Friday 28 February 2020

The Last Blue Mountain....Reviewed

The Last Blue Mountain: Ralph Barker. 232 pages Paperback
Perfect Bound £12.99. Re-Published by Vertebrate, Original in Hard Back by Chatto and Windus 1959.

I must go where the fleet of Stars is anchored and the young Star Captains glow’ James Elroy Flecker.

When the first edition of this work was published I like most others of the then climbing world were wondering who Ralph Barker was? There was a great antipathy in that era about non-climbers writing about mountaineering, even more so its tragedies, and Haramosh is one of the most poignant such events in our sports history. We were surprised to learn that Barker was a none climber, but had to admit he had written this daunting story in detail and with an accuracy of a kind rarely matched by someone who had not actually witnessed the events described. He had access to the personal diaries of the participants, and was able to interview the two survivors of the accident, the medical student John Emery and the soldier, expedition leader Tony Streather. ‘The Last Blue Mountain’ has remained for climbers of my generation the most gripping survival story of its genre, and also a most readable one when compared to the many formulaic ‘Expedition’ books that had appeared prior to its publication. 
The story begins with an Oxford University student Bernard Jillot, the President of that bodies mountaineering club proposing that they organise an expedition to the Himalaya. In 1957 that was a much more difficult proposition than it would be today, although the OUMC, founded in 1909 had many members over its years of existence who had taken part in major exploratory mountaineering ventures, and for instance Sandy Irvine of Everest fame was a member, but what Jillot was proposing was an Oxford University Expedition to reconnoitre and possibly to ascend ‘Haramosh’ a 24,270ft mountain in the Karakoram Himalaya. He recruited three other members of the OUMC to join him, his regular climbing partner John Emery, a New Zealander Rae Culbert and an American Scott Hamilton.
Left to Right..Tony Streather,Scott Hamilton,John Emery, Bernard Jillot.

Readers may be surprised at this International representation, but it is typical of the OUMC which even in recent times when I have attended at their gatherings the membership was made up of several different nationalities. Jillot was to soon find that organising such an expedition was no sine cure, and doubt about both the experience and strength of the party emerged once he started applying for support and permission. He was recommended to seek an older person to be the leader, someone with a good previous Himalayan climbing record, and he decided to invite Tony Streather to take this on. The latter had summited Tirich Mir in 1950 with a Norwegian Expedition, been a member of the American attempt to K2 in 1953 and had gone to the top of Kanchenjunga in 1955 as a member of Charles Evans (another OUMC member) British Expedition to that mountain. Streather a Professional soldier who had stayed on in Pakistan post independence had good contacts in that country that would smooth permission and travel arrangements, and though he had then only recently married and fathered a son, he could not resist the invitation to lead such a party into his favourite part of the mountain world.

Barker makes a good job of introducing into the narrative the character and personality of each of the expedition members as the story unfolds. We learn Jillot is a somewhat driven character, having gained entrance into Oxford’s dreaming spires from a working class background in Huddersfield, and that at 23 years old his life was dominated by climbing, especially ascending hard rock routes in Britain. John Emery also 23 years old was from an entirely different background to Jillot, his schooling being via a high grade Public School, but with other keen interests besides mountaineering; fencing (he was Captain of his College’s team), medicine, literature etc. Rae Culbert the Kiwi was studying Forestry and at 25 years old he was perhaps the most mature of the four OUMC members; he had good mountain experience in his home country working for its Forest Service, whilst the American Scott Hamilton at 29 though the oldest of the four had not had as much experience of wilderness as Culbert, but he had good climbing skills gleaned in the USA. And he gelled well with Jillot whose rock climbing ability he admired, but found John Emery the person he most liked and enjoyed being with. 

In retrospect although one could imagine Jillot and Streather on occasion having disagreements over strategy on the mountain, they were as a well together team as one might expect for a party who apart from the leader had no Himalayan experience.
Haramosh even in 1957 was easily approachable from Gilgit, in fact you can see the mountain from that viewpoint, and a few days of travel and walking, led to the team setting up their base in the Kutwal valley, under the mountain, well aided by some local porters, including some Hunzas who were to help establish their lower camps. Unfortunately they were extremely unlucky with the weather, and delay followed delay due to this. But finally in mid-September they had established a Camp lV high on the mountain circa 20,000ft under Haramosh ll. The delays now meant there was little hope of summiting the main Peak, the best they could do was reconnoitre the route for the future as their planned for time was running out.

Rae Culbet
15th September found Jillot, Emery, Streather and Culbert all at Camp lV deciding how best to proceed, up or down. But Jillot and Emery with the agreement of Streather decided to climb further up the North East Ridge they were set below to scope the difficulty of the route from there on, and get some pictures of this. Watching from Camp lV Streather and Culbert were horrified to watch as suddenly the slope that their friends were mounting, started to move, welled up into a huge avalanche taking them with it up and then down the other side of the ridge. Climbing up onto the ridge Streather was amazed to see a 1000 ft below him, in a sort of basin set in the surrounding cliffs, a figure emerge out of the avalanche debris and stand up, and realised it was Jillot, who then moved across the snowy mass to pull Emery out of the icy blocks that were holding him fast. Unfortunately they had lost their ice axes, and other equipment and Emery his gloves.

There was nothing that Streather and Culbert could do that day, but they prepared a rucksack, put in their down equipment and other warm clothing and pushed it off down the slope towards their stricken companions, but they watched helplessly as it landed into a deep crevasse, which was unreachable by its intended recipients who were now faced with a night in the open with no warm outer clothing. This was the start of this terrible tragedy, for the next day Streather and Culbert tried to climb down to them, but Culbert lost a crampon and they also fell into the basin. And like their companions they also had lost their axes. 
Trying to climb out on the 16th September the whole party fell, twice more, this ascent being complicated by it being necessary to make a long exposed traverse from right to left, to avoid a set of steep cliffs. Finally on the 17th September Jillot and Emery managed to climb out but it took them so long they arrived in darkness at the top of the ice slope whilst still seeking Camp lV. Moving around without lights and unroped; first Jillot fell over the ridge again not realising he was on a cornice that gave way, and on this occasion this led to his certain death and this was followed so terribly by Emery falling down a crevasse.

Nearing the north-east ridge. The track bends to the left over the snow bridge crossing the crevasse in the foreground and then winds up towards the ice cliffs to the right of the Cardinal’s hat.Nearing the north-east ridge. The track bends to the left over the snow bridge crossing the crevasse in the foreground and then winds up towards the ice cliffs to the right of the Cardinal’s hat.
Meanwhile Streather and Culbert following on behind fell again for Culbert could not climb the icy slopes on a single crampon. 
Streather then decided to climb out on his own, thinking Jillot and Emery would be safely at Camp lV and ready to return for Culbert having refreshed on food and most importantly liquid. This latter is so important at high altitude, and they had not managed such for two days. Emery with a last desperate effort managed to get out of the crevasse he had fallen into, and subsequently found the tents at Camp lV. But his hands were so badly frostbitten he could not make a drink, light a primus or get his boots and crampons off and he collapsed unconscious in the tent doorway and it was there that Streather was to find him. 

In their enfeebled condition there was no way they could go back for Culbert, for Emery could not stand on his own and it took them two days in recovery before they could begin to descend. Fortunately Scott Hamilton had stayed on at Camp 3 guessing something must have gone wrong, but in helping Emery and Streather off the mountain, he too was involved in a forced bivouac with them above the ice fall, and they were not safe until the Hunzas came up to their Camp l to help assist Emery and Streather descend to their Base Camp.

So ends this heart-rending story? But not really for just imagine the thought of having to leave one of your friends behind, just because of a faulty crampon strap, how that must have ranged on the survivors minds? And John Emery’s rehabilitation and recovery from his terrible frostbite injuries was just beginning once back in Britain, for eventually he lost all his toes, and finished with a flap of flesh and a stub for fingers and a thumb. He still managed to qualify as a Doctor in 1959 and married that same year to Sara. I later became friends with Emery when I was the Secretary of The Alpine Climbing Group, and he was our Treasurer. I spent some hours in various pubs in the climbing areas of this country with John at our meetings, but I soon learnt not to waste time feeling sorry for him for he was always so cheerful, though I never, much to my regret dared to ask him his feelings about the Haramosh Expedition; but a good memory is of him telling at one of our gatherings of his joy in climbing ‘Longland’s’ on Cloggy a previous weekend. 
 Diagram of the routes from base camp

John returned to Alpine climbing in 1960 and over the next few seasons climbing with an American friend David Sowles he ascended many classic routes such as the Ferpecle Arete on the Dent Blanche and the Cresta Rey on Monte Rosa. Unfortunately in 1963 having successfully climbed the Schalligrat- Nordgrat traverse of the Weisshorn; on the descent they were caught in a Lightning storm, causing a fall from which both perished. John’s death affected me deeply and I wrote a tearful condolence letter to Sara at this event, and I am sure all my colleagues in the ACG felt the same. A wonderful tribute is included in this new edition of ‘The Last Blue Mountain’ by including at the end of the story, John’s article, ‘The Runcible Cat’ about his passion for climbing and his return to the sport after Haramosh although like Edward Lear’s cat he also had no toes!

Tony Streather made a remarkable recovery and continued with his military career, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He led the successful Army Mountaineering Association 1976 Expedition to Everest, and he was President of The Alpine Club 1990-1992, he died in 2018 at the age of ninety-two. Haramosh was climbed in 1958 by a strong Austrian party; the long ridge from the scene of the accident took them eight days to overcome. They paid tribute to the help the OUMC reconnaissance had made in their success.

Haramosh Peak.
The Last Blue Mountain’ phrase comes from a poem by James Elroy Flecker, who it might seem has the right words to impart to any group setting out on a dangerous enterprise, including the SAS from this country and those same kind of units from India and Israel. That is why I precluded this review by another quote by him. Because I was privileged to know John Emery, this book holds a special place in my psyche, but it is an epic tale of friendship and tragedy and one I believe deserves to be on every climber’s book list. 

Dennis Gray: 2020. 

Photographs Provided courtesy of the Streather Family.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Death,Logging and Life


If the word ‘death’ were absent from our vocabulary, the great works of literature would have remained unwritten…creativity and pathology of man are two faces of the same medal, coined in the same evolutionary mint’. Arthur Koestler.

Hey John, still climbing?” “What are you doing back here?” Reply, “Losing my tan.” “How’s the art?”

Usual one liners on my return to Llanberis. I had popped over to mourn and celebrate the passing of a friend, Andy Pollitt. For some time I had been saying to myself, ‘go see him before it’s too late’. It certainly was too late for his ashes already coat the Arapiles. But, having a stroke, in the bar, beer in hand amongst friends sounds about right for a deal with death. Gathered in the Mowberry Bar in Sheffield were the semi-aged climbing elite of the 80’s and 90’s. Although most seemed to be fairly fit and still active and involved in the climbing world business, most conversations were centred around arthritis, the cold dampness of Sheffield and trips to dry Spain, new knee joints, new hip joints, sports physiotherapy, massage, memory loss and worse. The worse comprising of diabetes, heart operations, cancer diagnosis, self-catheterisation and attempted suicide. No mention of anxiety, depression or stress, surely the precursor for most illnesses? For some, unable to lift a kettle or perform simple domestic duties, but managing to climb 7b plus is a workout to disintegration. 

For the minority, no ageing seems to have taken place, but dietary needs were enthusiastically talked about as if they were a life-support machine. I had thought that at least one name had died, so was pleasantly elated to converse with a voice ‘from the past’. I mentioned that the climbing culture needs a ferryman, a reaper, who goes around and collects personal messages, the words chosen by the climbers upon the event of their own death, kept in an archive ready for use upon departing. Every year there should be a gathering of these lifeforms, the Andy Day, where life’s gems and troubles, injuries and disabilities are celebrated and messages reaffirmed or brought up to date. The class of the 80’s and 90’s gradually descending into joyful extinction. In this sporting gathering you will find, I am sure, the same if not more illnesses as you would in a heroin rehabilitation centre.

Andy Pollitt:Image-John Kirk

I understand the workout to disintegration, ‘forcing the heart, nerve and sinew’, not in a climbing sense as I never pushed too hard, but in an essential sense - a workout with the woodland as my gymnasium. By this I mean no disrespect to the woodland in relation to the banal enterprise of sport related fitness and exercise. I refer to logging, an outdoor pursuit more suitable to my spectrum’ssensibilities of what survival means. The woodland is steep and access is only by foot and carry-outs difficult and becoming longer. This steep terrain is closed canopy and is streaked with the pale skeletal trunks of dead chestnut. Like ghostly white antlers forking above a green sea, they have had their day, dry and brittle, their bark pealed off like papyrus, standing up as if suddenly shocked to death, almost beer in hand. Their youngsters are already forming their own tight canopy with glossy, broad leaves spreading out to reduce precious sunlight filtering down to competitors eager and alert for a way in. Youth eh.

The chestnut is a survivors tree, planted as a measure to control erosion, for its nuts, flour, culinary and medicinal use. Great for bees, and getting wild boar ‘drunk’ and gnarly, it produces strong building timber, but its chief advantage is for seasoned, hardwood fuel to feed the woodburners. Keep the hearth burning is my heartfelt mantra, the soul of the home and one’s connectivity with the land. There is nothing more important… Politics and religion is not how we survive… we survive by knowing that the earth and us are a complete sentient being… we are the dwelling…

My workout is simple. I log till I drop. It is a full body workout involving every muscle in the body and yes, muscles ache, the heart pumps, tendons fail and sinews struggle to lift that proverbial kettle in the kitchen. It is my campus board, chalkless, shared with ravens, snakes and wild boar. For this, my approach has to be logistical. I work out the access through the woodland, cutting steps on steeper sections as and where necessary. I fell five or six dead trees and saw into six foot lengths. Half the tree is left to decompose. This amounts to about eighteen carries, each the weight of a small child. On this terrain, falling is expected, normally controlled, but sometimes a lurch for the chainsaw brake is missed and a dangerous, painful tumble onto rocks, spiny burrs and colonies of ants are remembered. The large leaf of the chestnut is extraordinarily slippy and carpets the land as thick as a gym mat. Lucky so far. I meet the hoofed footfall of deers, the sprung, predator intent of badgers, foxes and creatures unknown in passing, as the speckled sun contours their foot-shape and movement up and down the hill. A large cat print the size of a fist joined my bruised elbow after a silly fall. 

A lynx undoubtedly. Since moving onto this land I have seen her twice, and twice a brief and glassy stare joins us. The established naturalists in this area refer to the ‘phantom lynx’, cat of a few sightings but supposedly extinct in this area. Stabbed, scraped, bitten and stung, probed by antennae, among worms, borers and blights, I am branded under the aegis of the green world. I think of pathogens and microbes that slithered off prehistoric creatures. I laugh upon every fall, every nose-dive into scrub and soil, every branch on high that knocks me off my feet, is surely a celebration of living and belonging here. As a stumbling creature of the woodland I am sure the griffin vultures are keeping their noses open for my final move, and meanwhile, alarmed or amused at my behaviour and methods of keeping warm. Every night the ‘tea-tree and a needle’ expel the bits of woodland that have penetrated my fingers.

Threshing Circle

Dropping down here, chainsaw idling until empty of gas, chewed and chomped and dismembered by creatures better than I, is my idea of a beer in hand in the pub among friends… ‘eaten where he fell, they said’. Delicious.

Meanwhile, until then, there is carrying, and keeping warm. I drop the gears down after six or seven trips, slowly becoming more exhausted with the carries and almost stop. The will to energise is in itself a fascinating business. Being a slave to the consciousness of the job is a weary business, but when stepping out of this obvious role into more of a ‘dream’ role, meaning is altogether more rejoicing. This instant glimpse of joy is strangely harder to find than the fatigue that comes with the doubt of each step and the pain of stopping. That this doubt is so much easier to fall into is surely a human trait, a brain fault? I find that any movement, in leaf, grass, branch or bird help in the effort. There always seems to be a single leaf nearby, waving frantically as if sprung-coiled or animated by unseen pixies. The overflow from the source, bursting deep through the earth’s structure, flowing, gurgling, alive and free, inspires energy and meaning, and a final push to the chopping camp.

We live subject to arrest by degrees of fatigue which we have come only from habit to obey’. William James.

I think the process of moving through the woodland is like the pushing and mixing of paint on the palette, but its meaning, the work in question belongs to a more objective, esoteric reasoning, where both the logs and the painting can seem like a by-product…

The psychological and motivational approach to achievement and success in sport that I see as belonging to reptilians and professional cyborgs may have a place for the hunter gatherer here. I recall the task of carrying down 2000 slates from a mountain in Wales -

Some days my resources to cope with the effort were infinite and on others such resources could not be tapped… the task was like mountaineering, summoning the energy whilst knowing that there is no summit or goal to attain, only numbers to count. Following through when hit by fatigue eventually creates this control over the messy business of accounting or attempts at routine that try to package the effort…’

I had reached one thousand and sixty eight slates. This was the problem. I had no heart to continue. I had created a mental block that took two thousand as the next aim. I had taken a month to date, and, with four trips a day, should already have two thousand. Thinking of another whole month exhausted me and drained all my spirit and will. I knew from previous days that to think in these terms made the going slow and laborious. I had to ‘tone down’ to the realistic aims of another hundred slates. That is a maximum of three days. Three days were a manageable mental proposition…’

So, surveying the hill, logistically thinking, I worked out a line that took in two camps. A complete trip from logging to base is too demanding, knowing there are eighteen more long trips. The break between camps is crucial and gives space to consider that before me is a world hardly known. I force my energy against the weight of gravity and gases above knowing there is sensational stuff above and below my feet, small stuff, ancestral organisms, spores, just getting on with it…waiting patiently to seek an entry or not…and make soil. When people talk of there being no more wildlife left, I say hang on, get a microscope, just look under my fingernails. 

In my experience, the topmost of the trees are more likely to contain colonies of ants. These habitats are sawn and left, together with the bark and it’s black millipedes that scamper out of fissures menacingly. I often made the mistake of shoulder carrying a length without checking its inhabitants, only to find rashes and bites throughout my torso. This territorial invasion can last for days, as the clothing is brought into the house. Each ‘toddler’ that I carry to the chopping block is a world. It is a thriving business, a habitat in its present form for a short while still. Regardless of the sawdust that goes in the compost toilet, and the ash that is spread on the garden and the logs that fire the woodburners, they are home, food and shelter for a myriad of creatures living off the dead and dying.

There are a few really old Spanish Chestnuts, with wide bases, cleaved apart, exposing a core of dead wood. They are grounded, steady, but gnarled, spiralling creatures, twisting to their own dance. The heartwood is a nacromass, a gathering of dominant lifeforms and matter, locked in and held tight by its life-giving folds, looking dead to us, but is a biomass-bank store for its sustainable future and progeny, stored safe from other plants.

There is fullness and plentitude here, and the more I sit by it and contemplate the richness and mystery of it’s being and spirit, the more I consider the planetary habitat of our own being, the Magna Mater and myths of origin. I cannot see that the unfolding of human life as I look around me in the world, the confusion and chaos and hatred so manifest, is remotely connected with that before me, but perhaps I am wrong. We seem to have departed that guided tour of experience sponsored by what I would like to describe as ‘a sacred instruction’. It is like we are full of ourselves, of nonsense, busy, holy, negligent, left with no trace, or way of knowing our ancient story, and travelled to another planet where we can do what the hell we want, reap havoc, instill fear and kill for the sake of…because we can…be clever and dangerous…strong, cocky and holder of the fire. As I sat there, as if in the company of Aeons, imagining the human genome created by ‘galactic’ minds of the Pleroma, drifting as thoughts and ideas and jokes and future washing machines and coffee grinders into terrestrial materialism…with life emerging, and to all intents and purposes, fucking up, seemingly.

I like the visions here, sat, still, looking, working dreams into the necramass, the poetry of our own meaning and purpose. This has no name I guess apart from the language known to me through what is called art. If we evolved from this ‘death’, the microbes and bacteria, the small microbiomes, protozoa that are us, seeking, probing, multiplying, forcing their agenda, fighting their cause, and on and on and on, do not be alarmed at today’s conflicts and war…Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc etc etc, or climate change, or indeed, the ease of catching a cold or virulent bugs. In my visions, there are also migrants and the homeless here, waiting a chance encounter to be churned out of their ‘holding’ camp in the soil, or blown by a favourable wind…or not. 

Abiogenesis of Acari

In 1837, Andrew Crosse reported to the London electrical Society concerning the accidental spontaneous generation of life in the form of Acurus genus insects while he was conducting experiments on the formation of artificial crystals by means of prolonged exposure to weak electric current. Throughout numerous strict experiments under a wide variety of conditions utterly inimical to life as we know it, the insects continued to manifest. The great Michael Faraday also reported to the Royal Institute that he had replicated the experiment. Soon afterwards, all notice of this phenomenon ceased to be reported, and the matter has not been resolved since then’.

Till this period I had no notion that these appearances were any other than an incipient mineral formation; but it was not until the 28th day, when I plainly perceived these little creatures move their legs, that I felt any surprise, and I must own that when this took place, I was not a little astonished. In the course of a few weeks, about a hundred of them made their appearance on the stone.

Andrew Crosse

John Redhead, Lous Manes, Coustouges. December 2019

All images- John Redhead apart from John Kirk photograph

Taken from a forthcoming collection of essays 'Amuse-Bouche for the Hero Gone Bent'

Monday 10 February 2020

Freddy Spencer Chapman: A life less ordinary.

We Can Be Heroes, Forever And Ever’ David Bowie.

Who in the annals of the climbing world, a history that includes a Pope (Achille Ratti), a King of the Belgians (Albert 1 who died solo climbing in the Ardennes) and a Prime Minister (Winston Churchill) should we award the appellation to of being a Hero? Maybe that might be best left to others outside of the sport to decide, but someone I met as a teenager, Freddy Spencer Chapman I guess would meet any of the needed criteria? For over three years in the Second- World War he blew up trains, bridges and enemy soldiers in the jungles of Malaya. It is odd really that the name F .S. Chapman doesn’t figure higher up the roll call of great British heroes, in fact you have probably never heard of him? Two biographies, ‘One Man’s Jungle ‘, by Ralph Barker published in 1975 and a second by B. Moynahan ‘The Jungle Soldier’ in 2009 inform the reader of Chapman’s life as a guerrilla soldier, as did his own account ‘The Jungle is Neutral’ published nearer to the events in 1948. But Freddy did so much more in his life, particularly climbing, fell running, skiing activities, Greenland and Himalayan explorations, and it is of these I wish to write.

When I started to climb as an eleven year old in 1947, one of the few climbing books then widely available in Public libraries was ‘Helvellyn to Himalaya’ by Freddy which had been published under stringent war time restrictions in 1940. And though the writing reflects very much the serious stiff upper lip attitude of those times, underselling some of the remarkable events the author took a major part in; it is still a good read. The descent off Chomolhari (7341m) post achieving the first ascent is one of the great survival stories, as impressive as ‘Touching the Void’ or ‘The Bond’ but hardly now noted. Although General Bruce (leader of the second British attempt on Everest 1922 and the third in 1924)), accorded it at the time as ‘The 8th wonder of the World!

But to begin at the beginning. He was born in 1907 in London but he was effectively an orphan from the age of two, his mother died a few months after his birth and his solicitor father went off to seek work in Canada, and on returning perished in the First War at the Somme. Freddy was brought up by an elderly vicar and his wife at Cartmel on the edge of The Lake District and after attending a Preparatory School in Ben Rhydding , he entered Sedbergh School. Where he initially ran into difficulties by refusing to take part in organised team games, cricket and rugby, preferring to walk the nearby hills and to study natural history; bird watching, star gazing, flora, and butterflies, but he gained entry to Cambridge in 1926 to read history and English.
It was at Cambridge he started to climb, joined the CUMC, became a night climber on the Universities spires, and met its Presiding spirit Geoffrey Winthrop Young. Other Club members were Laurence Wager, Jack Longland, Gino Watkins, Charles Warren et al. It was with Ted Hicks however that he did most of his rock climbing, their first route together being The Little Gully on Pavey Ark in shoes without a rope. They even disturbed a fox in its depths which delighted Freddy. Over the next few years he ascended over a hundred climbs with Hicks, usually with the latter in the lead; Gimmer Crack, New West on Pillar, routes on Dow Crag such as Brodrick’s and The Great Central Route etc. Freddy, dark haired having grown to above middling in height and lithe however never saw himself as an outstanding rock climber but in comparison to Hicks who was probably in that era only exceeded by Kirkus and Edwards, maybe he was being too hard in assessing his own abilities. He liked to solo and climbed lots of Severes but he avoided Very Severes as too serious to climb on his own, even though being muscular he felt he lacked the ‘genius’ to do so!
He writes of how solo climbing was frowned upon by some of the climbing fraternity in that era, such as when he was traversing the Skye Ridge on his own and decided to climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle. Ascending its short side he reached the summit, but as he was descending he was to be challenged by the leader of a second party, arriving onto the ledge just below the top block, led by a well known climber of the ‘old school’ Bobby Woodhouse. Who proceeded to lecture him on the iniquities and dangers of solo climbing, to which he had to give due attention as the man had taught him physics at school. Thanking him for his sage advice, Freddy immediately descended by the way he had ascended.
FSC-on left, adventuring in an unknown location: Photo British Library
One can imagine how ‘keen’ such a group of student climbers getting together at Cambridge would be despite how in the late 1920’s travelling would be much more difficult. And Cambridge is nowhere near the crags, but one weekend fed up with no climbing action, Chapman along with Wager, Longland, Watkins and Charles Warren decamped to a limestone crag near Matlock. Warren soloing behind Longland got into difficulties and was literally hanging clear by his hands, the latter climbed down and grabbed hold of his wrists, but just could not hold on for long and Warren fell first 20 feet to land on a small ledge, where he could not balance up and he shot off down again another 20feet to land in a sycamore tree, unhurt, with much laughter but some surprise by the others present at such an escape. You might ask as to how it was Freddy was travelling around so much in that era? He had bought an ancient motor bike and side car for £8 on which he and two other passengers made it to Ogwen, Langdale and Skye and even as far as the Alps.

Besides being active in the UK, this CUMC group were also climbing in the Alps. Chapman writes in Helvellyn to Himalaya about some of the climbs he made with a close friend of those days, Robert Chew (who later gained fame as the Head of Gordonstoun School when Prince Charles was his pupil, and it was in visiting to give a lecture there at that event I became a confirmed Republican), also with Longland plus Wager. Bad weather in Chamonix often restricted them to voie normals on the Aiguilles; the Requin, the Argentiere, and Le Tour but a highlight was a traverse they made of the Meije in the Dauphine range.

It was also during these years he started skiing, at which he found he was good at. He made several tours and climbs on ski, but he also made a name as a downhill racer. In 1929 he took part in two of the most famous such races, The Parsenn Derby and the Arlberg Kandahar.
It was to be in Davos that year two events occurred of some significance in his life story, the first an action that gives a different view of his personality than I had been led to believe, of an over serious humourless-character, and the second was to lead on to his becoming an outstanding figure in Arctic exploration. The first incident concerns a large nude statue of a naked man in the Park at Davos; about which a friend of Chapman’s had taken on a bet to paint this copper statue crimson, but found on a closer examination of this he had not the climbing skill necessary to carry this out, so he persuaded Freddy to do this for him.

He did this at night under darkness, but the next day all hell broke loose, a relative of the man depicted in the statue living in Berlin decided to come to Davos and to fight a duel with the perpetrator. And the Town’s authorities threatened the artist with dire consequences once found. Friends of Chapman were not impressed by such threats, they felt his choice of colour was inappropriate, so he went out the next night and painted the statue white. But just as he completed this the Police arrived in force; and they chased after him as he tried to run away. One caught up with him and ‘bang’ he was felled by a truncheon blow to the head, following which he was arrested and jailed. At his trial, he hit upon a novel defence; that led the court to treat him more sympathetically than anticipated. He had done this as a ‘student’s rag!’ However he was fined £30 and costs, which amounted in total to much more than he had then in his bank, but fortunately for him an English resident in Davos organised a crowd fund and between them paid his fine and costs to get him out of jail.

The second event was to occur again in Davos in March 1929, when he was skiing at night back to where he was staying and he met a friend from Cambridge, Gino Watkins, already well known from his explorations in Spitzbergen and from wintering in Labrador. After some pleasantries he invited Chapman to take part in an expedition he was organising to Greenland in 1930-1 as its ski expert and naturalist. Watkins was to become a legend by this expedition, which was to help plot air routes over the polar region from North America to Europe. It was successful in this and it won Watkins-The Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. Chapman returned with Watkins in 1932-3 on a small four man expedition, to East Greenland by which time he had perfected his skills; including surviving more than 20 hours in a seal skin kayak during a monumental storm at sea, he had also learned to navigate by the stars, and he had needed to lead a small team across the lethal ice cap to rescue a colleague stranded in difficulty.

He also learned to speak fluent Inuit, getting on well enough with the locals to father a son! For his participation in these explorations he won the Polar Medal, and from this he also wrote the first of his 8 books; this about the 1930-1 expedition, ‘Northern Lights’ which was successful and reprinted several times. And Watkins, who disappeared whilst hunting seal in the Tugtilik Fjord, his kayak being found floating upside down, was to become even better known; for the mountain range in Greenland which bears his name, as do several other mountains and a glacier in New Zealand. There is also the Gino Watkins memorial fund administered by Cambridge University and the Royal Geographical Society. He was only 25 when he died but he had achieved so much including ascending over 40 Peaks in the Alps, and membership of the Alpine Club (he must have been its youngest member by far).

In between expeditions, despite his youthful antipathy to organised games, Freddy, had taken up fell running and he was persuaded by Dr A W Wakefield, Doctor on the 1922 Everest Expedition, to make an attempt on the ‘Bob Graham Round’. This set by the guest house owner in Keswick of that name in June 1932 which entailed summiting 42 Lakeland Fells within 24 hours; covering 66miles (106km) and 26,900ft of ascent. Chapman did complete the round but missed out on breaking Graham’s record by the fact that his route was more circuitous, adding quite some distance. My own connection with the Bob Graham Round is via Eric Beard who though already a cross country/track runner when I first met him in 1955, I introduced to climbing and the hills, where he was to discover that for him fell running was what he was best at. When he died in a car crash on the M6 in 1969 he held several of the major fell records, including the Lakeland 24 hour, which he had extended in 1963 out to 56 Peaks in 23 hours 35minutes.

Post the Arctic expeditions Chapman realised he needed to stabilise his life and develop a career and he took up teaching. But he could not resist accepting when invited by Marco Pallis in 1936 to travel out to the Himalaya, to Sikkim and the Kanchenjunga area to attempt an ascent of Simvu 22,360feet and its other satellite peaks. The party was made up of Richard Nicholson, Dr R. C. Roaf, Jake Cooke, Chapman, and led/organised by Pallis. Who in 1933 had led a similar size party successfully to the Gangotri Himalaya and who I believe was one of the most impressive polymath’s to have ever tied into a climbing rope; I have written elsewhere about his life and achievements and hope I have done justice to his memory. Back to Simvu, this turned out to be a more difficult mountain than they had anticipated. I will quote Chapman directly, ‘There seemed to be just one weak spot in the formidable defences of the mountain, it was a most horrible place, a vertical corner to be negotiated above which was a 20feet wall of extremely steep ice.

After climbing the corner Pallis started cutting up the ice wall, he was panting and groaning with the exertion, fashioning both foot-and-hand holds. Frightened lest I should completely fail to climb this formidable ice wall, but when at last I had to climb I found it very exposed and airy but not extraordinarily difficult. There were adequate steps, and it was simply a matter of control and balance, but for all that I should not have liked it much without the support of a rope!’ Pallis, Nicholson, Cooke and Chapman thought they had had the difficulties behind them, but once they had gained a straightforward ridge route with the summit in sight, they were stopped by a huge crevasse. Whilst trying to find a way across this it started to snow which developed into a full on blizzard, and they were forced into a difficult retreat.

The bad weather continued and they had to abandon Simvu. Back at Base one evening they held a most revealing debate amongst themselves about the merits of Private and Grammar schooling. Interesting to myself in that this illustrates for me of where climbers of their era were coming from, for all but Cooke had been privately educated. Pallis was a great believer in encouraging-an outstanding climber such as Cooke (he had also supported Kirkus to take part in his 1933 Expedition) to participate in such exploratory mountaineering. Jake Cooke a clerk in a Liverpool insurance office was one of the pioneers of the Main Wall on Cyrn Las. In 1938 he was to enjoy a successful Alpine season with Pallis, but he perished a short while later at Dunkirk.

The 1936 Expedition then broke into two groups, for Pallis had developed a keen interest in Tibet and hoped to visit that country but had been refused entry, and so with Nicholson and Roaf he trekked over high passes into Ladakh. Whilst Cooke, Chapman and Jock Harrison, who had joined up with the other two after his partner had quitted the mountains due to illness, stayed on in Sikkim to climb first The Sphinx (23,500ft) and the more difficult Fluted Peak (20,000+ ft). At the end of that Expedition Chapman was invited by the Political Officer for Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet: Basil Gould, to accompany him on a Diplomatic Mission to Lhasa that he was then organising. Freddy was to act as its Secretary but also to be a photographer, cineaste and make a film about their visit. This took place from July 1936 until February 1937 and Chapman wrote a book about this, ‘Lhasa. The Holy City’.

Their route to Lhasa followed an ancient trade route from India via the Chumbi Valley and as they passed under Chomolhari (7,314mtrs), they enjoyed a spectacular view of that mountain, which rises almost 9,000 ft set above a barren plain. It was known to British climbers passing on their way to Mount Everest, but no one had made a serious attempt to climb it, although Odell had scouted its approaches in1924; but Freddy on returning from Tibet was determined to ascend it. But first he had to gain permission from both Bhutan and Tibet, and a major problem was that it is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists more so than Mount Everest who believe; it is the abode of one of the five Tsheringma sisters. Chapman must have made a good impression on the authorities in Lhasa and at the last possible moment, just as he had decided to give up his plans for the climb; permission was granted by both the Bhutan and Tibetan authorities.

He recruited three Sherpas, Nima, Kikuli and Pasang. The first two had good expedition experience, but Pasang who appeared to Freddy as very young, dour and the weakest of the three, he only agreed to take him because of the pleadings of the other two. How wrong appearances can be for Pasang became one of the most experienced, successful Sherpa climbers of his generation, and without him Chapman would not have been successful in climbing Chomolhari. He had great difficulty in finding another partner for the climb, but eventually Charles Crawford, then working for ICI in Calcutta, who Freddy only knew via the Himalayan Club agreed to this, but could only manage to get two weeks leave from his workplace to do so. 

The summit of Chomolhari was reached on 21st May 1937 by Chapman and Pasang via its south east spur. Before that event Crawford and Kikuli had descended off the mountain, from a camp at 20,000ft, both were suffering from altitude sickness and Crawford’s leave was up. Nima was at their Base, and thus there was no one high on the mountain except the summit pair and it was from that point the story really begins. Immediately they began the descent they fell 400ft down the first steep slope they had to climb down. Somehow Chapman stopped their fall with an ice axe break: with Pasang , hanging out over a 3000ft drop. They reached their highest camp, packed and started down, but a blizzard set in and though exhausted they had to climb back up and erect their tent again.

FSC fell running in the English Lake District
Its door opening became damaged and the snow burst in and their equipment, including sleeping bags and matches became soaking wet. Chapman had an emergency match box on his body, but it only contained six strikes, and Pasang had damaged his snow goggles, was in pain and had become blind in one eye. Next day after a terrible night they packed and set off down again, but Pasang fell once more and though Chapman held him, his rucksack burst open and they lost their only cooking pot and most of their food. From thereon, on the steep ground Freddy would descend, cut steps and climb back up and top rope Pasang down. They could not find their ascent route and had only managed a short distance before a heavy snow fall caused them to camp again. 

Next day they reached the ice fall but once again a blizzard set in, and they were forced to camp once more. They could not get any sleep for their sleeping bags were still wet through and their matches were now used up. The snow had become so deep progress became ever slower, in places it was thigh deep. They could not make any drinks or warm food; this epic descent lasted for six days/nights with matters becoming ever more serious. The worst event was when Chapman fell-30feet down, a crevasse. The story of his struggles to climb back out of this, shouting out instructions to Pasang in Tibetan, conversing with difficulty, is one of the great climbing escape stories. It took Freddy four hours to cut his way out, fashioning foot and handholds in the icy wall of the crevasse. At last they reached their Base to find Nima had descended thinking that they had perished high on the peak. Once off the mountain they were greeted almost as ghosts for most believed that they had died on Chomolhari.

Chomolhari was to be Freddy’s high point in his climbing career, but Pasang went on to almost summit K2 in 1939 with Fritz Wiessner, to make the first ascent of Cho Oyu (8188mtrs) in 1954 with the Austrian’s Tichy and Jochler and he acted as Sirdar for the 1956 Swiss Expedition to Mount Everest achieving the 2nd/3rd ascent and the first of Lhotse. Chapman was back in the UK teaching when war broke out, but he was an obvious recruit for the SOE and at the fall of Singapore, he was parachuted into the Japanese occupied Malayan Jungle where he was to spend 3 ½ years involved in irregular warfare. Being awarded the DSO and Bar.

After the war he was back to teaching, and he had married and fathered three sons. His work took him to Germany and Africa where he delighted in viewing the wildlife and studying the flora. In 1953 he published his philosophy of life in ‘Living Dangerously’; revealing his keen interest in the arts, music, wildlife and a remaining enthusiasm, for photography. For a period his achievements seem to have been well regarded, besides the previously mentioned Polar Medal, he also received several other similar awards, The Gill, Mungo Park and the Lawrence of Arabia medals and his story was set before the nation by an appearance on ‘This is Your Life’in 1964 interviewed by Eamon Andrews. But then as is the way with such the media lost interest. In 1971 he was back in the UK at Reading Univesity, acting as a Warden of one of its Halls. His health was becoming a problem for he was suffering from severe back pain and other difficulties, probably as a result of the war wounds he had received in the jungle, for he had been shot three times and held prisoner twice. In August 1971 he committed suicide; leaving his wife a note stating ‘I don’t want you to have to nurse an invalid for the rest of your life!’ 


There is a memorial to him on Pangkor Laut Island, off the west coast of Malaya, for it was from there he was picked up by HMS Statesman in May 1945; swimming out into the waters of The Emerald Bay. This is now an up market tourist resort, and it is replete with a Chapman’s Bar. The local authorities working with Chapman’s family also organise each year Chapman’s Challenge. A biathlon, made up of a run and a swim. Several members of Freddy’s family have taken part in this and I guess if it had been on the go in 1930 it would have been something he too would have been there keenly taking up the challenge?

Dennis Gray: 2020