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Dougal Haston: The Philosophy Of Risk

AuthorJeff Connor
Publisher Canongate
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateTuesday, 31 December 2003
Rating 3.5 out of 5

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What’s it all for? That’s what the book-buying public wants to know from mountaineering, judging by the bestseller lists. So you would assume a biography of Scottish mountaineer Dougal Haston would be a sure-fire winner, a dead cert, the literary equivalent of top-roping. Moody, gnomic and driven, Haston was all blue eyes distantly focused, a sharp dresser who managed to make neckerchiefs hip. (Although, in an irony Thomas Hardy would have though excessive, Haston’s death in an avalanche was hastened by the pressure of snow between scarf and neck throttling him.)

His success on Chris Bonington’s high-profile expeditions to Annapurna and Everest in the 1970s made him nationally famous. His death even made it to the leader column of The Sun. In the climbing world he remains a compelling figure when others from his generation have faded from memory. Throw in the circumstances of his death, overwhelmed by an avalanche while skiing the North-east Face of La Riondaz above Leysin, not forgetting the rumours that surrounded it – was it suicide? A death-wish? – and the story gets more compelling.

Then there’s the hedonism of the Club Vagabond, the half-whispered stories of a prison term for a fatal traffic accident and – make my day! – the movie he worked on with Clint Eastwood. Sex, booze and movie stars. How good does a story have to get? You can see why so many writers have hovered around the notion of a Haston biography like wasps round a glass of Irn Bru.

Jeff Connor has got there first with Dougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk, but his take on the Haston legend is strangely disappointing. There are two reasons for this. There is Haston himself, more of which later, and then there is Connor’s telling of him. There are parts of the book that soar, not least the final chapter that describes Dougal’s widow Annie in her current home in Paris, an elfin, lost figure who seems to be still struggling back into her own shape after being flattened by the Haston juggernaut. This is writing from the top drawer.

But some of the writing is hurried and too journalistic. There are extended chunks of verbatim interviews, especially those with Chic Scott, that are too ragged and repetitious to use so heavily. Dangerous, too, to allow unfiltered opinions that much access in a book. The descriptions of climbing are rather flat and there is no sense of the importance of the expeditions Haston joined. Even the appearance of Clint on the North Face of the Eiger is somehow bland, more The Bill than Dirty Harry. The factual errors don’t help; Peter Boardman didn’t die in 1978, Denali is not in the Arctic Circle and so on.

Connor sees the vertical game as a testosterone and alcohol-fuelled stomp leaving little room for anything more reflective: ‘Climbing and drinking go together; high risk invariably translates into heavy thirst, and even at a lower level – think of all those earnest climbing magazine articles that end: “We made it to the Clachaig/Padarn/Dungeon Ghyll just in time for a well-earned pint.”’

Haston had a massive appetite for drink and, as a young man at least, for violence too. The Scottish legend Jimmy Marshall, who was an early mentor to Haston and his pals, gives a detailed analysis of their fighting prowess: ‘Dougal was a scrapper without skills. He would just fight and bite and tear. On Friday nights, he would take a karabiner out with him to use as a knuckleduster. That’s how his mind worked. I think all three of them were born to be frivolous and irrelevant. I recognised him as an evil bastard at the time, but I was very fond of him.

Presumably Marshall is being avuncular, the little tykes letting off steam, but ‘evil bastard’ seems just about right at some points in this book. The outstanding example is his attitude to the accident that started so many rumours. In April 1965, driving a Transit van between the Clachaig Inn and Glencoe Youth Hostel, he ploughed – Connor’s word – into three young men walking beside the road. One of them, an eighteen-year-old called James Orr, died of his injuries seven days later.

Needless to say Haston was pissed, and ran off from the scene. He turned himself in next day. There were rumours that Haston had hit them deliberately, gossip neatly dispatched by Connor, but his analysis of the effect it had on Haston is almost as ghastly. He quotes Marshall as saying: ‘The theory that it coloured the rest of his life is nonsense. Basically, Dougal didn’t care for anyone except himself at the time.’ His girlfriend thought Haston more concerned about what would happen to him than the boy he killed. He served 60 days in the notorious Barlinnie Prison; not long enough according to Orr’s family. Given his apparent lack of remorse, you feel they have a point.
Then there’s his insecurity, which developed into a brittle arrogance of breath-taking dimensions. With the Eiger Direct in the bag, a new job replacing the dead John Harlin as Director of the International School of Mountaineering at Leysin, Haston got the call from the BBC to join one of their climbing outside broadcasts, climbing the Old Man of Hoy. Haston was part of an all-star cast but his diary shows him in a petulant mood on the subject of his colleagues. ‘I find the present company so facile, so boring, so insular.’ Who were these tedious fellows with whom Haston was forced to work, ‘smug in the adulation of the British public’? Joe Brown, for a start. ‘One discerns the plumber always. . . He is not – never has been – an international name. He has pushed, but never to the limit;’ Ian McNaught-Davis: ‘Smug, pompous, full of his role as the stumbling buffoon second.’
Haston’s problem was that these men had lost their edge, ‘the essence of the extremist’. They were, he thought, ‘reasonably likeable surface people, yes, but not to be chosen for the tasks of probing, always probing into the realms of what is possible in the world and the mind.’
But far from garnering any astonishing insight into the human condition from his time in the mountains, Haston’s creed, a sort of sub-Nietzschean elitism that was more sneer than philosophy, seems not so much cool as emotionally cold. ‘For me, it is hard to have a friend who is not a climber. He needs to have shared the many close-to-death experiences, and not have panicked; backs one up through trouble, and is not jealous of success. On this basis, I have few friends.’
No shit! And this from the man who was so frightened of hospitals and so frightened of fatherhood that he persuaded his wife to be sterilised rather than doing anything about it himself. Later of course, he would change his mind about kids, but by then he had moved on to a different woman.
Signing his diary entries ‘Thus spake D.H.’ – geddit? – he would mock anything remotely bourgeois while relying on his working-class mum and dad to fork out for his things which they could hardly afford. But then handing over money is what the untermenschen are for.
For a man who was fiercely competitive with his contemporaries, he comes off second-best compared against his early climbing partner and rival Robin Smith. Both men were young, both studied philosophy at Edinburgh and both were ambitious. But while Smith had an eye for a line, Haston’s best routes relied on others to spot them. Smith was bright and sociable, Haston was taciturn and abrupt. It’s not hard to see where the insecurity sprang from.

It must be strange for men like Bonington and Scott to read about their friend in these terms. Perhaps they don’t recognise the man they knew from this biography. Haston was Bonington’s secret weapon, selfish and often absent lower down the mountain, but utterly determined when it came to a summit push. He gave everything he had on Annapurna and Everest and contributed a great deal to the success of those expeditions. If he hadn’t died in that avalanche, then Scott could have relied on a tough, uncompromising partner for the new wave of lightweight expeditions that took over from the big expeditions of the 1970s.

Connor tries to suggest that Haston changed before his death, that had he lived the climbing world would have seen a more relaxed and mellow superhero. It’s not a convincing premise, given the wealth of evidence to the contrary. On this evidence Dougal Haston really did have feet of clay. What was it all about? Not much, beyond a dumb need to escape his own inadequacies.

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