The colourful climber and plumber Don Whillans and another legend, Joe Brown, formed a powerful partnership in the fifties. The two of them climbed routes of difficulty many years ahead of their time. They made a number of first ascents at a famous rock formation in Wales called Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, or “Cloggy” as people who do not speak Welsh prefer to say. My first encounter with Don Whillans was in the mid seventies in a Göteborg bookstore. I bought "The Black Cliff" a book which describes all the routs on Cloggy and tells about Don's and Joe's achievements there. Over the years I have met Don many times, since it is hardly possible to open a book about climbing or mountaineering without finding Whillans-stories or stories about Whillans. Some are probably truer than others.
Don had the ability to express himself both wittily and fiercely. The way he often told a story has given rise to many so-called "one-liners." Those who know say that a Whillans-story must be told by Whillans himself. His heavy flat Lancashire accent was unique. So it may be but both Doug Scott and Leo Dickinson are said to be excellent Whillans-imitators. Here we have to put up with a selection of Whillans-stories in writing.
There were a few times when Don Whillans did not get the last word even though they were rare. Dennis Gray tells how they during the fifties often climbed the cliffs near Glen Etive in the Highland of Scotland. On the way there they passed through the interior of a bay, and every time the discussion arose as to whether the water was salty or fresh. Finally Whillans decided to find out. He stepped out on an old pier and began to climb down to the water. Crash! - The wood was old and rotten and Whillans disappeared in the ice cold water. In full attire including heavy mountain boots, he surfaced after a while. "Me flat 'at - where is it?" he shouted. The wind had blown his beloved possession out of reach. "Is the water salty or fresh?" was the inevitable question from dry land.
Whillans came from Manchester with its industries, chimneys and football hooligans. Short as he was, he early learned to defend himself with both fist and tongue. The similarity with Andy Capp was obvious, especially the hat. It is said that when Don told about his many confrontations with people he finished by saying "So I 'it 'im."
Dennis Gray tells in his book “Tight Rope” a three page long hilarious story of a Whillans fight on bus no. 92 to Manchester. Entering the bus young Don and the conductor, the infamous Bully McTeague, had an argument. Bully made a grab at Don making Don lashing out a fist that came out even harder by the help of the accelerating bus. Dramatically Bully shot off the bus into the street. The driver slammed on the brakes when he saw what happened in rear-view mirror. Back on the bus the unhurt Bully and the bus driver came at Don. With the help of several passengers they succeeded to block Don’s arms from behind. Getting one hand free and grabbing and twisting the drivers balls Don came loose again and was able to fight and knock down Bully. It all ended by a familiar voice saying “Hello, hello, what’s going on ‘ere?” The British Bobby could not believe that the small youth could have caused so much havoc, he just told Don to run along. Next evening it knocked on the door at Don’s parents’ home. Don opened and there was the biggest person he ever had seen. After viewing Don he asked “Is your father in, sonny?” “’Err no, he’s out. What do you want him for?” Don replied. “I’ve come to fight him. He attacked me brother on the bus the other night, and he must be a real hard man, for nobody normally gets the better of us McTeague!” This and several other incidents earned Don the nickname “The Villian”.
Don was not entirely clear about the geography south of the English Channel. He is said to have been very disappointed when he could not see Mont Blanc from the ferry boat. When he arrived in Chamonix in 1952 and for the first time saw Mont Blanc he commented "Hey, you could lose Cloggy down one of the cracks in that thing." During the first summers in the Alps he and Joe Brown made several notable ascents. Two examples are the west faces of the Aiguille de Blaitière and the Dru, being the first and third ascent, respectively.
In the summer of 1961 an Italian and a French team were trying to climb the unclimbed Central Pillar of Freney, the most difficult route on Mont Blanc. They were hit by storm and lightning and it all ended in disaster, four of the seven died. Only Walter Bonatti, Roberto Gallieni and Piere Mazeaud survived. A few weeks later, Don Whillans and Chris Bonington decided to have a go at the Freney Pillar. The team also included Ian Clough (who later died on Annapurna) and the Polish climber Jan Dlugosz. Another strong French team of four including Rene Desmaison and Yves Pollet-Villard, followed close behind. Bonington tells how Whillans led a difficult overhanging crack. The rope ran slowly out and suddenly he heard Whillans voice "I'm coming off, Chris." A tangle of arms and legs came down from 20 meters above. Hanging upside down on the same level as Bonington Whillans exclaimed in dismay "I've lost me 'at!" Again, he had lost his dearest possession. Rene Desmaison, who was a rope length down, writes in his book "Total Alpinism" about the incident "It looked impressive, even frightening, but much more serious were the pound bills floating down from above.“ If one reads Whillans description of what happened he says that it was Bonington who a moment later lost the money. Bonington was entrusted with their common assets for as Whillans puts it "He was the only one with a wallet." It was an expensive first ascent.
Every time Don Whillans tried to climb the Eiger North Face he was unsuccessful. If it was not the weather that stopped him he had to rescue others like he did with Brian Nally in the dramatic 1962 incident. On one occasion Don and Tom Patey came rushing down the Eiger with a storm in their heels. They met two Japanese climbers. "Going up?" wondered Whillans. "Yes, yes, up to the summit, the first Japanese ascent", they answered in one voice. "You may be going up, mate, but a lot 'igher than you think!" said Whillans and added " 'appy little pair, I don’t imagine we'll ever see them again."
Don suffered from a condition that tends to be common among climbers; shortage of money. He often financed his summers in the Alps by selling his motorbike. Once when Don and Bonington decided to climb the Eiger their assets were minimal. "How much have you got?" asked Don when they teamed up in Grindelwald. "Ten quid" Bonington replied. Don, who was not really accustomed to prices in the Swiss Alps, suggested "Let's leave, they charge you even to breathe around ‘ere." Bonington was unfit and wanted them to do some training tours before they tackled the Eiger. For financial reasons Don had a different view "By the time you get to the top of the Eiger you'll be fit - or dead!"
One of the highlights of Whillans career was climbing Annapurna in 1970. It all started when Don was sent by the expedition leader Bonington to take care of the equipment shipped by sea. As with all expeditions during these years there were all sorts of problems. Don spent several days in Bombay trying to get the equipment off the ship. He received a telex from an impatient Bonington, who offered to fly down and "to pull strings". Don replied promptly "The only useful string you could pull would be a bloody great big one attached to the ship." Bonington’s book "Annapurna South Face" tells the story of the ascent. A new era began when this eight-thousander was tackled “the hard way". At the end, Don and the Scott Dougal Haston were in the top camp. For several days they waited for better weather. Despite difficult conditions, the two managed to reach the summit, and above all to get back to their tent again. In the evening Bonington called from the base camp to ask if they had managed to get outside the tent. "You've made all the bloody communications for now, so you may as well make this one", said Don to Dougal who in turn voiced over a crackling radio "Aye, we've just climbed the Annapurna."
Dougal Haston, who later tragically died in an avalanche accident, has described Don as a practical man lacking romantic veins. Don had borrowed a copy of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" from Dougal. After a while he threw it aside and analyzed "Fuckin' fairies."
In the early seventies, Margaret Thatcher was the leader of the opposition party in England. As part of a project to increase publicity she met famous people, like "grass-roots". Dennis Gray, who was secretary general of the British Mountaineering Council, being one of Don’s oldest friends knew of none more "grass-root" than Don Whillans. A meeting between Mrs Thatcher and Don Whillans was arranged. "Who's going to pay me bleedin' train fare?" Don wanted to know before he agreed to anything. Well at the meeting it appeared that the "Iron Lady" was delayed. A pub visit and a number of pints later Whillans waited recumbent on a couch. The only problem was that he had his fly open. The moment Mrs Thatcher came into the room a servant observed the situation, leaned forward and whispered "Mr. Whillans, Mr. Whillans. Your flies are undone." Don immediately delivered perhaps his most famous one-liner "Tha need not have worried, yer know. Dead birds never fall out the bleedin' nest!" Don seemed to get along well with the Iron Lady and regretted that she was not at the pub earlier on the day.
Don Whillans participated in the 1972 European Everest Expedition. The atmosphere was not the best among the various nationalities, no one wanted to carry loads because everyone was saving himself for a possible summit attempt. The German climbers heard on the radio that England had lost a soccer game to Germany. The conversation went "It seems that we have beaten you in your national sport", said a proud German to Don. After a minimal pause Don replied "Aye lad, and we've beaten you at yours, twice."
During the approach march of one expedition an Indian boy asked if the group were mountain climbers. "Aye", said Don to the boy who carefully studied Whillans. "But are you not too fat to be a mountain climber", the boy said. Don turned his head and stared icily at the boy "Perhaps I am too fat, but by the end of this expedition I'll be skinny and they'll be non-existent." Later Whillans rounded a bend and stood face to face with a mysterious Indian in a large turban. As was customary, the Indian held out his hand to receive a contribution. "Hmm, are you on some sort of sponsored walk?" asked Whillans and shook the surprised man's hand.
Expedition life together with Don Whillans was not always easy. After having cooked food for Don for a week on Everest somebody complained "Don, I'm not your mother!" Don asked "You're not one of those types that moan about a bit of cookin', are you?" Heard from Don's tent one night "Hey, wake up! I just realized it's me bloody Fiftieth birthday!" Someone had comments on Don's willingness to carry loads. "He fills his backpack with a bloody sleeping bag. If you ask him to carry anything he says ‘It's not the weight, it's where to put it!’" Later Don expressed his opinion of the expedition leaders’ ability to organize "This lot couldn’t organize a fuck in a Brothel."
On another expedition Greg Child accompanied Don on a trip along a river. Don was looking for the place where a friend had been buried after an accident on Masherbrum in 1957. "We will never find the place after all these years," despaired Greg. '' Aye, a bad year was '57. Herman Buhl was killed, we missed out climbing Masherbrum, my mate died and you were born", Don replied.
Some tongues criticized Don Whillans because he was unsuccessful on many peaks. If he was, it was probably due to the fact that Don considered survival the key to mountaineering; "There are two types of climbers - the smart ones and dead ones." Other comments on the same theme were "I don’t mind fighting my way out of trouble but I'm dammed if I'll fight my way into it" and "The mountains will always be there, the trick is for you to be there as well." Greg Child tells about an incident during the 1971 Everest expedition when the Indian Harsh Bahaguna got altitude sickness in storm winds high on the mountain. Whillans was part of the rescuers that eventually reached the weak climber. The situation was critical and continuing the rescue attempt would have been fatal to all of them. Whillans took the decision "I'm sorry, ‘arsh, old man. You've ‘ad it." Cruel some would say, realistic others would call it.
Don came from a working-class environment and was himself a plumber. In later years, he became good at giving presentations. He often began by stressing his background "I'm Don Whillans, they say I'm working-class but I'd like you to know I've not worked for twelve years."
Dennis Gray tells of when Don was on his way to give a presentation and got stuck in a traffic jam. "What's up, mate, is there a football match on or something?" Don asked a policeman. "No, it is indeed a mountaineer who will give lectures. Not that I understand that someone wants to listen to that kind of stuff", said the policeman. "Yer, they'd be better off sitting in the pub with a pint in their hands", Don replied.
Jim Curran, one of Don's best friends in later days, listened to one of Don's performances. Don started out by showing an old group photo saying "You may wonder why I've included this. (Pause) That's me in the middle of the picture, but, over on the left corner is a girl I'd never spoken to at the time. (A longer pause) That's me wife Audrey. (An even longer pause) Which just goes to show that danger lurks when you least expect it ... "
There seems to be no secret that Don, especially in later years, drank a few pints - probably more than was healthy. The interest in alcohol could be explained by statements as "People ask me why I drink so much. It's because of a morbid fear of dehydration." Give Don Whillans a thought next time you have a pint on the terrace at the bar "Le National" in Chamonix. When Don was not sitting in his favourite place he was most certainly out climbing. One might wonder why Whillans, with so obstinately and sometimes cynical behaviour, has become so famous? Probably it is not only due to his qualities as climber and mountaineer. The question is difficult to answer but we all love heroes – and anti-heroes – don’t we?
Donald Desbrow Whillans was born in 1933 in Salford, a suburb of Manchester. He died of a major heart attack in his sleep in 1985.
Thanks to desainme for comments on the original text.