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Front cover of Dougal Haston The Philosophy of Risk by Jeff ConnorsDougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk, Jeff Connors (Canongate Books 2002)

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.

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Front cover of The Surfrider compiled by Jack Pollard
The Surfrider, compiled by Jack Pollard (K.G. Murray 1963)

On land it’s skiing; in the air it’s gliding; at sea it’s surfing. What is it? The most elegant and elemental sport. Using the simplest of equipment, man creates speed and grace from some basic aspect of nature: snow, air, water. Surfing has something in common with both skiing and gliding. Like skiing, you need good balance and coordination; like gliding, you need quick and sure reactions to an ever-changing medium. Like gliding too, but unlike skiing, surfing is ultimately powered by the sun. In theory, you could ski on Pluto, because all you need is a slope and a coating of snow. Gravity will do the rest. But the wind that carries a glider also creates the waves that carry a surfer. That idea of being carried is part of the joy of both surfing and gliding. We usually have to carry ourselves or exploit an animal or machine. In surfing and gliding, by applying a little ingenuity and skill, you get a free ride at high speed. Surfing is really brain against brawn: the brain of the surfer against the brawn of the sea.

But human brawn may be required to set that confrontation up: you have to carry your board and paddle out to catch a wave. Being small or slender is a disadvantage in big-wave surfing too. It’s not a fatal one, but being timid, unlucky or unskilful can be: “Every big wave rider can tell you of his narrow escapes from death,” writes the Australian surfer Bob Pike in his chapter of this compilation from 1963. Perhaps in the end he wished he had died while surfing. The book contains more now than when it was originally published, because everyone in it, however young and casually athletic then, is either old or dead now. Great athletes, and the best surfers are definitely great athletes, do not enjoy long careers by sedentary standards. Bob Pike, a world champion in 1962, committed suicide in 1999, after an injury had stopped him surfing. He looks like a surf-god in one of the black-and-white photos here, calmly riding a huge but glassy wave at such speed that his board is hydroplaning, or lifting partly free of the water. But he was mortal rather than divine and moments like that were one day only memories.

I don’t believe he really wrote the chapter credited to him either, because it’s too professionally crisp. But he must have approved it and he did indeed think that “Competitions are all against the spirit of surf-riding, which is supposed to be a communion with nature rather than a hectic chase for points.” Another chapter of the book, Jon Donohoe’s “Your Body is Enough”, suggests that the communion is even closer in body-surfing, which doesn’t use a board. But I’d say that the board is an essential part of what makes surfing so compelling. A board is simple but allows human beings to do something spectacular. Penguins and seals body-surf, after all, but no animal can ride on water the way humans can. The board is even attractive as an object in its own right, an elegant shape for a chaotic medium.

But the chaos of water has its own elegance and its own regularities, and one of the most interesting chapters is Jack Mayes’ “How Waves Are Formed”. For example, did you know that the power and height of waves depend on their “fetch”? That’s the distance they travel before they reach the shallow water near land. The further they travel, the bigger they are at the end. This explains why islands like Hawaii and Tahiti, isolated in the vast Pacific, have some of the world’s biggest waves. Big waves display the ocean’s grandeur and beauty, but there’s something sinister in this chapter too. Doubly so. The rip-currents created by water rushing back out to sea threaten incautious surfers not only with drowning, but with dentition too. One kind of rip-current “sometimes contains sharks”. To surf, you generally have to confront the sea and the sea is a dangerous place. But, like its grandeur and beauty, the sea’s danger has an essential place in surfing: Pike’s chapter is called “With Your Whole Heart Jumping”. Colour photography and videos are available nowadays to help you understand why so many people give their hearts to surfing, but this simple black-and-white book from the early 1960s is more than enough.

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