One Man’s Legacy – Tom Patey has always been a hero of mine. I was brought into mountaineering with folk who knew and climbed with him. The stories of his climbs and escapades are incredible. During my mountaineering career I was so pleased to have climbed many of his routes. Most are classic. I will leave Adrian to review this wonderful addition to any Mountaineering Library. Enjoy:
A Biography By Mike Dixon
This is a book that I have been looking forward to reading ever since I knew it was being written. Postal strikes and an impassable road into Glen Brittle where we live, meant the book’s delivery was long delayed. Stuck at the end of a steep and winding road that hadn’t been ploughed or gritted, it was frustrating to see posts on social media as the book was delivered to customers across the country.
Suffice it to say, the wait was well worthwhile and the book exceeded all expectations. Tom Patey may have met an untimely end at the early age of 39 but he left behind a massive legacy which until now hasn’t been fully documented. Sure, there was “One Man’s Mountains”, a collection of Patey’s writings collected together and published after his death but it has taken over half a century before a biography has been written.
Not just any biography, but the template for how biographies should be. Patey’s character is complemented by the extensive research and interviews, superb writing and a fascinating collection of photos. No stuffy work of academia, this is a gripping read and once opened, it’s hard to put down.
A larger than life character, any biography of Tom was going to be on the big side if it was to do justice to a man whose attitude to life meant “packing as much as possible into 24 hours….Ordinary mortals look on reverentially and perhaps enviously at individuals who can burn the candle at both ends and still excel in various spheres; we wonder what drives them…in their often shorter than average life spans, they manage to compress more than the accumulated lives of several individuals.”
The result is that after many years of research, the author has produced not a hagiography but a warts and all biography that tells it exactly how it was. Things kick off well with a superb cover shot by John Cleare of Tom, his beloved mountains and the omnipresent cigarette. The design is more than skin deep; remove the dustwrapper and the book is elegantly finished with just Tom and his ciggy, the SMP logo being the only nod to conventionality; no title, no author details.
Enter the book and you’re greeted by a forward penned by none other than Mick Fowler, another climber who squeezes the max into 24 hours and has a history of new routing in Scotland’s north west. That Mick characterises Patey as “Hero Thomas” alongside “hero Christian (Bonnington) and “hero Joseph” (Brown) amongst others speaks volumes
The author was allowed access to the seemingly huge archive of Patey documentation gathered by Tom’s eldest son, Ian. This has provided a visual extravaganza not just of photos of Patey from an early age (as a one year old at Neuburgh beach), through many of his hill and mountain exploits as well annotated photos of climbs, sketches and the odd cartoon. The archive photos are supplemented by many from the collection of John Cleare and more modern photos by the likes of Mick Fowler and Robert Durran to illustrate some of the areas where Patey was active.
Early explorations and bothy tales make for a good introduction to Patey and you’ll meet “The Horrible Hielanders.” Patey was inspired by Malcolm Smith and Bill Brooker, “real mountaineers” who lived by an ethos he was to adopt, namely, Adventure, unconventionality, exuberance – they were the very elements missing from our scholarly conception of mountaineering which had led us with mathematical precision up and down the weary list of Munro’s Tables.”
Naturally, the focus of the book is on Patey and his climbing and how it dominated so much of his life, maybe not quite from cradle but certainly to grave. A different era is adroitly captured with words and photos. Cigarettes are omnipresent and it’s amazing how Patey was so superbly mountain fit. John Cleare’s cover shot of a ciggy smoking Tom sets the tone. Classic tales of Tom getting his nicotine fix before or during a ground breaking climb abound. When Patey was en route to climb Deep Cut Chimney on Hell’s Lum, he insisted he and Dave Holroyd stop at Jean’s Hut for a fag. Then Patey, “insisted on a having a second fag as the wind and heavy snow would make smoking impossible when they crossed the plateau.”
His insatiable appetite for climbing was fuelled by nicotine and alcohol and tales of such sustenance are legion. Whilst in the marines, his rushed breakfast often seemed to consist of a dram or a nip of brandy.
A maverick in all things, Tom’s medical career was no exception. In the Royal Marines doing his National Service, Patey needed to examine a patient complaining of abdominal pain. The dining room table in their hut doubled for the examination but what was unusual was how Tom carried on smoking as he conducted his work. “Occasionally flicking ash in the patient’s belly button, in which he would slot the filter end of the fag when requiring both hands free.”
Patey’s first patients once qualified as a doctor, were two climbers on (or rather, off) the Aiguille du Plan who had fallen then “careered head first over a 100m ice wall and continued for a further 1000m before plunging into a crevasse.” Much of Patey’s climbing career was delicately balanced with that of a doctor whether during his time in the marines or later as a GP across Scotland. Somehow he combined the role of GP, a seeming pillar of the establishment with his maverick climbing lifestyle.
Quite naturally, Patey’s climbs feature large in the book. From his early Scottish exploits to the greater ranges and outcrop climbs down south whilst doing national service. Personally, having lived in the south west, some of the outcrop and sea cliff climbs were of particular interest. Prime amongst these must be his first ascent of Wrecker’s Slab. This is a huge (for the south west) slab climb with a reputation for looseness and summed up Patey and the teams’ skill. Zeke Deacon “had not got far up the first pitch when he realised some of the holds slid out like cupboard drawers, which he replaced for the next person.”
Never the most graceful rock climber, Patey came into his own on mixed terrain and all things wintry and he left an enduring legacy of winter routes which many climbers will either have done or set their sights on. The book is filled with cutting edge routes, many of a truly exploratory bent often with well known climbers of the era. Hamish MacInnes, Bonington, Joe Brown et al feature in the book but Tom is very much the main course.
It’s a tale of climbing but one tinged by black humour and ribaldry, singing and dancing, a life lived to the max. Perhaps it was inevitable that Tom was headed for his day of destiny at The Maiden where an abseiling accident claimed his life. Despite being a superb climber, Patey seems to have had a reputation for eschewing ropes and technicalities, preferring to solo close to his limits. Rope handling was never his forte and it seems that he abseiled using a single snap link karabiner.
Tom Patey left behind a massive legacy and not just of climbs but also a plethora of tales, some encapsulated in his own writings and songs but many more deeply engrained in climbing folklore. This book captures Tom’s life and character to a tee. It is a warts and all book so expect to read about Tom the sinner as much as the saint….but then you knew that anyway.
Scottish Mountaineering Press are truly on a roll and this is a fitting last book for 2023. Watch this space but, I’d be surprised if this doesn’t feature in next year’s awards, maybe at Banff, perhaps the Boardman Tasker.
As always, please buy direct from SMP to help ensure future books;
Many thanks to Robert Michael Lovell for arranging swiftly the dispatch of the book (even if circumstances delayed it’s arrival).
Thanks for sharing, Heavy. It’s an amazing book that should be the blueprint for all climbing biogs.
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Great review all the best to you both