”

This article was originally published in the Mar-Apr 2013 edition of Australian Geographic Outdoor.