Mike Banks: Climber who made the first ascent of Rakaposhi


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The Independent Online

One morning in 1958, while lying in the bath, Mike Banks noticed that both his big toenails, black with frostbite, had come off. He took it as a sign that the Himalayan giant Rakaposhi had finally worked itself right out of his system and that perhaps his "storm years" were over. This proved hardly to be the case. Three years later, Banks stood on the highest summit in North America, Mt McKinley. And as a Royal Marines officer he was still to see action in Aden, pitting his wits against the tribesmen of the Radfan mountains. He stood for Parliament, pioneered dog-sledding holidays in Greenland, and became something of an icon for adventurous OAPs, leading climbing expeditions to the Himalaya.

Michael Edward Borg Banks was born in Chippenham, Wiltshire, where he went to school, though he spent part of his childhood in Malta, where his father was an engineer. He gained a commission in the Royal Marines in 1941 and joined 42 Commando on the eve of its landing on the Arakan coast of Burma. As Banks recalled in Snow Commando (1961), the sight of a friend being carried off on a gory stretcher banished any romantic idea that war was fun.

In 1947 he was appointed to the Commando Cliff Assault Wing based in St Ives and began a lifelong love affair with Cornwall's granite coast. Banks was to command the unit in the 1950s, following its relocation to Bickleigh, near Plymouth.

By 1952, when he was elected to the Alpine Club, Banks had amassed a score of Alpine routes, notably an ascent with Richard Brooke of Mont Blanc – climbed by moonlight to avoid stonefall and wet snow. Three years later, the pair took part in the British North Greenland Expedition. It lasted two years; a detailed survey of Queen Louise Land being followed by an epic 800-mile crossing of the Ice Cap. Banks was in charge of a team of Weasel tracked vehicles and nearly met his end when one plunged into a deep crevasse. He was awarded the Polar Medal.

Banks then received an invitation from Hamish MacInnes to join him for an attempt on Rakaposhi (7,788m) in the Pakistan Karakoram. Though it falls a little below the 8,000m threshold beloved of climbing's "baggers", as pure mountain form it is deeply impressive. The team approached by a long, undulating, heavily corniced limb, called the south-west spur. The spur abuts the ridge below a 400m ice face known as the Monk's Head. They established themselves on the spur, only to be confined to their tents by a 12-day storm. By the time it subsided, Banks had ploughed his way through 900 pages of Don Quixote. They found the Monk's Head the climbing highlight of the ascent, but the ridge above swept up way above them in three giant steps – steep, crevassed and glittering with ice.

Slowly they gained height, establishing two camps and coming within 650m of the top, before weariness and bad weather drove them down. Banks and MacInnes made two more game efforts, finally conceding to Rakaposhi when the "grandfather of a storm" struck. Descending in a blizzard, they were both avalanched and suffered snow blindness, but fortunately made it down.

He got another chance when invited to lead a British Combined Services Expedition to Rakaposhi in 1958. This was a bigger, better-equipped party, with nine climbers. By the night of 23 June, Banks and Surgeon Lieutenant Tom Patey were in position at Camp VI (7,300m), ready for a summit bid next day. With a blizzard raging in the morning, they donned every available article of clothing. The sky was clear, but the 60mph wind was driving the spindrift with such ferocity that facing it would have caused immediate frostbite. They settled into a mechanical routine of step kicking up the slope. Banks's feet went numb and Patey had to keep stopping to massage life back into his hands.

After a five-hour climb, only a snow and rock scramble of a few feet remained. Banks later related how they looked at each other: "After you, Tom..." "No, after you, Mike!" Patey graciously added that it was Banks's mountain, and the marine commando stepped forward. With success came an MBE.

In 1962, Banks led the first attempt by an all-British party on Mt McKinley (6,194m). One member required rapid evacuation due to altitude sickness, two were snow blinded and one frost bitten. Banks continued with Lieutenant Hugh Wiltshire RM and Chief Technical John Hinde RAF.

"Perhaps we should have turned back, but we had toiled for so long and overcome so many setbacks that we could not bear to think of retreat," wrote Banks in the May 1966 Alpine Journal. At 3am on 3 July, they stood on the highest point in North America.

In 1964 Banks, as 45 Commando Company Commander, played a key role leading night climbs to strategic mountain tops in the Aden Protectorate. Success was due to what Major General Julian Thompson described as Banks's "skill and his free-spirited approach to orders". Recalling the seizure, just ahead of tribesmen, of a mountain nicknamed "Cap Badge", Banks said: "Perched on my summit I had time to reflect that in peace there is no finer place than the top of a mountain; in war there is no safer."

Banks retired from the Royal Marines in 1968 with the rank of Major. He and his wife, Pat, who he met during the war when Patricia O'Dougherty was a dancer on a troop ship, started a travel business, with Mike leading the first commercial dog-sledding holidays in Greenland. He also worked as a photo-journalist, and wrote books, notably Commando Climber (1955) and Rakaposhi (1959).

Banks has been described as "an Establishment renegade". He would arrive at the Alpine Club bowler-hatted, with rolled-up umbrella and wearing his Royal Marines tie. But politically he was a Liberal and stood for Parliament in February 1974, against David (now Lord) Owen. He was also a vegetarian.

In 1990, when the AC sold the lease of its Mayfair premises, and club grandees decided it should take up residence in purpose-built, windowless premises beneath the Royal Geographical Society's headquarters in west London, Banks dubbed it "the Kensington bunker" and resigned from the committee.

Around this time, Banks was enjoying a renaissance as the smiling face of adventurous pensionerhood. Supported by Saga Magazine, he led expeditions to the Himalaya, Greenland, China and across the Australian desert on camels.

His enthusiasm and vitality seemed unquenchable; aged 77, he became the oldest person to climb the Old Man of Hoy, the sandstone pinnacle that rises from the sea off Orkney. It was the third time he had climbed it since drawing his pension.

Michael Edward Borg Banks, mountaineer: born Chippenham, Wiltshire 22 December 1922; married 1955 Pat O'Docherty (deceased); died Bristol, 9 February 2013.