Monday, September 9, 2013

The Last Hero: Bill Tilman, by Tim Madge

Tim Madge documents the life of one of Everest's most colorful early climbers in The Last Hero: Bill Tilman: A Biography of the Explorer. Describing Tilman is a difficult task, even if the explorer left behind fifteen books of his adventures, many diaries, and thousands of letters, as he hides behind a mask of wit in his writing and was often reserved to the point of shyness in person. Madge sorts him out as best he can, showing that surviving combat in both the World Wars and growing up with a successful and demanding father led to his great need for escape. We learn of Tilman's upbringing, his war tribulations, his time in Africa, his climbs, and his polar voyages, as they refine his character and define his existence. Madge sorts through them somewhat chronologically, adhering to phases in his life, even when they overlap. In case you're unfamiliar, Tilman's adventures include crossing Africa on a bicycle, climbing in Africa and the Himalaya, exploring some of the world's last unmapped land areas, visiting Nepal soon after its opening to Westerners, and sailing small yachts to remote Arctic and Antarctic mountains. He is famous for his thrifty and sometimes ascetic expeditions, during which he would often pull off grand accomplishments with little capital. 

Tilman visited Everest three times, in 1935, 1938, and 1950. He participated in the 1935 reconnaissance and shakedown led by Eric Shipton, during which he suffered from the altitude, but put in a good show on several 20,000-foot mountians. (See Astill's Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1935.) After leading a successful climb of Nanda Devi, he was invited (at the request of Tom Longstaff, who would finance the expedition) to lead the 1938 expedition to Everest, which got within striking distance of the summit on a shoestring budget, regardless of an early monsoon and deep, loose snow. (See Tilman's Mount Everest 1938.) He returned in 1950 for a glimpse of Everest from Kala Pattar, by chance, via Nepal and Solu Khumbu, after meeting Oscar Houston in Kathmandu after returning from his own expedition to the Annapurna Himal. (See his Nepal Himalaya.) Madge's Everest material largely comes from Tilman's published accounts, though he provides some analysis and brings up Betsy Cowles Partidge as though he's going somewhere with her story; he's clearly more interested in Tilman's ocean voyaging years.

There is one additional, earlier biography of Tilman, that I'll get to sometime soon, John Anderson's High Mountains and Cold Seas: A Biography of H. W. Tilman. I've covered one additional book by Tilman, of his climbs after 1938 and his World War II experiences, When Men and Mountains Meet.

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