At Puerto Bueno we turned away from the trail which Pedro Sarmiento laid out so many centuries before, and we also parted company with His Majesty’s survey vessel the Adelaide and with the pioneer yachtsman, Edward Allcard. Both the Adelaide and Allcard were intent on following the most direct path through the channels – the one effectively in the wake of the other, for Allcard had nothing but the Admiralty Pilot to guide him – but we, meanwhile, were keen to see as much as we could of the place. In particular, we were keen to see the glaciers which lie in the inlets branching eastward from the north-south route; and in this endeavour we had another hero to guide us: none other than Bill Tilman.
Oh, what a different place the world was when Bill Tilman was was sailing! Born in 1898 to a well-to-do merchant, he was – not unlike Allcard, I may say – a classic example of his public school education. (American readers please note: For public school read private school. In English-English we call those institutions which cater to the masses state schools.) Like Allcard, Tilman grew up valiant and brave and he revelled in the opportunity to endure harsh living conditions, but in him this tough exterior was not matched by a gentleness of heart – rather, he seems to have been scathing and impatient – and certainly he did not share Allcard’s chivalrous attitude towards ‘the fairer sex’. He is renown as a misogynist.
Tilman was sixteen when the First World War was begun, and at eighteen he signed up to the Royal Artillery and was packed off to France. Within a few weeks he found himself fighting in the Battle of the Somme – an event noted as the worst in the history of the British army, with 60,000 men killed in one day. Our man evidently revelled in the gore and the danger, for by the end of the war he had been awarded the Military Cross for bravery – and not just once, but twice.
After the war Tilman went to Kenya and established himself as a coffee farmer. Here he met Eric Shipton, another English gentleman and one who, at only 21, was already an accomplished mountaineer. Besides his other achievements, Shipton would eventually make the first ascent of Mount Darwin, in the Beagle Channel; and in this, as we shall see, he was undoubtedly inspired by his old friend. Together, Shipton and Tilman traversed Mount Kenya and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
In 1935 Tilman was part of a reconnaissance expedition which Shipton led on Mount Everest. In 1936 he led the ascent of Nanda Devi, in India, and as they stood on this peak he and his companion were then on a higher summit than any ever climbed before. Following this up (if you’ll pardon the pun), in 1938 Tilman led his own expedition on Everest, ascending to 27,000ft without oxygen.
And then came World War Two.
Being now over 40 years of age, Tilman was not eligible to be called up to fight against Hitler – but, of course, he couldn’t resist a good scrum. He volunteered, and he saw action in North Africa and then on the beaches of Dunkirk. After that he was dropped behind enemy lines in Albania and fought with the resistance there. His efforts won him the DSO.
By the end of the war Tilman was, by his own account, no spring chicken. He viewed with a mixture of envy and disdain the “scramble to be the first” upon the giants in the Himalayas. As he says, “A quiet man might well shrink from going to Kathmandu if he thought he was likely to meet there eleven other parties with their 5,000 porters.” Thus, his eyes turned to pastures new. A friend had returned from the war, and from a German prisoner of war camp, with tales of an unexplored ice-cap in Chile. Hummingbirds and parrots lived in the forests which flanked its mountainsides, and its glaciers were many and they came down to the sea. This meant that it could be reached by boat.
Tilman went out and bought a boat.
In the matter of sailing, Tilman’s inspiration was another mountaineer – of course. It seems that Conor O’Brien, oft celebrated as the first yachtsman to round Cape Horn, was actually only passing that way as he returned from a visit to New Zealand; and the purpose of his visit to New Zealand was to climb an unclimbed peak. Well, well, well…!
Tilman’s first vessel was a 14ft dinghy – and for the fact of making so small a beginning he is to be congratulated. It has long been my opinion that those who begin in dinghies make the best sailors. Having learnt the ropes, he progressed to sailing with a friend in a 28ft wooden sloop in the Irish Sea; and then he made an offshore passage, from Portsmouth to the Mediterranean, on a rather bigger boat.
Even after having served such an apprenticeship, knowing that the region where he planned to cruise was beset by some of the most horrible weather in the world Tilman was still reluctant to set out for Patagonia as Master and Commander. Nor had he decided what sort of boat he should buy for this expedition.
Fate has a way of taking control even when we are very sure that we are at the helm. Thus it was that, thinking to kill two birds with one stone, Bill Tilman eventually bought a boat from a man who was happy to remain aboard and skipper his old vessel on this ambitious journey to the far south. After all, the boat which O’Brien had taken round the Horn was very similar; and this very boat – Mischief, by name – had already been sailed to Ghana.
There was just one catch. The previous owner insisted that if we were to sail the boat then his wife must come too. In his description of this Grace Darling, as he calls her, Tilman is quite amusing and thoroughly unkind – few women can read the account without wishing to put vinegar in his plum duff – and one is not surprised to learn that the excursion ended prematurely. It would seem that the remainder of the crew also found this sardonic ex-army officer an unpleasant companion, for they also jumped ship; and nor did Tilman have a lot of luck with his next bunch of recruits. Thus we see that a man reaps his own karma.
Still, a fellow as tough and determined as Tilman will always succeed in the end – if he doesn’t die trying – and so it was that, a full year after having first embarked, the sailing mountaineer set off from England with a crew which included one other climber, two sailors, and a cook. In Punta Arenas they were joined by a third mountaineer – a young Chilean ballet-dancer called Jorge Quinteros; and in November of 1955 this curious company set off along the Straits of Magellan and then turned north into the Chilean Channels.
Yes, indeed – I have not mentioned him before, but in fact we had all the while, during the past few months, been sailing not only along the trail blazed by those other heroes so often mentioned but also in the wake of Bill Tilman. He stopped in Puerto Gallant and then in Playa Parda, just as we did, after struggling against the wind and the rain in the Strait; and then he bowled north up the Smyth Channel to the Otter Islands, racing along before a south-westerly whereas we had to beat all the way up that stretch.
Like us, Tilman had to fight his way up the next, very narrow leg – and indeed, it might be said that we surpassed him here, for we managed to press on at a time when he had to dive for cover in the nearest cove. Where we then detoured to Puerto Natales he continued on his way, eager to get where he was going – for, after all, we are each of us piloted by our own particular whims, and Tilman was not a cruising man; his boat was simply the vehicle which must carry him whither he willed.
Whereas we detoured, Tilman continued directly north. By the time they reached Puerto Bueno, Tilman and his companions were running low on paraffin – which was needed for the cooking stove – and they also had problems with Mischief‘s engine. These things mattered less to the main man than to the sailors in his crew, for Tilman and Jorge Quinteros and Charles Marriot were about to step ashore. Immediately north of Puerto Bueno the channel divides, one arm continuing along in a valley which runs more or less parallel to the Andes while the other turns sharply to the right and goes meandering into the very heart of that range – and it was this arm which Tilman had identified as offering the best access to the Patagonian icefield. Known as the Peel inlet or estero (having been so-named by William Skyring in honour of the British prime minister) the head of this fiord is only about six miles from the ridge-pole summit of the Andes and only fifteen miles from Lago Argentino.
What Tilman would really have liked, I am sure, was for someone to drop him off on one side of the range and then collect him from the other, for that glacial lake spills the waters of these mountains in the Atlantic ocean. That, however, was too ambitious. If all went well – if they were indeed able to sail up this uncharted inlet and get to the glaciers – then the plan was for Tilman and his oppos to climb over the Andes and go down to Lago Argentino; and then they would turn around and, straight-away, come back over the icefield to rejoin their ship.
Meanwhile, the sailors in the crew would simply stand and wait – and hope that the supply of paraffin lasted…
Their leader imagined that during his absence the three men left aboard his boat would have a very dull time of it; but in the event their adventures rivalled his own.
So far as the shore-party was concerned, the crew of the good ship Mollymawk would follow them only through the pages of the book which Tilman wrote and by letting our eyes wander over the landscape, for mountaineering is not our thing. Utterly in our own element so far as the ‘relief party’ is concerned, we planned on following Mischief more literally – albeit not every step of her perilous way.
Don’t miss next week’s instalment of this gripping saga!