Friday, 28 March 2014

Mo Anthoine Remembered

Original Photo-Jim Curran
Mo Anthoine was just 50 years when he died at home in Nant Peris on August 12th in 1989. Words I never imagined would ever have to be written, by me or anyone else.

To write about a close friend is not easy at the best of times. To do justice to Mo is impossible. For those who knew him these words will be no more than a shallow substitute, or will fail to strike the same chords. For those who didn't it is far beyond my skill to paint more than a shadowy outline of a figure so much larger than life. But I must try and pay some sort of tribute to the man I was so lucky to know and whose friendship, loyalty and generosity I valued so highly for 15 years.

  Who was Mo Anthoine? Well, he was a mountaineer, equipment designer and manufacturer, especially a raconteur, an adventurer, film maker, builder, husband and father, and much much more. He was also the funniest person I have ever known, whose sharp tongue and devastating brilliance with the spoken word could charm anyone, from diplomats to dustmen, from dowagers to dinner ladies.

On occasion his biting wit and Rabelaisian behaviour could sound horrendous when reported second-hand. Live and in person Mo rarely caused offence and over the years many pub-fulls of complete strangers walked off into the night, sides aching with laughter at the stories and antics of the short, broad shouldered, bandy-legged man with the Kidderminster accent, who had burst upon them. Mo could, and did, get away with it again and again as he unleashed his stream of stories, black humour and devastating analogies to captivated audiences.

 He lived the life of which most climbers can only dream, centred entirely around mountains, expeditions and equipment. Apart from a mild flirtation with teaching in the 1960s. Mo's entire adult life was based in North Wales. In 1959 he became an instructor at Ogwen Cottage; two brief years in which enduring friendship were formed. One such was Cam (Ian Campbell), who accompanied Mo on his best new route, The Groove on Llech Ddu in 1961, which became a classic. Mo's uncompromising honesty about the amount of aid used on the first ascent caused a few hypocritically raised eyebrows at the time After Ogwen Mo took off with another instructor and close friend, Fox (Ian Cartledge) and together they hitched round the world in a series of improbable and hilarious adventures that Mo still relished 25 years later. One of the best, in Australia, involved Mo's short-lived debut as a jazz drummer at a party he had gate-crashed under false musical pretence; a career which lasted less than a minute. The ensuing fracas involved the demolition of a Welsh dresser along with all its china, a double bass that Mo put his foot through, and a neighbour who had a heart attack.

He returned to Wales in 1966, and bought a derelict cottage and married Jackie in 1969. He set up Snowdon Mouldings with Joe Brown who was to become his closest friend and with whom Mo shared the vast majority of his expeditions. Initially they made the famous Joe Brown helmets but over the years Mo designed and manufactured several brilliant items of gear, including the Curver ice-axe and the Limpet tents, both of which have proved their true value on innumerable expeditions.
Their concepts came from Mo's own hard won experience and were tested in precisely the conditions for which they were designed. The Limpet is the strongest tent I have ever owned and it is almost impossible to break the fibreglass poles. It has a tent bag that is actually made too big. "I got really pissed off trying to pack a great frozen mass of tent, flysheet and poles into one of those glorified paper-bags that manufacturers try and kid you are the right size" Mo explained. "It might be a bit bigger than it needs to be, but when your striking camp in a storm at 20,000ft the last thing you want to do is fart about trying to put a contraceptive on an elephant"

 Mo's expeditioning started in the early '70s. A near miss on El Toro, in Peru in 1970, an early ascent of Fitzroy in Patagonia in '72 and a small expedition to Langtang Himal with Jackie, Cam and Malcolm Howells, were the precursors of 18 years constant expeditioning. After the ascent of the Prow of Roraima in the South American Jungle in 1973, with its stories of tarantulas, centipedes and horrific antics abseiling and jumaring on fixed ropes high above the jungle, Mo became captivated, then obsessed, with the Karakoram.

 In 1975 and '76, Mo led two contrasting expeditions to the unclimbed Trango Tower, the great vertical granite spire that dominates the Lower Baltoro. The first was a failure, a series of setbacks culminating in Martin Boysen's famous knee-jam epic high on the Tower. The second was a complete success. Mo, Martin, Joe Brown and Malcolm Howells reached the summit with Tony Riley filming just below. I was also a camerman on the expedition. Even allowing for my own one-sided view it was surely Mo's greatest mountaineering achievement. For Martin it was: "The happiest moment of my climbing life"

After the funeral, at Mo's wake Martin fondly remembered: "Just shoving Mo up the last few feet, a great grin spread over his face and he looked around at the great peaks of the Karakoram, the Mustagh Tower, K2 up in the clouds. Masherbrum and the West Face of Gasherbrum IV... just fantastic."
Mo returned for a brave attempt on Gasherbrum in 1978 but the year after Trango he went to The Ogre with Doug Scott, Chris Bonington, Clive Rowland, Nick Estcourt and Tut Braithwaite. The events of the expedition are well-known. Doug broke both his ankles in a pendulum abseiling from the summit, and Mo, Clive and Doug had an epic retreat in a storm. There is little doubt that without Mo and Clive's efforts, Chris and Doug would probably have died. Since then, Mo's annual jaunts have taken him to India (four expeditions to Thalay Sagar) to Ecuador (twice) with Hamish MacInnes, Joe and Jackie to search for Inca gold! and 1986 and '88 to attempt the unclimbed North East Ridge of Everest.
But it was at home in Wales that most people will remember Mo. For many years I have returned from Welsh weekends to be greeted with the same inevitable question "Did you see Mo?" Then I would have to dredge the recesses of a hungover brain and try to remember just a few of the endless one-liners with which Mo had regaled his friends in the Padarn or the Victoria. "You've become the self of your former shadow" he greeted me a few months after I had returned slim, if not sylph-like, from an expedition only to regain the lost weight immediately. "Look at your chins, in serried ranks" Being in his company was like being a member of an exclusive club, or party to a huge unending joke. His mirth was infectious wherever he went. When he was holding court in the pub, at a Trade Fair, in a Base Camp tent, or at a party, he was the catalyst that made everyone else tell better stories or jokes than those of which they were normally capable.

During the eighties, Mo's interest turned to films and television. With Joe he worked on several outside broadcasts including 'Freakout' in Glencoe with Jackie, and 'The Old Man of Hoy' with Zoe Brown. He worked on several feature films particularly 'Five Days One Summer', 'The Mission', 'Live and Let Die' and 'Rambo III'. Mo's roles ranged from assistant cameraman to special effects, doubling, (for Jeremy Irons and Sylvester Stallone) and most important of all, safety officer. In all Mo's expeditions and films there was never a single fatality, a fact Mo put down to his utter cowardice! In January 1988, I heard that Mo had a brain tumour and would be operated on immediately. Distraught and fighting back tears I rang up to wish him well. As usual Mo was his incorrigible, hilarious self. "Village idiot speaking" he greeted me. "Don't worry, there's only three things that can happen. Either they'll remove it and I'll be okay, or they'll turn me into a vegetable." He paused "What's the third?" "If they bugger it up completely I'll have to get a job at Plas y Brenin"

The operation appeared to be a complete success and, undeterred Mo went to Everest with Brummie Stokes, and a huge team including Joe, Bill Barker, Davy Jones, Ian Nicholson and, at the last moment, me as cameraman. Mo,with most of the equipment, got to Base Camp three weeks before the main party and greeted us with delight when we at last caught him up. He looked thin and drawn, though his humour was undiminished and as macabre as ever. "If I get really ill Jim, I want you to film me as I throw myself down the Kangshung Face, doused in paraffin and burning like a Viking warrior" Despite performing well (and, incidentally, doing the lion's share of the filming himself when I was ill) Mo's health had deteriorated by the end of the year. He bore his illness, and another operation, with a courage and humour that was moving beyond words. Many visitors came away from the house still laughing through the tears. Even near the end a small part of me hoped, irrationally, that Mo could somehow manage to find a way out and he would turn up laughing in the pub, but it was not to be.

As long as there are people who knew him, Mo will live on in a rich kaleidoscope of images, words and events. In 50 hectic years Mo lived a complete life that few people could attain in one hundred.The writer, Al Alvarez, wrote a profile of Mo, 'Feeding the Rat' which was completed before the onset of Mo's illness. The book ends with a curiously prophetic soliloquy from Mo himself, the last words being

 ... to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of .... I can't think of anything sadder than that.

Jim Curran: First published in High 84.