Edward Alexander Crowley, son of a Plymouth-Brethren brewer and lay-preacher, was a man of many parts. A poet and mountaineer, he was best known as Aleister Crowley, the fabulous Beast of the Book of Revelation. He claimed to be the latest to emerge in a fantastic reincarnology which included Pope Alexander VI and the gypsy mage Cagliostro; for a time too, he was a Highland Laird – Lord Boleskine of Foyers (another Loch Ness Monster) – and many other things besides.Crowley was born in 1875. His early years were dominated by his interests in poetry and mountaineering. Until 1893, or thereabouts, his mountaineering development was fairly conventional, but he then struck up a friendship with Oscar Eckenstein (a very able climber who, along with Crowley, did much to develop and promote the crampon) and at the same time began to dabble in magic (the purchase of the estate at Foyers was made with this end in view – its solitude made it eminently suitable for such practices). Eckenstein tolerated Crowley's aberrations and even encouraged him in some of them. Under his influence, Crowley's mountaineering horizons expanded. He went to the high Mexican volcanoes with Eckenstein, and in 1902 they made an unsuccessful expedition to K2. In 1905 Crowley led an expedition to Kanchenjunga. The attempt ended disastrously. It was possibly because of the ensuing storm of criticism that Crowley took no further part in active mountaineering after 1905, although he continued to comment on mountaineering affairs. Instead, he turned to a life in which he is said to have explored every avenue of debauchery and vice as a means of increasing his magical powers and advancing his status in the satanic hierarchy.
Unnatural practices, such as eating human excrement and flesh and enjoying sexual communion with freaks of all shapes and sizes, drew from the public the opinion that he was “the wickedest man in the world”. Nevertheless, his crimes were few and undetected, and indeed his ‘wickedness’ seems somewhat pallid beside that of more conventional villains bent on material rather than spiritual plunder. Perhaps the worst that can be said of Crowley is that he took seriously the profusion of dilettante interests in the occult so common in fin-de-siècle London salons. It seems that the mainspring of his effort was a desire to discover the limits of his own nature and potentialities, rather than a desire for public notoriety or self-aggrandisement. It is possible that his mountaineering was similarly motivated.
Mountaineering, of course, is not a normal pursuit and we should not be too surprised to find its adepts showing odd behaviour in other spheres of life. I have no doubt that, taken singly, Crowley's worst excesses could be matched by some of those in our current folklore. For instance, it is said that the game of Hungarian Hamstring (a form of tug-of-war in which each contestant attaches a running noose to his penis) recently enjoyed some popularity in Glencoe, along with versions of darts in which pin-ups substituted for the board and various bodily fluids for the missiles. One imagines that even Crowley might have blanched at some of these! There has been a mountaineering Pope – the Abbé Achille Ratti – why not a mountaineering Antichrist? The most interesting account of Crowley's mountaineering is his own, given in his copious Confessions [note 2]. This extraordinary book makes it perfectly clear that, whatever else Crowley may have been, he was a masterly writer of prose. The sections dealing with his climbs are continuously entertaining and often extremely humorous.
Some may find that his extreme views make the book unreadable but, strangely for the “wickedest man in the world”, his actions seem quite moderate and some of his opinions have a distinctly modern ring. For example, about Nepal he contends:–
‘Where the white man sets his foot, the grass of freedom and the flower of good faith are trampled into the mire of vice and commercialism’.
Again, deploring the destruction of the Falls of Foyers by the British Aluminium Company, he says:–
‘The Falls of Foyers are one of the few natural glories of the British lsles; why not use them to turn an honest penny? Money-grubbing does its best to blaspheme and destroy nature. It is useless to oppose the baseness of humanity; if one touches pitch, one runs the risk of being defiled.’
Hardly the opinions you’d expect from a Devil's Advocate! On the other hand, his view of women is starkly primitive:–
‘No man who allows a woman to take any place in his life is capable of doing good work ... A man who is strong enough to use women as slaves and playthings is all right.. A woman is a creature of habit, that is, of solidified impulses. She has no individuality.’
One of Crowley's favourite targets for criticism was the Alpine Club, which suffered enormous abuse at his hands. When chronicling the formation of an expedition to Kanchenjunga, he wrote:–
‘Thanks to the Alpine Club, there was no Englishman of mountaineering ability and experience available.’
Elsewhere, he said:–
‘The policy of boycotting Eckenstein and his school, of deliberately ignoring the achievements of Continental climbers, to say nothing of my own expeditions, has preserved the privilege and prestige of the English Alpine Club. lgnorance and incompetence are unassailable. Ridicule does not reach the realms of secure snobbery. The mountains themselves vainly maim and murder the meddlers; they merely clamour all the more conceitedly to be considered heroes. It is one of the most curious characteristics of the English that they set such store by courage as to esteem a man the more highly the more blindly he blunders into disaster.’
Such condescension implies that Crowley himself was an exceptionally competent mountaineer, and indeed there seems little reason to doubt this. He joined the Scottish Mountaineering Club in 1894. His application shows that even at that time, when he was only nineteen and had not yet benefited from Eckenstein's instruction, Crowley had a backlog of experience that was formidable for the times.
Between 1894 and 1898 he visited the Alps yearly and, along with Collie, Mummery and Hastings, did much to further the cause of guide less climbing. Although he made no major new ascents, some of his efforts sound somewhat nerve-racking even today. His description of an ascent of the Vuibez ice-fall in the Arolla district runs:–
‘Our way was barred by an undercut ice-cliff, which at its only assailable point rose some 14 - 20ft. above the detached serac on which we were standing. Leaning over the intervening crevasse, the second man was able to support the leader who, standing on his shoulders (in crampons), cut hand and foot holds in the wall above. With some assistance from behind with an axe the leader arrived at the top of the wall and the rest of the party followed. Above this point, the climbing became diffcult.’
The final bombastic touch is typical of Crowley. At home he made improbable ascents of the chalk cliffs at Beachy Head (see SMCJ., iii, 288ff.), whose looseness might well dismay the hardiest modern sea-cliff climber.
‘One does not climb the cliffs. One hardly even crawls. Trickles or oozes would perhaps be the ideal verbs.’
His first visit there is recorded with characteristic boastfulness:–
‘The general opinion was that no-one had ever climbed it. There was, however, a legend that it had once been done. I settled the point by walking up, smoking a pipe, with my dog (I had no woman available) in nine-and-a-half minutes.’
Eckenstein enjoyed a reputation almost as mysterious as Crowley's. He was extremely reticent and suffered fools badly. Unlike Crowley, however, his stature as a mountaineer was never called into question. Crowley had the greatest respect for him. In a letter to Harry Doughty, he wrote:–
‘Eckenstein, provided he could get three fingers on something that could be described by a man far advanced in hashish as a ledge, would be smoking his pipe on that ledge a few seconds later and none of us could tell how he had done it.’
After their highly successful Mexican trip, Crowley and Eckenstein resolved to attempt K2 in 1902. They attacked the mountain with a party comprising one Englishman, two Austrians and a Swiss doctor, Jacob Guillarmod. After trying the south-east ridge (favoured by Crowley and followed on most later attempts), they switched their efforts to the north-east ridge and reached a height of about 22,000ft. before retiring. This height record stood until the American attempt of 1938.
Crowley advanced various reasons for their failure, but in retrospect their attempt must be viewed as a considerable achievement. Not only did they reach a great height during this, the first attempt on the mountain, but they also showed what men were capable of at high altitudes in atrocious weather. The expedition lasted the entire summer, and several members, including Crowley, spent almost two months at heights around 20,000ft. The doctor, to whom Crowley refers as Tartarin, was by all accounts a fairly ineffectual character, but at this time Crowley found his antics merely amusing, remarking only that ‘he knew as little of mountains as he did of medicine.’ In view of the fact that it was the antipathy between Guillarmod and Crowley which led to the disastrous result of the 1905 expedition, it is odd that this did not manifest itself during that long cold summer. In any event, in 1904 Tartarin visited Lord Boleskine at his Foyers estate and attempted to persuade him to go to Kanchenjunga. At Boleskine House, Tartarin was the butt of many practical jokes, the most absurd of which was the cleverly-staged haggis hunt. Tartarin foolishly asked the Lord what a haggis was, and was informed that it was a ‘rogue’ ram – one that had run wild. Some days later, Crowley's gillie entered the lounge, “The haggis is on the hill my Lord,” he said, excitedly. Boleskine and Tartarin chose their weapons (the latter's an elephant-piece) and proceeded to pursue a solitary sheep. Eventually Tartarin blew it in half, to everyone's satisfaction.
Encouraged by Tartarin's buffoonery, Crowley agreed to lead an expedition to Kanchenjunga. The following year he attacked the mountain with a party which, in addition to the two principals, comprised two Swiss (Reymond and Pache) with whom Crowley was well pleased, and an Italian hotelier from Darjeeling, de Righi, with whom he was not:–
‘His character was mean and suspicious and his sense of inferiority to white men manifested itself as a mixture of servility and insolence to them and of swaggering and bullying to the natives. These traits did not seem so important in Darjeeling, but I must blame myself for not foreseeing that his pin brain would entirely give way as soon as he got out of the world of waiters.’
Crowley – ‘had reconnoitred Kanchenjunga from England, thanks to the admirable photographs of every side of the mountain taken by Signor Vittorio Sella’, and had chosen to attempt a route up the Yalung glacier and the slopes above it. On the approach all went well. However, once on the mountain, things started to go wrong. Minor difficulties with de Righi and Guillarmod became more frequent and Crowley now thought that – ‘Tartarin's vanity, inexperience, fatuity and folly were certain to land us in disaster.’ Gradually Guillarmod became convinced of the converse proposition. In trying to discover where the fault lay, it is difficult not to agree with Crowley that Guillarmod was consistently in the wrong. One of his major complaints was Crowley's insistence on early starts to avoid avalanches: this, Guillarmod argued, needlessly exposed the porters to cold. However, as events were later to prove, Crowley's advice was sound.
Under the circumstances, Crowley was perhaps foolish to proceed with the attempt. But proceed he did and, having little confidence in his colleagues apart from Reymond, he did what few generals do – he led from the front. Eventually, Pache, Reymond and Crowley reached a point about 21,000ft. where they stuck due to lack of supplies. Meanwhile, in the dissident rearguard, mutiny was planned. Guillarmod and de Righi arrived at the high camp demanding a change of leadership. A furious argument ensued, blows were exchanged and, with nothing settled, Guillarmod, de Righi and Pache decided to return to the lower camps with three porters. Crowley implored them to stay, warning them of the dangers of avalanche (it was late afternoon), but they were adamant. In his Confessions, Crowley reflects:–
‘I ought to have broken the doctor's leg with an axe, but I was too young to take such a responsibility. It would have been hard to prove afterwards that I had saved him by so doing.’
During the descent the party, roped together, was traversing a snow-slope with the doctor and de Righi leading. Two porters slipped and pulled Pache and the other porter off, starting a small avalanche. They were swept down hundreds of feet. De Righi and Guillarmod, riding the avalanche, survived, but the three porters and Pache were crushed. Crowley afterwards admitted to having heard their cries, but claimed that this was nothing unusual as ‘Tartarin and de Righi shouted all the time.’ By now in his sleeping bag, writing his reports, Crowley was reluctant to investigate and sent Reymond and some porters instead. He remained in his tent until morning when he descended with the remaining porters.
It was his apparent heartlessness that earned Crowley the abuse of the mountaineering world, and he did not help matters by writing:–
‘I was not over-anxious under the circumstances to render help. A mountain ‘accident’ of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sympathy whatever.’
Crowley never publicly relented. In the Confessions, he wrote:–
‘It is noteworthy that 17 coolies without ropes, axes, boots, claws and Tartarin, had crossed the fatal spot quite safely (earlier in the day).’
Crowley clearly regarded the accident as falling beyond the realm of his responsibility, since he had explicitly advised against the descent. The expedition disintegrated after the catastrophe and its members returned variously to Darjeeling to squabble over the division of funds. Crowley rather highhandedly took control of the account at the Darjeeling bank, on the grounds that Guillarmod had, before the mutiny, attempted to do likewise by letter. The affair ended in a public brawl between the principals in the Press, and an attempt by Tartarin to blackmail Crowley into dividing the funds, with the threat that a copy of Crowley's pornographic Snowdrops would otherwise be sent somewhere damaging. What might have been Crowley's fate in the eyes of the mountaineering public had he not written in such strong and unpalatable terms about the incident? His actions had been innocuous enough, given the current prejudices in favour of strong leadership. At most he could be accused of laziness: he did not ignore the accident – Reymond was sent to investigate and told to summon Crowley if help was needed. And it wasn’t – de Righi and Guillarmod were safe, the others impossibly buried. It seems likely that Crowley's acid pen, whose prose output was in my view his best claim to genius, was alone responsible for his fall from mountaineering favour.
1. from Mountain 11, September 1970, pp13-14
2. The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. John Symonds and Kenneth Grant. Jonathan Cape.