Part Four of the Tale of Mollymawk's Expedition from Natales to Eden

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.

Tilman had plenty of experience of glaciers but until he came to Chile he had never seen one which came down to the sea.

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.

Mollymawk beating up the Smyth Channel

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!


  1. Reading all Major H.W.Tilman´s books and the introductions in the Diadem anthologies by Perrin and by Putt, who both knew him, the character of the man is revealed as very different to that he aspired to present in his own writing.
    After East Africa, when not exploring he lived with his sister and her two daughters. He went dancing with his sister. Some misogynist. In 1932 Tilman was climbing on Dow Crag in the Lake District with J.S.Brogden and Miss V. Brown when all three fell, Brogden being killed and Brown being seriously injured. Though injured himself, Tilman managed to walk and crawl to Coniston to get help. The actions of a misogynist?
    When asked shortly before his disappearance why he never married, his answer was, ´I´ve had my peccadilloes, but the trouble with women is, they get in the damned way.´
    He was very well acquainted with karma, as anyone with his experience in India, China and the Tibet and Nepal Himalaya would be, living with sherpas, walking pilgrim routes, meeting with lamas to gain permission and obtain blessing for his expeditions and such. He was also familiar with Taoism, an essential study for anyone travelling through China and neighbouring territories influenced by it, who wishes to understand Eastern thought. Several of his later sailing crew and expedition members volunteered multiple times; Charles Marriott, Bill Procter, Roger Tufft, Brian Potter, Brian McClanaghan and Colin Putt are examples. The Australian/NZ Heard Island expedition of 1964/65 invited him to skipper their vessel, without regret. Simon Richardson, one of his crews to Greenland invited Tilman on his fateful voyage in his own boat bound for Antarctica. Those who quit on Tilman either had personal priorities at variance with those of the voyage mission, took themselves too seriously, or were merely, ´the cankers of a calm world and a long peace.´ My perception is that he knew well enough the calibre of men he was taking on and hoped to imbue them by example with self-discipline, duty and responsibility, but after the deleterious social and political effects of the World Wars this was sometimes an impossible task.
    As for having a thirst for gore, his immediate reaction to his early war experience, to live alone in self-built, mud brick huts isolated in rural Kenya, for nine years, strikes me as a very extended period of recovery from post-traumatic shock. His few climbing holidays and hunting expeditions were his only periods of contact with other europeans, his plantation staff being all native. (Snow on the Equator (1937)). In my estimation, his enrollment as a reserve officer in 1939 was entirely based on his sense of duty and responsibility, aware that he had something to contribute to the defense of his country and the Empire, ultimately sacrificing his life if necessary. (When Men and Mountains Meet (1946)). His sickened dismay and understandable bitterness with the further moral decay in the West after WWII and the waste of sacrifice, led to his lone wanderings in Central Asia in the late 1940s in search of lands untainted by social ´progress´ and post-modern Western values. (China to Chitral (1951)).
    Writing in 1952 in Nepal Himalaya, Tilman said, ´Like Tibet, Nepal has always sought isolation and has secured it by excluding foreigners, of whom the most undesirable were white men. … … But now that the advantages of the Western way of life are becoming every day less obvious… Wise men traditionally come from the East, and it is probable that to them the West and its ways were suspect long before we ourselves began to have doubts.` In 1952.
    To me, the worldly knowledge, clarity and startling brilliance of Tilman is best exhibited by the words, ´There is a good case for dropping bombs on civilians because so very few of them can be regarded as inoffensive, whereas mountains…` (Everest 1938 (published 1948)). Few could seriously argue with that.

    1. Brilliant, Sancho!
      Thank you very much for this insight into Tilman’s character.
      I guess that ‘Grace Darling’, as he calls her, probably really was a pain in the butt, then… and after all, Tilman is quite complimentary in his assessment of Procter’s wife.

      Tilman was wise and brave and moral. I think it’s as well that he in not around now to see the state into which his countrymen have sunk.

    2. ‘Be ready with a rope’

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.