The Uncrowned King of Mont Blanc. Peter Foster.
The life of T.Graham Brown, physiologist and mountaineer.
Published by Vertebrate. £14.95. 256 pages, Perfect Bound Paper Back.
‘Only those who will risk going too far, can possibly find out how far they can go’. T.S. Eliot
In the mid-1960’s I moved to live in a flat in Manor Place in Edinburgh, and unbeknown to me in a house in that secreted close lived T.Graham Brown. My landlord was a Captain Bowler and his daughter observed as I moved in that ‘strange happenings’ were taking place in the property opposite. Intrigued I kept a watch on its approaches that first night and noted people coming and going that to my trained eye looked like they might be climbers. At that date most of us were still rough and readily dressed, but the baring of rucksacks and the wearing by some of these residents of boots ought to have given a lead and eventually I found out who these strangers were? They were youthful members of the Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club, lodging freely in the basement of a house belonging to T.Graham Brown the pioneer of the famous Brenva Face routes, Mont Blanc, and author of a book ‘Brenva’ the story of these ascents.
In retrospect this should have indicated to me that TGB must be a most unusual landlord in allowing his house to be so used, situated as it was in the very upmarket area of the West End of the City just off the Princess Street!
In the years previous to my sojourn in Edinburgh I had ascended one of the Brenva routes, and in the latter part of that decade I studied psychology at Leeds, and this occasioned me to enquire about Graham Brown’s academic work mistakenly believing that his research was in the field of Psychiatry, but once I discovered it was experiments within the discipline of physiology I did not pursue my interest any further. But Peter Foster as a retired consultant physician is most able to explain these in a manner that most none medically trained readers will understand.
TGB at the foot of a boulder in Mosedale. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
T. Graham Brown was born in Edinburgh in 1882 into a family of some distinction, his father being a distinguished Doctor who became the President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. He had two brothers and a sister, but unfortunately his mother died of cancer when he was just nine years old. His father demanded/expected outstanding results from his eldest son TGB, and Peter Foster has well interpreted for us how this so influenced him in the career he decided to eventually follow in physiology; another major influence and mentor being one of his father’s closest friends, Sir Charles Sherrington, who eventually was to be a Nobel laureate holding Chairs in Physiology first at Liverpool then Oxford. Although initially at his school Edinburgh Academy he was not a stand out pupil once he had gained entrance to study medicine at Edinburgh University his ability for painstaking and methodical research soon became apparent. Finishing at Edinburgh on Sherrington’s advice he studied in Germany (as had both his father and mentor) for in the early part of the 1900’s that was where the finest medical schools and researchers were and TGB became fluent whilst there in that language.
Returning to the UK in 1910 he obtained a post at Liverpool and adapting the methods of his mentor he began his research work into the neural control mechanisms of locomotion, part of which work he submitted for his Doctorate which was awarded with a gold medal. His researches in Liverpool and later at Manchester University whilst a lecturer there were perhaps his most productive, but he recognised at the latter he did not like teaching preferring to work solely at research projects. It was whilst he was at Liverpool he started hill walking and camping in the Lake District..... This would eventually lead him via chance meetings into becoming a climber and also whilst residing in Merseyside he involved himself in the University settlement, dedicated to improving the living conditions of the City’s slum dwellers.
The First World War intervened and there was much need for medical knowledge. And as the conflict progressed and it became ever more bloody, specialists in such as brain and spinal injuries were sought as were those who might have ideas as to how to combat-the ever growing phenomena of shell shock. TGB was commissioned into the RAMC and initially posted to a hospital near Liverpool but as the conflict spread he was sent out to Salonika, where on occasion he was in the front line under fire. However it was during the war that the ‘difficult’ side of his temperament seems to have surfaced, champing at the waste of the possibility of undertaking original research into such areas as brain and spinal injuries instead of patching / bandaging /stitching up injured squaddie’s.
TGB was appointed to the Chair of Physiology at University College Cardiff in 1920 and he was to spend the next forty years in and around that institute and he was elected to be a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1927 on the strength of his pre-war research. Over these years he was to be involved in ever more disputed arguments about the place of the College in the provision of medical education in Wales, and his constant absences away climbing and in his later years sailing! He had started climbing in Easter 1914 by ‘accident’, when camping in Mosedale and by being invited by a climber to accompany him on an ascent of Pillar Rock and a few days later some easy climbs on Great Gable.... and he was hooked. He was back again at the Whitsuntide holiday and climbed on Scafell and the Napes once more and he even took part in the first ascent of the Peregrine Gully on the Cam Spout Crag in Eskdale. But two months later the war intervened and it was to be 1920 before he was back to rock climbing in the Lake District where he met up with some climbers from Yorkshire’s Gritstone Club at a Wasdale Head gathering.
TGB making notes at the bivouac hut on Col d' Estelette en route to the Aiguille de la Tete. August 1927. His companion Herbert who took the image annotated it 'authentic contemporary portrait of Dioggenes'. reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
Over the next three years he attended regularly at their meets and he made close friends with Leslie Letts a member of the famous diary manufacturing family. It was to be Letts who persuaded him to accompany Cecil Wood and himself to the Alps for the first time in 1924. In 1925 TGB in company with the well known Lakeland pioneer George Basterfield, having remembered seeing these whilst out walking previously, visited the Boat Howe crags situated on the northern flanks of Kirkfell overlooking Ennerdale and began a pioneering spree of new routing on these previously unclimbed rocks.
The visit to the Alps in 1924 was to be a life changer for TGB, and from that year onwards until the outbreak of the second war he spent most of his summers in the mountains. Much of his climbing in the Alps was to be accompanied by guides ascending voie normales or classic routes, but by 1927 he was a seasoned campaigner, being elected to the Alpine Club in 1926 and he had already begun his lifelong ability to fall out with rope mates including his original Alpine partner Letts. It was to be in the 1927 season that a fateful introduction to Frank Smythe set him on course for two outstanding ascents on the Brenva Face. He was so introduced by Edwin Herbert, later to be a President of the Alpine Club 1953-1956, and a life Peer as Baron Tangley.
TGB had read A.E.W Mason’s ‘Running Water’ a romantic adventure story which reaches its action climax on the ridge of the Old Brenva route, and this inspired him to think and plan for new routes on the then unclimbed face of the mountain. To record that this was presumptuous is still true, for few alpinists of that era would have dared to contemplate such ascents. But in 1927 accompanied by Smythe he ascended a route on the Face following a series of ribs on the right flank of the Great Couloir which is a major feature of the Brenva Face. They called this route the ‘Sentinelle Rouge’. The following year 1928 they made their second new route on the Face, ‘Route Major’ and this second route was far more impressive than the first, and included more difficult/technical climbing, following rock steps, walls and steep snow bands on the left side of the Great Couloir and exiting on the summit of Mont Blanc.
Smythe unlike TGB was not a well heeled professional, he was in the mode of Whymper, someone who through his mountaineering writing, books and lectures crafted out a precarious living for himself, and so having lead on two of the most important first ascents of the inter war years he wished to write them up, include them in a book he was writing and to have his enterprise acknowledged by his peers, particularly in the pages of the Alpine Journal, whose editor in that era Col.E.L. Strutt was almost an equally spiky personality as TGB! And so the scene was set for one of the most contentious ‘Fallouts’ in the history of British mountaineering, spawning a feud that lasted for more than 20 years, the reason for this with hindsight is attribution?
Who was the true progenitor of these climbs, Smythe or TGB? The latter believed with all his being that it was him and as Smythe’s claims and his writing up of these events were published the more vehement TGB became sending to Strutt on one occasion a letter over 70 pages in length refuting Smythe’s claims, requesting publication of it in the Alpine Journal. When he did prepare to write his own history of his Brenva ascents (including the Pear Buttress in 1933) in his book so entitled, the MSS was sent to Smythe who threatened to take legal action, and Lord Tangley (who was a high flying lawyer) intervened and helped to edit it in a way to avoid any such possibility.
Lord Tangley wrote of TGB after his death, a tribute in the Alpine Journal, noting that he was one of the most complex persons he had ever known. Somehow he remained friends with both of these two climbers, but he noted how difficult and touchy TGB could be for he had been subjected to a wall of silence for quite some time simply because he had retained his friendship with Smythe.
He also noted how TGB’s obsession with detail could be so frustrating whilst actually on a route, insisting on stopping and noting the smallest of facts; times, distances, weather, and any difficulties in his notebooks which he always had about him whatever the conditions, whilst the other members of the party grumbled about the need to get on with the climbing. Tangley suggested that it was his scientific background that led to this obsession, and perhaps his combative nature was in part due to his physique, burley, small, and with the shortest legs he had ever seen! Nevertheless he accorded him to be one of the leading alpinist in the years between the wars who despite not being one of the best technical climbers, made up for this by his incredible stamina and ‘push’.
The final route in 1933 of TGB’s Triptych on the Brenva Face, the Via Della Pera (The Pear) was in retrospect the most impressive. With its long dangerous approach across the Brenva Glacier, the technical climbing on the Buttress and the route finding through the upper sections threatened with serac fall were a masterpiece of route finding.
His companions were two Swiss Guides Alexander Graven and Alfred Audenblatten and despite this outstanding success he could not resist some criticism of the latter for his fears about the objective dangers of the route, pointing out he had a family to support.... which cut no ice with the hard bitten Professor Brown. For me what is perhaps most impressive about TGB was his longevity, he was into his ‘fifties by this date and he still had some major mountaineering trips ahead of him.
The Brenva Face of Mont Blanc showing L-R the lines of Via Della Pera-Route Major-Sentinelle Rouge and the Brenva Spur: Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
He had made friends with Charles Houston, who he met on a youthful first trip to the Alps, and who subsequently invited him first on a trip to Alaska in 1934 to climb Mount Foraker, then the highest unclimbed peak in the USA at approx 17,000feet, and then on a joint Anglo-USA party to Nanda Devi(7,186 metres) in 1936. The first was an outstanding success and Houston, Waterston and TGB finally reached the summit after many weeks on the mountain, whilst the second trip although successful with Odell and Tilman reaching the top, TGB’s paranoia surfaced once again believing that he should have been included in the summit bid, straining his previous good relations with Charlie Houston who always referred to TGB as Tim or Timmy.
1938 was to be the worst instance of TGB’s paranoia, when high on Masherbrum (7,821 meters) the lead climbers Jock Harrison and Robin Hodgkin in retreat from a summit bid, were caught out in a blizzard and forced to bivouac in a crevasse, suffering severe frostbite. TGB had disputed Hodgkin’s view of the best route to attempt the final sections of the climb, and even wished to remain in a high camp on the mountain to make another summit attempt despite have frostbitten big toes himself. He even accused Hodgkin of over playing his injuries and pain, something that would come back to haunt him, for as someone who knew Robin well, his injuries were terrible and shocking and the worst frostbite injuries I have ever seen, losing most of his fingers and suffering partial foot amputations. So to infer that Hodgkin was some kind of mamby pamby was cruelly unsympathetic and interestingly it was the route via the south east face that he favoured that the first and second ascents of Masherbrum were made, thus vindicating his opinion as to the best and safest route to follow.
TGB Roping down Chamonix Aiguilles, 1931. Photo-R Goodfellow: Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
Somehow TGB continued to arouse controversies and antipathy, the more so when he became editor of the Alpine Journal in 1948. He tended to support via the journal ultra traditional views and downplay modern developments, he also used the position to make veiled attacks on those who he felt held unjustified power in the climbing world, not the least Geoffrey Winthrop Young and Leo Amery for their support of the British Mountaineering Council over the wishes of some of the senior AC members like himself, believing the Alpine Club should represent the British climbing world. He was however able to rest his feud with Smythe who died tragically in 1949. Things came to a head partly because of the setting up of The Alpine Climbing Group in 1952 which had highlighted how moribund the Alpine Club was becoming in not embracing modern developments and a letter to the committee from Bill Murray who had joined up with the ACG pointing out that the last place one looked for up to date developments and news was in the Journal. The committee met in January 1954 and with one dissenting voice, they decided to sack TGB and appointed Francis Keenlyside to take over as Editor of The Alpine Journal, tasking Lord Tangley to pass on this news to TGB who did not speak to him again for some years post this act. But TGB was not totally without feeling and he eventually invited Tangley to lunch with him at his club The Athenaeum to rekindle their friendship some years before he died in late1965.
Amongst his many abilities TGB was an Alpine historian, and a book co-authored with Sir Gavin De Beer (An Alpine Club member and the head of the Natural History Museum) about The First Ascent of Mont Blanc was published to some acclaim in 1957, he also was an accomplished sailor having his own boat Thekla moored at Mallaig, from where he made some adventurous sailings including a crossing in 1959 of the North Sea to Tromso in the Arctic circle of Norway, and he was also a poet. His book Brenva published in 1944 is adorned by a verse at the head of each chapter, and he was friends with Canon Adam Cox professor of poetry at Oxford who advised him about how best to present these to be appropriate to the Brenva story.
Graham Brown finally moved out of Cardiff back to his birthplace, Edinburgh and to Manor Place in 1961. He made contact with the Edinburgh University Mountaineers and though he had finally stopped climbing and sailing himself, he loved to attend their mid week gatherings either in a pub or at his house. He advised and encouraged their climbing, putting to use his wide knowledge of the Alps and the Greater Ranges. When he died in October 1965 he left his house in Manor Place to Edinburgh University, and requested for EUMC members to have a first call for residency at this facility, and his large collection of mountain themed books and papers he left to the National Library of Scotland.
TGB Glencoe 1950- D Bird.Image reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
TGB was a pioneer mountaineering author so replete in a sport that has one of the finest literatures of any human activity, graced by all human kind. He was born privileged but he was talented and his early researches into human neural locomotion are now being recognised as important. And as Lindsay Griffin notes in a Foreword to ‘The Uncrowned King’ that while the book does not disprove he was a complex and cantankerous old sod Graham Brown was undoubtedly one of the foremost British mountaineers during the interwar period and indeed one of the most experienced alpinists of his generation. And I wish to thank Peter Foster for bringing out such a fascinating and true picture of the life TGB, he has produced a master work which must have meant hundreds of hours of research and effort and I trust this will be widely acclaimed and well reviewed, perhaps by some who have medical expertise like himself.
Dennis Gray: 2019