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.’

Lodestar to launch a new edition of The Sea and the Snow at Arthur Beale’s, 6th October


London West End yacht chandlers Arthur Beale are hosting an evening of talks with slideshows and film on the 6th October to celebrate the launch of a new edition of Philip Temple’s book The Sea and The Snow in conjunction with publishers Lodestar Books.

Start time is 18:45 sharp, so please arrive early, and the event is at Arthur Beale Ltd, 194 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8JP.

This new edition is well illustrated and includes with many previously unpublished photographs from the expedition to Heard Island, a remote speck in the far Southern Ocean, four thousand kilometres to the south-west of Australia.

In 1964 it had been the object of a number of expeditions, but none had reached the summit of its 9000-foot volcanic peak, Big Ben. Warwick Deacock resolved to assemble an impressive party of nine to tackle the challenge.

Heard had no airstrip and was on no steamer route, and the only way to get there was by sea in their own vessel, and so Deacock called on veteran mountaineer turned high-latitude sailor Bill?Tilman, already renowned for his sailing to climb expeditions, and he readily signed on…

The launch will be attended by the author Philip Temple, Bob Comlay, who later sailed to Greenland with Tilman, and the expedition’s engineer Colin Putt.

Their reminiscences, combined with a slide show and some never-released film of the expedition, will make for a memorable event; we suggest you book early to be sure of a seat.

As usual at a Beale’s talk, there will be a nominal £5 admission charge, to be refunded against any purchase to the value of £15 or more on the night – such as a copy of The Sea and The Snow!



Lodestar republishes Bill Tilman’s legendary sailing and mountaineering adventures

Dick Wynne’s Lodestar Books has published the first two volumes of a uniform edition of the books of HW (Bill) Tilman — who must have been one of Britain’s most extraordinary and successful independent explorers by both land and sea.

Tilman was born in 1898 and began climbing in 1929, and then in 1955 also took up voyaging. He disappeared in 1977 along with the crew of Simon Richardson’s En Avent on a trip from Southampton to Las Palmas and Rio de Janeiro – the vessel is presumed lost at sea en route to the Falkland Islands with loss of all hands.

His seven mountaineering titles and eight sailing titles, plus the biography High Mountains and Cold Seas by JRL Anderson will appear in pairs at quarterly intervals over the two years from September 2015.

The first volumes to be released are out now: Snow on the Equator and Mischief in Patagonia, and have forewords by Sir Chris Bonington and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston respectively.

Tilman has an engaging, breezy and often characteristically upper-class understated British style, and is frequently very amusing, though the lightness of his style belies his complex character. (For more on that, see the latest edition of the wonderful Marine Quarterly).

‘… the Himalaya are high, too high for those who are not ‘in the vaward of youth’, and though the ageing mountaineer will assuredly find rich solace in its valleys and upon its glaciers he is not likely to resort to them when he knows there are peaks in other parts of the world still within his feeble grasp. 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.

‘Before this line of thought had led me anywhere I had acquired a stout 14ft. dinghy as a first step to venturing upon the sea. There are a number of mountaineers whose devotion to mountains is not entire, who own and sail boats; but there are few sailors who also climb.

‘Of these, the best known was the late Conor O’Brien. He was a celebrated yachtsman who had designed his own yacht Saoirse. Having been invited to join a climbing party in the New Zealand alps for Christmas in 1923 he thought a voyage there an excellent opportunity for trying her out. Going by the Cape and running his easting down in the Roaring Forties he reached New Zealand. He arrived too late for any climbing so he sailed home by way of the Pacific and Cape Horn. One feels that his devotion to the sea came first and that in his eyes the loss of a climbing season was nothing to the accomplishment of such a tremendous voyage.

‘There is something in common between the arts of sailing and of climbing. Each is intimately concerned with elemental things, which from time to time demand from men who practise those arts whatever self-reliance, prudence, and endurance they may have. The sea and the hills offer challenges to those who venture upon them and in the acceptance of these and in the meeting of them as best he can lies the sailor’s or mountaineer’s reward. An essential difference is, perhaps, that the mountaineer usually accepts the challenge on his own terms, whereas once at sea the sailor has no say in the matter and in consequence may suffer more often the salutary and humbling emotion of fear.

‘The sea’s most powerful spell is romance; that romance which, in
the course of time, has gathered round the ships and men who from the beginning have sailed upon it—the strange coasts and their discoveries, the storms and the hardships, the fighting and trading, and all the strange things which have happened and still do happen to those who venture upon it. For the professional sailor this romantic veil has no doubt become threadbare, but for the amateur there is endless fascination.’

Read a longer sample here.