• Neill Johanson at the summit of Vinson Massif, Antarctica, 2016. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
A mountaineer took his wife to see Everest, and at last she understood what compelled him to scale dangerous peaks. Then they witnessed a catastrophe beyond their imagining. One year on from Nepal's disaster the mountaineer and architect is giving back to the region, building earthquake-proof schools.
Rick Feneley

25 Apr 2016 - 12:41 PM  UPDATED 25 Apr 2016 - 2:33 PM

There are things we never truly understand about a driven person, the obsessions that spur them on, the yearnings that even their husbands or wives might struggle to comprehend.

The thing about Neill Johanson is his mid-life obsession with mountains.

“I didn’t get it,” his wife of almost 30 years, Dinah, told a recent gathering of friends at their Sydney home, where they celebrated Neill’s return from Antarctica. There the 56-year-old architect and mountaineer had scaled the 4897-metre Vinson Massif and, with it, reached the final peak in a mission that had possessed him for the past decade: to climb each of the highest summits on the world’s seven continents within seven years. He called his campaign “7x7x7 Neill Johanson”.

It is a rare breed of climbers who conquer the seven summits. In a world of seven billion people, fewer than 400 of them have completed the seven peaks since Richard Bass became the first climber to achieve the feat in 1985.

Dinah did “get” her husband’s drive. She understood the scale of his ambition. She even got the attraction to high-risk adventure, and that the father of their three children would keep climbing, again and yet again, after skating terrifyingly close to death.

He had been trapped in crevasses. He dodged avalanches. An ice bridge collapsed beneath his feet once. While abseiling down Nepal’s Lhotse face, and disconnecting from one rope to connect to another, he lost his footing and pitched forward over a 1000-metre sheer drop. He was a dead man falling. “But I was caught by my climbing buddy who grabbed the back of my pack.”

My emotions range from being incredibly proud of Neill's achievements to intense irritation at how it impinges on my life and the rest of our family to true concern for his safety.

After reaching the 8848-metre peak of Everest in 2009, Neill suffered severe frost bite to his right hand. Gangrene threatened to set in. He was evacuated from Base Camp to save the limb and he was lucky that only the tip of his index finger was amputated.

“It has definitely tested our relationship,” Neill confessed to their friends at his seven-summits celebration. “Dinah nursed me back to life after I came back from Everest. She’s dealt with all my night terrors from some of the crazy stuff that’s happened on mountains.”

Yes, Dinah “got” all of that. What she didn’t get was his attraction to these mountains in the first place. The pull of the mountains.

“For years people said, ‘Why does he do it?’ And I have a stock list of answers … and, depending on the day, it’s a different answer. I really had no idea,” says Dinah.

At least she didn’t until this time last year. Then she joined her husband in Nepal, not to scale a summit but for the arduous trek from Lukla to Everest Base Camp. Neill was helping a couple of Australian ex-paratroopers, who have formed an adventure company, to guide the expedition of about a dozen people, mostly war veterans or the offspring of soldiers.

They had been trekking for 10 days when, on April 23, the magnificence of the world’s highest mountain suddenly confronted Dinah.

“I came around the corner into the Khumbu Valley, which is where Everest is,” she told their party guests. “I looked up. I saw this environment and I went, ‘I get it’. For the first time in my life, I got it. It’s the most amazingly beautiful place.” 

I looked up. I saw this environment and I went, ‘I get it’. For the first time in my life, I got it. It’s the most amazingly beautiful place.”

They reached Base Camp that day. The plan was to stay until Anzac Day, two days later, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, then to catch up for coffee with some of Neill’s Nepalese friends from Adventure Consultants. He had climbed Mount Everest with them in 2009 and now they were managing another team preparing to reach the summit.

But the weather turned. Neill and Shane Popher, from Peak Potential, decided it would be prudent to turn around now, on April 23, and commence their descent. If they had remained at Base Camp, it is highly likely that they and many of their party would be dead.

They held their Anzac Day dawn service instead at 4840 metres, at Thukla Pass. Four hours later, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked much of Nepal. It was the country’s worst natural disaster in more than 80 years.

The Australians soon saw devastation all around them, but it would take days for the full extent of the catastrophe to trickle through to them: more than 8600 people dead: 2.8 million displaced; and, with a second quake in May last year, almost a million home and buildings would be flattened or damaged.

The Anzac Day quake also triggered a succession of avalanches. One of them devastated a third of Base Camp, where 21 people died.

“Five Sherpas from Adventure Consultants were killed in the avalanche – right where we were planning to spend the morning,” Neill recalls. “I knew two of them from my time on Everest.”

When people who have just had their homes demolished find time to help look after you, it's really quite something.

His team of trekkers, meanwhile, became refugees in Namche Bazaar, a village well acquainted with foreign adventure seekers. Many of Namche’s locals had abandoned their own homes by now and yet they fed these foreigners and gave them what shelter they could. Tents.

“Things that we could not offer them,” Neill says. “When people who have just had their homes demolished find time to help look after you, it's really quite something.”

It was profound. How could he ever repay them?

It didn’t take too long to work that out. Neill is a principal with the Sydney architectural design firm Davenport Campbell and Partners. He’s in the building game and Nepal – the country that opened its door to him, even when it had no doors to open – needed rebuilding.

“Close to the refugee camp was a school that had been damaged. I found myself staring at it, thinking about all the schools we had built as part of the Building the Education Revolution. Schools, no matter where they are, remain a strong centrepiece for any culture.”

Neill couldn’t have known then, but about 7000 schools were destroyed or damaged in Nepal’s disaster.

By chance, he ran into Peter Hillary in Namche. The son of the Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary, Peter had been leading a group of old schoolmates on a trek to Base Camp. He is also a director of the Australian Himalayan Foundation, formed in 2002 to improve health, education and conservation in Nepal, inspired by work started by the late Sir Edmund. Peter Hillary suggested Neill make contact once he got home.

Back in Sydney, the architect discussed it with his business partner, Peter Wager. When they launched Davenport Campbell 11 years ago, Wager already knew Neill was planning to climb Everest. (“And he still went into business with me.”) Wager didn’t yet know about the seven summits, but he would go on to support Neill all the way through his noble obsession.

“He has seen me through an awful lot of bad shit,” Neill told his seven-summits party.

“If you climb that mountain,” he told his friends, “it’s going to give you something incredible. But it’s also going to take something away from you as well, something you are never, ever, ever going to get back.”

“The tip of your finger,” came the droll interjection.

A new documentary highlights the high risks that the Indigenous guides face.

But tonight, Neill said, it really was time to give back. He used the occasion to announce that Davenport Campbell was starting a charity, Climb for Education.

The business is working in collaboration with the Australian Himalayan Foundation and two other Australian firms, fellow architects Hassell and structural engineers Taylor Thomson Whiting. They are designing earthquake-resilient school buildings. The first project is to rebuild the Gama Secondary School 65 kilometres south of Mount Everest, where about 350 students, many of them disabled, lost most of their 10 buildings in the disaster.

The bigger idea is that Garma will become a model for the rebuilding of other obliterated schools.

“We direct the location, size and type of facilities that require design or reconstruction,” Neill says. “The plan also ensures the buildings take advantage of the prevailing winds for ventilation, natural light and the topography – things that have simply not occurred before because of the ad hoc nature of building in the upper reaches of the Khumbu.

“We are also designing and building the community hall, library and administration building, special class rooms for deaf children, a visitors’ centre and hostels.”

The idea is that any building materials not available locally, such as light steel to secure and stabilise traditional mud bricks, can be carried in on a person’s back. The bigger idea is that Garma will become a model for the rebuilding of other obliterated schools.

Dinah, an artist, certainly “gets” this part of her husband’s love affair with Everest and Nepal. Also an architect, she met her future husband at university.

Of his mountaineering, she discloses: “My emotions range from being incredibly proud of Neill's achievements to intense irritation at how it impinges on my life and the rest of our family to true concern for his safety.

“I'm always relieved to drop him at the airport because then the [months of] training is over and theoretically he’s on the way back. I manage my own fears by being really well informed. I calculate the risk I’m comfortable with.”

Neill, however, is not so sure that risk is the point. “I can’t ever remember a time when I thought, ‘Let’s do something risky.’”

It is about doing the things he loves to do. He loves the challenge, the grandeur of the mountain, the solitude, “simply putting one foot in front of the other is very appealing”.

“I guess risk is a scary thing, but to me it’s about risk mitigation, not risk-taking. There is no point taking a risk for the sake of it.”

He might have felt that way on the final approach to the first of his seven summits, Aconcagua in South America, in early 2009. “We did have to step over the body of a climber who had died the day before – 10 metres from the summit – to reach our goal.” That climber was one of seven to die – heart failure, rock falls, hypothermia – while he and his team, who all survived, tackled Aconcagua.

Neill might not have reached that first of the seven peaks. His closest shave, perhaps, came during the climb that preceded Aconcagua – Ama Dablam in the Himalayas. While abseiling down the side of that mountain, he took a wrong turn. He found himself dangling from his rope, with 1000 metres of “free space” below him.

“I looked up to see all the ice anchors starting to pop out of the snow. This is known as the ‘zipper effect’. And once all the anchors pop out, there is nothing connecting the rope to the earth.

“Watching things unzip, I very quickly had to move from hanging upside down to right way up – and then gain some momentum so I could reconnect to the side of the mountain. Several desperate ice axe swings later I got some traction with the mountain and recovered the situation. Very unpleasant.”

We did have to step over the body of a climber who had died the day before – 10 metres from the summit – to reach our goal.

But not so unpleasant as to deter him from the summits that followed.

Also at the seven summits celebration was his general practitioner, Peter List. Before Neill embarked on Everest in 2009, the doctor handed him a pebble and asked him to keep it in his pocket. Neill was left thinking: “I don’t know what to do with this bloody thing”.

His friends would ask, “What does it mean?”

“I suppose it means I have to give the bloody thing back.”

 He could only give it back, of course, if he survived. That was it. That was the point. So at his party he took from his pocket the bloody pebble – which had been to six of the seven peaks – and gave it back to his doctor, then gave him a hug.

“Finally,” says Dinah, “I'm really glad there are only seven continents.”


Author’s disclosure: I am a friend of Neill and Dinah Johanson and I still don’t get the attraction to climbing dangerous mountains. I am spending the 101st Anzac Day somewhere much safer – Gallipoli.

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