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
Thursday 10 February 2005
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'
Life & Style blogs
Alexander McQueen at auction: What makes a really great piece of fashion?
A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
No female ejaculation, please, we’re British: a history of porn and censorship
Stressed nurses are 'forced to choose between health of patients and their own'
Pornhub: Kim Kardashian's sex tape is the most-watched porn video of all-time
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...
£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...
£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...
£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...