After climbing Everest in 1975, Pete Boardman found he had become a mountaineering celebrity. Uneasy with this status, he still felt he had to prove something to his peers. Accordingly, the next year he teamed up with Joe Tasker to launch himself at what was then probably the hardest Himalayan climb yet made – the technically ferocious West Wall of Changabang.
Boardman had begun climbing when he was in his early teens, joining his local Stockport, England, climbing club. His first visit to the Alps enthralled him and his life’s course was set. A degree in English Literature at Nottingham University – where as president of the student mountaineering club he led a trip to the Hindu Kush – was followed by a spell as an instructor and then a climbing bureaucrat with the British Mountaineering Council. Following Everest, Boardman became the director of the glamorous International School of Mountaineering at Leysin in Switzerland. In addition to a punishing series of lecture tours, Boardman had also embarked on a career as a perceptive writer, publishing an account of his ascent of Changabang, The Shining Mountain, to critical acclaim in 1978.
The same year, Boardman attempted a new route on the West Ridge of K2, but plans were aborted after a windslab avalanche killed team member Nick Estcourt. This personal portrait shows a cheerful, if a little weary, Boardman getting dry again having crossed yet another river on the walk in to their basecamp, before the tragedy unfolded. In 1979, partnered with Tasker, Doug Scott, and Georges Bettembourg, he pulled off a highly impressive alpine-style ascent of Kangchenjunga. It was among the most influential ascents of the 1970s, epitomising an approach that would thenceforth become the only acceptable way to climb for any ambitious alpinist.
There was scarcely time to recover before he was off to do the long, exposed, and intricate West Ridge of Gauri Sanker. Somehow, Boardman still found time to write about these trips in his second book, Sacred Summits, destined to appear posthumously. The following year a small alpine-style team of Boardman, Tasker, Scott and Dick Renshaw nearly died on K2 when avalanches almost swept their camp from the mountain.
The partnership with Tasker prospered, despite an obvious rivalry. “There was continual banter between them, which seemed to open up the chinks in each other’s armour and Pete’s presence seemed to induce in Joe a show of hardness and outrageous behaviour,” observed Renshaw. “They sometimes seemed like an old married couple.”
Boardman’s final expedition was to Everest’s Northeast Ridge in 1982. He disappeared with Tasker at around 8,200 meters. Boardman’s body was discovered in 1992 by three Kazakh mountaineers.
“It was as if he had lain down in the snow, gone to sleep and never woken,” thought Chris Bonington after seeing photographs. “We shall probably never know just what happened, but we lost two very special friends and a unique climbing partnership whose breadth of talent went far beyond mountaineering.”
They left a legacy both of inspiring, innovative ascents, but also of influential books – their exceptional abilities as writers, not least as thinkers, raising the “expedition genre” out of an increasingly formulaic mire. The prestigious Boardman-Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature was instituted as a fitting tribute to both men’s climbing and literary prowess.
This Historical Badass is excerpted from the book Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure, by Huw Lewis-Jones. For more information and to purchase signed copies, See polarworld.co.uk. To follow Lewis-Jones on Twitter check out @Polarworld.
For more from AJ’s Historical Badass series, go here.