Adrian Hayes is a record-breaker. In 2007, he set a Guinness World Record for being the fastest person to complete the Three Poles Challenge – climbing Everest and reaching both the North and South poles – in just 1 year and 217 days.

Though this has since been beaten by American Colin O’Brady, Hayes still has the world record for the longest unsupported Arctic snow-kiting expedition, spending 67 days crossing Greenland’s icecap in 2009, the first time the journey was completed.

The British adventurer is someone who has followed his passion to challenge himself – climbing extreme heights, trekking harsh landscapes and achieving what very few people have achieved throughout a career in the British Army, as an ironman triathlete and a mountaineer.

Peak of Everest

Mount Everest

The irony is that Hayes did not set out to break any records. He only realised when coming back to Dubai after reaching the South Pole that he was close to beating the previous Three Poles record.

”I did The Three Poles because I believed I could. It all started as a young child when we used to mount ‘expeditions’ across the marshlands of the river valley near where we lived. I used to gaze for hours at our family globe wondering what it would be like to see the furthest reaches of Earth,” says Hayes.

Growing up in a family-run hotel in the New Forest in England, Hayes had posters of mountaineers and explorers, not popstars or footballers, on his walls.

“The first mountain I climbed was when I was 14 – Mt Teide, the 3,718m volcano in Tenerife – which we visited whilst on holiday with my parents and two brothers. The last 200m or so has to be hiked and I found the stillness of the air, the inability to run and, of course, the amazing view, utterly fascinating. I guess it spurred me on to experience more of this strange world, so I started ice climbing when I was 17,” says Hayes of the formation of his addiction to extreme adventures.

Climbing K2

In 2013, Hayes was making a bid to climb K2 when tragedy struck. Hayes’ friends, New Zealanders Marty Schmidt and son Denali, were killed on the mountain after getting caught in an avalanche after reaching Camp 3. With his oxygen supplies and kit destroyed, Hayes abandoned his own attempt, but returned to K2 a year later and summited on the 60th anniversary of the first ascent. He worked through the tragedy in his recently released book: One Man's Climb: A Journey of Trauma, Tragedy and Triumph on K2. So how did he process what happened?

“It’s not so much the ‘everything happens for a reason’, but rather ‘things happen, it’s up to us to find the reason’. Secondly, nature is more powerful than all of us and luck plays a very important part. Most importantly, you need to be 100% clear and honest about why you are attempting to climb K2,” says Hayes.

“You don’t climb K2 to highlight awareness of cancer, climate change, Catalan independence or any other campaign. You don’t do it to raise money for the lifeboat service or an orphanage in Africa. And you don’t do it to show others that ‘they too can achieve their dreams’.

“These are all worthy causes, but if you are really driven by them you would spend the time, effort and money directly on those cause, not climbing K2. I’m passionate about the work I do, but that’s separate. I climb K2 for myself and so does everyone on the mountain. And we do it because it’s regarded as the greatest challenge in high altitude mountaineering,” he insists.

Adrian Hayes

Adrian climbing in the Himalayas

Credit: Adrian Hayes

Following Everest and K2, Hayes tried to climb Lhotse and Makalu (the world's 4th and 5th highest mountains) in 2015, but a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal ended the attempt amind landslides and avalanches. More than 9,000 people died and 22,000 were injured.

Despite turning 60 in June, Hayes hasn’t given up on mountaineering just yet.

“I aim to head back to the Himalayas in 2021, either to attempt Lhotse or Makalu again or try Dhaulagiri, the 7th highest mountain in the world. Kanchenjunga is in my plans but, like K2, it is an extremely challenging mountain and requires one to be at the very top of their game,” he says.

More than 800 mountaineers summited Everest in 2018 - a record number that brought criticism around overcrowding. This year’s season saw that famous picture of queues on the Hillary Step, taken by Nirmal Purja. But just 379 climbers have scaled K2 in history. So why are so many attracted by Everest?

“Climbing Everest requires seven things – extreme fitness, great determination, money, time, ability to operate at altitude, reaction to supplementary oxygen and experience. Climbing K2 requires even greater fitness and to be a technical rock and ice climber, capable of moving at high speed at extreme altitude. The challenges are enormous and the dangers profound – steep and vertical ice and rock walls, appalling weather, deep snow, rockfall and avalanche dangers and all at extreme altitude,” warns Hayes.

“Most years, no-one gets up K2. The summit to death ratios are also profound – approximately 1-2 people will die on Everest for every 100 that climb it. For K2, it’s one in four who will perish.”

Campsite on k2 trek

Campsite on trek to K2

With so much danger in his adventures, what keeps him coming back?

“It’s that integrity about why I’m attempting them – and loving being in the extremes of nature, away from the information overload of the so-called ‘real world’.”

Despite the mountains calling him back time and again, Hayes admits that it is conquering the poles that satisfied him most.

“They are so inaccessible and you are so far away from the distractions and mayhem of the rest of the world. Trekking to the North Pole from Canada on frozen sea ice was the hardest challenge I have ever attempted. in a place we simply do not belong, trekking to the South Pole across Antarctica was the most amazing. There is simply no other place like it on Earth.”

“Enormous challenges and profound danger”: Mountaineer Adrian Hayes on climbing Everest and K2

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey


Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelance travel writer and guidebook author. Her work has appeared in The Independent, The Telegraph, France Today, AFAR, CNN Travel, and her three books on Australia are in print with Moon Travel Guides.

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