Roger Payne 1956 - 2012: Guardian obituary

Monday, 16 July 2012

My obituary of Roger Payne, who died in the avalanche on Mont Maudit on 12 July, was published in The Guardian.

In the middle of a freezing night in September 2004, Roger Payne was perched on a ledge high on Mont Blanc, making tea. With him were his wife, the New Zealand mountain guide Julie-Ann Clyma, and the American John Harlin III. The climb they were trying had never been done before.

By this stage of his career, Payne had been an alpinist for almost three decades. Weren't they, Harlin wondered, getting a little long in the tooth to be camping out on a steep mountain face? Both Payne and Clyma laughed, Harlin recalled, "and continued laughing through most of the shivering night". Payne has died at the age of 55, in last Thursday's avalanche on Mont Maudit.

Payne's infectious enthusiasm and warm smile were matched by his relentless energy. As a guide and ski mountaineer, he inspired others to appreciate the mountains as much as he did. As a sports administrator, he transformed the institutions that underpin climbing. As a campaigner, he brought attention to the social and environmental problems affecting the world's mountain regions.

Born in Hammersmith, west London – he would joke "that's 'ammersmith with three 'fs'," – he brought a London accent and natural optimism that provided a breezy change of pace in a sport firmly rooted in the north. While at Holland Park comprehensive, he did some climbing with the Scouts, discovered hill walking in the mountains of Scotland and began the long apprenticeship of rock and ice climbing that led to the Alps in 1977. His record there included challenges such as the Eiger's north face, and the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses.

By his early 20s he was training to be a teacher at Sunderland Polytechnic, and worked afterwards at Biddick school, in nearby Washington, while becoming established as a climbing instructor. Education remained a big part of his life: he added qualifications in other outdoor sports, such as kayaking and sailing, and became an avalanche instructor, teaching climbers and skiers about how and when they occur. He later helped secure an internationally recognised scale for avalanche hazards.

With a bank of alpine experience to draw on, Payne embarked on 25 years of exploratory mountaineering and adventure in the world's greater ranges, first in Alaska and Peru, where he made the first ascent of the difficult south face direct of Rusac in 1986. From that year on, all his expeditions were organised and shared with Clyma.

They were among the most successful husband-and-wife climbing teams, and their adventures took them from the Pamirs to the Karakoram and throughout the neighbouring Himalayas, as happy to be climbing with others as they were on their own.

In 1987 they organised an expedition to Gasherbrum 2, an 8,000m peak in Pakistan, enduring the loss of a team-member who fell while attempting a ski descent. Payne's own effort ended at 7,500m owing to illness, and Clyma gave up her own summit bid to accompany him down. Their great friend Iain Peter was among those who made the top – and the first British ascent.

On further visits to Pakistan, Payne and Clyma attempted a new route on Broad Peak in 1992, and K2 in 1993. By then, Payne's broad perspective on the mountain world had added new aspects to his expeditioning – on both trips he ran projects to build micro-hydro schemes in local villages with the Aga Khan's rural support programme and Eastern Electricity.

The K2 attempt was dramatic. Their team-mates, Alan Hinkes and Victor Saunders, had called off their summit bid to help a Swedish climber, the stricken survivor of an accident that had killed three others descending from the summit. These two brought him to Camp III, where Payne and Clyma took over, but the rescue almost ended in further disaster when a rope broke.

In 1989, and by then a qualified mountain guide, Payne became national officer at the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) in Manchester, the start of a 12-year career at the sport's representative body. From 1995 he was its general secretary. He was involved with almost every aspect of climbing at a time of rapid change.

Many of these developments – from climbing walls and competitive events to a new national mountaineering museum at Rheged, in Cumbria – were enabled by Payne's administrative zeal. He oversaw the BMC's evolution from being a club of clubs into an enterprise that attracted a surge of individual members and better reflected the modern era.

He worked himself and his staff hard during the day, then summoned everyone outside for an evening on the local crags. Nor did the regular hours dilute his passion for the Himalayas, although, after K2, he and Clyma switched to the Garhwal sub-range in India, where they climbed Nanda Devi East and made two attempts on the stunning north face of Changabang.

In 2001 Payne left the BMC, and a year later took on a similar role at the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation in Switzerland, where he helped promote climbing with the International Olympic Committee. He became involved in publicising the dangers of climate change, leading a United Nations Environment Programme film project to highlight glacial melting in the Himalayas. As president of the British Mountain Guides (2007-11), he was a popular and reforming leader.

His great success in more than two dozen expeditions was a first ascent in 2003 of the north face and west ridge of Mount Grosvenor in China's Sichuan province. In recent years, he and Julie-Ann made a thorough exploration of the mountains of Sikkim. She survives him.

• Roger Payne, mountaineer and guide, born 16 July 1956; died 12 July 2012

Posted by Ed Douglas at 12.14 AM