Bill Tilman

HAROLD WILLIAM TILMAN a.k.a. BILL TILMAN, was one of the most prolific adventure writers and great explorer of the Himalaya and Karakoram of the 20th Century.

Originally a Tea-planter in Kenya, he began his climbing in company of another great explorer, Eric Shipton and climbed many peaks in Africa. Their partnership proved so successful that today they are always remembered together as ‘Shipton-Tilman’. Well known for his taciturn nature and simple but sound organization in mountains (He used to say that any worthwhile expedition can be planned on the back of a post-card), Tilman achieved many firsts during his career. In 1934, with Shipton, he was the first to penetrate the Rishi Ganga gorge to find a way to the heart of Nanda Devi Sanctuary. As if they were still not satisfied by one venture, the pair turned their attention to another challenge and by following an ancient myth, they were successful in connecting Badrinath with Kedarnath by a direct route via Panpatia Bamak for the first time in the known history. They barely survived fighting for food with bears! After a great physical survival story he wrote, ‘We were experiencing a tiredness which only a very fit body can experience’!

Subsequently Tilman joined and then led expeditions to Everest but his heart was in small scale exploratory trips to the then unknown mountains and valleys. Many such exploratory episodes followed. In 1936, He led the first successful ascent of Nanda Devi in collaboration with the Americans and after reaching the summit, he describes that they were so overwhelmed by the beauty around that, ‘I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it.’ Nanda Devi remained the highest summit attained by man till 1950. And humility was his trait too as he said that he was sorry to find the head of the proud goddess Nanda Devi now trampled.

In the same year, he trekked and explored the areas around Zemu Gap in Sikkim which subsequently in 1938 he completed first successful traverse of. In 1937, with Shipton, he made a detailed reconnaissance of the little known areas of Karakoram, notably recorded in Blank on the Map. In the following year, Bill explored the Assam Himalaya around Gorichen but could not reach the summit.

In the later years he explored and climbed extensively in the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Xinjiang. Some of his notable attempts were Rakaposhi, Muztagh Ata, Bogda Feng and Chakragil. He also led an expedition to explore Langtang, Jugal and Ganesh Himal in Nepal. In that expedition Tilman was the first to ascend Paldor (5896 m) and found the pass named after him beyond Gangchempo. In 1950, he led the British expedition to Annapurna where they could reach very near to the summit of Annapurna IV. In the same year, he was one of the first persons to explore the Southern approaches to Mt. Everest.

He is equally famous for the books he wrote. Particularly on mountains he wrote many books including Snow on the Equator (1937), The Ascent of Nanda Devi (1937), When Men and Mountains Meet (1946), Everest 1938 (1948), Two Mountains and a River (1949), China to Chitral (1951), Nepal Himalaya (1952) to name a few.

He has a place as great explorer in the history and his books narrate his exploits well- with wit. He kept exploring as his philosophy was ‘Appetite grows with what it feeds upon, not by waiting….!

Harish Kapadia
With inputs by Rajesh Gadgil