LRM interviews Land Rover brand ambassador and mountaineer Kenton Cool
Words: Patrick Cruywagen. Photography: Otis Clay.
Kenton Cool is without a doubt one of the coolest people in the UK. This is not only because he has summited Mount Everest a whopping 13 times (that is more than any other Brit) but also because he drives a Land Rover, of course. LRM caught up with Kenton in the Cotswolds and chatted to him about Land Rovers, winter survival, the great outdoors and the biggest mountain in the world.
Where does your adventurous spirit come from?
I was born in Slough, home to a Horlicks and Mars Bar factory and no mountains. Although I grew up within the confines of the M25 our house was situated in the corner of a farm, so I had access to the great outdoors. I would join Dad when he collected wood or took the dog for a walk, so we were constantly outside. Although Dad was not a climber or a sailor he would tell me about the trees and the birds; he was also a scout leader so I was exposed to things such as camping, making fires and fat bombs.
We did not have a lot of money so an exotic holiday would consist of two weeks on the beach in Cardigan, west Wales. Then when it rained we would all pile into the steamed-up Ford Escort estate and enjoy a lunch of tinned sardines on thick slices of white bread. I would not change it for the world. That is the only place I can think of that my sense of adventure and love of the outdoors comes from.
When did you realise that you wanted to climb big, technical mountains?
When I was 14 and in the Scouts I went to climb Moel Siabod in Snowdonia. I enjoyed it and was super-competitive, racing everyone else to the top. It rained and we got soaking wet but I was comfortable and happy in that environment. Then I had a friend at school called Andy Fowkes and he had climbed Mont Blanc; his dad Tony was a pro rally driver and real character. He once finished second in the London to Sydney Singapore Airlines Rally driving a factory Mercedes 280E. He also went on to compete in five Paris Dakar rallies. One day I asked Andy if he would take me climbing on the local wall at Brunel University. I loved everything about it. That summer, after my A-levels, Andy and I went to the Alps, where we climbed and hiked for a month. We made all the normal mistakes that rookies do, but I fell in love with it. I had found my nirvana.
You have summited Mount Everest 13 times. Is it fair to say that Nepal, which is home to Mount Everest, is your happy place? I first went to Nepal in 1995 and have been back every year since. I feel very comfortable there because I know how the systems work, I have good friends there and I know where the good coffee shops are. I know the mountains and I know what to expect from them. I normally go there to climb Everest but last January I went trekking in Nepal. It’s become a second home to me. I suppose the fact that I am always doing fun things that I love when I am there also helps.
Do you remember your first Land Rover experience?
Where I grew up the farmer had a Land Rover. I think it was a Series III.
It was blue with a white top. I used to get excited whenever I got to sit in the back of this Land Rover while the farmer went about his business. I know many people probably had a similar first Land Rover experience but now that fewer farmers are owning them, that has changed.
You’ve just driven Rob Sprason’s incredible 1948 Series I for the cover shot. How does it compare to your all-new Discovery?
I absolutely love my Discovery 5. There is not one part of that vehicle that I don’t like. It is fabulous and fit for purpose. I can bundle my clients in it, the dog has his cage in the back while the skis go on the roof bars. It’s comfortable and I do loads of miles in it. It does exactly what I need it to do.
As for the Series I, I adore it. When I climbed into it I got a wet bottom and my knees were around my ears. I was all hunched up and I had this big steering wheel to control the direction. When I climb big mountains I use ice axes and they become a part of the action and movement, it’s all inherently linked. So driving up the hills and across the fields here was the same. The Series I became an extension of me. It just felt bloody brilliant. I will have to get a Series Land Rover just for the driving experience.
Are you excited about the new Defender?
I have seen the spy pics and yes I am excited. According to Land Rover it is going to be the most capable vehicle they have ever made. One of the things I like about the Discovery is that there is space for all of my climbing gear, bikes and skis. Only time will tell if the new Defender will be able to do the same. I know some enthusiasts will say it looks nothing like the old Defender, but things change and ultimately Land Rover is a car business and they need to make cars that are going to sell. They weren’t selling massive numbers of the old Defender during the last few years of production. I’m sure the designers and engineers will get it right. They have always been saying that they want to go back to their roots of above and beyond.
Toughest ever off-roading experience?
We were doing a recce for a project in Bhutan and despite the fact that we had a driver there is only so much time you can spend bouncing about in the back of a 4x4 until you get bored. So on the drive back from the Royal Manas National Park I tapped the driver on the shoulder and told him I would drive. The driver slept for the next two days while I tried to negotiate some of the roughest tracks ever. It was epic.
I have also been up and down the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan a few times. It’s billed as one of the most dangerous roads in the world and is often closed because of landslides. Buses occasionally plunge down into the gorges below, killing passengers in the process. It’s a trading route between Pakistan and China and driving it is scary business. The truck and bus drivers have a death wish and when you are in a 4x4 coming the other way you need to stay focussed.
Have you ever seen any old Land Rovers in Nepal?
Yes I saw a lovely old Series III just outside of Kathmandu and I took a picture of it. I would love to find out more about it on a future visit.
Sadly when you do what I do you often end up in a Toyota Land Cruiser as that is the vehicle of choice in most of the remote areas that I operate in. As a Land Rover Brand Ambassador that does sadden me a little. Though a place like Italy is full of Land Rovers, the local police use them. When I see other Land Rovers I do go over and have a look.
What would your advice be to someone who gets stuck in a snowstorm while out in their Land Rover?
I don’t want to sound like a nursery school teacher but when the weather starts to get a little inclement I have a head torch, gloves, beanie, boots, extra layer and an avalanche shovel in the back of my Discovery.
I know for some it might sound like overkill for the UK, but you often read about roads being closed with cars and trucks stuck on them. If you just have another jumper or sleeping bag it could save your life. You never quite know what is going to happen and a pair of boots are definitely better than sneakers or brogues. When I used to live in the Alps I always had a sleeping bag in the back of my car.
What makes a climb or mountain tough?
It’s a combination of remoteness, technicality, altitude and how sustained it is. By that I mean one bit could be really, really hard while the rest is easy. Put all those things into the mix and you might find yourself an answer. You also need to remember that conditions and ice formations change from year to year. Something that was hard ten years ago might have become harder or easier thanks to global warming.
Your favourite UK mountain?
It has to be Ben Nevis, the tourist route is easy, long, and you will gain a lot of altitude because you are starting from sea level. The thing about Ben Nevis is that you have to check the forecast several times before setting off as it has a maritime weather system. It has the ability to change very quickly. You can leave in sunlight and it could be snowing at the top. So don’t underestimate it despite the fact that it is just a little hill. My kids are eight and six at the moment and in a few years time I hope to take them up there. On a good day the views are just incredible.
How do you think the smartphone will affect this generation of kids?
How the next generation will engage with the outdoors is a difficult question. My son might like my iPad but we limit device time. Then when we do things outdoors with both of the children they always love it. Humans have a basic need to spend time with nature and when you break that connection with devices and take kids outside they have a really enjoyable time.
Education is getting better with outdoor classrooms, forest schools and trips to the countryside. Obviously easy if like me you live in the Cotswolds but tougher if you are in the middle of London. Parents need to expose children to things beyond the urban environment.
How do you beat the crowds?
The great thing about the outdoors is that it’s easy to get away from the crowds even in a popular place like the Lake District. It’s a rather large expanse of outdoor area. If you stay away from the well-known hikes you won’t see lots of people. In the Alps everyone goes to Mont Blanc or the Matterhorn. In Scotland you don’t have to go far to avoid the crowds. Go to the lesser-known places and it will feel as if you have the whole place to yourself. Then the whole feel of the experience changes. It feels more serious and edgy.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the greatest living explorer, has asked you to lead him to Everest several times before. Do you treat him just like anyone else?
I develop a programme for my clients and it takes them from where they currently are to a place where they can legitimately get to the top. So with Ran we worked together for the best part of six years and we did several other climbs before we tackled Everest. When he finally got to the top of Everest it was his third attempt with me.
As with Ben Fogle, we spent two years working together and we climbed in several other places before making a legitimate assault on the world’s highest mountain. It doesn’t matter who you are. You can’t just rock up and climb it. I build relationships with my clients to get to a point where everybody is happy to go to a potentially dangerous place.
Have you ever thought ‘this is it – there is no way I am going to survive this?
Not on Everest, but about 15 years ago there was one occasion I pushed the physical and mental boundaries. That had its moments to say the least. I would not want to recreate that now. Been there done that. I have a family now.
How do you cope with being away from your family for extended periods of time?
I’ve been away for six months this year and I’ve been home for about three months. That should give you a good idea of the amount of travelling I do. Which is good and bad. My family calls themselves the Three Amigos when I go away and they form this tight little bond and do Three Amigos stuff. There is very little interaction with me. I don’t know how good it is to speak to your kids via Facetime or WhatsApp. I struggle with that as I deeply adore and love my children. I don’t think it is good as the kids aren’t fully engaged and that leaves me a little heartbroken.
Also sometimes it leaves you thinking: are things okay at home?
No news is good news according to the old adage. My wife Jazz is very good at keeping everyone entertained and happy while I am away and then I return as fun-time Frankie. It’s definitely a team effort.
What do you miss the most when away on expedition?
The family of course, then fish and chips, and lastly bread. The latter is one of my weaknesses and the bread in Nepal is not the same as the bread in the UK. Although I have a second family in Nepal I miss doing the school run and just normal things that we all take for granted.
You are a bit of a fitness fanatic. Is all your training geared towards an annual successful Everest summit?
I would not say I am fanatical about training but the reason I do it is to be confident within myself. That includes things such as nutrition, health and mindset. If I get those right then my performance levels are enhanced.
If you arrive at Everest with confidence then things seem to be more seamless. I use the term rather carefully but if I do the above then it all seems easy because you are ready for it. That not only comes through running, training and the gym but also making sure that things at home are good. You don’t want to leave gaping holes that are difficult to deal with when on expedition. If you do they will chip away at your confidence while on expedition.
What makes a good Everest year or summit?
It’s a combinations of various things such as weather and general conditions. Ultimately it has to be fun. Good weather for summitting early in the season helps as ropes can be put in place. Long summit windows are good as this helps to avoid bottlenecks and crowds on the mountain but more importantly you must have a good crew at base camp. Great conversation, good crack and tasty food at base camp makes a massive difference. You need to properly relax during your downtime so when you get into the serious stuff you feel rested.
What do you still want to achieve or climb?
There is still so much that I would like to do. It has not really been on my radar but I would like to go back to Pakistan and do some stuff there. I don’t know it as well as Nepal but I would like to as it has amazing mountains and challenges.
I don’t really climb for me anymore. I get paid as a mountain guide. I have put my rock climbing on hold and would now like to get back into it with a benchmark grade of French 8A. I’ve never climbed at that level so that would be a challenge. I’ve never been to Antarctica and would love to climb there. It’s never-ending, really. My list goes on forever and most of the mountains people have never heard of. It’s about the journey, the companionship and fun.
Does it upset you the way humans are treating the planet?
I’m outraged by it but I am part of it as well. I’ve got a lovely 3.0-litre petrol Discovery outside and it uses fossil fuels. I fly a lot. Man is raping the planet. We are meant to be stewards for the next generation and look what we have done to it? Plastics are just the tip of the iceberg. The meat industry has a bigger negative impact on climate change than global transportation. How many people know that?
We need to be conscious of all these things that are affecting our wonderful planet. It won’t remain wonderful if we carry on doing what we are doing now. It has the ability to absorb abuse but only so far and then it is going to crumble and fall to pieces. I am very concerned about what we are leaving for our children. We need to make radical changes to the way we live our lives.