Book: Shipton and Tilman, by Jim Perrin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 5:20pm


Shipton and Tilman: The Great Decade of Himalayan Exploration

by Jim Perrin


In Victorian times, the ascent, like so many other things, was formalised. New techniques and equipment appeared - the belay, the ice-axe. The romantic alpinists who climbed mountains gave way to larger expeditions; the British using their global status to overpower assorted peaks in Asia, Africa and South America. A group of sportsmen would lay siege to a mountain with the help of hundreds of local porters, and when the summit had been stabbed by a Union flag, eat quails' eggs and pop champagne.

The supplies taken on the victorious Everest ascent of 1953 "included mortars and bombs so that a feu de joie could be fired off when conquest was assured".

For climber and travel writer Jim Perrin, the ideal approach was the lightweight, heroic, low-impact strategy of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, the great climbing duo of the interwar years, and "the entire insouciant, happy-go-lucky, minimal and self-reliant style of their mountain vagabondage".

The pair met while growing coffee in Kenya Colony, Shipton having learned the ropes at a young age in the Alps. Their friendship was not close, or at least was not articulated, but together they became a legend, inspiring contemporaries with reports and photographs of mysterious passes and peaks in the Himalayas and the Karakorams.

Shipton and Tilman serves up great chunks of letter and diary like pemmican. When Tilman reached the top of Nanda Devi in 1936 with Noel Odell, it would be more than a decade before anyone else climbed higher.

Perrin's strength is his knowledge of climbing, which gives him an insight into the psychology and practice of mountain exploration.

Shipton and Tilman focuses on the 1930s. Later, Shipton married, had children, became a diplomat or spy in Kashgar, in China, and was ousted as leader of the 1953 ascent of Mount Everest in a committee coup.

Tilman fought behind enemy lines in Albania and the Dolomites, and, in old age, sailed pilot cutters in cold, remote seas. They died within months of each other in 1977, one from cancer, the other in the waters of the Antarctic.

Perrin likes Shipton's approach to climbing and leadership, but his real admiration is for Tilman: a silent man who avoided intimate contact, he reached the furthest limits of human endurance in war, on the mountains and at sea.

Guardian News & Media