17 December 2017

Visitor Heroes from the Past - Geoffrey Winthrop Young - Raymond Priestley - Heinrich Harrer

I have some very good memories of the mid to late-50s in Christchurch when, as a keen budding climber, I was a regular attendee at the meetings of the CMC (Canterbury Mountaineering Club) and a little later, the NZAC (New Zealand Alpine Club). These years were soon after WW2 and the club leaders were very aware of the times lost to those dreadful years of war. They seized on any visiting notables to talk to the membership. I'm not sure if this sort of activity still exists today but it certainly made an impression on me - meeting people of fame or with links to our heroes of the past - I believe that heroes are mistakenly underrated these days. There were others too but here are some memories of three fleeting visitors from those formative days.

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Raymond Priestley

Raymond Priestley in Antarctica 1912


I have quite good memories of somewhat frantic activity among CMC elders. They heard that Raymond Priestley was coming to Christchurch as a guest of the American Deep Freeze Operation for a visit to Antarctica soon after they set up their base at McMurdo. He must have been about 70 at the time and had been the VC of both Melbourne and Birmingham Universities. I didn't know who he was but I was advised that here was a chance to make contact with the past. Priestley had been a member (one of the last surviving members) of Scotts last expedition south. He was introduced and without any notes or slides he just stood and gave a wonderful talk.

He wasn't part of the bid for the South Pole but part of what was called the six-man "Northern Party". They had explored the area about Cape Adare and areas south of there towards Scott Base. The "Terra Nova" had failed to pick them up at a place called "Inexpressible Island"because of pack ice. They were marooned there for the winter with limited supplies and managed to survive by eating seals and penguins they had slaughtered near their snow cave. As a treat every so often they would eat the brains of a slaughtered seal - yum yum. They survived a very bleak winter and rescued themselves in the spring, travelling over the sea ice to Scott's hut where they discovered that Scott and his companions had failed to return the previous autumn.

Prior to Scotts departure for the Pole, Priestley had traveled eastwards along the Ross Ice Shelf in the Terra Nova and, at the Bay of Whales, had discovered Amundsen preparing for his successful journey to the South Pole. Before going North to Cape Adare they returned to tell Scott of Amundsen's presence. I was enthralled and riveted listening to his story.

Notice at Cave Site on Inexpressible Island


Over one hundred years later - one of Priestley's dinner remains


In 2009, with Catherine, I was lucky to revisit Antarctica and, as part of this, we visited Inexpressible Island - there on the rocks next to where the Northern Party had survived their long winter we found the skulls of seals with their skull caps opened - the remains of several of Priestley's treats! They had been there for for over 100 years.

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Heinrich Harrer



Heinrich Harrer and Friend


Heinrich Harrer was an Austrian mountaineer, famous for having been part of the first 1938 successful Austro-German first ascent of the the North Face of the Eiger - the last of the unclimbed north (cold) faces in the European Alps. Two parties of two, one German and one Austrian, met on the lower face and decided to join forces for the ascent, one of mountaineerings great feats. For this he was honoured and photographed with Adolf Hitler.

Later, during WW2, he escaped from a POW internment camp and travelled to Tibet where he became close adviser and confidant of the Dalai Lama - all recounted in his well known book 'Seven Years in Tibet'.

He came and spoke to the NZAC, mainly about the Eiger climb and I still vividly recall hearing him describe in his 'Germanic' accent how, on the Eiger, after doing the "... Hinterstoiser Traverse, I braced myself against a rock overhang while Heckmier, my climbing partner climbed onto my shoulders in his crampons to overcome the obstacle and continue our climb." I'm not so sure what the NZ climbing fraternity thought of this sort of self-sacrifice.

One of our leading climbers, Norman Hardie, introduced me to him after the talk - my main and embarrassing recollection was of being of so overcome as to be almost speechless.

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Geoffrey Winthrop Young



Geoffrey Winthrop Young


Another interesting climber was the very proper Englishman, Geoffrey Winthrop Young who also visited NZ and talked at the NZAC in the mid 1950s. He was a conscientious objector during WW1 and lost a leg while serving in a field ambulance. He designed a prosthetic leg (or rather several, to cope with different mountain terrains) and ten years later climbed the Matterhorn - earlier he had done many remarkable climbs in the European Alps. He wrote what was regarded as 'the' textbook on climbing - 'Mountain Craft'. It even detailed the correct etiquette for overtaking another person on a mountain path. My main recollection was of his very dapper green silk cravat!

I came across him in a book I was reading recently, "Into the Silence", where I discovered he was involved in the early planning for the 1922 and 1924 Everest expeditions and was a mentor and climbing friend of Mallory - also his best man and godfather to one of his children. He had a great reputation as a speaker.

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I mention these occasional 'heroes' because of the great inspiration they provided and the equally great memories they still provide in the written word. I am certain that exposure to people such as these can do nothing but good. Most kids these days seem to have have famous sports people to look up to. And I wonder if these heroes realise how important is their behaviour and demeanour and how influential it can be to so many of the younger generation. And biographies and autobiographies can be so important. And so too is the ability to read!