Try and name the most famous British mountaineers and it’s likely your list will be headed by the likes of Hillary, Mallory, Bonington…the famous names of mountaineering.
In the early days, most mountain climbers came from upper-middle class backgrounds. They were generally university educated and in many cases had solid careers in the military behind them.
Post-war though, the trend was bucked somewhat by men like Joe Brown and Don Whillans. Born in 1930, in Ardwick, around a mile from our HQ in the centre of Manchester, Brown came from a resolutely working class background. He became known for his climbing aptitude in the early 50s and in the New Years Honours earlier this year he was deservedly awarded a CBE for services to rock climbing and mountaineering.
The name Don Whillans is less celebrated.
Coming from a similar background to his climbing partner Brown, Whillans was just three years his junior and having been been born and raised into a similarly impoverished background in the Lower Kersal district of nearby Salford, Whillans hit it off with Brown and the two became climbing cohorts.
The famed Chris Bonington was another of Whillans’ colleagues. The high point (both literally and metaphorically) of their relationship came when they reached the summit of Annapurna in Nepal in 1970. But while the former went on to become a ‘Sir’ aswell as an acclaimed author and head of various international climbing federations, Whillans’ life took an altogether different route.
Don Whillans was said to be an inquisitive young boy. His slight build shaped his tough character, making up for his lack of physical prowess in attitude and spirit. From an early age he would explore the local Pennine moors and so as he got older it was natural for him to graduate from rural rambling to climbing. He met Joe Brown in 1951. Despite them having origins no more than a couple of miles apart, they first met at a notorious magnet for climbers in Staffordshire called The Roaches. Boasting sheer gritstone rocks aswell as Buzzards flying overhead and Wallabees roaming free, it was perhaps an unlikely meeting place for two post-war working class Mancs.
From there, the duo progressed to the Alps, which is where they originally became properly acquainted with Bonington. Following this, Whillans continued climbing with Bonington for many years. Being a year old than the more famous climber, Whillans was acknowledged more as the teacher and Bonington the apprentice, certainly in their early years together. This culminated in perhaps Whillans’ greatest achievement in 1970, when he reached the summit of Annapurna, a notoriously difficult ascent. At the time it was acknowledged as the most impressive climbing feat in two decades. Following this, their relationship changed somewhat. While Bonington’s trajectory was an upward one, it’s fair to say Whillans never reached the heights of Annapurna again.
While Whillans was obviously a highly skilled climber, it is other aspects of his story that make him interesting. Whillans developed a reputation for being strong willed and a heavy drinker. Indeed in 1975, he displayed both of these traits when he fell foul of the law. A report in the Daily Mail dated Friday 25th April states 5’ 4” Whillans was spotted driving his BMW saloon erractically in Lancashire. Having been stopped by the police he put quite a struggle, it eventually took two policemen to sit on him while a further three handuffed him. It’s not difficult to see where his tongue-in-cheek nickname ‘The Villain’ came from.
His reputation as a hard drinker went hand in hand with his notoriety for the odd bit of fisticuffs. There are many tales covered in a book called ‘The Villain’ by Jim Perrin. It’s well worth a read if you can get a copy.
While the climbing feats achieved by Don Whillans stand up tall on their own, it’s his overall story that makes him such an intriquing character. Sadly he died of a heart attack in 1985.
There are several deserved heroes of British mountaineering but it’s fair to say Don Whillans is the most impressive anti-hero.