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Patey, Thomas Walton [Tom]locked

  • Peter Donnelly

Patey, Thomas Walton [Tom] (1932–1970), mountaineer, was born at the rectory, Ellon, Aberdeenshire, on 20 February 1932, the son of Thomas Maurice Patey, a minister of the Scottish Episcopal church, and his wife, Audrey Amy, née Walton. He was educated at Ellon Academy, Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen, and the University of Aberdeen, where he studied medicine. His national service (1954–61) was spent as a surgeon lieutenant at the naval hospital in Gosport, and with the marine commando climbing unit. In 1961 he went into general practice at Ullapool. He married at St Andrew's Cathedral, Aberdeen, on 29 July 1957, Elizabeth Mary (Betty) Davidson (b. 1932/3), a shorthand typist, the daughter of William James Davidson, petroleum depot charge-hand. They had three children.

Patey was taken hill walking by his father, and continued with the Boy Scouts and friends from Gordon's College, where he began to collect ‘Munros’ (the Scottish peaks of over 3000 feet, listed by Sir Hugh Thomas Munro). His first contact with climbers came at the end of 1949, and he climbed his first major route in Scotland (Douglas-Gibson Gully) at Christmas 1950, shortly after entering university. He began a series of first ascents in the Cairngorms, and other parts of the highlands (many solo), and such was his reputation that he was considered for the Everest expedition of 1953, only to be rejected as too young. Also during the 1950s he initiated the exploration of Chudleigh Rocks in Devon, made some first British ascents in the Alps, several first ascents in Norway, and was a member of the successful Himalayan expeditions to Mustagh Tower in 1956 and Rakaposhi (with the Royal Marines) in 1958. During the 1960s he continued his major series of first ascents in Scotland, and made some important first ascents in the Alps (for example, the west face of the Aiguille du Plan). He was also involved in the well-known BBC television live broadcasts of rock climbs at South Stack in Anglesey (1966) and the Old Man of Hoy in Scotland (1967). The latter is significant since Patey is considered to have initiated sea stack climbing in Scotland, and was sometimes referred to as Dr Stack.

In addition to his prolific climbing achievements and his work as a physician, Patey was a talented musician and writer; he was often the life and soul of parties, where he played the accordion and sang songs, including comic parodies he had written such as 'Onward, Christian Bonington'. Bonington called him

the most unpredictable, sheer-fun-to-be-with, richest character I have ever come across in my climbing career and yet at the same time there was a very real depth to him, both in terms of the prolific number of new routes he achieved, and the range and quality of his writing.

Bonington, 11

And Joe Brown noted, 'It was worth driving all the way up to the Highlands just to socialise with Tom' (Gray, 182–3).

Apart from his numerous first ascents, Patey's most enduring legacy is his writing, much of it collected in the posthumously published One Man's Mountains (1971). His work has won high praise from writers on the climbing scene: the American David Roberts considered that 'One Man's Mountains may well be the most entertaining climbing book ever written' (Roberts, 90), while the British writer Jim Perrin described the essence of Patey's writing as 'a delicious and warm-hearted exaggeration of character, the art of comic deflation, a delicate sense of the inherent absurdity in all our actions' (Perrin, 129).

Tom Patey was awarded a queen's commendation for bravery during a mountain rescue; and was elected president of the élite Alpine Climbing Group in 1969. He died on 25 May 1970 of a fracture of the base of the skull sustained in an abseiling accident following an ascent of The Maiden, a sea stack off Whiten Head on the Sutherland coast. He was survived by his wife.


  • The Times (26 May 1970), 10
  • C. Bonington, introduction, in T. Patey, One man's mountains: essays and verses, 2nd edn (1997), 11–13
  • D. Gray, Tight rope! The fun of climbing (1993)
  • C. McNeish and R. Else, The edge: one hundred years of Scottish mountaineering (1994)
  • P. Nunn, ‘Tom Patey is dead: a eulogy’, Mountain, 10 (1970), 29
  • P. Nunn, At the sharp end (1988)
  • T. Patey, One man's mountains: essays and verses (1971)
  • J. Perrin, ‘The ice climbers: a literary discourse’, On and off the rocks: selected essays, 1968–1985 (1986)
  • D. Roberts, ‘Patey Agonistes, or, A look at climbing autobiographies’, Ascent, 2/2 (1974), 86–91
  • W. Unsworth, Encyclopaedia of mountaineering (1992)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


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