June 1, 2022
Talking climbing mountains, love and consciousness with Tim McCartney Snape, the first Australian to climb Mt Everest.
Born in Tanzania, Tim’s parents were farmers in East Africa. “I always loved mountains. We had a hill at the back of our farm and I just loved going to the top of it and looking out at the view. There was a 4,500 metre volcano north of town, from boarding school he could look out and Kilimanjaro wasn’t that far away. “I’d always loved the thought of getting to the top of it and looking at the view, unfortunately I didn’t get an opportunity back then.”
Moving to a small farm in North Eastern Victoria near Benalla, Tim got a scholarship to his father’s school, Geelong Grammar, and at 15 spent a year at the Timbertop campus, just below Mt Buller. “We’d go bushwalking every weekend and in winter we learnt to ski, on wooden skis with screw on metal edges, kandahar bindings and leather boots. I got the love for skiing then and in the last two years of school, one of the teachers cottoned on to cross country skiing and would take us up the mountains on long weekends and holidays, ski touring on the Bogong High Plains, and before long I figured out you could ski down hills on these things, with a bit of practice.”
Tim went on to study Biological Sciences at ANU, because of its proximity to the mountains, and joined the mountaineering club. “In the wintertime, I’d probably spend as much time skiing as I did, studying. After uni one of my mates started a guiding company called Wilderness Expeditions. I joined him for a while as a business partner, then left and started mountaineering overseas.” The uni club, organized a trip to the Himalaya, thinking it was too expensive and he didn’t have enough experience, he soon realized he was more experienced that some of the others. Getting some sponsorship for the trip he signed up and off they went. Tim ended up being the only one in the group to get to the summit of Mt Dunegeri in the Indian Himalayan. “After that I just kept going back, getting a job as a trekking guide that trekking season. The next big climb I did was a mountain in the Everest region called Ama DeBlam.” It was while on the North Ridge of Ama Deblam, Tim would see Everest all the time and started wondering about it. Not interested in Everest, back then anyone who climbed it did it as part of a big expedition with sherpa support and oxygen. It had just been climbed without oxygen by a couple of Tirolian climbers and Ryan Hall went back and did a solo trip from the north side, without oxygen. “I wondered what it’d be like up there. The only way I’d be interested in going to Everest would be to climb a new route in good style. See style matters in mountaineering. The purist mountaineer would go to a mountain with minimal equipment, start at the bottom and climb to the top; Alpine style. Whereas the traditional style of Himalayan climbing was to go on a big expedition, set up a base camp and then gradually work your way up the mountain with a chain of camps and supplies.”
“Alpine style climbing is what’s traditionally done in the Alps. In the Himalaya alpine style is a whole different thing. Not only are the mountains much, much bigger, but you’ve got altitude to cope with. It’s a different league, but still the ideal. Also to do a new route is the thing, the interesting thing in climbing is doing a first ascent. It’s going into unknown terrain, and exploring. So I thought that’d be the only way I’d be interested. I bumped into a Japanese guy who’d been to the north side of Everest, which had just been opened by the Chinese. For the first time since before the war, foreign mountaineers were being allowed into the north side of Everest. He’d come back from a successful Japanese expedition to the North Face and showed me some photos and he just kept saying very direct, which struck me. On the south side of the mountain, the Nepali side, it’s quite a complex approach into the mountain.”
“On the north side you can go up the glacier to the bottom of the North Face and just go straight up to the summit. No ice wall or major ice cliff danger and just three vertical kilometres to the top from the bottom. I thought, he’s right, if you want to do an alpine style ascent of Everest, that’s the place to do it. Later that same year, China opened up and we managed to get permission to climb a mountain in the northeast edge of the Tibetan plateau. While we were in China I asked about the North Face because what are the chances of getting a permit for it. They said a French expedition has just cancelled for the North Face in the autumn of 1984. This was 1981 and back then you could only book a route, these days it’s open slather but back then it was only one expedition per base camp or per section of mountain. The French expedition just cancelled and I thought, can we apply? Three years time? Probably get enough experience, worry about the money later. So they said, pay us $2,000 deposit. I convinced a few other climbing mates and we scraped together two grand, we were committed.”
“It was going to cost 150 grand. The Chinese charged absolute premium rates for everything. Traveling across China was exorbitantly expensive as if we were being put up in five star hotels, but actually they were just mud walled buildings with cement floors and cold water. The food was really good, we had banquets all the way with officials cashing in on the foreigners money. It was a very expensive exercise and eventually we convinced Kerry Packers Channel Nine to sponsor us in return for the film rights. I’d worked out by then that the easiest way of getting money was to make a film. They sent a film crew which we nominated, sound recorders, a couple of cameramen and a doctor who was also a ring in sound recordist.” The Australian Challenge on youtube.
“On the north side of Everest it’s pretty good skiing. We had skinny skis, but I’d regularly ski down from the foot of the face, three kilometers to Basecamp. The best experience, almost, was after coming down from the summit, my skis were waiting at the foot of the face. I took my crampons off, put them in my pack, clipped my skis on and telemarked down to camp as the moon came up and the snow was sparkling in the moonlight. Just amazing. Really smooth run down to camp and a well appreciated a cup of tea.”
“I went back to Everest in 1990 and did a trip from sea level from the Bay of Bengal up through Kolkata and walked all the way to Everest base camp through the foothills, about 1200 kms, then climbed the mountain on my own without oxygen. I got a friend who was making a bit of gear on the side to make me some equipment bags. When I got back, I said we should start a business and ramp this up. We called it Sea to Summit, covering everything water and mountains. We started the business just making small things, then cracked the international market with one product, a silk sleeping bag liner. The reason it was successful was it was nicely packaged, came in a stuff sack and had good colours. So we learnt very early on the packaging was really important. We started expanding, got a good market presence, we were making things better with good materials, lightweight, compact, good design and our product range grew and grew. It eventually became a very successful business but I had a falling out with my partner about three years ago.”
In recent years Tim has been guiding in Hokkaido, bespoke trips with friends or acquaintances and trekking with World Expeditions. Another business interest and lifelong passion of Tim’s is for promoting the ideas of a friend of his, Biologist Jeremy Griffith who came up with an explanation for the main driver of human behaviour, the so called Human Condition. “All the great religions recognise what the ideals of life are, that is, the meaning of life is love and cooperation integrated, that is working together. That’s what all life strives for.”
“We’re saddled with this incredible affliction of the human condition of insecurity, and that insecurity has produced all of the problems we have. Look at any major problem on the planet, it’s all due to human insecurity or really insecure people getting power and absolutely driving home, I’m good. Humans are basically, fundamentally, good, but because of our circumstances, we can go off the rails.” Jeremy has written a few books and Tim has been recording his ideas into a podcast. The Human Condition Freedom Essays.
“Humans love to predict a disaster. It’s the human condition, if we predict disaster we can in affect change our behaviour and therefore it means I’m being a good person. Because we’re all variously insecure and, we look for causes that make ourselves feel good.”
“The way I make myself feel good is I go on adventures. Nature is a great leveller. There’s nothing like the feeling of aliveness when you’re out in the wild and you’ve been active. Your body’s working well. It makes you appreciate anything, actually. Just having a drink. Something simple to eat, shelter. That’s when you feel alive. And it’s those moments that you remember. I can spend all day at a resort, have great skiing, I don’t really remember it. It’s a good time. But it’s not that memorable. But if you go back country skiing, you remember that time you really struggled, got really cold. You’ve got the screaming barfies or hot aches in your fingers you recover from that. You put your tent up, and you get out of the blizzard, you fire up the stove. And then you’re sitting there with a cup of tea and it’s just wow, this is it.”
I’ve always come back to the Snowy Mountains, the Australian Alps. On a day it’s as good as anywhere. Of course there are the days where it’s absolutely terrible. Damp, breakable crust, white out, windy. There are days in even the best, most celebrated skiing areas where it’s crap, you’ve just got to pick your conditions.