Hardman: Round Two
January 8, 2007
Editor’s note: This is the second piece in a two-part portrait of British climber Don Whillans. Last week, readers were introduced to the storied mountaineer, who was known as much for his drinking, brawling and stinging wit as for his mountaineering exploits. We learned last week about the trials suffered by Whillans’ wife, Audrey, and his fast, aggressive style of climbing.The story picks up this week as a young Whillans heads for the climbing Mecca of Chamonix, France.In 1952, Whillans made his first sojourn to the Alps – Chamonix. By this time he was doing all his traveling by motorcycle, sometimes with Audrey riding in back. On one occasion, without Audrey, he went on his motorcycle 7,000 miles from Rawalpindi in Pakistan back to Manchester. Perrin’s description of the Chamonix climbing scene is very familiar to me. Beginning in the early 1960s, I spent 20 climbing seasons there. I am not sure if I ever saw Whillans, but I certainly saw my share of British climbers. Many of them stayed in a somewhat squalid squat – the Biolay – outside the town. They frequented a bar in downtown Chamonix called the Nationale. A non-Brit went there at his own peril. In my day there was a notorious fight between the local French climbers and the British contingent in the Nationale. I do not know if Whillans took part. It was his kind of occasion. I certainly never encountered Whillans on any climbing route that I did. I stuck to standard routes and was led by very competent guides. Whillans looked for the most difficult climbs that had ever been done in the valley and, if possible, did variants that were even more difficult. This happened in 1953, when Joe Brown, another Manchester hardman, made his first visit to Chamonix. Both men came by motorcycle with their respective mates. Whillans was transporting a tent among other things, which meant that Audrey rode the mud guard. The two climbers had fixed their sights on the Blatiere, an aguille, or needle, visible from the valley. In 1947, the two climbers, Pierre Alain and Auguste Fix, had put up a route on the west face that contained a crack – a fissure – that was considered the most difficult that had ever been climbed in the Alps. Whillans and Brown climbed the fissure with Brown in the lead, and then found one that was even more difficult, which Brown also led. It has been known from that day to this as the “Fissure Brown.”Whillans could not have been pleased that his climbing partner’s name was attached to a part of a climb that they had done together. He was even less pleased when, in 1955, Brown was selected as part of a national expedition whose goal was to make the first climb of the third-highest mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga. This magnificent mountain is on the border of Sikkim and Nepal. If Whillans was considered for the expedition, then he was passed over. Very likely his reputation as an unguidable missile played a role. There was also the matter of his age. When John Hunt selected his Everest group he insisted, with one exception, that no one be under the age of 25. Hillary was in his early 30s and Tenzing was nearly 40. The scale of the Himalayas makes the climbing requirements very different from, say, the Alps. It is very rare in the Alps that a climb lasts more than two days with one night usually spent in a refuge that is at least warm and well-stocked with food. Assaults on major Himalayan peaks take weeks, much of it spent at very high altitude under very primitive conditions. Himalayan climbers must have the temperament and stamina to deal with this, and that requires maturity. Ultimately, Whillans showed that he had both, although there was a general complaint in all his expeditions that he refused to do the dog work, even making tea.After the Alps Whillans climbed all over the world, making major ascents in places like Patagonia, Pakistan, Nepal and even California. He was briefly employed in California by my friend Yvon Chouinard, a great climber in his own right, and the founder of the outdoor-wear company Patagonia. Chouinard was obliged to fire Whillans, who was hopeless as an employee. Chouinard said it was the bravest thing, given Whillans’ temper, he ever did.As he got older, Whillans became more and more like a caricature of himself. He drank incessantly and became less and less physically fit, although he still had enough of a reputation that he appeared in a few television climbs. He also suffered from more frequent attacks of something that had bothered him all his life: labyrinthitis, a condition of the inner ear that produces vertigo. If he had had an attack while climbing or riding his motorcycle, then he would have been dead long before he was. By the time he died there were very few people who knew him who still liked him. Audrey stuck with him, although during a period when he was being impossible she had an affair. I like to remember Whillans from the first time that I heard of him, which was in the 1970s when I came across a marvelous set of essays and parodies, “One Man’s Mountains,” by the Scottish climber Tom Patey, who was tragically killed at the age of 38 while rappelling down a rock face that went into the sea. I will give some of the background to Patey’s 1963 essay, “A Short Walk With Whillans,” from which I will quote.
The “short walk” in question was an attempt on their part to climb the north face of the Eiger – the Eiger-Norwand – in Switzerland. In the Alps, north faces have a special meaning. These mountains were sculpted by glaciers. The north sides get less sunlight than the south, so the glaciers persist longer, which makes these faces both steeper and colder. At first sight one may wonder why the sun, which rises in the east and sets in the west, should differentiate between north and south. On the equator it doesn’t. The diurnal circle, which traces the daily motion of the sun, is directly overhead. But as you go north, the circles appear tilted. At the north pole the circle become essentially parallel to the horizon. That is why, in the northern hemisphere, the south sides of mountains receive more sunlight. In the southern hemisphere, it is the reverse, and on glacially sculpted mountains it is the south faces that are steeper. In the Alps the north faces became great climbing challenges and none more so than the north face of the Eiger. It was first attempted in 1934, and the first casualties – among many – occurred in 1935. It became a kind of German-Austrian mountain, so it was fitting that the first successful climb was a three-day affair by a mixed German-Austrian team that included the Austrian Heinrich Harrer. In 1938, he made an attempt on Nanga Parbat in what is now Pakistan. The following year he was captured by the British in India. In 1944, he escaped with his fellow Austrian climber Peter Aufschnaiter. They found their way to Tibet, where Harrer became the tutor and friend of the then-young Dalai Lama. He wrote about this in his book, “Seven Years in Tibet.” In 1950, with the occupation of Tibet by the Chinese, he and Aufschnaiter escaped. Aufschnaiter, whom I met in 1967 in Kathmandu, married a Tibetan woman and practiced civil engineering in Nepal. Harrer, who died in 2006, continued climbing and lecturing. But after the 1997 film, based loosely on his book, appeared, it was revealed that when the Nazi Party took over Austria, Harrer had joined the Schutzstaffel (or SS the special police). He always claimed that this was a kind of youthful indiscretion, but many people, including myself, found it difficult to forgive.After the war, there was a kind of international race as to who would make the second ascent of the Eigerwand. It was won in 1947 by the Chamonix guides Lionel Terray and Gaston Rébuffat. The question then became who would be the first Englishmen, Italians, etc., to climb the face. Whillans made attempts in 1961 and 1962, but was beaten in 1962 by the pair of Chris Bonington and Ian Clough. In 1963 he was back with Tom Patey. Patey was not a Manchester hardman, but Whillans had done a good deal of climbing in Scotland. By 1963, Whillans had acquired a car and drove to his rendezvous with Patey at the hamlet of Alpiglen at the base of the Eiger. Patey begins with this exchange that sets the tone.”Did you spot that great long streak of blood on the road over from Chamonix? Twenty yards long, I’d say.”The speaker was Don Whillans. We were seated in the little inn at Alpiglen, and Don’s aggressive profile was framed against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Eiger-Norwand. I reflected that the conversation had become attuned to the environment.”Probably some unfortunate animal, ” I ventured without much conviction. Whillans’ eyes narrowed. “Human blood,” he said. “Remember, lass?” Appealing to his wife, Audrey, he continued, “I told you to stop the car for a better look. Really turned her stomach, it did. Just when she was getting over the funeral.” I felt an urge to inquire whose funeral they had attended. There had been several. Every time we went up on the Montenvers train, we passed a corpse going down. I let the question go. It seemed irrelevant, possibly even irreverent.”Ay, it’s a good life,” he mused, “providing you don’t weaken.””What happens if you do?””They bury you,” he growled, and finished his pint.The next day at noon they headed off for the mountain after Whillans had said to his wife, “You’ve got the car key, lass, and you know where to find the house key. That’s all you need to know. Ta, for now.”
They were followed up to the first snow by five children and a dog. Whillans actually liked children and one of his regrets was that he and Audrey never had any. But he was glad when these children quit following them. The dog had to be driven off with a few stones. Once they began climbing up to the first bivouac, they began encountering a variety of detritus left behind by previous climbers, including a boot that Patey examined to see if there was a foot still in it. The Eiger is notorious for rock fall. It is something of a shooting gallery for climbers. In July 2006, some 2 million cubic meters of rock fell from the East Face. Miraculously no one was hurt.After a night on the mountain, the next day dawned clear. They soon reached what is known as the Hinterstoisser Traverse, a key passage that opens up the rest of the climb. It is named after Anderl Hinterstoisser, who crossed it with three comrades in July 1936. They did not fix a rope in case they needed to retreat. A storm came up and they couldn’t reverse the traverse, and all four of them eventually died. When Whillans and Patey got there, they found a fixed rope that they were able to use to cross it in about three minutes. There are still many serious difficulties, but the two of them were making rapid progress when the rocks began to fall. It had been very warm, which unglues the mountain. After the first volley came close, Whillans announced that he was going down. Patey thought he was going to demur when, he claims, he had stretched out a hand to flick the ash of his cigarette and a falling rock did the job for him. In the course of his several attempts on the Eiger, Whillans had discovered an escape route that bypassed the Hinterstoisser traverse entirely by a rappel. Patey remarks, “If Hinterstoisser had realized that, he would probably not now have a traverse named after him.” They make a very rapid retreat down the mountain in a hail of stone-fall when Whillans, who had disappeared around a corner, was heard to say in a loud voice,”‘God Almighty – Japs! Come to see for yourself!'” Patey goes on, “Sure enough, there they were. Two identical little men in identical climbing uniforms, sitting side by side underneath an overhang. They had been crouching there for an hour, waiting for the bombardment to slacken. I estimated that we must have scored several near misses.”‘You Japs?’ grunted Don. It seemed an unnecessary question.”‘Yes, yes,’ they grinned happily, displaying a full set of teeth. ‘We are Japanese.'”‘Going up?’ queried Whillans. He pointed meaningfully at the gray holocaust sweeping down from the White Spider. [This is the name for a sinuous set of snow-filled cracks near the top of the route.] “‘Yes, yes,’ they chorused in unison. ‘Up. Always upwards. First Japanese ascent.'”‘You may be going up, Mate,’ said Whillans, giving every syllable unnecessary emphasis, ‘but a lot ‘igher than you think!’ “They did not know what to make of this, so they wrung his hand several times, and thanked him profusely for the advice.”‘ ‘Appy little pair!’ said Don. ‘I don’t imagine we’ll ever see them again.'”
Patey then concludes,”He was mistaken. They came back seven days later after several feet of new snow had fallen. They had survived a full-scale Eiger blizzard and had reached our highest point … If they did not receive a medal for valour, they had certainly earned one. They were forerunners of the climbing elite of Japan, whose members now climb Mount Everest for the purpose of skiing down again.”We got back to the Alpiglen in time for late lunch. The telescope stood forlorn and deserted in the rain. The Eiger had retired into its misty oblivion, as Don Whillans retired to his favorite corner seat by the window.” Jeremy Bernstein is a member of the American Alpine Club and the author of several books and articles about climbing and mountain travel.