Spencer Matthews on Finding Michael: ‘I still believe his death could have been avoided but I’m more at peace with it’
Spencer Matthews was just 10 when he lost his older brother Michael.
An experienced climber who had already scaled the Swiss Alps, the Pyrenees and Kilimanjaro, Michael became the youngest Briton to summit Mount Everest in May 1999.
But his elation was short-lived.
Hours later, upon his descent, the 22-year-old disappeared into blinding snow.
His body has never been found.
More than two decades later, only now is his tragic death really sinking in, says a visibly moved Matthews, who attempts to recover his brother’s body in new documentary film, Finding Michael.
“I never really accepted it as a kid,” admits the entrepreneur and broadcaster, 34. “I was fortunate to be the age that I was when we lost him because I didn’t really believe it.
“We never, as a family, had a body to grieve so we had a memorial service instead of a funeral,” he goes on to explain.
“I remember reading at that and, even then, part of me in a youthful way always thought that I would see him again. I didn’t quite process the loss ever, really.”
However, Matthews, who shot to fame on ‘constructed reality’ show Made In Chelsea, has vivid memories of Michael, recalling: “We had an awful lot in common and were described as twins separated by time.
“We looked very similar and we had similar tastes, so he was who I naturally gravitated towards as a kid,” he says fondly. “I just remember really looking forward to growing up with him in particular.
“We’re a very close family; I love my parents (Jane and David) and my other brother James and sister Nina. But Mike and I had a special bond.”
It led to a lot of resentment in his teens and early 20s – “particularly surrounding the circumstances in which Mike died”, Matthews clarifies. “But when I went sober at 30, I began to think about things differently.”
The aforementioned feature-length original, then, was inspired by a photograph the Matthews family got a few years ago, depicting a body on Everest which could be Michael.
What is Finding Michael about?
Exclusive to Disney+, the emotionally driven piece sees Matthews set out on a personal journey to Nepal, where he recruits Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja MBE – the ‘14 peaks’ world-record holder – to lead a team to try and find Michael.
Armed with drones and the skillset to go off the summit lines, the 10-man crew (many highly trained Sherpas) tackle the mountain’s Death Zone at an altitude of more than 8,000 metres to try to pinpoint the body. But with intense time pressures and violent swings in the weather, it’s a given they will face unexpected challenges.
“This is something that I wanted to do anyway, regardless of turning it into a film or documentary, in the hope that it would give my brother the legacy that I feel he deserves,” Matthews says, with the trip taking place in 2022, just weeks after his third child with wife Vogue Williams was born.
“I think the story of his passing at that age, being the youngest Brit to reach the summit, was an interesting one – and it’s a tale that’s not told,” he follows.
“But there were mixed feelings. Michael’s been dead for 23 years, so whether or not recovering the body made sense did completely fall under whether or not the risk was acceptable. But with advances in technology, better kits, better oxygen systems, the team led by Nims, we were led to believe that it was.”
The journey in detail
The trip begins in Nepal, where Matthews and company hike the Himalayan route to Everest Base Camp.
Using footage shot decades earlier, they follow in Michael’s footsteps, staying at the same hostels he did, playing pool where he did and being blessed by the local monks in the same way he was.
Once they reached Base Camp, it was a case of setting up and planning for their four-week mission.
Having spent time there, although I still believe his death could have been avoided, I'm more at peace with it.
Not only had longtime friend Bear Grylls – Matthews met him whilst studying at Eton College, when he came in to discuss his own Everest summit some 20 years ago – advised against going any higher, Matthews had already set his limits due to his respect for his mother Jane.
“Putting my mum through that for a second time was completely unreasonable for some kind of thrill for myself,” he reasons.
“I mean, I didn’t really see that this trip was being for me. I was acting on behalf of the family to try and bring my brother home.
“Climbing Everest and thrill seeking is something that turns me on a bit – I love that kind of stuff – but not at the detriment of my family’s mental wellbeing.”
Waiting at Base Camp
Remaining at that height did make for painful waits once the searches began, he remembers.
“It’s when I felt the most helpless; you’re apprehensive, you’re nervous, you don’t really know what to expect, and the days are just incredibly long because you’re just waiting for news.”
He follows: “For me, it was a particularly memorable time in my life, being at that altitude for that period.
“During the day, it’s fine, but the nights are very long and very uncomfortable. You’re on a glacier, so it’s constantly moving, it was -15/-20 at night and you’re alone with your thoughts,” he explains, saying he video-called his wife and children up to eight times a day.
“So for the first time in my life, really, I got to think in a very focused way about Mike and what he went through, instead of just what you read about.”
Did he leave the experience feeling clearer about his passing?
“Making the film, but certainly the journey of trying to find him, helped me with processing his final days and just how he was lost on the mountain and who, if anyone, was really at fault,” he responds candidly.
“But it’s something I’ve learned to let go of. There was plenty of blame and resentment that I was carrying around for particular people that I felt could have done more, but it just felt like the correct time to let go of that and accept his fate as such.
“I also understand that it probably isn’t the easiest thing in the world to help someone at that altitude,” he concludes.
“So, having spent time there, although I still believe his death could have been avoided, I’m more at peace with it.”
Ensuring Michael’s name continues to be a force for good, the Matthews’ family set up the Michael Matthews Foundation, which manages donations for education projects in Africa and Asia.
Finding Michael is available to stream on Disney+.
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