Top Reads #5 The Villain
The Villain - The Life of Don Whillans By Jim Perrin
From the early pioneers forging their way up untrodden Himalayan peaks to the modern sport climber crimping up overhanging limestone – as climbers we enjoy such a rich tapestry of climbing history. A lot of this history is well documented in books and so it is often best displayed, I find, by perusing the bookshelves of climber’s houses and club huts. A few weeks ago, while I was waiting for a group to arrive at the beautiful Yorkshire Rambling Club's Lowstern Hut in Yorkshire, I was drawn to their well-stocked bookcase to pass the time.
Among some other great books my eyes soon fell on to the familiar spine of Jim Perrin’s book The Villain. It was some years since I’d read this detailed biography of Don Whillans, undoubtedly one of the UK's most famous and intriguing climbers and mountaineers. I settled by the fire with a coffee and was soon engrossed once more in what I soon decided should definitely be Peak Mountaineering’s next Top Read selection.
Whillan’s climbing career was amazing. From the backstreets of Manchester this 5’4” powerhouse forged his path from Peak District gritstone struggles through to Alpine masterpieces and on to legendary ascents of some Himalayan giants (culminating in the first ascent of the South Face of Annapurna in 1970). His massive contribution to climbing is without question and his partnership with Joe Brown undoubtedly accounted for the explosion in climbing standards during the 1950’s.
Don was also widely acknowledged for his great mountain sense. During an epic stormy descent from the North Face of the Eiger, for example, it was Don that weaved a safe route that saved his party against overwhelming odds. On the high mountains Don made choices that made a big difference and he was the kind of partner you’d always want in a tricky situation.
However, Perrin’s book also explores the darker side of Whillan’s character. Known to be a heavy drinker and a no nonsense and straight talking character, Don sometimes fell foul of influential characters in the climbing world and was known to be side lined on some big projects that he would probably have excelled on. His abrupt nature also alienated him from some of his peers and led to brushes with the law.
I would have loved to meet Don and explore his character and motivations. Tragically he died of a heart attack in 1985 at the early age of only 52. The closest you’ll now get to finding out more about this fascinating climber is by reading Perrin’s book…..and you should.