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  Donald Desbrow Whillans (1933–1985), by Doug Scott Donald Desbrow Whillans (1933–1985), by Doug Scott
Whillans, Donald Desbrow (1933–1985), mountaineer, was born on 18 May 1933 at St Mary's Hospital, Salford, the first of two children of Thomas Whillans (1906–1986), a grocer, and his wife, Mary Burrows (1909–1985). He attended state schools in Salford and served his apprenticeship as a plumber, studying for but not completing City and Guilds Institute examinations. His early involvement in hiking began while he was at Broughton modern school. He joined the Boy Scouts, but also began a series of extended solo hikes in the Peak District. The hikes continued during his apprenticeship and he did his first rock climb in 1950, untutored and with completely inappropriate equipment, at Shining Clough in Derbyshire.

Whillans became a very good climber very quickly, at a time when the sport was primarily a middle- and upper middle-class activity characterized by protracted apprenticeships. He first met Joe Brown (b. 1930), a jobbing builder, climbing at the Roaches (near Leek, Staffordshire) in 1951. The two went on to form through most of the 1950s a partnership, though not a close or lasting friendship, which had a revolutionary effect on British climbing. Climbing together, and with others, they created a series of British rock climbs that were of the highest quality and difficulty, especially given the equipment and technique available at the time.

Later in 1951 Whillans, Brown, and ten others, mostly working-class climbers from Manchester, came together to form the élite Rock and Ice Club. The reputation of the club, and its members, lasted well into the 1960s and influenced several subsequent generations of climbers. These were the ‘hard men’ who made first ascents of climbs with reputations that terrorized other climbers, and who also knew how to look after themselves in a fight (Whillans's nickname, the Villain, derives from the latter). And Whillans was the ‘hardest’ of them all—‘the 'ard little man in the flat 'at’. The short stature and stocky build of both Whillans and Brown led to some bizarre physiological theories regarding the physique necessary for climbing at the highest level.

Whillans made his first trip to the Alps in 1952, and in the following years he was involved in a number of major first ascents and first British ascents. In 1953 he became a founding member of the élite Alpine Climbing Group, dedicated to raising the standard of British alpinism. On his first Himalayan expedition, to Masherbrum in 1957, he turned back just 300 feet from the summit after some extremely difficult climbing. On an expedition to Trivor in 1960 he suffered from a mild attack of poliomyelitis. But his account of his return trip (‘Solo by motorcycle from Rawalpindi to Lancashire’) is a small gem of adventure travel literature. The writing is understated and full of good humour, anticipating his subsequent lecture style, and leaving the reader wishing that he had written more. His autobiography (Don Whillans: Portrait of a Mountaineer, 1971) was compiled with Alick Ormerod from a series of interviews.

Between these two expeditions Whillans married Audrey Whittall on 24 May 1958. She was a cutter in a clothing factory, did some climbing with Don, and was invariably tolerant of some of the excesses of his social life. In 1960 they moved to Crawshawbooth in Rossendale, Lancashire, where Whillans had been evacuated for six months during the Second World War; and in 1976 they opened a guest house at Penmaen-mawr in Caernarvonshire.

After the early 1960s Whillans did little serious rock climbing in Britain and focused on expeditions—Aiguille Poincenot (1962) and the central tower of Paine (1963), both in Patagonia, and Gauri Sankar in the Himalayas (1964). The latter involved Whillans in some very difficult face climbing at high altitude, but he turned back before the summit because of avalanche risk and his partner's risk of frostbite. By the late 1960s he had visited the Andes (Huandoy) and Yosemite, California, worked as an instructor in Switzerland, was a popular lecturer, and had begun to design equipment (for example, the Whillans harness for climbing, and the Whillans box for camping in extreme weather).

Whillans's greatest mountaineering success came in 1970, when he and Dougal Haston climbed the south face of Annapurna, the first major face climb on an 8000 metre peak. The following year he and Haston reached the highest point (27,500 feet) on the south-west face of Everest, but failed to reach even that height in bad weather on their return in 1972. He was involved in the ascents of Roraima (H. McInnes, Climb to the Lost World, 1974), and Torre Egger, and in attempts on Tirich Mir (1975), Shivling (1981), and both Cerro Torre and Broad Peak in 1983. It should be noted that all of Whillans's climbs were accomplished in spite of the fact that he suffered from vertigo.

Whillans's achievements were honoured by his being given the freedom of the city of Salford on 29 July 1971. He was presented with a commemorative plate by the mayor of Rawtenstall on 23 September 1970, to celebrate the success on Annapurna. The British Mountaineering Council appointed him as a vice-president (1973–6), and subsequently put his name forward to be considered for a queen's honour. Dennis Gray, general secretary of the council from 1974 to 1989, suggests that Whillans was ‘perhaps the greatest British mountaineer of his or any other generation’. However, Gray notes that his name was withdrawn from consideration by the prime minister's office after a drunken incident involving a fight with the police resulted in a large fine.

Whillans's occasional bouts of misbehaviour, in part a result of drinking and a feisty nature, but also a consequence of his frequently being challenged because of his small size and large reputation, stand in stark contrast to his enormous good sense and competence as a climber and the great affection in which he was held, and is remembered. The repeated stories about Whillans reached mythical proportions. Mike Thompson's article ‘Out with the boys again’, on the successful Everest south-west face expedition in 1975 (an expedition to which Whillans was, perhaps unfairly, not invited) describes ‘Whillans jokes’:
Happy hours were passed recounting those epics in which Whillans would gradually unfold an account of his rectitude and forbearance in the face of seemingly unbearable chicanery and provocation. Like some Greek tragedy the sequence of events would move inexorably to the inevitable, fateful conclusion. All such tales led to the same final and literal punch-line: ‘So I 'it 'im’.
Examples of typical ‘Whillans jokes’ can be found in Tom Patey's ‘A short walk with Whillans’ (1963), Jim Curran's ‘Whillans!’ (1985), and Dennis Gray's ‘Simply Whillanesque’ (1993). But there are also many stories about aspects of Whillans's character and climbing ability that commanded enormous respect, such as the ones where he risked his own life in attempts to rescue others—Brian Nally on the north face of the Eiger in 1962, Harish Bahuguna on Everest in 1971, and Mick Coffey on Torre Egger in 1974; and where he took care not to place others at risk by pushing for the summit when they were fatigued (for example Masherbrum, 1957).

Don Whillans died of a heart attack while sleeping at a friend's house at 30 Bagley Wood Road, Kennington, Oxfordshire, on 4 August 1985. He had just returned from the Dolomites after another epic motorcycle journey, riding in rain from Paris to the channel. He was cremated at Bangor crematorium, north Wales. His wife, Audrey, scattered his ashes on Snowdon—within sight of Clogwyn du'r Arddu, where he had made a number of his most significant rock climbs. The British Mountaineering Council started a Don Whillans memorial fund later that year—including a ‘Buy a pint for Don’ appeal—and purchased Rockall Cottage below the Roaches. Audrey Whillans, who first met Don at the Roaches, opened the climbing hut in his name in January 1993.

Peter Donnelly

Sources  

D. Whillans and A. Ormerod, Don Whillans: portrait of a mountaineer (1971) · private information (2004) · J. Perrin, The villain: a life of Don Whillans (2001); repr. (2005) · Mountain, 105 (1985), 16–17 · D. Whillans, ‘Solo by motorcycle from Rawalpindi to Lancashire’, in W. Noyce, To the unknown mountain (1962), appx A, 157–71 [repr. as ‘Rawalpindi to Rawtenstall’, in J. Perrin, ed., Mirrors in the cliffs (1983), 308–18] · D. Whillans, ‘Interview’, Mountain, 20 (1972), 24–8 · D. Gray, ‘Simply Whillanesque’, Tight rope! The fun of climbing (1993), 63–102 · J. Curran, ‘Whillans ! An appreciation’, Mountain, 106 (1985), 30–33 · D. Walker, ‘Into the nineties’, The first fifty years of the British Mountaineering Council, ed. G. Milburn, D. Walker, and K. Wilson (1997), 76–96 · D. Gray, ‘The eighties’, The first fifty years of the British Mountaineering Council, ed. G. Milburn, D. Walker, and K. Wilson (1997), 66–75 · T. Patey, ‘A short walk with Whillans’, One man's mountains: essays and verses (1971), 183–92 · M. Thompson, ‘Out with the boys again’, Mountain, 50 (1976), 32–3 · J. Brown, The hard years (1967) · C. Bonington, Annapurna south face (1971) · C. Bonington, Everest south west face (1973) · W. Unsworth, Encyclopaedia of mountaineering, 2nd edn (1992) · K. Wilson and M. Pearson, ‘Everest: post-mortem of an international expedition’, Mountain, 17 (1971), 10–29 · D. Scott, ‘To rest is not to conquer’, Mountain, 23 (1972), 10–18 · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage


Likenesses  

D. Scott, photograph, Alpine Club, London [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

under £40,000: administration, 15 Jan 1987, CGPLA Eng. & Wales