In taking the life of Roger Payne, the avalanche that killed nine climbers on Mont Maudit deprived contemporary mountaineering of one of its most able practitioners and broadest smiles. A former general secretary of the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) who returned to his love of guiding in the mountains, Payne was an inspiration to countless aspiring climbers and ski-mountaineers; an unflagging enthusiast, whether on a pre-dawn start from an alpine hut or pursuing an unglamorous environmental issue through committee corridors.
Refreshingly, he was a climber who got the big picture about mountains – as places not just of recreation but as home to often poor and marginalised communities living in fragile ecosystems. "We should not view native people as just an ethnic backdrop for our adventures," he told me 20 years ago for this newspaper. At the time Payne was the BMC's national officer, lobbying in the run-up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit in an attempt to get presidents and prime ministers to address the state of the world's mountains.
Two weeks later he set off with his wife, Julie-Ann Clyma, and four friends to attempt a new route on Broad Peak, a giant of 8051 metres in Pakistan. Payne espoused a lightweight, minimum impact ethic. There would be no army of porters on Broad Peak but the group did take out components for micro-hydro schemes at two remote villages on their route.
The expedition, and its coincidence with the Earth Summit, synthesised much that was good about Payne, a bold, exploratory climber but concerned about the mountain people and their environment, and ready to do something about it. At the BMC he had a reputation for talking committees into submission.
Tall, clean-cut and so evidently a Londoner from his cheerful first greeting, Payne was educated at Holland Park Comprehensive, gained an Outdoor Pursuits diploma at Dunfermline College in 1977 and a BEd at Sunderland Polytechnic in 1983, the year he also got his British Mountain Guide ticket, a hard-won qualification. He had discovered the outdoors through a Scout group, and soon headed for the hills of Scotland. This led to climbing on outcrops and sea cliffs and in due course to the Alps. He worked as an instructor in outdoor education centres and had on a short teaching career in North-east England.
Payne is best known for his years of development work and management in the British Mountaineering Council, the representative body for the sport in England and Wales, and its international equivalent, the Berne-based UIAA (the international federation of alpine associations). His work appetite at the BMC, as national officer from 1989-95 and general secretary to the end of 2001, was legendary. Ian Parnell, who worked with Payne for five years, recalled "days spent working far too late, almost afraid to turn off the computer as Roger was showing no signs of quitting – then suddenly he'd shout out 'right that's it – time to climb' and we'd rush out to grab a route at Running Hill Pits or Hobson Moor; equal energy would then be put into beers and banter back at his house."
Under Payne, the BMC embarked on a period of strong growth in membership and reform, developing relationships with the outdoor industry and other organisations and government. Moving to the UIAA, he became its first sport and development officer, promoting links with the Olympic movement, UN agencies and the World Conservation Union. In 2002 he organised an expedition to Nepal to raise awareness of the impact of global warming in the Himalayas and the threat of glacial lake outburst floods, which resulted in the film Meltdown.
Leaving the UIAA in 2005, Payne and Julie-Ann remained in Switzerland, working from their home in the resort of Leysin. Payne settled to a mix of guiding, consultancy work and personal expeditioning. He was a sought-after for ski-tours and an instructor in avalanche awareness. If there is an irony in the way he died, it is as well to remember the cautionary words of the Swiss avalanche guru André Roch: "The avalanche does not know you are an expert."
Though Payne climbed with many of Britain's top mountaineers, his most constant partner was Julie-Ann, also a guide, forming what must surely be one of the most successful husband-and-wife teams in mountaineering. They met in Peru in 1985; Julie-Ann, a New Zealander, was on an expedition to the Cordillera Blanca while Roger was there to make a filmed ascent of Nevada Kayesh. A base camp party led to marriage within two years.
Together they made more than a score of expeditions to the Himalaya, Alaska and the Andes. In an article entitled "Love Actually", for the magazine Vertical, Payne spoke of the bond engendered by climbing as a couple. "I can't think of a disadvantage," he added; one can imagine the accompanying broad smile.
Payne rated as perhaps their finest achievement the first ascent of Mount Grosvenor, a 6376m peak in Sichuan province, China. It was an exercise in problem solving as they climbed thin ice and blank rock on the north face before traversing the summit over four more wind-battered days. Payne subsequently focused on the mountains of Sikkim, where he and Julie-Ann made a series of expeditions with the Sikkim Amateur Mountaineering Association to help train its members and promote sustainable tourism.
Elsewhere, their shared dramas included being hit by avalanches difficult mountains in Pakistan. In 1993 the couple helped rescue a Swedish climber from high on K2 – at 8,611m the second highest peak in the world. During the steepest part of the descent an in-situ rope broke while Payne was abseiling with the injured climber.
Also involved in the K2 rescue was Payne's fellow guide Victor Saunders, one of the first on the scene of Thursday's Mont Maudit avalanche. The guiding community, particularly the close contingent of British guides in the Alps, will be hard hit. Payne had recently served as president of the British Mountain Guides. He was a strong advocate of personal responsibility in the acceptance of risk, but that will not make his loss easier to bear.
Roger Payne, mountaineer, guide and administrator: born London 16 July 1956; married Julie-Ann Clyma; died Mont Maudit, France 12 July 2012.Reuse content