High Mountains and Cold Seas. J.R.L. Anderson. 416 pages
Triumph and Tribulation. H.W. Tilman. 200 pages..
Published by Lodestar Books and Vertebrate Publishing, in paperback format.
£12 each title.
‘I cannot rest from travel; I will drink Life to the lees......’ Tennyson (Ulysses)
These two volumes are the final ones in a publishing endeavour that commenced in September 2015, with the intention, that for the first time since their original appearance of all the fifteen books by Bill Tilman, to be reprinted as single volumes. The programme has been strictly adhered to with one of the seven mountain exploration books appearing alongside the eight sailing ones each quarter for the last two years, with the final effort being the two books covered by this review. A foreword and afterword appears in the first of these by two people who knew Tilman, sailed with him and kept in touch until his fateful last voyage in 1977.
‘High Mountains and Cold Seas’, originally published by Victor Gollancz in 1980 is a thoroughly researched authorised biography of Tilman by John Anderson, a long time Guardian employee , but also with a background as a poet, writer of fiction and non-fiction, an adventurer and sailing enthusiast who unfortunately died in 1981. It is interesting to note here that a second biography of Tilman, ‘The Last Hero’ appeared in 1995, by Tim Madge who has written a foreword to this reprint of the Anderson book. Having read reviews of these two biographies, it is by common consent that whilst they both adequately cover Tilman’s impressive life story, they somehow leave the reader to ruminate about what kept him adventuring into advanced old age, and what really did motivate him?
The first of the two books under review, describes three voyages to northern destinations, the number one a successful circumnavigation of Spitzbergen, the other two including the final one in his own boat, being to Greenland. The leitmotif of Tilman’s voyages was to sail to a challenging destination, with the possibility of some mountain exploration once this had been reached. This did not always prove to be possible; for instance on some of his Greenland journeys thwarted by pack ice it proved too difficult to land and explore the proposed glaciers and or peaks, on others such as the trip to Baffin Island or the one to Patagonia, mountains were climbed and the ice cap successfully traversed. However his final journey to East Greenland at the age of 78, ended in difficulties both with his crew, and damage to his boat Baroque in icy conditions necessitating him to seek harbour in Iceland, and eventually to leave this behind and return to the UK. So the title of this fifteenth volume, ‘Triumph and Tribulation’ is apposite and though the first part of this work sparks with the usual to be expected Tilman dry wit and measured understatement, I found the last sections lacking in this and a sad end to a series of books, without equal in these qualities within my own reading of mountain literature.
All of this is truly gob smacking, for how he survived is astonishing, most of his fellow subalterns did not; life expectancy and the death rate amongst them was on average a six week one. It is a good job however that for most of us our teenage letters are consigned to the waste bins, for Tilman’s did not and his letters home were preserved, and at that stage of his life he had not become the wise old cynic of future years, and are full of jolly this, and jolly that! But just imagine an 18 year old, in charge of older none commissioned officers, and other ranks in an almost without historical parallel at that date, amongst the horrific muddy killing fields. It must have been character forming and might explain Tilman’s later enigmatic way of presenting himself.
However he did survive and by the end of the war had turned against following a pre-ordained life, working with his father in the family firm, which is what they wished him to do. He resigned his commission in 1919 and took up the offer to move to East Africa, to Kenya to become a planter, first of flax, but later coffee. On one of his leaves home in 1929 he visited The Lake District, and for the first time did some rock climbing. But his life in Kenya building up his own farm and turning it into a successful coffee plantation was exacting, and eventually he persuaded his father, a successful investor by then in many other business ventures to join with him, and invest in extending his farms land and holdings.
It was to be in 1930 when an article in the local newspaper about a fellow coffee planter, and his mountaineering activities, one named Eric Shipton working nearby, spurred Tilman to contact him about the possibility of doing some climbing together. Having also lived in Kenya, and similarly had experienced difficulty in finding climbing partners, Shipton must have been delighted by this overture and responded with alacrity. This was to lead on to one of the outstanding mountaineering partnerships, but a fact often overlooked was that Tilman was already 30 years of age at the start of his mountain exploration career.
Over the next decade, leading up to the second world-war, he and Shipton revolutionised how climbers approached remote mountain objectives by developing an economical lightweight approach, starting with ascents on Mount Kenya, including the first traverse of the mountain, followed by other African objectives including a successful visit to the Ruwenzori Mountains of Uganda. Initially Tilman was the novice, and learned much from his younger companion who quickly came to realise how tough and hardy his older rope mate really was, physically not a tall man, of below average height, but blessed with a powerful, squat physique. At the time of their first meeting Shipton had been climbing since his later teenage years, and already had some alpine experience and had previously summited Mount Kenya.
In 1932 Tilman was in the UK at Easter for family reasons, but managed to get away to North Wales and the Lake District to do some rock climbing. Unfortunately he was involved in a serious accident on Dow Crag, when climbing in a party of three, moving roped together near the summit, the third member of their party Vera Brown slipped and pulled Tilman off and though the leader John Brogden managed to hold them both, without a belay he could not do this for long and eventually he too was dragged down. Brogden died before he could be rescued and both Tilman and Brown were unconscious from their falls. Tilman came round and though injured crawled down to Coniston to raise the alarm, taking four hours to do this. The rescue party found Miss Brown still alive and she later recovered, but Tilman who had injured his back was advised by Doctor’s he would never be able to climb again. However after careful nursing, and building up his stamina once more, almost having to learn to walk upright again, he took off to the Alps on his own and made a string of voie normal ascents in first the Dauphine before moving on to the Mont Blanc range, to bag a few more climbing with a guide.
Returning to Kenya he became caught up in gold fever, which had then recently been discovered in several sites around the country. Staking a claim he tried his hand at finding this lucrative mineral, but without much success. He took off and climbed Kilimanjaro on his own, but then decided at his father’s failing health and other worries to sell up his land holdings and return to the UK. This he did by a remarkable solo cycle ride, travelling from the East to the West Coast of Africa and then a ship home.
The years leading up to the Second World War were to be his most memorable within the fields of mountain exploration, commencing by accompanying Shipton in 1934 for a first visit to the Himalaya, and a Nanda Devi reconnaissance expedition. During which they developed their lightweight approach to such undertakings. In 1935 he was a member of an Everest reconnaissance party, unfortunately succumbing to altitude sickness, leaving him to believe that he had an altitude ceiling around 20,000ft. But this was to be dispelled, when the following year he returned to the Indian Himalaya, and he successfully climbed Nanda Devi (25,643ft) with Odell, the highest peak to be ascended prior to the 1950 French success on Annapurna. His book about this ‘Ascent’, was by the standards of the day a best seller, and was to be the first of seven such volumes based on his experiences whilst climbing and travelling in the Himalaya and other remote mountain areas. In 1952 he was to receive an Honorary Degree in Literature from the University of St Andrews.
In 1937 he was with Shipton in an over the winter party exploring the Shaksgam region of the Karakoram, and interestingly their two companions, John Auden and Michael Spender were both brothers of famous poets, but were along as a surveyor and geologist to help in the mapping of this vast unexplored area of the Himalayan range. In 1938 Tilman was appointed leader of yet another attempt on Mount Everest. Despite being beset with terrible weather he and three others reached 27,300ft before being driven back down by the arrival of an early monsoon. In 1939 he was to be found exploring in Assam, and in making an attempt to climb Mount Gori Chen (21,450ft) but he succumbed to serious illness with a high fever, but hearing of the outbreak of the second war, on recovering he hurried back to the UK to rejoin the army.
He was promoted to Captain, and his experiences in this conflict read like a Boy’s Own Paper outing, he was at the evacuation of Dunkirk, took part in the North African campaign as a battery commander in the 8th Army, but then by ‘fiddling’ his papers whilst acting as commander of his regiment, he was recruited into the special service, by which time he had been promoted to Major, and he was then parachuted into Albania in 1943 to act as a liaison officer with the Partisans. It is interesting to note here that Kim Philby, the spy within MI6 acting for the Kremlin, was sending to Russia details of all the special agents being dropped into Albania at that time, but Tilman was to find that his most effective fighters were the members of the Communist groups. In 1944-5 he was dropped into the southern Dolomites where he took part in bloody fighting along with members of the Italian resistance against the German forces who had occupied the area; and subsequently moving north he was involved in the action taking place around the city of Belluno.
He was happy to find that one of his fellow combatants was Tissi the outstanding Dolomite pioneering climber. Whenever he could he broke off from fighting and made an ascent of some nearby peak or rock face. At the end of the European war he was awarded the DSO and the freedom of the City of Belluno. He then tried to get posted to the Far East for Special operations in the Japanese war which was still ongoing, but he was turned down as being too old for such an exacting posting, so once again he resigned his commission and left the Army.
1946 started inauspiciously for him, when he fractured an arm in a climbing accident on Ben Nevis, where much to his chagrin he was helped off the mountain by a party of Boy Scouts! But he then rose above this with a visit to the Swiss Alps and the following year by taking part in an attempt to climb Rakaposhi (25,550ft) as a member of a Swiss Expedition, post which he visited Shipton who was by that date The British Consul in Kashgar. Together they attempted to climb Muztagh Ata (24,388ft), being forced to retreat by the onset of bad weather when success had seemed assured from a high camp on the mountain. Subsequently he visited Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor where he was arrested on a charge of spying, but on his release he completed a journey back into what was to become Pakistan later that year, and then home to Bod Owen in Barmouth to live with his sister, which was to be his home base for the rest of his life.
In 1948 he was back in Central Asia travelling from China to Chitral, and on the journey he broke off to attempt two virgin peaks with Shipton, Bogdo Ola and Chakar Aghil and in 1949 at the opening of Nepal he spent four months exploring the Langtang, Ganesh and Jugal Himalaya. In 1950 post an attempt on Annapurna 1V, he along with the American Charles Houston managed a view into the then, not attempted Western Cwm southern route of Everest from off the lower slopes of Pumori. This is the route now known as the ‘Yak Route’ by the Sherpas and by which the mountain was first climbed in 1953. It was to be a real regret of Tilman’s that he had formed such a negative view of this approach, having warned that it appeared from their restricted view point, a very dangerous and forbidding prospect. The 1950 Journey was to be Tilman’s final Himalayan outing, having found that climbing at high altitude was becoming too much for him, as he moved into his fifth decade. And so typical of his adventurous spirit, in seeking a new and equally demanding activity as Himalayan exploration, he took to sailing, but not in a dinghy around his local estuary, but by buying an ancient Bristol Pilot Cutter which he named Mischief.
For a period of 22 years Tilman sailed to mountainous areas, during which time period he twice needed to replace his boats, on each occasion with another Pilot Cutter. Mischief was lost when she struck a lone rock pinnacle off Jan Mayen land, and Sea Breeze sank after running aground on the ledge of an ice berg in Greenland waters. By good management nobody was injured or lost in these mishaps. Baroque his final craft served for 5 Arctic voyages by which time its skipper was 79. Tilman became an outstanding navigator, and his methods relied on much the same methods as the pioneer sailors such as Cook had used. He managed over 140 thousand miles of sailing to pre-Antarctic and Arctic destinations, and always his navigation proved faultless and he was made a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation.
Not all was sweet reason and light however, and as he got older it seemed harder from him to recruit a crew. Often he had to take whoever applied; mostly young men with little or no seamanship experience. His journeys were often more exacting in time spent than would be needed for a Himalayan expedition. The first such in 1955 to Patagonia lasted for 12 months and involved over 20,000 miles of sailing, and one of his last, in 1974 to Spitzbergen included 7000 miles of travelling and took four months to complete. His biographer Anderson wrote a book in 1970, the Ulysses Factor. I well remember the discussions that this engendered, it reflected much on the nature of a man like Tilman driven to explore, and one of the Chapters was dedicated to his life and times.
That Tilman was a special example of a man driven to explore is not in question, however he was fortunate to have been born into a life of privilege. Unlike the majority of the people on this planet, he never had to worry about his finances, and was able to buy three boats, kit them out and provide the money to undertake his sea voyaging and earlier his own travels in the Himalaya. Although for the participation in his two Everest expeditions all his expenses were covered, he did after the 1938 attempt which he had led consider financing a further lightweight attempt himself, in order to do away with what he considered the tiresome business of the preliminary organisation, and the tie in to the press and media.
For such a taciturn man he wrote so much about his life, and travels and yet despite the two biographies noted he remains an enigma. Those who knew him best, contradict each other about his character, Shipton decided he was a misogynist, others that he was naturally shy, a further view was that he was sociable and enjoyed being in company and never eschewed a visit to a local pub. His disappearance at the age of 79 in November 1977 en route from Rio to the Falkland Islands, crewing for one of his own former sailors Simon Richardson in his boat, ‘En Avant’ only adds to his legend. The Anderson biography I believe does justice to this. It is an outstanding read, but like Tilman himself it is of its time. But until some new researcher arrives on the scene, wishing to re-evaluate in the light of another forty years of mountaineering and sailing history, then it is the best insight we have into the life of a most remarkable man..... H.W. Tilman.