Leo Dickinson's Xmas Special

Monday, 2 December 2013

Almost twenty years ago, I found myself sitting nervously in a London pub waiting for the adventure film-maker Leo Dickinson. Leo's usual ghostwriter, the inestimable Everest historian Audrey Salkeld, was busy on another project and Leo was urgently looking for someone to write up his latest adventure: flying over Everest in a hot-air balloon.

As a young writer and climber trying to make a living from my pen, I knew the chance I was being offered, but found myself a little intimidated. You do not go to the places Leo has, and return with incredible footage, without considerable drive and energy. I may have mis-remembered this, but I'm sure there were sparks coming off his famous beard as he watched me carefully across the table.

Anyway, I passed the test, and I'm very glad I did, because not only did I get to know Leo, with whom I'm still friends two decades on, but I also got to work with his editor, Tony Colwell, at Jonathan Cape. Tony was also Joe Simpson's editor, and I learned more from him about writing books than anyone else I've ever met.

Courteous, warm-hearted, drily funny and intensely loyal, I don't think I ever saw Tony standing up, let alone outdoors. But he had a fascination with the stories of those, like Leo, who pushed the physical and psychological limits of what is possible for a human to do. He sent me a hand-written letter a few years later recommending I try and review a book he was about to publish. I kept it, just to remind me of the impeccable way he dealt with people. Modern publishing finds little place for such generosity.

The film Leo made of his ballooning expedition captures something of the old Everest, when real adventures were still possible, and the mountain still had a shred of its old mystery left. It was the last of what now looks like a rather shrewd trilogy, to sit alongside the film he made of Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler becoming the first men to climb the peak without bottled oxygen in 1978 and the kayaking film he made that began at the foot of the mountain and down the Dudh Kosi. As with all his films, and in contrast to many that are made now, you do get the real sense that the outcome is uncertain.

In the last few years, Red Bull have paid Leo to transfer his old films into high-definition – and now the BBC are showing the three Everest films in their new state over the Christmas holidays. Everest by Canoe goes out on 28 December on BBC4 at 10pm, Everest without Oxygen on 29 December at 10.45pm and Everest by Balloon on 30 December at 9.50pm.

Posted by Ed Douglas at 2.14 PM