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My Father, Frank - An interview with Tony Smythe

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Frank Smythe is one of the most celebrated British mountaineers of all time having pushed the world standard of climbing in the Alps and Himalayas throughout the early twentieth century. His achievements include the first ascent of Kamet in 1931, the highest peak then summitted, before coming within 820 feet of the summit of Everest in 1933, climbing alone and without supplementary oxygen twenty years before Hillary's first ascent. Despite publishing many books about his travels, Frank revealed little about himself in his writings and few details are known about his personal life. Over fifty years after his death, his son, Tony, has written a full account of the great man's life, a fantastic story which has picked up this year's Kekoo Naoroji Award for Mountain Literature as well as being shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Award. Having been a keen climber and paraglider throughout his life, Tony is no stranger to adventure himself. Tori Halliday recently caught up with Tony to find out about his father, the writing of his book and his own climbing career.


VH: What first prompted you to write My Father, Frank?

TS: In 1999 the mountaineering publisher Ken Wilson [founder of Baton Wicks] asked me to help with his production of the Frank Smythe Omnibus – the reprint of six of Frank’s Alpine and Himalayan books. The impact on me of reading these again after half a century, together with Ken’s enthusiasm for Frank’s climbing – particularly during his Valley of Flowers expedition in Garhwal, were probably the two key things that convinced me to take on the story of his life.


VH: What did you find most challenging and most rewarding about the writing process?

TS: The most challenging thing was to be fair to my father. I knew he had a reputation for an impulsive hot-headed temperament and had upset people. I felt it was important to let a reader make up his or her mind about issues on the strength of the facts; I had to be as sparing as possible with my own opinions. I needed to avoid people thinking ‘well he would say that, wouldn’t he?’ The most rewarding part was the research – some eight years of it, which turned out to be a hugely interesting voyage of discovery of the father I had hardly known (he abandoned his family when I was four and died some ten years after that).


VH: How did writing the book affect your view of your father?

TS: Essentially he became a real person instead of the invisible hero of my youth. I was astonished by his energy and his determination to become a writer. I was immensely impressed by his overcoming of the difficulties stemming from a dreadful upbringing and possessive mother. She had been widowed when Frank, her only child, was a baby and their relationship remained tortuous for the rest of her life. But I also squirmed at his behaviour at times – for example the dreadful saga of his Grépon climb with Ivan Waller and Tom Graham Brown in 1928.


VH: What do you consider to be your father’s greatest achievement?

TS: In climbing, it has to be his solo up the final thousand feet of the south ridge of the Mana Peak in Garhwal during his first ascent of the mountain in 1937. In his ‘sea level’ life – his writing, which captivated and inspired countless numbers of people.


VH: You also wrote Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia, praised as the ‘first really modern book about climbing in Britain' (Steve Dean). What do you see as the most significant changes to have taken place in British climbing since its publication?

TS: For those bitten by the bug rock climbing is as enthralling and addictive as ever. But there have been huge advances in standards. Techniques in belaying and modern protection gear have made it a safer activity (for me the label ‘sport’ applies only to climbing on artificial walls). People now train tirelessly to improve. There are formal competitions. The Joe Brown era is a lifetime ago.


VH: How has your own relationship with climbing changed since your first experiences in the mountains?

TS: At Easter in 1950 I was a 15 year old with a school group staying in the Ogwen Valley in Snowdonia. There were about six of us with a schoolmaster in charge. Each day he took the youngest member climbing, asked where the rest of us intended to go, told us to take care, and left us to it. We had a couple of hemp ropes, a few slings and some ex-WD steel karabiners, and my older brother, John, aged 17 had read about how to do rock climbing.  So he was the leader. We went up Tryfan, the Milestone Buttress and the Idwal Slabs. Later John tackled Soap Gut (graded Very Severe) with a contemporary called Stokes. We all climbed in nailed boots and it rained a lot. I’m not sure how or why we survived, but it was fabulous fun. Magic! Now in 2014 I’ve become a bit decrepit and I go walking in the hills, at peace with the world, savouring the memory of those long-gone days and the more or less safer years on bigger things that followed. 


VH: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not spending time in the mountains?

TS: I ride my road or mountain bike, and where I live in the Lake District there are some wonderfully remote, traffic-free lanes and tracks that test the fitness with steep climbs, usually rewarded with fine views at the top.


VH: Any more books on the horizon?

TS: Not at the moment, but I’ve learnt to be wary of saying ‘never again’ to anything.

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