Shortly after Dougal Haston set off for the skiing-jaunt that would kill him, his girlfriend was struck by the impulse to catch a last glimpse of him. She hurried upstairs and looked out over the route he had taken, but she was too late — he was already out of sight. That’s how Jeff Connors starts the book and the story is so appropriate that you start to wonder whether it’s true. Reading on you’ll discover that Haston was always hurrying, always in pursuit of the peak experiences that would lift him out of mundane reality and place him where he wanted to be: up with the Nietzschean Übermenschen he had studied during his never-completed philosophy degree in his hometown of Edinburgh. In a saner world, Mick Jagger might have been the Dougal Haston of popular music; as it is, Dougal Haston was the Mick Jagger of mountaineering, idolized around the world for his joli laid looks and his Byronic aura of tragic, suffering, misunderstood genius.
But it wasn’t only his looks that were odd: he was tall and slender but so “pigeon-toed” that people sometimes wondered how he managed to walk. It’s almost as though he was some new species of human, Homo montanus, mountain man, evolved for the sheer rock and ice of high altitude. A strange contrast with Britain’s other mountaineering genius of the 1960s and ’70s, the stocky, aggressive, almost ape-like Mancunian Don Whillans, born working-class like Haston but unlike Haston determined never to let people forget it. The two of them performed one of the great feats of twentieth-century mountaineering: the first ascent of the south face of the Himalayan massif Annapurna on an expedition organized by Chris Bonington in 1970.
Haston was Whillans’ protégé then, but he later rejected his mentor, casting one of the votes that kept “The Villain” off one of Bonington’s expeditions to Everest. Whillans didn’t voice open resentment, perhaps recognizing himself that his best days were behind him. Haston’s own position as one of the world’s five or six greatest mountaineers was beginning to be challenged when he died in 1977, strangled by one of his rock-star scarves after he was buried in an avalanche while skiing. And Connors hints earlier in the book that he might always have been in the shadow of another mountaineering genius from Edinburgh, Robin Smith.
But Smith died in 1962 on an expedition to the central Asian mountain range the Pamirs at the age of only twenty-three, and his full greatness remains only a might-have-been. Connors’ implied belittling of Haston there isn’t an isolated flaw: this is often a mean-spirited book and Connors sometimes seems to follow the motto De mortuis nihil nisi malum. The Californian John Harlin, a blond “Greek god” who died in a thousand-foot fall climbing the north face of the Eiger with Haston by the direttissima — straight up — comes in for a thorough kicking when he’s literally down. But perhaps that’s the kind of thing Connors enjoys most, as an ex-rugby player. He’s much more sympathetic with the first of Haston’s two big personal tragedies. The second was his own early death, the first the manslaughter of a hiker in a drink-driving accident in Scotland.
Haston’s distaste for publicity was increased by the court case and his two months in Glasgow’s justifiably notorious Barlinnie Gaol, and he never liked to be photographed smiling afterwards. The brooding melancholy or scowls by which he became known to the newspaper-reading public increased his legend and he found it relatively easy to earn his living by mountaineering, becoming a climbing-instructor in Switzerland.
But his students were often disappointed: expecting individual tuition from him, they could easily find him “out of sight”, climbing too fast and too skilfully for mere mortals to match. His appointment as the director of the international climbing school at Leysin in Switzerland precipitated his death, when he translated his taste for mountaineering in extremis to the ski-slopes and took one risk too many. Some of those who knew him were surprised only that he died skiing and not climbing, like so many of his friends and colleagues. Even the most careful and safety-conscious mountaineer places his life in the lap of the mountain-gods every time he climbs. But without risk there is no rush. Although Connors dismisses the suggestion that Haston had a death-wish, it’s certain he had a defy-death-wish. “Genius” is an over-used term but Haston’s achievements — Eigerwand by the direttissima, south face of Annapurna, south-west face of Everest — speak for themselves and will continue to do so long into this century.