We don’t need another hero?
As we look ahead to the centenary of the end of the Great War, in November, we should pause to celebrate one of its most extraordinary survivors, a man who was probably the greatest explorer of the 20th century
On St Valentine’s Day, this year, an anniversary passed, unremarked by the wider world, but one to which many yachtsmen and mountaineers, across the world, tipped their hats. On that day, had he lived so long, H W ‘Bill’ Tilman would have been 120 years old.
Had he lived! Well, given the nature of the man, his extraordinary toughness, combined with a hard-edged frugality, he might well have reached the ton at least. And, though laconic to the point of muteness, he might for once have been muttering at length, at all the fuss being made by friends and family.
But Bill Tilman died at sea, drowned somewhere off the coast of South America forty years ago this autumn, on his way, in his eightieth year, to Smith Island in the Antarctic. His last mission – and he knew it would be his last, whatever the outcome – was to help others climb a mountain he had, unusually, failed to reach in 1966. He had gone reluctantly but he had promised the inexperienced young skipper, Simon Richardson that he would, and Bill never broke a promise; whatever the cost.
Tilman is in the top rank of explorers of the twentieth century – an era he had increasing contempt for. Arguably – and I would strongly argue it – he was one of the greatest British explorers ever, on a par certainly with Shackleton and, probably, Davis; ‘polar’ explorers both. In an age which deals hyperbole as casually as a card game I do not stake my claim on his behalf lightly. Mindful, too, of his lifelong pursuit of personal obscurity, writing these words gives an uncomfortable sense of his legendary contemptuous snort for any pretension on his or anyone else’s behalf.
His truly great explorations were made on land in the 1930s in the Karakoram when he combined quite extraordinary feats of surveying with legendary treks and bagged Himalayan peaks with the casualness of Sunday walkers in the Lakes. The rediscovery of Snow Lake – the ‘polar’ region of the Himalaya – and his subsequent work with Eric Shipton and others in mapping a vast territory using only their navigating skills, and as few native porters as possible, have ensured him a permanent memorial among both geographers and mountaineers. Tilman is a Royal Geographical Society Gold Medallist as well as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation.
The Shipton and Tilman climbing partnership – a meeting of opposites if ever there was one – is typified in the famous exchange, told by both, in which Shipton asked Bill, after years of close collaboration, why he persisted in still calling him Shipton. Reluctantly Bill finally muttered ‘Because Eric is such a damn silly name.’ The two pioneered – forty years ahead of time – the commonplace of contemporary high altitude climbing that you go very light indeed and take only photographs, leave only footprints.
Given his need for endless challenge it might seem strange that it was only relatively late in life that he came to the sea and sailing. He had dabbled a little in dinghy sailing during and just after the Second World War but the turning point had been his realisation that he could no longer keep to his own austere standard in Himalayan climbing. As he put it ‘The best attainable should be good enough for any man, but the mountaineer who finds his best gradually sinking is not satisfied.’ He quotes Beowulf who said ‘Harder should be the spirit, the heart all the bolder, courage the greater, as the strength grows less.’ And his final comment on his climbing career was ‘If a man feels he is failing to achieve this stern standard he should perhaps withdraw from a field of such high endeavour as the Himalaya.’ This was the man who had led the 1938 expedition to climb Everest from the Tibetan side and had, despite a lifelong affliction to altitude sickness, had got to within 1600 feet of the summit. Stern standards hardly come sterner.
Tilman became the man he was through his experiences in the First World War, into which he was plunged before his eighteenth birthday as an artillery officer. He won the Military Cross twice, was seriously injured but, most significantly, survived two and a half years of front-line action at a time when the average life expectancy of officers was measured in weeks and months. In many respects, the rest of his life was an expiation of the guilt of that survival. It explains why an outgoing youth, who loved dancing and had an easy way with girls of his age, turned for fourteen years into a recluse in Africa, between 1919 to 1932, and then turned toward the remote places on earth to continue a search for peace and tranquillity. It explains, too, why Bill had little time for complainers and none for those who, in his terms, failed to hack it, whatever the circumstance. His was a tough school, the toughest imaginable. Bill had to be a survivor, had to stay tight shut to our increasingly psychologically soft age because, had he not, he would have fallen apart. The film Regeneration, based on Pat Barker’s book, explains better than I can, what happened to men constantly under shellfire. Tilman, who was an exceptionally good writer, might well have been a poet or a novellist, had the war not intervened. It is of the greatest significance that he never wrote about the First War although he wrote a lot about the Second, in which he also played an important and heroic part. It is also of some significance that, on his last voyage, when asked by fellow young crew what they should call him, replied ‘Tilly’, the name his men in the trenches nicknamed him.
That he was also an exceptionally funny, witty man, a good and kind uncle to his nieces and their children, and a devoted brother to his sister, can easily be overlooked as those who remember him now are increasingly the people he sailed with late on, by which time he was decidedly cranky, in part a product of arthritis and deafness. Many of his last crews were products of the sixties, looking for adventure alright but bringing with them a set of youthful values Bill simply could not fathom. Not that he tried all that hard. One of the most astonishing things about Bill was his almost total lack of interest in who he picked to go sailing with.
He was indifferent, as you might expect, to any consideration of psychology. He also believed absolutely what people told him. One of his crew wrote to say he had crossed the Atlantic hundreds of times; Bill told him to hie him hither. He subsequently found out the man had been a bass player in a passenger liner dance band. As it turned out this man was a success. Other individuals, as one might expect, were disasters. The last voyages, by and large, were all desperate affairs; but, by then, Bill simply could not get off the merry-go-round he had so insouciantly started.
It all started out very differently when Bill fell in love. He was by then 55 and, apparently, a confirmed bachelor. Then he met the mature ‘woman’ who undoubtedly became the love of his life. She was called Mischief and she was a clapped out Bristol pilot cutter, laid up in Mallorca. The love grew slowly because his most urgent need at the time was transport. Just after the second world war Bill had wanted to make a crossing of the Patagonian Ice Cap, one of those then still very remote mysterious romantic places that always appealed to him. In the book he wrote after this voyage (Mischief in Patagonia) he gleefully relates the legend that the natives’ heads steam if they eat marmalade. Best of all, though, he pointed to the word inesplorado on the local charts. Having been thwarted in 1946 through currency regulations and post-war transport difficulties, now, footloose in the 1950s, he was determined to sail there. Mischief was to be the instrument.
What began as a platonic friendship grew into passion. If the casual reader believes I exaggerate in this comparison, I would point only to the eulogy Bill wrote, and had privately printed, when Mischief sank off Jan Mayen island in 1968: ‘it was much more than the loss of a yacht…a friend [with whom I] had broken faith’. Elsewhere he wrote ‘I shall never forget her.’
In 1954, when he took possession of Mischief, Bill’s sailing experience was very limited. He had to get help to get her back to England and the voyage threw up many of the problems Bill subsequently had with his crew. It was on this first foray onto the ocean that Bill vowed never to have a woman on board again for any length of time, as the only female member of this crew (the former owner’s wife) and ‘Grace Darling’ to Bill, did not endear herself to him at all. ‘On the passage [to Gibraltar], the relations between Grace Darling and myself had been strained although I had been self-effacing, as an owner should be and silent as usual. Perhaps one of the few remarks I had ventured had not been well chosen. We took it in turns to cook and the day after Grace Darling’s turn, when one of the crew who knew how to cook was officiating, I thanked God aloud for having on board one whose presence ensured our having good meals on at least one day in five.’
Bill had limited experience of women but could be the epitome of charm. Curiously perhaps, for a man whose attitudes were Edwardian, Bill could never abide ‘girly’ women. His favourite niece, Pam, who looked after him after his sister died, was a champion glider pilot, a fact Bill never tired of telling people. Pam, famously, once threw a gravy spoon at Bill’s head when he complained at the slow start to supper back at home, in North Wales.
His experiences in finally getting Mischief back to England through a succession of equinoctial gales, convinced him he was not ready to make a long passage south that year and the first great voyage Mischief made with Tilman came in 1955. He was lucky with his crew – all old pals – including the effective skipper this time out, Bill Proctor. Two Royal Artillery officers came, along with a Dutchman whom Bill was delighted to find was called van Tromp.
They left from Lymington which was to be Bill’s home port for 20 years. ‘The engine did not start immediately, ‘said Bill later, ‘but it did as soon as we had turned on the petrol.’ After some fun and games in Falmouth harbour they sailed south, learning ocean navigation on the way. One tradition Bill began at once: they carried no form of radio, an attitude more than anything related to Bill’s lifelong belief that in exploration only you and your team should expect be involved. It was to lead to controversy on more than one occasion and, given today’s obsession with instant communications everywhere, and under any circumstance, it looks like a conceit. It wasn’t; it was just the way of the man.
The Patagonian voyage was entirely successful; the climbing team, including Bill, successfully traversed the ice cap. In that they were helped by a young Chilean climber called Jorge Quinteros who Bill had taken on because he kept bees – ‘like Hillary… and this seemed good enough.’ There were suitably hair-raising moments as well as ones of high farce. Perhaps the best of the latter was their departure from Punta Arenas.
‘By then a large crowd of friends, admirers, and no doubt some critics, had assembled to see us start…we hoisted the jib so that her head would sheer away from the jetty, and cast off the remaining warps. For some as yet unexplained reason the jib promptly fell into the sea and the next minute saw us stuck hard and fast by the stern less than a ship’s length away from the waving crowd.’ At about that moment a picket boat from a Chilean cruiser approached, a sailor standing to attention in the bow. ‘Either by seamanlike intuition or at the instance of the loud instructions from the crowd, her helmsman grasped the idea that we wanted pulling off. Perhaps he thought we wanted shoving off, for putting her helm hard over, with little diminution of speed, he rammed us fair and square, projecting the still rigid, well-disciplined bowman half-way up our shrouds. It was a Saturday afternoon and one could almost hear the happy sigh of the crowd as they realised how wise they had been to spend it on the jetty.’
After the ice cap they sailed north up the Chilean coastline, on through the Panama Canal, reaching Lymington on July 9th, 1956, a year and a day from setting out. ‘I will not pretend that at all times throughout this 20,000 mile voyage we were a band of brothers. But we were old enough or sensible enough to bear and forbear, and to put the ship and the enterprise in hand before our own feelings,’ Bill wrote. It stands as his manifesto: to sailing and to crew.
He achieved this happy state a few times on other voyages, but this first epic expedition, for which he won the Royal Cruising Club Goldsmith Award for deep water voyaging, remains an unalloyed triumph in all senses. Bill went to the far south again: in 1957/58 circumnavigating Africa; in 1959/60 getting to the Crozets in the Southern Ocean. He then turned north, to Greenland in four consecutive voyages. His choice of Greenland was severely practical – it was so much closer and crews would be willing to sail for a summer rather more than they would for a whole year or more.
In fact, Bill sailed to the far south two more times, once with a group of Australians to Heard Island, once on his own account to Smith Island, on a voyage which saw one crew member lost overboard and an increasingly desperate situation with his remaining crew. That was in 1966. From then on Bill only voyaged north.
The loss of Mischief off Jan Mayen island affected Bill badly. Rationally, at 70, he should have drawn a line under his sailing career at this point. He found he couldn’t, so he came home and bought another Bristol pilot cutter, Sea Breeze, which he sailed to Greenland four more times before she hit a rock in Sermilik Fjord in 1972 and sank. The following year he bought his third cutter, Baroque (still afloat). With her he made his last trips north. In 1977, quite badly ill, and with a crew who genuinely believed he was incapable of making rational decisions, Baroque finally arrived in Reykavik. There Bill was forced to give up and fly home. Baroque was eventually sailed to Lymington the following year and laid up.
It was a sad end to an extraordinary sailing career which had, in the end, gone on far too long. Bill blamed his crew quoting Conrad: ‘Ships are all right, it’s the men in them’. It was too harsh a judgement and, having wrote this, his last published words pull back from the brink of unkindness by quoting a poem by Humber Wolfe which ends:
where the ships of youth are running
close-hauled on the edge of the wind,
with all adventure before them
and only the old behind
This was not quite the end to a career of exploration in mountains and across oceans, spanning nearly fifty years. In 1977 Bill was asked to go on a voyage to Smith Island with a young and largely inexperienced crew, whose skipper had been inspired by sailing with Bill some years before. The vessel chosen was a tug-to-yacht conversion, En Avant. He felt obliged to say yes, in the end, although we can only speculate that he knew, one way or the other, that he would not be coming back.
En Avant left Rio on November 1st. Bill had written home to a friend before they left: ‘The gear is too heavy for me and I find it difficult getting about the wide deck with nothing to hang on to. Still it would have been a mistake to refuse Simon’s pressing invitation.’
Bill Tilman was a stoic; he expected the same from others. No doubt death, when it came would be seen by him as a door opening on a new adventure, not closing on one. He was a romantic, witty, clever man who might have lived a very different life had it not been for the carnage of Flanders. Pam Davis, his niece, said he was the embodiment of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If…’ In other mouths that would be a cliché but she was a Tilman through and through and, from her, it stands out, like a pennant in a stiff ocean breeze, hard and true.
The Last Hero, a biography of Bill Tilman, written by me, is newly re-published by Endeavour Books as an ebook, and is available on Kindle and other ebook formats right now.