Obituary: Des Rubens, teacher and mountaineer

Born 6 June, 1952, in Perth. Died 28 June, 2016, in Switzerland, aged 63.

Teacher with a passion for mountain climbing in Scotland and further afield. Picture: Contributed
Teacher with a passion for mountain climbing in Scotland and further afield. Picture: Contributed

‘Of course, it works in practice – but will it work in theory?” This drily ironic comment on teaching practice shows the humour and self-awareness of Des Rubens, who was killed in an Alpine climbing accident. His view on the importance of practice reflected a dedicated lifetime both of mountaineering achievements, widely recognised as exceptional in Scotland and beyond, and in helping young people through outdoor education.

He enthused young people through his love of the outdoors and was a caring, patient and devoted teacher. The deep and warm response on social media from his former pupils on learning of his death tells you indeed just how much he was loved and respected.

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To say that he devoted his working life to Craigroyston High School is no platitude – he was one of the unsung heroes for whom doing this challenging and important job well was reward enough.

He continued the same outdoors work after his retirement, leading older people in the hills – though he never revealed whether theory continued to challenge practice to the same extent.

His lifelong dedication to the outdoor life was complemented by his devoted love and care for his wife and companion since student days, Jane, and their family. Their home offered a warm welcome to friends old and new. Nor could he have achieved what he did without their continued and active support. This had developed over the past few years into ventures with his adult children beyond love of the hills and into climbing.

Mountaineering was his passion, summer or winter, rock or ice, ski or foot, Scotland Europe or the Greater Ranges. His high standing in Scotland and beyond led to election as president of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, a role in which his experience as a teacher proved oddly useful on occasion.

He worked hard to spread his enthusiasm, breathing new life into the Edinburgh meetings of the SMC, which developed into a popular attraction for attendees from a considerable distance.

His outdoor education teaching was inspired by his love and knowledge of the mountain environment. His huge circle of friends was attracted by the same skills he used in his work – warmth, humour, modesty, competence and patience.

Des’s first love was the Scottish hills in winter, following in the footsteps of his literary hero Bill Murray – from whose writings Des and friends as students at Edinburgh University derived pleasure and inspiration in equal parts. This love, and his personal charm, made him friends throughout the mountaineering community and, more recently, he was a natural ambassador on the BMC International Meets at Glen More Lodge. His love of things Scottish, and of the climbing on Ben Nevis, the Cairngorms and elsewhere guaranteed that his international partners left with memorable experiences.

Experiences with Des were enhanced by his drive to live every mountain day to the full – from before dawn to after dark, and quite often well after dark. He loved the remoter parts of the hills, with many new routes to his name. He wasn’t part of any great new breakthrough, but among the most widely competent and experienced people in the mountaineering community.

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In the Alps he applied the same approach as at home – focused and competent. He climbed many of the classic routes such as the Grandes Jorasses by its north face, the Walker Spur. More recently with the space granted by retirement, and an exemplary continued drive, he had been pursuing the Alpine peaks over 4000 metres, generally by routes less travelled including an ascent of the Peuterey Ridge of Mont Blanc, a route challenging enough for much younger mountaineers.

He made some 20 expeditions beyond Europe – often to India or Pakistan – starting in 1975 with a journey by road to northern Punjab over 17 days, then two years later Zanskar in Ladakh, and more recently. His trips were typified by their small scale and remote first ascents. He was an explorer of wild and unknown places who delighted in, and empathised with local people, their ways of life. Notably, he stepped forward to join a state sponsored international mountaineering camp in the Caucasus, ably representing Scottish climbing after a long absence. He impressed through his customary drive and charm, including with an ascent of Ushba – “the Matterhorn of the Caucasus”.

Elsewhere, he made attempts on major objectives including Nanga Parbat and Gasherbrum III, and in Peru and China. The little known Coast range of British Columbia lies in remote and serious country – and so Mount Geddes attracted him more recently to its Alpine-style faces. Ever active, he had turned recently to El Capitan in Yosemite Valley and typically delighted in its local life.

Where Bill Murray had led in writing of his exploits, Des also followed with his dry wit – though he would never have dreamed of setting himself alongside Murray as a writer. Others, however, saw fit to award him the W H Murray Literary Prize, for a delightful piece contrasting a classic winter climb described by Murray, with his own ascent under less trying modern conditions.

So this is a story of a life lived to the full; of quiet service to a local community, fully integrated with adventure and exploration of mountains from home to the Greater Ranges. It is a life to be admired. It was “just Des”.

Des leaves his wife Jane and two adult children, Andrew and Catriona.