The Interview with
Tony Mills

How do you prepare to climb the highest mountain in the world? What are the synergies between scaling Everest and reaching the peak of your career? 

The Backstory

Tony Mills has already successfully climbed several of the world’s more challenging mountains. He is an accomplished mountaineer.

His ‘Climbing CV’ is impressive:

  • 2009 – Climbed the Himalayas (initial general altitude testing)
  • 2010 –  Successful summit of Mont Blanc (4810 metres) 
  • 2011 – Successful Summit climb in the Andes – Bolivia (6500 metres)
  • 2012 – Back to the Alps to tackle the Matterhorn! Another successful summit
  • 2013 – Climbing in the Himalayas again – this time Baruntse – (only 10 miles away from Everest on the Southside) successful summit 
  • 2014 – Summited Mount Cho Oyu (8200 meters) and the 6th highest mountain in the world 
  • 2015 – In the Alps again attempting the Eiger (Mittellegi Ridge) – this was his only unsuccessful attempt (due to ill health) 

Never one to sit on his laurels, Tony decided to attempt the climb of his life and tackle his long-held ambition to climb Everest. 

‘I feel like I have been planning for this moment, working for it, from the moment I started climbing. Years and years of hard work and training have gone into being ready for this attempt, but now, now is the time’

Garry and Tony first met back in the military more than 25 years ago, since then their paths have veered in different directions, but they have always stayed in touch. Both successful business owners, Garry runs a growing Recruitment Agency specialising in Accountancy Practice Recruitment, whilst Tony owns a Funeral Director’s. When Garry found out that Tony was about to attempt the climb of his life, he knew he wanted to support somehow.

The Interview

Garry  – ‘What inspired you to start climbing mountains in the first place?’
Tony – ‘It was simply the love of being outdoors, it’s the idea of being in amongst those mountains.
Most people have only seen the biggest mountains in photos. But if you put yourself in the middle of that scenario, at the summit of Everest looking in every direction, it’s a view that so few have witnessed. You are quite literally at the top of the world, and you are so at one with your environment, with the terrain’

Tony does realise the enormity of what he is going to attempt. It’s a very elite club, only around 200 people have ever have completed all 14 of the ‘Big Peaks’, as they refer to any mountain over 8,000m. Everest is beyond the realms of reality for most climbers because of the costs involved. Mount Vinson in Antarctica, he tells us, is even more pricey, simply due to accessibility.

He goes on to say that he wants to be one of those people who goes out and does things. To be remembered as someone who achieved something. 

The Challenge

Garry – ‘It’s a huge challenge climbing Everest! Is the personal challenge aspect part of why you are doing this?’
Tony – ‘Of course. Just getting to Base camp is a challenge. We are taking what they call the ‘Mallory route – the North-East ridge’. There is so much hard work before you start any actual climbing. This was originally attempted by Mallory and Irvine.

We will fly to Lahasa, (the capital of Tibet) Airport from Kathmandu. Then we will drive from the Airport to begin our Everest journey.

'Like any personal challenge, the key to success is to remember why you started. When the going is tough your reason to succeed must be stronger then the reason to give up.'

Garry – You have already successfully climbed several high-altitude mountains. What would you say is the most important skill you have gained so far?
Tony – ‘From a mountaineering point of view, learning how to climb!

But it’s about much more than that. There are definite life lessons. It absolutely changes you as a person. It gives you a very different perspective on life.

Having gone through what you go through climbing a high-altitude mountain it makes you appreciate things in a different way. Day after day without any home comforts, away from your family, it’s difficult to drink, to eat. Everything is a real effort at high altitude.

I think as well, it makes you think about where you are in your life, that separation both physically and emotionally from the real world, it gives you some distance from your everyday life and the things you perceive to be problems.

At the time, out in the cold, when all I really want to do is just make a warm drink, and I can’t – I do sometimes think for a split second ‘What the hell am I doing!’ But the sense of achievement afterwards is worth all the hard work and dedication.’

'A big part of succeeding in this expedition is understanding and remembering why you are doing it. What is it you want to achieve? What will you feel like when you get there? Keeping your why in mind helps you to focus on the end goal. It’s the same in your life and career.'

Garry – ‘Why Everest?’
Tony – ‘Because it’s the highest, because everyone knows it, it’s the one that everyone aspires to conquer really and it is one of the most iconic mountains in the world. Any climber secretly would love to go given the chance. There’s such a mystery behind Everest, and to climb it and successfully summit, then it means that you are part of that rich history. `

Garry – What is the distance you cover when climbing Everest?
Tony – ‘It’s a long way! Although the distance in theory is the height of Everest, that’s what is in people’s minds, it doesn’t quite work like that. You can’t just walk straight up a mountain. What happens is that you go forwards a little, then go back on yourself. It’s all to do with altitude training your body.

The journey from Basecamp to Advanced Base Camp follows a path up a glacier, it’s not a nice road. It is notoriously dangerous. There is an interim camp in between – known as ‘Yakshit camp’ fondly known by those who pass through it. Once at Advanced Base Camp you spend a few days there acclimatising.

Although it’s only a 600m climb in height up to Base Camp One from Advanced Base Camp, it can take around 5-8 hours, every step takes effort because of the extreme weather and the altitude. It’s hard to imagine unless you experience it. Generally, climbers spend one night at camp, then come back down again. It seems a bonkers thing to do, climb up to go back down again, but it’s so important.

After a few days resting, it’s back up to Camp One, Camp One to Camp Two is around 800m. You spend the night there, then go back down.

Once at top Camp Three, at 8,300 meters, that is where you do the summit push, 8,300-8,848m. It doesn’t sound far but to get up there and then back down to a safe height to rest again is an 18-hour round trip to in effect just move 500 metres!’.

‘The distances you have to walk are as follows: To Basecamp is 5200m, to the Interim ‘Yakshit’ Camp is 5800m, to Advanced Basecamp is 6400m, Camp One is at 7000m, Camp Two is at 7800m and Camp Three is based at 8,300m. The summit is at 8,848m’.

‘That pushing forwards to then drop back. It’s like the way many people progress through their career. You can push forwards for years climbing steadily upwards, then you hit a plateau.

Sometimes it is important to know when to take a backwards step, to be able to push forwards again in the longer term. You don’t always ascend on a simple and straightforward path throughout your career.

Preparation and Planning

Garry – You have a military background previously; has that contributed to your success within mountain climbing?
Tony – ‘Yes definitely. You need to be 100% disciplined in both mind and body, particularly from a training point of view. I need to focus to get the required training in, but you think of it as a ‘means to an end’. My military grounding certainly helped with that.

I just put all negative thought to one side and get on with it. Remaining focused on the task in hand is crucial.

If I had to think of the enormity of the whole task of climbing Everest all at once, it would just be too much. The key is to break it all down into small tasks and just get through them.

It is sometimes actually just really boring in all honesty, particularly the training component. My military career prepared me well for the boredom. You just remember that each thing ticked off that training list is helping to keep you safe.

Garry – Tell us about your day job. How does it compare to mountaineering?

Tony – ‘On the surface, they couldn’t be further apart. But I see both things as a job, and actually both things are very process driven.

As a Funeral Director, there are lots of hoops to jump through and you need to complete tasks in a certain way and in a certain order. Mountain climbing is essentially the same. You work through each task one by one, to get to the next and just think about completing it.

There is a lot of legislation involved in arranging funerals. Everything needs to be just so, it’s very precise. I guess that’s the same with mountain climbing too. You must make sure things are precise and correct as its your life at stake potentially.’

Garry – Edmund Hilary once famously said ‘It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.’ From your experience, so far would you say that is true?

Tony – ‘You don’t conquer the mountain; the mountain allows you to climb it. I think that’s well established.

Any environment where you have no control, it’s more about how you deal with what happens. We as humans have no control over weather or mountain conditions! In your life and career the same goes.

Things are going to go wrong, there will be setbacks, but the people that succeed are the ones that adapt and keep their mindset on track no matter what happens.’

'Being a successful mountain climber or businessman the mindset is as important, if not more important than the skillset. There are a lot of great climbers, but if you cannot conquer the fear, if you can’t keep the focus when things go awry, you still won’t get to the top.’

Garry – How do you prepare mentally for the climb?
Tony – ‘Knowing you have a job to do that’s vital. You know the conditions are going to be harsh; it’s going to be cold, you are living in a tent with crap food, everything is a massive task and its hard work. I do spend time mentally preparing for what is approaching. ‘

‘Getting the mind-set right is everything. You must take the attitude that nothing else matters and stay focused on the job in hand. It’s not a holiday it is a job. You are there solely to achieve what you set out to do.’

To give it everything, 100% all the time without taking your eyes off the ball, that really takes some strength mentally. ‘

‘It helps to concentrate on the moment. Just be present in every minute.’

‘I close myself off to all thoughts of home, my wife and my children. In my opinion, there is no space for emotion or for those kinds of distractions – however some may disagree.

I broke one of my own rules when I climbed Cho Oyu, I took some little mini-figures, toys my kids had given me to take photos with at the top. I normally do not take pictures of family or anything personal that would make me miss home. It can take the focus away from the reason you are there, which can be dangerous.’

Garry – What do you envisage being the most challenging aspect of the Everest expedition?
Tony – ‘The everyday aspect of the climb and the journey is a challenge. People think of the summit push as being the biggest challenge, but nothing is easy, not one thing that you do on an everyday basis is simple when you are in freezing temperatures in all that kit.

It’s difficult to explain, everything is so hard. Condensation settles on the inside of the tent due to freezing cold weather and from you breathing during the night. You wake up in the morning and as soon as you move there is snow falling, falling inside your tent!

Nothing is easy about the whole trip. Take making a cup of tea for instance (yes very British I know). You need to go outside and dig snow to enable you to have water. Which at altitude is hard going. You then stick the water in a pan and watch the pan for an hour until it boils. Water boils at a lower temperature at altitude, so 5 mins later it’s cold again!

Then there is the kit. It can take 20 minutes to just put your boots on. Essentially there is physical excursion in doing everything.’

Tony – ‘You must remember that when you reach the summit you are only halfway. A ‘successful summit’ only counts if you make it back alive! You start coming down facing away from the mountain, everything aches, the adrenaline drops, energy levels drop and it’s arguably the most dangerous part of the expedition.

There are some walk down sections, but you need to understand certain techniques to come down, it can get technical. We abseil down certain sections and it’s imperative to keep the focus to ensure you get down in one piece.

Your health and fitness must be spot on to attempt Everest, if you get a cut or graze, you need to go back down to base camp. At altitude, a cut just won’t heal. Cough and colds are lethal, people have been known to die, your body just doesn’t function in the same way up there.

Summit fever can make people dangerous to themselves. They go beyond their personal limitations because they are so determined to get to the summit. That’s how you die.’

Ultimately, it’s about knowing your own body and limitations. At extreme altitude, it can get very bad very quickly. You need to be able to react quickly.’

‘People think, that when they have got to the top, it means that they have made it. It’s the same with a mountain as it is your career, you need to keep the focus sharp, stay alert. At the highest point, that’s where you must work hardest, just to survive. If you let your guard drop, if you stop trying, that’s when you fail.’

Garry – Have you ever failed to summit on a climb? And if so what did you learn from it?
Tony – ‘I have never failed to summit from a climbing point of view, but from illness yes. I was in Switzerland and had to knock it on the head as I had a bad cold and it affected one of my lungs.

I have always made a conscious effort to just go out there and try, and have dedicated a significant portion of my life to giving mountain climbing my best shot. Nobody can turn around and say I didn’t try it.

I train religiously every day, sometimes I have one day off a week. I have spent 8-10 years of my life just getting to the point where I am ready to attempt Everest. If I try and I don’t summit, I will be disappointed, but I have already achieved my ultimate goal by even attempting to climb Everest.’

Find your Sherpa

Garry – You climb with a wider group of people. What role does teamwork play in ensuring a successful summit?
Tony – ‘A huge amount relies on team work. Nobody would summit if it wasn’t for team work and use of the local Sherpa. They set the ropes assist when you approach the summit. No one would attempt it without a guide. They are brilliant!

The ropes are set by the Tibetan mountaineering association and replaced every year. You do need to look and check properly, it’s key to put your trust in them, although you are relying on them to be set properly. You have a hand device to clip the rope to, it means that you can move upwards, but if you fall it grips the rope with special teeth.

The mountain climbing community is quite close knit. It’s great to talk to like-minded individuals on the expedition, everyone is of a similar mindset. Sometimes you see others on the descent that have already reached the summit. It can be motivating knowing that others have had successful climb, its spurs you on. The element of competition between the groups is a great incentive too. ‘

‘Only you can make it happen, in the end it comes down to whether you have the mindset, the ability. But those who decide to go it alone, they are missing the point. Surrounding yourself with good people is crucial, the extra strength that comes from sharing a common goal. You need someone to place your trust in, an expert to help you with the right expertise. A good Recruiter, they can do that job – like a Sherpa expertly guiding you through your career’

Garry – What will happen when you reach the summit of Everest?
Tony – ‘Well, hopefully, depending on how much oxygen we have left, hopefully we get 20-30 mins up there to take it all in. The top of Everest it changes shape, it’s not very big. The summit pinnacle itself is snow and rock and of course the snow shifts constantly. You must be careful up there.

There will be a certain element of emotional relief. There will be an element of fear getting back down, trying to remember that you are only half way.

Remembering to take pictures and videos, to have a successful summit recognised you need proof. To be officially noted as a successful expedition there needs to be a photo of you on the summit with your face mask off.

It is all quite precarious. You should be careful of UV radiation, careful of your eye protection. You can only take your eye protection off for a short period. It’s vital to concentrate on your O2 reserves. You need to descend at least 300 meters down the mountain before changing O2 cylinder.

Garry – You only stay at the Summit for a relatively short space of time. Would you say then that the experience is as much about the journey as the destination?
Tony – ‘Absolutely, don’t get me wrong the aim is to summit, that’s the goal. But there are no guarantees and a lot can go wrong. If I don’t reach the summit, the journey will still have been worth it. I will have achieved things, seen things, been to places that most people never will. Just by trying I am successful already. The main thing is that no one can say I didn’t give it my best shot’

'For me, whether it’s your career or your personal life, it’s all about making sure that you don’t wake up one day and realise you missed your chance. If you set yourself a goal, get on and do it. It’s easy to stand back on the side lines and observe, to pass comments or judgement. It takes courage to do something like this, but its far better to try and fail than not try at all.'

Garry – Can you see the synergy? It’s an age-old analogy, climbing a mountain, and achieving life/career goals. What do you think?
Tony – ‘Definitely. When you are building a career, you start at the bottom and work your way up to the top. No one starts at the top. – similar in terms of insuring you don’t run before you can walk. Say you were straight out of university or a trainee, and you wanted to do the job of a Senior Accountant. You wouldn’t have the experience or knowledge, it’s about taking small steps and going the distance with your own journey. It’s the same with mountaineering. You could not climb Everest without the training, knowledge or experience.’

‘Live every day like it’s your last. You only get one chance, make the most of it. There will be one day you wake up and regret not doing something. Set life goals, set markers. My name will technically go down in history if I summit. People use the image, the concept of Everest in so many ways as a metaphor for bigger and better things. I think people just need to decide in their life, in their career what their own Everest is.