Eric Langmuir

Author of the climber's bible 'Mountaincraft and Leadership'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Eric Langmuir was one of that select number of individuals to have produced a manual or textbook of such biblical authority that it has become known simply by the author's surname. "Langmuir" is shorthand for a book entitled Mountaincraft and Leadership. It was first published in 1969 and the latest edition appeared earlier this year.

One might refer to "Langmuir" for advice on, for example, judging the steepness of a mountainside by the closeness of map contours ("Navigation is fun," declares the author), crossing a river with the aid of a rope, or assessing the risk of being caught in an avalanche. Langmuir knew from first-hand experience what it is like to be buried alive beneath the snow. The slight stuffiness of the handbook's title belies the character of the man, for Langmuir was a warm, open sort who communicated his love of mountains, and being about in them on foot or on skis, more by his own enthusiasm and inspiration than by texts.

Snow excited him from childhood. Born in Glasgow in 1931, he was evacuated during the Second World War to the Highlands. Winter in Achiltibuie made a lasting impression:

I remember making our way along tiny white covered tracks surrounded by numerous deer . . . I have been passionate about snow ever since.

He began skiing as a teenager, he and his sister carrying their skis up Cairngorm in the days before chairlifts.

From Fettes College, Edinburgh, he went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he read Natural Sciences, got into climbing and made lifelong friendships. He became President of the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club. With a fellow member, Michael O'Hara, and an old school friend, Toby Mallinson, in June 1954 he put up the first routes on the Trilleachan Slabs above the head of Loch Etive.

Langmuir had been alerted to this clean sweep of granite - now better known as the Etive Slabs - by his father, Dr James Langmuir, who had fished the loch. The overlapping slabs lie at a fear- inducing angle and climbing relies much on friction. While Langmuir's handbook may date, the route "Spartan Slab" is likely to remain one of the most popular rock climbs in Scotland. Graded VS (very severe) and 190 metres long, it is acclaimed in the Scottish Mountaineering Club guide to Glen Coe as "an excellent outing". (The SMC was another of the many clubs of which Langmuir became a respected member.)

The following summer, with his Cambridge pals Bob Downes and Geoff Sutton, together with Alan Blackshaw, he made his mark in the Alps with a first British ascent of the north-east face of Piz Badile, regarded at the time as one of the hardest climbs in the Alps, and still a test piece.

After graduating he worked as a geologist in Canada and while there met Maureen Lyons, a Londoner employed by the National Film Board of Canada. They married in 1957. Returning to the UK, he taught geography at a school in London and then in 1959 found his true métier on appointment as head of a Derbyshire County Council's outdoor pursuits centre, Whitehall. Chief instructor at the centre at the time was Joe Brown, in his pomp as the country's leading rock climber.

When the principal's post at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland's national outdoor centre in the Cairngorms, became vacant in 1963, Langmuir was the natural candidate. He presided over the centre's development as the place in Britain for training in winter mountaineering for seven years, all the while honing his own outdoor skills, notably as a skier. He attained the highest qualification of the British Assocation of Ski Instructors - a body of which he eventually became honorary president.

His own brush with the "white death" came soon after his move to the lodge. With three colleagues, he was on the hill looking for a group of boys who were lost when he sensed something was wrong:

There was no noise except the wind, but we suddenly became aware that the snow beneath us was moving very quickly and we were rushing down the mountainside with it.

Langmuir and his companions fell 600 feet. He tried to stay near the surface of the sliding snow by attempting "a sort of backstroke", a course of evasive action he would later recommend in Mountaincraft and Leadership. None the less he was buried, but luckily managed to get one arm free above the snow and was dug free by two of the party who had not been buried. The fourth suffered a broken ankle.

Mountain rescue and avalanche research were major themes for Langmuir and for which, in 1986, he was appointed MBE. He became chairman of the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland and masterminded the pilot Scottish Avalanche Project, laying the foundations for the Scottish Avalanche Information Service that operates each winter and has undoubtedly saved lives in warning skiers and climbers away from potentially lethal slopes.

In 1970, Langmuir moved to Edinburgh, where he set up and ran an outdoor education unit at Moray House College, for student teachers, and then, in 1976, became an assistant director in the recreation and leisure services department of Lothian Regional Council, responsible for all "countryside" matters, including the Hillend Ski Centre. He was also involved in establishing the Pentland Hills country park. His wife Maureen died in 1980.

Langmuir remained an Edinburgh bureaucrat until 1988 when he took early retirement and moved back north, building a house, designed by his son Roddy, at Avielochan, near Aviemore. A neighbour described the open-plan home as "an awfie posh byre", but with its floor-to-ceiling windows looking to the snow-capped Cairngorms it was ideal for Langmuir. Not surprisingly he became closely involved in moves for a Cairngorms National Park.

Retirement meant anything but carpet slippers. With his partner Marion MacCormick he travelled the world competing in orienteering events, becoming Scottish and British champion in his age class a number of times. In 1991 he went on an expedition to the Bhutan Himalaya where he made a number of first ascents, and at the age of 70 he fulfilled an ambition in climbing Mont Blanc and traversing Skye's Cuillin Ridge, the finest mountaineering outing in Britain.

Three years ago, Langmuir was stricken with cancer but rallied and only four weeks before his death was striding over the fells of the Lake District, descending the steep screes from Dore Head into Wasdale with a vigour that impressed his companions.

Stephen Goodwin

Comments