Professor Malcolm Slesser

Academic and mountaineer

Born: 1925

Died: 26 June, 2007, aged 82.

MOUNTAINEERING, by its very nature, is a sport that involves a degree of risk. Malcolm Slesser, however, emphasised that it is a controlled risk. Mountaineers who venture into some of the world's most beautiful and remote places know what they are taking on and will bring to bear experience, skill and judgement to ensure their safety.

Slesser's book Friends in High Places used a stock of stories to question why climbers face dangers such as hypothermia, altitude sickness and the potential for fatal falls, and included details of the ill-fated Pamirs expedition in 1962, of which Slesser was co-leader with Everest veteran John Hunt. It led to the untimely death of one of Scotland's greatest and most daring climbers, Robin Smith, at the tragically young age of 23, along with the climber and poet Wilfrid Noyce.

Slesser, who lived in Newington, Edinburgh, was a graduate of the city's university, where he went on to do a doctorate. He first witnessed the brutality of death in his student days when an equally youthful companion was crushed by a large detached block on Sgurr Dearg, in the Cuillins of Skye.

In an interview in 2004, he spoke of the number of climbing deaths he had witnessed over the years. His motto was: "Luck keeps no-one alive for long, safety lies in awareness." He said: "The crucial element in mountaineering is appreciating and understanding the nature of risk you are exposed to. It may be objective risk, like avalanche, weather, loose rock, stone-fall or melting ice. It may be subjective risk like losing one's nerve, poor route-finding, a weak companion, over-confidence, being out of your depth or being unfit in relation to the climb's demands. Climbing is very safe. It's the technique of making yourself safe that counts."

It is perhaps ironic, then, that such a survivor and pillar of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, died in a mountain environment. It is also apposite, though, that it was not through lack of judgement; he is believed to have suffered a heart attack while out walking with his wife at Loch Ailort on the Ardnish Peninsula.

While his mountaineering feats were extensive, climbing peaks in Greenland, Brazil and Peru as well as Scotland, he was also a distinguished academic, in many ways ahead of his time on issues such as climate change.

He worked in the oil, synthetic fibres and nuclear industries before becoming professor of energy at Strathclyde University, and was head of systems analysis at the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) between 1976 and 1978.

Slesser was the author of more than 100 published technical papers and books covering energy systems, the environment and sustainable development. He was also a regular correspondent to The Scotsman letters page.

In a 1998 paper, "New directions: Scottish values and the Scottish Economy", presented in Edinburgh, he wrote: "Scotland has a greater potential to become a sustainable economy, with an improving environment, than most parts of the world. To achieve this may require a willingness to yield some current affluence for future security.

"We may require the insertion of an ethical filter on to our natural greed. People in a market economy respond to market signals. It is the duty of government to legislate the appropriate feedbacks that encourage people to behave in their own long-term interests.

"Here is an important role for the Scottish Parliament."

Slesser had political ambitions too, twice standing for election to the Westminster Parliament and once to the European Parliament, in 1978, but was scathing of the "destructive folly" of the nanny state.

In Friends in High Places he wrote: "My generation was lucky to start climbing when horizons were wide and there were still unsurveyed areas on maps. My generation was also lucky in that political correctness had not yet run amok.

"It was quite acceptable for a single, competent mountaineer to lead a group of lads and lassies on the hill, and to camp with them. Unstructured adventure was the norm. This has all gone under uncomprehending authorities, to the detriment of future generations of young people. We live in an over- regulated society. It's depressing. No-one is left to make their own judgment any more."

For Slesser, mountaineering was the last bastion of activity "where decisions and conventions are left to the good judgment of its practitioners". As an expression of that, his closest shave came not in the great mountains of the world but on Edinburgh's lowly Arthur's Seat where he took a tumble climbing illegally in one of the quarries.