Friday 11 July 2014

Bentley Beetham: Lure of the Mountains.....Review

I first came across the name Bentley Beetham not long after I had started climbing. It was on a wet visit to Borrowdale in the English Lake District and the name kept cropping up in the guidebook we were using. Classic easy routes like Little Chamonix and Corvus featured of course, but other routes within Borrowdale’s verdant maw, peppered the guide. The earliest being, Woden’s Face route in 1921 running through to what appears a swansong climb, Calf Close Buttress in 1952; an obscure five pitch ‘Diff’ described as ‘A useful ascent on to Glaramara’.

At the time I imagined Beetham to be another Millican Dalton. ( See Terry Gifford’s- Millican Dalton-Professor of Adventure) I had a picture of a tweedy eccentric risking life and limb to climb vegetated horrors on every virgin piece of rock in the valley. Although there was an element of truth in that perception, the real Bently Beetham, was, as is inevitably the case, a far more complex and rounded mountaineering figure than I could ever have imagined.

Bentley Beetham and charge on unnamed Lake District crag:Photo Bentley Beetham Collection

It came as a complete surprise when I discovered that Beetham had been an accomplished and experienced mountaineer, ornithologist and photographer who was a regular visitor to the Alps and Greater Ranges, and had in fact, been a member of the legendary ‘Mallory/Irvine’ 1924  Everest expedition.  An expedition where with Mallory, he was considered one of the strongest and fittest members of the team and as such, was very much in the frame for a summit bid. 

In Vertebrate Publishing’s The Lure of the Mountains...The life of Bentley Beetham- the 1924 Everest Expedition Mountaineer, author-the late Michael D Lowes- has brought to life this fascinating figure through what was obviously a labour of love. Beetham was a pupil and later, a master at the Barnard Castle public school in County Durham, and Michael Lowes was a pupil at the school under Beetham. Like so many Barnard Castle pupils over the years, the author was inspired by the subjects enthusiasm and love of the mountains and his passion culminated in later life, with his stewardship of  ‘The Beetham Collection’. The subject’s vast selection of glass plate and film photographs kept at the school. And of course, the authorship of this fine little book.

Within, this modest 150+ page work, Michael Lowes has managed to capture the true essence of a man who was part adventurer and part a real life ‘Mr Chips’. A tweedy confirmed bachelor whose life-man and boy- remained within the Barnard Castle school orbit. Beetham’s roots were  as you would imagine, typically middle class. A late Victorian son of a bank manager who died when Beetham was four, the young Bentley was sent off by his mother Frances to boarding school where, amongst the Northumbrian countryside, he developed a love of the natural world.

Particularly the subject of ornithology, an area where his life long love of photography was shaped. Indeed, it was while scrambling around searching for birds nests that Beetham developed his early climbing skills. It was these skills and his expertise in this area that persuaded the explorer, J Foster Stackhouse to select the 25 year old for an expedition to the remote Jan Mayen Islands. An expedition where Beetham would be the team ornithologist and photographer. In the event, the author describes an expedition where everything that could go wrong did go wrong! In fact, the author’s dry wit shines through in ‘The Expedition that Never was’ and I defy anyone to read this chapter without a smile on their face. What a great Ealing comedy this would have made. 

Photo:Bentley Beetham Collection
Not surprisingly, Beetham’s  Everest trip and his preliminary expeditions take up a substantial section of the book but even within the tragic context of that fateful trip, the author lightens the tone with selective quotes from Beetham which are often highly droll. For example, describing the appalling poverty and unhygienic conditions they encountered in one Tibetan village, Beetham observes...

If one has not seen Phari,it must be difficult to believe that something like 8000 people can continue to live together in such an appalling state of filth and insanitation as there exists. One would have expected them to have been blotted out long ago by some infectious malady; their persistent existence is a flaunting insult to hygiene.

After the high point of Everest, Lowes describes Beetham’s climbing career as not so much winding down, but with the subject now more content to explore the Lake District an unearth new routes within these less challenging climes. However, he continued to venture abroad and in particular, became an early explorer and enthusiast for Moroccan exploration. Regularly visiting the High Atlas mountains during his extended school breaks. Usually, on his own and using local guides.

Beetham’s often unorthodox approach to his academic responsibilities are touched on by the author. An approach that at one stage looked as if it would cost him his career at the Barnard Castle school. However, his popularity with the majority of pupils saw him home and he continued in his role of tweedy schoolmaster until he retired in 1949.

After retirement, he continued to climb in the Lakes-As a long term member of the Fell & Rock Club he regularly used the club’s local huts to base his new routing explorations. In 1953,at the age of 66, he went along with another expedition to explore the unknown Himalayan Api Range. Sadly, ill health forced his return and what might have been a remarkable final flourishing in the greater ranges was not to be.

Beetham died after a stroke in 1963. The archetypical Kipling-esque Victorian school master and mountaineer had managed to reach his twilight passage in an era where man had orbited the moon and the first stirrings of Beatlemania had rattled the cage of drab, post war cultural conservatism.

Author Michael D Lowes died suddenly in 2009 after completing Lure of the Mountains. Another former Barnard Castle pupil, Graham Ratcliffe-current chair of the Bentley Beetham Trust-took on the task of seeing Michael’s work through to publication and it is to the credit of all concerned that the book is now out there in the public domain. An invaluable work on a unique figure in the world of mountaineering  whose story had to be told. In keeping with the subject, Vertebrate have published the work in a charmingly old fashioned cloth hardback cover which evokes Beetham's bygone age.

Available direct from the publisher..... Lure of the Mountains

John Appleby