‘I did not know I was dying slowly’ - explorer Adrian Hayes reveals his most terrifying moments
“HOW personal do you want this to be?” Adrian Hayes asks over the table of his untidy kitchen.
It’s an unexpectedly vulnerable question from the veteran explorer and former special forces reservist who has faced down the brutality of the world’s highest mountains and escaped death more than once.
His list of boy’s own adventures include conquering Mount Everest, K2, the North and South poles, travelling the length of Greenland by kite-ski, crossing the Arabian Desert by camel, and setting two Guinness World Records.
The journey that took him to the roof of the world began in the New Forest as one of three sons to Con and Linda Hayes who ran the former Busketts Lawn Hotel (now Spot in the Woods) in Woodlands, Netley Marsh.
Now, at 59 years old, Adrian is back living in Pilley, near Lymington, as a divorced single dad looking after his 17-year-old daughter, the youngest of three children, following a difficult and protracted split from his wife about ten years ago.
In between he’s lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Brunei, Oman, France, New Zealand and Norway among the 100-plus countries he has visited, learning Nepalese and Arabic on the way.
The woods and streams of the New Forest were where his passion for adventure took root. He recalls: “We grew up adventuring in the Forest doing the stuff that kids used to do – bath tubs in Bartley Water and climbing trees.
“I was 13 and I had pictures of explorers on the wall. And at just 13 I wrote down my plan. It included climbing Everest, living in the Arctic, living on a desert island, joining the SAS. It’s the power of writing down goals – and they all came true.”
All that and more. Adrian reels off trainee brickie, qualified paramedic, Airbus sales director, charity patron, environmental campaigner, Sandhurst graduate, Gurkha, special forces reservist, and author.
He even recently became adviser to the privately-funded Mars One expedition to send human settlers on a one-way trip to the red planet.
The fascination for exploration and physical fitness that has fuelled his dangerous expeditions he traces back to wanting to escape from his childhood and teenage years, a period in which he admits he was “struggling”.
“Middle child – there’s a bit of that. I had a few issues. I was incredibly shy as a child and teenager. I was not the lady’s guy at 17 or 18.
“This was my thing, I found I was really good at it. I started climbing at 16/17, doing mountaineering courses, and I was good at that.
“We have all got our values and every one of us is different. It comes from childhood, schooling, parenting, housing – all this stuff will make up where and who we are. All of us have baggage to do with that.
“When you do this inner work you reflect on how it came about. As a child I was unseen and unheard.”
Unseen and unheard is a far cry from his day job as guest speaker, and team and leadership developer (he’s not a “life coach”, he insists). It’s what he offers Mars One, advising on the likely mental challenges and team dynamics of such an extreme journey.
He’s also recently launched a new book about his two attempts on the world’s second highest mountain, One Man’s Climb, a Journey of Trauma, Tragedy and Triumph on K2.
His phone buzzes for attention throughout the interview.
The push to quit Airbus and move into leadership work full-time was inspired by his “life-changing” ascent of the 29,029ft Everest in 2006 – although he almost never returned when his oxygen mask failed in the “death zone” where the high-altitude air is too thin for humans to survive for long.
He was seized by “summit fever”, the strange hold a mountain peak will take on a climber who either won’t turn around to safety or – in Adrian’s case – stays too long at the top where the world’s finest view held him spellbound for well over an hour. Most stay for just minutes.
“I did not know I was dying slowly. The mask failed again on the way down. It was the hardest seven hours down. It was the biggest struggle. The most sobering, debilitating time. There’s no oxygen getting to your muscles, you can’t move, your brains fogged up and you want to go to sleep.”
He says: “I nearly died.”
Death was close again when he took on K2 in 2013 on a trip where the so-called Savage Mountain – the peak most prized by professional mountaineers – lived up to its deadly reputation, killing father-and-son climbers Marty and Denali Schmidt, from New Zealand, in an avalanche.
“Things were not right that year,” recalls Adrian. “Things were going wrong all over the place, with kit and the weather, and there were a few fatalities on other mountains.
“Our gut instinct told us to go down. It was saying, this is not right. People ignore their gut instinct. The same gut instinct made me feel we have got to go back. I can’t explain it. It’s not reasonable or logical. We just needed to go back.
“If we had all gone up, it would have been all of us.
“When I went down I was upset, because I do not fail these things. But when we found out they had been killed, it made sense.”
Returning home from Pakistan he was “bombarded” for details by the press who had picked up on his Facebook post about the disaster, and by Marty Schmidt’s daughter anxious for answers. “It was exhausting,” he says.
Despite concerns of friends and family, however, the next year he was back on the slopes of K2, fitter and better prepared, ready to complete “unfinished business”. Together he and climbing partner Al Hancock made it to the top.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the willingness to step into it,” quotes Adrian, who points to natural beauty as one of his inspirations to get into the wild, helping overcome the fear of disaster.
“Why I continued to do 8,000-metre peaks is about getting into nature. The normal world is brain-fried from social media and information overload.”
The scariest moment of his career – among many – was descending K2. “There was a white-out, fog. You’re trusting your life to a thin line. You’re putting your weight and life on it. It’s a hair-raising experience.
“I think what happens in serious situations, I have this eerie calm. I have this natural ability to keep going without succumbing to the elements and concentrating. You might have a problem but there’s always options.”
He adds: “It’s absolutely that you have to have that blinkered approach because if you allow yourself to be distracted dangers can happen. You have to be in that mode.”
It’s a danger he would not permit his daughter to be exposed to, however. Adrian says: “Rock-climbing and anything adventurous is fantastic. But if she wanted to climb K2 I would say no. It’s too dangerous. It’s too risky.”
His most difficult expedition was on the way to the North Pole: “That’s the hardest thing I have ever done – that’s the hardest challenge on Earth. It’s brutal. When you’re climbing big mountains it’s steep but you get rest time. With the poles it’s non-stop.”
It’s not fame that drives him, Adrian insists – deriding the notion as the “F-word” and pointing out no one becomes famous by climbing mountains anymore.
The celebrated days of George Mallory, who died on Everest in 1924, and Edmund Hilary, who conquered it 29 years later, are long gone.
Now the slopes of Everest have become notoriously choked by climbers, sparking widely-reported confrontations with Nepalese Sherpa guides and potentially lethal queues of amateurs cramming onto the mountain during short breaks in the weather.
Has Everest been spoilt? “Yes, absolutely. There are too many people there,” Adrian says. “You get the youngest, the oldest, the first dinner party. It’s crap, it’s not sustainable.”
He has little time for charity climbers either, who he thinks should be more honest about the selfish reasons that drive them too – as well as the improved chances of gaining commercial sponsorship to fund the trip.
“They are not having integrity about it. They might fundraise for cancer at the same time but I think it’s been overdone now. I get the small-level stuff, but the big stuff…” He sighs: “Just put that money straight in there.”
He has concerns about the elite end too as climbers seek out more publicity-catching feats: “Yes, it’s going too far in a variety of ways. The top guys are going so extreme it’s unbelievable. Credit to them but the risks are so high.”
Despite his talk of not seeking fame, however, he fully concedes his exertions are a search for his own kind of significance.
“We’re now on a massive social media trend searching for significance. That why people do it. It’s not for charity.”
Is that why you do it? “Yes, we do it for significance.”
His contrasting K2 experiences form One Man’s Climb which he hopes will be as big as modern climbing classics Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s account of the 1997 Everest disaster which killed eight people, and Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void about his miraculous escape in the Andes.
It’s Adrian’s second after Footsteps of Thesiger, an account of his 1,600km journey in 2011 across the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert following the trail of legendary British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger in the 1940s.
“Writing a book has been a cathartic exercise, it has very deep social and philosophical things in the book,” Adrian says, pointing to a mention in the 234 pages about his family situation.
“The personal story is also linked. You either go to drink or drugs. But with me it’s a big goal and work on focusing on that. It was such a strong link that I could not fail to include it.
“This [book] is the proudest thing I have done. This beats the expeditions. I want it to be a best-seller – but not to make lots of money, not for the awful F-word. It’s as much a story of human development and real teamwork.”
For now, however, Adrian’s exploits are on hold as he focuses his energy on his daughter, and hopes to see more of his two older sons.
As he concludes in the final chapter of his book: “A whole new adventure has just begun.”