Newall Hunter: How a 53-year-old IT engineer joined the exploring elite
Strolling through the corridors of the Royal Geographic Society in London is to be subtly reminded of the exceptional exploits of exceptional adventurers. On the walls are archive photographs of historic expeditions by legendary explorers – Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed quest to reach the South Pole, Ernest Shackleton’s heroic return from his failed Antarctic crossing, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historic ascent of Everest.
Amazing achievements all and undertaken, for the most part, by what might be termed ‘professional’ adventurers, men whose journeys to the world’s highest, wildest, most remote places were the work of a lifetime. Leading the way past these explorer heroes on this occasion, however, is an adventurer of a different stripe. Newall Hunter is what might loosely be termed a ‘regular Joe’, a softly spoken 53-year-old Scot. Clad in a light fleece, hiking pants and sturdy boots, he’s the sort of guy you might meet in a waypoint pub on a day out hill-walking.
Hunter’s story, though, is as remarkable as those whose company he keeps at the RGS. For last year, Hunter, who spends the bulk of his time working as a communications contractor and IT engineer, became just the 15th person to conquer the Adventurers Grand Slam – climbing seven of the world’s highest and most treacherous peaks and reaching the North and South Poles.
“I didn’t set out with a goal, I’m not a professional explorer,” he smiles. “I haven’t sold out to TV companies who follow me around all the time. They’re not paying for it. I’m just an ordinary bloke doing this.”
Hunter’s ordinary path to extraordinary accomplishment began in his native Scotland. Born in the tiny village of Leadhills, the second highest in Scotland, Hunter’s youth was spent clambering up the surrounding hills. In his teens the passion for mountaineering extended to climbing all of Scotland’s Munros – peaks over 3,000ft (914m).
Over the next two decades, he transferred his climbing to the Alps – “Mont Blanc, the Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn” – but life was getting in the way. “When I was 18 I trained in aerospace communications systems,” he explains. “I worked in air traffic control engineering for 18 years.”
Then, in 2003, aged 40, Hunter targeted a new challenge. “I quite fancied one of the big ones,” he says. “But before going off to try something in the Himalayas, I thought I should find something else to practise on, mostly to see how I would perform at altitude rather than the technical side of it.”
“The highest peak you can find outside the Himalayas is Aconcagua in South America – 6,961m. There were three or four of us climbing it and a guide. They didn’t make the summit, so I carried on without them. They had altitude sickness, but I had no issues. I got to the summit, did the photograph, sat around, ate some food and went back down. I jogged from the summit to the high camp. “For me, the best aspect was on the mental side, finding out that I performed well, that I could do it. It was a stepping stone and it gave me the confidence to do something bigger.”
It was the start of Hunter’s epic 13-year quest, though at the time there was no ambition for it to be so. “There was no real goal at that point,” he says. “I just wanted to see if I could climb a big mountain and then maybe go out to the Himalayas. Aconcagua probably cost me £6,000, plus time off work – about a month to climb – so not ridiculous. You’ve got a guide and people supplying food, so you turn up and it’s all there for you. I didn’t do the planning for it. It’s doable for anyone.”
A year later, though, Hunter found himself chalking off a second of the seven peaks, Kilimanjaro. There was little enjoyment in the achievement, however.
“The problem with Kilimanjaro is you can’t go unguided,” he says. “You have to have a local guide and you go way too fast. You’re up and down the mountain in six days. They churn through people. People are getting headaches, altitude problems and all the rest of it, really suffering. It’s horrible. It’s my least favourite of all of them.”
And then, for six years, Hunter took a break from his quest. Not because of the disappointment of Kilimanjaro, but simply because, once again, life got in the way.
“Loads of other things were happening in my life at that point. I’d quit my career and went off contracting to try and earn some money.
There was a plan. Whether it was a thought-out plan or just me thinking ‘this is easier’, I don’t know, but it was certainly coming to the point of saying: ‘I don’t really want the career. I would rather have the flexibility to do more of this.’”
In 2010 what had been a vague idea began to coalesce around Alaska’s 6,194m Denali and an expedition that could have been his last. Hunter signed up for a pre-season climb, in April, when the mountain is still shrouded in long hours of darkness and when conditions are at their most unpredictable.
“It’s the cold,” he says simply. “If you’ve never experienced the cold and the isolation… Because rescue on Denali at that time of year, it’s non-existent. Nobody’s coming to get you.”
After a gruelling climb to 5,180m that began with his ski plane almost crashing onto a glacier at 3,350m and continued through 10 debilitating days of slow upward crawl, Hunter and his fellow climbers paused for a rest day before an attempt on the summit.
“Then the storm hit – a massive one, to the point where you’re lying on the ground in your tent and the wind is flattening the tent so that it’s smacking you in the face. It was -47˚C inside the tent. We were there for six days and six nights.” When the storm eventually cleared, the team made an attempt at the summit, but the climbers were eventually turned back through sheer exhaustion.
“I learned a lot about myself then,” Hunter admits. “I learned I had the ability to turn around, and that it was the right thing to do. People talk about getting the red mist, saying, ‘It’s not that far, it’s not that far.’ If it doesn’t feel right, you should turn around. You can come back and do it again. If you get it wrong, you won’t be coming back.”
Six years later, Hunter would return to Denali to complete his Grand Slam, this time taking on the climb “in the easiest way possible” with a summer ascent, but the mountain still ranks as the most fearsome of the nine challenges.
Between the two Alaskan climbs, Hunter’s pace gathered, fuelled by a growing desire to adventure further, and faster. “I came down from Denali thinking, ‘we got away with that’, but after a few weeks, I started to think, ‘There’s an empty hole here. I need something.’” He dug deep and ploughed a large proportion of his savings into conquering Everest.
He then trekked 450km across the Arctic from the Canadian side to reach the North Pole and followed it with a marathon 911km solo march from the Filchner Ice Shelf, on the edge of the Antarctic continent, to the Geographic South Pole.
Here, disaster almost struck again – when he narrowly escaped plummeting into a crevasse. “I was on it before I knew it. I looked down and there was a black hole below me. My ski tips were on the snow on the far side of it, the tails were on the other side and there was nothing below me. If I’d gone down, I wasn’t getting out. If I had been at any other angle to it than 90 degrees, I’d have been in. That’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to disaster.”
Hunter’s reaction was to simply plant his sticks on the far side and haul himself to safety. “It was just bad luck. There was nothing I could do about it. I was on it; I had to get off it, so I just stepped over it.”
It’s an example of the matter-of-fact calm with which Hunter details all of the trials his 13-year quest have presented. Be it week-long blizzards on Denali, bridging stretches of Arctic sea by slithering across an opaque, thin skin of new-formed ice to reach the North Pole or embarking on a 13-hour climb of Indonesia’s 4,884m Carstensz Pyramid armed with “a litre of water and a bag of chilli peanuts”, Hunter insists that it is all simply process and preparation.
“Loads of people say, ‘Everest, it’s massive. How the hell am I going to climb that?’ But once you break it down into bits – ‘What am I going to eat? How am I going to sleep?’ – it’s achievable. It takes 40 days to climb Everest. Don’t worry about the 40 days. All you’ve got to do is worry about today and tomorrow and the next day. My climbing is all process. It’s breaking the whole thing down into manageable chunks.
My girlfriend calls it my lack of imagination, because I don’t seem to worry. That’s not true. Before I go on an expedition, I look at everything. You mitigate, identify all the things that can go wrong and you work out how you’re going to manage those eventualities. And the ones you can’t manage, the ones you can’t do anything about, you either accept them or you don’t go.”
While the execution of each increasingly quickfire expedition – Hunter rattled off the South Pole and Antarctica’s Mount Vinson in an epic 52-day burst before summiting Indonesia’s Carstensz Pyramid, Russia’s Mount Elbrus and eventually beating Denali in just nine months – provides the much-needed ‘something’ he craves it’s the meticulous planning and preparation that provide the longer-term satisfaction, and the knowledge that it has all been done by a ‘regular guy’.
“It is the ordinary bloke thing,” he says. “I actively decided I didn’t want sponsorship or anybody else involved with this. When I went to the South Pole, people wanted to sponsor me, but I didn’t want anything to do with it. I wanted to do this myself. Selfish? Yes. But at the end of the day, I can say, ‘I did that’. The enjoyment is mine. It’s just for me.”
And in June of 2016, the plan was complete. Hunter stood on the summit of Denali having accomplished a feat just 14 other men and women had mastered. Thirteen years of effort, commitment, obsession and sacrifice were over. The only way, both literally and metaphorically, was down. “I am drifting,” he says. “Nothing’s working properly at the moment. I should be finding work to earn money and I haven’t really done that.
Nothing seems worth the bother. I need to find something. Once I get something, I’ll be back on track.”
The obvious void at the end of the road begs the question of whether the journey has been worth the sacrifice – of career, family, material comforts. Did the quest take over his life?
“People around me would say yes, but it is my life,” he insists. “You can do it but there’s going to be a sacrifice. You’re going to be working to pay for this and when you’re not working you’re going to be training. It’s like the Olympics: you look at people winning gold medals and they all say, it’s dedication, sacrifice and hard work. It’s not anything else. There is no trick. There’s no magic wand.”
And right now, the hard work is focused on the next horizon. Ask him when the drift will end and Hunter immediately brightens. “If I stick to the mountains, the obvious thing is to go and climb K2, the big bad one, but I’m not sure. I might fancy doing something completely different. Maybe attempt to cross the Gobi Desert in winter.
That’s further than Antarctica and about as cold. It’s 2,400km in 55 days or something. Minus 45. Nobody’s done that one. “That’s the phase I’m in at the moment: “Where do I go next?” Because I’m not going to give this up, I’m going to do something else. It is the challenge. I love the challenge.”