THE THURSDAY BOOK: The descent of a hell-raising mountaineer

The Villain: the life of Don Whillans Jim Perrin Hutchinson, pounds 18.99/pounds 17.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

A PRODIGIOUS talent is ultimately wasted by its possessor's own self-destructive fecklessness. There are so many instances of this syndrome, often characters whom we warm to or whose skill we hold in awe, yet who repel or exasperate us with thoughts of what might have been. Pick a couple of names from the continuum: Coleridge and Paul Gascoigne, perhaps.

Socially, the mountaineer Don Whillans was more of a Gascoigne: northern, pugnacious, with a reputation for sinking pint after pint. In some ways, though, his fall from brilliance echoes Coleridge, a man eclipsed by his early collaborator, followed by years of resentment.

Unfortunately for Whillans, he was eclipsed on a regular basis; first by his most celebrated rope-mate, Joe Brown, who in 1955 made the first ascent of Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain. Whillans was left behind on the cliffs of North Wales, nursing a grievance. Jim Perrin, however, in this wonderfully crafted biography, suggests the 21-year-old's reputation as a hell-raiser was already causing alienation.

The previous summer, Brown and Whillans had been the toast of the British press for a bold first ascent of a rock spire above the alpine resort of Chamonix. The pair were memorably described as "Manchester's pigmy climbing plumbers". While not strictly accurate (Whillans was from Salford and Brown a jobbing builder), that neatly captured a minor social revolution. Working-class lads were invading a sport formerly the preserve of gentlemen and the professions.

Perrin, one of the most gifted chroniclers of mountaineering, began researching this biography soon after Whillans's over-taxed heart stopped beating in 1985, aged 52. But he felt unable to publish while Audrey Whillans was alive, lest she be upset by accounts of her husband's womanising and Andy Capp chauvinism. There were also some huge egos to consider, for this book will be scrutinised in the mountaineering village.

Whillans cast himself as an outlaw, and was lionised as such. He was cut out first by Brown and, twice, by Chris Bonington, over the Eiger and Everest. Yet both men emerge favourably. Bonington actually rescued Don from his demons in 1970 for a groundbreaking ascent of Annapurna's south face.

A master of vicious one-liners and irreverent stories, the "Villain" went down a storm on the lecture and club-dinner circuit. But success went to his girth and the 5ft 3ins "pocket Hercules" swelled to 14 stone. He was on the point of getting a gong in the 1975 Birthday Honours List when he appeared in court after brawling with five policemen, when caught speeding and drunk in his BMW.

Perrin records it all with a subtle sympathy, laying bare British mountaineering's most mythologised figure. He portrays Whillans as the put-upon Audrey had requested, "warts and all".

The reviewer is editor of `The Alpine Journal'

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