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Who was HW Tilman?

Bill Tilman was possibly one of the last great explorers of the 20th Century. Born in 1898 – after a distinguished lifetime of exploration and adventure – Tilman disappeared at sea in his 80s.


The true nature of HW Tilman is by turns enigmatic and elusive. Was he the austere, monomaniac conqueror of peak, ocean or Asian col? A crusty recluse, martinet, misogynist?  Or was he an anachronistic yet profoundly civilised and intelligent man? It is said he possessed very good thinking equipment which he habitually used. His intelligence was allied to great humility, his courage identified as being of the best sort; quiet and seamed with humour. Uncomplaining, full of toughness and courage – Tilman was a rare man in more ways than one.


A survivor of both the Battle of the Somme (aged 17) and later World War II He campaigned in the Western Desert and the Dolomites. With Military Medal and bar and a DSO (Distinguished Service Order)  Tilman was a quiet introspective hero. Between the wars Tilman undertook exploratory reconnaissance expeditions to Everest Reaching 27400 feet just 1800 feet short of the summit. He was remembered by Sherpas as a ‘strong little sahib who ate the same food as us and carried heavier loads’


The philosophy of Mischief Expeditions is informed by the character of both Tilman himself and the expeditions he undertook. The style in which Tilman undertook adventures was a hallmark of his character. The main principle being modest simplicity. 

For Tilman, adventures where not about bagging peaks or sailing oceans – adventure was not an achievement itself but the journey. The adventure found in overcoming difficulty. Mountaineering and sailing were only ever means to an end.


Tilman was described as many things; taciturn, erudite with a quiet humour. But most of all on expeditions he was described as a “retrograde hero of the avant-garde”. Not for Tilman the expense, bureaucracy, politics (and footprint) of the large costly expedition. Tilman was ahead of his time – pioneering ecologically sound principles of exploration and adventure.


Tilman is introduced to rock climbing in the Lake District of England.

He ascends Mawenzi and almost ascends Kibo on Kilimanjaro, with Eric Shipton.

He makes first ascent of West Ridge of Batian, and traverses to Nelion, with Shipton.

Tilman ascends Mounts Speke, Baker, and Stanley in the Ruwenzori Range, with Shipton.

In April, he is involved in an accident in the Lake District which leads to the death of J. S. Brogden.

Later that year, he makes various climbs in the Alps.

Tilman ascends Kilimanjaro (to summit) alone.

Tilman and Shipton, with three others, make the first recorded entrance into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. They also explore the nearby Badrinath Range.

Tilman participates in the Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, and climbs various peaks near Everest.

Tilman attempts various peaks and passes, including the Zemu Gap, in Sikkim, near Kangchenjunga. Later, he leads the first ascent of Nanda Devi.

Shipton and Tilman make a major reconnaissance and surveying expedition in the Karakoram.

Tilman leads another Mount Everest Expedition; he and three others reach above 27,300 ft (8,320 m) but fail to reach the summit.

He traverses the Zemu Gap.

He leads an expedition in the remote Assam Himalaya, which ends in disaster. They attempt Gori Chen, but reach only the lower slopes. The party was ravaged by Malaria, causing the death of one member.

Tilman climbs various peaks in Kurdistan.

He makes a night ascent of Zaghouan, in Tunisia.

Tilman leads an attempt on Rakaposhi which explores five different routes, none of which get near the summit. The expedition then explored the Kukuay Glacier on the southwest side of the Batura Muztagh.

He attempts Muztagh Ata, with Shipton and Gyalgen Sherpa.

Tilman attempts Bogda Feng, in northern Xinjiang, with Shipton and two others, but they only reach outlying summits.

He attempts Chakragil, in western Xinjiang.

He travels in the Chitral area of the Hindu Kush.

Tilman leads a four-month exploratory and scientific expedition to the Langtang, Ganesh, and Jugal Himals in Nepal, in the early stages of that country's re-opening to outsiders. He climbs Paldor in the Ganesh Himal.

He leads the British Annapurna Expedition, which gets close to the summit of Annapurna IV, and attempts other nearby peaks.

Tilman and Charles Houston view Mount Everest from the lower slopes of Pumori, on the recently opened Nepalese side of the peak.

Started sailing in Barmouth estuary and learned rudiments of sailing.

Bought his first Pilot Cutter "Mischief" at Palma, Mallorca. Awarded honorary Lld. by University of St. Andrews.

Sailed "Mischief" to Chilean Patagonia via South America. Crossed Patagonian ice cap. Returned to England via Panama thereby completing an entire circumnavigation of South America.

Circumnavigated Africa in "Mischief".

Sailed "Mischief" to Crozet Islands and Kerguelen Island in the Antarctic.

1961: Sailed "Mischief" to West Greenland.

1962: Sailed to West Greenland and east coast of Arctic in Canada in "Mischief".

1963: Went to Baffin Bay in "Mischief", crossed Bylot Island on foot.

1964: Sailed to East Greenland "Mischief".

1964-65: Navigated schooner Patanela to Heard island for Warwick Deacock. Later in ‘65, again sailed "Mischief" to East Greenland.

1966-67: Sailed "Mischief" to South Shetlands, and South Georgia in the Antarctic.

1968: Foundered off Jan Mayen Island near Greenland, losing "Mischief". Went home and bought his second Pilot Cutter "Sea Breeze".

1969: Sailed "Sea Breeze" to Iceland, and the East Greenland coast.

1970: Sailed "Sea Breeze" to West Greenland.

1971: Sea Breeze to East Greenland.

1972: Sailed to East Greenland, but was shipwrecked and lost "Sea Breeze".

1973: Awarded CBE. Bought his third and last Pilot Cutter "Baroque" and sailed her to West Greenland.

1974: Circumnavigated Spitzbergen in "Baroque".

1975: Sailed to West Greenland in "Baroque".

1976: Sailed to East Greenland in "Baroque". Ran aground causing damage. Left "Baroque" to spend the winter in Iceland and flew home to England.

1977: Returned to iceland and brought "Baroque" home. Sold her. Set sail at nearly 80 years old in steel-hulled tug "En Avant" with former crew member Simon Richardson and others to Smith Island. They reached Rio de Janeiro without incident. On Nov. 1, 1977, they left Rio for the Falkland Islands to pick up two new Zealand climbers. They disappeared and nothing has ever been heard of them since.

Source: The Seven Mountain-Travel Books.

© 2019 Mischief Expeditions
except some images © Dave Wheeler.

Mischief at Eastcumberland Bay. Photo Dave Wheeler.