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The Last Hero: Bill Tilman

The Last Hero: Bill Tilman. Tim Madge. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1995. Cloth, 288 pages. $24.95.

Bill Tilman’s books are durable steerages through the most remote tempests on the planet. His two anthologies, The Seven Mountain Travel Books and The Eight Sailing/Mountain Exploration Books, should be mandatory reading for climbers seeking meaning beyond the numbers, and sailors vying to be weaned from Global Positioning Systems. Tilman is frequently perceived as a “Victorian-era misogynist” (this from a well known British mountaineering pundit), or an “understated martinet” (this from an American reviewer aligned to modern soulless adventure). It is more accurate to say that Tilman was distinctly old school, of a sterner fiber than the average adventurer, and worth studying for his integrity and his crafted prose.

Tilman, as shown in his own writing and by Tim Madge’s insightful new biography, The Last Hero, was a disciplined stylist. He was self-effacing to the point of mockery and a master raconteur of black humor. He often recounted the most hazardous situations imaginable — without introspection or hyperbole — then reduced these heady maelstroms to simple farce.

For instance, when water began pouring in above the galley on one of Tilman’s refitted old scows, so he removed the lining and “enjoyed a view of the Isle of Wight between two of the waterline planks where a foot or two of caulking had spewed out.” In the next paragraph, while maneuvering back into a tightly packed harbor for repairs, he writes, “How thankful I was for that insurance policy. The ornate gangway of a large Royal Yacht Squadron power boat narrowly escaped destruction at our hands, and the crew of the yacht lying ahead of our mooring must have thought their time had come.” And, in 1936, while atop of the previously unclimbed Nanda Devi, comes the most famous Tilmanism of them all: “We so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands.” On other trips with his confidant and best friend, Eric Shipton and he only addressed one another as “Shipton” or “Tilman.”

The more one reads Tilman, the more one desires a biography, if only because the author was too disciplined to indulge himself any more than he already had in his subtle adventure books — a far cry from the navel-gazing genre of 1990s travel writing. Tilman’s reticence, in fact, draws you into a sort of vacuum, in which even as you gain more respect for the chutzpah of the author, the more you read, the greater his mystery becomes. After perusing his 15 books, how is it possible to know so little about a man who has led the reader so far? It’s the sort of question of which a good biography is created.

In 1980, John Anderson wrote High Seas, Cold Mountains, the first biography of Tilman. But Madge was probably no more satisfied from the first biography than he was from Tilman’s own understated prose. So this newest biography sets out to show the adventurer who hid behind his words.

Madge’s biography succeeds most notably by recounting the World War I experiences that irreparably gnarled Tilman. Somehow he survived the trench fighting, poison gas, and machine gun atrocities of Sommes and Ypres. He was wounded twice (although the cryptic omissions about the specifics of his wounds leave the reader wondering if Tilman was neutered like Hemingway’s Jake Barnes). Madge theorizes that the 18-year-old Tilman felt an overriding guilt at surviving the war that felled so many friends and countrymen at his feet. Consequently, Tilman retreated to the jungles of Africa for a dozen years, studying literature while hacking out a wilderness coffee plantation. When he emerged, Shipton introduced Tilman to mountains, and they became the Boardman and Tasker of the early 20th century.

Although Tilman wrote thousands of letters, the biographer still had to read between the lines to get at the shy, battle-weary man hiding beneath words as carefully sculpted as trench battlements. Another breakthrough is that this biography allows Tilman’s family and adventure companions to complete the portrait of “Uncle Bill,” “Tilly,” “the Ancient Mariner,” or “the Old Man,” as he was variously known through diaries, letters, and the illuminating epilogue by his niece. Madge unveils Tilman’s respect and love of women (and children and dogs), his shy modesty, and his droll wit.

Madge’s narrative is occasionally weakened by chronological flip-flops: describing Tilman’s 1950 climbing before describing his behind-the-lines work with World War II partisans, or invoking his death before the many sailing voyages. Occasionally, Madge resorts to an academic voice, which is intrusive, but bearable insofar as it sheds more light on the elusive subject.

Madge does miss the proverbial boat by suggesting that Tilman did not do a service to young adventures by advocating that journeys be planned on the back of an envelope. This philosophy of simplicity — a disdainment of technology and hyperbolic sponsorship — is, in fact, Tilman’s greatest legacy to all modern climbers and adventurers.

Those who haven’t read Tilman will probably be inspired to do so after finishing The Last Hero. Madge’s work is practically a lexicon, as necessary as A Sea of Words for the sailing novelist Patrick O’Brian’s work, or Cliff Notes for Joyce’s Ulysses, or A Reader’s Guide to the Hall of the Mountain King.

In particular, Madge’s last two chapters tie together the adventurer’s life, and death, with aquamarine clarity. He tries to answer the inevitable question about what sex meant to the obviously celibate adventurer (Madge believes Tilman found a way to substitute mountains and nature for conventional love — somewhat Freudian, but probably true, and more revealing than anything Tilman would have conceded).

The biographer recalls a moment in 1965, when Tilman’s boat appeared to be sinking, and one of the crew confided he could not swim. Madge writes about his subject’s reply (who could swim), “‘Then,’ said Bill, ‘you are lucky, your struggle will be the less.’”

How many of your heroes perished while vying to spend their 80th birthday in the extremity of their calling? Tilman stands alone, and Madge calls it squarely in The Last Hero.

Jonathan Waterman