The Life and Times of the Legendary Explorer Bill Tilman


(Excerpt from “Warrior Wanderer”)

In early August, 1977, an old Dutch tug sat at the quayside in Southampton, England, readying for departure. She had been converted for sail by her young owner, Simon Richardson, who had welded a keel to her steel hull, and had raised a mast and boom above her working deck. The ungainly little vessel was named “En Avant”.

The crowd that gathered on the quayside to watch her leave was drawn partly out of curiosity for her youthful skipper and crew—mostly in their twenties—who busied themselves with the trappings and tasks of their imminent sea voyage; but they were mainly drawn by the sight on deck of an elderly man with whom they were somewhat familiar, a man who at seventy nine years of age had become something of a legend in England as an explorer, mountaineer, and sailor. For he was none other than Harold William (“Bill”) Tilman.

Short and wiry in stature, Tilman was renowned for his fortitude on mountain expeditions high in the Himalaya, vast tracts of which he had helped pioneer, often shouldering loads equal to those of the tough little sherpas. Yet he was also something of an enigma to those who followed his odysseys. He was a shy, taciturn character who never boasted of his extraordinary achievements, and his occasional appearances in the press were to be honored by the Duke of Edinburgh with a Fellowship in the Royal Institute of Navigation, or by the Royal Geographical Society with the Founder’s Medal—its highest award. Other than some lectures he gave following each of his expeditions, he inevitably retired to his home in Barmouth to write his books, fifteen of which remain as some of the finest travel narratives ever written.

There was a wistfulness about the old man as he lent a hand with the gear and provisions being brought aboard “En Avant”. Unlike the young crew members about him, this was nothing new for Tilman who had been setting sail for distant climes each year for the last twenty five years. The proverbial pipe stuck in his mouth, he went about his chores calmly, still uncommonly strong at nearly eighty years of age. It was also curious to those watching that on this occasion, unlike his previous voyages abroad, Tilman was not venturing forth as skipper of one of his own wooden pilot cutters but simply as a crew member.

“En Avant” and those aboard were bound for Rio de Janeiro, and then to the Antarctic via the Falkland Islands where they were to pick up some New Zealand climbers. The vessel’s skipper, Simon Richardson (who had previously sailed with Tilman to Greenland) had as his goal the ascent of Smith Island—an objective for which Tilman had strived unsuccessfully in years past. Richardson had invited the old explorer to accompany the expedition knowing that this had been one of Tilman’s unfulfilled dreams.

At last the little ship was ready, and crew members said their goodbyes to family and friends. Tilman returned the deferential waves of a few people on the quayside. At his own request, none of his own family members stayed to see him off. If any had, they may have seen in his eyes an odd mixture of sadness and resignation, even a discerning glimmer of the fate that was to come.

Finally, with a few splutters, the old tug’s engine burst into life and she moved slowly away from the dock heading out into the channel. The crowd waved enthusiastically at first, then apprehensively, and finally just stood silently watching as the ungainly little craft faded into the distance. It was almost as if they sensed that they would never see her again.

That sense proved true: from letters written home, it is now known that “En Avant” successfully reached Rio de Janeiro a few weeks later, and after taking on some more provisions, she set sail across the Southern Ocean for the Falkland Islands. But “En Avant” never reached the Falklands, and nothing has since been found nor heard of the old Dutch tug, her youthful crew, and the legendary old explorer Bill Tilman.

The untimely death of the young men aboard “En Avant” was indeed a sad occurrence. But those who knew him well believed that Tilman’s disappearance in the Southern Ocean was in a sense kismet—a destiny befitting one of the most prolific explorers of the Twentieth Century. To have spent his remaining years “in retirement” and confined to the fireside would have been anathema to the old explorer. For here was a man, a very modest man, whose personality and exploratory feats abroad over the course of his seventy-nine years elevated him to legendary status. Yet he has remained somewhat of an enigma due in good measure to his own shyness and reticence to boast of his astonishing achievements.

Bill TilmanTilman’s niece, Pamela Davis, and her husband had dropped him off at the dock in Southampton. She later recalled: “I kissed him goodbye, just…’Bye, have a good trip.’ I got back in the car, and found myself in tears. My husband said, “Whatever’s the matter with you?” And I said, “I know I won’t see him again.” Intuition if you like, but I hoped for his sake he would die on that expedition; I didn’t ever want to see him as a pathetic, incapacitated old man. He was fit to the end…oh, he was getting a little deaf, but he could still do the things he wanted to do, and that’s how he would have wanted to have gone—definitely to die at sea or to die on a mountain—that would have been his wish. And he got his wish.”

Bill Tilman was a truly extraordinary man. A highly decorated warrior of two world wars, he went on in life to tread the summit slopes of well over a hundred peaks, traveled tens of thousands of miles—often on foot—in some of the most remote regions of Asia, Africa and South America. He sailed nearly every year for more than a quarter century to the frigid waters of the Antarctic and Arctic in old, open-cockpit wooden boats in search of places blank on the map. He and the celebrated mountaineer, Eric Shipton, pioneered large tracts of the Himalaya, including key routes on Mt. Everest, scantily dressed in old wool sweaters, tweeds and hob-nailed boots. They shunned the use of oxygen even after it became available, and did not approve of grandiose expeditions. They believed that an assault on a Himalayan giant could be organized on the back of an envelope, and proved time and again that such frugal exploits could indeed be successful.

Tilman has been portrayed by some as an anachronistic, taciturn stoic, a misogynist, and one with little or no time for anyone who didn’t live up to his high standards and expectations. Some have described him as a self-indulgent risk taker impervious to the safety or sensitivities of others. But the evidence of those who were better acquainted or close to him dismisses such hackneyed opinions, many of which were tendered by those eager to blame their own inadequacies and regrets on others.

That Tilman was a taciturn stoic is, however, not in dispute. His early letters written from Berkhamstead School where he boarded, and subsequently from the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, reveal a fairly outgoing, affable, young man. But the events and experiences that were to befall the youthful Tilman in the terrible years of the First World War were to have a profound impact on his personality.

Tilman was not quite eighteen when he was commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery, and sent off to fight in the mud, gore, and slaughter of trench warfare in France. He took part in some of the most horrific conflicts, including the Battle of the Somme in which over a million men died in little more than four months. The British were to have over 420,000 casualties, nearly 60,000 on just the first day. Tilman was severely wounded on two occasions, and was twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery under fire.

Those were dreadful times. Two generations of men were lost. It isn’t hard to imagine the profound effect those nightmarish days had on the young Bill Tilman who, liked most of those who survived, had their innocence shattered by the bloody carnage around them.

From that time on, Tilman would never be quite the same. He was to lack patience for the mundane, and was intolerant of whiners and complainers. Out of those dismal times emerged a young man old for his years, whose taciturn nature was perfectly understandable after the horrors he had witnessed, and whose stoicism—derived from the morass of the trenches in France—was later to reveal itself in his remarkable fortitude on high mountains and cold seas. He was not prone to talking about his experiences in the Great War; only to write later: “…after the first war, when one took stock, shame mingled with satisfaction at finding oneself still alive. One felt a bit like the Ancient Mariner; so many better men, a few of them friends, were dead:

‘And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.'”

In keeping with his intolerance of the mundane, Tilman was not known for small talk, and was quite content to sit in the company of a friend for hours hardly uttering a word. Speech, like life itself, had become a most valued commodity.

What many people missed, however, in gauging Bill Tilman was his enormous sense of humor. He possessed an almost impish, ironic wit often aimed at himself. Perhaps this too was a by-product of war—a mechanism by which to vanquish tormenting memories. Yet his was an intelligent humor all the more enjoyable when coming from an otherwise shy and reserved personality. He had a singular knack for seeing the ridiculousness in some of his own actions and those of others. This is plainly evident in the pages of fifteen books he was to write in his lifetime, considered to be some of the finest travel narratives ever written.

Tilman never married which, as his friend Jim Perrin, once wrote: “…gave rise to the usual run of unfounded gossip and wrong-headed speculation…”. When asked why he had never married, he wryly replied, “I’ve had my peccadilloes, but the trouble with women is they get in the damned way.” Remarks like this undoubtedly accounted for the suggestion that he was a misogynist—a hater of women. Today, they might also be regarded as sexist. But as Perrin went on to say: “A marital partner, family commitments and the like would have acted as constraints upon the pattern of life he came to discern in the Twenties and, seeing this, he wisely and unselfishly—for there is an element of moral choice here as well as working out a mode of individual integrity—disciplined himself and forwent the pleasures along with the responsibilities of marriage”. The notion that Tilman hated women is crass to those who knew him well. It was perhaps in his treatment of women that he was a little anachronistic. He was always a perfect gentleman in their presence, though extremely shy, and many found his old-fashioned courtesy and sense of propriety endearing. Yet there’s no doubt that, in those times, he considered mountain expeditions and long, arduous voyages no place for women.

He had a special affection for his sister Adeline whom he called “Adds”, and her two daughters Joan and Pamela. In 1947, Adeline had moved from their home in Wallasey to Barmouth in north Wales, where she had bought a lovely old house called Bod Owen. For the rest of his life, this was to be Tilman’s home when he was not on some distant wind-swept ridge or on the high seas. He loved not only the old house but the mountainous countryside that surrounded it where he could roam at will with his dogs.

Tilman was a very intelligent and civilized person whose love of reading, especially the classics, provided him with an abundance of quotations with which he would delightedly spar with those who could keep up. During his years in the mountains of Asia, he was happy to shoulder the additional burden of a few good books in his rucksack. When he later set sail for higher climes, boxes of books were often loaded aboard his boats at the expense of “less urgent necessities” such as life jackets.

He and Shipton had developed a reputation for being extremely frugal on their Himalayan expeditions. Tilman would set off on trips abroad—trips that would last six to eight months—with just boots, two pairs of trousers, two shirts, a few pairs of socks, long underwear, a weatherproof jacket, and for many years the same old wool sweater which, after awhile, exhibited more holes than wool. He was seldom without his pipe. When his second pilot cutter “Sea Breeze” foundered on rocks off the coast of Greenland in 1972 and sank, he and his crew were able to scramble onto a nearby islet where they spent a cold and wet night. In what to anyone else was a dire situation, Tilman calmly began working on a plan for their rescue but fretted over the loss of his pipe. He was lucky the next day to find that one of his collection had washed up and wedged itself in a fissure in the rocks. It was especially fortunate that later the same day, a passing Greenlander boat spotted them and brought them safely on board.

Tilman’s younger niece, Pam, was very fond of her intrepid Uncle Bill. When Adeline died suddenly some years later, she stepped into her mother’s shoes to take care of Tilman at Bod Owen. She was to write fondly of his quirks and eccentricities, and the man behind the enigma:

His sense of humor was enormous. In my opinion, the tragedy in his life was that so few people appreciated it. He loved having his leg pulled, and if you could cap one of his quotations (which was seldom as he was a past master at that) he would chuckle until the tears ran down his face. So many people hung on his every word and lionized him which he really didn’t like but was too courteous ever to rebuff them...

He was a man not given to expressing emotion. He felt things deeply, of that I’m sure. He expected family and close friends to keep their troubles to themselves. He kept his and was no moaner or whiner, and could not understand anyone who was. This is not to say that he would not have listened or helped if he could but I for one would have had to be desperate before I asked him for help. He was slow to praise, but his ‘That was a good effort.’ was worth more than anyone else’s fulsome expressions...

People have called Bill an eccentric. If the old fashioned virtues of fearing God, honoring your king and serving your country are now considered eccentric, then he was. I do not think so. He had an enormous influence on my life and on many others. He had humility, modesty, and great humor that showed mostly in the endless self-mockery of his own writings. Examples of his quiet courage in the face of adversity are legion.