Shipton & Tilman: the Great Decade of Himalayan Exploration, By Jim Perrin. Hutchinson, £25


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The Independent Culture

With what relish Jim Perrin must have written the dateline concluding this idiosyncratic biography: "Ariège, Bastille Day 2012". In Shipton & Tilman, the Pyrenees-based Perrin has ignited some impish Fete Nationale firecrackers of his own to slip under the door of mountaineering's conceit. His aim has been to reclaim these two explorers from an establishment within which "they never truly belonged".

Perrin has been poring over the lives of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman for many years. How sweetly, then, that the book arrives just as British mountaineering is preparing for the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest – by an expedition Shipton was due to lead until he was "ousted by the shadiest politicking".

Everest 1953 is not the prime subject of this book. Perrin's focus is on the 1930s, and perhaps the most productive partnership in the history of mountain exploration. Still more than the geographical extent of their wanderings in the Himalaya and Karakoram, it was the style of their undertakings that has won the pair acclaim. No columns of porters or miles of fixed rope and staged camps; just a small group of trusted Sherpas.

Eighty years later, to speak of climbers going to the hills "Shipton- Tilman style" is to accord high praise. Perrin contends that their achievements went beyond an exemplary style. Through skill, courage, fortitude, loyalty and humour, their ventures took on the nature of a "moral quest".

Shipton and Tilman wrote extensively of their travels; both men have also been the subjects of biographies. However, no previous book fills out the characters of this odd couple – Shipton a romantic with faraway blue eyes, Tilman a gruff iconoclast – with such a mix of fresh research and mischievous conjecture. In reminding us of the satisfaction of "travelling with simplicity", Perrin pokes a timely stick into the conscience of 21st-century mountaineering, with all its commercialism and celebrity, and does so with literary élan.