This year is the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953. In 1998, a 12-year-old Scout was listening to a talk about Everest. That boy was Rhys Jones who went on to climb Everest on his 20th birthday and, in doing so, set a record as the youngest person to scale the highest mountains in the world’s seven continents.
Mount Everest is not for the faint-hearted.
It is a hostile, unforgiving place. A place where, five miles up, death lives in the faces of frozen corpses that litter the route to the top.
Apart from the lack of oxygen – high altitude can strip you of your senses – avalanches, rockslides, hurricane-force winds, shifting glaciers, blizzards, frostbite, pneumonia, exhaustion and freezing temperatures await climbers in the ‘death zone’.
“It’s called the death zone and it’s even less fun than it sounds,” said climber Rhys Jones. “Taking the endless steps upwards in thin air is like swimming in glue. There’s ice inside the tents. It’s miserable. You have no appetite, you cannot rest properly and it’s brutally cold.”
But he who dares, wins. And for Rhys, who had dreamed about climbing to the top of the world’s highest mountain since he was 12, all the pain would be worth those five minutes he would spend on the 29,035ft (8,850m) summit.
“I heard a talk about Mount Everest when I was a Scout,” he said. “I didn’t really know anything about mountains until then. But I just decided I wanted to climb Everest one day and the rest of what happened was a result of working towards that goal.”
The goal was not only to conquer Everest, but to become the youngest person to complete the Seven Summits Challenge by climbing the highest mountains in each of the world’s seven continents.
Mount Everest would be the last of the seven, but first he needed to raise £30,000.
“I had sent literally hundreds of letters to potential sponsors but had very little luck,” he said. “But then INEOS stepped in which effectively guaranteed I could do the climb.”
INEOS chairman Jim Ratcliffe agreed to meet Rhys to discuss the planned expedition.
“I had no idea what to expect when I met him,” said Rhys. “I remember turning up in my beaten up hatchback and wearing a suit. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.”
The two chatted for an hour.
“I got the impression nothing is lost on him and he seemed very engaged the whole time we were talking, which was impressive considering how much was probably going on,” said Rhys.
“It was also a sign that he had good people working for him in that he could spend a big chunk of the day talking to me.”
The face-to-face meeting resulted in a £30,000 sponsorship deal with INEOS.
“It was a game changer,” said Rhys.
With the money in his pocket – and an INEOS flag to plant at the summit – Rhys could now concentrate on the journey that lay ahead.
In May 2006, Rhys, three other climbers, two guides and five Sherpas left Everest Base Camp.
“We were the first team of the year to go for the summit so we had to fix rope all the way and break trail in the snow which was a test of character,” he said.
“To this very day, that experience provides me with good perspective on what is difficult or not.”
Fear, though, was something the team left behind.
“To be successful, you can’t afford to have demons,” said Rhys.
“Of course I had worries. There were some very close calls. I was nearly taken out twice by an avalanche. People do die on Everest, but I remember being very objective about it, and only scoring things as hit or miss. So long as they were all ‘misses’, I’d continue.
“I just hoped I’d be lucky with the weather and not end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Had his carefully laid-out plans unraveled – and on Everest, they can unravel at breathtakingly terrifying speeds – Rhys would have turned back. No matter how close he was to the summit.
“No mountain is worth my fingers or toes or my life,” he said. “I’d just go back again. The mountain isn’t going anywhere. Everest, sadly, seems to encourage intelligent people to take stupid risks.”
Everest has so far claimed more than 200 lives and about 150 bodies have never been recovered.
“You need an overriding mental toughness to climb Everest that stops you from ever turning around unless it’s too dangerous,” he said.
“If it’s not, you just have to dig in and get on with it.”
Rhys reached the summit, which was shrouded in cloud on May 17 2006 at 3pm after a final 16-hour climb.
The relief was immense.
“I was monumentally relieved to reach the top but I was also acutely aware of the fact that it was late and I had a very long descent ahead of me,” he said.
“I just unrolled the INEOS flag, took off my oxygen mask, had a few photographs taken, said ‘thank god for that’ and went down.”
Today Rhys runs his own business, RJ7 Expeditions, a company that operates from offices in four continents, helping others to plan trips of a lifetime.
“It’s not in the same league as INEOS but we are growing aggressively,” he said with a smile.
Lessons learned from climbing have helped him to shape the business.
“There’s a lot of synergy between the two,” he said. “Managing a team in a high risk environment, achieving goals and being ambitious apply equally to both.”
His also views risks in life as necessary.
“A degree of risk is usually the key to achieving something,” he said.
“The risks I take climbing are still sometimes a matter of life or death, the risks I take in business may be more financial. But I treat them both in a similar way, and focus on the facts, the likelihoods, the outcomes and then make a judgement.”
He believes many businesses fail today due to poor management and lack of focus.
“A poorly motivated team is a huge money pit yet it can cost relatively little to remedy,” he said.
“A lack of clear focus is also a trap, as many companies try to grab what they can in the current climate, instead of sticking to what they’re good at.”
Rhys is – and will always be – driven by his passion.
“In all the years I have been climbing, I have never felt like I’ve conquered a mountain,” he said. “I just feel lucky to have enjoyed the climb and been able to stand on the summit for a few moments.”