H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman – splenetic sailor or humble helmsman?

November 28, 2016 7 min read

Rounding Cape Froward: The white cross on the summit can be distinguished; at the foot of the cape and beyond it, part of the snow-covered Darwin range on Tierra del Fuego can be seen. © Bill Tilman

If you’re not au fait with Bill Tilman, you’re not alone. When in 1977 he was lost at sea without a trace, he left a legacy of some of the finest travel writing of the twentieth century – but Tilman himself was a closed book. 

In collaboration with Lodestar Books, we’re publishing new editions of Tilman’s fifteen exploratory tales every twelve weeks. The series brings Tilman’s travel journals into the twenty-first century for a brand-new readership. Now that we are more than half way through the project, with new editions of the eleventh and twelfth books – China to Chitral and In Mischief’s Wake – to be published in December, we thought we’d try to get to know the man at the helm. Is he the surly Victorian-era misogynist of popular belief? Reading between the lines, perhaps his self-effacing character often meant he was misunderstood. Who better to turn to for enlightenment than the adventurers commissioned to write the forewords to our new editions?

Snow on the Equator, Tilman’s first book, shows the young man, looking for adventure but also searching to understand his own personality. He had left Britain, left the memories it held of time spent in the trenches during the War, and gone out to find a new life in Africa. He met up with Eric Shipton and together they formed one of the most iconic climbing partnerships in British history. It was in Africa that Tilman succeeded in a series of endeavours, including ascents of Kilimanjaro, a traverse of Mount Kenya and a 3000-mile bike ride home. All are recounted with great humour, and between the lines we discover more of the man who would go on to see so much of the last unexplored corners of the globe.’
– Sir Chris Bonington, Snow on the Equator

‘Going back to read the book again after more than 50 years, what struck me was the richness and thoroughness of the writing, the use of wry humour and modesty in the telling of every aspect of the adventure. The starting point for Tilman’s style is reverence, reverence for the mountains, the people, the culture and religion and for the pioneers who came before.’
– John Porter, The Ascent of Nanda Devi

Circa 23,000 ft., the shallow gully – eastern Basin on right. © Bill Tilman

‘Although the mountaineering achievements in this volume are negligible, this is my favourite Tilman book. Why? I feel that in the wartime section of the book we learn more about Tilman’s character as he is plunged into circumstances that are not of his own choosing. What shines through is his stoic sense of duty—to his country, the cause of freedom, and the people under his command; and what is also very apparent is his incredible bravery … Some people of this age might argue that he comes across as reserved, or even stiff-upper-lipped, but those willing or able to tune into his way of expression will soon realise that this is not so. Tilman was a man who lived his long and productive life with humanity, and told his remarkable story with humility.’
– Simon Yates, When Men and Mountains Meet

‘Tilman and his contemporaries will forever be part of our mountain heritage. The lessons they learned set the stage for the first ascent of Everest, which blazed the trail that so many now follow. It is perhaps a kindness that the taciturn and ascetic Bill Tilman is no longer here to see the circus that Everest has become; his angels might weep indeed. But we must remember that whatever the future holds for the world’s highest mountain, it will never diminish the mighty endeavours of its earliest explorers. We are fortunate that they included gifted writers and chroniclers, who provide us with a precious glimpse of Everest when its summit was still untrodden.’
– Steve Bell, Mount Everest 1938

‘Although Tilman either led or took part in remarkable expeditions (first ascent Nanda Devi, and leading a Mount Everest Expedition where he and three others reach 8320m) Two Mountains and a River is virtually free of pointing out any of these achievements. This lack of flaunting himself makes Tilman the most likable person, who allows the reader to join him as an equal partner on an extraordinary journey. Whereas many climbing writers (or writing climbers) revel in self-centred, lengthy descriptions of ascents or explorations, Tilman, who probably led one of the most adventurous lives of the twentieth century, shows humbleness and understanding for people around him; even for those who make life difficult or miserable for him. Tilman—the silent man.’
– Gerda Pauler, Two Mountains and a River

Mountains in Evighedsfjord. © Bill Tilman

‘The arrival of GPS has closed forever the heroic era of expedition travel, whether on land or at sea. It has deprived the modern sailor of the satisfaction of making a good landfall by use of the sextant or dead reckoning, and of the hours spent nervously watching out for a landfall in thick fog with just a lead line to indicate a possible position. So it is perhaps hard for the sailors of today to imagine the extra care and doubt that were a part of the navigator’s lot until the 1980s. Tilman’s voyages have to be seen in the light of small elderly boats, reaching out to Polar areas infrequently visited and not accurately charted, and with crews of varied experience, and without any of the modern aids that are now taken for granted.’
– Sir Robin Knox-Johnson, Mischief in Patagonia

‘He was not only an adventurer, brave and only rarely reckless, but a tremendous writer. He has that educated, unselfconscious late-Victorian facility and economy with words, sharpened further by his military youth. The sailing chronicles cover 140,000 miles of Arctic and Antarctic travels, and two shipwrecks, the loss of his beloved Mischief being the most wrenching.’
– Libby Purves, Mischief Among the Penguins

‘Tilman never panicked, remaining calm in seemingly desperate situations, always thinking things through to a rational conclusion, making his decision and announcing what was to be done, clearly and completely. He had been well and truly battle-hardened in two world wars and this, together with his very high intelligence and abundant common sense allowed him to take the best action in any situation.

It dawned upon me that the worst thing you could do for your own survival in a sticky situation would be to doubt and oppose him. To be reasonably sure of surviving you must place complete faith in him, obey, help and support him.’
– Colin Putt, Mischief in Greenland

Eastern descent from Lhakpa La; Peter Oliver and Sherpas; Everest in cloud. © Bill Tilman

‘In a sense his achievements are all the greater for his persistence in the face of constant setbacks: broken spars, blown-out sails, sprung planks, deserting crew and so on. He was no youngster either, when coping with all of this. Perhaps that’s one of my favourite aspects of his tales: his indomitable, bloody-minded refusal to give up. But more than that, I come back again and again for the pure quality of his writing—witty, erudite, understated, self-deprecating. There was a lot more to him than the allegedly misogynistic old curmudgeon of popular portrayal. He was a complex man and a deep thinker. Even in the moments of greatest despair, as everything goes wrong for him, one senses that he is looking at it all with a twinkle in his eye. He was a subaltern in the First World War trenches at the age of seventeen and saw most of his comrades killed. Perhaps that is what led him never to take himself, or his subsequent life, too seriously. Perhaps too that is what gave him his sometimes-cavalier approach to his own safety, both in the mountains and at sea. It certainly gave him a kind of detached and often well-camouflaged wisdom which only regular re-reading can fully uncover.’
– Roger D. Taylor, Mostly Mischief

‘I have often asked the question ‘‘how would I have fared with this amateur sailor?’’ (by his own admission) while lurching from one mishap to another. In my younger days during Tilman’s final years I might have ended up as many of his crew had done—stranded in a foreign port, considering themselves lucky to be onshore and alive. If we could turn back the clock, but not my age, given the chance I would have been stoic and survived, just for the privilege of being his shipmate.’
– Skip Novak, Mischief goes South

[Tilman] surprised me with his humour as, though he was both amiable and chatty when I met him, he has a reputation for being an unsociable and reticent man of few words and friends. This book shows another side with his witty comments and often self-deprecating humour permeating the pages. If you can read his descriptions of travel, its vicissitudes, the people he meets along the way and the frequently alien food (and sometimes the over abundance or total lack of it) without at least smiling or more likely laughing out loud, I’d be surprised.
– Tony Howard, China to Chitral

The fact that he was very definitely ‘old school’ is part of the appeal of the man. You will be aware of the story, I always imagine it was on top of the Ruwenzori in East Africa, when after years of climbing together Shipton turned to Tilman and said ‘I think we know each other well enough by now to call each other by our Christian names’. To which Tilman gave a simple reply, ‘No’. Or so the story goes.
- Bob Shepton, In Mischief's Wake

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