Hero’s: H. W. Tilman

Originally Published 10/06/2010

Ask most people to name a great British explorer from the last century and I bet you will probably get names like Mallory, Scott, Shackleton and maybe Bonnington  coming top of the list. The reason three of these men are famous is that they were involved in epic failures that seared themselves on the public psyche. Mallory’s death on Everest with the elusive possibility he summited; Scott dying of hunger and cold in Antarctica after losing the race to the south pole, Shackleton saving himself and his men after their ship was trapped and sunk by ice by an epic open boat journey.

Bonnington is possibly a wiser choice. An excellent climber with many first ascents to his name Bonnington’s true brilliance was his organisational and management skills. Culminating in the successful expeditions to the South face of Annapurna in 1970 and the south-west face of Everest in 1975 which marked the pinnacle of the big expedition approach to mountaineering.

My choice is a man who I feel was not only the greatest British explorer of the last century but probably the greatest explorer last century full stop. Unfortunately you have probably never heard of him. So let me introduce you to a truly amazing man, Bill Tilman who in my opinion is one of Britain’s greatest ever explorers and a hero of mine.

Bill Tilman was a hero of two world wars, a survivor of the horrors of the Somme, a guerrilla fighter, and explorer who travelled many tens of thousands of miles through some of the remotest and at that time most unknown places on earth in the days when there really were blanks on the map.

Moving to Africa after WW1 Tilman explored the mountains of Kenya climbing Kilimanjaro, and mount Kenya often solo. Later when he decided to return to England instead of a short trip to the east coast to catch a steamer he cycled alone and with no real maps or supplies across the continent to catch a boat from the west coast.

In the thirties Bill Tilman along with Eric Shipton formed half of one of the great climbing partnerships. Together they mapped huge swaths of the Himalayas disappearing for months off the face of the Earth. In the process they developed the concept of the lightweight approach to exploration  believing that an expedition could be organised on the back of an envelope. These ideas form the genesis of today’s alpine style mountaineering. Although I think he would have regarded the video updates, Blogs, and satellite phones that accompany many of today’s expeditions surplus to requirements.


Perhaps Tilman’s greatest achievements were his expeditions to Nanda Devi. The second highest mountain in India Nanda Devi is protected by a formidable battery of defenses. The mountain sits inside The Sanctuary a circle of mountains which only once falls below 5200m. The  Sanctuary had repulsed explorers for 50 years many failing even to get close to the foot of outer walls.

In 1934 with Shipton and three Sherpas Tilman forced a way through the steep almost impassible Rishi Gorge which drains the Sanctuary and discovered a paradise of grassy alp’s and meadows within it’s walls which had never been seen by human eyes.   He would return two years later to climb the mountain at the head of a lightweight expedition, it would remain the highest summit reached by man until 1950.

In WW2 he rejoined the army and parachuted behind enemy lines and worked with partisans in the mountains of Albania, Italy, and Yugoslavia.

Tilman wrote about is explorations in a number of books now collected into two volumes. The Seven Mountain-Travel Books chronicle his mountaineering trips in Africa, Europe, and Asia; The Eight Sailing/Mountain-Exploration Books. The books are vivid histories of his expeditions and rightly regarded as some of the greatest travel books ever written.

They are shot through with modesty, dry humour, and self deprecation with the author often sending himself up. They contain descriptions of lands now lost; Tilman was often the first westerner ever to visit some areas and was one of the first white men ever to enter into Nepal. his descriptions paint a picture of a country before mass tourism changed it forever.

From his books Tilman always appears to find the joy of exploration and an unseen view more important than the summit or completing a hard route. This resonates clearly with me and is one of the reasons I find his life so inspiring. Always a new horizon.

In later life Tilman took up sailing taking his small yacht Mischief to the Antarctic, Greenland, and Patagonia in search of unclimbed mountains and unexplored coastline. Aged 80 he sailed toward the South Atlantic making for the South Shetlands. His boat disappeared en-route to the Falkland islands.

Although the loss of the rest of the crew many of them young was undoubtedly a tragedy. Somehow this death seams right and I hope he would have approved. The spirit of such a man should not rest forever in some sleepy churchyard it should wonder the oceans carried by the currents to the four corners of the world.