Friday, 1 March 2013

The Brenva Feud: A question of attribution?

T Graham Brown (TGB), a member of the Yorkshire Gritstone Club, first met Frank Smythe in 1927, four weeks before their epic discovery of the Sentinel route on the Brenva face of Mont Blanc. The following year, after their discovery of the Brenva-Major route, an unexplained feud developed between them and TGB never climbed with Smythe again. These “firsts”, as well as the even more challenging, Via Della Pera route in 1933, are described in TGB’s book, Brenva1. More recently the editors of Smythe’s The Six Alpine /Himalayan Climbing Books2 attempt an explanation of the feud proposing that TGB was paranoid as a result of high altitude hypoxia and quoted excerpts from a letter to Smythe’s widow, written 22 years after the Major climb, dismissing TGB’s performance then as “a passenger”. 


Fig 1.Students and staff at the Physiology Institute,Cardiff, 1920.TGB is centre, second row from the front. Many, including TGB, had recently been discharged from Military service. TGB’s climbs were planned in his library at the top of the Tower and after his retirement he lived there for another 14 years.

The Protagonists.
Graham Brown (1882-1965) joined Charles Sherrington, later a Nobel Laureate, in Liverpool University in 19102 later moving to Manchester before volunteering for the RAMC in WW1. Specialising in stress illness (shell-shock), he served on the Salonika Battlefield until 1919; then Cardiff’s Physiology Professor (Fig 1), Dean of the Medical School and Fellow of the Royal Society. Lord Adrian, his obituarist, and also a Nobel Laureate, described TGB as a formidable opponent, particularly of University bureaucracy, who did not conceal his pleasure in the fight and victory. As Editor of the Alpine Journal (1949-53) he published a sympathetic obituary of Smythe.
Frank Smythe (1900-1949) was training as an electrical engineer in London and came to Bradford in 1919 for practical experience. He met Howard Somervell, EE Roberts and Claud Frankland on their way to climb at Almscliff. The following year he climbed on Pavey Ark, Little Gully and a solo Eagle’s Nest Ridge, Great Gable. Later resigning from a post in South America he joined the RAF but was discharged medically unfit. He spent his gratuity climbing and writing3. When discussed as a candidate for the 1922 Everest expedition Howard Somervell described Smythe as “A bad mountaineer…. an intolerable companion. Nobody in our party could stand him for more than a few days”. A more sympathetic appraisal is given by Stainforth in a review of Six Alpine Books.4

Fig 2. Langdale, Easter 1923. Left to right, E Griffiths, TGB, AA Scott, W Petty, HW Hodgkinson, with Club swastika emblem on his cap,C Wood (front). 
With permission, Gritstone Club.

Was TGB paranoid?
Charles Houston suggested that TGB was paranoid due to altitude hypoxia. This was based on his observation, as a medical student, of TGB on Nanda Devi in 1936. While high altitude hypoxia can cause transient paranoia, this disappears with normal oxygen and can’t explain events occurring at sea level years before. A critical obituary of TGB by Lord Adrian makes no mention of paranoia.

Was TGB a passenger?
The 1950 letter to Smythe’s widow described TGB as “a nervous beginner”, “an absolute tyro” who irritated Smythe by “making constant notes and talking incessantly about mountaineering problems”. These grounds for a feud seem spurious considering that, after their first climb, Smythe climbed again with TGB on Clogwyn d'ur Arddu and on the successful route Major climb in 1928. Was TGB really such a passenger or did the writer have other axes to grind?
Compare the writer’s comments with those of TGB’s longer-term climbing companions in the Gritstone Club from 1923-30. Eric Griffiths5 and Cecil Wood founded the Club in 1922. A.A Scott (Fig 2), the second president, was an engineer who produced innovative water-cooled motor cycles, sought after by today’s collectors. Scott designed the club badge based on the prehistoric Ilkley swastika (Fig 3). The Lake District in those days saw climbing authors George and Ashley Abraham still active. George Basterfield (1877–1949), Mayor of Barrow in Furness, was a leading light in the Fell & Rock Climbing Club and the Gritstone Club with many Lakeland first ascents to his name. He spent time with novice climbers teaching them why and how to climb and it was Basterfield who brought the Gritstone Club and TGB together.

The first reference to Graham Brown appears in a Walter Petty (Fig 2) report of a Gritstone Club meet at Langdale, Easter 19236. “Brown partners the more enthusiastic climbers on both rock and snow. One ice axe for the entire party reflects their level of experience at that time”. Petty writes about their climb on Gimmer Crag, where Graham Brown was indefatigable “It is only fair to mention that our last man was the only one to come up Amen Corner without assistance. Being a professor of physiology he realised the difficulty of standing on his own shoulders. We had no instrument for measuring the exact tension of his rope as he came up the famous crab-walk so we are bound to give him the benefit of the doubt and accept his statement as correct.
Petty continued, “After dinner at the Flying Horseshoe Hotel, Clapham (Yorks) (Fig 4), a new official was created – that of Hon. Chaplain to the Club”, Graham Brown was elected as the first holder of the office. “His efforts were extremely edifying. The proceedings opened with his reading of the first lesson from the Book of Abraham – the chapter on Gimmer. The responses of the congregation (Amen) were particularly beautiful when a certain passage was read out. The effect was indescribably funny.” After the 1925 dinner, George Basterfield wrote in the Club Journal “Dr Brown appeals to me as a man possessed with the body of a respectable person and the soul of a vagabond, strange it seemed to me to listen to the free and easy drolleries of the true vagabond chanted sweetly in Gregorian cadence.” Club minutes record early annual dinners attended by TGB being rumbustious affairs continuing well in to the early hours with climbing routes put up throughout the interior and exterior of the Flying Horse Shoe with indoor waterfalls and balustrades of inadequate strength used as belays.
The 1924 Gritstone Journal describes TGB’s rock climbing in the Lakes, meets at Coniston at Easter and Langdale at Whitsuntide (with Leslie Letts, London). The first Gritstone Club visit to the Alps was in July, the party consisting of TGB, Cecil Wood and Letts and used local guides6. Destinations were Wellenkuppe, Rimpfischorn then Dufour spitze of Monte Rosa (15,217 ft). Graham Brown with limitless energy “…led the climb and insisted on taking every obstacle direct”. 


Fig 4.1924 Annual Dinner, Flying Horseshoe Hotel, Clapham,Yorks.TGB,rear,3rd from rt. E.E Roberts, 2nd from rt. sitting. George Basterfield on his left. Roberts wrote an obituary of Frank Smythe in YRC Journal in 1952. With permission, Gritstone Club.

In December, TGB with Basterfield he made the first winter ascent of New West Climb on Pillar enjoying the challenge of snow and ice climbing. In April 1925 Graham Brown and Letts have another trip to the Alps. On their return TGB was the first to discover with Basterfield the climbing potential of the rocks on Kirkfell. They named them Boat Howe Crags, making the first ascents of several routes applying boating names7, a big interest of TGB. The 1926 Gritstone meet in the Alps is written by TGB in the Club journal as “The Graian Expedition July 1926”8. His alpine experience has obviously developed and his time spent in the mountains with Leslie Letts cannot be matched by Cecil Wood and Leonard Wade (Bradford). At a Club meet at Thornythwaite, in Borrowdale, Easter 1927, TGB was training on Pikes Crag for his forthcoming Alpine season.
This confirms that TGB was the antithesis of “a passenger” and we shall see below that the letter writer had other motives for denigrating him.

Graham Brown’s perspective of Smythe

For 15 years TGB had speculated about a direct way to the Mont Blanc summit but there were no suitable photographs available. The inception of the climb is well described both in Brenva10 and in ES Herbert’s obituary of TGB11. Herbert (aka Lord Tangley), RJ Brocklehurst and TGB made their first reconnaissance in 1926. Their first sight of the south side of Mont Blanc was the instant TGB realised that this was the site of his long imagined “Route Major”.
TGB’s story of his three pioneering Mont Blanc climbs eventually appeared in his book Brenva. But when Smythe saw the proofs he threatened legal action and before publication the originals were drastically edited by ES Herbert, a lawyer and mutual friend. TGB’s 1933 analysis was a 75 page letter to Col EL Strutt, Editor of the Alpine Journal9 but never published. In fact it may never have been sent. There were two issues;
[1] Although Smythe and TGB were climbing partners, Smythe claimed much later it was not TGB who first had the idea of the new Brenva route. TGB thought that this was a ruse to mask his role in the inception of the climb. The third man turned out to be TS Blakeney (1903-1976) described in an AJ obituary as having limited climbing experience. In 1928 Blakeney had joined Smythe and TGB in their first attempt to ascend Mont Blanc de Courmayeur direct from the Brenva glacier. They spent the night at the old Brenva bivouac where a persistent violent thunderstorm caused the expedition to be abandoned. Blakeney, because he was unwell, then returned home and missed the successful first ascent days later.
22 years afterwards Blakeney re-emerges as the “letter writer” and his disparaging assessment of TGB was based on this episode. Bearing this in mind there is a striking difference between TGB’s vivid description of the Brenva route and the vague description by Smythe and Blakeney. TGB noted that when they first climbed the Sentinel route Smythe had no clear idea of the topography of the Brenva face. When preparing his talk on the Sentinel route to the Alpine Club, Smythe, although critical of TGB’s constant note taking, wrote 16 letters to TGB for clarification, but with no mention of Blakeney’s “discovery”. Smythe’s first mention of the Blakeney idea to TGB was eight months after they had climbed the Sentinel route. When TGB confronted Blakeney his responses about “his route” were imprecise. In April 1928 when TGB went to Pen y Pass and met Smythe with Ogier-Ward, he was surprised that Blakeney, as “the originator” of the idea, was not in the party for the new 1928 Brenva route (Ogier-Ward, Smythe, Macphee and TGB). Macphee was rejected by Smythe and Blakeney was rejected as being unfit, not by TGB but by Ogier- Ward. Finally TGB described how he, Smythe and Blakeney had climbed the Trident de la Brenva specifically to examine the face for the 1928 climb (letter p40). But it was incredible to TGB that Blakeney himself made no mention of previously carrying out a reconnaissance of this specific route with Smythe.
[2] The Major route was eventually climbed by Smythe and TGB alone on 6-7th Aug 1928.Immediately afterwards TGB broke his partnership with Smythe and never climbed with him again. He kept the reason to himself until 4 years later, after he first heard of Smythe’s story how he had saved TGB’s life on the 1928 climb. TGB claimed, in his letter to Strutt, that this story was a fabrication and the reverse of what had actually happened (and the probable cause of the feud).
Both Blakeney and Herbert independently described Smythe as being in a nervous state in 1928, convinced that he was going to be killed. This preyed on Smythe’s mind and when he arrived with TGB at the Montenvers Hotel, shapeless bundles containing the dead bodies of husband and wife mountaineers were being carried past them on poles2 (p119). TGB claimed that to prevent damage to his reputation Smythe concealed the reason for the broken partnership with a distracting story about how he saved TGB’s life on the climb, and this was repeated to TGB’s publishers in 19432 (p930). Repeated twice in the Appendix2 there was, remarkably, neither mention of the incident in Smythe’s 1928 Blackwood’s article nor in his version of the 1928 climb. TGB claimed the incident was Smythe’s invention (letter p62-64), and wrote to Smythe to remind him of the facts of their severed partnership. Smythe replied with a letter about the critical phase of that climb, reproduced in Appendix IV2 (p926-928). The latter described the events as if TGB was not actually there.
Smythe claimed to have led at the critical part of the 1928 climb whereas TGB is adamant that he saved the day when Smythe panicked. TGB may not have been an expert climber but he certainly knew about stress related breakdown. TGB describes the traverse on steep ice at the final buttress (letter P65, para 4) “We had great difficulty at the corner and we both failed. Then I gave Smythe my shoulders in his crampons…he cried out and fell….”. TGB tried and failed, Smythe was hysterical and thought even a descent was questionable. TGB spoke to him sharply then led the ice traverse of about 110 feet and shouted to Smythe to follow. Smythe replied “How did you do this” and “why don’t you encourage me”. TGB, “We walked up a short slope to an easy looking chimney. Smythe went ahead but slid down and cried out “Now we are finished, and its all your fault. You have sacrificed my life” (letter, footnote p67)”. TGB’s edited account of this is in AJ 41, p45.
Some of TGB’s responses to the Smythe letter reproduced in Appendix IV2 (p928) are as follows (Strutt letter, P69); Smythe in italics, “Then you tried but ….your crampons made holes in my coat”. (TGB –untrue, it was the converse). “This meant an extremely hard bit of cutting on..steep polished ice…after so much previous cutting”.(At this point Smythe’s editors2 remind the reader that “Smythe forgot that Graham Brown led this critical passage as he described in Climbs and Ski Runs”).My arms were tired from hours of cutting…” (TGB- Smythe had not cut a step for at least 2 hrs because they were a long time at the corner where they both failed). TGB concluded that if Smythe really had led, most of his account of the climb would have been devoted to this traverse. Smythe’s book made no allusion to the difficulty.

A Question of Attribution.

Early Gritstone Club Dinners (Fig 4) were held in what was later Alan Bennett’s Yorkshire village; his above named play was based on the Queen’s art advisor and his role in the Cambridge Spy Ring; a sub text touches on fakes and secrets. During the restoration of a painting depicting two figures a third is discovered under the paint, and later, a fourth and fifth. This resonates with TGB’s story. Blakeney, the third man in the story, ventured into print about “his route” only after TGB’s death. Then, rather than confirming Smythe’s repeated claim that “Blakeney first suggested the route”, he “proved” the opposite; that it was that Smythe who thought about the route before TGB. The basis of this “proof” was that Smythe showed Blakeney, in the autumn of 1927, photographs of the Route Major. Unfortunately for Blakeney he had forgotten that these were TGB’s own photographs taken on the first Sentinel climb and loaned to Smythe. Remarkably this episode was described by TGB in his 1933 letter to Strutt. In fact Smythe never claimed that the route was his idea.
So why was Blakeney so keen to rubbish TGB’s climbing ability 22 years after the major climb? When he wrote the letter, TGB was the editor of the Alpine journal and Blakeney an assistant. Blakeney’s letter to Smythe’s wife revealed that he had other axes to grind. It enclosed a letter from Blakeney to BR Goodfellow, criticising TGB as editor of the AJ; “For all along I have maintained that it may be necessary to get rid of G-B as editor”. Blakeney makes TGB a scapegoat as a hopeless climber and editor. Lord Tangley (the fourth man?) himself had belittled TGB’s climbing ability in his obituary. But a personal communication from Dr Robin Campbell, University of Stirling, said, “I don't agree with what Tangley12 says about the disparity in climbing ability between Frank Smythe and TGB. They were both excellent climbers: proof of this is the fact that in Whitsun 1928 they very nearly made the first ascent of the West Buttress of Clogwyn d'ur Arddu, the most difficult climb achieved between the Wars in North Wales”. A few years later an unsigned paper critical of Winthrop Young (the fifth man?) was wrongly attributed to TGB. This precipitated a storm of criticism of TGB from five of his enemies who, within three weeks, “independently” wrote critical letters to Tangley. TGB was in hospital and unable to reply to Tangley, who rather than giving him a rap across the knuckles, sacked him from the editorship. Blakeney later admitted writing the paper but he was not finished with TGB. In his 1976 history of AJ editors13 the Machiavellian Blakeney, seething with bile, gloats over TGB’s downfall which he was instrumental in organising.
Graham Brown and Frank Smythe established two fine climbs on the greatest face of the Alps but were unable to share the glow of their success. Smythe subsequently completed many books on his climbs and Graham Brown his triptych of Mont Blanc routes when he added the more difficult Brenva- Via della Pera in which Smythe was not involved. 


Drawing of the prehistoric
left facing Ilkey swastika.
Right: Gritstone Club Badge used until 1960. With permission, Gritstone Club.


W. Hinde, Gritstone Club for three figures and transcribing Club records of TGB’s early climbing club history 1923-30. Trustees of the National Library of Scotland and John Bowles, Curator of its Graham Brown Collection. Mr. Glyn Hughes, Archivist at the London Alpine Club, for providing selected documents of the Editorial Committee of the Alpine Journal.

  1. Graham Brown T. Brenva. 1944. London JM Dent & Sons.
  2. Smythe F. The Six Alpine/Himalayan Climbing Books. Appendix IV, 924-932. 2000. Baton Wicks, London.
  3. Jones JG et al. Thomas Graham Brown (1882–1965): Behind the Scenes at the Cardiff Institute of Physiology. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. 2011; 20:188–209.
  4. Roberts EE. Francis Sydney Smythe. YRC Journal.1952;7:327-8.
  5. Gordon Stainforth. Review of Frank Smythe: The Six Alpine/Himalayan Climbing Books. The Alpine Journal, 2001
  6. Griffiths E. The Early days. Gritstone Club Journal 1963:1-6.
  7. Petty W. Gritstone Club Easter Meet, Langdale 1923. Gritstone Club Journal 1923;2:1-10.
  8. Letts LC. The Alps 1924. Gritstone Club Journal.1924;Vol 2, No 2.10-19.
  9. Graham Brown T. Boat How crags, Kirkfell. J Fell Rock Climbing Club.1934. Vol10. 1-14.
  10. Wood C. Boat How Crags, Kirkfell. Gritstone Club Journal.1925-26;2:28-9
  11. Graham Brown T et al. The Graian Expedition. Gritstone Club Journal. 1926:3:1-6.
  12. Prof T Graham Brown. Inventory of papers. AC4338. Nat Lib Scot.
  13. Herbert ES. T Graham Brown. Alpine Journal. 1966.71: 51-57.
  14. Blakeney TS. The “Alpine Journal” and its Editors. Alpine Journal. 1976; 81:153-160.

Biographical Note.
Published a personal experience of acute altitude hypoxia; The Hypoxia Hilton. J R Soc Med. 2002; 95: 606–8. Reviewed Mike Ward’s book on Everest, J R Soc Med 2003; 96: 417-8. A Review of T. Graham Brown’s Life. 2011. at

Gareth (JG) Jones 2013