Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence

At 6pm on 24th September 1975, Doug Scott and Dougal Haston were standing on the summit of Everest. As members of Sir Chris Bonington’s daring expedition up the South-west Face they were the first Britons to do so, and they were the first climbers to reach the summit via that daunting route. After trekking through gruelling conditions, the mountain gods were smiling on them: the wind had dropped and the evening was perfectly still.

Together, they watched cloud fill the valleys in Nepal while the last rays of sunlight flamed on the peaks of Tibet. Everest’s purple shadow stretched away from them for about 200 miles, and as they scanned the distant horizon they could see the curvature of the Earth. Both men had a sense of surreal beauty and remoteness, as if they were somehow detached from the world. Looking back, Doug Scott remembered being aware of something much bigger than himself, of which he was merely a part. He wrote: “I was again a child, lost in wonder.”

Doug and Dougal lingered on the summit, pointing out distant peaks and speaking only occasionally. They took the obligatory photographs and then, having witnessed the finest sunset they’d ever seen, they realised that they had better make a move. They had pulled off one of the world’s greatest mountaineering feats… but as night fell across the Himalayas their greatest physical challenge still lay ahead.

By the time they reached the bottom of the Hillary Step it was fully dark. The wind, which had picked up again, was blowing snow across their tracks and their torches were failing. Only 100 metres (328 feet) below the summit, they had little option but to camp. But they had no bottled oxygen left, and no tent. They realised that they would have to dig a snow cave, and try to stay awake  because if they fell asleep, they would almost certainly die.

While the news of their triumph was still unknown, it was perhaps a mercy that Doug’s mother was unaware of the precise details of his situation. As a teenager, she’d visited a fortune-teller who had told her that one day, her eldest son would find himself in trouble in a shelter, very high up, and that the whole world would be watching. At 28,700 feet, Doug and Dougal’s unplanned bivouac was so high that no one even knew if it was possible to survive at that altitude with no oxygen. They were about to find out.

Everest's SW Face

Doug Scott was born in Nottingham on 19th May 1941. He was the eldest of three sons of George Scott, a policeman and talented amateur boxer, and his wife, Joyce Gregory. From Doug’s reminiscences about his early school days, it seems he was often getting into trouble, usually through an excess of energy that he had no idea how to direct. Aged 12, he and his classmates were taken to the Royal Albert Hall to hear an address by Sir John Hunt, leader of the 1953 Everest expedition that saw Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay become the first humans ever to stand on the summit. For Doug, this was far from being a revelatory experience: he fidgeted so much that his teacher warned him that he would be sent out if he didn’t behave.

Like his father, Doug was a fine athlete: he just hadn’t found an outlet for his talent. He would climb trees and risk the strap or the cane rather than participate in track races  although, when he did, he broke the school records. It was only when he went hiking in Derbyshire on a Scout expedition that something fell into place. Reaching the Derwent Valley, they came within sight of the Black Rocks, a prominent outcrop of gritstone, which was festooned with roped-up climbers cramming their fingers into cracks, balancing on minuscule ledges and grappling with overhangs. Doug wasn’t just curious: he was smitten. He and his pals immediately tried to tackle the lower boulders, but soon realised that they too would need ropes. A few days later they returned, Doug armed with his mother’s washing line and his friend brandishing his dad’s tow rope. Luckily, these dubious pieces of kit held together until Doug got his first proper climbing gear: for his 13th birthday he requested a nylon rope, a pair of American Alpine boots and a Primus stove. 

Through his teens and early twenties, Doug sought and mastered increasingly challenging climbs, both in the UK and worldwide. His quest took him to the Tibesti mountains of Chad, Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush, the Dolomites and the infamous Troll Wall in Norway. In Yosemite, with the Austrian climber Peter Habeler, he made the first British ascent of El Capitan’s colossal Salathé Wall. In later life, Doug recalled: “I think we were both intimidated by this huge route, but by taking it one day at a time we nibbled away at it. It took about four bivouacs. Now, of course, it’s climbed in a day regularly!”  

Doug’s career as a school teacher was eventually sacrificed to his growing passion. His success on El Capitan gave him the confidence to attempt some of the world’s most iconic high-altitude climbs: he took part in the first ascent of the East Pillar of Mount Asgard on Baffin Island, and the first ascent of Changabang in the Garhwal Himalaya, among many others. He was also working with some of the world’s most iconic climbers. He joined Sir Chris Bonington’s first expedition to Everest in 1972, which, although unsuccessful, ultimately led to his being chosen to accompany Dougal Haston on that final snow-bound push to the top, three years later.

Mount Asgard on Baffin Island

After the breathless, awe-struck wonder of the summit, Doug and Dougal were supremely lucky to survive their night in a snow cave. Sitting on their rucksacks for nine hours, encased in down suits, they endeavoured to stay conscious and focused, but their minds began to wander all the same. Dougal had a long and imaginary discussion with Dave Clark, the expedition’s equipment officer, about the relative merits of sleeping bags, while Doug drifted in and out of a conversation with his feet, which, to him, had become two distinctly separate entities. His left foot was resentfully accusing him of neglect, so he took off his boot and sock and found that it was indeed turning solid with cold. After an hour of pummelling it began to revive, and to save his toes Dougal unzipped his suit and allowed him to place them under his armpit. Amazingly, neither Doug nor Dougal suffered any harm from frostbite.  

Later Doug paid warm tribute to his friend and climbing partner, who was lost in an avalanche in 1977. Dougal was, he said, “…the perfect partner… just totally reliable and competent. He wasn’t the prima donna that people used to write about. I don’t think we had a hard word at all… on our trips together.” 

For Doug, that night on Everest was a transformative experience. Afterwards, he said, he felt he could survive an unplanned bivouac anywhere, and without oxygen, if it was possible to dig a snow cave: “One night at 28,700 feet had broadened the range of what and how I would climb in the future.” Four years later, with Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, he made the third ascent of Kangchenjunga which was the first without oxygen, establishing a new route on the North Ridge. In Pakistan, with Sir Chris Bonington, he made the first winter ascent of The Ogre by the West Ridge, although he suffered two broken ankles on the descent; and in India he was among the first to ascend the East Pillar of Shivling. 


A pioneer of lightweight, alpine-style climbing, Doug continued to accumulate ‘firsts’, but paradoxically it was often the failures that he prized and remembered most: “You only tend to talk about your successes, but looking back on my climbing, I’ve had four goes at K2, four goes at Nanga Parbat, four goes at Makalu, and never got up. And actually on these so-called failures… more interesting things happen. By definition, you can be on the top without having gone to your limit, but on a failure you’ve quite often gone to your limit without actually getting to the top, and learned more about yourself.” 

At a deeper level, high-altitude climbing completely altered and widened Doug’s philosophy on life. On unforgiving mountains, at the end of his endurance and knowing that his survival depended on his next move or decision, he learned to listen to his instinct and found an inner voice that rarely led him astray. This phenomenon, known as the ‘Third Man’, was already known to many other explorers, and Doug acknowledged it without needing a logical explanation because he had experienced it so often. He understood the absolute need to let go of his personal ego and trust that problems would work themselves out. He explained: “…the moment I totally let go, events began to change the situation, as if by magic, right on cue, to allow me to continue: the weather improved, we found a solution to the technical problems, we recovered from sickness, the team suddenly began working harmoniously…” 

Until later life, Doug’s love of high mountains continued to carry him all over the globe, from Antarctica and South America to Norway and Iceland. During the first lockdown in 2020, aged 79, he defied illness with a sponsored climb of his staircase to raise money for his charity, Community Action Nepal. When he died on 7th December, warm tributes flooded in from mountaineers the world over. Sir Chris Bonington said: “He was a superb mountaineer with very, very good mountain judgement. But it was the way, when he was climbing, that he looked after the people around him; the way he cared for the Sherpa helpers and the porters who were helping us… This came across, right the way through everything that he’s done.”

It’s likely that, while deeply appreciative of such praise, Doug would be more modest about his achievements. Like George Mallory, whose famous retort “Because it’s there!” dealt with the unanswerable question about Everest, he evaded fruitless discussions with ease and humour: “‘Why do you bother climbing?’  ‘Why do you climb?’ All I can say is, well, I get grumpy when I don’t!”

Doug Scott was a former President of the Alpine Club and the Alpine Climbing Group, and a Vice-President of the British Mountaineering Council. He received a CBE in 1994 and several honorary doctorates, as well as the John Muir Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 and the prestigious Piolet d’Or or ‘Golden Ice Axe’ in 2011. Because the Himalayan communities were so close to his heart, in 1989 he founded the charity Community Action Nepal (canepal.org.uk) to provide support for schools, health services and social welfare.  

In 1975, Sir Chris Bonington’s Everest expedition received the Livingstone Medal, and Doug Scott was awarded Honorary Fellowship of RSGS in 2009. As a hugely popular speaker, he gave a number of sell-out lectures to RSGS groups.

Quotes and Reference

Doug Scott, ’Up and About - The Hard Road to Everest’ (2015); Sir Chris Bonington, ’Everest the Hard Way’ (1976); YouTube, Mountain Equipment interview with Doug Scott, 2013; Sir Chris Bonington, quoted by Phil Coleman, News and Star, 8th December 2020; https://www.dougscottmountaineering.co.uk/