A Whillan's tale

Posted by Leo Dickinson on 04/11/2006
Don Whillans. Photo: Ken Wilson.

Leo Dickinson introduces his new film, exploring the myths and legends of rock climber Don Whillans.

In the 1950’s British climbing witnessed an explosion in standards unlike anything seen before, or since. And it was entirely due to two working class lads from Manchester - Joe Brown and Don Whillans.

Their world evolved around the gritstone outcrops of the Peak, the higher cliffs of North Wales and the Lakes, and occasional forays to Scotland. It was arguably the strongest climbing partnership ever, and the grades of their grit routes have more than stood the test of time - a Whillans or Brown route is still a coveted tick to this day. But, like all great teams they eventually went their separate ways - Joe became an icon of British climbing, and Don an anarchic legend in the same world.

Much has been written about the Whillans, including Jim Perrin’s recent detailed biography. But now Don, as always, is having the last word, being the subject of my posthumous film. The film, supported by the BMC, and to be premiered at the Kendal Film Festival, features some of the many epics in Don’s climbing career - spanning the Alps to Patagonia, Annapurna to Everest. It also brings out some of Don’s tremendous humour and devastating wit.

I’m no stranger to Don, having shared a trip to Patagonia back in 1974 with him, and one incident sticks out in my mind from that trip. It was a perfect Patagonian day, and Mick Coffey was walking up the glacier with Whillans following close behind. Meanwhile Martin Boysen, Paul Braithwaite and I were 500m up the granite walls of Torre Egger in a waterfall, casually watching the two figures approach the ice cave far below. Suddenly there was only one. From our viewpoint it was impossible to see exactly what had happened but Mick was nowhere to be seen. He’d put his foot through a thin snow bridge hiding a huge crevasse and wrumff – no more Mick. Or as Don put it:

“I was watching him approach the area of crevasses when he suddenly went in up to his waist and I was just about to say, ‘found one then?’ when he disappeared. I looked down the hole about 80ft and all I could see were shiny walls and I thought, ‘Christ Almighty - he’s disappeared into the centre of the f***ing mountain’”

Unfortunately the rope they were carrying was in the top of Mick’s sac so Don had little option but to run up to the ice cave and see what gear was available. Tying together wire slings from snow stakes and odd bits of tape, he managed to descend to where the unfortunate Mick was jammed. Eventually Don was able to pull him free and both emerged back into the sunlight where Mick promptly went into violent convulsions from cold. Later, back at Base Camp he gave Don his expedition bottle of whisky for saving his life.

Getting people out of trouble had almost become a habit for Whillans. In 1958 on the first British ascent of the Bonatti Pillar, Don and Paul Ross joined Chris Bonington and Hamish MacInnes to vye for the first ascent. Hamish was hit by a falling stone that fractured his skull, so Don assumed the lead and for the next two days nursed the bloodied Scot up the route. Chris Bonington later said that: “Don’s strength and leadership got us up and down safely”.

It would prove to be ideal practice for their most famous rescue. When four years later on the Eigerwand, Barry Brewster was mortally wounded and Brian Nally was helped down to safety from the top of the Second Ice Field in a violent storm. The new DVD features an extended interview with Don about this rescue, with Whillans in his very best story-telling mood. Brewster had been swept away in a volley of stones and more went thundering down as Don and Chris climbed up to Nally: “It was like driving down a one way street the wrong way. You’re getting further into the sh*t when you know you should be going the other way – but what was the option? Leave him? We weren’t going to do that.”

A psychologist later analysed the delivery as “decision without options” featuring “analysis for one’s own safety, yet no question of backing away”. In short, Don and Chris did what we would like to think most climbers would do in the same circumstances - they performed as heroes. To this very day Ken Wilson thinks the two of them should have been awarded a medal.

Nine years later, on the Everest International Expedition in 1971, Indian Harsh Baguna was stuck half way across a fixed rope in a gathering storm. According to John Cleare, Don did his very best to save Harsh but at the back of his mind knew that unless a final decision was made to leave him, then others in the rescue party would also perish. Those who have not been in an Everest storm cannot possibly imagine the lack of options you have, and the decision-making processes that go through your mind when faced with your own mortality. John told me that as he left the camp Don gathered a bunch of bamboo poles and left markers every 10m to the scene of the drama. Had it not been for Whillans’ foresight. John believes many other climbers would not have made it back that night.

Enough of the rescues. It’s the funny side of Don that drove me to make this film. Like most climbers of my generation we were brought up on stories of the Rock and Ice Club and the two men who rose above the rest - Joe and Don. Joe became a TV outside-broadcast media star, and Don became the climbers’ star of choice for his rapid and devastating one-liners. You never quite knew what was coming. If a modern audience appreciates, say, Will Self’s missives directed at the establishment, then imagine a climbing version that could hold an audience spellbound with his acerbic quips - more often than not aimed at the climbing world’s elite and righteous.

Neither Brit climbers nor foreigners could escape his wit. Don took no prisoners, pricked pomposity where he found it and suffered fools badly. On our Torre Egger expedition, I must have got under his feet running around with my 16mm film cameras because he suddenly burst out with, “You know what your problem is? You try and be in two places at the same time – the last person that tried that trick died on the bloody cross.”
But there was a soft spot to Don, he loved wildlife and when I pointed out a Torrent Duck in the icy Patagonian waters, noting that it was one of the rarest ducks in the world, his answer was razor sharp: “Aye – that’s not really surprising.” Ducks played quite a part in Don’s repertoire, and a poor effort by a climber warranted the phrase, “he’s a bit of a duck egg”. Meaning, I guess, addled, or it won’t hatch. So when Reinhold Messner appeared on the scene I wasted no time asking Don what he thought of the climbing world’s latest star.

He didn’t pause for thought: “I’ve heard ducks’ fart before. He sounds a bit wet behind the ears if you ask me. Wait till he gets to the real mountains, the Himalayas – they tend to sort out the men from the boys.” Don was way off the mark on that occasion. But it did amuse Reinhold who, after hearing a dose of Whillansism’s, told me that, “Zerr is no-one in ze ole of Europe – maybe ze ole world quite like your Don Whillans.”

Don’s most famous one-liner came on the Anglo-German Everest Expedition in1972. The deputy leader Felix Kuen came into the big tent at Camp Two and proudly announced to Don that he had just been listening to all India Radio: “I av just eard on ze radio that Vest Germany av beaten England at football zwei – zero. We av beaten you at your national game.” Don put down his mug of tea, narrowed his eyes to the merest slits, paused and said in a harsh whisper, “Aye, but we beat you at yours – twice.”

My DVD tries to capture a time that is gone now. A time when political correctness hadn’t been invented, interwoven with a story about a climbing genius, the like of whom we’ll never see again. For Whillans’ fans this is a “must have” DVD and the ideal Christmas present - particularly if your mother-in-law is staying over.

Don Whillans - Myth and Legend received its world premiere at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival in November 2006. To purchase a copy of the film visit the Climbing DVDs section of the BMC online shop


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