Guy Cotter makes a living guiding people to the summits of the highest mountains in the world. Now, he tells Kathy Ombler, he wants to make New Zealand’s mountains and wild places more accessible
Guy Cotter and I started our interview with a mutually sympathetic chat about our ageing bodies. The mind is willing but the body can struggle, he laughed. I laughed with him and recounted how my old knees had given me grief on a steep descent out of The Remarkables the day before. He commiserated.
Then I learned about his latest adventure; his ‘almost’ Everest Triple Crown. In May, he summited Everest, for the fifth time, and the next day Lhotse (8516m), for the second time. Just days before he’d climbed all but the last 200m of Nuptse (7861m), which if he’d summited would have been the first time the coveted Triple Crown had been achieved in one season. Nuptse, he says, involved 18 taxing hours of slabby snow, blizzards and bulletproof ice, yet he holds the challenge of that day as one of his most treasured mountain experiences.
My knees suddenly felt insignificant. I felt insignificant. Not that Cotter made me feel that way. As the owner of Adventure Consultants, the Wanaka-based global guiding company, his business – and indeed his calling in life – is to encourage not just super climbers but all comers into the mountains, and to the challenge and self-discovery that lies there.
“Being in the mountains has taught me resilience,” says Cotter. “I got into the outdoors because of my dad (Ed Cotter, one of New Zealand’s first Himalayan climbers). My early memories are of Fiordland, just tramping, going into the hills, not really climbing at first but I learned a lot.”
At age 11, he climbed Canterbury’s Mt Rolleston with his dad. He’s since climbed seven 8000m peaks, some more than once. The first of his five Everest summits was in 1992, 26 years ago.
“I think what mountaineering has given me is a feeling of confidence in making my own decisions that affect my well being,” he says. “While I’m a risk taker, I’m also naturally quite cautious, and that’s held me in good stead. I only try to do things when I know I’m ready, and just because I’ve done something before it doesn’t mean a year later with no practise I’m going to be able to do it again.”
That approach has helped him both endure, and still love being in the mountains. “It was just amazing on Lhotse this year, watching the sun come up as I was climbing. It was perfect weather, just a day after climbing Everest, there was no one else on the mountain, and I was reminded once again why I love being in that environment.”
The desire isn’t going away as he gets older, he laughs. “People say to me, surely you should stop doing this now – as if it’s something you’ve got to grow out of.”
Cotter came to run Adventure Consultants under tragic circumstances. He lost his two friends – and employers – first Gary Ball on Dhaulagiri, then Rob Hall in the infamous 1996 Everest storm, when Hall chose to stay near the South Summit with a struggling client. Cotter was at Base Camp, on the radio with Hall, and coordinating the rescue of other climbers that included a daring helicopter rescue at 6000m, the highest ever for its time.
Ball and Hall had established Adventure Consultants in 1992, pioneering the concept of clients paying to climb Everest and guiding big mountains in remote corners of the world – Vinson Massif (Antarctica), Carstensz Pyramid (Western Papua), Cho Oyu (Tibet), Elbrus (Russia) and others that make up the ‘Seven Summits of Seven Continents’.
Facing a suddenly uncertain future and realising how passionate he felt about high alpine guiding, Cotter bought Adventure Consultants from Hall’s wife, Jan Arnold. “I knew the company had future bookings and wanted to honour them, and I wanted to recognise my mentors who had taught me so much about expedition climbing. It really is a specific set of skills.”
With partner Suze Kelly, Cotter has since expanded the company’s offering to include 80 international expeditions a year and has established two climbing schools, in New Zealand and Chamonix, France.
Expansion wasn’t intentional, he claims. “The climbing schools help our clients develop skills as they gradually build up to higher peaks. We’ve also been adding more options because when people have done our trips we talk about what else they’d like to do and all of a sudden we have a new trip.”
After more than 30 years in the guiding industry, Cotter still finds the work satisfying. “Clients come from all walks of life, many of them high achievers in their fields. They’ve done everything else and feel there’s still something missing. Some are sleeping in a sleeping bag for the first time, and I’m constantly being told that this is the best thing they have ever done.”
How a small Wanaka company, with just 17 local staff, coordinates so many successful international expeditions is largely down to Cotter, who has a reputation as one of the best guides in the business. Last year, American mountaineer Alan Arnette wrote about Cotter on his climbing blog. ‘As the guiding universe explodes there is a handful of companies that truly take care of business and Adventure Consultants is one of the best … consistent with an excellent member-satisfaction and safety track record. Guy Cotter is not a figurehead but a true mountaineer.’
For Cotter, taking care of business doesn’t just mean looking after well-heeled clients. Following the 2014 Khumbu Glacier avalanche and 2015 Nepal Earthquake, his company established the Sherpa Future Fund to help rebuild and educate the families of nine Adventure Consultants staff lost in these events. As a result, 13 children are currently attending schools in both Kathmandu and Wanaka.
With the Himalayan climbing season behind him, Cotter is back in New Zealand setting up even more ventures. This year Adventure Consultants established a new camp, using two geodesic dome tents, on the McKerrow Range in Hawea Conservation Park. Clients will be based at the camp in winter for ski touring and in summer for hiking. As with the company’s ice climbing camp in the Remarkables’ Wye Creek, everything will be taken out between seasons. Client access will be by helicopter – helicopters are not the scourge some people think but a great resource in the mountains, Cotter says. The new camp is the kind of commercial venture he believes New Zealand could do with more of.
“Unless you have time and ability to walk up long valleys or climb for five hours or more you are limited to where you can go,” he says, adding that the hut system here restricts who can go into the mountains to a small section of society. “There’s a real ‘old Kiwi tramper’ attitude that you have to be hardy, fit and strong, and access should be limited in the name of protecting the environment.
“I think we are shooting ourselves in the foot because we could actually encourage more advocates for the environment if the entry level wasn’t so difficult.”
He points to the popularity of the fully-catered Milford, Hollyford and Routeburn walks. “We could have more European-style catered huts in some places so that we can introduce a wider spread of participant into more areas in our mountains.
“We’ve got so much terrain that could be enjoyed by so many more people; people who haven’t been brought up with that tramping background and who don’t have the knowledge, or who don’t want to rough it or might not be as physically able.
“If we can encourage more people to connect with the environment, so they feel comfortable in it and understand it better, they will become advocates for it.”
That doesn’t mean he thinks commercial interests should have free rein: “We’re not trying to destroy the adventure, just make it more accessible. Whether a commercial operator or a traditional Kiwi tramper, we all think the same; as we age we want the environment to be as pristine as when we first started.”