His father, Frank Smythe – biography of a Himalayan legend

It’s been a while since I wrote at length about Frank Smythe, the legendary British mountain explorer who was something of a celebrity in the 1930s when he became one of the first people to make a career of climbing, writing and photography.

He first appeared in this blog in 2011 in the course of a frivolous post about yetis (a chapter of his book The Valley of Flowers describes his discovery of a set of yeti footprints). The following year his thoughts on maintaining a steady pace at high altitude became the foundation of another post. In 2013 I wrote a long thesis on why he’s more interesting than George Mallory.

Frank Smythe was briefly in the news back in 2013 because his 79-year-old son Tony Smythe had written a book about him titled (appropriately enough) My Father, Frank. Unfortunately, all the press attention was focused on another pointless red herring in the saga of George Mallory (that Frank Smythe might have seen Mallory’s body through a telescope in 1936 in the place where it had already been found by 2013) rather than the more interesting story (that an interesting biography of an interesting character had just been written by his interesting son).

My Father, Frank by Tony Smythe
My Father, Frank by Tony Smythe

Let’s focus on that last bit for a second. It’s taken me seven years to get around to reading this biography. It was one of the big pile of books that I mentioned buying from Vertebrate Publishing during the darkest depths of lockdown, including some signed hardbacks. I didn’t know much about Tony Smythe before opening the back cover. There on the back flap his bio and photo smiled out at me.

I read the bio and nearly dropped the book on my foot (I’m not a fan of hardbacks; this would have been the final straw). He was an air force pilot for eight years before resigning to go travelling and climbing in more corners of the world than his dad. He then became a potter, before moving to the Lake District to take up hang gliding. In his retirement he decided to climb all the Munros in Scotland. About the only thing he hadn’t done (it seems) was start a revolution in Cuba.

And he wasn’t even the exciting one in the family…

So what did Frank do to top this? Quite a lot more, as it happens. As far as I know, Tony Smythe has never followed a yeti’s footprints up a mountain and concluded it was a better climber than he was; or seen George Mallory’s body through a telescope. He’s never seen UFOs hovering over Everest’s north-east ridge. All these things and more danced through the pages of Frank Smythe’s life like a spider in a sequinned leotard.

Frank Smythe first came to prominence in 1927 and 1928 with two pioneering ascents of Mont Blanc’s Brenva Face with Thomas Graham Brown. These ascents were overshadowed by an almighty feud that developed between the two men afterwards, chiefly about the details of their second ascent, though with many undercurrents.

He was then invited to join Günter Dyhrenfurth’s international expedition to Kangchenjunga in 1930 (an expedition I mentioned earlier this year while reviewing Mick Conefrey’s recent climbing history of Kangchenjunga). The expedition was a hugely significant event in Frank’s life because of the interest it generated in Britain. He was commissioned to write regular dispatches for The Times, and a bidding war between publishing companies for the rights to his book launched his career as a writer. His book The Kangchenjunga Adventure was massively popular on publication, though it’s a little more obscure these days.

In 1931 Frank led his own expedition to Kamet, in the Garhwal range of the Himalayas, north-west India. He reach the summit, and at 7,756m it was the highest mountain that had ever been climbed to that date.

He was best known for being a key member of three much-trumpeted British Everest expeditions in 1933, 1936 and 1938. None of the four British expeditions of the 1930s achieved much as far as climbing Everest was concerned. Frank was the most successful climber when he set out from Camp 6 with Eric Shipton in 1933.

Shipton wasn’t on form that day, and could go no further than the First Step on Everest’s north-east ridge. But Frank was feeling strong and continued on his own. He traversed beneath the First and Second Steps and reached the Norton Couloir, where he floundered up soft snow and slanting ledges for an hour, until:

My rear foot was joining my front foot when the knob, without any warning, suddenly broke away.

The knob wasn’t Eric Shipton, but a tiny protrusion of rock hiding beneath the snow, which Frank had entrusted most of his weight to. Luckily he had wedged the pick of his ice axe in a tiny crack above his head. This prevented him from plunging down the north face, but it was the final straw and he decided to turn back. He is estimated to have reached 8,600m, which if true was a world record, but it was only slightly higher than Edward Norton had climbed in 1924 after crossing the couloir which now bears his name.

My Father, Frank has been meticulously researched and edited, right down to the somewhat pedantic comma in its title (if I can be pedantic in kind, I could point out that the comma suggests the author is addressing another person called Frank – e.g. ‘how’s your father, Frank?’). The bibliography presents a feast of contemporary accounts of climbing in the Alps and Himalayas. Tony has delved extensively into unpublished letters (uncovering a few surprises that I will save for a later post) and done his best to track down surviving witnesses to some of the events.

The danger of any biography written by a close relative is that it’s likely to be one of two extremes: a turgid tribute or a scurrilous put-down, depending on the writer’s relationship with their famous family member.

Like Harriet Tuckey, who won the Boardman Tasker Prize a few years ago for her biography of Griffith Pugh, Tony Smythe seems to have had an uneasy relationship with his father, but this combined with pride in his father’s achievements, has enabled him to write a fair and balanced account.

It’s sometimes difficult to get an idea of the character of a person from a biography. The young Frank of My Father, Frank seems to be carefree, inconsiderate, and lacking responsibility or any kind of commitment. He appears to have spent much of his 20s swanning up and down the Alps at his mother’s expense, while she desperately tried to nudge him into a respectable career in engineering. He wasn’t interested. Finding himself with a lucrative engineering contract in Argentina, he deserted his post after only a few weeks and sailed back to England, leaving his step-brother to pick up the tab for breaking his contract.

Most obviously, he abandoned Tony’s mother Kathleen at the height of his Everest fame, when Tony was only four years old. Tony and his two brothers hardly saw their father after that. Fortunately (for those of us who prefer reading about mountains than accounts of family rancour) Tony doesn’t focus too much on the emotional effects of this rupture in his book, and he appears to have been quite forgiving.

Frank Smythe in the Valley of Flowers with his four Sherpa companions Nurbu, Tewang, Wangdi and Pasang (Photo: Tony Smythe)
Frank Smythe in the Valley of Flowers with his four Sherpa companions Nurbu, Tewang, Wangdi and Pasang (Photo: Tony Smythe)

Frank Smythe also seems to have been something of a grumpy old loner (something I can relate to myself). The clearest example of this was his ‘feud’ with Thomas Graham Brown. I used the word ‘feud’ in inverted commas because it was ultimately very one-sided.

‘This is a tortuous tale, but in view of the outcome and the long shadow it was to cast on Frank’s life, it needs to be told in detail,’ Tony says apologetically on p.104.

He’s right. I will spare you the details here, but after Frank wrote a very cruel letter to him in 1929 (reproduced in its entirety in My Father, Frank), Graham Brown appears to have borne him a lifelong grudge, which no action on Frank’s part was ever able to quench.

Graham Brown wasn’t the only person to find Frank annoying. Howard Somervell, one of the unsung heroes of the 1920s Everest expeditions, a doctor and musician who spent much of his life devoted to helping the poor in India, rejected him for the 1924 Everest expedition after a short training climbing in the Alps:

‘Nobody in our party could stick him for more than a few days owing to his irritating self-sufficiency,’ he wrote to the Everest Committee.

‘For “self-sufficiency” read boastfulness,’ interprets Tony.

Tony also found a letter from Bill Tilman to Noel Odell in 1937 where they discussed the leadership of the next Everest expedition.

‘The thing is to keep F.S. out of the lead, because that would be the devil,’ said Tilman, who was eventually invited to lead the 1938 expedition himself.

Having found his niche as a climbing writer and photographer, however, Frank Smythe can hardly be described as lacking responsibility and commitment. In his short life he wrote around 30 books, some to ridiculously short deadlines that I can scarcely credit given the amount of time it takes me to write these blog posts. His life between expeditions was a non-stop cycle of lectures, photo slideshows and writing deadlines, and this was in the days before PowerPoint, Microsoft Word or indeed digital cameras.

Frank Smythe died tragically young after contracting cerebral malaria during the early stages of another expedition to the Indian Himalaya in 1949. He was just 48 years old. There are several first-hand accounts of his rapid decline while staying at a tea plantation in Darjeeling. The most famous of these is his meeting with the great Tenzing Norgay, who had climbed with Frank on Everest and went on to achieve even greater fame.

There is a doleful passage in Tenzing’s autobiography Tiger of the Snows, which Tony quotes in his biography.

He was taken to hospital, and when I visited him there he did not recognise me, but simply lay in his bed with staring eyes, talking about climbs on great mountains.

At the time of his death, Frank Smythe was one of the great adventurers in the known world, a true celebrity in a time when this was much harder to achieve.

Alas, his fame has not endured like that of other old mountaineers such as George Mallory, Tenzing and Edmund Hillary. Even his two contemporaries, Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, seem to have eclipsed him now.

His memory was revived in 2000 with the publication of an omnibus edition of six of his best known books, The Six Alpine/Himalayan Climbing Books. This is how I discovered him, when I spotted the omnibus on the mountaineering shelf in Stanfords.

He was less quickly forgotten in India, the scene of many of his greatest adventures. Tony ends the biography with a heart-warming anecdote. Catching a train in Delhi on the way to a Himalayan adventure of his own in 1972, a porter helped Tony with his luggage.

He picked up Tony’s ice axe, held it up, and said with a smile: ‘Aha, Frank Smythe!’

Tony didn’t believe the porter could possibly have known who he was, so Frank Smythe must have been the first mountaineer he could think of, nearly quarter of a century after his death. There’s no danger of any random stranger ever doing that with me or my dad.

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3 thoughts on “His father, Frank Smythe – biography of a Himalayan legend

  • August 14, 2020 at 5:06 am

    Very nice. Now I’ll have to go and read it, I guess. Thanks 🙂

  • August 24, 2020 at 12:51 pm

    I bought the omnibus new for $5 about 10 years ago. Perhaps I will get around to it next year in retirement. Thanks Mark for bringing the self sufficient Frank to attention. I’m sure his writing will take me back to Garhwal and other abodes of snow.

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