An extract from Bill Tilman’s Mostly Mischief

HW ‘Bill’ Tilman was one of the great adventurers of his time – a pioneering climber and sailor who held exploration above all else.

He made first ascents throughout the Himalaya, attempted Mount Everest, and sailed into the Arctic Circle.

But for Tilman, the goal was always to explore, to see new places, to discover rather than conquer. Tilman’s produced some of the best tales of adventure and discovery of the 20th century.

Mostly Mischief’s title seems ordinary enough – but its pages outline no less than four extraordinary voyages made by Tilman covering almost 25,000 miles in both Arctic and Antarctic waters.

In this extract, Tilman and his companions arrive on Heard Island in the Southern Indian Ocean and ascend Big Ben, the volcanic massif that dominates the island’s topography.

I’d say Christmas is coming. Why not buy Mostly Mischief direct from the publisher!

‘On a fine, clear day I went a long walk to the head of Baie Swain whence Mt Ross showed up well. There are two summits to this fine snow peak, the smaller appearing fairly simple and the main peak extremely difficult. I met several elephant seals and king penguins. The latter seemed to be moulting and in that state preferred the company of a sea elephant to that of their fellows. A sea elephant lay in a mud wallow, only its eyes and mouth showing, while a king penguin stood a foot from its mouth in deep meditation. On the way back I approached this sea elephant to stir it up, and when it opened its mouth wide and bellowed so ferociously that involuntarily I started back, the penguin never so much as moved.

‘The climbing party were away four days during which Russ, Ed, and I amused ourselves cooking, collecting mussels, baking bread, and playing chess. Grahame had taken his pocket chess set with him but Ed had carved some pieces with which we had a lot of fun. We were all much in the same class, a pretty low class, and defeats were not taken to heart. On January 31st the landing craft came to retrieve the Frenchmen and on the following day we ourselves set out for Port aux Français. It was already blowing very hard as we approached the anchorage where, we had been told, there was now a vacant buoy, one of the landing craft having been slipped for repairs. Three times we tried and failed to pass a warp through the shackle on the buoy, the wind increasing all the time. Rather than anchor there I thought we should be safer in the lee of Point Molloy a few miles away. There is a hut there and two leading lights to show the anchorage. We set an anchor watch. In the course of the night the gale increased and both the land and the light became obscured in pitch blackness. It was therefore difficult to tell whether or not we were holding. At 4am a resounding bang on the keel brought all hands on deck with a rush. We were close inshore among kelp. Within a minute we had the engine going and after a few more bumps got into deeper water. We motored back under the Point, dropped anchor, and at once drifted away fast, the wind blowing as hard as ever. Three times we anchored in different places and each time the anchor wrapped itself in kelp on the way down and failed to hold. At the fourth attempt we succeeded.

‘We remained there while the wind blew itself out and on the next day secured to the buoy at Port aux Français where we learnt that during the gale gusts of force 10 had been registered. Using his aqualung Russ examined our hull and reported no damage. We dined ashore, watched an amusing film of life at the base, and agreed to have lunch ashore next day before sailing for Heard Island. It was another windy day. The confidence that we had expressed at lunch and had still felt as we went down to the quay, had waned by the time we climbed on board. The Breton boatman took us off, and in spite of the comparative calm behind the sheltering kelp we had a job getting ourselves and our belongings — gifts of food and drink — from the launch on to Patanela. To leave in such conditions, when a failure of the engine or a mistake in casting off would at once put us in danger of hitting a landing craft or the rocky beach, seemed unwise and was not necessary. We still had six days in which to reach Heard Island. We waited, and in consequence spent another anxious night. How I wished we had been safely at sea instead of lying to a buoy in cramped surroundings with a gale blowing! It seemed to blow harder than it had two nights before and here we had no sheltering land close to windward. We doubled the chain to the buoy and remained on deck though we could do little except pray that the buoy would not budge. At 3am, when the wind showed signs of moderating, we turned in.

‘After a late breakfast we sailed and went so fast that by noon next day we had only 150 miles to go. We hove to that night and remained hove to all next day while it blew hard from northeast, the barometer high and steady at 29.5. On the 8th we were drawing near the island and since we preferred to be at sea rather than at some uneasy anchorage we hove to well west of the McDonald Islands. Early next morning we let draw in a rough sea and high wind at south-west. As we closed the northwest end of the island the weather became more violent, squalls accompanied by sleet and rain lashing us in rapid succession. Under bare poles, chased by huge following seas, we shot past Red Island at three knots. Atlas Cove and Corinthian Bay, two of Heard Island’s supposedly better anchorages, were mere sheets of foam where frequent willy-waws swept the water high into the air. It was a boisterous welcome.

‘Once past Rogers Head we could set the staysail but not until we were off Compton Glacier did we find any sort of a lee. Further round still we went to anchor off Skua Beach in Spit Bay in seven fathoms. Although on the next day, February 10th, we would be a day ahead of schedule we did not think the shore party would take it amiss if we gave them the chance to come off. Accordingly we started at 6 a.m. to motor round the Spit to the landing beach. We were relieved to see the tents there and at length a moving figure, though it seemed to us that they took our arrival very calmly. In fact it created so little stir that we began to wonder if they were all there or even all alive. After a tense hour Warwick came on the air and we listened in awe-struck silence to a remarkable bulletin. He had not forgotten his army training: “Shore party to Patanela, Shore party to Patanela [could it be anyone else?]; the ascent of Big Ben has been accomplished; all the aims of the expedition have been achieved.” Whereupon Tony grabbed the set from Ed and asked Warwick to give us his news in Australian.

‘All the party were well and all five had stood on top of Big Ben. This was what we wanted to hear. Meantime they were more than ready to come off but the surf was bad. We said we would wait until 6 p.m. We should have to go back to Spit Bay to anchor and wanted to round the Spit before dark. I doubt if the surf had gone down much when at 5 p.m. they decided to try. Of course by next day the surf might have been as bad or worse, nevertheless, looking back, I regret that we did arrive a day early. The fact that we were there waiting no doubt persuaded them to try when conditions were not good enough. They got off without mishap but at the cost of leaving behind all personal gear and all the expensive equipment. They had climbed Big Ben but I felt that the island had had the last word.’

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