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In a season marred by tragedy, Alan Hinkes, Britain's most controversial and outspoken Himalayan mountaineer, has finally made it to the top of Everest on his third attempt, bringing to six the number of 8,000-metre peaks under his belt, more than any other Briton. But his unlikely climbing partner, Brian Blessed, the 16-stone actor, was forced to turn back just 1,468 metres short of the summit. Richard Cowper reports

Brian Blessed is obsessed with his hero, George Leigh Mallory, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances on the north side of Everest in 1924.

The actor turned back ostensibly because of high winds, fear of frostbite and exhaustion. But this may have only been part of the reason.

Just four days before the two climbers started their summit attempt on May 15 up the windswept north ridge, news had started to filter back down the mountain of the first of 10 deaths on the mountain, the greatest number of people to have been killed on Everest in a single season since climbing began there in 1921.

In particular, hearing how two Japanese climbers, Hiroshi Hanada and Eisuke Shigekawa, were said to have ignored three dying Indians on their way to the summit on May 11 so horrified the sensitive actor that his normal self-confidence seemed to have deserted him.

'The winds were terrible. The death of the Indians and the bad weather patterns really did help me make my mind up. My fingers and feet were beginning to suffer frostbite. It scared me. Everest was showing a wicked side to its nature,' says Blessed, explaining his decision along with Martin Barnicott, his personal guide, to turn back at 7,380 metres.

This was to be his first and only attempt on the peak this spring. 'Mental stamina is the most important. My heart no longer seemed to be in the climb. By then I had blown it. I couldn't recharge,' said the actor.

Had Blessed gone to the top he would have had to walk past the frozen bodies of two of the Indians, one at around 8,680 metres, 50 metres above the second step, the biggest climbing obstacle on the ridge, and the other 100 metres above Camp III and below the first step.

Physically and mentally tougher, Hinkes and TV director Matt Dickinson - who was making a film based on the premise that Blessed would get to top - descended to the North Col at just over 7,000 metres along with the actor. But the following day both were strong enough to head back up, eventually to reach the summit on May 19 in mixed conditions.

Hinkes used oxygen for the first time and brought up the rear behind three sherpas and Dickinson, all from the British 1996 North Ridge Everest Expedition. He said: 'I did not feel I was pushing the boat out like I was on K2. Even if I did use oxygen, its done. I don't regret it.

'My job was to film from the top. It felt like a day in the Alps except for that one poignant moment, just below the summit, when I came across the Indian without his jacket, lying in the snow.'

Perhaps partly driven by the loss of his mother at the age of 12 and a father who never appreciated him, the refreshingly direct Yorkshireman makes no secret of his ambitions. For him Everest is simply the biggest tick on his way to mountaineering stardom.

Later this month in a gruelling schedule he plans to climb Gasherbrum I and II in the Pakistan Karakoram mountains in his drive to become the first Briton to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000-metre peaks, a feat achieved so far by just four people.

'We have been totally overwhelmed by other nations in this respect. I hope to bag them off as quickly as possible by the safest routes,' said a jubilant Hinkes, after brushing off suggestions that his oxygen-led ascent of Everest's north ridge route may have lacked style and originality.

On Everest this spring, Hinkes was not alone in this respect. Of the 15 expeditions on the Tibetan side, involving as many as 200 climbers, only three were attempting anything remotely aimed at pushing back the boundaries of Himalayan mountaineering.

Most impressive was a Russian team's successful attempt on a beautiful snow and ice gully, newly named the Siberian couloir - just to the east of the North Col.

Also trying to break fresh ground was Hans Kammerlander, 39, the Italian partner of Rheinhold Messner. He was the only climber on the north side to reach the summit without the use of bottled oxygen this season and he combined this with a hair-raising part-descent of Norton's couloir on skis, the most prominent feature on the great north face of Everest. A complete ski descent was made impossible by the lack of snow in the couloir and a band of ice-cliffs about half way down.

Earlier a Slovenian attempt to ski the same couloir failed when the expedition's only skier, Davorin Karnicar, suffered severe frostbite in the fingers of one hand.

To date, there has been no accepted ski descent of the world's highest mountain. A Japanese attempt more than a decade ago involved a descent in the no-man's land between Lhotse and Everest and has not been counted as a descent of the mountain proper. Kammerlander's claim may meet the same fate because of its intermittent nature.

Hinkes, meanwhile, remains unmoved by pleas from fellow British mountaineers to 'fulfil' his own undoubted talents by going for new routes on the big mountains. For him, being a highly competent journeyman mountaineer, successfully making a living, is acclaim enough.

Blond-haired with ice-blue eyes, when he is not away on expeditions he acts as a model and adviser to Berghaus, the mountaineering outfitters owned by Pentland, the sportswear and consumer products group. He is also sponsored by Land Rover.

A typically uncompromising Yorkshireman, Hinkes is undoubtedly at the pinnacle of his career as a climbing athlete. His success on Everest this year comes after he achieved his own personal high point last July when he climbed K2, what he calls the 'mountaineer's mountain'.

But in spite of these public triumphs he has gained a controversial reputation among his peers, notably for his insensitive criticism of Alison Hargreaves, the British mountaineer who died on K2 shortly after Hinkes' own success on that mountain.

If Hinkes is capable of defying popular opinion, so is Brian Blessed. Among public, family and friends alike it was assumed that the star of Cats and Z Cars would be making his very last attempt on Everest this year, come what may.

Yet just two months short of his 60th birthday, the actor says he plans to go back to the south side of the mountain within three years to try for a fourth shot at the summit.

'It is not that I fear a dream has finally ended. It's simply not time to quit. Sherpa Tensing went to Everest seven times before he finally succeeded,' says the unabashed showman.

* Richard Cowper was supported on the expedition by North Face, Berghaus, Bolle, Snow + Rock, Lufthansa and Kodak and Himalayan Kingdom Expeditions.

(c) The Financial Times Limited June 11996.