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Saturday, 25 October 2014

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Doug Scott: A man who needs to keep connecting with the outdoors

It seems the last thing Doug Scott wants to do is talk. He’s in the garden. Then he’s in the kitchen. Then the office. Then the garden again. I’m chasing him around as if we’re in a Benny Hill sketch. This is what he’s like, I’m told. Busy. Hard to pin down.

Doug Scott photo
Doug Scott

These days his garden is the natural habitat of the first Englishman to stand on the summit of Everest. And the garden is the reason for our conversation, should he ever decide to sit down.

This Sunday, Doug and his wife Trish will open their one-acre plot to the public to raise funds for the National Gardens Scheme charity, and for Doug’s charity Community Action Nepal (CAN).

Their home, Stewart Hill Cottage, is not a million miles from Hesket Newmarket. It just feels that far after you’ve negotiated narrow country lanes through the northern fells.

“I like the peace and quiet,” says Doug.

Then he’s come to the right place. He and Trish have spent seven years here, much of it transforming farmland into flower beds; a pergola walkway; lawns; a walled kitchen garden; an ornamental pond and seating area.

When it comes to growing, Doug explains the division of labour. “I do the veg. My wife does the flowers.”

It’s all organic. Doug proudly shows off a huge composter which the worms are clearly enjoying. “That’s 10-year-old horse muck. This is the Chateauneuf-du-Pape of composters.”

Doug, Trish and gardener Tom pick up leaves deposited by recent storms. Other worries before the open day include cabbage fly and vanishing carrots, for which the family Labradors are chief suspects.

“This is the seventh garden I’ve put together,” says Doug, when the chase finally ends at a document-strewn desk in his office.

“I like to spend time there. When I get home, before I see the wife and kids I see the garden. I like to see what’s been happening.

“I do find it very therapeutic to get my hands in the soil, to get stuck in. I love to see things grow.”

Doug’s father was a keen gardener at the family home in Nottingham. During the war he had an allotment.

“He’d come home on leave and get digging. One day he came home and there was a bomb crater. I don’t think Hitler was targeting our allotment specifically.”

Doug moved to Cumbria in the 1980s. By then he was one of the best climbers in the world. In September 1975 he and Dougal Haston, a Scot, had become the first Britons to scale Everest. They took the previously unclimbed south-west face, regarded as one of the toughest challenges in mountaineering.

Doug reached more than 40 Himalayan summits. Climbing led to books, lecture tours, and huge respect.

He never forgot those who helped him reach such heights. Nepal’s porters have shared the load of many a westerner. But this is one of the poorest countries in the world.

“They made it possible for me to climb those mountains,” says Doug, now more focused as he discusses the topic which has driven him for decades. “They often work for very, very little. They’re badly equipped. Quite often they die doing it.

“The rural poor are quite amazing. Quite resourceful. They’ve suffered from drought, floods, earthquakes. When most westerners go out there for the first time, what they remember more than the mountains are the people who are so hospitable, welcoming and caring.

“They just do everything with a huge smile on their face, without all the amenities we take for granted. They have no water or electricity in their homes.”

Doug’s repayment is evident in the schools and the health posts built and staffed by CAN. The charity provides jobs and money by selling clothes, carpets and other Nepal-made goods.

CAN has raised more than £3m. Its current projects include building shelters for mountain porters.

Doug’s garden is not the only place he loves to see things grow. Many of CAN’s schools are expanding to accommodate children from a wider area. One current student of medicine at Manchester University began his education at a CAN primary school.

Doug mentions “the little things” which make a big difference. CAN’s nurses are trained in dentistry. There are no other dentists in these mountain communities.

“A lot of villages say since we put the health posts in they haven’t had anything like the same number of people dying.

“Women were dying in labour. I think we’ve saved quite a few lives. We’ve generally lifted standards and given them opportunity. It’s nice to think we could do that.”

The project he’s most proud of is a school for deaf children. “If you’re disabled out there in any way, you’re in real trouble. The families don’t want to know. The people that should be getting all the love and affection don’t.

“It’s seen as a stigma on the whole family that they should produce such a child. It’s seen as bad karma for something that happened in the past. They tend to hide them away. The women teachers become like surrogate mothers.”

Doug used to spend half the year in Nepal. Now it’s a few weeks. Still long enough to spark memories of the days when he pushed himself to astonishing limits.

“Driving along sometimes, I think of some of the big climbs. And the guys who’ve died, like Dougal Haston. [Haston was killed by an avalanche in 1977]. Thinking how different it would be if they were still here.”

Does he feel lucky to be alive?

“Yes. I had some near misses. Tied to Nick Escourt. [When they were climbing the world’s second-highest mountain, K2, in 1978 and were hit by an avalanche]. The rope broke, he went down 4,000 feet. I suppose that was lucky.”

Then he’s quiet. Thankfully, there are happier memories.

“The summit of Everest was quite special. We didn’t get there until six in the evening. There was an amazing sunset. You could see a sweep of about 400 miles. You could see the perfect curve of the Earth, see clouds forming in valleys over Tibet. Feeling part of something much bigger than yourself.

“After Everest I definitely felt revitalised, like a man reborn. Your whole state of being is lifted. You’re more alive and more enthusiastic. And more objective. You’ve stepped out of your usual existence and seen things you haven’t seen before.”

Like lunar explorers, mountaineers are supposed to find returning to earth more difficult than reaching the sky.

Not Doug, he insists. “I always enjoyed the contrast between there and here. But there is a contradiction. When I’m here, I want to be there. When I’m there I wouldn’t mind being back home. Home comforts win out after too many months of suffering.”

At 71 he is still rock climbing in his adopted county. Chris Bonington, the neighbour and friend who led the 1975 Everest expedition, is still a climbing partner – unless Doug’s other passion intrudes.

“Chris Bonington rings up to go climbing. I say ‘The weather’s been terrible – I just need to do a day’s gardening.’

“‘Gardening?’ he’ll say. ‘Instead of climbing?’

“I’m equally keen on gardening and rock climbing. The two go together. You need to keep connecting with the outdoors.”

  • Doug and Trish Scott’s garden at Stewart Hill Cottage is open to the public on Sunday July 1 from 2-5pm. Admission £3.50. Homemade teas and cakes will be on sale, as will Nepalese crafts, clothing and gifts for Community Action Nepal. Stewart Hill Cottage is near Hutton Roof, about five miles south-east of Hesket Newmarket. Grid Reference: NY 366 347. For further information and directions visit www.canepal.org.uk or call 01768 484842.

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