Bill Tilman was one of the greatest mountaineers and explorers of the 20th century, and his books are currently being republished as attractive paperbacks by Vertebrate Publishing. It’s fair to say that I jumped at the chance to read and review Mostly Mischief (which has the excellent tagline ‘Including the first ascent of a mountain to start below sea level’). Climbing and mountaineering play a secondary role in this nautical account of exploration in polar seas, but I think it’s one of the author’s most enjoyable books.
Tilman is perhaps best known for his mountaineering exploits. He climbed in Africa with Eric Shipton, and played a prominent role in early Himalayan climbing trips, including two Everest expeditions in the 1930s and the first ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936. But Tilman’s focus shifted to sailing after the Second World War. He liked nothing better than to take a small boat into deep, remote waters, crewed by young (and often inexperienced) people who were enthusiastic mountaineers as well as seamen.
My recruits are found mainly among young chaps with a taste for adventure who have not yet settled down or have settled down prematurely in a job not to their liking.
Mischief was a 45ft Bristol Channel pilot cutter built in 1906, and purchased by Tilman in 1954. Although he discovered sailing well after the golden age of sail had come and gone, he was old-fashioned in his approach to seamanship, and relished the austere simplicity of life aboard Mischief. There’s a sense that, in his voyages, he is trying to keep a certain spirit alive: adventurous, self-supported expeditions with as little reliance on technology and the trappings of the modern world as possible.
Clean, pure sailing was the object.
The book covers a number of voyages to both Arctic and Antarctic waters in the 1960s. He visited the new island of Surtsey, at that time still an active volcano, and made what is thought to be the first British ascent of the peak.
Members of the Mischief crew were dropped off at the remote Bylot Island to climb one of the mountains, and made a fifteen-day crossing of the heavily glaciated island, having arranged to meet their shipmates on the other side. There are moments in this remarkable story where I’m amazed that Tilman kept his nerve – for example, taking on water and hemmed in by pack ice in a 45ft antique boat not designed for ice work. Information about conditions was little better than hearsay and they had no access to GPS or modern weather forecasts, just centuries-old navigation techniques and their own seamanship.
While Tilman’s books about land-locked mountaineering expeditions are enthralling in their own way, I think Mostly Mischief has the full package when it comes to adventure writing: total commitment in a savage environment, self-reliance, and the simple joy of venturing into unknown places and climbing unclimbed peaks. Many of the mountains mentioned in this book are still almost unknown today. Tilman and his friends undertook these voyages for the sheer joy of the adventure, and even fifty years on Mostly Mischief cannot fail to inspire.
The book’s afterword by Philip Temple, describing a voyage in 1964 aboard the Patanela, ends with a description of Tilman that perfectly describes the spirit of this book:
I was at the wheel and could find nothing but admiration for this incredible man as I eased Patanela into the wind. He came off exhilarated, puffing but grinning slightly, a typical, mischievous look in his eye. Life was full of worthwhile challenges – even for a man of sixty-six.
Tilman wrote seven books about his mountaineering adventures and eight about his sailing explorations.
In a one-off collaboration between Vertebrate and nautical publisher Lodestar, new editions of these books - together with the definitive Anderson biography - will be published under a new imprint simply titled Tilman.
Mostly Mischief's ordinary title belies four more extraordinary voyages made by H.W. Bill Tilman covering almost 25,000 miles in both Arctic and Antarctic waters.
Mostly Mischief is for sale now, price £12
For more info see v-publishing.co.uk