American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Paul Nunn, 1943-1995

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1996

PAUL NUNN 1943-1995

On August 6, Paul Nunn and Geoff Tier were descending from the summit of Haromosh II (6666 meters), in the Karakoram Range, when they were overwhelmed and buried by a massive icefall collapse. They would have all been safely back in Base Camp if that ice had broken a few minutes before or after. This accident was sheer bad luck, for these men were not driven to take undue risks. They were there for the fun of climbing, and none more so than Paul Nunn, whose prodigious energy and enthusiasm for the sport had become legendary over the past 35 years.

Nunn was at the center of British climbing, its affairs and development. He was involved in every aspect: its literature, guidebooks and social life. He was a great yeoman of the climbing world and its servant. As chairman of the British Mountaineering Council, he held the leading post in the sport at the time of his death.

Paul Nunn was born in Abbeyleix Co Laois, Ireland, in 1943. He was brought up by adoptive parents in Macclesfield, Cheshire. He attended the Catholic Xavier College in Manchester, where he joined the Boy Scouts, who introduced him to hill-walking and rock climbing in the Peak District at the age of 12. His natural curiosity led him to climb farther afield in North Wales, the Lake District and Northern Scotland. He also pioneered an enormous number of new routes in Great Britain, climbed many of the classic hard routes in the Alps and Dolomites as a teen (including the Cassin route on the Cima Ovest in four and a half hours and the first British ascent of the Phillip-Flamm route on the Civetta in 1963), and, in 1972 with Paul Braithwaite, Dennis Hennek and myself, he climbed the east pillar of Asgard, a 4000-foot rock climb up on the Arctic Circle in Baffin Island. While in Russia in 1974 with Clive Rowlands, Guy Lee, Paul Braithwaite and myself for a new route on Pik Lenin (7,135 meters), Nunn had to descend with altitude sickness. In every other way Paul Nunn was the ideal expedition climber. He was not given to homesickness, he was always supportive of other members of the group, and he was a craftsman where technical climbing was concerned. Certainly if he had acclimatized better he would have been included in Chris Bonington’s 1975 Everest expedition. However he was undeterred and simply threw himself into expeditions to lower peaks, principally in the Karakoram. He returned to Pakistan or India almost every year with the occasional visit to Nepal.

But a list of his numerous climbs would hardly do justice to Paul Nunn’s contribution to world climbing. In the 1960s he was instrumental, along with Nat Allen and Dave Gregory, in reviving the British Mountaineering Council’s commitment to producing climbing guides to the Peak District. He sat on many important committees at the Alpine Club, the Mount Everest Foundation and the British Mountaineering Council. He contributed to all the main magazines and international alpine journals. In particular, his book reviews were always so refreshing to read. He was a leading contributor to the influential Mountain magazine from its inception. His balanced views helped the founding editor raise the standards of mountain journalism to new heights. It is well worth reading his essays as collected in At the Sharp End (1988).

Paul Nunn was also a formidable economic historian. He gained his degree at Sheffield University and taught for two years at the Cavendish Girls School, Buxton, before taking up a post as economic history lecturer at Sheffield Polytechnic, where he became principal lecturer in economic history at the School of Cultural Studies. He was himself an expert on the management of 18th century estates and did his doctorate in this field. He contributed to the prestigious publication Essays in the Economic and Social History of South Yorkshire (1976).

Through original research he was able to solve the mystery of where capital originated to finance the Industrial Revolution. Together with John Salt, he developed an independent history degree course at the Sheffield Polytechnic, a very lively course specializing in regional history.

Paul Nunn had time for people and he really cared for those down on their luck. He made time to visit me in hospital recovering from broken legs after the Ogre climb, and while languishing in Nottingham isolation hospital with a mystery disease in 1980.

Just before setting off for Haromosh II he found time to write a warm and sympathetic letter on the death of my father. He was generous with his time, never had a bad word for anyone, was always positive and, most of all, kind.

It was these qualities that encouraged the climbing fraternity to vote him in as chairman of the British Mountaineering Council. He had half completed his term of office but had already made his mark, making BMC a much friendlier organization than ever before.

Doug Scott

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