There is a photograph of Tom Patey taken on the Old Man of Hoy, a 450-foot pinnacle of rock standing in the ocean off the north coast of Scotland. Some way up the sea stack, Chris Bonington pointed his camera straight down at Patey, who is climbing in an old shirt, cuffs unbuttoned and loose, with a jumble of gear dangling wildly from his waist. Patey’s face, weather-beaten and slightly simian, is grimacing as he reaches to clip a carabiner. Between his lips, a cigarette is clamped.
In the almost four decades since his death, this well-known image of Tom Patey, climbing the Old Man of Hoy for a live broadcast on BBC television on June 8, 1967, perhaps best captures one of the most remarkable mountaineers Britain has ever produced. Patey tackled an enormous number of climbs, many of them still considered major challenges in Scotland, the Alps and the Himalaya, and this shot reflects his toughness and shambolic charisma.
And yet there was more to Patey, who would have turned 75 this year, than meets the eye. A multi-faceted character, he is remembered as much for his ability to get a party going and his hysterical prose, published in the collection One Man’s Mountains, as for his climbing achievements. Were he still alive, he would be able to look back on an extraordinarily active career. Instead, we remember one that burned brightly but ended abruptly, leaving a void that British climbing has not managed to fill to this day.
Tom Patey was born in 1932 in the village of Ellon, near Aberdeen, on the east coast of Scotland, to an Episcopalian minister father and church-organist mother. Patey was an avid climber early on, and at the age of 18 he made a first ascent on Lochnagar, a tall cliff behind Queen Elizabeth’s holiday home at Balmoral. He went on to study medicine at the University of Aberdeen, where he began making more assiduous forays into the highlands.
Though Patey was a rock climber of limited abilities, he excelled on the mixed terrain of the Scottish highlands in the winter. His fiery determination and unquenchable curiosity led him to make regular first ascents, such as Mitre Ridge, The Scorpion and Douglas-Gibson Gully (Scotland’s first grade V—sustained ice to 80 degrees), whenever his studies allowed.
“He would be in the hospital working all night and then go climbing the next day,” says Bill Brooker, who studied with Patey and was later the best man at his wedding. “He had tremendous endurance.”
Brooker remembers doing the first winter ascent of Eagle Ridge in Lochnagar, in 1953, with Patey and Mike Taylor. The trio astounded their peers by completing the traverse in just over four hours in hobnail boots—to this day an impressive feat for what is still seen as a long day’s climb at grade V. Their climb remains a classic Scottish winter route.
“Tom seized the lead,” says Brooker. “He was very good at that, he made sure he got the lead. He was usually the first to get there because he was fast on the approach. You would find you’d get there and all that was waiting for you was this coil of rope and he was on the other end.”
Located on Britain’s biggest mountain, Ben Nevis, Zero Gulley was one of the most coveted prizes in post-war Scottish climbing, containing 1,000 feet of steep, exposed ice that had outwitted repeated attempts. Even today, one Internet description of the route states that aspirants need “a full rack. 8 to 10 ice screws. Don’t trust some guys who tell you to carry less.” This year marks the 50th anniversary of Patey’s ascent of Zero Gulley with Hamish MacInnes, a member of Glasgow’s famous Creag Dhu club. In an era when gear was still extremely basic—ice screws and full harnesses were unheard of, and crampons were still viewed with suspicion—MacInnes valued Patey’s instinctive ability for route finding and seeing a line on a cliff. Given the smallness of the Scottish mountaineering community in the 1950s, it was inevitable that Patey’s exploits would make waves.
Chris Bonington, who climbed with Patey throughout the 1960s, remembers a young man in a hurry. “He was quite chaotic. There were a number of times, particularly climbing with him in winter, when the challenge was to catch up with him to persuade him to put the rope on. Very often you never caught up, so he just ended up soloing the climb.”
Even if you were close enough to see this force of nature at work, it was not always a pretty sight. “Three points of contact meant nothing to him,” says Donnie Smith, another regular partner of Patey’s. “He wasn’t stylish, he’d just go at it. He’d say, ‘What are you trying to do? How you get up there is your own business, so who the fuck cares?’ MacInnes was different, he was fluid, he moved smoothly. But Patey went in bursts, knees everywhere, grabbing whatever he could.”
After finishing his studies, Patey joined the Navy for his military service. In his mid-20s, as a military surgeon who climbed at a high standard, he attracted the attention of the organizers of the 1956 British attempt on the 23,860-foot Mustagh Tower in the Karakoram. Patey’s hardiness made an impression on his three other team members, including the legendary Joe Brown.
“He was a very tough man. I never found him wanting at any time and I spent a great deal of time with him,” says Brown. “He was very good at altitude. And he had an extraordinary thing which I’ve never come across with anybody else, which was that he would climb at high altitude without glasses or goggles on and that was just incredible. I don’t understand how it could be that he had eyes that wouldn’t be burned.”
After summiting the Mustagh Tower along the Northwest ridge (just days ahead of a French team), Patey was chosen as the doctor for the British-Pakistani attempt on the 25,550-foot Rakaposhi in the Karakoram, in 1958. Again, his stamina and grit came to the fore, and he made the summit with Mike Banks. In his memoir of the expedition, Banks recalls how Patey, after a grueling day, would cheerfully kick snow-steps up the start of the next day’s section of mountain, while the other team members lay exhausted in their tents.
In 1962, Patey, his wife Betty and their two children moved to a tiny two-man doctor’s practice in Ullapool, a small town on the northwest coast of Scotland. Both professionally and in terms of known climbing nearby, Ullapool was a mysterious choice for Patey. As a surgeon, Patey could have easily taken a more prestigious post in a major hospital in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Instead, he was a village doctor, punching far below his weight. Further, Ullapool was several hours’ drive north of Ben Nevis, Britain’s greatest source of winter routes, and none of Scotland’s major ranges are close.
Yet, Ullapool offered an unexplored wilderness on his doorstep. Few of the hills of Coigach, which surround the town, rise above 3,000 feet, but they are as wild and demanding as their mysterious-sounding names—An Teallach, Benn Dearg, Sgurr Mòr.
It was in Ullapool that Patey started his “black books,” thick notepads he filled with plans for new routes on rock and ice, and which he showed only to close friends and partners.
“Tom loved the exploratory side of climbing,” explains Bonington. “In the kind of person who loves doing new routes there can be a level of ego and ‘I made the first ascent of this.’ I don’t think that particularly bothered Tom. He loved going into the unknown.”
Donnie Smith, who as a local policeman led the mountain rescue team in the Ullapool area, remembers Patey as an adventure-hungry obsessive who sought out the unclimbed and left relatively little trace of his feats behind. “He didn’t want to climb things he had climbed before and so he even climbed rubbishy things, places that weren’t a bloody challenge. There are hundreds of climbs in Scotland that Patey firsted, but other guys have their names on these routes in the guidebooks.”
Wrote Patey: “To my mind the magic of a great route does not lie in its technical difficulty or even the excellence of its rock but in something less readily definable—atmosphere.”
While Patey managed to climb regularly thanks to his shared medical practice and the proximity of the mountains, it was sometimes hard for him to balance work and play. His doctor’s practice was regionally expansive, meaning many long drives down winding single-track roads to see patients.
“Being a doctor in that kind of environment is a big commitment,” said Patey’s daughter Rona, herself a doctor in Aberdeen. Although only a small girl when her family lived in Ullapool, she acknowledges which side had a greater hold over Patey. “Climbing for him was more of a vocation than being a doctor.”
Small-town life in northwest Scotland in the 1960s was quite straitlaced, much more so than the free-spirited Patey would have liked. The flower power movement and swinging London were light years away from the strict Presbyterian mores dominating Ullapool. The local doctor, along with the schoolmaster and policeman, was seen as a pillar of the community. He had to at least give the impression of being sober, God-fearing and dedicated to his work and family, all challenges for the unreligious, hard-partying Patey.
John Cleare, a photographer, gives an idea of how far Patey went to maintain his reputation as an upstanding man of medicine while satisfying his climbing passion. He remembers visiting Patey one afternoon with a friend to go climbing after work. Patey left the clinic early, stuffed his climbing gear into the back of his old Skoda, and made Cleare and his friend hide under some blankets in the back seat so that the locals would not suspect their doctor was abandoning his practice to head for the mountains.
“He was still in his doctor’s grey suit, egg stains down the tie and commando belt holding his trousers up. He would drive along the road through Ullapool and stop to say to some passing lady, ‘Och, how are you doing, Mrs. McKechney?’ And so he was still on his rounds. But as soon as we were out of Ullapool, down his foot would go. When he was out of the car, off came the suit, on came the climbing clothes, the boots still with ice on them from the previous day, the odd socks, gear which had been bundled into the back of the car still wet. We grabbed our axes and off we went.”
Juggling work and climbing was one thing, but Patey also maintained a frenetic social life. He found it hard to resist a party and went to extreme lengths to meet up with friends even in a pub or house far from Ullapool. Patey often drove long distances during the night to and from these jamborees, his accordion and a couple of packets of Capstone cigarettes for company and a belly full of whisky on the trip home.
“The stressful thing was all the partying and driving he did,” says MacInnes. “He was really incredible. There was one occasion when he drove down from Ullapool—he persuaded me to go, too—to a party in Derbyshire (a distance of about 400 miles). So he’d be partying all night, then he’d drive back up to Ullapool again.”
Cleare remembers Patey driving from the Lake District in the north of England down to visit him near London one weekend, just because the weather was too poor for climbing. “He would drive incredible distances, just for a bit of entertainment.”
Despite the odds, Patey negotiated the strict parameters of Ullapool society, and he was admired as a conscientious doctor. Maintaining a harmonious marriage was harder. Betty, his wife, tolerated his passion for climbing to a degree, but she was less indulgent about his lax timekeeping and prolonged absences.
“I remember one evening we came in rather late,” recalls Cleare. “Betty had the dinner in the oven and she emptied it all over his head.”
Music was a hobby Patey indulged in both in the mountains and at home. He inherited a musical ear from his parents, and as a youngster he learned the piano. At that time, folk music was an integral part of the Scottish climbing scene, and impromptu jams at the end of a day’s climb often took place in pubs or homes until the wee hours. Bill Brooker was with Patey when he first tried to play an accordion, a defining moment for the young doctor.
“Tom was good at these singalongs, but he didn’t really take off until he started playing the accordion,” Brooker says. “One night there was a guy who had an accordion, which Tom of course had a go at. After that he got one and he became the main focus of any social gathering.”
Patey and his accordion were virtually inseparable, and even in the Himalaya he kept his companions in good spirits by playing a tune with frostbitten fingers.
As well as a means to liven up parties with everything from Joan Baez and 12-bar blues, to German marching tunes, the accordion was a perfect form of expression for Patey, a matchless wit. He built up a repertoire of self-penned songs, many of which are collected in his only book, the acclaimed posthumously published One Man’s Mountains. While they display Patey’s poetic talent, the songs also hint at the complexity of his character. Among the ribald ballads and bittersweet anthems are humorous, satirical swipes at friends and colleagues, such as “Onward Christian Bonington” (played to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers”):
Do not miss this spectacle, you can watch for free:
Bonington is on the wall, Tune in on B.B.C.
Onward Christian Bonington, of the B.B.C.
Fighting for survival, and a token fee.
“He was an amazing entertainer and very, very talented,” says MacInnes. “He was very witty. He had this ability—if anybody had a pretence or was showing off a bit, Tom would incorporate it into his songs.”
Joe Brown—with whom Patey established several routes in the Mont Blanc region such as the Aiguille Sans Nom (ED1)—remembers how Patey would be struck by inspiration during these trips.
“He’d just be driving along, going to the Alps or somewhere and he’d start thinking of a song, making one up. He’d keep playing with it and in no time at all he’d have a song.”
At times, however, Patey’s lyrics showed a darker, more reflective soul. The last song in One Man’s Mountains is called “The Last of the Grand Old Masters.” In it, the narrator encounters a ghost-like character in the wilderness who proceeds to recount how he and a generation of great British climbers have now passed their peak and have little to look forward to apart from the grave. This lament for good times gone and call to seize the moment is perhaps Patey’s most poignant work. The last verse could almost be a motto for the writer himself:
Live it up, fill your cup, drown your sorrow
And sow your wild oats while ye may
For the toothless old tykes of tomorrow
Were the Tigers of Yesterday.
Patey contributed to the mountaineering journals of the day, and he is now remembered as one of climbing’s finest essayists, his prose laced with mischievous comedy. His essays are often peopled by slightly exaggerated conceits, as the narrator looks on in bemusement as those around him embark on hare-brained schemes, dragging him reluctantly along.
“Who else but Hamish MacInnes would phone at this hour with such a preposterous suggestion?” writes Patey in mock outrage, describing a moment when MacInnes calls him one February evening in 1965 and asks if he would like to make an attempt at the first winter traverse of the celebrated Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye, which lies off the west coast of Scotland. The winter traverse of the Cuillin remains a major challenge today. Alpine in length, commitment and technicality, the ridge neither rises above 4,000 feet nor drops below 2,500 feet. Yet the historic traverse by Patey and his three companions is reported as a catalogue of comic and near-tragic mishaps, including a broken crampon and Patey’s climbing partner Brian Robertson “stopping every half-mile to be sick” due to the accordion-and-whisky session of the night before.
This image Patey presents of himself as the resigned-but-game observer is a far cry from the obsessively-driven mover and shaker friends and fellow climbers remember.
“He had this aura,” says Smith. “You get that with top people. We’d take a look at a climb, and I’d say, ‘That’s beyond me.’ But he’d say, ‘Go on, man, how do you know until you’re up there?’ If you were going climbing with him you did it Tom’s way or you didn’t come.”
Often his friends set out for a planned climb with Patey, only to realize he had his own ideas about their destination. Brooker recalls arriving at Patey’s home with a couple of friends one day, all four of them having agreed on an area by phone. That day, Patey decided he’d rather reach one of his beloved sea stacks and threw the script out the window upon getting into the car. Sure enough, Brooker found himself carrying a ladder along the coast.
This pushy side of his character could be charming, making spending time with him “a magical mystery tour,” as Bonington describes it. It was also frustrating, and Patey, as one old friend put it, “was sometimes a very selfish bastard.”
One of his most memorable essays, “A Short Walk With Whillans,” (reprinted in this issue, page 62) describes an unsuccessful attempt Patey made with Don Whillans on the North Face of the Eiger. In retrospect, it is fascinating to read Patey’s take on a personality every bit as forceful as himself. Both had formidable mountaineering credentials, and yet over the years their reputations as “characters”—Whillans as a boozy wit and Patey as a carefree life-and-soul-of-the-party—threatened to overshadow their achievements on rock and ice.
Patey distills Whillans’ moody glibness and gallows humor superbly. “He’s a cheery character, I thought to myself. To Don, a spade is just a spade—a simple trenching tool used by gravediggers.”
Death became an increasing preoccupation for Patey. As the sixties drew to a close, a dismaying number of great or promising climbers he knew were dying in the mountains. Most traumatic of all was the death of his close friend Jim MacArtney in an avalanche on Ben Nevis in 1970. Patey was so distraught that he called up the local police, urging them to investigate the circumstances surrounding the accident. No foul play or negligence were found.
After MacArtney’s death, John Cleare remembers Patey grief-stricken and pacing around in the middle of the night. This was perhaps the motivation behind Patey’s feverish rate of activity—the relentless search for new routes, the hazardous mountain rescue work, the midnight drives and all-night parties, the constant flow of songs and essays:
“We started to get philosophical, as one does in the middle of the night, and I said, ‘You push too hard, you know. You’re always on the go. Why don’t you relax?’ And he said, ‘Well, I haven’t got too long.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I know what my father died of and he died quite young. I have the same hereditary problem, I’m not going to live to an old age. My prognosis is probably early fifties, something like that. There’s a lot I want to do.’”
One of the reasons Patey was so dumbfounded by MacArtney’s death was the lack of falls Patey himself suffered. All those years exploring the Highlands, solo or with friends, had conferred on him a kind of invincibility, or at least the illusion of such.
“He climbed most of the time on his own and he had this philosophy that if you can’t do it on your own, don’t bloody bother,” says Smith. “If you were with him and you fell, he would hold you because he didn’t fall. He never fell.”
On May 25, 1970, Patey was abseiling off a sea stack off the north coast of Scotland called The Maiden. He and a group of friends had just made the first ascent, and Patey was the last man off the top. On his way down he paused, apparently to rearrange the rope. Then his friends watched as he plummeted off the rock face to his death on the slab below. He was 38.
The exact reason for Patey’s death, carrying out a relatively simple maneuver that he had done thousands of times, can never be known for sure. However, a predominant theory among his friends hinges on the way he dressed and his notoriously chaotic rope management.
“He always wore a loose jersey that was far too big for him,” explains Smith. “I don’t suppose anybody will know the truth, but he paused after he’d started abseiling and I think that his jersey must have got caught in the gate of the carabiner and the rope wasn’t flowing properly. I’m not sure, but it does appear he did something to remove the jersey from the crab and suddenly he was free.”
Offering further insight, MacInnes says, “The previous weekend I had been climbing with Tom and he had forgotten his belt, so I gave him an old sling and an old Pierre Alain carabiner [a swing gate that was recalled due to safety issues] that I just used for hauling rucksacks. I told him, ‘Don’t use that carabiner for climbing,’ but these things didn’t register with Tom. That was the carabiner he used for the abseil.”
His death left a void in the British climbing community. “I was just stunned because Patey was so much a part of the scene,” Cleare adds. “It was hard to imagine the climbing world without him … his personality. He’d been hoping to do the Eigerwand solo in record time that summer—he’d bought new crampons, new boots.”
Patey was buried in his hometown of Ellon, and a memorial service was held in Aberdeen Cathedral. Joe Brown, who carried the coffin along with John Cleare, Ian MacNaught-Davis and Chris Brasher, remembers Patey as one of the greats.
“He made people aware of what was possible in all sorts of different places. If you made a list of the 100 best climbers from an all-round point of view, he’d be very high up the list, he’d probably be in the top 10, for his ability to perform well in all conditions in all sorts of mountain situations,” he says. “I loved being with him for all sorts of reasons. Over the past 30-odd years since he died, I regularly think of him and how different my life would have been if he hadn’t have died. That’s how big an effect he had on my life.”
Without a doubt, there was an uncompromising side to Patey, one that ensured he got his way on and off the mountains. Especially compared with this modern era, when the climbing sometimes seems to take a backseat to fads, gear and celebrity, a rare and precious light surrounded Patey. Today, the memory of Tom Patey still shines in the minds of those who knew and loved him for his humorous, generous spirit, his explorer’s heart and the joy his accordion could rouse.
Guy Hedgecoe lives in Madrid, Spain, is editor of the English-language edition of El País newspaper and goes climbing and hiking in the mountains of Spain, Scotland and Ecuador as often as possible. He would like to give special thanks to James Gordon.