The most imposing figure on Everest has been told to stay home. But don't count Henry Todd out yet.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
HENRY BARCLAY TODD—Scotsman, ex-con, entrepreneur—is in the business of solving problems. Want to climb Mount Everest but don’t have the Benjamins? Henry can solve that. Need oxygen tanks on the cheap? Henry’s your man. What’s the weather forecast for 27,000 feet? Check with Henry. Need to share a tent at Camp II? Henry!
Fifty-six-year-old Todd is the proprietor of Himalayan Guides, an Edinburgh-based expedition service that specializes in the highly affordable summit trip. If you want to climb Everest with legends like Ed Viesturs and Pete Athans, you’ll pony up at least $50,000 to a guide service like Adventure Consultants (Guy Cotter’s Wanaka, New Zealand–based outfit) or Alpine Ascents International (Todd Burleson’s Seattle operation). But if you can haul your own carcass up the Hillary Step and are willing to subsist on rice and lentil soup, you can ride on Henry’s ticket for the low, low price of $29,000. “Adventure Consultants and Alpine Ascents are like the Cadillacs of Everest,” says John Leonard, a 26-year-old Mount Rainier wilderness ranger who made his first attempt on Everestwith Todd last spring. “Henry’s the vintage Chevy Astrovan. You’ve got a whole bunch of people, and the ride’s a little bumpy, but if you hold on you’ll get there.”
Todd offers climbers what the Bahamas offers the cruise-ship industry: a flag of convenience. Everest permits aren’t as hard to obtain as they were ten years ago, but they still aren’t cheap—$70,000 for a party of one to seven climbers. Submitting the application alone involves a teeth-grinding trip through Nepalese bureaucracy, but Todd knows the system well. After securing a permit for Everest, Lhotse, or Cho Oyu, he’ll simply put out the word on the mountaineering grapevine and wait for the e-mails to roll in. Todd and his virtual corporation—Himalayan Guides has no physical offices, only an answering machine and an e-mail address—hop from mountain to mountain but rarely want for customers; his trips often fill within days of their announcement.
How does Henry do it? Low overhead (no rent), low labor costs (no guides), excellent international contacts, and volume, volume, volume. Last year 23 climbers were listed on Todd’s Everest and Lhotse permits: 14 with the Himalayan Guides expedition in several small independent teams, and nine with Jagged Globe, a Sheffield, England–based guide service that arranged to sublet Todd’s permit. He also subsidizes his expeditions with various entrepreneurial activities. For example, for $500 your party can receive a season’s worth of weather reports e-mailed every two days from Todd’s contact at the Meteorological Office, the UK’s national weather service. For an additional, negotiable fee, he’ll rent you oxygen tanks, masks, and regulators. How much, exactly? “There’s no simple answer to that,” Todd says. “But it’s half as much as you’d pay for shiny new cylinders. And it’s absolutely identical oxygen.”
A hearty extrovert with a rugged six-foot-three frame, an impish smile, an impressive scowl, and a plummy accent, Todd conducts business with a combination of charm and toughness. (How tough depends on who you talk to.) In the Everest scene he’s referred to as “the mayor of Base Camp,” or “the governor.” A Canadian climbing magazine once called him “the Toddfather.” He can be delightful one moment and stormy the next. “He’s an awesome guy, and he’s a horrible guy, depending on who he wants to be,” says Patrick Kenny, a Utah ski patroller who summited on Henry Todd’s permit last year. Todd’s admirers speak of his excellent rapport with Sherpas, years of Himalayan experience, and organizational prowess. “He’s a big, tough mountaineer who’s been very effective at running expeditions for quite a long time,” says Steve Bell, the managing director for Jagged Globe. But not everyone’s a fan. “I’m fine with Henry now,” says another Everest expeditioner, who requested anonymity, “but there were years where it had crossed my mind to throw him in a hole.”
In the annals of the Toddfather, 2000 was a year during which the Scotsman may have occasionally wanted to throw himself into a hole. In May, he had a dustup with one of his own clients, American reporter Finn-Olaf Jones—an encounter that, according to Jones and others, left the journalist bleeding and shaken. That same month, two of Todd’s clients, Mike and Kristy Woodmansee, complained that the oxygen kits they rented from him malfunctioned, scuttling their summit bid at Camp IV—tantalizingly close to the top. Then, in June, The Sunday Times of London published a story about Michael Matthews, a 22-year-old British stockbroker who summited Everest using one of Todd’s oxygen setups on May 13, 1999—but disappeared on the way down. The article didn’t implicate Todd in Matthews’s death and stated that “nobody can ever be sure what happened,” but it was the kind of publicity that would give most Everest outfitters nightmares.
The capper came in November. Finn-Olaf Jones had filed charges with the Nepalese police on May 19, two days after the incident. According to Jones’s statement, on July 13th the nation’s Joint Secretary of Tourism told Jones that an investigation had been conducted and that Todd would be subject to “serious penalties” as a result of the incident.In a November 6 press release that cited the Jones confrontation and an unspecified “other circumstance,” Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism noted that it had in the past “warned Henry B. Todd several times to follow…norms and conditions”—and banned him from the whole damn country until the spring of 2002.
NO SINGLE INCIDENT better captured the weirdness of Henry Todd’s troubles last year than the fracas with Finn-Olaf Jones, a bizarre bit of Base Camp history that to this day seems to have left both men seething. “I’ve still got these scabs on my face,” Jones told me in early November on the phone from his home in suburban Washington, D.C. “I’m hoping they’ll go away. I don’t want to be thinking of Henry all of my life.”
In the fall of 1999, Jones, a 37-year-old climber and adventure writer, had contracted with the Discovery Channel’s Web site to file text and video dispatches from Everest Base Camp. But Jones did not merely intend to join the burgeoning contingent of new-media journalists at the foot of the tallest mountain in the world. Having already summited Aconcagua, Mount McKinley, Mont Blanc, and the Matterhorn, he intended to combine his reporting gig with a push to the top of Everest. Yet even with Discovery.com’s backing, Jones was working within a tight budget. A little research turned up Himalayan Guides as a no-frills option.
By early March 2000, Jones was posting twice-weekly dispatches from Base Camp. To Web surfers, he came off as a quick-witted scribe who kept readers amused with tales of high-altitude nuttiness. But in camp, his reporting rubbed at least a few climbers the wrong way. In his first dispatch from the tent city, he lightheartedly mocked the many “themed” expeditions on the mountain, such as a trio of climbers who were vying to be the oldest men to summit. “I have proposed myself as the ‘First Danish-American Ascent of Everest Without an Appendix Expedition,'” he wrote. One morning, according to John Leonard, the Rainier ranger, “Jones greeted climbers emerging from their tents with a rolling camera. ‘Do you have the fever?’ he asked. ‘Do you have the summit fever?'”
From his point of view, Jones told me he was merely broadcasting a “lighthearted perspective” on Everest. “I knew everyone was reading this at home,” he asserted. “It wasn’t my intention to humiliate anyone in front of their families.”
The kind of critical, cheeky reporting that Finn-Olaf Jones was undertaking isn’t anything Paul Theroux hasn’t pursued in half a dozen travel books. But when Theroux’s witticisms see print, his subjects are two years and 2,000 miles away. Some of Jones’s characters, a few tents over and mere minutes removed, apparently didn’t appreciate the scrutiny. In an incident witnessed by several climbers and described by Jones in one of his Web dispatches, Jones struck a climber who had absconded with his camera. “I don’t think I’ve hit anyone in 20 years…and I sent him sprawling,” Jones wrote. The climber he hit later said that he pinched the camera because he’d grown weary of Jones’s reporting.
One Discovery.com posting in particular estranged Jones from Todd and from climbers in a different expedition. In a dispatch titled “Paying for the Honor,” Jones described Henry Todd as an “Everest caterer” who “has not even been to the summit of Everest.” In the same story, he criticized an expedition known as Inventa 2000. Named for an Internet consulting firm that had paid $300,000 for the title sponsorship, the group was there to climb the mountain and also to clean it up. (Inventa 2000’s leader later reported that his team had removed 632 discarded oxygen cylinders from the peak.) “Most climbers up here, including myself, have ethical qualms about these expeditions,” Jones wrote, “especially as they are siphoning off much-needed contributions toward real environmental concerns in the populated Khumbu Valley below Base Camp.”
Then, on about May 12, Jones e-mailed his editor at Discovery advising him that he was looking into the legitimacy of the Inventa team. He also wanted his employers to check into information he’d received that Discovery might be helping to sponsor Inventa’s climb. “Finn intends to write something about these guys, but he wants to make sure there isn’t really any connection to Discovery,” his HQ contact wrote to other Discovery employees in an e-mail obtained by Outside. As it turned out, there was no such funding arrangement in place. But two days later, that second e-mail, which paraphrased Jones’s suspicions about Inventa’s agenda, made its way back to the foot of Everest. It eventually landed in the in-box of Inventa 2000, whose members were waiting at Base Camp for the weather to clear before making their summit bid.
Whatever his faults and merits might be, Finn-Olaf Jones did not lack a reporter’s nose for news. After all, Everest is no longer a giant heap of discarded oxygen bottles, and there are legitimate questions about the necessity of cleanup expeditions there. Still, a few days before a team risks death on the Big E may not be the best time to question its mission, whether one intends to or not.
Having read the e-mail, a group of angry Inventa climbers went looking for Jones. He happened to be away from camp that day, resting with Todd at Pangboche, a nearby lower-altitude Sherpa village. When Todd and Jones returned to the tent city, word reached Todd that the Inventa team was upset with Jones. Todd visited the Inventa camp to investigate.
“I’d gone over to say, ‘Look, leave this guy alone, he’s an absolute twit,'” Todd recalls telling them.
“Henry,” one of the Inventa team members is said to have replied, “have you got any idea what he’s saying about you?”
That’s when Todd says he read the “Everest caterer” bit. “They showed me what he said,” asserts Todd, “and I thought, ‘That’s it—he’s out of here.'” He stalked out of the Inventa tent and went looking for Jones. According to Jones, who was drinking a cup of tea in front of the Himalayan Guides mess tent when the Scotsman approached, Todd charged at him, leapt upon him, and punched him in the face. “I ended up sprawled on the moraine,” Jones wrote in his statement about the incident. “Henry sat down on my chest and pummeled me repeatedly against the rocks…. I had been so stunned and surprised that I did not offer any resistance or fight back.” After the alleged attack, Jones writes, “[Todd] told me to ‘Get the f—- out of camp or I’ll kill you.'”
For his part, Todd told Outside that the scrap never got past a shove. Jones stumbled on the moraine, Todd says, and then fell against a wall, bruising and cutting himself.
Scott Markey, a Canadian doctor and friend of Todd’s, says he witnessed the incident and gave first aid to Jones after the scuffle. He is one of three climbers who backed Todd’s version of the events after Todd’s banning. “The very minor injuries sustained by Finn Jones were purely a result of Finn falling as he ran away from Henry,” Markey wrote in a statement supplied to Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism. “Henry did not physically strike Finn in any other way.”
It didn’t happen like that, Jones insists. “Henry just made a leap for me,” he says. “The guy pounces on me, pummels me, punches me in the face. I’m stunned and thinking, ‘What the hell, Henry?”’ Dan Morrison, an American journalist covering Base Camp for Quokka.com, says that he encountered Jones shortly after the incident. “I did not witness the assault,” he notes. “But Finn was bleeding, and was sincerely afraid for his life.”
Jones later wrote that he felt he was in danger as long as he remained in Base Camp. “For the next two days and nights I was constantly protected by a group of Sherpas and climbers armed with ice axes,” he wrote in the statement he supplied to Outside. On May 19 he took a helicopter out of camp, flew to Kathmandu, and went straight to the police.
THERE ARE THREATS, and there are threats. (For the record, Todd denies telling Jones that he’d kill him if he didn’t leave Base Camp. “Intemperate I may be,” he says, “but I am careful with my words.”) Whether the threat was delivered or not, to understand how Todd’s anger may have played in the head of Finn-Olaf Jones, you probably need to know about Henry Todd’s “colorful past.”
It’s a doozy.
If you dropped acid in England in the midseventies, it’s possible that Henry Todd counted you among his customers. Between 1970 and 1977, Todd helped market and distribute more than 20 million tabs of LSD manufactured in labs outside London. According to Operation Julie, a 1978 book coauthored by Dick Lee, Scotland Yard’s leading drug investigator at the time, Todd was a natural leader who swaggered with the confidence of James Cagney.
Having climbed since the age of 13, Todd funneled some of his LSD earnings into rock climbing—particularly on the sea cliffs of north Wales—and in 1974 he traveled to Leysin, Switzerland, to climb with friends from the International Mountaineering School. He was constantly seeking new vertical challenges. On one occasion in 1976, according to Operation Julie, Todd sent a friend on a foray to northern California to scout the routes at Yosemite. Hearing that the big man was sending an emissary to America to “survey the ground,” Scotland Yard had him tailed all the way to the foot of El Capitan.
On March 25, 1977, 15 officers crashed through the door of Todd’s cottage in Hampton Wick, just outside London, and arrested him. A hundred and twenty people were eventually taken into custody in Britain’s biggest drug crackdown ever. A year later, on March 8, 1978, a Bristol Crown Court judge convicted Todd of a variety of of charges, the primary offense being conspiracy to possess LSD (he pleaded guilty), and handed him and one of his colleagues the stiffest sentences of the lot: 13 years. Todd served seven and a half.
Once liberated from the confines of his jail cell, Todd threw himself back into mountaineering. By 1988, he was climbing Annapurna on a team led by Polish legend Jerzy Kukuczka, the man who nearly beat Reinhold Messner to the top of all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. Todd first went to Everest in 1989 with a group of Polish climbers. “It was a very difficult expedition,” he says, “not terribly well run, and afterwards I decided I wasn’t going to go on any more big expeditions if I wasn’t the leader. I felt they needed to be properly managed.” Todd began organizing trips of friends mixed with paying climbers, and the business, soon called Himalayan Guides, grew largely through word of mouth. His first Himalayan Guides Everest trip was in the spring of 1995, when eight members of the team summited via the North Ridge.
A Todd expedition is a no-frills adventure for self-sufficient types. He provides base-camp tents, cooks, meals, full oxygen gear, and permits. Though many clients hire their own dedicated Sherpas, Todd also hires some of them each season. Their services are shared among clients, as are spaces in tents placed at camps higher up the mountain.
While the Toddfather doesn’t exactly advertise his colorful past, his occasional offhand references to it have contributed to his edgy, tough-as-nails reputation. “Climbing now is a mainstream sport with clean-cut people like Ed Viesturs,” says British alpinist Alan Burgess. “When people like Henry and I started, it was a fringe sport. When I was in the Alps in the early 1970s, it was like a camp of young renegade bandits. We have all aged a little gracefully since then.”
MEANWHILE, TODD has not been idle as he waits out his banishment. In a November e-mail to Outside, he wrote that while he personally has been banned from Nepal, his company, Himalayan Guides, “has not been banned from operating on Everest [in spring 2001], and any suggestion that it has in your magazine will bring down my infamous wrath. In fact, I may chase you and pull your shirt, so watch out.” All jest aside, the immediate impact of the ruling seems clear: This year, he says, he’ll only have four or five clients going to Everest.
In January, after weeks of e-mail appeals, Todd agreed to a telephone interview with Outside from Edinburgh. After discussing the Jones scrap, he addressed the Sunday Times article on Michael Matthews’s death and its analysis of the possibility that Todd’s oxygen kits might have contributed to the climber’s demise. Todd dismissed the story as “absolute nonsense” and said that the young mountaineer was climbing too high and too slowly, too late in the day. “He was told by five or six people, including one of my clients and [that client’s] Sherpa, ‘Hey man, you’ve gotta turn around and go down,'” says Todd. It also must be said that while cranky oxygen gear might contribute to a climber’s physical and mental instability, so might bad weather, fatigue, and the inexperience of a 22-year-old options trader pushing his limits at 29,000 feet.
Todd says his equipment is as reliable as anyone’s. Tell that to the Woodmansees, who believe that, were it not for Todd’s oxygen, they would have made the summit.
Of course, even some of Todd’s critics acknowledge that self-reliance comes with its own price, even while arguing that Himalayan Guides sometimes makes that price too high. “We knew what we were getting when we signed up,” says Kristy Woodmansee. “We didn’t need our hands held. But we did expect to get oxygen. And we didn’t.”
We knew what we were getting. Henry Todd’s clients use the phrase often. Many of them take pride in using his services; his hands-off approach suits their desire to retain risk and personal responsibility as qualities integral to mountaineering. In the sponsorship and media circus that is Mount Everest in the early 21st century, perhaps the Nepalese government is misguided—perhaps Henry Todd is just what the Himalayas need.
Meanwhile, Todd’s business has continued apace. A few weeks after Nepal banned him, he announced an expedition to Pakistan’s K2 in 2002. His minimum requirement: having summited two 8,000-meter peaks. The book closed on 12 clients in less than a week. Which is to say, there is one law that Henry Todd has always respected: the law of supply and demand. “I have two words to say about Henry Todd,” an American Everest-expedition leader told me. “Caveat emptor.”