By David A. Glen
…a rich evocation of a truly exceptional man, exotic places afar, and a unique period in mountain exploration that will never be forgotten.
…a rich evocation of a truly exceptional man, exotic places afar, and a unique period in mountain exploration that will never be forgotten.
This book has been many years in the making—more perhaps than a book of its kind should take—and a good number of people have patiently awaited its arrival, anxious to learn more about the truly remarkable and astonishing life of one of history’s most overlooked and enigmatic explorers—Bill Tilman. To those folk, I thank you for your forbearance.
Telling the story of another person’s life comes with a formidable responsibility, as does the recording of all true events. The documentarian is by definition setting down evidence for those who come after us, and in doing so, must connect with the heart of the subject on both an intellectual and an emotional level. This is, after all, the recording of a man’s life, and if I as author rush to judgement, or am slipshod with facts, I not only besmirch that man’s life but violate the trust of future generations to come. The historical record would be flawed.
In the case of the shy, self-effacing, and somewhat taciturn Bill Tilman, this was no easy task. True, his own books provide exemplary reading as travel narratives—among the best—but in my estimation they fall short in revealing the essence of the man to all but those who knew him well. It was not in his nature to be sentimental nor to wax lyrical in his writings.
I had resolved early on to make a documentary film about Tilman, and deemed it important to visit at least some of the far-flung corners of the world to which he had ventured, partly for my own curiosity and gratification, but largely to experience the same allure he had felt for the unexplored. My journeys into Asia, particularly the Himalayas, and to Chilean Patagonia, were to provide great rewards in this regard. Yet the more I discovered about Tilman, the more I realized that two hours of film could not do justice to his prolific experiences, nor adequately reveal his true character. Hence the need to write this book.
In the process, however, I had also been involved in documenting the horrible issue of child trafficking, beginning with the enslavement of young girls as prostitutes in Nepal and India. This inevitably led to forays into what then were countries at the epicenter of child sexual exploitation, most notably Thailand and Cambodia. I was shaken by what I unearthed. The magnitude of the problem seemed almost unreal, and I soon learned that it extended throughout many regions of the world. What astounded me further was to realize that this sordid business is today thriving in our own backyard.
I discovered that very few people in the First World know or understand how serious this problem has become, or that it is today a pandemic of unimaginable proportions. As I write this, the trafficking and sexual exploitation of children is now the third largest source of income for serious organized crime in the world, next only to illicit weapons and drugs.
Most of us live relatively sedate lives oblivious to the shocking suffering of children traded as mere commodities in a sordid supply-and-demand chain such as the world has never seen. Their value to organized crime lies in the fact that, unlike the perpetual need for new sources of weapons and drugs, human beings (in this case children) are the commodities that keep earning income, day-in and day-out.
Once a person with any conscience has witnessed this terrible traffic, it is impossible to turn away. Yet, given the enormity of the issue, I could not fathom how I could be effective in any way. But I was determined to do something. In 1998, I started a small organization to raise awareness about the problem of child exploitation, and soon realized that what was needed was that all-empowering thing called knowledge, especially among doctors and child welfare personnel who attended to the needs of exploited children with serious, life-threatening diseases.
Realizing the importance of accurate “boots-on-the-ground” data gathering, we harnessed the power of the Internet by designing and setting up a centralized, highly-secure, online system whereby children’s individual records could be created by their care-givers abroad, and through which new developments in vital drugs and treatments could be disseminated between knowledgeable physicians in the First World with attending doctors in more challenging Third World environments. We called that system “Progeny”, and it is alive and well today under the auspices of The Endangered Child Initiative as a vital tool in the fight against the exploitation of children. It has furthermore enabled us to garner empirical data to such an extent that we are now able to effectively help lost children not only survive but have a chance of some kind of normalcy in their lives through placement in foster care or adoption.
Defining destinies for homeless and endangered children is now my life. It is all-encompassing and of course emotionally demanding. Yet I relish every new day because with each one that goes by I know that we are making a difference in just one child’s life, albeit in the sad knowledge that so many are still out there suffering. Furthermore, by a unique arrangement, we are now able to apply the net profits from book sales to Progeny.
As with many things in life, our actions can cause some level of collateral damage. In the writing of this book, I was inevitably and unavoidably distracted by my work with Progeny—for us, kids come first. But I thank all those who have waited so patiently and believed in the book. Now, in this fascinating concept of the “never-ending story” developed by Creative Storytellers, the legacy of Bill Tilman will at first be introduced, and then enhanced as time goes by. For like all true legacies, his is indeed a never-ending story.
It was not my original intention to write another biography of Bill Tilman given the one so painstakingly written by J.L. Anderson, and the singular fact that Tilman’s own books—fifteen in all—are a consummate record of his adventures and exploits. His unique literary style, described by his friend and author Jim Perrin as “…his blend of reflection, wit and wise sufficiency…”, has provided some of the finest travel narratives available.
The writing of this book has more than anything been for my own edification…in writing there is learning. But I also think of it as the retouching of an old photo that is fading with age. It is an attempt to not only further illuminate the extraordinary life of a shy yet resolute warrior and wanderer in the person of Bill Tilman but to also preserve for myself and those who read these pages my own experiences growing up in Kenya, my travels later to places afar, and to elucidate the richness and vibrancy of an extraordinary era in exploration that grows dim as time marches on.
My fascination with Bill Tilman started at an early age. I was born in what was then the British Colony and Protectorate of Kenya just a few months before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stepped onto the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953. I’ve always been fascinated by mountains, and as a boy was proud of the fact that we lived not far from Kilimanjaro—the highest mountain in Africa. My father and I lived for some years in Karen, a suburb of Nairobi named after the eccentric yet doughty Karen Blixen of “Out of Africa” fame. We would often drive to the top of the nearby Ngong Hills from where, if you were lucky, you could see Kilimanjaro’s snowy dome hovering in the distance on the hot, quivering air like some bizarre mirage.
Kilimanjaro is an immense volcanic monolith standing 19,335 feet tall near the southern end of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. In his early years of living in East Africa, Tilman had made several assents of this majestic mountain—the highest in the continent. The name in Swahili means “Shining Mountain” referring to its gleaming, snowy summit. I can well understand the skepticism and even derision of those venerable committee members at the Royal Geographical Society in London when years ago missionaries and explorers had reported “snow on the equator”. As kids we were told that Queen Victoria had given the mountain to the German Kaiser Wilhelm as a birthday present, an apocryphal tale designed no doubt to amuse children.
When home from boarding school for the holidays, I would travel with my father on business trips which took him to many parts of East Africa. He and I were always close, but we grew closer still after my mother’s long illness and subsequent death shortly after my thirteenth birthday. I loved these trips. He would let me lean over and steer the car as we careened up hill and down dale through the sun-drenched East African highlands. We would sing old Tommy Edwards and Nat King Cole songs at the top of our voices, and laugh uproariously at the most cornball of jokes.
These delightful excursions would sometimes take us around Mt. Kenya, another snow-capped volcanic giant of over 17,000 feet. It was on this mountain that Tilman was introduced to serious climbing by Eric Shipton with whom he was to forge an extraordinary climbing legacy. We would often stop at the Silver Beck, an inn with a metal strip nailed onto the bar top and floor to delineate the exact location of the equator. While my father sipped a cold beer, I would hop from one foot to the other on either side of the strip, effectively hopping from the northern hemisphere to the southern. Kids are amused by the most trivial of things! As we drove along through the upland beauty of Mt. Kenya’s slopes, I was mesmerized by its great, jagged peaks and icy gullies, and dreamed of one day standing on its summit.
Those early days in Kenya offered the stuff of any boy’s dreams. I attended a small, private boarding school in the western part of the country not far from where my sister and her husband lived, spending a good deal of my summer holidays on their farm, driving trucks and tractors, and meandering through fields and forests. Days were mostly sunny and warm, and the tropical nights cool due to the high elevation at which we lived. I would venture out on long treks through the sultry bush, hat a-tilt, a shotgun under my arm in case I chanced upon a flock of guinea fowl. The rains would come as seasonal deluges generating glorious mud—an irritation to anyone but a small boy.
When the sun had set on the African bush, we gathered at the table for dinner served by our loyal pishi or cook. After the meal, it was our nightly tradition to sit and listen to the BBC news broadcast from London on an old, crackling radio. I would then retire to bed just before the old thumping diesel-electric generator was turned off. I would read late into the night, a small kerosene lamp flickering on the nightstand beside my bed. I loved stories of exploration, and would become so completely absorbed with climbers, navigators and adventurers that even the numerous moths and beetles attracted to the lamp from the open window—some destined for Valhalla on its piping-hot lid—couldn’t break the spell. When the lamp burned out, printed words had melded with dreams, and sleep would find me in frozen wastes or on stormy seas with Scott, Byrd, Peary, or Shackleton; in steaming jungles with Burton or Livingstone; or in the roasting deserts of Arabia with Thesiger.
However, it was the redoubtable Bill Tilman who intrigued me most who, with his frequent companion Eric Shipton, had grappled up ravines and ridges on the snowy heights of our very own Mt. Kenya and Kilimanjaro, had trudged relentlessly over wind-blown glaciers in the high Himalaya, and across the vast reaches of inner Asia. Our bond made perfect sense since he too had been a settler in Kenya in the early days, had lent his hand (albeit unsuccessfully) to farming, and had learned to climb there.
Like all boys I needed heroes, and it’s no wonder that I gravitated towards a person like Tilman who was out there doing the very things of which I could only dream. He was to me the epitome of the warrior and wanderer: a rugged, tough, mustached loner who seemed to care less for the humdrum of ordinary life than for exploring the unknown.
Was Tilman really an heroic figure? One dictionary defines a hero as, “A person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. There is little doubt that Bill Tilman was imbued with such qualities although he would undoubtedly have abashed at being described as a hero. Yet his courage under fire during the course of two world wars, for which he was highly decorated, was without question; his achievements in exploration were quite staggering for their prolificacy and fortitude; and his qualities as a person were manifested in modesty, decency and integrity
Tom Hornbein, whose significant achievements in mountaineering include the first complete traverse of Mount Everest, once pondered:
“What’s the hero’s place in our lives? The wisdom and experience from the world around us, most notably from other human beings, nurture part of our own capacity for growth and change. Admiration for others—who they are, what they contribute, how they extend our horizons—fertilizes our own growth from where we are to what we might become. Friends, mentors, loved ones, even strangers, all help mold our clay. These role models influence who we become in powerful ways.
Where do heroes fit in? In a way they are the stuff of dreams. For me they occupy a special summit a bit less accessible, a mountain peak that in my mind’s eye has grand walls of rock and brilliant ice, clouds veiling an elusive, lonely summit. It is not a mountain I can climb, and never will, but one I nonetheless dream I might.”
From Tilman’s example I learned that the heroic in man is something we can all achieve in some small measure within ourselves. His example nurtured my own curiosity for remote and far-off places, and my own capacity for growth and change, reminding me that to have true vitality—to honor the gift of life—we must dream, and have a scheme for life that includes an unquenchable curiosity, and a dogged determination to live life with all the gusto one can muster. Moreover, if we are to embrace life in all its magnificence, we must act. Good things do not always come to those who wait.
David A. Glen—Author
Pamela Davis (Tilman’s Niece)
Tilman’s younger of two nieces, Pam, was very fond of her intrepid Uncle Bill. When Tilman’s sister, Adeline, died suddenly, Pam stepped into her mother’s shoes to take care of Tilman at their home in Barmouth called “Bod Owen”. She wrote fondly of his quirks and eccentricities, and the man behind the enigma:
“People have called Bill an eccentric. If the old fashioned virtues of fearing God, honoring your king and serving your country are now considered eccentric, then he was. I do not think so. He had an enormous influence on my life and on many others. He had humility, modesty, and great humor that showed mostly in the endless self-mockery of his own writings. Examples of his quiet courage in the face of adversity are legion.”
Charles Houston was just a young Harvard medical student when he first met Bill Tilman. He and three other climbers had been instrumental in organizing a Himalayan expedition to Nanda Devi—at that time the highest mountain in the British Empir—-in 1936. Nanda Devi had not been the students’ first choice; they had originally wanted to climb Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. But Tilman persuaded them to try Nanda Devi which he and Shipton had attempted two years earlier. The expedition was a great success, and Houston and Tilman were to meet again in 1950 on the first Everest reconnaisance expedition in Nepal. The two men became life-long friends and corresponded periodically over the years until Tilman’s disappearance in the southern oceans in 1977.
Charles Houston was himself to become renown for his climbing exploits, especially his attempts to climb K2 recorded in his book “K2 – The Savage Mountain”. He also was to research and write the first definitive book about the effects of altitude on humans entitled “Going Higher”. Charles Houston, now in his 90s, lives in Vermont, USA.
This transcript is from an on-camera interview with Charles Houston in October, 2000 by David Glen about the Nanda Devi expedition and his friendship with Bill Tilman.
A Candid Conversation With Bob Comlay and Roger Robinson – Former Crew Members on “Sea Breeze” and “Mischief”
Included below is a downloadable PDF of an abridged version of a conversation I had with Bob Comlay and Roger Robinson who, while in their late teens, had both sailed with Tilman. We met at the Lymington Town Sailing Club of which Tilman had been a long-standing member, and from where he set sail on many of his voyages to higher climes.
Bob Comlay (seen here at age 19) had made two voyages to Greenland in 1970 and 1971 in the pilot cutter “Sea Breeze”, and his memories of those experiences with Tilman are still vivid today helped in no small part by a collection of remarkably good photographs. Bob pursued a successful career with IBM, though by the time I met him he expressed a certain regret at not having continued with a life of adventure abroad. Certainly, he was one of the few crew members for whom Tilman had enough respect to invite him back for subsequent voyages. But the obligations and pressures of going to university at that time in his life took priority, and soon thereafter the constraints of work and family caught up as they do for most of us. Yet, at that first meeting, I detected in Bob a quiet resolve to make up for lost time and chalk up some new adventures as time moves on. Since then, Bob and I have become good friends, and correspond fairly frequently.
Download the PDF of the author’s conversation with Bob Comlay and Roger Robinson about their experiences with Bill Tilman.
Roger Robinson (also seen here at age 19) had sailed in 1966 aboard “Mischief”, the first of three Bristol Channel pilot cutters Tilman was to own over the years. Roger was to later own a pilot cutter of his own named “Olga”, which he sold to Swansea Maritime Museum after seven years of restoration work.
Now a good friend, Roger is also a Devonshire architect of some repute. He has always had a strong passion for ocean sailing, and at the time of writing is deeply embroiled in reseaching a book about the celebrated sailing partnership of Eric and Susan Hiscock. Roger’s extensive knowledge of sailing and boats have proved immensely helpful to me in the production of this book.
Download the PDF of the author’s conversation with Bob Comlay and Roger Robinson about their experiences with Bill Tilman.
Peter Lloyd, a renown climber in his own right, had spent much time with Tilman on Nanda Devi and in the Nepal Himalaya. Lloyd said of Tilman:
“As a companion, Bill was taciturn, but never, save when ill, grumpy. In spite of the eventful life he had led, he seldom talked of past achievements or experiences. But he was neither silent, nor inarticulate, and had a splendid sardonic humour and a capacity for puncturing an overstated argument with devastating common sense. Nor was he a solitary person; he was always ready to pass the time with a game of chess or piquet…
As a climber he was competent rather than spectacular, and the qualities I associate with him are determination, endurance and dependability. But above all he had the feeling that in the mountains he was at home, that while others were visitors he belonged there, knowing how to adjust, how to live in comfort in a hard environment. His most remarkable quality, without doubt, was his natural authority…”
Colin Putt, who had sailed with Tilman to the Antarctic, wrote:
“Tilman held strong, and nowadays unconventional views about getting into trouble at sea, being rescued, and the responsibilities involved. Nobody has any right to expect to be rescued if he gets into trouble, and trouble becomes mentionable only after you have fought your way out of it. He went to sea with an appreciation and an acceptance of the risks involved, and expected his crews to do the same…I consider Bill Tilman to be the most highly intelligent man IÕve ever known. The true depth and breadth of his understanding of things like navigation were astounding, but of course he never made any show of this…In making a decision, on a matter of navigation, or a matter of life and death, he would take all the time available to consider the facts and reach his conclusion. Again and again he would come up with the best possible decision at the last possible moment, clearly and concisely announced…”
Tilman’s Achievements in Climbing & Sailing
- 1898 Born Feb. 14 in Wallasey, Cheshire, England.
- 1909 Attended Berkhamstead School.
- 1915 Attended the Royal Miltary Academy, Woolwich. Commissioned July 28 into the Royal Field Artillery
- 1916 Began active service on Western front. Was at the Battle of the Sommes. Wounded, then went back to front.
- 1917 Wounded January. Awarded the Military Cross and evacuated to hospital in England. Returned to front in May. Awarded bar to MC and promoted to Lieutenant. Transferred to Royal Horse Artillery.
- 1918 Took part in German spring offensive and Allied advance into Germany
- 1919 Resigned commission after the War, and went to live in Kenya.
- 1926 Bought more land in Kenya in partnership with his father.
- 1930 Started climbing in East Africa with Eric Shipton climbing Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya
- 1932 Holiday in Lake District, England. Serious accident and badly injured back. Went solo to Alps after being told he would never climb again, and climbed numerous peaks.
- 1933 Went back to Kenya, prospecting for gold. Climbed Kilimanjaro alone. In a final feat, he crossed Africa by bicycle from Uganda to West Coast and then returned to England.
- 1934 First visit to the Himalaya with Eric Shipton to Nanda Devi.
- 1935 First trip to Mt. Everest on that year’s reconnaissance expedition.
- 1936 Made the first ascent of Nanda Devi with Noel Odell.
- 1937 Explored Karakoram region of the Himalaya with Eric Shipton
- 1938 Lead the British expedition to Mt. Everest. Later crossed Zemu Gap in Sikkim.
- 1939 Attempted Gori Chen in Assam. Fell seriously ill with Malaria.
- 1940 Back in the army, fought in France. Evacuated from Dunkirk.
- 1941 Briefly with army in India and Iraq.
- 1942 With 8th Army in desert, with Montgomery.
- 1943 Volunteered for parachute training and special service. Parachuted into Albania as British liaison officer with partisans.
- 1944-45 Served with Italian partisans in Italy. Awarded DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and Freedom of the City of Belluno. Retired from the army.
- 1946 Broke arm in climbing accident in Scotland. Short trip to the Swiss Alps.
- 1947 With Swiss expedition to Rakaposhi. Then with Shipton in Kashgar. Attempted Mustagh Ata. Arrested in Afghanistan but was later released. Returned to live with sister Adeline at Bodowen, in Barmouth, North Wales.
- 1948 Central Asian journey from China to Chitral. Attempted Bogdo Ola. Chakir Aghil.
- 1950 Expedition to Annapurna IV. Was one of the first westerners to travel the Nepal route to Everest with Oscar Houston, Charles Houston and Betsy Cowles.
- 1952 Appointed British Consul at Maymyo, Burma.
- 1953 Returned home to Barmouth in Wales.
- 1953 Started sailing in Barmouth estuary and learned rudiments of sailing.
- 1954 Bought his first Pilot Cutter “Mischief” at Palma, Mallorca. Awarded honorary Lld. by University of St. Andrews.
- 1955-56 Sailed “Mischief” to Chilean Patagonia via South America. Crossed Patagonian ice cap. Returned to England via Panama thereby completing an entire circumnavigation of South America.
- 1957-58 Circumnavigated Africa in “Mischief”.
- 1959-60 Sailed “Mischief” to Crozet Islands and Kerguelen Island in the Antarctic.
- 1961 Sailed “Mischief” to West Greenland.
- 1962 Sailed to West Greenland and east coast of Arctic in Canada in “Mischief”.
- 1963 Went to Baffin Bay in “Mischief”, crossed Bylot Island on foot.
- 1964 Sailed to East Greenland “Mischief”.
- 1964-65 Navigated schooner Patanela to Heard island for Warwick Deacock. Later in ‘65, again sailed “Mischief” to East Greenland.
- 1966-67 Sailed “Mischief” to South Shetlands, and South Georgia in the Antarctic.
- 1968 Foundered off Jan Mayen Island near Greenland, losing “Mischief”. Went home and bought his second Pilot Cutter “Sea Breeze”.
- 1969 Sailed “Sea Breeze” to Iceland, and the East Greenland coast.
- 1970 Sailed “Sea Breeze” to West Greenland.
- 1971 Sea Breeze to East Greenland.
- 1972 Sailed to East Greenland, but was shipwrecked and lost “Sea Breeze”.
- 1973 Awarded CBE. Bought his third and last Pilot Cutter “Baroque” and sailed her to West Greenland.
- 1974 Circumnavigated Spitzbergen in “Baroque”.
- 1975 Sailed to West Greenland in “Baroque”.
- 1976 Sailed to East Greenland in “Baroque”. Ran aground causing damage. Left “Baroque” to spend the winter in Iceland and flew home to England.
- 1977 Returned to iceland and brought “Baroque” home. Sold her. Set sail at nearly 80 years old in steel-hulled tug “En Avant” with former crew member Simon Richardson and others to Smith Island. They reached Rio de Janeiro without incident. On Nov. 1, 1977, they left Rio for the Falkland Islands to pick up two new Zealand climbers. They disappeared and nothing has ever been heard of them since.
Bill Tilman was an extraordinary man. A highly decorated warrior of two world wars, he traveled tens of thousands of miles—often on foot—in some of the most remote regions of Asia, Africa and South America, and trod the summit slopes of over a hundred peaks. He and the celebrated mountaineer, Eric Shipton, pioneered large tracts of the Himalaya including key routes on Mt. Everest, scantily dressed in old wool sweaters, woolen britches, and hob-nailed boots. They did not approve of grandiose expeditions believing that an assault on a Himalayan giant could be organized on the back of an envelope. And they proved time and again that such frugal exploits could indeed be successful.
After twenty years of mountain exploration, Tilman bought the first of three wooden pilot cutters he was to own, and set about teaching himself to sail. He then voyaged nearly every year for more than a quarter century to the frigid waters of the Antarctic and Arctic in search of new mountains to climb and places blank on the map.
Tilman has been portrayed by some as an anachronistic, taciturn stoic, a misogynist, and a resolute taskmaster with little or no time for anyone who didn’t live up to his high standards and expectations. Some have even described him as a self-indulgent risk taker impervious to the safety or sensitivities of others.
This new look at his life by documentary photographer and writer David A. Glen, dispels most of those assumptions. There emerges from his portrayal a man whose basic shyness and reticence to boast of his astonishing achievements belied a great sense of honor in the way he conducted his life. Using an unusual approach to biographical storytelling, Glen tells of how, as a young man growing up in Kenya, his wanderings abroad with the enigmatic explorer–experienced vicariously from reading Tilman’s fifteen, masterfully-written travel narratives–were to later have a profound infuence on his own life of exploration in far flung corners of the Earth.
This is for Glen as much a personal odyssey as it is a rich evocation of a truly exceptional man, exotic places afar, and a unique period in mountain exploration that will never be forgotten.
Only 1,500 copies of this Collectors’ Limited-Edition book are being produced, and will be available June 1, 2012. An electronic version (eBook) will also be available. To reserve your signed and numbered copy, please use the ORDER NOW link in the column to the right.
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