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Alan Hinkes: up hill, down ale

Added: Wednesday, October 7th 2015

Alan Hinkes

It is – to use the current vernacular – something of an existential experience sitting opposite a warm, witty and twinkling man supping a pint of St Austell Proper Job and realising he’s not just a drinking companion but Alan Hinkes, who has climbed Mount Everest five times (seen above, left, with ranger David Tyson on Great Gable in Cumbria).

And not just Everest. He’s also scaled K2 and Kanchenjuga, and he was the first Briton to reach the summit of Manaslu. He’s the only Brit to climb all 14 peaks of more than 8,000 metres in the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges in Nepal, Tibet and Pakistan.

We’re in Fuller’s Doric Arch at Euston Station in London, as Alan has to catch the last train to Penrith that evening. We have time to talk about his love of beer, but I sit in awe of man in a suit who’s more usually seen in hard hat and climbing gear, shinning up sheer rock faces, surrounded by snow and ice.

As my nearest encounter with a mountain was sipping a few pints in the Ben Nevis Bar in Fort William, my respect for the man and his achievements is boundless. Alan was born in 1954 and took up rock climbing in Yorkshire while a student at Northallerton Grammar School. From those comparatively small beginnings, he went on to the Alps where he climbed the North Face of the Eiger and then tackled the Himalayas.

He also started visiting pubs in Northallerton – “probably under age!” he grins – at a time when it was difficult to distinguish between cask and keg beers as they were all served by bar-top meters.

“Northallerton pubs were dominated by Camerons and John Smiths,” he says. “I discovered Theakstons in the Fleece and drank their bitter and Old Peculier. When I sorted out what was real ale and what was keg, I also drank Cameron’s Strongarm.”

On the other side of the Pennines, while climbing in Cumbria, he found and has kept a life-long love for Jennings Biiter, which he drank in two pubs in Keswick, the Twa Dogs and the George.

“I think it’s a gorgeous beer,” he says. “It predates their Cumberland Ale.”

He hit a brick wall where beer drinking was concerned when he went to university in Newcastle in the 1980s.

“Newcastle was a beer desert back then,” he says. “The area was dominated by Scottish & Newcastle and all you could get was their Exhibition. And as for Tartan...” He rolls his eyes and lets the dread name hang in the air.

His drinking was confined to Bacchus and the Bridge Hotel. “Fortunately Draught Bass was still around and there was always Worthington White Shield, the great distress beer when there was no real ale. I drank a lot of White Shield, both in Newcastle and also in ScotlandHhHH, which was also not a good place for beer in those days.”

He caused eyebrows to rise when he worked as barman for a while in the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, where he pulled pints with knuckles raw from rock climbing. He does a good Geordie accent: “Whar yer hands arl cuvered in blud?” On a positive note, he also came across Lorimer’s Scotch brewed in Edinburgh: “A lovely pint.”

He goes all misty-eyed when he thinks back to the first tastes he had of some of his favourite beers: Bateman’s from Lincolnshire, Batham’s and Ma Pardoe’s from the Black Country, and the beers from the Castle Eden Brewery in Co Durham. Alan became friends with Castle Eden’s manager, Jim Kerr, and as a result Alan was allowed to live for several years in the brewery’s hospitality suite.

“I’d sometimes get back late at night and help myself to a drop of beer or, if there was none available, I’d have some....” he drops his voice to avoid startling the other drinkers in the Doric Arch...”Heineken.” Mention of the lager recalls the fact that Whitbread, which brewed Heineken under licence, owned Castle Eden. “When Whitbread closed the brewery in 1998 I realised I would have buy a house,” he laughs.

Hinkes on mountain

Of all the British beers he sampled, his favourite was – and still is – Taylor’s Landlord from Keighley in Yorkshire. “And then I went to Belgium and discovered De Koninck in Antwerp and that was even better than Landlord.”

There’s not much to climb in Belgium but elsewhere on his travels Alan found that Swiss beers were good, though there was little to write home about in France. In Naipaul he came across a pleasant bottled beer called Golden Eagle and in Pakistan encountered the beers from the famous Murree Brewery, founded in the 19th century for the British and now run by local business people. Alan says you need to fill in several forms to prove you’re not a Muslim before you can go to the brewery. Once you’re approved you can buy as many as two dozen bottles of beer a day.

I say I assume that when he’s clambering up an icy peak he doesn’t drink 24 bottles of beer. He agrees but points out that his doctor has told him that when he comes down from a peak he should have a couple of pints.

“Beer is full of iron, carbohydrates, protein, vitamin B,” he says.  He laughs and adds: “There’s a bit of alcohol, too, so I don’t drink too much!” But he makes sure there's always beer on hand. In 1994, he and his climbing companions took a home-brewing kit 5,000 metres up K2. They boiled water on a paraffin stove and then, in alan's words, had to "nurture the beer" to stop it freezing at night and getting too hot during the day.

He’s great friends with another beer-loving mountaineer, Sir Chris Bonington, who was one of the founders of the co-operative that saved the Old Crown pub and brewery in Hesket Newmarket in Cumbria.

“Chris and I were searching for the Yeti in Naipaul when he had to formally open the Old Crown,” Alan says. “There was no email or internet then so he did it by Telex.” Fittingly, most of the beers from the brewery behind the pub are named after such Cumbrian peaks as Scafell and Helvellyn, well known to both the climbers.

But Alan wasn’t impressed with the beers when he first tasted them. “They were just home brew, no better than the beer I made on K2” he says. “But since then, they’ve put proper brewing kit in and the beers are wonderful now.”

He’s not enamoured of some of the new breed of powerfully hopped beers. He likes beers with balance, such as Black Sheep, London Pride and “I still love Jenning’s Bitter.” When he’s in Cumbria, he’s partial to the ales from the Keswick Brewery founded by Sue Harrison in 2006, who specialises in golden ales with “thirst” in the names.

When he’s not globe-trotting and climbing, Alan Hinkes is a great flag waver for Britain. He’s involved in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, works with Best of British to promote the Three Peaks Challenge and has found time to write his memoirs*. He was granted an OBE in 2006 and is an Honorary Citizen of Northallerton and a former Yorkshireman of the Year.

And he’s also a great flag waver for real ale and conducts beer tastings for OG magazine. He downs a swift half of ESB to sustain him on his journey then dashes for the Penrith train. A short time later I get a text from him: “Managed to upgrade to first class so I get Tilting Bitter Pale Ale.” A fine beer from the Red Willow Brewery but, with a name like that, perhaps not one to take with as you hack your way up Kanchenjunga.

*8,000 Metres: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains, Cicerone Press.