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High Endeavours: The Life and Legend of Robin Smith
High Endeavours: The Life and Legend of Robin Smith
by James Cruickshank
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.94

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A genius, fondly remembered, 11 May 2007
Robin Smith was one of the greatest British climbers of the pioneering 1950s and early 60s, who, unimaginably to those who knew him, fell to his death on a snow slope in the Pamirs before he'd reached his 24th birthday. Irrepressible, mischievous, brilliant and immensely talented, this book is a long-awaited tribute to this extraordinary young man.

I delighted in this new biography by Jimmy Cruikshank, one of Robin Smith's childhood friends. It vividly fleshed out the images left in my mind from the few tousleheaded photos I'd seen, and the published handful of essays which were monuments to his startlingly original, self-deprecating and wildly funny writing. The book evidently took years in the writing and is essentially an editorial work in which the recollections of many others are stitched together like a vividly colored patchwork quilt.

Most of Smith's critically acclaimed essays, anarchic and casual in style but (as the book explains) impeccably and deliberately crafted, are there; but they've all been published elsewhere. New, and of significant interest, are the personal recollections of those who knew him. For that reason this book is an important contribution to climbing history. On reflection, it seems extraordinary that no life of Smith has been compiled before. Perhaps that's because its subject had so many facets: any attempt to describe him in brief terms - including any summary in this review - would be bound to fail.

I knew Smith was a fearless and innovative climber. What I didn't know was that he had a brilliant mind, his genius in the abstruse field of mathematic logic impressing his Edinburgh University philosophy tutors to this day. While sitting impatiently in Grindelwald waiting for Dougal Haston to join him for an attempt on the North Face of the Eiger (Haston never showed up, or the pair would surely have made the first British ascent), he read Bertrand Russell for company. One colleague, Jimmy Gardiner, who played chess competitively, writes that he was hustled out of ten shillings by Smith who beat him at chess having claimed that he knew little of the game. Few climbers were aware that this untidy and seemingly shambolic young man possessed the sharpest academic mind, and fewer still that he had been admitted to study Philosophy at PhD level at London University.

Smith was almost universally liked, and fondly remembered, by everyone who knew him; though he had many infuriating traits which (see below) he seemed to cultivate deliberately. Unusually for teachers and professors when asked their recall of a student whom they briefly knew many decades later, each one clearly remembered not only his name, but his academic ability, strong personality, wit, irrepressibility, cheer and charm.

Many climbers will be aware that on his numerous exploits Smith almost invariably was disorganised to the despair of those around him. Regularly he would forget to bring important items such as food, compass, map or tent. Smith completed many climbs, famous to this day, at night or in the rain, sporting a battered pair of walking boots and carrying little or nothing that any modern mountaineer would regard as essential. Such casual bravura must have been carefully planned. An impish ragamuffin to the end, his apparently scatterbrained absent-mindedness was surely consciously deployed; he was giving the mountains a chance, deliberately playing triple-dog-dare with the circumstances.

Eventually, the mountains won. He was only 23 when he died, roped to the Everester Wilfred Noyce as they were descending from a successful ascent of Pik Garmo in the Pamirs as part of a joint UK-Soviet expedition. Jimmy Marshall, the only Scottish climber of his era to approach him in natural ability, is quoted in the book that he was unable to believe Smith's cat-like reflexes would have allowed him to slip on any snow slope, no matter how exhausted. One is tempted to conjecture that it was Noyce who slipped and pulled Smith to his death. However, that thought - the truth of which can never be known - is nowhere stated in the book, or elsewhere, and is mine alone. All serious climbers understand that to joust continually with the elemental forces of the mountains is to play a form of Russian Roulette. But to his peers, Smith must have appeared both charmed and invincible. It's easy to imagine the shock and disbelief that greeted the news of his death.

On many occasions his longsuffering partner was the great Dougal Haston, later of Everest fame but then also a youth. Yet in those early days, Smith was certainly the stronger climber. It feels like a weak understatement to sat that it was a tremendous tragedy for British mountaineering that he was killed when so young. Smith, a pioneer and innovator to his core, would surely have gone on to be one of the very greatest modern climbers in the Himalayas and elsewhere. What would he have achieved? Even in those tender years Smith had become a legend in his own time. This excellent biography adds substance to the aura, which has steadily grown over the years, of the sheer fun, outrageous mischief and exceptional achievement that surrounded him.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 17, 2010 5:56 PM GMT


High Endeavours: The Life and Legend of Robin Smith
High Endeavours: The Life and Legend of Robin Smith
by James Cruickshank
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A genius, findly remembered, 11 May 2007
Robin Smith was one of the greatest British climbers of the pioneering 1950s and early 60s, who, unimaginably to those who knew him, fell to his death on a snow slope in the Pamirs before he'd reached his 24th birthday. Irrepressible, mischievous, brilliant and immensely talented, this book is a long-awaited tribute to this extraordinary young man.

I delighted in this new biography by Jimmy Cruikshank, one of Robin Smith's childhood friends. It vividly fleshed out the images left in my mind from the few tousleheaded photos I'd seen, and the published handful of essays which were monuments to his startlingly original, self-deprecating and wildly funny writing. The book evidently took years in the writing and is essentially an editorial work in which the recollections of many others are stitched together like a vividly colored patchwork quilt.

Most of Smith's critically acclaimed essays, anarchic and casual in style but (as the book explains) impeccably and deliberately crafted, are there; but they've all been published elsewhere. New, and of significant interest, are the personal recollections of those who knew him. For that reason this book is an important contribution to climbing history. On reflection, it seems extraordinary that no life of Smith has been compiled before. Perhaps that's because its subject had so many facets: any attempt to describe him in brief terms - including any summary in this review - would be bound to fail.

I knew Smith was a fearless and innovative climber. What I didn't know was that he had a brilliant mind, his genius in the abstruse field of mathematic logic impressing his Edinburgh University philosophy tutors to this day. While sitting impatiently in Grindelwald waiting for Dougal Haston to join him for an attempt on the North Face of the Eiger (Haston never showed up, or the pair would surely have made the first British ascent), he read Bertrand Russell for company. One colleague, Jimmy Gardiner, who played chess competitively, writes that he was hustled out of ten shillings by Smith who beat him at chess having claimed that he knew little of the game. Few climbers were aware that this untidy and seemingly shambolic young man possessed the sharpest academic mind, and fewer still that he had been admitted to study Philosophy at PhD level at London University.

Smith was almost universally liked, and fondly remembered, by everyone who knew him; though he had many infuriating traits which (see below) he seemed to cultivate deliberately. Unusually for teachers and professors when asked their recall of a student whom they briefly knew many decades later, each one clearly remembered not only his name, but his academic ability, strong personality, wit, irrepressibility, cheer and charm.

Many climbers will be aware that on his numerous exploits Smith almost invariably was disorganised to the despair of those around him. Regularly he would forget to bring important items such as food, compass, map or tent. Smith completed many climbs, famous to this day, at night or in the rain, sporting a battered pair of walking boots and carrying little or nothing that any modern mountaineer would regard as essential. Such casual bravura must have been carefully planned. An impish ragamuffin to the end, his apparently scatterbrained absent-mindedness was surely consciously deployed; he was giving the mountains a chance, deliberately playing triple-dog-dare with the circumstances.

Eventually, the mountains won. He was only 23 when he died, roped to the Everester Wilfred Noyce as they were descending from a successful ascent of Pik Garmo in the Pamirs as part of a joint UK-Soviet expedition. Jimmy Marshall, the only Scottish climber of his era to approach him in natural ability, is quoted in the book that he was unable to believe Smith's cat-like reflexes would have allowed him to slip on any snow slope, no matter how exhausted. One is tempted to conjecture that it was Noyce who slipped and pulled Smith to his death. However, that thought - the truth of which can never be known - is nowhere stated in the book, or elsewhere, and is mine alone. All serious climbers understand that to joust continually with the elemental forces of the mountains is to play a form of Russian Roulette. But to his peers, Smith must have appeared both charmed and invincible. It's easy to imagine the shock and disbelief that greeted the news of his death.

On many occasions his longsuffering partner was the great Dougal Haston, later of Everest fame but then also a youth. Yet in those early days, Smith was certainly the stronger climber. It feels like a weak understatement to sat that it was a tremendous tragedy for British mountaineering that he was killed when so young. Smith, a pioneer and innovator to his core, would surely have gone on to be one of the very greatest modern climbers in the Himalayas and elsewhere. What would he have achieved? Even in those tender years Smith had become a legend in his own time. This excellent biography adds substance to the aura, which has steadily grown over the years, of the sheer fun, outrageous mischief and exceptional achievement that surrounded him.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 6, 2012 4:15 PM GMT


The Villain: The Life of Don Whillans
The Villain: The Life of Don Whillans
by Jim Perrin
Edition: Hardcover

49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superbly crafted portrait, 22 Sep 2005
This is a quite wonderful book. Jim Perrin is a rare man: a mountaineer from working class roots who's also a very gifted writer, in my opinion the finest of all the mountaineering writers of late. He's an averagely competent climber - no extreme gymnast or Everest-conquering hero - but has been in the "scene" for decades and knew Whillans personally, who, besides being a fabulously gifted climber armed with a devastating wit, was also famously bellicose. (Perrin's first encounter with Whillans was when Whillans invited him to 'step outslde' after he'd bumped him in a Welsh pub; people who didn't know Whillans often got into trouble with because he was so small - only five foot three. "But it's raining!" exclaimed Perrin, to his immediate embarrassment. "Aye, yer wet enough already", retorted Whillans, and walked away chuckling. They later became friends.)
The book is sublimely assembled and the acute poignancy of his subject - the "hardest man" in British climbing, who while broadly loved, revered and admired by the climbing community at large, was shunned in his later years by a sizeable minority of his peers - actually reduced me to tears in several places: each time, surprised by the sudden lump in my throat, I had to stop reading for a few minutes. This was a clearly a terribly difficult project (it took nearly twenty years to complete); in his preface he says the book was really written by the entire British climbing community, such was the quality and quantity of the material provided from every quarter. As I read on, quite unable to put the book down, I found myself increasingly admiring of Perrin's writing on what is a very challenging and unstraightforward subject - a respected friend, brilliant in many ways yet full of flaws and complexity, revered by the climbing community yet brim-full of contradictions. Some of the most moving parts of the book for me were the brilliant glimpses Perrin provided into the undoubted soft, sensitive, yet almost totally hidden core of this toughest and bravest of men: when he relished bouncing a balloon with a friend's small child (he thought no-one was watching); the great care he gave to those in difficulty in perilous and serious mountain situations (when he always came into his own; many described Whillans as the very finest mountaineer ever to share a tight corner with); the desperate hurt and betrayal he felt - and never got over - when Joe Brown, his old-time climbing partner and (some may say) nemesis, was invited to Kanchenjunga in 1953 but Whillans was overlooked; the times when as a small child he was a famous 'scrapper' but would always do the decent thing and own up when a friend was unjustly punished for one of Whillans' misdemeanours. For me, Whillans - in most, but not all, of his actions and behavior; the only exceptions occurred when he was drunk and a different, more violent and angry persona sometimes emerged - epitomises the very definition of 'integrity": when one's words, actions and beliefs are all in alignment, like it or not. The only aspect of the man that rarely broke surface was his own undoubtedly emotional core, which drove him in every way, and gave the lie to his sometimes apparently unkind, selfish or insensitive presentation of himself to his mountaineering brethren.
Here is one of a large number of impeccably crafted paragraphs:
"This vignette [the great Tom Patey's article for that year's Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal entitled "a Short Walk with Whillans'] by the finest comic essayist in climbing literature played a considerable role in establishing the persona of Whillans as doom-laded quipster and drollster, and in a mellow but perceptive way also brought out the character traits that were ultimately to contribute to the widespread disaffection with him among the companions on his later expeditions: the strategic indolence, the racism, the incessant scrounging, and the propensity for dogmatic utterance that would brook no contradiction. It also, in a brief and masterful final paragraph, captured beautifully the sense that here was a man who, for all his unique abilities and exceptional achievements, had hanging around him something of the atmosphere of failure, something of the sense of one unloved by those gods who bestow good fortune and easy chance on humankind; and perhaps also the sense of one who was growing 'tired of knocking at preferment's door': 'We got back to the Alpiglen in time for late lunch. The telescope stood forlorn and deserted in the rain. The Eiger had retired into misty oblivion, as Don Whillans retired to his favourite corner seat by the window.'"
If you appreciated this delicious little snippet, I suspect you'll greatly value the book: the finest and most masterful climbing biography I've yet had the pleasure to read. Jim Perrin deserves honours for his unswerving dedication to honesty, fairness, and some truly sublime descriptive writing in among it all.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 31, 2010 8:21 PM GMT


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