Mountaineer and outdoor educationist
Friday 08 July 2005
John Jackson was a member of the British expedition that in May 1955 made the first ascent of Kangchenjunga, at 28,169ft (8,586m) the third highest mountain in the world, which rises in ethereal splendour north of Darjeeling. His love of the Himalaya had been kindled 10 years earlier in Kashmir and was to endure for the rest of his life. He was trekking on the verdant Singalila ridge in his eighties and partying with Sherpa friends in Darjeeling only last February.
Although an English Northerner by birth and stalwart character, Jackson spent most of his adult life in north Wales, where he guided Plas y Brenin to its place as one of the UK's pre-eminent centres of excellence for training in mountain activities. (The other is Glenmore Lodge in Scotland.)
Born in Nelson, Lancashire, John Angelo Jackson had on his doorstep the "Brontë" moors. He started rock climbing at the age of 12, exploring the gritstone outcrops with his older brother Ron. When Ron purchased a motorbike and sidecar for £5 - an old side-valve Ariel - the pair extended their activities to the crags of the Lake District and then in 1938 to the Isle of Skye. It was a classic apprenticeship for the all-round mountaineer that "Jacko" Jackson was to become.
Joining the RAF in 1940, he flew with 31 Squadron as a wireless operator and air gunner in Dakotas over Burma. In 1944, however, he got a dream posting, assisting Wilfrid Noyce, another climber in uniform, as an instructor at an Aircrew Mountain Centre in Kashmir. Rather like the institutions Jackson would run years later, it was recreation with a purpose. Over a two-year period, he made numerous ascents of peaks in the 15,000ft-17,300ft range in Kashmir and undertook many mountain treks, including in neighbouring Ladakh.
After the war, Jackson trained as a pharmacist, but switched to teaching, first in his home town and later in Redcar, North Yorkshire. He taught science and geography and in an extra-curricular role introduced youngsters to the hills. In 1946 while on a climbing visit to Buttermere in the Lake District, Jackson met an army officer who questioned him extensively about his experiences in Kashmir. It was John Hunt, who would in 1953 lead the expedition that made the first ascent of Everest and later head up the awards schemes that Jackson implemented at Plas y Brenin.
Three post-war alpine seasons in Switzerland were followed by an RAF expedition to the Garhwal Himalaya in north-west India, including an attempt on Nilkanta (21,640ft), rebuffed high up by the arrival of monsoon weather. Jackson's experience secured his selection as a reserve for the 1953 British Everest expedition and he became heavily involved in the testing of oxygen equipment, much of it carried out at Helyg, the Climbers' Club hut in the Ogwen Valley.
Disappointment at not actually getting to Everest was fully compensated when he was invited to join the 1955 expedition to Kangchenjunga, led by Charles Evans, who had been Hunt's deputy on Everest. It was, by comparison, a modest affair, largely free of flag-waving and national expectation. However, in climbing terms Kangch' was a much more unknown quantity than Everest and is today regarded as one of the hardest of the 14 summits exceeding 8,000 metres.
The attempt, by the south-west face on the mountain's Nepal side, was billed as "reconnaissance in force" rather than an all-out go for the summit. Its attainment on 25 May by Joe Brown and George Band was the culmination of a remarkable feat of exploratory climbing by the whole team, with some 10,000ft of untrodden ground to negotiate - steep rock and ice, avalanche-prone snow and many crevasses.
Jacko reached Camp V, at 25,300ft (7,710m) the top camp on the mountain, but did not see much of it due to snow-blindness. For the final push, he and Tom MacKinnon had been assigned the task of leading Sherpa teams carrying vital supplies. On the carry to Camp IV he rather overdid the practice of pushing up his goggles, which tended to fog up when wearing an oxygen mask. He spent a sleepless night in agony. "I felt as if powdered glass had got under my eyelids," he recalled. Still in acute pain next morning, he none the less insisted on continuing up, roped between two Sherpas.
His contributions as a reserve for Everest and as a Kangch' team member made Jacko very much a part of the "Everest family". Although the styles of the two shows were different, the casts were very similar, with regular reunions at the Pen-y-Gwryd hotel, the Everesters' UK base camp in Snowdonia. Jackson joined other Kangchenjunga veterans at the Pen-y-Gwyrd a month ago, before celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first ascent at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 7 June.
Expeditions were an integral part of Jackson's life for more than half a century, most frequently to the Himalaya. Elsewhere, he went with Hunt to the Staunings Alps in Greenland and to the Pindus mountains of Greece. In the Staunings, he and Hunt climbed a 6,500ft peak, topped by a rock tower, they named Beaumaris. Approaching his 70th birthday, Jackson made an ascent of Kilimanjaro and also of Point Lenana on Mount Kenya.
Jacko Jackson's love of mountain travel was shared by his wife Eileen. In 1976, after retiring from Plas y Brenin, the couple drove a camper van overland to India and Nepal on a nine-month spree of trekking, climbing and ski-ing.
The National Mountaineering Centre underwent many changes during Jackson's tenure, responding to a need articulated by the then Sir John Hunt for well-trained mountain leaders. Taking over as director in 1960, Jackson introduced a range of leadership courses and oversaw the creation of Wales's first dry ski slope. The first Mountaineering Instructor's Certificate courses - the top UK qualification - were run at the centre in 1969 and hailed as a great success, but it was not long before a bitter row broke out over whether the certificates route had not gone too far and was endangering the game's freewheeling nature.
Soon after the camper van trip, the Sports Council for Wales asked Jackson to be their consultant for a National Outdoor Centre for Wales. A site was chosen at Plas Menai, not far from his Anglesey home, and Jackson stayed on as director until 1983, seeing the centre through its formative years.
Revealingly, Jackson entitled his first book More Than Mountains (1955). His fascination with the Himalaya was not limited to headline summits or new routes - he wrote about the flowers, including a short essay on the breathtaking beauty of blue poppies, and about the inhabitants, including the yeti. In 1954 he had been the mountaineering leader of a yeti hunt organised by the Daily Mail. Needless to say, none was found and Jackson came to the view that prints sighted over the years might be those of the equally elusive Tibetan blue bear.
Jackson was a regular contributor to the Alpine Journal and despite failing health - he suffered from leukaemia - accepted my invitation to write an account of a 50th anniversary journey by Kanchenjunga veterans to India this February. It will appear later this year. Sherpa hospitality in Darjeeling was lavish and Jacko got one more chance to see the great mountain whose name roughly translates to "The Five Sacred Treasuries of the Snows". He described it thus:
The final morning of 13 February was clear with blue sky. Would we see the Kangchenjunga massif at last? We did! Jannu and Rathong stood out boldly, then the summits of Kabru began to show. Further east, Pandim and Tingchenkang were impressive. But the "Five Treasures" were playing hide-and-seek so that only fleetingly did they show themselves. It was enough.
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