The day my life changed - It was pitch black. I thought: 'You're on your own. You're going to die'

24th June 2011 at 01:00

I didn't set out to climb 8,000m peaks. And I definitely never thought that I would be the only British person to have done them all. When I started out, only two people in the world had climbed all 14 peaks over 8,000m high. It was like going to the moon. It was impossible.

People often say I'm a former teacher, as though in one life I was a teacher and in another a climber. That's not how it was. I was always drawn to the hills.

My first 8,000-er was with a Polish guy. It was his 14th. I never thought I could do what he had done, but I did. I went straight on to attempt another one.

It was where I wanted to be, even though I knew it was very dangerous. You can't send a helicopter onto an 8,000-er because they can't go above 6,000m. You can't send a rescue team, because there aren't any. You really are on your own. That was part of the reason I wanted to do it.

I always say no mountain is worth a life. But, also, no mountain is worth a digit. I've kept all mine. But so many of these guys take off their boots and put their feet on the table, and between 12 of them, they would be lucky to have 20 toes.

There are often dead bodies on mountains. On my 13th, I popped up this gully, on to a plateau, and - boof! - this bloke was just there. He was lying on his back, reasonably well-preserved, because of the dry air. Another time, a man was partly buried in an avalanche, his rucksack sticking out. That did spook me a bit. But - and it sounds a bit callous - a body isn't a human any more, is it? Also, you're occupied with climbing.

But it makes you realise your own mortality. Most people do 10 peaks and then think: "I'd better stop or I'll die." Or they keep going and get killed attempting it. But I wouldn't have been happy if I had stopped at 10, or 12.

Some peaks I managed (to climb) on the first go. And some took three attempts. The 14th was Kanchenjunga, in Nepal. My climbing mate had to go down, so I got to the top on my own. It was 10.30pm, and it was pitch black. Then a blizzard started. I couldn't see anything. I thought: "You're on your own, on the third-highest mountain in the world. You're going to die." I started having a panic attack: I was shaking like a leaf.

Somehow, I pulled myself together and said: "Look, Alan, you might as well try, rather than just giving up and dying." Once I had decided to go for it, then it was sheer enjoyment. If I didn't get it right, I was going to die for sure, but it was one of the most enjoyable climbs I have had. It should have been abject misery, but it was sheer ecstasy.

I was using all my 30 years' experience. The blizzard covered my tracks, but I found a guiding cord that had been left by an Indian army expert. At times I was on vertical faces, and there was quite a long way between two bits of cord. But I have always had quite a good sense of where to go, whether to turn left or right. Somehow it all went right.

When I got back to base camp, I rang my daughter and told her I was safe. Then I spent about 10 days in Kathmandu, having a bit of a celebration. The British ambassador held a reception for me.

Finishing doesn't feel like a relief. It feels like freedom. Now I'm free to do anything I want.

I'm teaching outdoors now, working with excluded kids. It's challenging, but a different kind of challenge: I have never felt that I could die working with young people. I didn't jack teaching in because I was sick of it. There were just other things I wanted to do for a while.

Alan Hinkes was talking to Adi Bloom.

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