July 27, 2016 4 min read
Born in 1907 in Ceylon, Eric Earle Shipton became one of the finest mountaineers in the world. For him, like his frequent climbing partner H.W. Tilman, exploration was everything, the tantalising view into a hidden valley more important than a prestigious summit. He preferred small and ‘free’ expeditions to large outfits, and his ideal of achieving more with less, of travelling uncluttered and attuned to the landscape remains an inspiration to many.
All the while he wrote, recording his adventures in a series of books, for the first time published as ebooks by Vertebrate, including Nanda Devi, Blank on the Map, Upon that Mountain, Mountains of Tartary, Everest 1951, and Land of Tempest.
To mark the completion of the set of six mountain-travel ebooks,I caught up with Eric’s son John, who gave me an additional, personal insight into his father’s attitudes and approaches to a life of exploration.
Do you think the books reveal a lot about your father's character?
My father had an overriding passion throughout his life. In this he was supremely lucky I feel because that is something given to very few people. I have always found it hard to describe exactly what that passion was but loosely perhaps could be summed up by ‘exploration and finding out what was on the other side’. Mountains were of course the overriding backdrop and inspiration but he had a very special and I think almost unique feel for country. There is a famous adage ascribed to him that he could design and plan an expedition on the back of an envelope, which describes well his wonderfully simple, clear approach. Unencumbered lightweight mountain travel was his hallmark and was a revolutionary concept.
What do you think he would have been like as a fellow teammate on an expedition?
Apart from him taking me to climb Monte Disgrazia in the Italian Alps and Stromboli the active volcano in the Mediterranean when I was a boy, I have no direct experience of him as travelling companion. However I know he would have been a very easy man to share a tent and glacier with. He loved talking and was interested in people but very happy to let people go their own way. In Chile some years ago I met Cedomir Marangunic who climbed Monte Darwin (Shipton) in Tierra del Fuego and accompanied him on the Southern Ice Cap traverse who said he was quite happy to let his companions choose how they wanted to do things. A question such [as] ‘shall we climb such and such a peak?’ would be met with ‘OK’. Indeed the great feature of the Himalayan expeditions, Everest 1935, the Karakoram 1937 and Everest 1951 and 1952 was to let his team split up, explore different glaciers or attempt different peaks.
What do you think your father would make of modern lightweight alpinism and mountaineering today, with all the high-tech gear and gizmos?
My father learnt his mountaineering skills in the 1920s when a coil of hessian rope, an ice axe and hob-nailed boots was all there was. But these were all he ever needed to fulfil his ambitions. After all what had worked for him was perfectly sufficient. Many of his climbing feats would barely be attempted by modern climbers. How many could repeat the Shipton/Tilman traverse of Mount Kenya, the climbing feats in Nanda Devi, let alone innumerable first ascents in the Himalaya and Patagonia with or without modern equipment? I’m not sure he ever really came to grips with crampons even. After all an old-style straight-edged, long-handled ice axe was all you needed to cut steps! His rope technique on glaciers could be described as appalling in today’s terms.
Why do you think he wanted to publish accounts of his adventures?
There must be thousands of adventures, climbs and achievements that have gone and go unrecorded, but the urge to tell a good story is inherent in almost everyone. In that sense my father was in a privileged position in that he had a ready-made audience in the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club, as well as encouragement from people around him. He would have been very aware of the unique nature of what he was doing, and that what he did produced fabulous and very special stories. The simplicity of the vision inspiring his journeys allowed him to tell the stories and the feelings behind them with great clarity.
Do you have a personal favourite book? If so, why is this your favourite?
I only really began to appreciate the significance of my father in the late 1990s when I started leading Himalayan treks. After a walk in the Garhwal Himalaya I dimly remembered when I was a boy hearing my father discussing over dinner how, from an altitude, the country far below looks simple to traverse. He was referring to his and Tilman’s journey between the holy places Badrinath and Kedarnath only previously made by a mythical flying guru. They had to travel through dense forest and, soon running out of food, had to subsist on bamboo shoots in competition with bears. Having been close to the area I was intrigued to discover that no one had crossed that col or entered that valley since them in 1934!
Nanda Devi is the first great effort to put his vision of lightweight mountain travel into practice. It makes a wonderful read entailing the entering of this sanctuary, untouched by any other human being, and the two fabulous traverses made in the middle of the monsoon season.
I soon found that there were a plethora of places he explored that had not been visited since, and found a rich trove in Patagonia which I could follow up inLand of Tempest, particularly Tierra del Fuego and the Southern Ice Cap.
Click on the book covers below to link directly to the Amazon Kindle ebooks.
Interview by Camilla Barnard.
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