Henry Osmaston

Forester, geographer, climber and co-author of the definitive guidebook to the 'Mountains of the Moon'


Henry Arthur Osmaston, forester, geographer and mountaineer: born Dehra Dun, India 20 October 1922; Senior Assistant Conservator of Forests, Uganda Forest Department 1949-63; Senior Lecturer in Geography, Bristol University 1965-88, Honorary Research Fellow 1988-2006; Research Associate, International Development Centre, Oxford University 1990-94; married 1948 Anna Weir (one son, three daughters); died Finsthwaite, Cumbria 27 June 2006.

Henry Osmaston was a forester, geographer, dairy farmer and mountaineer who published well over a hundred academic papers during the course of a long and hugely varied career. His earliest childhood memories were of riding elephants amongst the Indian foothills of the Himalaya; one of his last field projects, aged 80, was a hydrological survey of the hill tarns of the English Lake District; his proudest sporting achievement was to organise and participate in the 1958 Uganda Ski Championships on the Mountains of the Moon.

Forestry and a love of wild mountain country were his genetic inheritance. He was born in 1922 in the Himalayan hill station of Dehra Dun, where his father, Arthur Osmaston, was an officer in the Indian Forest Service; in his spare time Arthur wrote the first account of the birds of Garwhal and made a collection of 1,500 botanical species, including two new discoveries named osmastonii. Two of Henry's uncles also worked in the Forest Service; a cousin, Gordon Osmaston, was Director of the Indian Military Survey and made several exploratory expeditions with Tenzing Norgay, the Tibetan mountaineer who would later achieve fame on Everest.

Like most boys in his position, at eight years old Henry was sent home to an English prep school, before going on to Eton, where he enjoyed fishing in the Fellows' Pond and bird-watching at Slough sewage farm. During his first term at Worcester College, Oxford, in 1940, his interest in natural history prompted him to switch from Chemistry to Forestry, but those studies had soon to be combined with an intensive electronics course, as Oxford was interrupted by wartime service.

He was commissioned into the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, starting in 1943 with a year's anti-aircraft duty in Suffolk, followed by four years in the Middle East. It was only in 1947 that he was demobbed with the rank of major and returned to Oxford to complete his Forestry degree. Soon after his return he met Anna Weir, who was working at the Bodleian Library. They married at the end of 1948 and in January 1949 Henry left to join the Uganda forestry service, followed a few weeks later by his bride.

Looking back recently on his 14 years' service in Uganda, Henry Osmaston commented:

I had clear professional aims and sufficient independence to put them into practice. My colleagues, both British and African, were congenial and mostly were highly motivated. My family enjoyed life there as much as I did. What more could I ask?

He also compared his and Anna's rough simple life in Uganda to the pampered existence of the modern aid official, insulated inside his luxury hotel. And he became exasperated by the revisionist tendency of some modern commentators to denounce automatically the motives of former colonial officials. Under the Protectorate there was in fact an explicit aim of ultimate self-government; as Osmaston put it, "It had been established from the beginning that the interests of the inhabitants were paramount." In the specific area of forestry, by 1960 all the major areas of natural forests were protected for water catchment or timber production; further softwood plantations were created to cater for increased demand.

In their spare time the Osmastons explored the wonderfully varied landscape of Uganda, in particular its mountains. On their first Easter leave they attempted the first ascent of a monolithic granite inselberg called Amiel. Henry almost trod on a puff adder, just as a rapidly approaching thunderstorm ended their attempt well short of the summit. They consoled themselves by naming their first daughter Amiel and in 1958 Henry finally returned to complete the first ascent with Andrew Stuart, who managed the rock climb despite being stung by a scorpion.

Perhaps Henry's most satisfying posting was to Toro, close to the Ruwenzori or "Mountains of the Moon", on the Uganda-Congo border. These glaciated peaks rise to over 5,000 metres, but their lower slopes are cloaked with a profuse tangle of vegetation, rich in endemic species, both botanical and zoological. Here Henry and Anna shared many treks and climbs, on one occasion being woken by a leopard entering their tent in the middle of the night (on another occasion Henry, alone in the bush, was very lucky to survive a buffalo attack). It was on that same 1949 trip that Anna discovered an old Huntley & Palmer biscuit tin in a cave and, on opening it, found inside the skull of a local Bakonzo tribesman, who had died of altitude sickness on an earlier expedition. Anna promptly developed a fever and had to be evacuated from the mountain, trussed up in a blanket slung from a pole.

In 1952 Henry Osmaston took part in an Anglo-Belgian scientific expedition to the Ruwenzori - the biggest since Alexander Wollaston's and the Duke of Abruzzi's pioneering ventures of 1906. It was whilst building the Elena Hut in 1951, in preparation for the expedition, that Osmaston with Richard McConnell did the first recorded skiing on the then large snowy expanse of the Stanley Plateau; the first formal "championship" followed in 1958.

Osmaston's Ugandan tour came to an end in 1963, soon after Independence. Reflecting 40 years later on the handover of power, he regretted that his British peers had not foreseen the speed and suddenness of Independence; he also felt that they had not coped successfully with the traditional dominance of the kingdom of Buganda. However, he felt generally proud of his achievements and from a distance watched in horror as one of the most stable, self-sufficient, well-governed countries in Africa was torn apart, first by Milton Obote, then by Idi Amin and then again by Obote.

Back in Britain, Henry Osmaston reinvented himself as a lecturer in Geography - a subject suited perfectly to his insatiable, eclectic curiosity. His entrée to academia was a DPhil thesis at Oxford, analysing past climate and vegetation changes from pollen samples in mud cores bored from the fathomless bogs of the Ruwenzori. His supervisor said it was the best DPhil he had ever read and Bristol University offered Osmaston a job in its Geography department, where he remained a lecturer until his retirement in 1988.

As a geographer he had two paramount qualities. One was his love of real, physical, hands-on fieldwork, preferably in mountain environments; the other was the astonishing breadth of his interests, all backed up by copious, meticulous research.

A chance conversation with a colleague, John Crook, during a tedious departmental committee meeting, led to his being invited on Crook's 1980 Indian-British study of life in Zanskar, the inner kingdom of the northern Kashmir province of Ladakh, known traditionally as "Little Tibet". As Osmaston combined geography lecturing with running a dairy farm at Winford, near Bristol, he was invited to Zanskar as "farming expert". And to Zanskar he kept returning, often with teams of students, making comprehensive studies of traditional Tibetan-style agriculture, but also climbing peaks to embrace his geomorphological interests. This work culminated in 1994 with his publication, with John Crook, of the 1,029-page-long Himalayan Buddhist Villages: environment, resources, society and religious life in Zangskar, Ladakh.

I met Henry Osmaston in 1985 when he joined our Alpine Club Indian-British expedition to explore the Rimo mountains in northern Ladakh. Henry could not fly out with the main party because he was still supervising exams in Bristol, and from Leh I had to send a telegram announcing that, alas, he would not be able to join us: our mountains rose off a tributary of the Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani artillery were busily shelling each other on the world's highest battlefield. The Indian authorities were adamant that no one outside the main, escorted party could enter the war zone.

Henry ignored the telegram and, armed with a letter of introduction from Cousin Gordon (the former military survey director) and a sheaf of US satellite photos (much coveted in those days of strained Indian-US relations) he bluffed, cajoled and charmed his way up through Kashmir, over the world's highest road pass, the Kardung La, into the restricted Nubra valley, on to the Siachen Glacier, and then up the tributary Rimo glacier, surviving on an emergency supply of biscuits and Anna's home-made marmalade.

I was returning from an unsuccessful attempt on the summit of Rimo I one evening, walking across the glacier towards base camp, when I stumbled across a traditional wood-shafted ice axe, labelled H. Osmaston, lying on the ice. A few moments later I met a tousled, grey-bearded gentleman, with battered spectacles held together by Araldite, who greeted me, "Hello Stephen, do you happen to have seen an ice axe anywhere? I seem to have mislaid mine."

A few days later, on the way home, passing the main army base after nightfall, fearful of being mistaken for a Pakistani spy, he tied a white handkerchief to the same ice axe, held it aloft and sang loud warning songs as he came down from the glacier.

Two years later, in 1987, he was with us again, this time on Mt Shishapangma in Tibet, supervising some of his Bristol students. A fierce October storm swept through the Himalaya, killing many people. We were all spared, but Henry and two students were caught out by the blizzard, shivering all night beside a boulder, half buried in a snowdrift (not the first time his students had suffered unplanned benightment on a field trip). After hours of shivering Henry was immensely relieved to see a brief glimmer of sunshine as his 65th birthday dawned and later that morning he and his students staggered into base camp.

The storm seriously thwarted his researches and such rock and snow samples as he and his team had managed to secure were confiscated later by intransigent Chinese officials, who seemed determined to get our expedition out of Tibet as quickly as possible, in the wake of the recent brutally crushed uprising in Lhasa.

Retirement from official duties in 1988 simply allowed Osmaston to work harder on his prodigious enthusiasms. In 1992 he and Anna sold the farm at Winford, and moved to Finsthwaite, near Lake Windermere, whence scientific papers continued to pour forth, even after his 80th birthday. Prominent among them were his 2002 paper with George Kaser on the drastic dwindling of tropical glaciers and his 2005 paper on the "Quaternary Glaciation of the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia", based on a recent field trip.

In 1996 he returned to Uganda as keynote speaker for a conference on the Ruwenzori mountains. Typically, he made the effort to track down in Kampala the woman who had helped look after his children 40 years earlier; and in the Ruwenzori he re-established contact with the Bakonzo people who had portered for his mountain expeditions. Despite the terrible problems of overpopulation, he was encouraged to see the country revitalised, 10 years after the end of Obote's murderous reign, and gratified to see some of his own forestry conservation measures still in place.

His last great project, completed just two weeks before he died, was a comprehensive revision of the definitive guidebook, Guide to the Ruwenzori: the Mountains of the Moon, which he first published with David Pasteur in 1972. Both the book and the manner in which it was compiled were typical of the man. Although ostensibly a climbing guide, it is actually packed with fascinating information on the history, mythology, zoology, botany and glaciology of the region, reflecting Osmaston's abundant enthusiasms. The recent, drastic acceleration of glacial melting is recorded meticulously and a wealth of new colour photos have been added to the original monochrome collection.

Assembling all this new material, as with all his other publications, Henry Osmaston was tireless (and, when you were trying to cook supper, sometimes tiresome) in badgering climbers, photographers, explorers and scientists all over the world, by telephone, by post and by e-mail. His global network of friends and colleagues was as huge and varied as his range of interests. He loved life and pursued his interests right to the end, still as fascinated by the world as he had been as a child, when he asked his mahout to get the elephant he was riding to pick him interesting flowers and fruits.

Stephen Venables

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