A little while ago I explained how I was working through the second draft of the book I’m writing about my journey from hill walker to Everest summiteer, and editing the eye-watering 180,000 words I’d written for the first draft down to a more manageable 120,000. I explained how much of the historical background I originally wrote about the peaks I climbed and places I travelled to along the way, I was in the process of chopping out of the book because, while interesting, they weren’t essential to the flow of the story. Instead they would make good topics for blog posts, since I’m frequently writing about mountaineering history here, and many of you will be interested. Here’s the second post in that series, which follows on from the first one about how Nepal came to open its doors to tourism.
And remember, if you like what you read here, the content I decide to leave in the book will be even better.
Nepal’s first genuine trekking tourist was the great mountain explorer Bill Tilman. Born near Liverpool in 1898, Tilman’s introduction to high mountains came relatively late in life, but he certainly made up for lost time. He was in his early 30s and working as a plantation owner in Kenya, on land he had acquired in an unusual fashion. After surviving the First World War in active service as an artillery officer at both the Battle of the Somme and Passchendaele he was awarded a square mile of land on the edge of the Mau Forest, in what was then British East Africa, as part of a government scheme for resettling demobbed soldiers.
He had been there eleven years and was making a reasonable living when he read about the climbing exploits of another plantation owner, Eric Shipton. Intrigued but having no climbing experience, Tilman wrote to Shipton asking if he could accompany him on some of his climbs. Shipton agreed, and the pair of them climbed Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya together, and completed some ascents of the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda. Despite his inexperience Shipton found Tilman the ideal climbing partner: taciturn, strong, fearless, and able to endure any form of hardship with stoicism.
Bored with life in Africa, Tilman eventually sold his farm, bought a push bike and departed in bizarre fashion, pedalling all the way through the jungles of the Congo from Uganda to the west coast, living almost entirely on a diet of bananas. Legend has it he arrived back in Liverpool by cargo ship and was at a loose end and wondering what to do with his life, so he wrote to Shipton asking if he fancied a couple of weeks’ climbing in the Lake District. By then Shipton had made a name for himself as a mountaineer of some repute, having been a member of the team who made the first ascent of 7756m Kamet in India’s Garhwal Himalaya, at the time the highest mountain that had ever been climbed, and taking a prominent role in the 1933 British Everest expedition. He was in the process of organising a shoestring expedition to Nanda Devi, but was having trouble finding a partner prepared to tolerate the austerities when Tilman’s letter arrived fortuitously on his desk.
“I replied with a counter proposal that he should join me on a seven month trip to the Himalaya,” Shipton said laconically in his autobiography.
Tilman accepted without hesitation, and one of the great partnerships in Himalayan exploration was born. The pair became linchpins of the industrial-scale Everest expeditions of the 1930s, taking it in turns to share the leadership. But they were better known for pioneering a new lighter style of Himalayan expedition, exploratory trips involving a small group of climbers with their trusty Darjeeling Sherpas, living cheaply off the land. They boasted they could organise an expedition on the back of an envelope, and came to despise what they saw as the unnecessary opulence of the Everest expeditions, but they didn’t feel they could refuse the invitations of the Mount Everest Committee when they came.
Tilman acquired the reputation of being a taciturn introvert who sometimes found relationships awkward. At the end of the Nanda Devi expedition, after spending seven months sharing tents, meals and many adventures with him, Shipton said they were still calling each other Shipton and Tilman instead of Eric and Bill.
“When … I suggested that it was time he called me ‘Eric’ he became acutely embarrassed, hung his head and muttered, ‘It sounds so damned silly.'”
When Tilman reached the summit of 7816m Nanda Devi with Noel Odell in 1936 his reaction was unusual, and very different from celebrations we are accustomed to seeing nowadays. He didn’t plant his ice axe in the snow to one side, pretend it was a corner flag and run towards it with his shirt lifted over his head to reveal a vest emblazoned with the slogan This one’s for you, Wazza. He didn’t prance around the axe in some embarrassing travesty of a robotics dance before falling on his back to be straddled by Odell firmly intent on planting a big juicy kiss on his forehead. No, Premiership footballers take note: he had just reached the summit of the highest mountain that had ever been climbed after a two month expedition, having first found a route to the summit on an exploratory trip with Shipton two years earlier. It wasn’t something people did every week, like knocking a measly spherical bit of leather into the back of a net. So what did he do to celebrate? He tells us precisely what he did in his book, The Ascent of Nanda Devi.
“I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it.”
If only young people these days would exercise as much restraint.
While Shipton had a reputation as a bit of a ladies’ man who laid his ice axe alongside many a memsahib’s bed while travelling across India (or to use modern parlance, he shagged around), Tilman was quite the reverse. Although there’s not a shred of evidence he was gay – the many men he shared a tent or close quarters with during his years in the army or on expeditions are testament to this – he went out of his way to avoid the company of women. Some people believe Tilman was a misogynist, but in reality his extreme shyness and independent lifestyle probably caused him to be a little bit scared of women. He provides a great example of his and Shipton’s contrasting attitudes in his book Snow on the Equator. There was a long delay to their plans when they stopped and waited to help a woman whose car had broken down.
“It was a case of a assisting a damsel in distress, so the delay was suffered gladly by one of us, and by the other without impatience.”
After he retired from mountaineering Tilman bought a boat and spent the rest of his life sailing around the world, mostly in polar waters. Although he often had great difficulty recruiting crews he never once accepted a woman crew member because he believed they might wheedle the rest of the crew into ganging up on him. At times his fear of women is slightly comical.
“I did not care to run the risk of being talked or ogled into an act of folly,” he once said.
One of his advertisements for a crew famously said:
“Hand (man) wanted for long voyage in small boat.”
This didn’t stop women from applying, and on one occasion he even received an enquiry from a married couple (“an application which made me wince,” he remarked). In 1950 he was invited to join some American friends on a brief exploration of the Khumbu region, the first ever by westerners, and such was his eagerness to see the south side of Everest that he couldn’t refuse, even when he learned one of his companions was to be a Mrs Betsy Cowles.
“Hitherto I had not regarded a woman as an indispensable part of the equipage of a Himalayan journey,” he says somewhat whimsically in Nepal Himalaya. Mrs Cowles eventually won him over.
When Nepal finally opened its doors to foreigners at the end of the 1940s they started off by allowing in a few scientists. Tilman was the first person allowed in for the purpose of exploration and general sightseeing, though the government of Nepal stipulated that the expedition had to include scientists. This is something that would also have made Tilman wince. One comical element to his book The Ascent of Nanda Devi is his hatred of the enormous glacier drill geologist Noel Odell took with him.
Tilman ended up making three treks to Nepal between 1949 and 1950, in Langtang, the Annapurnas and the Khumbu (Everest) region. They were to be his very last mountain reconnaissances before he bought his boat Mischief and took up sailing instead. In part three of this series I will talk about his expedition to Langtang.
I hope to publish my book later this year, but in the meantime you may be interested to know my travel diaries are now available as ebooks for the bargain price of just a single $, £ or € depending on your currency. They’re a little more rough around the edges than the book will be, but if you don’t mind that, you enjoy some of my jokes and have a few coins to spare then please take a look. They are available from most of the main ebook retailers including Amazon.