STARE into the face of Dougal Haston, and what comes back is a photographic image reflecting coolness and confidence, a tousled, Jack-the-Lad countenance which, even in his mid-20s in 1966, seemed to hide dark secrets. He knew more than we did. It was a coolness and confidence that took Haston to the greatest heights of mountaineering achievement, but then some observers might describe his demeanour as calculating and callous. And they would be right, too.
Those unfamiliar with the lore of the hard men of the hills, and who feel more comfortable ensconsed in the relative anonymity of games played out on flat expanses of grass, find it hard to comprehend why some are born to risk their lives clinging on to cliffs and traversing crevasses - in driving rain and blinding snow in the middle of nowhere - slithery toe-holds and fingertips the only saving graces between life itself and being cast into the void below to suffer a sudden bruising and battering on the way to certain death.
What mere mortals fail to understand is that mountain men like Dougal Haston are self-centred, self-contained, selfish and single-minded, the antithesis of what is required in a successful team game. And when they do come together, as they must to scale the most difficult of peaks, the egos tend to get rubbed the wrong way. The peak can very soon turn into pique, and at the basic level in the climbing fraternity enmities are reflected in the rivalries between informal groups.
One such group in Scotland, the Creagh Dhu, founded in 1930, are eerily typical. According to Jeff Connor in his fascinating book on the Haston phenomenon, The Philosophy of Risk, their members cultivated an image as aggressive, anti-social hardos "for whom a smack in the mouth was as satisfying as a pint". In such an atmosphere of raw rivalry and drunken scrapping, Haston and his mates made great strides.
I had distant dealings with Haston, no more than a couple of phone conversations, when working as a newspaper reporter in Edinburgh in the Swinging Sixties. He was nigh-impossible to contact, thoroughly awkward when that contact was made, but then the workaday scribe and the free-spirited mountaineer were more than a race apart. There is no doubt that the community wished Haston to be their true hero, for he was a lad from Currie, on the wild western outskirts of the capital, and young people, in particular, were proud of his courageous achievements, which they wished to emulate. Others saw him as a villain, with a reputation for anti-social behaviour; I recall dark mumblings about his satanic character all those years ago. Whatever the view, Haston did not seem willing to fulfil the heroic role. There were too many mountains to climb, the Eiger and Everest among them.
Jeff Connor, a journalistic colleague, has tussled with the Haston psyche in singular fashion. His day-to-day work is as a rugby writer on this paper, but he has scaled natural walls and fortresses too, and recognises the foibles of the mountaineering men, to whom society and social cohesion are concepts with which to toy, to exploit and to kick in the groin as required.
Haston and his boyhood chums James Moriarty (Big Eley) and Jim Stenhouse were inseparable in the early years, the terrible trio from Currie tramping over the nearby Pentland Hills and practising awkward manoeuvres on slippery retaining walls set above the Water of Leith and the railway line running through their village. They even climbed the church (the Currie Eiger) at dead of night, placing women’s knickers on various prominent parts of the august building - an exotic touch guaranteed to outrage the lieges.
Currie Youth Club, formed in 1954 at the behest of local landowner Alick Buchanan-Smith, proved a godsend for lads who appreciated the great outdoors.
"Haston’s first rock climb was late in 1954 when a friend of Buchanan-Smith, during an expedition to Glencoe, produced a hemp rope and took the wide-eyed schoolboys, moving one at a time, up Curved Ridge, one of the easier climbs on Buachaille Etive Mor, but one that finished directly on the summit," writes Connor. "It is also an excursion that passes through some of the grandest scenery in the glen, skirting the great rock-climbing face of Rannoch Wall.
"The athleticism of their youth made up for poor technique, and as he pushed feet down on the large holds and sent hands scrambling out to grasp and haul, something else began to stir with the hammering of Dougal’s heart, a realisation that this was an environment of overt risk and yet reassuring security. There was a large drop below, and a fall would almost certainly be fatal, but there was a rope in front and careful, controlled movement of the leader to mimic. He was clinging to a ridge that seemed to lead all the way to the sky, and the surroundings, perched high above Rannoch Moor, were breathtaking.
"Later, he was incredulous when told that there were several climbs on Rannoch Wall, which appeared to his untutored eyes a massive, hold-less precipice. The only climbs over 100 feet high he had seen were the pictures in the classic climbing books in Currie Library or the occasional magazine, and no-one he knew in his home village had ever done mountaineering; it was a sport for lunatics, and well-off lunatics at that. No matter, he was convinced from the start that this was the reason he had been brought up into the world."
Haston made singular progress despite a raffish existence and various scrapes as a teenager, and struggled in the Highlands and elsewhere with the disciplines of rock-, snow- and ice-climbing, at which he eventually became recognised as a leading expert. Among the best. He joined a five-strong group heading for the limestone towers and vertical faces of northern Italy in the summer of 1959; his pal Moriarty was also there, and life was getting inevitably ever tougher, though the ascent of the Cima Su Alto in the Dolomites went without a hitch.
"On the summit, they tucked into their meal of two pre-boiled eggs, and prepared for another night out and a descent the next day," writes Connor. "It began to rain heavily, then to snow. ‘We were absolutely knackered,’ says Moriarty. ‘How we survived, I just don’t know because we had left the sleeping bags behind to save weight, and all we had were shirts, jeans and PAs [specialist, rubber-soled boots]. We didn’t even have socks. At one time during the night I woke up, and Dougal was buried under the snow: it was bloody freezing.’ On the way down, the rope jammed, and Haston had to reduce it to two 40-ft lengths with his piton hammer.
"Eventually, Moriarty could hear the sound of running water - a sure sign of the approaching valley - but the cloud had closed in again. ‘We set up one last abseil, and Dougal disappeared. I never heard anything, then a voice came floating up: "I’m stuck, I’m jumping it. I canna go any further." I never heard anything, but then, lucky for me, the cloud cleared. Dougal had jumped the last 20 feet, but he didn’t know that in the mist. It could have been 200 feet for all he knew. We got down to the meadow, and were both violently sick, the bile. But all through it there was no moaning and groaning from Dougal, just a determination to get out of there."
Haston’s breeks, which had been donated second-hand by a climbing colleague, fell apart on the walk down the valley, done for by the acute wear and tear of the abseiling.
Haston had gained Highers at West Calder High School, and enrolled at Edinburgh University in 1959, ostensibly to study philosophy and Old English, following in the academic footsteps of a climbing mentor/rival Robin Smith, and this move prompted Connor to attempt to draw similarities between the philosopher’s cerebral meanderings and a justification for climbing. For instance, Kant’s view that "individual actions should be regarded as self-contained necessities within themselves without reference to any other purpose" struck a chord with Haston. It is not difficult to see why. Hedonism appears to be justified. And it would cover the boozy binges of student days, too. "We all drank, but Dougal just seemed a little bit more overly enthusiastic about it than anyone else," one climber noted of the young upstart. And there was no question of his graduating, but university offered plenty spare time for heading for the hills.
But Robin Smith - and his partner Wilfred Noyce, who had been on the Everest expedition of 1953 - were killed in a Pamirs trip in 1962, which came as a major shock, even for the stoical Haston. "Smith’s death, the first of anyone close to him, was a shattering blow to Haston, and ended lingering thoughts about finishing his university course," Connor confirms. "With Smith gone, he was elevated, unwillingly or not, to the position of undisputed king of Scottish, or at least Edinburgh, climbing, and immediately set about consolidating his position."
The North Wall of the Eiger had long fascinated him, and he made it to the top in 1963, after suffering a sequence of disappointments. Connor describes the ultimate achievement: "For Dougal, there was to be no going back this time, though he did produce a shock of his own for [companion Rusty] Baillie, the normally withdrawn Scot bursting into song - Freddie and the Dreamers’ I Like It - as the summit came into sight. Indeed, he did like it."
The achievement was announced at morning assembly in West Calder High. The Scottish press had a field day, though the Haston ambivalence towards publicity remained. But the intensity of effort in the mountains now demanded that it became his way of life, without distractions, as Connor stresses: "The long campaign on the Eiger, his ability to remain in control in the most dire of circumstances, and tolerance of cold hunger and fatigue, had produced something close to euphoria, but eventual success had merely whetted his appetite."
Dire circumstances were faced by Haston in 1965 when he was sentenced to 60 days in prison after ploughing into three young walkers in darkness while at the wheel of a transit van in Glencoe. An 18-year-old student died of his injuries; inevitably, Haston had been boozing.
Such cases, and their disposal, inevitably cause controversy, and there is debate over the effects that it had on Haston, but one who knew him well declared: "Basically, Dougal didn’t care for anyone except himself at the time."
After completing his sentence in Barlinnie, climbing friends called him a "murdering bastard" from time to time, to which he would respond with a sheepish grin, according to one source; another insisted that he was driving again, probably while drunk, within three weeks of his release, despite a three-year ban being part of his sentence. What would Kant say to that?
Haston was introduced to the delights of the Swiss mountain village of Leysin where he learned the fundamentals of skiing - he could not afford a ski pass and had to walk to the top of each run. And after a false start or two, a common trait in the world of mountaineering, in 1966 he became involved in Eiger Direct in which, under the eyes of the media, an attempt would be made on a direct route up the North Face.
He had taken out a winter-sports insurance policy in Edinburgh, but failed to declare that he would be involved in such a risky adventure, one which would lead to death and serious frostbite damage to participants, the Scot included, after rival parties had joined forces for the project. The opponents who turned colleagues were German.
Tragedy struck when American climber John Harlin fell to his death from high on the face just after Haston had vacated the same, 7mm fixed line, and with a successful conclusion in sight. Connor observes that the venture had turned into a major epic under the most harrowing circumstances.
"Nor were there any dissenters to the view that, on the final day, after a sodden night spent with one leg on the face and the other dangling in space in a sling, Haston produced one of the most bravura performances in the history of alpinism to lead [Sigi] Hupfauer and [Ronald] Voteller to the summit."
The German Hupfauer, whose best friend was compatriot Voteller, told Connor: "Dougal’s recommendation for frostbite was Scotch whisky; I didn’t drink whisky at the time, but now, when I see it, I think of Dougal and smile. There was no time to celebrate. Ronald had been hit by a stone, and Dougal and the others needed medical attention for frostbite." Haston "had made an impression", the German added tellingly, "and people like him only come this way the once".
Though one of five to reach the summit, the climb became closely associated with the brooding Scot, who went on a lecture tour and spoke in public for the first time - the Usher Hall was his unnerving venue in Edinburgh. But he reflected darkly in a memo to himself signed "Thus spake DH": "A great hardness is setting in, and I am becoming increasingly able to treat the petty and mundane with utter contempt ..."
TV climbing programmes developed as a fad in the late 1960s, and an approach from the BBC to lead a scaling of the Old Man of Hoy in Orkney proved too tempting financially, despite Haston’s railing against the "commercial despoiling of the sport" (He was also later involved, temporarily, in production of the film The Eiger Sanction, starring Clint Eastwood, which opened to mixed reviews in 1975). His low opinion of fellow climbers - including the legendary Joe Brown - are also revealed in the book.
The South Face of Annapurna, the tenth-highest mountain in the world, was seen as a logical extension of Eiger Direct, with a small team committed to a large face, and Haston joined Chris Bonington’s team, who enjoyed substantial sponsorship and TV coverage. Haston, who was greatly admired by the Sherpas on that expedition, made the summit a few minutes after his feisty partner, the Lancastrian Don Whillans, but the expedition was marred by the death of another English climber, Ian Clough, of whom Haston was fond. The mountain had had the last word. As Connor relates: "It was a scenario that was to become horribly familiar in many subsequent Himalayan expeditions, and Dougal determined never to let his guard down. As for his success on the peak, it seemingly took him no closer to solving the great mysteries: where was he going?"
The South-West Face of Everest was the practical, if not the philosophical answer, for 1971: an aim that Bonington and Haston had discussed as far back as 1966, when both were in hospital recovering from frostbite suffered on Eiger Direct. The death from exhaustion and exposure of an Indian climber, Harsh Bahaguna, had caused severe dissention among the disparate personalities of the multi-national party, and Haston and Whillans failed the ultimate test, beaten by time, cold and lack of food. Another venture, again including Whillans, stumbled at the same high point the following year, and there was acrimony, a fatality, and further failure to reach the top on a 1972 expedition, with Haston involved again.
In 1975, Haston made it to the summit, with Doug Scott, in another Bonington-inspired project, where egos and arguments were to the fore, and the Scot was retained for the final ascent "like Lenin in his sealed train", as one observer put it.
"Haston led the [Hillary] Step, one of the most famous climbing pitches, and named after the first ascentionist 22 years earlier," writes Connor. "Instead of the rock that Edmund Hillary had found, however, it was plastered with snow, and it took Dougal only 30 minutes to lead. By 6pm they were on the summit...trudging up the last few yards together.
"Haston’s reserve cracked in the moment of triumph and, as well as smiling for Scott’s camera, he surprised his colleague by hugging him effusively. He also broke the habit of a lifetime, by taking a photograph." Others also made it to the top that day, but Mike Burke, who had been encumbered with cine equipment with which to film from the summit, was never seen again. The conquest of the South-West Face of Everest had taken 33 days, and one life.
Haston’s triumph brought confirmed status of a national hero back home, and a local paper maintained: "Pupils at West Calder High School are walking with a new spring in their stride... eyes seem to shout at you, ‘Dougal Haston was at the same school as me’."
CONQUEST of Mount McKinlay, the highest mountain in North America followed, again with Scott, and was proof of Haston’s unique physical and mental fitness. There followed, in 1977, a day of less arduous activity in Leysin, the Swiss village where Haston lived, loved and consumed alcohol to excess, and where the last love of his life, Ariane Giobellina, is still resident. Haston lies nearby in a simple, unmarked grave.
He died, engulfed by an avalanche, while skiing a minor run above the Swiss community. Both he and Ariane had seemingly foreseen his demise, she so desperate to catch a last glimpse of him as they parted that afternoon and he completing a novel the day previously in which the hero is caught by an avalanche on a similar Swiss day of blue skies and deep powder - on the same Leysin peak. Unlike so many others trapped and suffocating under snow his death was instantaneous, throttled by the trendy, polka-dotted scarf he affected.
Haston had managed to remain an enigma to the very end.
• Dougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk, by Jeff Connor is published this month by Canongate, priced 16.99.
A PORTRAIT OF THE MOUNTAINEER AS A YOUNG MAN
After Eiger Direct in 1966, Haston wrote to himself an ‘Analysis’ philosophising on his experiences and purpose in life:
"A great hardness is setting in, and I am becoming increasingly able to treat the petty and mundane with utter contempt. I have a few friends in the true sense of the word, but no-one will complete this path with me. I don’t think anyone shall - I don’t think I want anyone to. It is too difficult. People do not really understand.
"Often certain of the attitudes are called selfishness. The latter is a sin in the eyes of the masses. Why? They are too conditioned to mass thinking. One as an individual must think of self - I do not mean that one must hurt others - but the ones who get hurt are usually the purveyors of the petty, or whose minds are not broad enough to realise that some seemingly hard ‘selfish’ decision is really an altruistic one.
"I will do many things for people I respect, and for fools nothing. They deserve to be trampled on …
"The masses are not free, as they become bound by the morass of cant which rules society. Most accept a life sentence in the imprisonment of general rulings. The freedom we are born with is the freedom to live as freely as possible within certain laws. This is the freedom I pursue."
Thus spake DH.
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