Friday, 12 May 2017

Bill Tilman-The Last Hero? Two Book reviews


‘Put on a good pair of boots and walk out the door!’
‘The Nepal Himalaya 1952’ and ‘Ice with Everything 1974’ published by Lodestar Books and Vertebrate Publishing. £12 each in paperback.

These two volumes are the latest in a bold undertaking to re-publish the whole oeuvre of Tilman books; seven based on his mountain and eight about sailing/climbing adventures. Two such books, a mountain and a sailing one have been published every quarter since September 2015, and the whole will be completed in June 2017, when the fifteenth in the series, ‘Triumph and Tribulation’ is published, along with a reprint of the 1980 biography ‘High Mountains and  Cold  Seas’ by J R L Anderson. An imprint has been created especially to cover these publications, Tilman books, and as perfect bound paperbacks, the layout and styling plus the many maps and photographs belie what one normally expects from this design format. Each volume has a new Foreword, and in some cases an Afterword, written by those who knew Tilman or have a unique insight into his approach to climbing, sailing or navigation.

In the first of these two reviewed books, ‘Nepal Himalaya’ we celebrate the opening up of Nepal to climbing expeditions in 1949, and Tilman was one of the first to take advantage of this act of serendipity for a mountain explorer like himself. True to his long held belief in the lightweight approach, and along with four Sherpas (including Tenzing Norgay) he and a companion trekked into the Kathmandu Valley, then on to the Langtang and an exploration of the Ganesh Himal, before moving onto the Jugal range. Some minor peaks were climbed, but one quickly appreciates it is exploring that Tilman is really about. However he was back to the country in 1950 with more serious intent and in the company of Charles Evans and Jimmy Roberts, they first essayed Manaslu, but after a close look at its approaches decided to leave this ‘to better men!’ From where they moved on to the Annapurna range to attempt Annapurna lV, which they very nearly succeeded in climbing, driven back by bad weather with the serious climbing below them.

For me reading this section of the book was a memory arouser, for I knew both Evans and Roberts quite well. In 1964 at the end of the Gauri Sankar expedition, left behind in Kathmandu on my own to complete expedition chores, I often met up with Jimmy who was a permanent resident in the valley, and who it is fair to claim was the initial instigator of the now  popular activity of trekking in that country. And Charles I knew first from my days as Secretary of the Alpine Climbing Group from 1961 onwards but later when he was President of the Alpine Club and I was a committee member for my sins.

At the end of the 1950 season, Tilman met up with what might now be seen as one of the first trekking parties to the Solo Khumbu region and Everest, including the well known American mountaineer, Dr Charles Houston. Leaving behind the then little known Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar and its doughty inhabitants, the pair headed north to Pumori from off whose flanks they could look into the southern approaches to Everest, then a totally unknown prospect. Gazing as best they could into the mountains Western Cwm and up at the South Col with the finishing South-East ridge leading to the summit, they were none committal about the possibilities of success to climb the mountain from that approach. But Tilman does observe in ‘Nepal Himalaya’ that ‘Any party which pitches a tent in the Western Cwm, overhung as it is by two such tremendous walls, it might easily become their grave’. I guess a rather bald statement, but not a few Everest climbers have unfortunately found these words to be true.

This proved to be Tilman’s last outing for what he referred to in his own vein of self mockery, Himal Bill. He was finding that now into his ‘fifties, high altitude mountaineering was no longer for him, and typical of an honest review of his fading abilities in this respect, was that he finished ‘Nepal Himalaya’ with a quote from Beowulf, ‘Harder should be the spirit, the heart all the bolder, Courage the greater, as the strength grows less’. And with the following statement, ‘If a man feels he is failing to achieve this stern standard he should perhaps withdraw from such a field of high endeavour as the Himalaya’.

I got to know Tilman by persuading him to come and speak at a BMC National Mountaineering Conference in 1976. At which he displayed all the traits for which he had by then become legend. Speaking without any supporting materials (slides, photographs, music etc) he held the audience in high good humour with his talk, extolling the lightweight approach. He advised a full house at the Buxton Opera House, ‘to forget computers, forget sponsors, ignore-oxygen’ and whilst waving a small brown envelope observed ‘that any expedition that cannot be planned on the back of an envelope, is suffering from over organisation!’ Perhaps the outstanding quote from his spiel was his observation that ‘in 1938 on Everest the problem at 27,300ft was that I suddenly began to suffer from the Mountaineers disease. Namely an inability to put one foot in front of the other’ His writing is full of such quotable observations, and although it may now be an outdated prose style, it still fits the man and his life history perfectly.

But what can a man do turning away from exploring the Himalaya, who has been a heavily decorated war hero twice over (in both world wars), has lived an almost unprecedented life of adventure from his late teens; new routing in Africa, cycled alone across that continent, achieved such notable first ascents in the Himalaya as Nanda Devi (25,643ft), taken part in two pre war Everest expeditions, and spent much of his life exploring new terrain; in China, in Afghanistan, Assam and Burma. Tilman could not just settle down to being what we call in Yorkshire, a bun eater! No he took up sailing to enable him to access remote mountain areas, buying a boat, a pilot cutter Mischief.

This was the start of a whole new way of life, and it is impressive how quickly he mastered the navigational and boat know how to subsequently sail to Patagonia, where he crossed the vast ice cap, to Baffin Island making the first ascent of Mount Raleigh and sailing so many times to Greenland. In ‘Ice with Everything’ this book describes three of those latter journeys in 1971, 1972 and 1973. I had not read this his fourteenth work before, having stalled post reading two of his previous sailing ‘Mischief’ volumes, but once I did get into this work, I found it amusing(on occasion laugh out loud), in parts gripping, and in others a teach in about small boat sailing and how to navigate.

The first voyage in 1971 describes Tilman’s attempt to reach the remote and ice bound Scoresby Sound. His first such to try to reach this had cost him his first boat, Mischief in 1968. This is the largest fjord system in the world, and was named by the Whitby whaling captain, who first charted the coastline in 1822, and in 1971 Tilman was to be defeated once more in gaining entrance into the fjord by impenetrable sea ice. Refusing to give up his quest, he returned the following year when a series of unforeseen, but serious events ended by his second boat, ‘Sea Breeze’ being crushed between rocks and an ice floe. Fortunately no one was injured and the crew survived. So many of the Tilman stories are set around of how on his sea voyages he put together a crew, usually ad hoc, somebody knew someone who might be willing to take part in such a challenge. But on occasion he had to resort to advertising for the same in The Times, maybe Shackleton is most famous for his honest advert in this paper for a crew, but his advertisement has never been found.

Tilman’s however is well documented, ‘Hand (man) wanted for long voyages in small boat. No pay, no prospects, not much pleasure’. I guess recruiting in such a manner, you would be lucky to recruit star small boat sailors, in fact many who did sail with him he had to train in seamanship and hard living. He even had to suffer ‘a polite mutiny’ on one of his Greenland voyages, and stories emerged via malcontents that he was too demanding, impervious to living off hard tack, to the cold and difficult life conditions. But it cannot have been so bad for a mutual friend, Charles Marriott, sailed with Tilman four times, and when one realises that one of those journeys, sailing over 20,000 miles to Patagonia and back lasted for over a year, then they must have got along pretty well. Mind you Tilman did write that Charles was ‘more of an eccentric than himself’, which compliments my own memories of that great character.

Safely back in the UK he began a search for yet another boat, remarking ‘One cannot buy a biggish boat as if buying a piece of soap’. ‘The act is almost as irrevocable as marriage and should be given as much thought’. Pilot cutters were becoming rare, but after months of searching Tilman found yet another one, ‘Baroque’. And after much expense and refitting out of it’s on board facilities, in 1973 with a scratch crew he set off once more for West Greenland. Any such new boat; that is to a new owner needs like any other mode of transport to be run in. Reading Tilman, his boats almost seem to have separate lives of their own and be a part of his family. ‘Baroque’ over the next four years, sailed to Spitzbergen, East and West Greenland and in the year of his death to Iceland.

Tilman’s last voyage was in 1977 in his 80th year, when he was invited to be a crew member En Avant, skippered by one of his former young protégés Simon Richardson. This was to be a mountaineer’s journey to climb on Smith Island, in the far south Atlantic. They reached Rio de Janeiro successfully, but thereafter en route to the Falkland Islands to meet up with two New Zealand climbers, they disappeared without trace; perhaps, a fitting Viking type of a funeral ending for Tilman; but a tragedy for the mainly young crew and their families.

Reading the whole of Tilman’s works is a challenge. For a notoriously taciturn man he was an astonishingly prolific writer, but those of his books I have read; more than half of his output, they are always educational, funny and erudite. Even Shipton, his original mountaineering companion; who was an equally iconic figure in mountain exploration, and another fine writer, could not match Tilman in this respect. Many have wondered about what drove the man, certainly his early experiences in the First World War, into which he was pitched at 18 years of age, surviving despite being wounded, and fighting at the Somme and being twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery, must have had a real affect on his psyche. I am sure he will continue to be read when so many other explorer travel writers have faded into obscurity. His books are his memorial, one that will continue to enthuse and amuse mountaineers and sailors I believe for many generations yet to be born.

Dennis Gray 2017