Often cited as one of the originators of the stylish lightweight approach to mountaineering, Major Harold William “Bill” Tilman was a remarkable man of action who continues to inspire generations of adventurers. Not only did he succeed in climbing Nanda Devi, the highest peak climbed before the Second World War – despite suffering from debilitating altitude sickness for much of his climbing life – he also fought in two World Wars and was parachuted behind enemy lines in the Balkans at the age of 45 to organize resistance to the Nazis.
As he got older, rather than retiring to a well-earned pipe-and-slippers rest, he turned to exploring the more remote mountains of the world using ancient sea-going barques and pilot cutters, several of which sunk amongst ice-floes, leading to major epics. To top it all, he was a wonderful, understated writer, describing his adventures “with a wit so dry sparrows could bathe in it.”
“He was one of the toughest guys I ever knew,” said American climber Charlie Houston. “One sometimes felt that he courted disaster, longed for trauma, and he never did things the easy way if with a little effort they could be made to be impossible.”
Tilman was born the youngest son of a prosperous Liverpool merchant and saw plenty of action as a teenager in the Great War, fighting at the Somme and winning the Military Cross by the time he was 18. Following the danger and excitement of war service, Tilman spent ten years farming in Kenya. But when he was 31 he bumped into Eric Shipton, who was looking for someone to go mountaineering with – and his life changed in an instant.
Together they made some now legendary mountaineering trips, including the first traverse of the exposed ridge between Mount Kenya’s highest summits, the first traverse of the mighty Rishi Ganga Gorge in the Indian Himalaya, and the first exploration of the Nanda Devi “Sanctuary” at its head, as well as two expeditions to Everest and a four-month trip across one of the wildest and most uncharted ranges of the world, the Karakoram.
Despite the adventures and risks they shared, the pair couldn’t help retaining a high degree of middle-class English reserve. “As we had done in Africa,” wrote Shipton, “we continued to address one another as Tilman and Shipton; and when, after another seven months continuously together, I suggested that it was time he called me Eric he became acutely embarrassed, hung his head and muttered, ‘It sounds so damned silly.’ ”
After an eventful war, Tilman acquired a barque, which he named Mischief, and for his first serious attempt at sailing he headed out into the Atlantic with a view to making for Patagonia. This first voyage tended to set the tone for many others to follow – he had trouble with his cautious crew from the start. They mutinied in Gibraltar. A replacement crew proved a much happier one, in fact many of Tilman’s crews seemed to be capricious like this; they either couldn’t stand the old curmudgeon or they were fiercely loyal to his eccentric ways. Without further ado, Tilman then voyaged to South America and made the first crossing of the Patagonian Icecap.
It was the beginning of a whole new sea-going mountaineering career at an age when most people would be thinking of easing up. Over the next decade and a half he would sail and climb in Greenland, Iceland, Baffin Island, South Georgia, the South Shetlands, and Spitsbergen, losing two ships in the process but always coming back with renewed enthusiasm. Many climbers have recently been pioneering remote new routes, in places like Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula, literally steeping off the deck of their yachts to begin a pitch. They owe this clarity of purpose much to a fellow like Tilman. As befitted a lifelong man of action, sadly, it all ended abruptly. Dying with his sea boots on, Tilman disappeared in a fierce storm off the Falklands in 1977 at age 79.
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.