HW Tilman: Mischief Among the Penguins and The Ascent of Nanda Devi

H. W. Tilman

HW Tilman, photographed by Sandy Lee

Whoever you are, if you have even a smidge of imagination, then I think these are both books that will likely stop  you dead in your tracks.

HW ‘Bill’ Tilman was an extraordinary man – a legendary climber climbing in the days when equipment was heavy and primitive, he explored areas of the Himalayas not previously known to the Western world.  He was also a highly decorated soldier in both the Great War and the World War II, and then, in his 50s took up sailing after facing the reality that his older man’s lungs were no longer up to the altitudes of the high mountains.

And he was also a wonderful writer – one of those whose style is highly distinctive and amazingly effortless. In an earlier book he wrote:

‘So I began thinking again of those two white blanks on the map,
of penguins and humming birds, of the pampas and of gauchos,
in short, of Patagonia, a place where, one was told, the natives’ heads
steam when they eat marmalade.’

I think this makes the point – you can’t but read to the end, not a single word is superfluous or out of place, and by the end you know that here is a writer of some curiousity and humour, even if it is that of an Edwardian gentleman whose politics most of us would  now consider dodgy or worse.

Tilman, you feel, was a proper chap who must always have reeked of pipe tobacco, canvas and leather.

Despite himself, he was certainly very touched by the romance of sailing:

‘ … there is a wonderful thrill to be got from sighting a long looked-for island or headland rising from the sea in the appointed place. The thrill increases enormously with the number of days spent at sea. After a passage of weeks surrounded by an unbroken horizon of water, the voyager feels that the first land he sights is a  discovery of his own and it has for him personally a reassuring, friendly quality. An island landfall, especially made at dawn has a sharp ecstatic flavour, quite distinct from any other.’ 

Mischief Among the Penguins is his description of a separate trip into the Southern Ocean, this time to Trinidad, Cape Town, then southwards to Prince Edward Island, Crozet Island and Kerguelen Island, and of camping and climbing on them, and his experiences of sailing with his crews, and anecdotes about folks he encounters in port. There’s also a lot of stuff about the curiousities of nature, and passages of the ‘With a good northerly breeze we soon crossed the 10-mile strait between Posession and East Island’ sort.

I get the impression most of use would not have enjoyed being a crew member who got on his wrong side, but in the end, I think it’s fair to say that folks who enjoy adventure books and reading about exotic places will find Mischief Among the Penguins pushes all the right buttons. Tilman was a professional adventuring author, and knew what he was doing…

The Ascent of Nanda Devi is a climbing classic and an earlier Tilman book about exploring and climbing in a remote and astonishingly beautiful Himalayan region. It’s as good a read as Mischief, and the photos, old and black and white as they are, are to die for.

The short Tilman books biography provides a striking postscript. ‘After his third ship, Baroque, was shipwrecked in 1976, following an expedition around the island of Vestspitzbergen, Tilman decided his voyages had come to an end… Discontented in retirement, Tilman hoped to spend his eightieth birthday in the Antarctic and in 1977 Simon Richardson, a former crewmate, presented him with the opportunity to reattempt his voyage to Smith Island. He set sail and reached Rio de Janeiro without incident, only to disappear without a trace en route to the Falkland Islands.’

Mischief Among the Penguins and The Ascent of Nanda Devi are available from Tilman Books, a collaboration between our friends Lodestar Books and the climbing imprint Verterbrate Publishing. They’re part of a series presented in a very nice paperback format, and are priced at £12. I should add that the latest two Tilman books to be reprinted, When Men and Mountains Meet (1946) and Mischief in Greenland (1964) came out a few weeks ago.

The photo below is of a replica of Mischief, built by RB Boat Building in 2007, here sailing in Cardiff Bay, 2008. The photo is by Ben Salter from Wales.


2 thoughts on “HW Tilman: Mischief Among the Penguins and The Ascent of Nanda Devi”

  1. A lot of us would not have had a chance to sail with Tilman (he was a bit of a misogynist to put it mildly) but I have happily read all his sailing books and he was a fabulous writer. He seemed to thrive on adventure and while he obviously had a bit of ego he obviously had a touch of humility in his soul. He must have been fun and really interesting at a dinner party!

    The Lodestar books are wonderful — beautifully produced and reasonably priced, with introductions by folks who are well informed and real adventurers themselves.

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