Robin Hodgkin

Talented mountaineer turned educationist
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Robin Hodgkin, educationist and mountaineer: born Banbury, Oxfordshire 12 February 1916; civil servant, Sudan 1939-54; Headmaster, Abbotsholme School, Derbyshire 1955-67; Lecturer, Department of Educational Studies, Oxford University 1967-75; Vice-President, Alpine Club 1974-75; married 1947 Elizabeth Hodgson (died 2003; two sons, one daughter); died Oxford 19 August 2003.

On the eve of the coronation of George VI in May 1937, Robin Hodgkin and a fellow undergraduate climbed by moonlight to the top of the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford and planted the Union Jack on its summit dome. It was described, tongue in cheek, as Hodgkin's first "first ascent". Others were to follow on the more conventional climbing medium of rock and snow in North Wales and the Caucasus in that same carefree summer.

The story goes that three days after Hodgkin's escapade on the Rad Cam, his friend David Cox solved the authorities' dilemma of how to remove the flag by making the second ascent. The two young men were central in a bright pre-war flowering of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club. Hodgkin appears in retrospect as one of the most talented climbers of his generation, though with his innate modesty, he would have laughed off any such epithet. Promise, however, was cut short a year later in the Karakoram when severe frostbite cost him the fingers and toes necessary for the hardest of routes.

Hodgkin's life was in any event much richer than climbing. To many Sudanese he is a man who instilled in them a love of learning and the skills of teaching, while hundreds, perhaps thousands, of former pupils of Abbotsholme School, Derbyshire, remember him with affection as a headmaster who nurtured the differing abilities of all his boys. As a Quaker and pacifist he had the added endearment of rejecting all forms of corporal punishment. In retirement in Cornwall, he went on tax strike in protest at spending on nuclear weapons. Property was sequestered by shame-faced officials on behalf of the Inland Revenue until, after having made his point over two years, Hodgkin relented. He never did replace the television set.

The Hodgkins were a large family in whom the Quaker creed of peace and simplicity of living ran strong. Robin's father died while undertaking relief work in Armenia and is buried in the military cemetery in Baghdad. Robin Hodgkin was educated at Leighton Park Quaker school in Reading and in 1934 went up to Queen's College, Oxford, to study Geography. There he got to know David Cox, who had already done severe climbs with John Hoyland - another bright star in the Oxford firmament, extinguished prematurely on Mont Blanc's Innominata Ridge.

Writing Cox's obituary for the 1995 Alpine Journal, Hodgkin recalled a visit to North Wales in June 1937 when the two them, together with Clare and Berridge Mallory - daughters of George Mallory, who disappeared on Everest in 1924 - camped for four days by Llyn Arddu. Mischievous imputations were always dismissed. The four shared the cooking and "the reading of Emma between two tents". They also shared the climbing on the cliffs of Clogwyn d'ur Arddu - "Cloggy" - repeating existing routes and putting up a steep new one of their own called Sunset Crack, graded "very severe".

Later that summer, Hodgkin went to the Soviet Union and, with Bob Beaumont and John Jenkins, climbed a new route on Ushba (4710m), "the Matterhorn of the Caucasus". It was a splendid achievement. The crux on the precipitous east face was passed by looping the rope round a jammed chock stone and penduluming across the void. Yet describing the expedition in 1990 Hodgkin dwelt not on any supposed heroics but on the short rations and the friendliness of young Russians.

Hodgkin's zest for bold, exploratory climbing almost cost his life the next year when he and a companion were a caught in a snowstorm high on Masherbrum (7821m) in the Karakoram. Forced to shelter overnight in a crevasse on their descent both men were very badly frostbitten on their hands and feet and but for the presence of a doctor at Base Camp might well not have survived. Of the jolly band from Ushba, Beaumont was killed that same year, 1938, on Black Ladders in Wales and Jenkins nine years later on Mont Blanc.

Chastened, Hodgkin began a different phase in his life and after a couple of terms teaching at his old Quaker school, Leighton Park, joined the Sudan civil service. He worked primarily in education and for six years ran an "educational town", Bakht-er-Ruda, devoted to teacher training and high quality secondary schooling.

The mountains were still a lure. He made a first ascent of the domed Jebel Kassala in Sudan - a Tree of Life was fabled to grow on its summit - and in 1943 joined Edward Peck on an expedition to the Ala Dag range in Turkey. Peck's diplomatic pass - he was serving in the British Embassy in Ankara - smoothed the way. German and Austrian mountaineers had already prospected the area and when Hodgkin and his companions reached the summit of Demirkazik (3756m) they found a battered swastika flag in the cairn. They pocketed it and left "a staid calling card".

Hodgkin married Elizabeth Hodgson in 1947. His bride was also in the education service in Sudan and they remained in the country until 1954. At the suggestion of Jack Longland, a leading climber in the inter-war years and then Director of Education for Derbyshire, Hodgkin applied, successfully, for the headship of Abbotsholme School, a struggling public school. He restored its confidence, building up an institution that, while not radically progressive in the Dartington sense, was, as he put it, "left of centre".

Not surprisingly, Hodgkin started a climbing club and the school spawned another generation of rock activists, among them Longland's son, Nick, and Mark Vallance, current president of the British Mountaineering Council. Despite his frost wounds, the headmaster was still a game climber. He would roll up the floppy end of his climbing shoes, where the toes were missing, and use the resultant wedge for extra purchase in cracks.

Leaving Abbotsholme, Hodgkin lectured at the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University. He wrote books on educational theory and devoted much thought to issues of safety and risk. "Safe adventure" was a contradictory, false notion, he argued, and not just in mountain activities in education. All true cultural activity and enlargement of vision involved skill, responsible judgement and risk - risk of error, of foolishness and even of death. "It is all part of a big national and post-industrial problem: do we want adventure constrained by responsibility; or safe thrills?"

Stephen Goodwin