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'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
businessHow bosses are inventing unusual ways of making us work harder
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

    £40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

    C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

    £45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

    Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

    £55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

    Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?