Greetings from iainthepict. This blog of mine is meant to be like a 'Book of Days' or a kind of 'Scottish Year Book' if you will. The idea was to present an event for each day of the year. Somewhere in here, you can find out what happened, affecting Scotland and the Scots, on any given day of the year. Your comments and observations are very welcome.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Dougal Haston

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.

12 comments:

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  3. A great tribute! Thanks for all the detail. What did you find inadequate about Conner's biography? I had only heard good things about it so far, and I'm about to read it.

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    1. I only knew Dougal from 1969-to-1973. I climbed with him on small day climbs while he prepared for the big stuff. I (and others) was a bartender at the Club Vagabond during his early Rock Star (Bull Shit) days. Conner's book may be technically spot on but he missed a bit of fact about the Dougal "Off Rope". So be it. Haston was a good pal & Conner's book is a good read. Thanks mate..

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    2. Thanks for your comment; it's much appreciated. It's good to know he's still fondly remembered. Regards, The Pict.

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  4. There have been a couple of reviews on websites that refer to several irritating mistakes, like Tiso dying in 2000 rather than in 1992 (not that I’d know) and various typos, but you could put those down to the publisher, rather than Connor. There are extended chunks of verbatim interviews, which is kinda cheating, but the key thing is that Connor just doesn’t get to the bottom of why Haston was the man he was. That said, don’t be put off; you should read the book. Regards, Ian

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  5. i wonder where i got my love for the outdoors and the mountains. I have just recently found out that Dougal Haston is my great uncle. i am honnord to have an uncle that succesfuly climed the south west face of mount everest. and all of the other mountains he climed.

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    1. It is curious how one life can touch so many, as in the case of your Great Uncle. As a 10 year old pupil in 1973, I was taught by Miss Little, an elderly teacher at the Murray Primary School in East Kilbride (Scotland). She had been Dougal Haston's teacher at some point in her career and frequently used him as an icon to push us to strive to fulfil our dreams and ambitions. The class poster, “Climbing the Eiger with Dougal Haston” still resonates with me some 40 years on and although I never met him, I was sad to learn of his untimely death. Many of those pupils (including me I hope) went on to lead successful and worthwhile lives inspired by her pride in his achievements and her charisma as a teacher (I’m not sure they make them like her anymore).

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  6. I have just finished Jeff Connor's book. What a great read. I was fascinated to read his story. Am now going to find a copy of "Calculated Risk"

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    1. Hi Pam, thanks for commenting. Glad you enjoyed the book. If you can't find 'Calculated Risk' on Amazon, you could try Abe Books online. Regards, The Pict.

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  7. He is my climbing hero . I even labelled his autobiographical book as " My climbing Bible . BTW I am from a country called Malaysia . I 'found" him in a local library , circa 1996 , long after his death .
    To me ( a small time rock climber then ) he was almost like a Legendary (second) GOD

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    1. Hi, thanks for reading and posting a comment. It's good to know he is still remembered and had such an influence. Cheers, The Pict.

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