January 3, 2007
Working-class climber Don Whillans” You can’t go wrong with Dougal [Dougal Haston was a Scottish climber who was killed at age 37 in an avalanche in Switzerland while skiing] if your diet’s just porridge and whisky – that’s all he needs. That’s all we had, at any road. You know one thing – Dougal would’ve made it to the top [of Everest by a new route], but he wouldn’t have come down again. It was old Grandpa Whillans that kept him alive, otherwise he’d have killed himself up there. But I’ve no time meself for dead heroes … always remember that in the Himalayas it’s softly-softly-catchee-mountain. Watch and wait and don’t go till it’s right, otherwise you’re bloody dead, and that lasts a long bloody time.” Don Whillans By Jeremy Bernstein
One of my favorite passages in the vast canon of mountaineering literature does not involve an actual act of climbing. There are no ropes, no pitons, no carabiners and no crampons. Nobody is moving. Let me set the stage. George Herbert Leigh Mallory was born in Mobberley, Cheshire, England, on June 18, 1886. His father was a clergyman. At age 14, young Mallory won a mathematics scholarship to a public school, Winchester. While there he was introduced to climbing. He first climbed in the Alps in 1904 and, the next year, entered Magdalene College in Cambridge. I do not know if he participated in the nocturnal building-climbing that became celebrated because of the book, “The Night Climbers of Cambridge,” by the pseudonymous “Whipplesnaith.” Take the matter of drain pipes. Whipplesnaith writes, “Consider for instance those pipes on the face of Gonville and Caius in Trinity Street. They are 40 feet high, yet would seem to have been installed especially for climbers, easier than many pipes less than half their height.To begin with, they are firmly attached to the wall. The wall is smooth and the pipes so rigid that the climber knows he can trust every foot- and hand-hold. Each pipe is bound by steel bands at alternative intervals of about five and three feet, which protrude about three-quarters of an inch from the pipe. They would provide narrow but adequate foot-holds, and check all tendency of the hands to slip down the smooth pipe.” While at Cambridge, Mallory was largely occupied with rowing. He was on the victorious crews – over Oxford – in 1906,1907 and 1908, when he was captain. Upon graduating, he started teaching at the Charterhouse public school. Among his pupils was Robert Graves, whom he introduced to mountain climbing. During the Great War he served in the artillery, ending as a lieutenant. In the meantime, he married and by 1920 was the father of three children. During this time he climbed both in the Alps and in England and, in 1913, he did, in the Lake District, the hardest rock climb that had ever been done in Britain. It remained the standard for many years. It was natural that when the British mounted their first serious expedition to climb Everest in 1921, Mallory was selected to join. At first, he did not want to. Among other things, he had young children. But his sense of adventure got the best of him. At this time Nepal was closed to most visitors. It was ruled by the Ranas, who ran it as a kind of private family enterprise. So the only way to climb Everest was via Tibet on the north side of the mountain. This involved a long and very arduous trek from Sikkim. Finally they arrived at Tingri, some 40 miles northwest of Everest. From Tingri one cannot see the mountain but, moving south toward it, one crosses a pass from which the whole range is visible. The whole view is so stunning that Everest hardly stands out. Then, moving still further south, the mountains are no longer visible, being blocked by foothills, until one comes to the Rongbuk monastery, perhaps 15 miles from the mountain. The view of Everest from the monastery, which I first saw in 1987 when I went with a small trekking group that included Bil Dunaway, takes one’s breath away. This is what Mallory later wrote, “We paused here in sheer astonishment. Perhaps we had half expected to see Mount Everest at this moment. In the back of my mind were a host of questions begging for answer. But the sight of it now banished every thought. We forgot the stony wastes and regrets for other beauties. We asked no questions and made no comment, but simply looked.” The 1921 expedition was really more of a reconnaissance than a serious attempt to climb the mountain. In 1987, we followed part of their route, camping for a night on the glacier at a little less than 20,000 feet. But, in 1922, a serious climbing expedition was organized. This one made use of portable oxygen – “English air,” the Sherpas called it – which was considered by some to be unsportsmanlike. Again, at first, Mallory did not want to go. The previous year’s expedition had exhausted him, and he wanted to stay with his family. But the lure of the mountain was too strong. “Because it is there,” as he once famously said to some American reporters who asked him why he wanted to climb it. The passage I want to call your attention to occurs in Mallory’s description of the ultimately unsuccessful 1922 attempt. Mallory was camped at 21,000 feet with another climber. He writes, “Our conversation was further stimulated by two little volumes which I had brought up with me, the one Robert Bridge’s anthology, The Spirit of Man, and the other one-seventh of the complete works of William Shakespeare, including Hamlet and King Lear. It was interesting to test the choice made in answer to the old question, ‘What book would you take to a desert island?,’ though in this case it was a desert glacier. The trouble with lighter literature is that it weighs heavier because more has to be provided. Neither of my books would be to every one’s taste in a camp at 21,000 feet; but The Spirit of Man read aloud by one of us, and now by the other, suggested matters undreamt of in the philosophy of Mount Everest, and enabled us to spend one evening very agreeably. On another occasion I had the good fortune to open my Shakespeare at the very place where Hamlet addresses the ghost. ‘Angels and Ministers of Grace defend us,’ I began, and the theme was so congenial that we stumbled on enthusiastically reading the parts in turn through half the play.”Before I explain why I find this passage so interesting I will describe the arc of the rest of Mallory’s life – a short arc as it happens. In 1924, Mallory was back to Everest. On June 8 he and a young companion, Andrew Irvine, made for the summit. They never returned, and one of the great mysteries is whether they were killed on the way down after reaching the summit, or on the way up. The mystery only deepened when, on the first of May 1999, Mallory’s frozen body was found at nearly 27,000 feet on Everest. Unfortunately, the cameras they had been carrying were not found. The frozen black-and-white film would still, experts say, be printable. Two things were striking about the discovery. The picture of his wife that Mallory carried to place on the summit was missing, and his sunglasses were found in his pocket, meaning that he died at night. Both of these things suggest that he was killed on the way down from the summit. Irvine’s body has not been found. Now, why do I find the passage I quoted above so interesting?
Until the 1950s, mountaineering in Britain was an activity of “gentlemen” – people in the middle class, including a few women, who were highly educated. Expeditions like those of Mallory brought with them all the class prejudice from home. Sherpas were little better than coolies. The idea of sharing a tent with one, for example, was simply out of the question. To a significant degree these class distinctions persisted all the way to the successful climb of 1953. Apart from Edmund Hillary, who was a New Zealander, all the rest of the people were university-educated and middle-class. Hillary had only finished high school and was a beekeeper. Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa, who had more Everest experience than all of them, and had nearly climbed the mountain the year before with the Swiss, was certainly not considered a member of the team. I doubt that, apart from Hillary, any of the other climbers would have been willing to share a tent with him.An incident occurred before the expedition left Katmandu – Nepal was now open and Tibet closed – that nearly finished it off. The Sherpas, who had made the very long trek from their mountain villages, found themselves billeted in a garage in the British Embassy. The garage was a converted stable with no bathroom facilities. After their first night in the garage, the Sherpas urinated on the road in front of the embassy. It took every bit of Tenzing’s very considerable diplomatic skills to get his fellow Sherpas to continue. Without them, the expedition would not have gotten anywhere.There is something ironic that the two “outsiders,” Hillary and Tenzing, got to the summit together. It is equally ironic that, at about this time, a group of working-class climbers in Britain were coming on the scene. These so-called “hard men” would change the social structure of British climbing forever.The hardest of the hard men was a Manchester plumber named Donald Desbrow Whillans. Compared to the Everest climbers, he was in every way an anomaly. His father worked for a grocer and had little education. Whillans, who was born in 1933, left school to go to work at age 15 – the then-legal school-leaving age in Britain. Apart from fighting, which he did constantly, he only excelled in school at gymnastics. He never grew to a full 5 feet, 4 inches. When he was in condition he resembled a fireplug. He was incredibly strong, and his modus operandi in fights was to get the first shot in, flattening his adversary. Later, when he began to drink and smoke heavily, he often let himself go and would gain all sorts of weight. He would develop a huge belly and resemble a malignant, icy blue-eyed troll. But his climbing exploits, and his acerbic wit, made him legendary both within the climbing community and outside it because of his public lectures and television appearances. He co-authored a completely unreliable autobiography that embroidered the legend. Whillans died Aug. 4, 1985, at age 52, of a heart attack while visiting friends in Oxford. Unlike so many of his companions, and rivals, who died while climbing, he died peacefully in his sleep. But now he has been brought back to life in a wonderful biography, “The Villain,” written by the British mountain and travel writer Jim Perrin. In many ways Perrin is the ideal biographer for Whillans. Not only is he a fine writer, but he knew all the principals. As a climber himself, he understood what Whillans had accomplished. Unless one has tried this kind of extreme climbing, one has no idea how hard it is. On the rock faces the climber takes advantage of almost imperceptible rugosities to establish friction footholds. Nowadays, there are specialized rock-climbing shoes with sticky rubber soles that enable the climber to cling limpetlike to the rock. When Whillans started out in 1950, at age 16, the only thing available in England were nailed boots. After the war, the Italian climber Vitale Bramani had introduced climbing boots with rubber-cleated soles, but these were still not widely used. Whillans was a master at what is known as “jamming.” This is the art of putting your hand into a small crack and applying pressure at right angles to the crack so as to create a hold which, at least in theory, enables the climber to advance. Whillans disdained gloves so his hands after a climb resembled an uncooked hamburger. Most of these extreme rock climbs have overhanging rooflike obstacles that the climber must find a way to surmount.Some years ago I went on a little climbing tour to the Dolomites in the Italian Tyrol with my Chamonix guide friend, Claude Jaccoux. The Dolomites rise out of the ground like rock claws. The exposure on even the simplest routes is extreme. It is little wonder that the local guides are known as “scoiatolli” or squirrels. Some French climbers we knew had just put up an incredibly difficult new route on one of the Dolomite faces. I thought it would be interesting to go to its base and perhaps make an opening move or two just to see what they had done. When we got to the bottom we could not figure out how to make the first move. The face was entirely blank. Moreover, about 50 feet or so above us was an overhanging roof that completely obscured the rest of the climb. What the climbers, once they got there, would have had to do was to look for a system of cracks in the rock roof. They would have driven pitons into the crack and then attached a stirrup – etrier – or some sort of sling. Hanging in space, they would have had to drive a second piton in and move pongid fashion across the underside of the roof, hoping that the crack system would not run out. These climbers would have had the use of very strong but stretchable nylon ropes that, in the case of a fall, would absorb the shock and keep the climber from being cut in two. The first rope that Whillans had was like a ship’s hawser made of hemp. He had no idea how to use it and simply dragged it along like a prehensile tail.
In addition to being very knowledgeable, Perrin is also compassionate. The last 15 years of Whillans’ life were increasingly tragic. His skills as a climber steadily diminished, and he became more and more impossible as a human being. He was always xenophobic. He once remarked that the English language was universal, provided that it was spoken loudly enough. But now he became positively racist. He was a crude womanizer who gave a good deal of pain to his long-suffering wife, Audrey. She appears frequently as a character in Perrin’s book. She encouraged him to show Whillans, warts and all, but he decided that if he really showed the warts as they were he might give her too much pain. He decided not to write the book while she was still alive. She explained the early stages of their courtship,”Well, you just didn’t do it right away with a fella in those days. You’d go through the stages you know, keeping them at bay – necking and petting and that – and it’d be quite a long time before you let him go all the way, however much he was pushing for it, which of course is the way a fella is. I could tell with Don when he was expecting to get there, because he’d be off to the barber’s. And there he’d come the weekend with a short-back-and-sides and something in his pocket no doubt. We used to laugh at that, the girls between ourselves. But you see, you didn’t want to get pregnant, so you just had to be that careful. It wasn’t like it is nowadays.” Perrin has many helpful footnotes that shed light on things in the text. Here is his footnote on the reference to the barber’s.”The only places you could obtain condoms – the only readily available method of contraception in Britain until the mid-1960s – and easy access to the Pill were chemists’ and barbers’ shops. To buy them from the former was fraught with embarrassment; young, reddening assistants calling for elderly pharmacists, who would grudgingly and disapprovingly complete the transaction after pubic interrogations. The barbers would always conclude your visit with the time-honoured formula, ‘And something for the weekend, sir?’ Having handed over your three-shillings-ninepence you’d walk out, newly exposed ears bright scarlet, clutching your precious packet. Very few young men in Britain had long hair before the advent of the Pill.”After six years of courting, when he was 25 and she 27, Whillans went to his mother and asked “What are you doing the 24th of May, Mam?” When she asked why, Whillans said, “Me and Audrey was thinking of getting married. D’you want to come?” For their honeymoon they went to Scotland so Whillans could climb. In the book, Perrin sifts through the detritus, sorting out Whillans’ legend from fact. One of the casualties is a Whillans story that I dined out on for years. My version took place in 1971. That year the Swiss-born American climber and entrepreneur Norman Dyhrenfurth organized an expedition to Everest. His idea was that if you could recruit two of the best climbers from each of several countries – in the event, 13 – and give them an objective that was so overwhelming, then they then might be able to sublimate their own egos for the collective good. He should have known better.
The objective was to climb the southwest face of Everest on the Nepalese side. Previously, Everest had been climbed along the ridges. Such a face posed enormous difficulties and dangers. The idea that this would trump the egos of the climbers was illusionary. The most notorious example was that of a rather unpleasant French climber named Pierre Mazeaud. He quit in a huff announcing, “They expect me, Pierre Mazeaud, member of Parliament of the French Assembly, age 42, to work as a Sherpa for Anglo-Saxons and Japanese. Never! This is not me, but France they have insulted!” Whillans and Haston were selected as the British representatives and ultimately came close to doing the climb. Whillans led a rescue attempt of an Indian climber named Harsh Bahaguna. It was a very risky operation for Whillans, who managed to reach Bahaguna, who was blue and unconscious. There was nothing Whillans could do except to say, “Sorry, Harsh, old son, you’ve had it,” and then try to extricate himself in a raging storm. Now to the anecdote. According to the version I used to tell, Whillans was in his tent at base camp, when a large German climber poked his head in. The climber had been listening on the radio to a World Cup football match in which the Germans had beaten the British. He said to Whillans, “Whillans, we have just beaten you at your national game.” To this Whillans replied, ” We beat you at yours – twice.” Perrin places this alleged exchange the following year when Whillans took part in another Everest expedition with some German climbers. But, Perrin points out, there was no World Cup in 1972, ditto 1971. Recently I learned from Henry Catto, who was our ambassador to Great Britain and a friend of Margaret Thatcher, that this same exchange has been attributed to her – the interlocutor being some reporter. I am at a loss. However, there is an anecdote from this expedition, also told by Perrin, which I am sure of since it was captured on film. After a long exposure on the face, Whillans and Haston decided to come down. On the film you see first the figure of Haston. He looks more dead than alive. He drops down on the snow where a Sherpa feeds him hot fruit juice. In the distance there is the unmistakable miniature fireplug figure of Whillans. He is strolling along as if he has just spent the day in the park. When he approaches the camp, the Sherpa offers him the same hot fruit juice. Whillans waves him away and takes out of his climbing overalls what is left of a half-bottle of Glenfiddich. He finishes the contents in one gulp, throws the bottle over his shoulder, and heads for his tent with a satisfied belch.Among the hardmen, Whillans had competitors. The most formidable was another Manchester climber named Joe Brown. Brown was four years older than Whillans. He was the youngest of seven children born to a Catholic father who died when Brown was 7 months old. He had been a builder, but between construction jobs had gone to sea as a sailor. On his last trip he had an accident and died of a gangrene infection. While Whillans’ family was blue-collar, Brown’s was poverty-stricken. When the children became old enough, they all went to work and turned whatever money they earned over to their mother, who doled out small allowances. Brown, too, discovered climbing at about age 16, and it soon became clear that he was a kind of virtuoso. He and Whillans inevitably became both rivals and, from time to time, collaborators on creating new routes. Perrin has a nice description of their contrasting styles. He writes, “To take an image from a different sport, and one with which rock-climbing has some similarities, Joe was a Muhammad Ali or a Sugar Ray Leonard rather than a Joe Frazier or a Marvin Hagler. Don, on the other hand, was clinically efficient, fast and aggressive, reducing the rock’s resistance by sheer force of onslaught – the Mike Tyson of the 1950s rock-climbing, brutally and inexorably precise. Where Joe puzzled and surprised, Don awed.”Brown became an independent building worker so that he would have as much free time as possible. Whillans also quit his regular plumbing job, and for the rest of his life he had various odd jobs, some related to plumbing and some to climbing. He invented some climbing equipment that became widely used. I still have a “Whillans harness” – a system of straps that went around your body and under your legs to which a climbing rope was attached. This meant that if you fell, the shock would be widely distributed. Whillans earned a steady income off royalties from his inventions.To be continued next week.
Jeremy Bernstein is a member of the American Alpine Club and the author of several books and articles about climbing and mountain travel. When he was in condition he resembled a fireplug. He was incredibly strong and his modus operandi in fights was to get the first shot in, flattening his adversary.The Sherpa offers him some hot fruit juice. Whillans waves him away and takes out of his climbing overalls what is left of a half-bottle of Glenfiddich. He finishes the contents in one gulp, throws the bottle over his shoulder, and heads for his tent with a satisfied belch.