The former general secretary of the BMC and mountain guide Roger Payne died in the tragic accident on Mont Maudit that claimed nine lives. Ed Douglas looks back on his life.
Roger Payne, who died aged 55 in the avalanche on Mont Maudit this week that killed eight others, was well known across many branches of world climbing. He made first ascents of routes in the Alps and climbed there every year from 1977. He took part in more than 20 expeditions to high and difficult peaks across the Karakoram and Himalaya – from K2 to little-known mountains on the borders of Sikkim, and Sichuan in China – as well as North and South America.
He was a former president of the British Mountain Guides, an avalanche instructor and held coaching badges in a range of other outdoor sports. He also had a strong interest in the mountain environment, working on projects with the United Nations on climate change, and was involved in raising awareness about the conflict on the Siachen Glacier.
Here at the BMC we knew him best as an inspirational general secretary, who refocused the organisation after a period of change.
Dave Turnbull, the current BMC chief executive, said:
“The mountaineering world is shocked and saddened to learn of the tragic death of Roger Payne, former BMC general secretary and ex-president of the British Mountain Guides. Roger was one of the UK’s most enthusiastic and respected climbers with a track record of Alpine and Himalayan mountaineering stretching back to the 1980s. Our thoughts are with Roger’s friends and family – in particular his wife Julie-Ann.”
Roger discovered climbing through the Scouts in Hammersmith, and soon headed to the hills in Scotland, which lead to rock climbing in England and Wales. His passion for the outdoors was matched with a passion for education, the subject of his degree, and he soon developed a career both as a teacher in the Northeast and as an instructor.
Roger qualified as a guide in 1983, the year after his first expedition to the Greater Ranges, an attempt on Denali’s Cassin Ridge, which morphed into an attempt on the West Buttress in freezing conditions.
Roger’s expedition climbing experience was deep and broad. He went to Peru in 1986 – the first expedition he undertook with his partner, in life as well as the mountains, the New Zealand-born guide Julie-Ann Clyma. Among five peaks climbed, Roger made the first ascent of the South Face Direct of Rusac (ED+).
Over the next 25 years, Roger and Julie-Ann embarked on some of the most significant British expeditions of the last two decades, notably to the North Face of Changabang in 1997 with a strong team that included Mick Fowler, Steve Sustad, Andy Cave and Brendan Murphy. He and Julie-Ann, who had tried the face previously the year before, made a strong attempt, following the successful efforts by the other two rope teams.
In 1993, he and Julie-Ann had been part of a team on K2 along with Victor Saunders, who helped in the rescue on Mont Maudit this morning, and Alan Hinkes. Typically, along with the climbing, the team had a commission from Eastern Electricity to install micro-hydroelectricity in two local villages.
Later in the expedition, Saunders and Hinkes turned back from their summit bid to assist an injured Swedish climber, survivor of an accident the day before that left three others dead. Roger and Julie-Ann helped the Swede descend in bad conditions from Camp 3.
In 2003, he and Julie-Ann made the first ascent of the North Face of Mount Grovesnor in Sichuan Province, China, descending via the East Ridge. It was perhaps the greatest highlight of his long career in Asia, but he had a great enthusiasm for exploration as well as technicality, becoming one of the leading experts on climbing in Sikkim.
In 1989, he was appointed National Officer here at the BMC. It was a turbulent time for the BMC finances, but his dynamism and confident approach worked wonders and he revitalised his post and, later, the BMC as a whole.
He became involved in the many new developments that were transforming climbing: from climbing walls and competitions to mountain tourism and technical and safety issues. He was a key organiser in eight major international competitions, including the 1999 World Championship. He was also a champion of ski-mountaineering events and helped ice-climbing competitions become part of the UIAA – the world body for mountaineering.
Six years later, he became general secretary (the now-archaic term for the BMC chief executive) – and he found his natural niche. His enthusiasm became legendary – whether for tackling a daunting project, launching a bold new event, dragging unsuspecting staff out climbing or planning adventurous trips to the greater ranges each year.
Under his leadership, the BMC embarked on a period of strong growth in membership and reform, developing relationships with the outdoor industry and other organisations and government. He also oversaw the launch of the BMC’s Summit magazine in 1996.
In 1996, he was instrumental in setting up the Mountain Training Trust to run Plas y Brenin on behalf of mountaineering, as an alternative option for Sport England compared to contracting out to a leisure-centre management company. Without Roger and George Band acting for the BMC it wouldn't have got off the ground, and today Plas y Brenin would be a very different place.
Roger left the BMC in December 2001 and the following year became the first sports and development director for the UIAA. In this capacity, he was part of a movement to strengthen mountaineering’s links with the Olympic movement and United Nations agencies as well as the World Conservation Union. If climbing does eventually become part of the Olympics, then Roger will deserve some of the credit.
In 2002, he was part of a filmmaking project with UNEP and UIAA that looked at glacial meltwater flooding in the Everest region. That same year he organised a conference in Switzerland on mountain protection and the fate of Siachen Glacier in Pakistan.
There were few areas of the mountaineering world Roger didn’t influence – and for the better. Yet the overriding impression he leaves is of an unwavering and infectious enthusiasm for the mountain life.
His enthusiastic approach is best summed up before one of his – many – climbing trips to Pakistan. He worked in the BMC office until the very last minute – probably on one of his bombastic reports that he loved creating so much – before ordering a taxi to the airport in his distinctive booming voice. On reaching the airport and checking his many, many bags in, he found the flight was delayed. But there was no question of relaxing in the departure lounge. He got a taxi straight back to the BMC to knock out a few more memos and talk to staff – and then nearly missed his plane.
Wherever you were in the world – in an alpine hut, a film festival in the States or a committee meeting in Manchester, you were pleased to see him. He will be sorely missed.