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By Richard Cowper in Tibet

I was among Britain's most unlikely climbing partners as we set off into Tibet by jeep and yak last week in an attempt to scale Mount Everest by its windswept north ridge, scene of all the great pre-war assaults on the world's highest mountain.

In the vanguard is Alan Hinkes, a brash, uncompromising, professional mountaineer at the peak of his career as an athlete, having climbed more 8,000 metres (26,200ft) Himalayan giants than any other Briton.

Teaming up with him, at 16 stone and just three months short of 60 years old, is larger-than-life actor Brian Blessed, a man obsessed by both Everest and by George Leigh Mallory, the legendary British climber who disappeared in mysterious circumstances somewhere above 27,000ft in 1924.

As a qualified guide and high altitude cameraman, Hinkes is being paid to accompany Blessed and film his quest for mountaineering stardom all the way to the top of the 8,848 metres (29,028ft) peak. But there seems little doubt that uppermost in Hinkes' mind will be his own desire to reach the summit.

'It's the highest mountain in the world, so it is important to me that I get to the top and knock it off. I don't want to have to go again,' says Hinkes. His over-riding ambition is to become the first Englishman to reach all 14 of the world's 8,000-metre summits, a feat so far achieved by just three climbers.

Blessed's is a more romantic approach. On his third - and possibly last - attempt on Everest, he had hoped to be carrying the remains of Captain John Noel, a friend and one of the earliest and greatest of Everest explorers, who died in 1989 aged 99. In 1913, Noel had even disguised himself as a Tibetan in order to get as close to Everest as possible.

Blessed's plan was to spread Noel's ashes close to the very spot where his even more famous colleagues, Mallory and Andrew Irvine, disappeared on the north ridge 72 years ago.

But, at the last moment, Noel's family decided the ashes should remain in England. Shrugging off his disappointment, Blessed says: 'Instead, I am taking with me General Bruce's ice axe from 1879. More important, the Dalai Lama has given me three sacred scarves to place on the summit, one for the peace of mankind, one for the mountain and one for himself.'

Blessed's love affair with the world's highest summit was immortalised in 1990 with Galahad of Everest, a BBC documentary film in which he played Mallory. In spite of his age and weight, hallucinating and sometimes barely able to stay upright, Blessed nevertheless contrived to reach 25,400ft on his first attempt, a feat that astonished his mountaineering colleagues.

One colleague who has followed his career closely says: 'Brian started six years ago by playing a part. Now, neither he nor we can tell where the acting ends and reality begins.'

Blessed's flare for the dramatic reached its height during his second attempt on Everest in autumn 1993 when he followed the 'yak route', the now-traditional way to the top of the mountain on the south side, used by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing in 1953.

At 2am on the morning of the final attempt on the summit from camp IV, just under 8,000 metres on the south col, Blessed shocked his three colleagues by announcing, without warning, that he was not going to use oxygen. He told his personal guide, Martin Barnicott, that it was not sporting. Besides which, the ungainly mask would get in the way of his relationship with the environment on the climb.

It was a crucial decision.

Of the 748 individual ascents of Everest to date, more than 90% have relied on bottled oxygen to compensate for the increasing lack of it as you go higher. This lack leads to difficulty in carrying out any physical activity, or thinking straight. Indeed, life above 7,000 metres is so debilitating that climbers know it as the 'death zone'.

Barnicott and the two other members of the team went on to reach the summit that day in perfect weather. But Blessed, left alone and unable to start until the sun rose because of the immense cold, hardly managed to get much above Camp IV. Yet it was a decision admired by those climbers who are more concerned with climbing the big peaks in style rather than simply getting to the top at all costs.

Whether oxygen will be used this time is uncertain. Blessed is said to have given Barnicott, his guide once again, a 'categorical assurance' that he will. But, when quizzed on the matter before leaving, he was non-committal.

'Yes, there is great pressure on me to get to the top,' he said. 'I get 7,000 letters a week, and then there is all the money I am raising for hospitals and other charities. True, I struggle up to 21,000ft. But, somehow, I seem to break free at 23,000, and last time I felt good at over 8,000 metres (26,200ft). I have never used oxygen yet.'

Steve Bell of Himalayan Kingdoms, the man who has organised the expedition, is in no doubt. 'If he elects not to use oxygen, he will not get to the top. It is as simple as that. Only a few top-performing mountaineering athletes - Alan Hinkes is one of them - are capable of such a feat. The rest of us have to accept our mortal limitations.'

But I cannot help sympathising with Brian Blessed. In all the climbs I have made, I have never used oxygen and neither have my climbing friends. But the temptation for me to use it on this trip will be great. Faced with the stark choice of 'conquering' Everest with oxygen or 'failing' without, I cannot be sure that I will be honourable and brave enough to take the ethical route.

* The expedition is being supported by Himalayan Kingdoms, North Face, Berghaus, Bolle, Snow + Rock, Lufthansa and Kodak.

(c) The Financial Times Limited April 13 1996.