Duncan Curdy MacSporran (Dougal) Haston died on the 17th of January, 1977.
Dougal Haston was one of the greatest mountain climbers that Scotland ever produced. In the space of sixteen furious years, between 1959 and 1976, he made his name as a world famous mountaineer, with landmark ascents in his native Scotland and the world’s greatest mountain ranges. And, whilst he never ascended to the top of the popularity rankings, he did, literally, climb to the top of the world. He became internationally famous in the 1970s, due to his success on Chris Bonington’s high profile expeditions to Annapurna and Everest. Haston has been described as “laconic” and a “hardman” and one of the “beautiful people” of fashionable, 1970s Leysin, in Switzerland, which is where he suffered an untimely demise at the age of thirty-six, in an avalanche whilst skiing. Interestingly, he wrote a novel called ‘Calculated Risk’, which was printed posthumously.
He was an ‘A-list’ celebrity before such things were categorized; a blue eyed boy and sharp dresser with a penchant for neckerchiefs, and a report of his death even made it to the leader column of The Sun newspaper. Away from the climbing world, in public and private, Haston was an enigmatic, difficult character, with many flaws. Within the fraternity, he remains a compelling figure whose career was equal to that of most of the truly great climbers of the 20th Century. Perhaps he had a merely adequate technique and it has been said that Haston’s best routes relied on others to spot the line, but he certainly made up for any lack with “a purifying strength and will” that drove him on to the highest level of achievement in his chosen sphere. Chris Bonington said of him, “Dougal Haston was not only one of Britain’s most outstanding mountaineers; he was the closest to being a cult figure”.
Haston came to the notice of the climbing fraternity in 1959, with the first ascent of ‘The Bat’ on the ‘Carn Dearg’ buttress of Ben Nevis with ‘Wheech’ otherwise known as Robin Smith and who was to die climbing in 1962. Haston went on to include in his list of ‘firsts’ a winter ascent of the Eiger Nordwand in 1966 as part of the team that made the first direct, bottom to top, climb of the North Face via the ‘direttissima’. The label of ‘most dangerous’ applied to that direct route was no misnomer as American climber John Harlin lost his life on the climb, due to a broken rope. Haston, who had asked for thicker ropes, ensured the route was subsequently named in his honour.
In 1970, Haston was a member of the UK team, which first conquered the South Face of Annapurna and, in 1974, he was the first to climb Changabang in India. Then, at 6 p.m. on the 24th of September, 1975, along with Doug Scott, he became the first Briton to reach the summit of Mount Everest. As part of Chris Bonnington’s team, Haston and Scott made the first ascent of the south-west face of Everest. As the Everest history website reports, Dougal Haston and Doug Scott arrived at the top of the world, thirty-three days after establishing their base camp; in the process setting a record for the fastest time up the peak.
Haston and Scott made the first assault and after a break for a ‘brew’ at the South Summit, after eleven hours of climbing, they reached the summit three hours later. They were forced to spend “a freezing, oxygenless night complete with hypoxic conversations with feet, toes, and imaginary companions” in a hand dug snow cave at the South Summit – the highest bivouac in history – but eventually descended safely, passing the second assault team on its way up. According to Ed Douglas, “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.” Doug Scott recalled that, “we made it to the top, but not without difficulty. Dougal’s oxygen set failed – it gunged up with ice, which we freed by banging it against the rocks.”
Duncan Curdy MacSporran Haston was born in Currie, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, on the 19th of April, 1940. By the time he left school, he was known as Dougal and had developed at taste for climbing. His skills were honed by clambering up railway and riverside walls around Currie. By that time, he had already shown a mischievous streak, which would become somewhat darker, later in life. According Jeff Connor in his somewhat inadequate biography entitled ‘Dougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk’, Haston and his pals would climb to the top of Currie Church and leave things, including women’s underwear, atop the flagpole. For a time, he studied philosophy at Edinburgh and was a fan of Nietzsche. Later, he became Director of the International School of Mountaineering at Leysin in Switzerland. It was there on the 17th of January, 1977, whilst skiing alone on the north-east face of La Riondaz to the Col Luisset, that he was killed by an avalanche. Tragically, although it’s unlikely he would have survived, it appears that his death had been hastened by his having been throttled by his trademark, polka-dotted scarf.
Away from climbing, Haston’s exploits were as legendary as his feats of mountaineering. He was renowned for drinking and fighting, and embodied a kind of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism centred on Club Vagabond in Leysin, the infamous climbing club of the 60s and 70s known as ‘The Vag’. It seems that despite his achievements, he was brooding and insular, and an essentially insecure person, which traits manifested in a cold, selfish arrogance, devoid of emotion. He was a loner who once said, “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.”
Scottish legend, Jimmy Marshall, was a friend and early mentor to Haston and his mates, but his fondness for Dougal didn’t prevent him describing Haston as “an evil bastard”. Of course, you can’t take that out of context, but the darkest of dark sides did show up in April, 1965, when Haston was the cause of a teenager’s death near the Glencoe Youth Hostel. Haston was driving drunk at the wheel of a Transit van and ran from the scene, but sensibly turned himself in the following day. He served a mere sixty days in Barlinnie and reputedly didn’t show overmuch of remorse. On a mountain, you have to be unemotional and perhaps Haston struggled with the necessary civil adjustments when ‘off Piste’.
Duncan Curdy MacSporran (Dougal) Haston was buried in an unmarked grave in the ‘Cimiterie de Leysin’, in Leysin, Vaud, Switzerland, but there is a plaque in his honour on a railway bridge in Currie where learned to climb. In 2002, Dougal Haston was inducted as one of the first members of the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame.