Monday, 15 June 2009
Eric Shipton - An explorer and his women
I remember lying on a beautiful and secluded beach north of Qui Nhon, Vietnam in early 1971,reading Eric Shipton’s autobiography ‘That Untravelled World,’ I was instantly riveted to this explorer's compelling life.
Being a young mountaineer I was drawn to Shipton's preference for small, tightly knit expeditions that could be ready to go at a moments notice. Indeed nothing was impossible that couldn’t be planned out—in the famously misquoted phrase attributed to Tilman—“in half an hour on the back of an envelope”. But he discloses little about his private life.
I had to wait twenty seven years to read Eric Shipton: Everest and Beyond by Peter Steele, a revealing biography about Shipton’s personal life. I bought my copy in London in 1998 and re-read in last week when I was in Bangkok.
Shipton adored women. Steele's account is full of drainpipe climbs to secret trysts from Srinagar to Kalimpong, young girls mesmerised by the explorer's intense blue eyes, and memsahibs pronouncing: "The man's a dreamer and just lives on a glacier; what good is he to my daughter?" The daughter in question broke off her engagement and Shipton subsequently married Diana Channer, who tells the biographer years later that, with Shipton, "There was a gap somewhere; a big lump of what makes most people tick was missing." She blames the gap on Shipton's "ice queen" mother.
That suggestion of emotional inadequacy is balanced by the obvious warmth and lasting friendship of both Diana and the many other women whose letters and conversations are quoted extensively. I was fascinated to discover that Shipton's early books were heavily revised and edited by his former lover and lifelong friend, Pamela Freston. It was also a revelation to learn about his dyslexia, which helps explain his undistinguished school career and recurrent feelings of inadequacy in his Oxbridge-dominated milieu. He was, to some extent, a social misfit, but that did not stop him serving as British Consul to Kashgar during the War - just one of many fascinating episodes in a very full life.
A RGS photo of Eric Shipton surveying in the mountains.
In 1984, a few years after the death of Eric Shipton, I visited Eskdale Outward Bound Mountain School. I had just been appointedf Director of the New Zealand Outward Bound School and knew that Eric Shipton had been a former director. During my days here with Roger Putnam the Director, he told part of the Eric Shipton legend, but I had to wait for Peter Steel’s book to fill the gaps.
Steele writes, “In the middle of 1954 the staff noticed trouble brewing in the Shipton marriage. Diana was seeing a lot of David Drummond, a dashing, handsome, athletic instructor. Shipton started giving Susan Denholm-Young, the bursar’s wife, rides in his car to her parent’s home near Leeds on the other side of Ilkley, Otley and Skipton Moors know by the instructors as ‘Skipton Deviation.’ Patrick Denholm- Young, was a straightforward army officer (known in his regument as ‘Dunem Wrong’)”
Shipton was certainly quite indiscreet, ranging from being seen with his lady friend in Leeds, to being observed at 2 a.m. climbing through a bedroom window in Eskdale village (not the first time a drainpipe had featured in his philandering).
Later steel writes, “Denholm-Young, the one left out of the triangle, brought the matter to a head in late 1954 by causing a scene, According to the Shiptons’ sons legend, he chased their father round the kitchen table brandishing a knife, shouting “You’re a shit Shipton.” The latter thought this quite unnessarily theatrical.
A social misfit, a womaniser and probably last century's greatest mountain explorer, it is clear that people liked Eric Shipton. He made friends easily and kept the ones he made. Although he married only once, many women were drawn to him. Admirer Beatrice Weir was just 17 when she met him at a garden party in India. “Suddenly,” she later said, “there appeared this extraordinary brown-faced man, fairly small, with strong legs and a strong body, a shock of hair and slightly weak chin. He had blazing blue eyes everyone used to talk about; he just sat and looked. It was indefinable. I melted like an ice cube.”
Eric Shipton left, with Ed Hillary. Hillary saw Shipton as a hero and mentor.
It is a geographer’s curiosity more than a mountaineer’s desire to climb for the sake of a summit that marks most of Shipton’s writing. Although his Everest detractors may have rather snidely attributed this philosophy to sour grapes, Shipton had begun to argue about the “real value of climbing” long before the 1953 Everest scandal. When people allowed the cut and thrust of competition or money or fame to drive their activities, he felt, they stood to lose the values that made anything worth doing.
Shipton began climbing in earnest in the Dauphiné region of the Alps in the 1920s. He subsequently settled in East Africa to try his luck as a tea-planter, singularly pleased at the thought that his new home was just twenty miles from the foot of Mount Kenya (to the amusement of his house servants, he arrived at his farm with an ice axe, climbing boots, and several hundred feet of rope). In 1930, he received a letter from a British compatriot, H. W. Tilman, asking for advice on climbing in the mountains of East Africa. Their subsequent meeting and ascent of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya fused together one of the most important partnerships in twentieth century mountain travel and exploration.
Shipton made the first ascent of Kamet (India) in 1931, the highest peak to have been climbed at the time. In 1932, he was invited to join an expedition to Everest, the fourth European team to attempt the 8,848-m peak, following the disappearance of climbers Mallory and Irvine in 1924. Although the 1932 expedition and a subsequent attempt the following year were both unsuccessful, two important developments took place in Shipton’s personal career as a mountaineer. One was the thought, “Why not spend the rest of my life doing this sort of thing?”; the other was a growing feeling that Himalayan climbing had been beleaguered by the idea that a potentially successful expedition required colonising base camps with a “small town of tents”, hundreds of porters, and up to three reserve climbers for every man expected to attempt the summit. It was Lilliput laying siege to Gulliver by sheer force of numbers.
But Shipton and Tilman developed a far simpler approach to climbing, cutting down drastically on unnecessary personal equipment and food not worth its value in weight. (During preparations for the Shaksgam expedition to the Karakoram in 1937, Tilman was strongly opposed to taking plates at all, insisting that they could eat and drink everything out of a mug. Fortunately for their party, Shipton decided in favour of the extra weight of four plates). More importantly, however, he felt strongly that no member of an expedition should be superfluous. Every person had a distinct and clearly defined role. There was no such thing as a “reserve” climber.
The territory west of the Shaksgam river in northern Pakistan—the Sarpo Laggo and Shimshal valleys, the Baltoro, Biafo, Hispar, and Braldu glaciers, and the Aghil range—is Shipton country, severely contoured, and with the highest concentration of 7,000- and 8,000 m peaks in the world. For the climber-explorer E. E. Shipton, whose 1937 and 1939 Shaksgam expeditions spent months surveying some 1,800 square miles of mountain territory in the Karakoram, it was the blank space on his map temptingly marked “UNEXPLORED”.
The son of a British tea-planter, Eric Earle Shipton was born in Ceylon in 1907. His father died when he was only three, and the family finally settled in England for the sake of the two children’s schooling. By the time he was in prep school, a hearty reading diet of early mountain travel writers such as Edward Whymper had persuaded Shipton that “all this climbing business” was infinitely preferable to mugging up dreary Latin primers. Obviously, “real climbing involved hanging by fingernails over giddy drops”—an excellent way of life.
Shipton and Tilman applied what became known later as “British Alpinism” to all their subsequent expeditions. They explored approaches to the seemingly impenetrable amphitheatre encircling Nanda Devi (India) in 1934 and mapped and explored the remote glacial regions of the Karakoram in 1937 and 1939. Shipton himself was a key expedition member in four attempts on Everest. During the Second World War, he served as a diplomat in Persia, Hungary, and China, but by 1951, he was back in the Himalaya, leading the Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, the first to attempt the southern face of the mountain by climbing the treacherous Khumbu Icefall (the attempt was pivotal to Edmund Hilary’s successful ascent in 1953). Unfortunately, palace intrigues within the Himalayan Committee led to Shipton being ousted from the leadership of the 1953 expedition in favour of John Hunt, who, although an experienced mountaineer, was relatively unknown at the time. Shipton was bitterly disappointed, but swallowed the setback with dignity. It freed him, perhaps, from the fame that he had always disparaged as violating the spirit of mountaineering. Shipton spent his latter years wandering through the mountains of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego in South America; he probably owned little more than what he could
Both Shipton and his more phlegmatic companion, Tilman, were inveterate travel writers, but their accounts are seasoned with the dry humour of people who do not confuse their passion for climbing and exploration with a tendency to take themselves too seriously. In Blank on the Map (1938), Shipton recalls walking with blistered feet on the long, dry march to Skardu, complaining bitterly and thinking dejectedly of beer, while an equally morose Tilman declared that, at this rate, they would “certainly be turned out of any self-respecting hiking club in England”.
“…it is not yet time to climb these mountains”, he wrote. “With so much of the vast Himalaya still a blank on the map, our first privilege is to explore rather than to climb.”
In his final years in the mid 70s, Shipton was invited by Lars Lindblad of New York to be a guest lecturer on one of his small ships cruising the Chilean Channels, to the Galapagos and twice to Antarctica. Phyllis Wint, his constant companion on all these cruises,was quite unconventional for her day. Diana Shipton, who called her 'the enigma of all time', together with many of his former lovers, could not understand why he should fall for Phyllis. Some attributed it to domestic convenience, and the fact she would let him go off on his travels on a whim and unimpeded. Certainly lack of fetters and demands was part of the bastion of their relationship,but that alone could not have held them together for 20 years. Phyllis was just not bothered by the other women in Shipton's life, and felt no jealousy towards them, though she got a certain amusement from their machinations.
He died in 1977 at the home of a friend in Wiltshire, England.
"Bring me men to match my mountains' wrote William Blake, and for Shipton it was more " Bring me women who will let me go to the mountains." An extraordinary explorer.