High Mountains And Cold Seas: The Biography Of H.W. Tilman Book Review

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Book Review: High Mountains And Cold Seas: The Life Of H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman: Soldier, Mountaineer, Navigator by J.R.L. Anderson

High Mountains And Cold Seas: The Life Of H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman: Soldier, Mountaineer, Navigator by J.R.L. Anderson shines the spotlight on one of the greatest explorers of the twentieth century: H.W. Tilman. Tilman’s “insatiable curiosity” and unending wanderlust allowed him to travel and explore “wherever he could, from the Congo forest and the fever-ridden marches of Assam to the high slopes of the Himalayan, from China to Chitral, from Baffin Bay to Patagonia.” Tilman’s adventures are legendary.

High Mountains And Cold Seas: The Life Of H.W. 'Bill' Tilman: Soldier, Mountaineer, Navigator by J.R.L. Anderson
High Mountains And Cold Seas: The Life Of H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman: Soldier, Mountaineer, Navigator by J.R.L. Anderson

Tilman did more in one lifetime than most people can even imagine. He had some “adventurous journeys, at first by land, later by seas, practically every year for thirty years from 1947.” He actively ventured to uncharted and unexplored areas of the world. It seems like his goal was to go to “the ends of the earth by putting on a pair of boots and going.

Tilman “was much more than climber or mountaineer; he was a combination of mountaineer, explorer and traveller.” He was also a writer. To this day, Tilman’s books are some of the finest adventure literature ever published. His writing style was “clean, spare English, with few adjectives, spiced with a slightly vinegary humor” and it makes for great reading. Tilman had an incredible knack for telling a “marvelously good story” that hypnotizes his reader with adventure and humor.

J.R.L. Anderson’s High Mountains And Cold Seas does an top-notch job of detailing Tilman’s life from 1898 to 1977. His thorough research and scrupulous readings of Tilman’s letters, books, papers, and more have filled in the blanks about Tilman’s life. Even if you’ve read the entire Tilman Collection, High Mountains And Cold Seas is an excellent way to gain insight into what makes Tilman such an incredible individual.

High Mountains And Cold Seas serves as Tilman’s highlight reel. After serving in World War I, Tilman headed to Kenya to become a planter. When he joined up with Eric Shipton, Tilman discovered his love for mountains and adventure. Their mountaineering partnership ultimately created “a new kind of mountaineering, a development that has served since to transform the whole approach to mountains, socially, economically, and, in a sense, philosophically.” The “Shipton-Tilman revolution was to demonstrate that the only real requirement for the enjoyment of the mountains was determination to go there.” That’s what Tilman was all about.

You can take your pick on which of Tilman’s adventures was the most exciting. Was it his solo bicycle journey across the continent of Africa? His 1936 climb of Nanda Devi, which was the highest summit ever achieved at that point in time? His lead on the 1938 Everest Expedition? Or his exploration of the Karakoram with Shipton? And he did all of this before he returned to fight in World War II.

During World War II, Tilman fought in France, India, Iraq, Albania, and Italy. When the war ended, he went back to the mountains. Over the next few years, he made attempts on Rakaposhi, Muztagh Ata, Bogdo Ola, Chakar Aghil, and Annapurna IV. During those years, he explored the Greater Ranges, was arrested in Afghanistan, made a few trips home to see his beloved sister, and traveled from China to Chitral. His “unshakeable determination” for adventure allowed him to do all of these things in a short time span.

After a brief stint as the British Consul in Burma, Tilman decided to go “to sea as a form of physical adventure that an aging mountaineer could practice when high climbing was beyond him.” At age 50, Tilman and his boat Mischief, went on a “series of immense voyages to lonely latitudes unmatched in maritime history, and unlikely to be repeated. It is difficult to define his achievement because he offers no comparison.”

Tilman’s adventures at sea are mind-boggling. He’s circumnavigated Africa, sailed to Greenland, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen, Baffin Bay, Iceland, Patagonia, and to the ends of the earth. At each destination, he went on remarkable journeys.  He crossed the Patagonian Ice Cap, got his ships trapped in sea ice, and climbed numerous far-flung peaks. Many of his nautical adventures were so impressive that mountains and capes were named after him (or his boat).

Tilman lived “a long life on a physical scale unmatched by anyone in this century and by few in any century.” In his 70’s he was still sailing to remote locations to climb Arctic mountains. He had plans to spend his 80th birthday on an expedition to Smith Island in the South Shetlands. Tilman departed Rio for the Falklands on 1 November 1977. No one ever heard from him again. The man, the myth, and the legend has no known grave, but his adventures will live on forever.

Whether you’re a sailor, mountaineer, traveler, or adventurer, I highly encourage you read J.R.L. Anderson’s High Mountains And Cold Seas to learn more about H.W. Tilman. It’s an absolute delight to read. Or better yet, read the entire Tilman Collection. His adventures will encourage you to go out and experience life and to take the road less traveled.

High Mountains And Cold Seas by J.R.L Anderson was originally published in 1980. It was re-published on 28 September 2017 as a joint venture by Vertebrate Publishing and Lodestar Books. This new edition includes 416 pages, several selections of black and white photos, and numerous maps.

Disclaimer: Vertebrate Publishing sent High Mountains And Cold Seas by J.R.L Anderson to Mountain Journey to read and review. 


Pick Up A Copy Of High Mountains And Cold Seas by J.R.L Anderson On Amazon.com:


Buy The Entire Tilman Collection On Amazon.com:

The Ascent Of Nanda Devi – 1937


Snow On The Equator – 1937


When Men & Mountains Meet – 1946


Mount Everest 1938 – 1948


Two Mountains And A River – 1949 (Read Our Review)


China To Chitral – 1951


Nepal Himalaya – 1952 (Read Our Review)


Mischief In Patagonia – 1957


Mischief Among The Penguins – 1961


Mostly Mischief – 1966


Mischief In Greenland – 1964


Mischief Goes South – 1968


In Mischief’s Wake – 1971


Ice With Everything – 1972 (Read Our Review)


Triumph and Tribulation – 1977


High Mountains And Cold Seas – The Tilman Biography by JRL Anderson