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One Man's Mountains

One Man’s Mountains, by Tom Patey. London: Victor Gollancz, 1971.

287 pages, illustrated. £3.00.

When one experiences the rare delight of reading a climbing book as magnificent as Tom Patey’s One Man’s Mountains, all those other earnest and dreary climbing books that line the shelves of countless libraries are revealed as hollow. Here is a book by a master climber, written with a rare passion and an incisive eye for the human condition. When we follow Patey on a climb we are there with him. The ice and rock is tangible, the description convincing. He has captured the very essence of the climbing experience, the cold of the Scottish winter, the riotous nights in the pub, the sadness and the ecstasy; it is all here. Yet the book is more than this. Patey understood the quintessence of man. And what is mountaineering but another arena in which man acts out his existence? With a light and compassionate touch he brings his companions to life, many of them the legendary figures of contemporary British climbing. The portraits ring true. Here we have real flesh-and-blood people acting as people act. Not for Patey the typically flattering verbiage that says nothing, nor the biting remark that wounds.

The book is not an autobiography, though it does detail many of Patey’s more noteworthy climbs. It was compiled after his tragic death from articles that he had written over the years. The book is divided into four parts: Scotland, in which we meet a host of rough-and-ready characters at battle with vertical snow and ice; abroad, where Patey ranges from the incredible Mustagh Tower to the Alps by way of Norway; satire, in which the deadly serious climbing game is deflated and shown up as never before, and finally verse, where those great songs that were so much a part of Patey and British climbing are preserved for all time.

At the risk of losing the overall flavor of the piece, I cannot help but present a short capsule from one of my favorite chapters: “A Short Walk with Whillans.” In this we see the elusive Whillans as never before.

Whillans, the no-nonsense plumber, and Patey, the irreverent Scottish country doctor, are psyching themselves up preparatory to an attempt on the infamous Eigerwand.

“Did you spot that great long streak of blood on the road over from Chamonix? Twenty yards long, I’d say.”

The speaker was Don Whillans. We were seated in the little inn at Alpiglen and Don’s aggressive profile was framed against an awe-inspiring backdrop of the Eiger-Nordwand. I reflected that the conversation had become attuned to the environment.

“Probably some unfortunate animal,” I ventured without much conviction.

Whillans’ eyes narrowed. “Human blood,” he said. “Remember —lass?” (appealing to his wife Audrey), “I told you to stop the car for a better look. Really turned her stomach, it did. Just when she was getting over the funeral.”

1 felt an urge to inquire whose funeral they had attended. There had been several. Every time we went up on the Montenvers train we passed a corpse going down. I let the question go. It seemed irrelevant, possibly even irreverent.

“Ay, it’s a good life,” he mused, “providing you don’t weaken.” “What happens if you do?”

“They bury you,” he growled, and finished his pint.

Despite the forebodings of death, and despite finding various items of discarded equipment, the pair rapidly start up the climb. However, as in all Eiger stories, the weather changes, and so Whillans’ fourth attempt ends in retreat, rocks cascading down the face. Much to their surprise, Patey and Whillans suddenly come across two Japanese climbers: “Two identical little men in identical climbing uniforms, sitting side by side underneath an overhang.”

“You—Japs?” grunted Don. It seemed an unnecessary question. “Yes, yes,” they grinned happily, displaying a full set of teeth. “We are Japanese.”

“Going—up,” queried Whillans. He pointed meaningfully at the grey holocaust sweeping down from the White Spider.

“Yes, yes,” they chorused in unison. “Up. Always upwards.

First Japanese Ascent.”

“You-may-be-going-up-Mate,” said Whillans, giving every syllable unnecessary emphasis, “but-a-lot-’igher-than-you-think!”

They did not know what to make of this, so they wrung his hand several times, and thanked him profusely for the advice.

“ ’Appy little pair!” said Don. “I don’t imagine we’ll ever see them again.”

Sometimes, when I get nostalgic for the frenetic British climbing scene—that dynamic mixture of friends and pubs, gossip and rock that Americans cannot fathom unless they have experienced it—then I play an indistinct old tape recording of a party held in Scotland. On the tape Tom Patey lives again, his accordion and voice joined by a group of hilarious friends in such rousing classics as “Onward Christian Bonington.” Truly, here was a man.

Christopher Jones