It's a mess of a book, says Ronald Turnbull, but this posthumous collection from one of climbing's most sardonic wits remains a classic, infused with a healthy sense of the ridiculous.
Climbing's heroic age? Climbing has had a whole lot of heroic ages. Leaving aside those who maintain that everything after Whymper's Matterhorn ascent of 1865 has just been a bit of tidying up, Tom Patey belonged to the heroic age of the 1950s and 1960s. The time when men (and one or two boundary-pushing women) still wore nails on their boots, the noble art of step-cutting in steep ice was still alive and – as it were – kicking. The age of Bonington (who of course is still alive and, if not kicking, still wearing crampons), Joe Brown, Dougal Haston, Don Whillans and Hamish MacInnes.
Patey is less known than the others because of his early death. But Patey was perhaps the best of them all on his favoured terrain, mixed ground of rock and ice. And of them all, he was the one who could really write.
The book is informed by a lively awareness of one thing: Climbing is a completely ridiculous thing to do
Tom Patey was a GP, and took on the practice at Ullapool for the sake of the climbing. As a GP he was, I gather, a good one, and peculiarly sympathetic to the broken legs and heads of visiting climbers. Well, their injuries would prevent them interfering with Patey's romp across the entire northwest Highlands, discovering not just new routes but entire new crags. He took Bonington up the Cioch Nose route in Applecross, the most astonishing V Diff climb in Scotland [now Severe, Ed.], as well as being the only Patey route easy enough for me to have climbed...
One Patey speciality was sea-stacks. He suggested, then masterminded, the group first ascent of the Old Man of Hoy that made such an impression on the TV ratings in 1966 – 15 million viewers, for Patey, Bonington and Joe Brown moving rather slowly up loose, vertical sandstone.
And it was a sea-stack that killed him, abseiling off after the first ascent of The Maiden on the north coast of Sutherland. Abseiling in 1970 used a simple technique of a twisted rope-sling. It's my own theory that Patey's woolly jumper – a particularly disreputable one that he always wore – may have snagged in the gate of the abseil karabiner.
His contemporaries were Joe Brown, Dougal Haston, Don Whillans and Hamish MacInnes... but Patey was the one who could really write
Patey was known among climbers for his sardonic wit, and his ribald and often obscene drinking songs. 'One Man's Mountains' was compiled after his death, and it's a mess, put together from the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal and the more printable of the songs.
It starts unpromisingly: "Prior to 1951 all the principal gullies and buttresses in Lochnagar's NE corrie had been climbed, several in the preceding few years." It's a few sentences in that you notice this is a particularly engaging, and mildly self-mocking, account of the first ascent of Parallel Gully B. The good lines in this book – just like the ones on Lochnagar – do have to be hunted out a bit among the vegetation and scree.
And the result is classic (just as Cioch Nose Direct is classic among rock climbs). The first winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. The four-man ascent of the Mustagh Tower, no 8000-er but considerably more difficult than Everest. The Hoy spectacular. But perhaps the finest chapter, 'a short walk with Whillans', describes an attempt on the north face of the Eiger. An unsuccessful attempt. Jim Perrin's 'the Villain' is a fine biography of Whillans. But Patey does it in a single throwaway line. "He's a cheery character, I told myself. To Don, a spade is just a spade – a simple trenching tool used by gravediggers."
You won't find here any sensitive analysis of the mental health issues aroused or assuaged by climbing up hills. For that you have to come forward to the present day – or, or course, back to Wordsworth. Patey offers vigorous description, of men (no women in this book) as much as of mountains, informed by a lively awareness of one thing. Climbing up icefields and rocks is a completely ridiculous thing to do.
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