Climber Dougal Haston Was the Mick Jagger of the Mountains

Dougal Haston’s eyelids were frozen. He was in the middle of climbing a 300-foot run-out in a gully, 24,000 feet up Annapurna’s south face. His Dachstein mitts were covered in snow and removing them to wipe the ice from his eyes meant certain frostbite. To make matters worse, small avalanches of fresh powder sloughed down the couloir, pelting him with spindrift.

“It was a nightmare climbing situation,” Haston later wrote. “Yet the strange thing about it was that I never contemplated turning back.”

Haston kept climbing, slamming one ice axe in front of the other, until he reached the top of the gully. A few days later, on May 27, 1970, he and Don Whillans stood on the summit of Annapurna. The bold first ascent on a notoriously deadly Himalayan peak ushered in a new era of high-altitude climbing, and Haston, an aloof, taciturn Scotsman who drank as hard as he climbed was the rock star of elite alpinism.

Born the son of a baker in the small working-class village of Currie, Scotland in 1940, Duncan MacSporan Haston started climbing by scampering up the local railway and riverside walls as a teenager. Armed with six-inch nails for pitons and clothesline for rope, Haston and his mates tied in and tested their mettle, quickly discovering the inadequacies of their gear. Long, 20-foot plunges into the river below kept the stakes manageable, though as Haston noted in his memoir “In High Places,” falling into the Water of Leith was by no means like deep water soloing in the French Calanques.

“Two paper-mills and a tannery poured their refuse into it.”

By his late teens, Haston was a diehard climber, working odd jobs that he could quit easily, and spending most of his time at the highland crags of Ben Nevis and Glencoe. At age 20, having repeated most of the area classics, Haston partnered with Robin Smith and made the first ascent of The Bat–a 10-pitch romp up the Carn Dearg Buttress that, at roughly 5.11, still makes for a serious outing today.

Haston studied philosophy at the University of Edinburg and developed a penchant for reading Nietzsche. Deep down, though, climbing was really the only thing that mattered to the young Scotsman.

“Studies and work were always of secondary importance when it came to mountains,” he wrote in his memoir.

He also had a dark side. The brooding, often morose Haston liked to drink and fight, and often went out partying at night with a carabiner to use as a “knuckleduster” according to his frequent climbing partner Jimmy Marshall.

In 1959, he visited the Alps of northern Italy and dirt bagged for two months in the Dolomites. He and his rowdy crew of Scottish climbers slept in a local graveyard, ate canned corned beef and repeated classic routes on major formations including the Marmolada, Tre Cime, and Civetta mountains.

Haston bounced between Scotland and the Swiss Alps for the next few years until an ill-fated accident in Glencoe changed the course of his life. On a night in April 1965, Haston was behind the wheel of a transit van when he struck a pedestrian. He had been drinking and fled the scene, but turned himself in the next day. The pedestrian, 18-year-old James Orr died seven days later. Haston spent 60 days in Scotland’s Barlinnie Prison for his crime, but would carry the guilt for the rest of his life.

“It was something he rarely spoke about,” wrote Doug Scott in the Alpine Journal. “It often seemed that he pushed himself so hard in the mountains in an attempt to purge himself of the guilt he felt.”

After the accident, Haston gave up everything for climbing. He moved to the Swiss Alps full time and slept in the concrete basement of American mountaineer John Harlin II. In 1966, he teamed up with Harlin, Briton Chris Bonington, and American Yosemite master Layton Kor for an audacious attempt at a direct route on the Eiger North Face in winter. The expedition turned epic. Harlin fell to his death after a rope snapped high on the mountain, and bad weather forced Bonington and Kor to retreat. Haston joined forces with four Germans also attempting the line and pushed on, making the first ascent of the Harlin-Direct to honor his fallen comrade. The route had cost one life, and 21 toes were lost to frostbite, though Haston emerged unscathed and became an international climbing celebrity.

Haston took over Harlin’s position as director of the International School of Mountaineering in Leysin, Switzerland, and continued to make bold ascents in the mountains. He claimed the fourth winter ascent of the Matterhorn’s North Face and in 1970, made his first trip to the Himalayas where he climbed Annapurna’s South Face–an ascent that would redefine Himalayan alpinism by proving new, difficult routes (not just the obvious weakness) was the future of climbing big mountains.

Between expeditions, Haston would work and ski in Leysin and was a regular at the Club Vagabond bar. Dubbed the “Mick Jagger of the mountains,” he was the ultra-cool, polka-dot-scarf-wearing, hard-partying alpinist. He worked as the climbing expert on the set of the “Eiger Sanction,” hung out with Clint Eastwood, and kept company with movie stars. Haston also wrote a memoir, “In High Places,” that was published in 1972. The laconic, no-bull prose became required reading for aspiring climbers. With merely one line mentioning his marriage to Annie Haston, “In High Places” paints an accurate picture of someone who gave little thought to anything but climbing.

“For me, it is hard to have a friend who is not a climber,” he wrote. “On this basis, I have few friends.”

Despite his newfound fame and wild, hard-charging lifestyle, Haston still pushed the limits of high-altitude climbing. In 1975, Haston and a longhaired British schoolteacher named Doug Scott joined a Bonington-led expedition to Everest. Scott and Haston clicked in the mountains and pioneered a new route up Everest’s Southwest Face. Before they could descend, however, Haston and Scott were forced to spend a night in a snow cave at 28,750 feet–the highest bivouac ever recorded–enduring hallucinations from lack of oxygen and extreme cold before limping into camp the next morning.

The formidable Haston-Scott duo made waves in the climbing world again in 1976, this time with a first ascent on Denali in Alaska. The team bagged the route in alpine style, moving light and fast in contrast to the larger expeditions of the time, and opened a new line on the mountain’s South Face. The ascent gave the climbing world an early glimpse of where alpinism was heading.

That winter, Haston retreated to Leysin to finish a novel, Calculated Risk, a semi-autobiographical climbing narrative. The book follows the exploits of Jack McDonald, an American climber who, among other daring feats, out-skis an avalanche on La Riondaz above Leysin.

A few days after finishing his manuscript, on January 17, Haston ignored the high avalanche warnings, and skinned up the Riondaz. He obviously knew the risks, but took his chances. He dropped in, made a few arcing turns, and triggered an avalanche that swept him to his death. Rescuers who recovered his body noted that Haston appeared to have been strangled by his polka dot scarf.

Photos by Chris Bonington, courtesy of the Chris Bonington Picture Library

For more Haston, pick up a copy of his best known work, Eiger Direct: The epic battle on the North Face.



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