In praise of Bill Tilman and his great travel books

Last week I finished reading Triumph and Tribulation, the very last book that HW (Bill) Tilman ever wrote. The following year, 1977, the septuagenarian explorer’s ship left Rio de Janeiro bound for Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, never to be seen again, an extraordinary end to an extraordinary life.

H. W. Tilman, the Seven Mountain Travel Books and the Eight Sailing/Mountain Exploration Books
H. W. Tilman, the Seven Mountain Travel Books and the Eight Sailing/Mountain Exploration Books

It’s taken me eight years to read all fifteen of Tilman’s books, now available in two convenient volumes (convenient if you like lugging around doorstops, that is), The Seven Mountain Travel Books, and The Eight Sailing/Mountain Exploration Books, neatly dividing Tilman’s life into two periods.

And what a life! Born in 1898 Tilman fought in the trenches in World War I, before being awarded land in Africa, where he emigrated to become a plantation owner. It wasn’t until he was in his 30s that he met Eric Shipton and the pair of them began exploring and climbing together. They completed a first ascent of the twin peaks of Mt Kenya, and climbed Kilimanjaro and several peaks in the Rwenzoris before turning their attention to the Himalayas and Karakoram.

With Shipton, Tilman became a stalwart of the many British attempts to climb Everest from Tibet in the 1930s, and in 1936 he made the first ascent of Nanda Devi in India, at the time the highest mountain that had ever been climbed.

He was in his 40s when World War II broke out. He had no hesitation in re-enlisting, where he spent much of the war actively involved in mountain campaigns in the Italian Alps.

When Nepal opened its borders after the war, Tilman did much exploration on foot there, and joined his old pal Shipton for some more exploration around the Kashgar area of Central Asia, where Shipton was British Consul-General.

The second part of Tilman’s life was spent at sea. In 1954 he bought an old-fashioned Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter called Mischief and spent the rest of his life sailing to far off places where he would disembark and climb coastal mountains. His favourite stamping ground was the Arctic and Greenland coast, where he eventually lost both Mischief and its successor Sea Breeze, both times surviving to sail another day.

A taciturn loner who had a reputation for being something of a misogynist, the very opposite of his old friend Shipton, Tilman’s fifteen books are infused with a dry wit and full of self-deprecating anecdotes. Now that I’ve finished them, there’s no doubt that I’ll be reading them all over again.

Shipton’s eight books aren’t bad either, but I’ve read all of them too.

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