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Scotland to Switzerland
on 15 September 2008
`The Philosophy of Risk' is Jeff Connor's second biography of a talented Scottish climber - the first subject was John Cunningham with a forthright and straightforward account, but this concerns a more evasive and complex character: Dougal Haston. The book is based on careful and comprehensive research with sources including many contemporary climbers and commentators as well as Haston's own notes, diaries, journal articles and books. It sets out the life of Dougal Haston from his unruly childhood in Currie to his final chaotic years in Switzerland. Though Dougal lost many friends to the mountains, he himself was regarded as the `ultimate survivor' even though as a risk-taker his death was not a universal surprise. Matching the title of the book the author refers repeatedly to the weighing up of risks - from describing Dougal's realisation on his first ever route, Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor, that "this was an environment of overt risk and yet reassuring security", to the skiing accident above Leysin that killed him at age 36 years when he reckoned confidently "he could outrun any small slides" and proceeded in spite of avalanche warnings.
Though assisting the reader to assess mindset and motives of Dougal Haston there is a slightly worrying degree of speculation in some of Connor's writing, but between the initial rock climb in Scotland and the final snow slope in Switzerland are all desired elements of a good mountaineering book. There are accounts of many fine achievements including both phenomenal successes as well as failures in Britain, the Alps, the Himalaya and elsewhere. These embrace rock and ice in Scotland, ascents of Alpine North faces, Annapurna, Everest, Mount McKinley and much more. Emphasis is given to those which raised Haston's public profile such as the winter ascent of The Eiger and the BBC documentary on the Old Man of Hoy. Additionally Connor concentrates on the elite of mountaineers amongst Dougal's mentors and companions including Jimmy Marshall, Robin Smith, Don Whillans, Doug Scott and Chris Bonington and anyone else operating at top levels in the 1960's and 1970's. The book is a `roll of honour' of men and mountains - a roll where Dougal Haston deserves his place with total respect for his climbing and mountaineering talents, but hard-hitting remarks on his turbulent lifestyle. Other aspects of Haston's life are covered embracing his upbringing, brief university education and the ways and means of earning his living with mountaineering schools in Scotland and Switzerland, and his social and marital arrangements.
There are quotes from Dougal's private metaphysical musings and reference to two largely autobiographical books: `Eiger Direct' and `In High Places'. As a biography Jeff Connor's 'The Philospthy of Risk' exposes more than Dougal was prepared to divulge. For the first time there is mention of a tragic episode in Glencoe when driving whilst unfit through drink Dougal killed a walker on the road. Rumour-mongering commenced and continued, and though Connor claims the incident to be an accident he leaves doubts as to the effect on Haston who hardly spoke of it later. Theorising continued after Dougal's death with hints at suicidal tendencies to sully even further his less than savoury antisocial and anti-establishment characteristics. After the road accident Dougal certainly set himself increasingly severe and risky tests in mountain environments, but it may be argued there was no actual personality change, and he merely persisted with what was an anarchic approach throughout his entire life. Haston also wrote a novel `Calculated Risk', published after his death, in the Foreword of which Doug Scott reinforces speculation by reckoning "it contained a wealth of information that did not appear in factual autobiographical writing".
Jeff Connor's biography refers repeatedly to the celebrity status of Dougal Haston, and the headlines he attracted in life appear set to persist after his death. It is always difficult for biographers to be totally conciliatory and conclusive, and especially so for a subject as complex as Dougal Haston. Almost inevitably Connor pens a portrait of Dougal off the mountain as a wild, womanising, brawling, boozer; and on the mountain as self-absorbed, arrogant, and ambitious, yet also as an amazing achiever. Some readers may be disenchanted over the direction taken and would prefer a more forensic examination of evidence rather than subjective supposition. Others may resent elements of `debunking' of someone regarded as one of the most outstanding and brilliant of climbers. Jeff Connor may not have presented the best balance but he accurately picks up on a quote by an admirer of Dougal: "heroes are not necessarily good guys, but they are big, really big personalities".