My Father, Frank – Review

December 07, 2020 4 min read

‘So far the climbing had been more dangerous than difficult; now it was both difficult and dangerous, a fatal combination on Everest. The only thing I could do was to go as far as possible, always keeping one eye on the weather and the other on the strength I should need to retreat safely.’

Frank Smythe – Camp Six

Photo (right): 'View south-east from the summit of Mont Blanc' © Frank Smythe collection

As a young boy Tony Smythe read of his father’s determined struggle high on the North Face of Everest in 1933. He was fascinated by it. This was his father and Tony could not help but imagine that he was with him. They would climb on towards the summit of Everest together. But it was not to be. Frank persevered but eventually had to retreat. His remarkable endeavour became a significant part of the history of climbing on the highest mountain in the world.

My Father, Frank by Tony Smythe tells the enthralling life story of Francis Sydney Smythe. Frank was born in 1900. He did not often enjoy school and never settled in any form of employment. The hills and mountains became his life. Tony writes of Frank’s early climbs in the Alps including the first ascents of Sentinelle Rouge and Route Major on the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc with Thomas Graham Brown. The two men would both claim these routes in their own ways but sadly their words and actions after their successes ultimately ended their friendship.

Photo (left): 'Frank Smythe on the summit of Mount Hardesty' © Frank Smythe collection

Tony records how Frank applied to be a member of the British expedition to Everest in 1924. He was not selected. Frank then journeyed to Kangchenjunga in 1930, led a party to the summit of Kamet in 1931 and played an important role in the British expeditions to Everest in 1933, 1936 and 1938. The Himalaya became a very special place in Frank’s life. Some years later Frank explored the wilderness of the Canadian Rockies and enjoyed many successful ascents.

The book also describes aspects of Frank’s personal life, his two marriages and the time he spent with his three young children. Tony writes of a few early memories of his father. He remembers a Christmas when Father Christmas appeared in their sitting room and another time when Frank bought a train set for the family. Tony recalls a visit to Scotland with Frank and his second wife Nona. They tackled some walks in the hills, enjoyed picnics and Frank took many photographs of Scottish landscapes. Tony tells in great detail of the numerous books that Frank wrote describing his extraordinary adventures on great mountains that very few at that time had visited. Frank’s books astonished and lit the imagination of many readers.

Photo (right): 'Frank Smythe on the summit of the Mana Peak, 23,860 feet' © Frank Smythe collection

Throughout the text Tony tells of visiting places his father loved and of meeting many of his father’s great friends. He describes an ascent of Route Major with Barry Annette in 1961 and he remembers travelling to Darjeeling with his daughter seventy years after Frank and viewing Kangchenjunga sitting so high in the sky as Frank had. The text makes you consider that Tony felt something of his father’s presence during these wonderful experiences. Tony certainly grew to love the mountains as his father had for so many years.

My Father, Frank carries the reader on a truly inspirational and informative journey. At times, the reader feels like they are joining Tony on his voyage to hear of and to learn more about the great mountaineer that was Frank Smythe, the man he called father. Tony is certainly proud of his father’s achievements while acknowledging that the mountains took him away too often. It would have been interesting to read more about everyday times with Frank when he was at home. Tony reflects that Frank missed out much on family life and lost important times with his children.

Photo (left): 'Matterhorn at sunrise from the Gorner Glacier' © Frank Smythe collection

My Father, Frank has enthralling stories to share. Tony guides us through the life of his father who lived during a time when so much was new in the world of mountaineering. It was a golden age when climbers were still living their dreams making first ascents of great mountains in the Alps, the Canadian Rockies and the Himalaya. We are fortunate that great books about the history of world climbing hold so many contributions about British mountaineers and some of those carry the name of Frank Smythe.

Frank Smythe died in 1949. Tony Smythe leaves the reader in no doubt that Frank was a man with a passion for the great mountains of the world. Frank’s emotive words and wonderful photographs shared in his many books still captivate and inspire and they still have much to tell us about the beauty of the mountains, the power of ambition and the wonders and rewards of adventure and exploration.

Review by Noel Dawson