American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Don Whillans Portrait of a Mountaineer

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  • Publication Year: 1972

DON WHILLANS Portrait of a Mountaineer, by Don Whillans and Alick Ormerod. London: William Heinemann Ltd. 266 pages, illustrated. £2.50

In an age when fine mountaineers are commonplace and excellent ones are everywhere, Don Whillans stands out as one of the best half-dozen mountaineers of his generation. This fact alone would make his story of absorbing interest. But in addition, Don Whillans and Joe Brown were more than climbers of genius who brought a new standard of climbing into being; they were the original hard men surrounded by an aura of legends that made them into folk heros.

In this portrait, Whillans’ achievements on the mountain come through well but Whillans himself remains obscured. To this reviewer, it is Whillans the man that holds the greatest interest. In the early chapters something of the character of Whillans and the Rock and Ice comes through, but, as the narrative unfolds, one is left wondering how Whillans really reacted to various situations and people. Just why did he and Brown split up? Why did he almost totally abandon climbing in Britain? And what of the legendary motorcycle rides, Rock and Ice parties, the punch ups, the first ascent of Surplomb, a ferocious climb — “in nailed boots in a snowstorm”? If only this had been brought out instead of the overdone descriptions of placing protection and hand jams on such and such a climb.

Alick Ormerod has provided an outsider’s view to the story by way of a number of unobtrusive passages that help place Whillans’ climbs in a wider perspective. This has worked well. The photographs, by contrast, are perhaps the poorest yet to appear in a major mountain autobiography and do little for Whillans or his story. Surely a better set could have been obtained? Coupled with the fact that the south face of Annapurna climb — one of Don’s finest climbs — is glossed over and has annoying factual errors, one gets the impression that the book was too hastily assembled.

Nonetheless it is an absorbing story and one that can be recommended. Better an imperfect book by Whillans than a perfect one by lesser men.


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