New book charts the colorful and daring life of a Scottish mountain hero
For 15 million television viewers, the grainy black and white series that spanned two nights of viewing was a real-life cliff-hanger.
It was 1967, and the ascent of 450-foot sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy, by a team of six daring climbers was ‘must see’ television – a reality show of adventure, human endeavour, and all too real risk.
Among the team of six climbers filmed tackling the sheer stack off the Orcadian Island of Hoy, battered by winds and in defiance of the treacherous rocks below, was Dr Tom Patey.
An Ullapool GP, hugely respected in climbing circles and all-round colorful character, he had convinced the BBC to transport expensive equipment to the edge of the British Isles.
The result was gripping television, as The Great Climb followed three teams – among them Chris Bonington who would go on to conquer Everest, and Joe Brown, a legend among mountain circles – as they inched their way up the towering stack.
Before the final credits rolled, viewers had received a nail-biting glimpse into what made climbing so addictive, but also, so dangerous.
Indeed, within three years and still just 38 years old, Patey would plunge to his death during a relatively straightforward abseil from the Maiden, a sea stack off Whiten Head overlooking Loch Eriboll in Sutherland. An accident that might have been prevented but for his defiant attitude to climbing safety, ended a life lived at a hundred miles an hour.
In just over 20 years of serious climbing, he had left an astonishing mark on the sport: he excelled in treacherous winter landscapes, forged new ways across challenging mountainsides – often in the most basic clothes and boots – and conquered ridges and routes thought to be far too difficult.
His charismatic character, knack for telling a story, love of socializing and for gently ribbing fellow climbers in verse and song added to his legendary status even if questions swirled over some of his more reckless and darker traits.
While revered as a pioneering adventurer in whose footsteps countless climbers would go on to follow, for many other Scots, his name would barely register.
Now, more than half a century after his death, a new autobiography has gathered previously unseen material from Patey’s son Ian and friends’ archives and captured memories from climbing companions – some who have themselves now passed away – to build a ‘warts and all’ chronicle of his fast-paced life.
Written by Inverness-based author Mike Dixon, it explores the many sides to a complex and sometimes controversial character described by Mick Fowler, one of Britain’s greatest mountaineers of the modern era, in the book’s foreword as “a hero”.
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While celebrating Patey’s immense achievements, it also reflects the toll his passion for climbing took on those closest to him and the extreme lengths he went to in pursuit of heady thrills – from his daring approach to climbing to his thirst for socializing and the methods he used. to combine it all with work and family.
“When he died in 1970, every British climber knew of him,” says Mike, who will discuss Patey’s life and his book during an event at next month’s Fort William Mountain Festival.
“Chris Bonington and Joe Brown, two of the most famous British climbers, praised him as one of the great characters of British mountaineering, and they knew them all.
“He was multi-talented, a polymath and incredibly good company.
“His writing is not the introspective self-absorbed serious kind of mountain writing. It rejoices in the fun of the sport.
“He was also known for making up songs about famous people in the climbing world, but nothing that was ever bitter about them. If you were mentioned in one of his songs, it was like a pat on the back.
“Apart from being a full-time GP, one of just two full-time doctors in an Ullapool practice that covered one of the biggest areas in Britain at the time, he was a climber, a writer, a musician. He was also keen on socializing. He burned the candle at both ends.”
Elon-born Patey inherited his Episcopalian minister father’s love of the outdoors and his mother’s musical skills.
He earned his climbing stripes while studying medicine at the University of Aberdeen, trading youthful forays on the Aberdeen coast for remarkable first ascents across Scotland and explorations in the Alps, Norway and the Karakoram.
In 1952 and still just 20 years old, he made the first winter ascent of Scorpion in the Cairngorms, the second Grade V to be recorded in the range, achieved despite having set off minus his gloves.
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As he reached the ‘sting in the tail’ upper gully of Càrn Etchachan, he borrowed a pair and used the adhesive properties of the wool for grip on the slick verglas. ‘It’s going to be a right royal route, man,’ he declared later.
Bothy culture was in full swing and climbing in the Cairngorms was in its infancy, with Patey front and centre.
He made the first winter ascent of Eagle Ridge on Lochnagar, and successfully tackled the Grade V6 Miter Ridge despite a 5m fall.
His significant ascents included Zero Gully on Ben Nevis, and March Hare’s Gully on Beinn Bhàn, the latter he recorded was made ‘without ropes, in the dark, and occupied one-and-a-half hours.’ An epic solo of The Crab Crawl in the winter of 1969 became the stuff of climbing legends.
Having set off with friends on a ‘dazzling day with the snow shining like coruscating jewels’, without warning ‘he just buggered off’, and spent five hours on a solo pilgrimage across the entire face of Creag Meagaidh’s exposed Coire Ardair.
On the way he overcame a mini avalanche, encountered poor-quality ice, made navigational errors and what has been described as “an alarming diagonal abseil off a single shoogly peg hammered only halfway into rock”.
“He had this boldness about him,” adds Mike. “He did a lot of ‘soloing’ without ropes because he often had no climbers to climb with.
“At that time, the A9 wasn’t a dual carriageway, and it wasn’t easy for climbers to get up from Glasgow or Edinburgh for the weekend. He climbed solo by necessity.”
At ground level, he pursued other heights, even constructing a bothy in his garden so he could drink away from the judgmental eyes of his surgery patients. It was not unheard of for him to jump in his car, drive to Carrbridge for a pub lock-in and in the early morning drive back to work, morphing instantly into besuited GP mode.
“He was a heavy smoker, he had late nights, he drank whiskey,” adds Mike. “Like all human beings, he had his flaws. But to be good at anything you have to be a bit selfish.”
His death came just as he appeared ready for a slower pace of life.
“He eventually said being a good doctor was more of a reason for living than being a climber,” adds Mike. “He matured a bit and realized he couldn’t assume this lifestyle of burning the candle at both ends.”
One Man’s Legacy: Tom Patey by Mike Dixon is published by Scottish Mountaineering Press. The author will appear as part of the Fort William Mountain Festival at The Highland Bookshop on Friday, February 17, in conversation with editor Deziree Wilson. Festival details available from https://mountainfestival.co.uk/