Chris Timms on the East Ridge of Aoraki Mt.Cook, Christmas Day, 1971
photo: Bob McKerrow
I got to thinking about my old climbing partner Chris Timms as the news of Super Saturday started coming through from Beijing last weekend. Chris joined with Rex Sellers at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and won the gold medal in the Tornado class, with a race to spare.
Chris Timms Tornado Class at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
The combination came together again for Pusan in 1988 in Seoul, and they didn't rate themselves very highly at all, however again that jib and Sellers legendary ability to read the sea again carried the day for the two New Zealanders and they won a silver medal.
I first heard of Chris Timms in about 1966, when he hit the headlines in New Zealand newspapers, radio and TV when he fell and was seriously injured after falling 900 feet onto an ice edge, while climbing Mt. Elie de Beaumont at the head of the Tasman Glacier. A friend was killed in the same fall. The height of the fall was reported to be 900 feet, and that is debatable, and somehow it got an extra zero added in the telling, and ended up in the Guinness's Book of Records as the longest fall on a mountain where the climber survived.
Chris spent three months in traction but was soon out climbing again. He also started to sail.
On Christmas eve 1970, I was working for the Mt. Cook National Park on mountain rescue team. We knocked off about 3 pm that afternoon and were celebrating in the Park workshop. About 7.30 pm a scruffy climber walked in and said,
"I have a ski plane booked to fly into the Grand Plateau in a few minutes. My partner hasn’t turned up so I need someone to climb with."
Most of us were glowing with the effects of large quantities of beer and relishing the thought of a relaxing Christmas day the following day. I looked at Chris Timms, with his curly blond locks falling down over his shoulders, and an impish smile, and I was instantly attracted to this odd character, and I said "yes". That was the beginning of a long friendship.
My pack was always packed, ready for rescues so I grabbed it, stuffed a few cans of beer into it, and 30 minutes later we were on the Grand Plateau with Mt Tasman and Cook towering above us. It was 9.00 pm in the evening. We had the last two remaining cans of beer and grabbed 3 hours sleep. We woke shortly after midnight to a starry sky. We wolfed down some breakfast and hit the hard snow at 1 am. Chris Timms was hell bent on doing the East Ridge of Mount Cook. As I stood on the steep knife edge ridge, my feet were not steady. The effects of the beer were still there. I could think of no place better in New Zealand to quickly sober up. ( This is where I took the picture of Chris posted at the top of this article) I looked at the Caroline Face of Mt.Cook and searched for my friends Mike Browne and Keith Woodford who I knew were attempting the face today.
Near the top of the ridge where it comes out just below the middle peak, we struck gale force winds and blizzard conditions. The snow and ice stabbed like a driven nail into our faces. For survival, the only options were to dig a snow hole on the summit ridge, and wait until the weather abated, or drop down into the Hooker Valley to Empress Hut. Originally we had planned to zip over the middle and high peaks and back down the Linda Glacier to Plateau Hut.The descent was the most treacherous in my whole climbing career as neither of us had been on this side of the mountain, and we fell a number of times descending what we found out later, was part of the Hooker face. Visibility was almost zero and we fell, staggered, stumbled our way to safety.
I can remember both of us falling onto the bunks in Empress Hut and both rocking with laughter. " Shit Bob, that was close," said Chris. We had clearly diced with death and survived. Chris Timms and and I were to survive many other close shaves in the years ahead, but eventually in 2004, his luck ran out. We walked out down the Hooker Glacier and out to the Hermitage the next day. Chris was such fun to be with as he sang, joked and enjoyed everything around him. While descending the previous day, Chris had ripped the seat out of his long johns and his bum was showing in places, much to the amusement of tourists as we hit the track near the Hermitage. Chris never cared about what people thought and laughed with them. He had an admirable quality of being able to laugh at himself.
Our friendship continued and when I lived in Wellington in 1973, he took me sailing a few times and we did a some trips together.He also took me for drinks and dinner at the Port Nicholson Yacht Club a few times.
From memory, he moved to Wellington in about 1970 to finish his university studies and began sailing Shearwater catamarans with Laurie Hope. After a couple of years they won the national title. But the Shearwater catamarans were a relatively minor class, so Timms then turned to Tornados, not only sailing them, but even building one in his flat in Wellington.
After Hope gave away competitive sailing, Timms teamed with Simon Grain and they won the national title in 1974, 1975 and 1976, as well as doing some sailing at big events overseas. The goal was the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. Timms and Grain earned nomination, but were not chosen — two of only three people nominated but not sent to the Olympics that year.
Grain shifted to Australia and Timms then teamed with Peter Douglas. They finished fourth in the world championships at Long Beach in 1977. Timms and Hope reunited, targeting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, but were beaten for selection by the pairing of Rex Sellers and Gerald Sly.
When Hope quit, Timms found yet another helmsman, Brian Peet. Timms-Peet placed third at the 1981 pre-Olympic regatta at Los Angeles, won the 1981 Canadian nationals and were sixth in the 1982 pre-Olympics.
In the 1984 Olympic trials Timms and Peet were edged out by Sellers and Rex Sly. But Sellers and Sly had a falling out, and Sellers invited Timms, a long-time rival, to join him in sailing the Tornados at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
It turned out to be a magic partnership.
The magic partnership. Rex Sellers, left, and Chris Timms after winning the Gold Medal in Los Angeles.
They were diverse personalities — Timms outspoken and ebullient, Sellers more understated — but they worked well on the water. In California, they had a 3-2-1-2-1-2 sequence and were able to bypass the final race and still win by a wide margin. Four years later they made a gallant effort to retain their Olympic title, finishing with the silver at Pusan.
They were preparing for a tilt at their third Olympics when their partnership broke up and instead Sellers sailed at Barcelona with Brian Jones.
Timms'Olympic career was over. He was a resin chemist in Auckland. In 1992 a massive fire in his resin factory destroyed his three boats, ending any lingering hopes he had of having a tilt at Olympic selection that year. His business, Adhesive Technologies, has continued to thrive, making him wealthy.
In 1984, Timms, Sellers and Russell Coutts shared the New Zealand Yachtsman of the Year title.
Chris' contribution to this effort was his refusal to accept that they could not improve - it was just a matter of finding the way through. He had the ability to pull all the elements apart and put them back together again in a new combination and if that worked great - if not you tried another way and another and another until you got to the place where you wanted to be. This led to some very original thinking - an area where Chris had few peers.
Another view of Chris Timms on the East Ridge of Aoraki Mt.Cook, Christmas Day, 1971
photo: Bob McKerrow
This process of analysis was accompanied by Chris's infection enthusiasm and laughter which made the whole process fun - even if he was tearing his hair out at the time in frustration. At the end he would always marvel that he had achieved what had been done and then spoke of their achievements in a very modest manner and implying that anyone could have done it.
Chris always had a very objective view on sailing matters and was often very outspoken about the way he saw the sport heading. He was from the wrong side of the tracks and this did not endear him and his views to the sailing establishment. The fact that these opinions could be uttered by one who had achieved so much in sailing only compounded the issue.
On one of her visits to NZ HRH Princess Anne, Princess Royal, presented Chris with an Olympic award in Auckland. During the presentation Chris's charming exuberance engaged the Princess for much longer than the event organiser had planned. Always with an eye for ladies, I am confident that Princess Anne also enjoyed Chris's interesting company, and most probably remembers it all well. He was such an engaging character, full of fun with a quick wit.
Chris founded Adhesive Technologies who began manufacturing and distributing resins and marine composite products including WEST System, before moving to their own brand.
On March 19 2004, Chris and Kerry Campbell took off from Ardmore airport (south of Auckland) to practice aerobatic manoeuvres in preparation for an airshow scheduled for the following weekend. Observers report seeing them looping and rolling, and then suddenly spinning straight down into the shallow waters of the Firth of Thames, south east of Auckland. Neither survived.
Chris spent years of his life on jettys, sailing away, and berthing next to them. So it is fitting a jetty in Auckland is a memorial to him. He would see that as practical and appropriate. He would love to hear the laughter of people, their pulses and their warmth on his jetty. Chris liked functional things.
The Chris Timms Memorial Jetty, is named for the larger-than-life Olympic gold medal winning yachtsman, mountaineer and flyer killed in a plane crash last year. The Chris Timms Memorial Jetty can be accessed from the playing fields below the Trusts Stadium. The jetty named after Chris is one of two new jetties which have recently been opened on Council reserves on Henderson Creek; the Heritage Jetty in Tui Glen Reserve, and the Chris Timms Memorial Jetty in Henderson Creek Esplanade Reserve, Henderson, West Auckland.