Ian McNaught-Davis: Mountaineer who made the first ascent of the Muztagh Tower and went on to be a computer pioneer for the BBC


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The Independent Online

Ian McNaught-Davis was a mountaineer and broadcaster who became a pioneer in two very different fields. As a climber, he was part of the team that was the first to surmount the extremely challenging Muztagh Tower in Pakistan in 1956.

Then, during the 1980s, he presented several series of innovative television programmes on home computing, bringing to audiences his enthusiasm for the newly launched BBC Micro computer and changing the lives of many in the process.

Already an experienced climber, in 1956 he was part of the team which made the first ascent of the Muztagh Tower, a 7,000-metre wall of rock and ice in the Karakoram mountain range, with colleagues John Hartog, Tom Patey and Joe Brown. “It was a very low-key expedition with only four climbers”, Brown told The Independent, “It’s a very different shape to other Himalayan mountains. It was an absolutely fantastic trip and we have been the closest of friends ever since. Like me he’s spent the whole of his life with climbing being the great motivation in his life.” Brown added “The great thing with Mac is that he maintained his enthusiasm right the way into his eighties, it didn’t matter how difficult the climb.”

The Old Man of Hoy, Orkney’s famous 140-metre high sandstone stack, was first climbed by Chris Bonington (now Sir Chris), Tom Patey and Rusty Baillie in 1966. During July the following year the BBC broadcast The Great Climb, in which three pairs of climbers made their ascent of the stack, watched live by an audience of 15 million. McNaught-Davis and Brown paired up again for this climb and later noted with amusement how something that might normally take only a few hours had been extended to two days.

“You do things not to show a climb as it should be but to fill air-time”, said Brown. “We were being paid for something that we loved doing and Mac was a natural in always being able to come up with some witty quip for the television viewers.” The remoteness of the location and lack of mains electricity had also made this television spectacular an extreme outside-broadcasting adventure for the BBC, which was soon followed up by similar exploits.

It wasn’t the first time MacNaught-Davis had climbed for the cameras. In May 1964 he had climbed the framework of the Eiffel Tower, instead of taking the lift or the 1,792 steps to the top. “At first I wasn’t very enthusiastic”, he recalled, “I’m not an acrobat and I didn’t really want to swing on girders. I thought it would be a very dangerous gimmick. On the other hand I’d often felt a slight longing – temptation, if you like – to climb the Eiffel Tower.” Accompanied by three other experts, roped together in pairs, they made their way to the top in heavy rain and wind. “Normally, when you are climbing a mountain you look at the solid rock face. It is rather terrifying to be able to see right through the girders of the Eiffel,” he commented, relieved at having succeeded.

The early 1980s saw considerable public funding put into the development of new computers for schools, under the Microelectronics Education Programme, run by the Department of Education and Science. The BBC Micro, created by Acorn Computers in conjunction with the BBC and launched in December 1981, was one of three systems supported by the programme. The BBC’s Computer Literacy Project aimed to show youngsters how programming could be educational and fun at the same time, using this new tool.

McNaught-Davis was the presenter on The Computer Programme for 10 episodes in 1982, a series which demonstrated real-world uses for microcomputers in business and industry. The following year came Making the Most of the Micro, in which McNaught-Davis demonstrated programming techniques on the BBC Micro. It was at the BBC that he met Loreto Herman, whom he married in 1981.

McNaught-Davis was president of the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) from 1991 to 1994 and president of the worldwide UIAA (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation) between 1995 and 2004. The role involved promoting the sport and campaigning on behalf of its members. So, for example, in 1997, the climb of the Swiss mountain, the Matterhorn, was threatened with “dumbing down” in the form of fixed ropes and bolts, taking away any element of risk on the route. McNaught-Davis was quoted in this newspaper as saying, “It is against the spirit of a sport that is all about self-reliance and all the more appalling that it should be happening on the Matterhorn. It is more than just a mountain. The Matterhorn is the very symbol of mountaineering – a symbol of the freedom and adventure of it.”

A UIAA Commission member, Doug Scott, said, “This proved to be a very productive period in the 80-year history of the UIAA thanks in part to Mac’s enormous energy and enthusiasm to keep alive the best traditions of mountaineering. He was supported throughout his presidency by not only his good friend the late Roger Payne but also by his wife Loreto.” Scott further noted that, “He was a superb raconteur, entertaining audiences and guests at climbing events and dinners where his self-deprecating humour had everyone completely captivated.”