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Book of the Month: High Mountains and Cold Seas, J.R.L. Anderson

Thursday, 1 November 2018

H.W.T., Mischief's skipper

A pioneer of the inter-war Everest expeditions, and highly decorated during both world wars, Major Harold William – Bill – Tilman is renowned as one of the greatest British explorers of the twentieth century. When he was lost at sea in 1977, he left behind a legacy of fifteen journals, originally published between 1937 and 1977, which bring to life afresh his remarkable and eccentric adventures across mountain, land and sea. 

A highly decorated military leader, Tilman made trailblazing ascents in the Himalaya – including the first ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936; completed the first crossing of the vast Patagonian Icefield; and explored extensively in Greenland, traversing the globe’s most remote and undiscovered landscapes. 

His biography, High Mountains and Cold Seas, is the first detailed insight into the extraordinary life and character of this most private individual. Below is an extract from the foreword by Tim Madge. 

Buy a copy of High Mountains and Cold Seas this month and get a free copy of Mount Everest 1938, in which Tilman writes about his attempt to reach the summit of the world.

... why does Tilman’s life matter? It is a far easier question to answer than who, exactly, this unique and extraordinary man was—and what motivated him.

The age of heroes may be over; we live in a much shallower, short- term world, in which fame is instant and instantly forgotten, where notoriety is a key, shouting the most and at the highest volume lauded as some weird virtue. Tilman, on any assessment, was a hero, and in the most obvious sense. A Victorian gentleman to the end (two words that once resonated with historical, geographical and cultural force) he was also a shy, self-effacing and thoughtful wise man, who kept his counsel, more often than not, and whose books display a huge sense of the absurd, in their dryly comic narratives.

Rich enough at 40—inheriting money from his father’s estate—to indulge his passion for exploration, his raison d’être may be found in the mud and blood of the trenches of the Great War. It should never be forgotten that his character was forged—by a terrible accident of history—by conflict in its most brutal industrial form. Surviving a first world war, although badly injured at one point, he was plunged back into a second.

I have, in my possession, two photographs of Tilman, one taken on the Everest expedition of 1938, when he was 40; he looks like a teenager. The second was taken in Nepal in 1948, ten years later. Mischief is written across his face, animated by the presence of a ‘famous lady explorer’, Betsy Cowles, standing next to him, but it is the picture of an old man. The Second World War did what the first miraculously had not; aged him.

If you want to understand the man, you have to understand Tilman the soldier. There is the heart of the matter; the soul of the man. But it is not as easy as that: Tilman was not a conventional soldier, never one to obey orders and slide up the ranks to conventional military fame and fortune. Something of the rebel adolescent remained all his life. And there is more: survivor’s guilt, borne of the slaughter surrounding Tilman in the trenches.

It is worth running through the key elements of Tilman’s career as a soldier, and to set them against his life apart from war. There is much to learn from what he wrote of himself as well of the Second World War. Like many others in the conflict, he never wrote about the first: what, after all, one may legitimately ask, was there to say?

Tilman entered the Great War as a very young subaltern in the Royal Artillery. He rapidly gained a reputation for volunteering for observation post work, which meant being alone in no man’s land with a field telephone and a pair of binoculars, observing the fall of shot. Lonely work, dangerous work, not for the faint-hearted. But he survived where many others did not; being on his own enabled him to take complete management over the odds against him.

It’s worth considering whether, if times had been different, he might not have found his greatest solace in single-handed yacht sailing. Between the world wars he farmed in East Africa, a lonely pursuit; he met Eric Shipton and together they forged one of the greatest climbing and exploring partnerships in history. Two men against the elements, suiting each for his own reasons. Their climbing and exploring in Asia have rightly become the stuff of legend.

The Second World War saw Tilman back in the artillery, where he sloshed about for the first three years, not rising above the rank of major, and definitely not wanting to—his own words spell that out clearly. Only when he found he could get himself into special forces training did his personal war become, paraphrasing his words ‘worth- while’. Dropped first into Albania, then northern Italy, in both countries he became another kind of legend. Notably in Belluno, in Italy, which still celebrates a Tilman Day, and where locally exists a Via Alta da Tilman—a kind of one-man Pennine Way, based on his alleged progress with the guerrillas in the latter part of the war—Tilman’s status as a true hero is immortalised. Despite his shyness, his self-effacement, I believe in this aspect the man would have rightly swelled with pride. 

The war ends, Tilman is approaching fifty. For the next half dozen years his life loses focus. It is easy to see he simply does not know what to do. A stint as a servant of empire in Burma (Eric Shipton had got himself fixed up as the consul in Kashgar), and a few mountain expeditions, from one of which, on Ben Nevis, he had to be rescued by boy scouts. One last look at the Himalaya in a notable trip to Nepal, where he met Betsy Cowles, and he turns his back on the high mountains of Anderson’s title. 

Then comes the sea, the element that is to dominate the rest of his life. A battered Bristol pilot cutter called Mischief, a gaff-rigged sailing boat, becomes the great love of his life. With Mischief, Tilman finds the sailing equivalent of climbing with Eric Shipton, except that with the boat, there was the advantage of her not talking back, and her Skipper could show her all the love he had to give.

It all worked well, for many years, but his first sailing companions, largely, but not entirely, ex-army chums, grow old and tired, whereas Tilman cannot give up his life-long restless quest for peace. As his crews grow younger, Tilman grows more distant, harder to understand—quite literally toward the end, as he became increasingly hard of hearing.

Mischief was eventually lost to ice damage in Greenland in 1968; Tilman wrote an extremely moving, privately published obituary. It is heartbreaking to read, his anguish at this loss perhaps encompassing a greater, earlier and more visceral grief.

After his beloved little ship was lost, Tilman tried, with increasing desperation, to recreate the voyages he made in Mischief, with decreasing success. He made, in all, eight voyage to Greenland or its environs, and lost another Bristol pilot cutter in so doing.

Finally, he had to admit, he was getting too old to continue, having to fly back ignominiously from Iceland, abandoning his last ship, Baroque, in Reykjavik. It looked to be all over.

Then came a last call, from a young former sailing crew member, Simon Richardson, asking if he would be the navigator on a voyage Richardson planned to Smith Island in the Antarctic. Tilman had failed to reach this destination years before; and it rankled as an abject failure. On that voyage, an experienced crew member had inexplicably been lost overboard at night in the Atlantic, the single casualty suffered in 140,000 miles of sailing.

The ship chosen by Richardson was a conversion, a former tug with a keel welded on by Richardson. She reached Rio, then sailed south, never to be seen again. Bill Tilman has no known grave, other than the seething cold black waters of the South Atlantic.

The young men who went to war in 1914 became a lost generation. Part of their tragedy was that many who sent them to their death believed the decadent world they grew up in needed to be cleansed— by their blood. They spilled enough of that, most deaths, incidentally, caused by artillery shells. Those who survived carried a unique burden for the rest of their lives.

Tilman chose solitude, as much as he could, and we can easily understand why. He chose, though, to write a great deal about his exploits and in so doing showed us a rare, a brilliant, talent for travel writing and for darkly dry humour. It no doubt was a solace, the writ-ing and the exploring: Africa, then mountains, finally remote corners of the globe by sailing ship from the immortal sea.

H.W. Tilman was stoic by nature, a man of honour and great courage, forthright and faithful, a man of his word and, increasingly, out of his time.


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