Tom Patey – One Man’s Mountains.

I head up to the North West to Ullapool this weekend. Ullapool is a gateway to the promised land. It was and is a place of incredible beauty and wildness a place I love. It was the home of a great character Doctor Tom Patey. The climbing Doctor.

One of the great mountaineering books I have ever read is” One Man’s Mountains” about the life of the famous Scottish Climbing Doctor Tom Patey. Sadly I never met Tom but he was well known by many of my friends in the RAF Mountain Rescue and helped them on many call – outs especially in the far North West where he was a Doctor in Ullapool.

His most famous call -out was on An Teallach in April 1966. 2 climbers we’re killed on Sgurr Fiona.  This incident was recently reconstructed and filmed for television. Hamish McIness film “Duel with An Teallach” Tom Patey awarded a medal for his part. It’s an incredible tale and the Locals and RAF Kinloss MRT we’re involved in the evacuation. I have spoken to some who were involved what Tom Patey did that night was incredible.

Tom Patey was a Scottish climber mountaineer, doctor and writer. He was a leading Scottish climber of his day, particularly excelling on winter routes. He died in a climbing accident at the age of 38.Tom Patey worked for ten years as a General Practitioner (GP) in Ullapool, in the far north-west of Scotland. He served for four years as Surgeon Lieutenant in the Royal Marines at the 42 Commando School at Bickleigh. I have climbed many of his routes and really enjoyed them.

Wreckers Slab.

The most recent was one of his Classic climbs in Cornwall “Wreckers Slab” and that was a great day.

Wreckers Slab 115 metres VS – North Devon – One of the longest, most alluring and serious VS climbs in the West Country, Wrecker’s Slab is nevertheless the most attempted of its genre on the coast. The huge, slim slab rising from the beach on the far right-hand side of the cliff has very little in the way of technical difficulty but should not be underestimated as the rock is poor, protection spaced and the situations very serious. Start at the base of the slab just right of the overhangs. An amazing cliff, one of the best adventurous routes in the country. Make it a must to climb, what a fantastic day out. Oh and make sure you don’t throw all the hand holds down to your belayer.I had waited 40 years to climb this route and my pal Pete Greening took me up it what a climb.

An old peg on the route.

Patey’s routes are all over Scotland and his writings about his adventures are all in the book, I love “Night Shift in Zero” and his epic Sea Stack adventures you have to read the book and then have a go a some of his adventures.

His 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 was based in Aberdeen then and with Brooker climbed 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. 

Zero Gully was another and they climbed these routes with simple gear. Most climb Zero Gully downgraded now with great ice tools and 8 ice screws, they were bold men.

Hamish MacInnes recalls 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.

Patey routes in the Alps and the Himalayas are incredible. 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, Mike 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.

Tom after the ascent of Rakaposhi
The Maidens sea stack.

He was probably best known for his humorous songs and prose about climbing, many of which were published posthumously in the collection “One Man’s Mountains.”

What a man read the book.


Frank Strang

“I grew up with Tom, he and my Dad were big pals and disappeared every weekend to the hill. He was some character and used to tell his wife he was out treating patients but would be playing the accordion in our kitchen with a dram in hand . They “discovered ” the Northern Highlands decades before the masses . I was fortunate as a boy to live in Assynt and the house was a stopping off place for the likes of Tom , Bennett , Slessor, MacInness , Todd, Weir, Tiso  all legends now but characters and family friends then. Great stories . Seems like another World now though?”

On May 25, 1970, Tom 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 manoeuvre 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.

Offering further insight, HamishMacInnes 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.”

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.”

“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. ”

Tom Patey with fag. “How does he climb Solo and briskly , 20 fags a day and a bottle of malt whisky”

Patey Comments from friends

Neil Reid “An early lesson in what a small world it is. almost 40 years ago I was sitting reading the book in my parents’ home and my Dad asked what I was reading. I showed them and started to explain who he was, but was interrupted by my Mum who said she “kent fine fa he wis” – his widow was one of her Thursday morning fly cup pals. That was me in my place”

Tony Bradshaw  –  A well ken’t GP from Ullapool and he turned up at any base camp we set up in his area in the mid to late 60’s , TP with a fag in his mouth and John Hind making up a rolli

Andy Nisbet – Never met him sadly, but I did a new route with his daughter some 20 years ago (the only route she’s ever done, I think).

Neil Findley – An old pal of mine hamish baites climbed with tom and bill brooker,hamish used to tell me tales of their adventures while sipping his pint in the nuke in old portlethen

Graham Hunter -Yes, knew Tom. Excellent book, must re-read.

G. Ackroyd – One of my first reads David Whalley. One of the true characters. (read once or twice since as well.

Angus  Jack – A great read, an inspiration in my younger days. Lived life to the full

Ranald Strachan – My old man fell off one of his new routes back in 1964 on an outing with Dinger Bell in Applecross (DB had to coax him back onto the crag!)….owe my existence to a shonky peg that held. Bit of legend of Dr Patey.

Pete Ross – A short walk with Whillans,’ in Games Climbers Play, was one of the most descriptive character essays I’ve ever read. Perrin’s iteration dissected Don Whillan’s character, warts and all, but in my opinion didn’t quite capture the essence of the man. Tom Patey’s description of their aborted attempt of the Eiger North Face gave us a real insight: ‘Don’s philosophical discourses were not for the faint-hearted’. One skillfully crafted phrase gave the reader a unique insight into a flawed genius’s character. One Man’s Mountains a must read on a cold night, with a ‘dram’ close by, to experience the richness of Scottish Mountaineering literature.

George Adams – I did some winter and summer routes in the Cairngorms with Tom and Bill Brooker in the early 1950

Jim Bruce – My first climb with Tom was at the Bullers o Buchan.

Quite embarrassing really, as I picked up my spoon before his dad had said grace for the meal.

Any more comments.

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Articles, History, Mountain rescue, Mountaineering, People, Recomended books and Guides, Rock Climbing, Scottish winter climbing., SMC/SMT, Views Mountaineering. Bookmark the permalink.

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