“My Father, Frank: Unresting Spirit of Everest.” ExWeb Interview of Tony Smythe, Part 1 of 2

“My Father, Frank: Unresting Spirit of Everest.” ExWeb Interview of Tony Smythe, Part 1 of 2

Posted: Apr 07, 2014 04:38 pm EDT

(By Pete Poston) Son of noted Everester and climber/journalist extraordinaire Frank Smythe, Tony has filled in a gap in the mountaineering literature about Frank's career in the 1920-1930’s as perhaps the first climber to capture the non-mountaineering public's imagination with his vivid prose and outstanding mountain photography.


In Tony’s biography of his father, Frank is revealed as a sensitive character who deeply felt a spiritual connection with the natural world. He is also revealed as someone who suffered from severe criticism from the Alpine Club in an era when making a living from writing about his experiences was considered in bad taste. And in his personal life, he suffered from the travails of a divorce and maintaining a connection with his children, who were still young when Frank tragically died at the young age of 48.


Frank Smythe is probably most remembered for his first ascent of the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc in the company of Thomas Graham Brown, the first ascent of Kamet, at the time the highest mountain to be climbed at 7,756 m (25,446 ft), and his three expeditions to Everest in 1933, 1936, and 1938, where he came to within about 1000' of the summit.  Frank was also in the forefront of rock climbing in Britain, taking part in pioneering routes such as Longland’s Route on Clogwyn Du’r Arddu (which Jack Longland, of course, brilliantly led).


Frank was the original M&I researcher, and part of the expedition that discovered Irvine's ice ax lying on the slabs below the 1st Step. After returning to Everest in 1936, he scoured the area below the ax fall line with a telescope from base camp, and thought he saw something “unusual” on the scree slopes near where Mallory's body was first found (Graham Hoyland was the first to reveal this long-held family secret in his book “Last Hours on Everest: The gripping story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent”).


We caught up with Tony for an in-depth interview about his dad.


ExplorersWeb: Tell me a little about your father, Frank. One funny side to his personality I noticed in his writings was that he seemed to be afraid of spiders! They were always big hairy monsters with a six inch wingspan, swooping down on him with fangs bared. Isn’t this kind of funny for a big, tough mountaineer? ;-)


Tony: Nice light-hearted start, Pete!  I think Frank, like everybody had his own take on spiders.  Yes, I agree that it’s funny to see him running for his life here, but speaking as a medium level arachnophobe it doesn’t surprise me, and maybe I should point out that he never saw himself as a big tough mountaineer, just proud of his ability to endure everything life threw at him.  Except spiders…


ExplorersWeb: Your father had an entirely modern view on the taking of risks in the mountains. Here is a quote from “Kanchenjunga Adventure”  - “By ‘adventure’ I do not necessarily mean the taking of physical risks.….the highest form of adventure is the blending of the mental with the physical….the perfect adventure is that in which the measure of achievement is so great that life itself must be risked. A life so risked is not risked uselessly, and sacrifice is not to be measured in terms of lucre.” Was this controversial for the time?


Tony: I think it probably was controversial, certainly among the general public, even today, who seem averse to risking life and limb especially when the rewards offered are the type Frank was writing about – ‘useless’ mountaineering achievements.   And it’s worth remembering that Frank wrote for ordinary people, allowing that other climbers would tag along if they wanted.


ExplorersWeb: The Alpine Club considered “Kanchenjunga Adventure” to be in “foul bad taste”. You write that your father even received a letter from an “eminent” Alpine Club member suggesting that he was responsible for Chettan’s death in an avalanche. Just how pervasive was this view, and how did it affect your father’s relations with the Alpine Club?


Tony: Kangchenjunga, or its immediate aftermath, was Frank’s low point in his relations with the Alpine Club.  His first book, Climbs and Ski Runs published the year before, was acceptable to the AC and approved by powerful people like Tom Longstaff and Geoffrey Winthrop Young, who wrote the foreword.  But Victor Gollancz, who published The Kangchenjunga Adventure, persuaded Frank that he would never make it as a big selling author unless he allowed himself to be promoted nationally.  The advert in the London Times was utterly bland by our standards today, but anathema to the 1930s diehards of the Alpine Club.  Frank realised this and knew he had to choose between the devil as a writer for the general public and the deep blue sea as a ‘climbers only’ writer.  He didn’t hesitate, such was his desperation to make it as a writer and escape the alternative – a plodding unskilled job.  He would eventually become accepted by the mountaineering establishment with his Himalayan achievements on Kamet and Everest.


ExplorersWeb: Would you say that your father was the first really successful climber-photojournalist? I say “really successful” because his books sold very well even during the Depression.


Tony: I believe this was true, and I’m not alone in thinking this; Chris Bonington saw Frank as a useful example to follow when he Chose to Climb (his neat book title).


ExplorersWeb: One of the great tragedies of your father’s life has to be the burning of 50,000 of his negatives by your stepmother Nona after Frank’s death. You write that she was becoming bored and irritated at constantly being asked for his photographs. This sounds disproportionate to the act. Was there something else involved?


Tony: When Frank died Nona took charge of his interests, personally responding to all the requests to use his photographs.  It became very laborious but she refused to delegate the job, even to his publishers.  In 1983 Douglas Milner, a professional photographer and Vice President of the Alpine Club asked her to lend negatives for an exhibition at the Club but Nona refused, pleading ill health.  When Milner wrote to her again two years later asking her to consider donating Frank’s negatives to the Alpine Club he was too late.  Nona had already destroyed all 50,000 except for a random collection of 1,379 which I discovered crammed into a few envelopes after her death.


There was no separate issue behind this appalling deed.  Nona simply could not bring herself to hand over control to a third party.  I do not know whether she ever admitted to anyone what she had done; as I mentioned in my book word reached me via her attorney after her death. He told me that Nona had employed her gardener to ferry the negatives and almost all Frank’s papers in wheelbarrow loads to a corner of the garden where she had a bonfire. Her rationale appeared to be that the photographs Frank had selected to illustrate his books would be a suitable legacy for the world.  The notion that a celebrated photographer’s wider work of a lifetime might be a valuable resource for future generations probably never entered her head.


ExplorersWeb: How would you compare your father’s writing style to today? Was it antiquated and quaint, or is it just as valid today as it was then?


Tony: I think it was bound to reflect the way writers expressed themselves at that time, so yes, it was antiquated measured against modern prose, which is less leisurely and has a whole new set of words and phrases.  However it surely has to be how much the subject matter holds the reader’s interest that is important, or valid to use your word.  I hesitate to say more than this since I’m biased, and always enjoy reading his stuff!


ExplorersWeb: How many books did your father write in his short lifetime? Which book is your favorite?


Tony: He wrote 27 books if you include two slim volumes (The Mountain Top and British Mountaineers), although ten were albums of photographs with accompanying text.  If I must choose one, it has to be The Spirit of the Hills.  This is a book of essays, each dealing with an aspect of mountaineering and the part it played in providing Frank with an answer to that eternal question, Why do you go climbing?  Let some of the chapter titles speak for themselves and evoke pictures and memories for anyone who goes mountaineering:  Youth; A High Hill; Dawn; Dusk; Night; Flowers; Storm; Calm; Humour; Friendship; The Physical; The Mental; The Spiritual…


ExplorersWeb: Give an example of what you consider some of Frank’s best prose.


Tony: “The wind responded to nightfall by rising to a fury such as I have never before experienced in a tent.  The thin canvas flapped and cracked wildly, as though incensed with a thousand devils clutching gleefully at every fold.  Each gust worked itself up into an orgasm of fury, only to be followed by an even worse gust.  Three yards away was the edge of Everest’s north-east precipice and the wind was blowing straight over it.  Suddenly one guy rope tore loose.  The side of the tent nearest to Eric billowed in.  He endeavoured to press it back by lying against it with the whole weight of his body, but the fabric was held by the wind pressure as tightly as a football.  If another guy went we might be blown, tent and all, over the precipice.”


“Somehow or other I extricated myself from my sleeping-bag and dragged on my windproof trousers, then went through the usual exhausting acrobatics of getting my windproof jacket over my head and shoulders.  Lastly I pulled on my granite-like boots.  The tapes closing the tent flaps were frozen; it was impossible to unlace them in gloves, and by the time I had done so in bare hands my fingers had lost sensation.  This done I crawled out of the tent on hands and knees.  It was not completely dark and the western sky was faintly green.  A smother of snow was raging across the rocks, and through this I saw the errant guy.  It had pulled away from two large stones to which it had been attached, and so great had been the strain that the stones, which cannot have weighed less than one hundredweight, had been shifted bodily.  By dint of considerable exertion in a momentary lull I managed to reattach it and tighten it.  Then I crawled around on hands and knees – it was not safe to stand in the wind – and after some minutes managed to find additional stones with which to reinforce the guy.  Finally, exhausted by the effort, I struggled into the tent and flopped down on my sleeping-bag gasping for breath.”


This extract comes from the chapter titled “Blizzard at Camp 5” in his book Camp Six, about the 1933 Everest expedition, and is typical of his descriptive power in a desperate situation, where the reader is unconsciously urging him on while disaster threatens at any moment.


ExplorersWeb: Do you have a favorite photograph taken by your father?


Tony: In my book plate 76 is a photograph titled ‘A Glen in the Cuillin Hills’ from Frank’s album A Camera in the Hills.  It’s as far removed from impressive snowy mountains as you could get, but there’s a place in my heart that relates to my pre-mountains childhood, when the Highlands of Scotland – which I knew nothing about – were full of magic and mystery. And this photograph still echoes that wonderful longing I experienced then.


ExplorersWeb: Your father has been described by various other mountaineers who knew him as being irritable, tactless, easy to offend, and jealous of his reputation. What were his good traits?


Tony: He was sensitive to other people’s feelings and humble enough to apologise after an outburst.  He was loyal to his friends and kept in touch, writing huge numbers of letters throughout his life.  He was strict with himself and tried to do what he believed was the right thing in any social situation.  Moral dilemmas seemed to pursue him throughout his life – witness the relationships he had with his mother, his (first) wife, and his mother-in-law, but as I tried to make clear in my book, his conscience often denied him any easy way out. 


Part 2


For further information about the book and a signed copy from author at discounted price, please visit:  www.franksmythe.co.uk


Pete Poston's M&I page:

Pete's M&I theory--parts 1 and 2:


#mountaineering #everest #FrankSmythe #TonySmythe #myfatherfrank #interview #MalloryandIrvine





"My Father Frank, Unresting Spirit of Everest"
Brenva Face of Mont Blanc. The Route Major takes the central ice ridge (©Frank Smythe)
Brenva Face Route Major - Barry Annette nearing the crux, the Unclimbable C=orner and seracs. (©Tony Smythe)
Kamet (L) and Mana Peak from the West. (©Frank Smythe)
Kamet from the East. (©Frank Smythe)
Kamet - the last 2000 ft. Holdsworth and Shipton taking a break. (©Frank Smythe)