With the recent tragedy of the Oceangate Titan submersible imploding on its descent to the wreck of the Titanic, and killing all on board, there has been a lot of discussion and speculation about the nature of modern extreme tourism. It led me to reflect on my own experience on an adventure holiday some years ago.

Basecamp looking towards Ama Dablam

Back in 2001 I joined a guided trip to the Himalayas. I had been mountaineering for perhaps 20 years all over Scotland and I wanted to experience bigger mountains whilst I still felt fit enough and technically capable. And I was keen to visit an area I had read about in so much of the classic climbing literature.

Before I set off on the expedition, I trained rigorously and probably got to the fittest level I've ever been. I knew there were so many things that could go wrong and didn’t want fitness to be one of them. Much to the amusement of my friends I was more concerned about the flight to get to Lukla than I was about the climbing, but I felt I finally had enough experience, knowledge and patience to finally test my climbing skills at altitude.

It was a remarkable trip and I have many fond memories as a consequence. I had built up to this expedition and, I suppose, felt as if I had earned the right to try mountaineering in amongst the world's largest mountains. Most of the group felt similarly. I was surprised then to find that one or two of my fellow climbers had no real experience to fall back on at all.

Their lack of mountain experience made them less aware of the environment and the hazards of being in the mountains, not just altitude, rockfall, river crossings etc but even simple things like increased solar radiation at altitude, leading one of them, a redhead, to develop such severe sunburn on day three in the hills, that he had a hole developing on the end of his nose. They were less aware of the weather, and less respectful of the challenge, so more liable to underestimate everything. As a consequence, I felt, their experience was less rich too. Whilst none of the mountains we ascended were particularly technically challenging, they were not without risk.

Ice wall on Island Peak

On the way from Namche Bazaar into the valleys around Everest, we passed a Japanese tourist, who had been picked up by two guides off the helicopter at Lukla and stuck on a horse. By day six he had still barely taken a step for himself. Each morning he was simply loaded onto the horse, led to the next tearoom and unloaded unceremoniously for the night. He conversed with no one and always looked like he was struggling to stay awake and breathe. I couldn’t understand how he could possibly acclimatise, or be enjoying it, but thought little of it until I passed him on one of the mountains. He had a guide in front and a guide behind, and had been given an oxygen mask (despite only being around 6,000 metres up). After his guide took his picture on the summit, I went across to check on him, as he could barely stand up. His eyes were not focusing and he seemed completely wabbit. He didn’t seem to have any understanding of where he was. I could imagine him decorating his desk at work with the photo when he returned, but it didn’t feel like he’d actually experienced anything, and would not have a single story to tell to go with it. How can it be adventure without a story to tell? It was a trophy, not an experience.

Back with my small group, it was time to descend – it required a 100 metre abseil to a point just above a yawning crevasse, and then a switch onto a second fixed rope to abseil the final 100 metres to the glacier below. My compatriots’ inexperience suddenly became an issue for the whole group, when the guy with the sunburnt nose asked for help clipping onto the rope, and then just as he was supposed to set off, announced he had never abseiled before. Great timing! But what hubris to book onto a trip where it specifically asked you about your experience - I wasn’t sure if he had lied or simply not understood the questions. I think we were still struggling to believe he could really be that incompetent, and assumed he was simply anxious at the drop in front of him, so maybe we could have planned it better.

He was by this stage clipped in, so he slowly and gingerly made his way down the first abseil, insisting he could unclip at the bottom and switch onto the second rope. Of course he couldn’t. But with his full weight on the rope, there was no prospect of getting enough slack to clip anyone else on the same rope. Our guide needed to remain on the top until everyone had descended, so he asked me as the next most experienced climber, to go sort it out. I had no real option but to abseil down to help him, but my only security was to wrap the rope loosely around my arm. When I got down to him, he was panicking and frozen. I was still not particularly safe, but before I could properly secure myself, I had to persuade him to slowly and safely unclip, and fix him safely onto the second rope. Fortunately the lower rope finished on a relatively flat glacier, and no yawning crevasses, so my compatriot was able to unclip, and wandered away down, without even acknowledging my help.

Like the Japanese guy on the summit, it felt as if he shouldn’t have been on the hill. This wasn’t some natural extension of long-established experience, it was simply trophy tourism. He had paid someone to get him onto a summit, and by doing so appeared to have absolved himself of any responsibility. He clearly felt no compunction to be honest, and lacked self-awareness to a dangerous degree, not just for himself, but for the whole group.

This was nearly 20 years ago. This extreme trophy hunting adventurism has been growing ever since. The problem with most outdoor activities is that they are all fairly straightforward until something goes wrong. But it’s ultimately all about that moment when something goes wrong, because inevitably in the outdoors, something eventually will. Some people think they can make up for a lack of ability or experience in that moment by buying adventure, and delegating their safety to others. But hanging off a cliff, suspended over a crevasse or in the middle of a roaring ocean, money means nothing. The only thing of value then, is the experience to make good decisions and the self-awareness to recognise your own limitations.