Wednesday 21 August 2019

Footmarks of a Cantering Man: A Tale of Two Books

Footmarks of a cantering man. The perfect title for the rushed memoirs of a recently-fallen politician? Or the souped-up story of some philandering celebrity? No, but the phrase is not new. It is the caption to a drawing, one of a hundred or so illustrating the first comprehensive textbook on climbing, the Badminton Library's Mountaineering, published in 1892. Cantering in this context means descending steep ground by a series of two-footed leaps;

"... the feet falling almost side by side and one immediately after the other...  the interval between each pair of steps may be eight to twelve feet."

It is eccentric advice, part of three pages on how to walk downhill, which follow six pages on how to walk uphill ("A certain slight degree of roll, or, to put it more scientifically, of swinging of the pelvis or hips, is of the first importance"). And it is characteristic of an eccentric book, in which most of the text is of a remarkably long-winded, humourless pomposity. The tone is set by the dedication, written by the series editor, the Duke of Beaufort, presumably during pauses in licking the boots (or some other part) of the dedicatee:

"... to HRH The Prince of Wales, one of the best and keenest sportsmen of our time. I can say, from personal observation, that there is no man who can extricate himself from a bustling and pushing crowd of horsemen, when a fox breaks covert, more dexterously and quickly than His Royal Highness...  often have I seen HRH knocking over driven grouse and partridges and high-rocketing pheasants in first-rate workmanlike style. He is held to be a good yachtsman... His encouragement of racing is well known... fond of all manly sports. I consider it a great privilege to be allowed to dedicate these volumes to so eminent a sportsman as HRH the Prince of Wales, and I do so with sincere feelings of respect and esteem and loyal devotion.”
If that didn't gain an extra gong for the ducal chest, what would?

After that, it is unsurprising but still rather depressing that every piece of advice to the would-be climber is based on extreme conservatism, utmost caution and a reverence for age and experience. Innovation, in equipment or in the quest for new routes, is severely frowned upon:

 "Crampons, or climbing irons, do not find much favour with English mountaineers, and have been spoken of contemptuously on many occasions..........Far too many of these 'variation' routes have been introduced of late years. The art of mountaineering will be better developed and maintained by following as well as possible the old routes, than by attempting at any cost to fashion out new ones... The pleasure of novelty and the flatteries of fame betrayed some of those whose misfortune it was to come late into the field, to attempt an undue multiplication of routes... A limit must, of course, be set to this kind of overproduction, and the good sense of the large body of climbers may be trusted to enforce it."

That forecast was surely as remarkable as the writer's ignorance of human nature. The authors, peering down from their heavenly hut, must be horrified by the climbing scene of today, particularly in Britain: 

 "... there are many little rocky teeth in the Lake districts of our own country where the mountaineer may find abundant opportunities... These small scrambles are but delightful episodes in a day's walk". But those delightful episodes are not really to be encouraged. They might lead to "... the danger of 'fancy climbs'. Near Snowdon, in the Lake District, and to some extent even in Skye, those who would do some fresh thing have been driven to climb places of extreme difficulty... The novice must on no account attempt them... these fancy bits of footwork are not mountaineering proper..."

Mountaineering proper then meant alpinism, and to have the time and money to climb in the Alps in those days, you were necessarily of the upper crust. So maintaining the dignity of a "Herr" was important:

"A flannel shirt without a collar will look untidy, even though worn by a bishop, but if provided with a collar of fine-wove linen, the wearer can always look respectable... no man has a right to go about looking like an ostler unless he happens to be one." And for the ladies, "Three yards round the hem will be found a good width for a skirt, which can be of ordinary walking length... which, in the valleys or towns, does not look conspicuous."

Then there were the guides, those fortunate farmers and hunters whose local knowledge and common sense had acquired considerable value in the eyes of the visiting English gentry. Their assistance had been deemed essential from the birth of mountaineering but recently a foolhardy few climbers had ventured, in the face of senior disapproval, to do without them "Guideless climbing is to be strongly deprecated as a general practice. Under certain conditions it is reasonable enough."

And those conditions? A chapter of 17 pages is needed to describe them but:

"To sum up the question in a few words: every guideless party must consist of three or more members who know each other's climbing well; each must have had a long experience of lower hills in all kinds of weather; must have climbed in the high Alps for at least four seasons with good guides; must have the moral courage to turn back if advisable; must be able to take his share of the work, and lead the party in case of need."

That repetition of the authoritarian "must" jars in a big way now, in these less reverential days. It probably did then, but the Alpine Club bigwigs (five of the seven contributors were past or future presidents of the club) who put the book together seem less interested in encouraging would-be climbers than in warning them off. Keeping beginners in their place - not only behind a guide, but crouched at the feet of their elders and betters - is a recurrent theme: "Untrained men, youths fresh from school, even ladies[!] now climb, or are hauled up, the Alps... Novices must learn that, apart altogether from physical gifts, serious training and considerable experience are absolutely necessary... "

How were all these stern warnings received? By one climber at least, they were taken badly. At all stages of climbing history there have been prominent rebels who, by their actions and their words, have set new standards and encouraged fresh thought. Such a one was A F (Fred) Mummery, revered now as an inspirational climber and author but by no means universally admired then. Indeed, his first application to join the Alpine Club had been blackballed, partly, it is thought, through jealousy of his achievements but mainly because, as part-owner of a tannery and therefore engaged in trade, he was not, in the eyes of the old and crusted, a gentleman. Fortunately for the reputation of the club, wiser thoughts eventually prevailed and he was welcomed at the second attempt. In 1895, Mummery published his wonderful reminiscences, My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus, perhaps the most enjoyable book ever written about climbing. The pleasure comes not so much from the descriptions of exciting first ascents, stimulating though they are; it arises from the unforced flow of the prose and the cheerful modesty and good humour which adorn every page:

"When the rope came down for me, I made a brilliant attempt to ascend unaided. Success attended my first efforts, then came a moment of metaphorical suspense, promptly followed by the real thing.....They said they were waiting for me, but the abandon of their attitudes suggested that this was not the whole truth. Seeing some signs of movement, I suggested lunch..."

Above all there is the explicit and unqualified declaration that climbing is fun (a truth, incidentally, which even today evades some writers, judging by the war-like metaphors and pseudo-mysticism - confronting demons and the like - occasionally described to a good day in the hills).  Amongst the tales of derring-do are sandwiched polite but explicit refutations of the general spirit and much specific advice contained in Mountaineering. Take the question of guides. Mummery had used them frequently - indeed, Burgener and Venetz and others had led him up several of "his" notable first ascents - so their use could hardly be condemned. But times had changed. Whereas guides had once been friends and advisers, sharing the spirit of adventure and uncertainty which spurred  an expedition, most of the originals had retired or died, and their successors - far more numerous and with many more clients - were more akin to contractors who could "lie in bed and picture every step of the way up" and determine to the minute when their charges would reach the summit and when they would return to their hotel.

That, in Mummery's view, was not adventure, and neither was the repetition of existing routes when there were myriads of potential new lines waiting exploration."The true mountaineer is a wanderer... a man who loves to be where no human being has been before, who delights in gripping rocks that have never felt the touch of human fingers, or in hewing his way up ice-filled gullies whose grim shadows have been sacred to the mists and avalanches since earth rose out of chaos." 

We - most of us, anyway - might find that description a touch difficult to live up to, now that new lines which are both climbable and accessible are rather hard to find. But few, if any, would disagree with Mummery's further point - at odds with the establishment of his day - to the effect that overcoming challenges using one's skill and strength was absolutely integral to the pleasure of the sport. It didn't mean that those who sought difficulty were oblivious to the glories of the mountains: "

... I should still climb, even though there were no scenery to look at, even if the only climbing attainable were the dark and gruesome pot-holes of the Yorkshire dales. On the other hand, I should still wander among the upper snows, lured by the silent mists and the red blaze of the setting sun... even though in after aeons the sprouting of wings and other angelic appendages may have sunk all thought of climbing and cragsmanship in the whelming past."
Nowadays we would probably substitute indoor walls for potholes, but the case for climbing as a multi-faceted sport is well made. The BMC couldn't put it better. As we know, Mummery didn't live to learn the success of My Climbs as, later in its year of publication, he was killed, with two Gurkha companions, during the first attempt on Nanga Parbat - the first attempt, indeed, on any Himalayan giant. The wings and other angelic appendages arrived too soon.

This tale of two books nevertheless has a happy ending. The chief author of Mountaineering was C T Dent, a past president of the Alpine Club who, having made the first ascent of the Aiguille du Dru, could be said to have practised the opposite of what he preached in his book. If he was offended by Mummery's criticisms he had the perfect opportunity to respond in kind, when reviewing My Climbs in the 1895 Alpine Journal - a review which, it is clear from the use of the present tense, was written before Mummery's death, so making sympathy or pulled punches unnecessary. How did Dent react? Not with rancour, but with generosity. His review is wholly favourable. It wasn't possible to ignore his differences with Mummery, but: "It is true that Mr Mummery does not always express approval of the maxims enforced in [Mountaineering]. And he certainly does not always practise the principles laid down. But Mr Mummery is an exceptional man, and they who are qualified by experience to make rules are privileged to break them.... It is far from our intent to make the profound mistake of answering criticism [as] it is not necessary... Mr Mummery is an ally, not an opponent." 

'Near Interlaken'. John Ruskin Watercolour     

Which only goes to show that, whatever is visible on the surface, when you delve beneath the skin all climbers are good guys.

Ben Stroude: 2019 


Sunday 11 August 2019

Kurt Diemberger's 'Summits And Secrets'....Extract

An extract from Diemberger’s account of his and Wolfgang Stefan’s ascent of the North face of the Eiger:

A stone whizzing past, not very far off – the first sign of life on the face. Then all quiet again, here in the shadow; utter silence. High above, rock and snow lay bright in the sunshine, quiet, peaceful, warm looking. And that was precisely where the menace hung – the menace that could at any moment shatter the cold silence down here, the menace of that beautiful warm glow.Tick … tick … ssst. Just a baby stone, hopping harmlessly, dancing down the rocks, whispering past like an insect, small and no danger to anyone. But how long before the cannonade would start, to shatter the peace and quiet down here? It could be minutes, it could be half an hour … It was 9 a.m.

I looked up at the warm, even light on those rocks. Then I started cutting steps again, smaller ones, quicker than before. I was up. In went a piton and then I hacked out a stance.I shouted down to Wolfi: ‘You can come now – but look out! The first stones are arriving.’‘So I noticed,’ came up from below. ‘One has just gone past me.’ Wolfi was coming up – the traverse, the piton, retrieving the sling, pushing a leg into the crack, reaching up with his arm. At that moment there was a ‘click’ on my helmet, and I enjoyed an instant’s satisfaction at the thought that I was wearing it. Then Wolfi joined me.

‘We’ll have to get up there before it really starts,’ he said, pointing to the upper rim of the huge ice field. He was right; there seemed to be at least a measure of cover under the jutting cliffs up there. We should take much longer by following that long curving rim than if we traversed diagonally, but – ‘Look out! Something’s coming!’ Wolfi, six feet above me, reacted instantly, pressing himself hard into the ice. A host of little dots was coming down in a grotesque dance across the grey surface 300 feet higher up. They grew larger, bounding down towards us in great leaps, a grey army of them. Now! … that one’s missed me, and that one, but what about this one? … sssst, ssst … Suddenly everything was quiet again. It was all over.

Wolfi straightened up slowly. ‘Benediction over?’ he asked. ‘Then I’ll lead on again. You keep watch and shout if you see anything coming.’I cast an anxious eye up the face, the surface of the ice, the groove running up to the rocks above. Nothing stirred. The rope ran out quickly, as Wolfi went diagonally up the next 130 feet. He dispensed with step cutting; we had to get out of the line of fire as quickly as possible. Tack … tack … tack, his crampons bit into the smooth surface, tilted at fifty degrees or more. It looked uncanny. The view down the face had completely disappeared; all we could see was the lower edge of the second ice field projecting over the abyss like a ski-jumping platform, with green ground beyond it, sending up a pale green reflection, mirrored by the surface up here, making the blue shadows look even colder.

We wondered whether we had been spotted yet. Not that it makes the slightest difference. There is no place on earth where one is so utterly alone. I squinted up the runnel to where Wolfi stood, with only the frontal points of his crampons biting into the steep, bone-hard surface. I stooped and took a tighter hold on the rope.Everything else had lost all meaning. Wolfi was standing up there on four steel spikes. Whether they held or slipped depended on his next movement …We were alone … alone with the North Face of the Eiger. At that moment even our friends had ceased to exist for us.

Another whilst Diemberger is making an ascent of the unclimbed Chogolisa with Hermann Buhl in 1957. They are making an attempt on the summit when a snow storm descends:

I reckoned we must be at about 23,600 feet, and that we must be near the steep avalanche slope which had pushed us so close to the cornices. If only one could see a bit more! I turned and saw Hermann coming after me, keeping the distance unaltered, following in my actual steps. As I moved down, I kept on looking across to the left, trying to see through the mist. All I could see was that it was getting a bit darker overhead and a bit lighter below. That must be the edge of the cornices. It seemed a safe distance away, but in mist distances can be deceptive. Perhaps it would be better to keep a bit to the right, but then I should have to look out for the precipice. It ought to be here by now. Ah, there’s another axe hole …

I looked anxiously to the left and then down to the surface at my feet. I was at a loss; it was almost impossible to see anything at all. Crack! Something shot through me like a shock. Everything shook, and for a second the surface of the snow seemed to shrink. Blindly, I jumped sideways to the right – an instantaneous reflex action – two, three great strides, and followed the steep slope downwards a little way, shattered by what I had seen at my feet – the rim of the cornice, with little jagged bits breaking away from it. My luck had been in, all right! I had been clean out on the cornice. What would Hermann have to say about that, I wondered? I stopped and turned, but the curve of the slope prevented my seeing over the crest as I looked up. The light was improving a little. Hermann must bob up any moment up there. I still couldn’t fathom that extraordinary shaking sensation; had the snow really settled under my weight?

Still no Hermann. ‘Hermann!’ I shouted. ‘For God’s sake, what’s up? Hermann!’ I rushed, gasping up the slope. There it was, the crest … and beyond it, smooth snow … and it was empty … Hermann … You! …Done for …I dragged myself up a little farther.

 I could see his last footmarks in the snow, then the jagged edge of the broken cornice, yawning. Then the black depths.The broken cornice – that had been the quaking beneath my feet, then.I couldn’t get a sight of the North Face from anywhere near. I should have to get down to Ridge Peak for that. As I went down, the storm gradually abated, and the mists lifted from time to time. I was utterly stunned. How could that have happened just behind me? I had the greatest difficulty in getting up the short rise to Ridge Peak, but even before I got there it had cleared up. I hurried out to the farthest edge of the cliffs. 
The storm was hunting the clouds high into the heavens. Above the veils of mist and through them a ridge loomed up – a tower – a great roof with tremendous banners of blown snow streaming from it. Chogolisa, the horrible. I could see the spot where we had turned at about 24,000 feet. Our trail down the broad snowfield below was crystal clear. Then that fearsome drop to the north – into the clouds. And there, even closer to our tracks as they ran straight downwards, the encroaching precipice. And then I could see it all with stark and terrible clarity. Just at that point, Hermann had left my tracks at a slight bend, where I was hugging the rim of the precipice, and gone straight on ahead, only three or four yards – straight out on to the tottering rim of the cornice – straight out into nothingness. Of the foot of the wall I could see nothing.Stupidly, I stared upwards again. If we had been roped …

I looked down along the face, shuddering …No, I should never have been able to hold him there; at the moment of his fall I myself was too far out on the overhanging snow.

At last I could see clearly down below, where the broad snow-masses of an avalanche fanned out. The crashing cornice had set it off and it had swept the face clean. Hermann was nowhere to be seen. He must have fallen at least 1,000, maybe 2,000 feet and was lying there buried under the piled-up snow. Could he have survived that? There was no answer to my shouts and I had no way of getting down there. I should have to fetch the others and we should have to come from below. That was the only faint possibility. I strained my eyes, searching every cranny, searching for a rucksack, a ski stick, a dark blob. But there was nothing to be seen – absolutely nothing. Only our tracks – up there. Clouds blotted the mountain out again. I was alone.

Mists and a high wind were sweeping the corniced ridge as I tried to find the way down. At times I could see nothing at all and could only tell from rifts in the snow that I had strayed too far down the slope. After what seemed an age, I found our tent. It was a horror of emptiness. I took the absolute essentials for the descent and went on down. At the Kaberi Saddle there was knee-deep fresh snow, through which only a tiny corner of the marker-pennants showed. I probed with my feet under that smooth expanse of white to find out from which side our ascent route had come, then went straight on into the whiteness … to the next pennant. I wandered vaguely down endless hollows, over crevasses, through fog, then into the darkness of night. For long, indescribable hours of horror – during which I at times had a feeling that Hermann was still with me – I managed, by some miracle, to find my way, onwards, downwards. Then, just before the great icefalls, my pocket-lamp failed; so I had to bivouac On and on … endlessly on … till, twenty-seven hours after Hermann’s fall, I tottered into base camp.The search which followed found absolutely nothing.
Once again, the monstrous rubble-covered river of ice lay freed of all human presence. The sun burned down on it with scorching intensity. The snow was rapidly vanishing, melting into the waters of gurgling glacier streams. Chogolisa’s white roof-tree seemed to lift into the very sky itself. The great peaks stood silently all around. Were they, too, mourning? Or was this only the great healing silence which eternally enfolds all living and dying? 

 Kurt Diemberger: 2019

Further details from Vertebrate Publishing

Monday 5 August 2019

The Uncrowned King of Mont Blanc....Reviewed

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