DON WHILLANS, who died suddenly on 4 August 1985 aged 52, was an exceptional figure among British mountaineers. His record of bold and innovative routes on British crags, in the mountains of Europe and $outh America and in the Himalaya was outstanding enough, but it was his dry humour, uncanny mountain sense and his projection of climbing as a sport not confined to an elite for which he will be most remembered.
Whillans was born in Lancashire, and was a plumber when he took up rock climbing as a hobby. His partnership with Joe Brown was legendary for the climbs they pioneered; routes of great elegance which remain challenging thirty year later. Many Whillans' climbs have become classics, whether on the rich stone outcrops of the North country or on the bigger rock faces of North Wales, the Lake District or the north face of Ben Nevis. They are notable for their boldness and neatness of line.
In the 1950's he turned to the more intimidating challenge of the Alps, and with Joe Brown made the first British ascent of the west face of the Dru. The west face of the Blaitiere was an important first ascent by any climbers, and Whillans was in the British party which climbed the central pillar of Freney, perhaps the last major unclimbed Alpine route. This they did shortly after a tragedy in which four Italian and French climbers had died attempting the same route.
Whillans made five attempts on the North Wall of the Eiger with Chris Bonington. Four times they were driven back by bad weather and once they abandoned their attempt in order to rescue a British climber whose partner had been killed by stone-fall.
In 1970 Whillans reached the summit of Annapurna in the Himalaya on the first major expedition of its kind to a Himalayan face, and in the following two years took part in attempts on the southwest face of Everest. There he showed great skill and mature judgement, placing safety and the well-being of his fellow climbers ahead of a successful assault on the summit. It was typical of him that on an earlier Himalayan attempt on Masherbrum, Whillans turned back only a short distance from the top when his partner fell ill. In all he took part in more than fifteen major expeditions.
He never lost his keenness for mountaineering, climbing in the Himalaya and the Alps, and was returning from a climbing holiday in the Dolomites when he died.
His lectures on his adventures were immensely popular and made him something of a cult figure among young climbers. In some respects he was an anti-hero, not at all the athletic paragon the public imagines mountaineers to be. He was stout, short and liked a pint. When challenged as to how anyone with such a build managed even to reach the holds, Whillans gave the questioner a look of withering scorn. 'Reach the holds?' he said, 'I climb up to them'.