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