As he marks the 25th anniversary of reaching the world’s highest peak, Alan Hinkes has a “bimble” through the County Durham countryside in support of a pioneering new charity. PETER BARRON joined him

TIME flies, and twenty-five years after he climbed Everest, legendary mountaineer Alan Hinkes is in reflective mood and focusing on matters closer to home.

He remains the only British mountaineer to have conquered all 14 Himalayan summits above 8,000 metres, but his latest mission was to help a new North-East charity initiative to get off to a good start.

Last week, Alan, from Northallerton, was the official starter of The Big Smile – a series of 50 fully-guided, fundraising walks through five counties of the north – aimed at boosting physical and mental health. Money raised is being used to provide free walking boots to children and disadvantaged adults.

The Northern Echo:

Naturally, he was never going to be content with merely cutting the ribbon – he had to go on the first walk too. Starting from Raby Castle, a good stone’s throw from Staindrop, the hike reached its highest point on Cockfield Fell during its 20 kilometre circular route.

“Ooh, careful, I might get dizzy up there,” laughed the man who has stood, proudly, on top of the world, at 8,849 metres.

“We’re just going for a little bimble,” was how he’d described it, as he declared that The Big Smile was officially underway, and addressed the first group of fundraisers.

Bimbling alongside Alan Hinkes is the equivalent of having a kickabout with Alan Shearer, and it’s an experience to be recommended. An avalanche of stories make the miles pass quicker, and the inclines seem a little less steep.

“Ooh, I like a good pork pie,” he said as we sat on a wall for lunch at the halfway point, and he keenly eyed what had been a Father’s Day present from my kids. Well, what else could I do but borrow a penknife from a fellow walker and give him half?

“Aye, those 25 years have flown by,” says the former Yorkshireman of the Year. “It were a bad year on Everest was 1996. Nine people died in a storm in one day, but I think I must have had a sixth sense because I waited a week, and then passed three bodies on the way up.”

And yet, for all his momentous achievements, he is best known for what he describes as “the chapati incident” that will reach its silver anniversary in July next year.

He’d been climbing the 26,660 ft Nanga Parbat – “The Killer Mountain” – in Pakistan, when flour from a chapati got up his nose, made him sneeze, and he ruptured a disc in his back.

“I’d strained my back carrying heavy weights earlier, and I’d done six 8,000-metre mountains in pretty quick succession, so I’d probably overdone it. The sneeze must have been the final straw,” he recalls.

It took five days for a helicopter to locate him and fly him to Islamabad for treatment by a specialist called Dr Rifat Zaidi who, by coincidence, had just returned to Pakistan after spending nine years working at Darlington Memorial Hospital.

The tabloid headlines back home included Now the chapati’s over, The Abominable Doughman, and ‘I feel a right cha-pratt-i’.

“The editor of a climbing magazine asked why I hadn’t made up a story that sounded more heroic – like that I’d slipped on ice – but the truth was that I’d sneezed on flour from a chapati,” he says.

“I’ve got a thick skin and I’ve always felt you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously. If that’s what people remember me for, so be it.”

The episode has even found its way onto television programmes, including Question of Sport, and Have I Got News for You.

So what’s left to achieve? Alan officially became a pensioner a year ago, and he’s a grandad to Jay, 18, Mia, 14, and three-year-old Seb, but he hasn’t discounted the possibility of another major expedition.

“There’s thousands of unclimbed mountains out there, so you never know, but there’s also a lot I’d still like to do in this country,” he admits. “I’d like to do the Wainrights in the Lakeland fells and, funnily enough I haven’t done the Pennine Way or The Coast To Coast – how strange is that?”

He’s also proud to have recently been made patron of Mountain Rescue Search Dogs, a charity celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

“There’s plenty for me to do and I don’t have to travel thousands of miles to do it. People say the hills round here must pale into insignificance after The Himalayas but it’s not true,” he says.

Alan is available for hire as a motivational speaker, a mountain guide, or just for taking people out on walks in the countryside.

“I just love taking people into the hills and telling my stories. It gives me a captive audience and, hopefully, they’ll have a good time,” he adds.

“There are so many benefits to walking – and talking – and that’s exactly what The Big Smile is doing. It’s a fantastic initiative and I applaud them every step of the way for what they’re doing.

“The timing is perfect after the year we’ve had. I did of mindfulness course, myself, last year because, as I get older, I want to think more about being kind and doing the right thing."

By the time we’ve returned to Raby Castle, we’ve got a date in the diary for a special 25th anniversary in July next year. We’ll be going for a curry – with chapatis.

THE Big Smile is organised by The Walk & Talk Trust – the vision of Durham businessman Peter Bell – and its aim is to inspire a new generation of walkers.

These are early days but huge encouragement has already been provided by Ann Pringleton, headteacher of Corporation Road Primary School, in Darlington.

Her Year 6 pupils were the first children to receive free pairs of walking boots from the charity after they were treated to a nature ramble at Raby Castle last month as a warm-up to the official launch of The Big Smile.

Having seen the impact that experience had on the children, Ann has now revised the school timetable for every pupil to include a half-hour walk in the park.

That’s what it’s all about.

FINALLY, what a privilege to be at Darlington Hippodrome to see the Come Back Home concert by Darlington Operatic Society.

We all know how tough it's been for theatres, and performers, but what an achievement for an amateur group, confined to lockdown rehearsals, to put on a show that would not have been out of place in the West End.

As president of DOS, I confess to being biased, but everyone involved – on stage and behind the scenes – deserves a prolonged standing ovation.

Applause is a wonderful sound after so long.

The Northern Echo: