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Doug Scott, Leading Alpinist and Survivor of Highest Open Bivy on Everest, Dies at 79

“Of all the post-Second World War British mountaineers,” Sir Chris Bonington told Rock and Ice, “Doug Scott was undoubtedly outstanding and joins the rich pantheon of international pioneering climbers from around the world.”

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Even in his final illness, Doug Scott was his irrepressible self, hauling himself up the short flight of stairs at his home in Cumbria to raise money for Community Action Nepal (CAN), the non-profit he started in 1989 to help the people of Nepal who had helped him. The stair climbing was part of CAN’s Everest Challenge 2020, a way to raise money during lockdown as the regular supply of funds, most often Doug giving public lectures, was no longer possible.

Doug had dressed for the occasion in the old wind-suit he wore on the summit of Everest in 1975 during the first ascent of the southwest face. Dougal Haston’s picture shows him standing gloveless in the dusk next to the old Chinese tripod, ready for anything. He needed to be. That morning he had left the tent without wearing his down suit because it constricted his movement too much. Under the wind-suit was silk underwear, cashmere and nylon pile. It would soon be dark and their headlamps failed as they abseiled down the Hillary Step. A bivouac was inevitable.

Doug Scott
Doug Scott on the summit of Mount Everest in 1975. Photo: Dougal Haston.

Back at the south summit the pair hunkered in a snow cave, the highest anyone had ever spent the night, ill equipped, their oxygen exhausted. As night wore on they began hallucinating. Doug found himself talking to his feet, “which had become two separate, conscious entities sharing our cave.” His left foot was complaining that it felt ignored, so he took his boot off and discovered it wooden with cold. He pummeled it back to life and Haston unzipped his down suit to put it against his belly. When dawn allowed them to start down, not only were they still alive, neither man had frostbite. Doug didn’t feel lucky: he felt empowered. His horizons had been broadened. “I knew from then on,” he wrote in his memoir Up and About, “I would never again burden myself with oxygen bottles.”

Scott died on the morning of December 7, at 79 years old, following a battle with brain cancer.

His success and miraculous survival cemented Doug’s reputation for strength, “both physical and mental,” as Jim Duff, doctor on the 1975 Everest expedition put it. Duff saw his friend as “a force of nature with a wry sense of humor,” and shared Doug’s deep interest in spiritual discovery, reading the I Ching—the “Book of Changes”—and studying Buddhism. That combination of strength and curiosity, coupled with an almost frightening level of energy, were the hallmarks of Doug Scott’s career, one that straddled a revolutionary period in alpinism as siege tactics gave way to alpine style.

“Of all the post-Second World War British mountaineers,” Sir Chris Bonington told Rock and Ice, “Doug Scott was undoubtedly outstanding and joins the rich pantheon of international pioneering climbers from around the world.”

Bonington himself discovered just how outstanding Doug was during the first ascent of The Ogre in Pakistan’s Karakoram range, an ascent Doug wrote about in his history of the peak. Once again Doug was pushing hard late in the day to snag the summit, Bonington fighting to keep up. Abseiling at an angle back down the difficult headwall, Scott slipped and swung, breaking both his legs. Marooned at 7,200 meters with no possibility of rescue on a mountain of considerable difficulty, Scott crawled back to base camp in worsening weather, helped down by teammates Mo Anthoine and Clive Rowland. It became one of the great epic stories of mountain survival, captured in a photo of Doug crossing steep ground on his knees, teeth bared against the storm.

[Also Read The Ogre: Facing the Monster – by Hayden Kennedy]

Doug Scott was born in Nottingham on May 29, 1941, a propitious day for a future Everest climber. His mother Joyce was a supervisor in the local cigarette factory before becoming a homemaker. As a teenager, she visited a fortune-teller who told her she would marry a man in uniform and that her eldest son would one day be in great peril in a high place. Her husband, George Scott, was a policeman and notable boxer, in 1945 becoming British amateur heavyweight champion. But he gave up dreams of the Olympics to focus on family and tend his garden. Doug inherited both his father’s burly frame and his green fingers. “He grew amazing vegetables and worked up wonderful veggie gardens at all the homes he lived in,” Jim Duff recalled. “You never left his home without some enormous onions or whatever.”

Doug Scott
Doug Scott. Photo: Geoff Beatty.

Many British climbers of Scott’s generation found childhood inspiration in the movie of the 1953 Everest expedition, but Doug was a fidgety boy and when his class was taken to see it, the teacher had to tick him off for not sitting still. Doug’s route to Everest began in exploration of his own neighborhood, building dens or roaming with friends. School was too dull when there were adventures to be had and his education stuttered for a while. But faced with the prospect of life in a factory or down a coal mine, he knuckled down, taking extra classes and developing a passion for reading that he never lost. He moved on to grammar school and then to teacher-training college.

Scott discovered climbing during an Easter scout camp in 1955, when he saw climbers at Black Rocks above the Derwent valley. He was smitten instantly, a fortnight later cycling the 20 miles back there with his mother’s washing line. He had an irrepressible energy and lived life at the full. Married at 20 to his first wife Jan, through the 1960s he juggled a teaching career—often taking his charges into the hills—a growing family, playing rugby, and his passion for climbing. There were ambitious exploratory expeditions with a tight-knit group of Nottingham friends, first to the Tibesti mountains of Chad in 1963 and then in 1965 to the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan, traveling overland by truck.

Scott’s first reputation was as an aid climber, making hard first ascents in the Peak District and Yorkshire before moving on to The Scoop, up the wildly overhanging cliff of Strone Ulladale on the Isle of Harris. He did several hard ascents in the Dolomites, including the North Face of the Cima Ovest, and the Troll Wall in Norway. He also visited Yosemite, climbing with the American star Royal Robbins and then making the first European ascent of El Capitan’s Salathé Wall with the Austrian Peter Habeler. The freewheeling Californian scene appealed to Scott; he tried acid, once and rather by accident, and became switched on to a less self-absorbed way of living, something that would only deepen when he discovered the Himalaya and more mystical ways of seeing.

By then he had quit teaching, having requested a leave of absence once too often, this time to climb Mount Asgard on Baffin Island, and was earning a living as a jobbing builder. In the bath one morning in February 1972, he got a call from Don Whillans inviting him on an international expedition to Everest’s southwest face led by the austere Karl Herligkoffer, whom Whillans nicknamed Sterling-scoffer, having no illusions about the reason for having Brits on the team. The expedition was fraught, but Scott had discovered his true milieu, the otherworldly, physically punishing world of high-altitude mountaineering, where his strength and ambition came to the fore.

[Also Read Joe Brown, British Climbing Colossus, Dead at 89]

Having performed strongly, he was asked on Chris Bonington’s first attempt in the autumn of 1972, beginning an intense period of cooperation that saw them climb Changabang in the Indian Himalaya before the successes on Everest and The Ogre. Then, in 1978, in the middle of an expedition to K2 and following the death of teammate Nick Estcourt in an avalanche, this productive relationship ended, although the two would later restore their friendship.

Doug’s greatest climb was arguably the new route he climbed on Kangchenjunga with Joe Tasker and Pete Boardman, a lightweight ascent that pointed the way for a purer approach to the world’s highest mountains. That same year, 1979, he climbed new routes on Kusum Kanguru and Nuptse as well. There were further attempts on K2 and a protracted tussle with the southeast ridge of Makalu—a hugely committing climb where he came close to success in 1984, thwarted by Jean Afanassieff’s decision to call time. Despite now being in his forties, Doug’s pace remained relentless and he added new roles, including that of mentor.

“Doug Scott invited many young climbers to the Himalayas,” Greg Child recalled, “enriching their lives and launching their careers. After a chance meeting outside a pub in Yorkshire I found myself on top of Shivling with him, in 1981. Then Lobsang Spire in Pakistan, in 1983. Three more trips by the end of that decade. His expeditions were social experiments, pieces of performance art, sometimes total failures. It didn’t matter. Bonington described Doug to me as a ‘tribal chieftain.’ Being on a hill with him, watching him grit his teeth against wind and snow, was to witness an unstoppable physical force. I got testy on Shivling after our food ran out 11 days into a 13-day climb. ‘You’ll never find enlightenment on a full stomach,’ said Doug. Then he set off breaking trail. He had a massively good impact on my life.”

The expeditions continued through the 1990s: a new route on Latok 3 and an attempt on Nanga Parbat’s Mazeno Ridge. There were more exploratory trips as well, to the Kanjiroba Himal in Nepal and, at the end of that decade, a brutal 18-day trek with Greg Child into the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh with the Indians Balwant Sandhu and Akhil Sarpu. “In due course,” Doug wrote with humility, “we were all to find that we had strayed into an environment where we did not belong, and suffered accordingly.” As in some nightmare from Joseph Conrad, the team endured malaria, typhoid, infected leech bites and dim dim flies, barely seeing the sky through the jungle and barely seeing the mountains when they finally reached base camp, something they only achieved, Doug acknowledged, because of their local Nishi guides. “My lasting impression is of them as professional mountaineers.”

Doug used to say that he felt a physical decline begin around the age of 55, although that didn’t stop him, as the Arunachal trip proved. But after 45 expeditions to Asia alone, damage to his knees was slowing him down. His level of energy seemed more intense than ever, and he involved himself in the sport’s representative bodies, particularly the UIAA, and served as president of the Alpine Club in the U.K. Yet it was with the people of the Himalaya that he made his greatest effort, particularly in Nepal.

“He has gone on to put so much back into society,” Bonington said, “with the charity he founded and has worked for tirelessly, Community Action Nepal, giving effective help to the hill people who need it most.”

Ben Ayers, a board member of CAN and longtime resident of Nepal, understood the scale of Doug’s effort. “His leadership of Community Action Nepal was defined by his generous nature and nearly boundless energy. Doug’s near-constant lectures and fundraising facilitated hundreds of projects of all sizes in communities across the country. His strategy was to give his full support to local leaders with a vision for their communities. CAN’s work ranged from founding schools for deaf children, to constructing and equipping health clinics in wildly remote villages; teaching hundreds of local farmers to grow new and more effective crops, to building life-saving shelters for porters high along the popular trekking routes. After the 2015 earthquakes, CAN was active in reconstructing health facilities and schools and has since honed the focus of the organization to providing agriculture, health and education to the isolated northern Gorkha region of Nepal, in the shadow of Manaslu.”

In later years Doug Scott found immense support in this work from his third wife Trish, who also cared for him when he developed brain lymphoma. He had three children, Michael, Martha and Rosie, with his first wife Jan, whom he married in 1962. They divorced in 1988. He married Sharu Prabhu in 1993 and they had two sons, Arran and Euan, before divorcing in 2003. He married Trish in 2007 and she survives him.

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