Mountain Books for Rainy Days: ‘Shipton and Tilman: The Great Decade of Himalayan Exploration’ – Reviewed

‘Shipton and Tilman: The Great Decade of Himalayan Exploration’ by Jim Perrin, published by Arrow Books in 2014.

If your interests tend towards exploratory missions with small teams and an ‘alpine style’ then you walk, whether you know it or not, in the footsteps of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman. Their explorations through some of the most remote and complex terrain in the world represent not so much a pinnacle in technical climbing, as a key break with the vast majority of contemporary climbing and expeditionary travel. Moving as a small team, emphasizing local knowledge and always trying to travel in such a way as to not become a burden on the small mountain communities on which all expeditions, especially in the Himalaya, invariably rely, Shipton and Tilman represented a new and more holistic vision of climbing. Jim Perrin reveals the paths these two climbing luminaries followed on their journey towards what was arguably the most important climbing partnership of all time.

These sorts of biographical accounts coupled with climbing narrative remind us, as Edmund Hilary famously said, “people do not decide to become extraordinary, they decide to accomplish extraordinary things.” Shipton and Tilman were perhaps not the most technically accomplished climbers of their time, but through a remarkable partnership they have left the climbing world with a legacy that valued exploration and a profound love and respect for mountains and their peoples. While their friendship lasted until their deaths, Perrin’s account is really focused on that central decade of the 1930s when they were most active together on expeditions around the Gharwal Himalaya, to Nanda Devi, exploring the valleys, glaciers, peaks and rivers of the region. Perrin’s archival work gives a beautiful and evocative description of an evolving partnership, and some fascinating insights into the impacts the landscape and encounters with local people had on Shipton and Tilman and their vision of what climbing could be.

Climber’s will read this book as an amazing story about climbers of remarkable skill and daring forging new routes in remote ranges. In that regard Perrin presents some thrilling accounts of what are undoubtedly great climbs. But for non-climbers, the book can be read as an account of two young men travelling together in a period when British rule was still paramount in huge swaths of the world. The decade described by Perrin is only a small portion of the careers of Shipton and Tilman, as Perrin notes in his concluding remarks, part of what makes these two characters so fascinating, and so important is that their explorations span decades of profound regional and global transformation as the world wars occurred and the British Empire was dismantled.

This is a book for rainy days. I read it and reflect on the beautiful passages Perrin includes from Shipton’s journals and letters home to his mother, where he first begins to experiment with descriptive writing. I also read it and try and imagine for myself what partnerships like this can teach us, how I can learn to be a better climbing partner, a better teacher and a better student. How do we spend time with someone, risk our neck for them and ask them to do the same? The answer in the case of Shipton and Tilman seems to have been a wonderful sense of humour and as Perrin recounts many of their jokes and pranks, I can imagine their laughter ringing through the mountains.

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