Appearing in the current (July 2006) edition of Rock and Ice
The Villain: A
Portrait of Don Whillans,
By Jim Perrin
BY JOE FERGUSON
Don Whillans, the consummate British hard man, established rock and alpine routes as difficult and unforgiving as his persona. He reveled in his bad-boy image and died of a heart attack at 52. Joe Brown, one of Whillans’ climbing partners, calls him "an absolute bastard ... a mixture of he-man and saint."
Perrin's biography of Whillans (1933-1985), joint winner of the Boardman-Tasker prize in the United Kingdom and of the Mountaineering History award in Banff, is now available stateside.
In addition to desperate gritstone crack routes in his native Britain, Whillans' first ascents include the two-mile South Face of Annapurna with Dougal Haston, which Perrin calls "the most momentous ascent to date in the history of mountaineering," and the Central Pillar of Freney on Mont Blanc with Christian Bonington. Famed also for imbibing sour grapes, Whillans labeled Bonington "Christ Jesus Bonington" after Bonington made the first British ascent of the Eiger without him.
Whillans was as renowned for such biting wit as his climbing prowess, yet his pronouncements could also be self-deprecating and curiously clear-sighted regarding his own character. "I never fought anybody my own size," he claimed, "working on the principle that they were too little to hit."
It is dichotomy that defines Whillans-a man who would refuse to carry his weight on an expedition, or even brew tea at a bivouac, yet would risk life, limb and personal success to rescue a distressed climber.
Perrin nails this "villain's" life story with a sure-footed, unsentimental approach, reassembling his enigmatic subject fact by fact, while at the same time stripping the legend, myth by myth, down to reality. With the tact of a diplomat, Perrin has rendered an empathetic yet pragmatic portrayal of a man respected by friend and foe alike.
Jim Perrin lives in Llanberis, in North Wales.
There seem to be parallels between Whillans, you, and the U.S. Vulgarians. Was there any real connection?
We were all on visiting terms. Certainly by the 1970s, with the Counterculture in full swing, the exchange visits were commonplace. I can remember Robbins, Wunsch, Bridwell, Acomazzo, Donini, Barber and plenty of others coming over to the North Wales ghetto, partying, enjoying the routes on the rare days when it didn't rain. Presiding spirit in this process was Al Harris (1944-1981), who was a true Vulgarian, entirely committed to subversive excess.I climbed with plenty of you Yankees over here. You often came across as a bit serious at the outset, but you soon seemed to tune in.
Good question-there's a gap between the notional and the published, maybe? I had no desire to rub the nose of someone of whom I became very fond in certain aspects of Don's life.