Sunday, April 22, 2007

Review: The Villain, by Jim Perrin

"You do know that he was an absolute bastard, don't you?"

The words of Very Famous British Climber, Joe Brown, referring to another of the same ilk, Don Whillans. These two names, forever linked, are two of the very few that the general-non-mountaineering populace of Britain have ever heard of. Along with Hilary, Bonington and only a few others, the names of Whillans and Brown cast a very long shadow over British mountaineering. In The Villain, Jim Perrin takes it upon himself to separate myth from fact and produce the definitive biography to one of climbing's greatest characters; Don Whillans.

I've never really been a fan of Jim Perrin's monthly columns in various climbing magazines. Yes, the guy has a way with words, yes he is a bit of a legend in British (and especially Welsh) climbing, but a lot of his writing is rather overly prosaic for my tastes. Over at UKC, tobyfk wittily commented recently that he had come up with a random Perrin article generator, sample output:

Large sensual hands lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, onto the ridge of Moel Llyfnant, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Sed quam tortor, resonates with ancient dignissim sagittis descending from Esgeiriau Gwynion vestibulum vitae magical landscape. Looking across to Foel Hafod Fynydd suspendisse sit amet extraordinary richness of textures .....

which is about right. I mean, the last piece I read of his was in the Guardian, where he'd written a small column about going out at night to watch badgers shagging. Each to their own, I suppose.

The point of all this is that it left me a little bit worried when I got my hands on The Villain. Wouldn't Perrin's propensity to eulogise over-dramatise such an important story? Given the reputation of the subject, this is a book that really has to be done right, if at all. Yet on the flip-side, who else is better qualified to undertake such a burden, given that there are few other people who can a) say that they are/were on first name terms with most if not all the characters in the book, and b) have several years of professional writing experience (no matter how prosaic it tends to be)?

That Don Whillans was one of Britain's greatest rock-climbers and mountaineers is beyond doubt. He blazed a trail of new routes over the entire country that are almost unanimously direct, inspiring, brutal, and hard. After several failed expeditions he finally bagged a major first ascent in the greater ranges, after he and Haston summited Annapurna via its south face, an achievement that ushered in a new era of Himalayan climbing, both capping Whillans' career and simultaneously sowing the seeds for its demise. For unfortunately Whillans was known as much for his brash persona, arrogance, fighting, drinking and womanising as he was for his climbing; traits that were increasingly difficult for his peers to gloss over as the years went by.

Fortunately, Perrin seems to be aware that this book is not the place to waffle on about badgers and the beauty of Welsh hills. He keeps his most prosaic style firmly locked up, at least until the final chapter, by which time we are happy to forgive a short burst of it. His chronological account of Whillans' life sticks to the facts, allowing the stories generated by Don and his peers to maintain the reader's interest. I was interested, and rather pleased to see that Perrin avoids painting too bad a picture of Whillans. Fundamentally, he seems to be saying, Don wasn't the monster that myth and legend would have him to be, and several passages of the book pay tribute to more positive aspects of his character. However, he never gets too carried away with the notion; every now and again a brief anecdote (usually revolving around drinking, fighting, womanising, or all three) reminds us of how unpleasant a character he could be.

The one passage that entertained me the most was the story of Whillans and Haston (again) this time within a couple of hundred feet of summiting Everest, by a new route direct up the south west face. They had managed it 9/10ths of the way up, and saw an obvious traverse line out to the (much easier) south east ridge (and thus the summit). To take this traverse would have been understandable, but a bit of a cop-out - the main challenge was to make an entirely new route, independent of others, and to take the traverse would have diluted the purity of the climb. To a mountaineer like Don, this was not good enough; the lure of summiting Everest without taking the new, independent line was just not present, so they carried on up their independent line. Too late they realised that it was much harder than they anticipated, and with worsening weather they decided to retreat, having neither succeeding to climb the entire new line, nor even reach the summit via the easier route. Their eventual return down to a lower camp, after 21 days at high altitude that ended in failure, was described by another climber, John Clears, and is quoted in the book:

"I watched Dougal [Haston] come down the fixed ropes and stagger towards us down the Cwm. He was zonked. He looked like a Belsen victim and dragged his feet through the snow. Pemba rushed out to meet him with a big kettle of hot fruit juice. Dougal flopped in the snow to drink it, and then, supported on Pemba's shoulder, he staggered into camp - shot.
Ten minutes later Don swung off the bottom of the ropes. He strode down the path towards the camp humming a tune and dribbling a snowball at his feet. Pemba ran out with the kettle and Don dismissed the friendly little sherpa with a friendly slap on his shoulder: 'Thanks, Pemba, but I'll have what's left of the real stuff'. He reached inside his down suit, pulled out what was left of a half-bottle of Glenfiddich, and knocked it back in one gulp. Then he chucked the bottle over his shoulder and strode on down to the accompaniment of a loud belch"
I thoroughly recommend reading the book.

No comments: