Alan Blackshaw: Mountaineer, civil servant, author and campaigner who wrote the British climbing ‘bible’
Thursday 08 September 2011
For hillwalkers and climbers learning their craft in the late 1960s and '70s, the name "Alan Blackshaw" meant just one thing – "Blackshaw's Mountaineering", a compact yet compendious manual containing advice on everything from buying your first hiking boots to leading hard rock routes in the Alps.
Mountaineering: From Hill Walking to Alpine Climbing (Penguin Books, 1965) was the training bible of its day. The Americans had Freedom of the Hills, a bulky volume produced by a large team of experts, and the Brits had "Blackshaw's Mountaineering", written by a civil servant in the Ministry of Power in his spare time.
My 1977 edition runs to 556 pages. By then Blackshaw was Director General of the Offshore Supplies Office with responsibilities for the development of the North Sea oil industry. A capacity for detailed work on several different fronts was just one of the talents of this courteous man: a warm and generous friend and host, yet resolute in causes and disputes – of which he pursued several.
Alan Blackshaw was born in Liverpool in 1933. His father was a docker and his mother had a corner shop, where the infant Alan slept under the counter. His first sight of the hills came during the Second War when, aged six, he was evacuated to a farm in the Black Mountains. Later he won a scholarship to Merchant Taylor's School, Crosby, then an Open Scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, where he gained an MA in Modern History and honed his skills as a climber. "Night climbing" on the dreaming college spires was one of the illicit pleasures of student life. One Eights Week, he and Hamish Nicol, another leading light in the Oxford University Mountaineering Club (OUMC), installed a neon sign on the top of Trinity Tower, flashing on and off "Bloody Trinity" in revenge for some since forgotten transgression.
Climbing had been discovered through cycling. Given a bike for his 14th birthday, Alan cycled from Liverpool to Land's End and back. The following year he set off for John o' Groats. While pedalling through Glencoe he met a bunch of climbers and did his first route. The die was cast: Blackshaw entered the world of the impecunious climber, hitch-hiking, dossing in barns, and climbing on crags in the Lake District and North Wales.
Blackshaw's best season in the Alps was summer 1955 when, with various partners, he made first British ascents of the north face of the Aiguille de Triolet, south face of the Aiguille du Geant, Republique Arête of the Grands Charmoz and the south face of the Pointe Gugliermina, all in the Mont Blanc-Chamonix area, and the north face of Piz Badile in the Bregaglia. By then Oxford days were over; he was doing National Service and became an officer instructor in the cliff assault wing of 42 Royal Marines Commando.
Blackshaw was in his climbing pomp and might have been expected to graduate to the Himalaya. But in summer1956 the deaths of Tom Bourdillon and Dick Viney on the Jägihorn in the Bernese Alps shook the climbing community. Bourdillon had been one of the bright stars of the OUMC and had reached the south summit of Everest in 1953. Blackshaw recalled: "It was a terrible shock and we had to think very deeply about mountaineering, the ethical issues involved, and the question of obligations to families and civil society. I came to realise that the very hard forms of mountaineering no longer held quite the same appeal for me."
That still left plenty of scope: he went on expeditions to the Caucasus (1958) and Greenland (1960) with the then Sir John Hunt and continued as a mountain warfare instructor in the Royal Marines Reserve until 1974. In a foreword to "Blackshaw's Mountaineering", Hunt wrote: "I know of no one with whom I feel more confidence and comradeship on a rope." The feat for which Blackshaw is best remembered did not come until 1972 – his leadership of the first British continuous ski traverse of the Alps, more than 400 miles in 49 days from Kaprun in central Austria to the southern fringe of the Ecrins in France, where the snow ran out.
In 1974 he moved north to set up the Offshore Supplies Office in Glasgow for the growing oil and gas industry. He had been principal private secretary to three ministers of power, including Tony Benn; however he decided to leave the Civil Service at the end of the 1970s to concentrate on writing and updating his manual.
This bold career shift was unfortunately timed. "By a freak of fate", as he termed it, Blackshaw's resignation coincided with a parliamentary investigation into alleged mis-spending on North Sea oil grants; certain newspapers incorrectly concluded this was why Blackshaw had left. Although he was exonerated by the government and awarded compensation, the legal wrangling dragged on. Eventually he obtained libel damages against the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.
The Civil Service's loss was mountaineering's gain, though a new manual was a casualty of those four traumatic years. While working as a management consultant, Blackshaw threw himself into the clubs and councils side of the outdoor world, culminating in the presidencies of bodies such as the British Mountaineering Council (1973-76), Ski Club of Great Britain (1997-2003), and the Alpine Club (2001-4).
Notable was his service on the world representative body for mountaineering, the Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme (UIAA). Increasingly concerned about issues such as sustainable tourism, he was a key player, on behalf of the UIAA, in the United Nations International Year of the Mountains in 2002. However in 2005 he resigned as President after just one year amid bitter factional fighting.
Blackshaw could be a dogged opponent, as Scottish Natural Heritage discovered when he challenged their somewhat feudal view on rights of access to the hills. He advocated a "freedom to roam", and helped secure access laws for Scotland that are the envy of walkers and climbers south of the border.
Yet conviviality was as much a part of Blackshaw's life as controversy. Home was on the edge of the Cairngorms, a comfortable house at Newtonmore where visitors were assured of a warm welcome from Alan and his wife Elspeth, a GP in nearby Aviemore. Though diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2007, he remained active and late last year crewed on a 36ft yacht sailing from Tenerife to Brazil.
Alan Blackshaw's biggest impact on my own life came in 2003 when he pressed me to take on the editorship of the Alpine Journal, a 450-page book and the oldest journal on mountain issues in the world. He was the Alpine Club president at the time. Having done the editor's job himself for three volumes (1968-70) Alan knew what was involved, but being a skilful persuader he rather underplayed it.
Alan Blackshaw, mountaineer, senior civil servant, author: born Liverpool 7 April 1933; OBE 1992; married 1956 Jane Turner (divorced 1983; one daughter), 1984 Dr Elspeth Martin (one son, two daughters); died Inverness 4 August 2011.
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