Rick Allen: An Understated Legend

British climber Rick Allen died last week in an avalanche on K2 while attempting a new route on the Southeast Face. For the casual observer of mountaineering, and perhaps even many fanatics, you may be forgiven for failing to recognize Rick Allen’s name. But as South African mountaineer and one-time climbing partner Cathy O’Dowd told ExplorersWeb, Allen had “a fair claim to being the best UK mountaineer that no one had ever heard of.”

Like many British climbers, Allen first discovered the mountains on family visits to the English Lake District. Later, he took up rock climbing as a university student in Birmingham. “One day was enough to know this was what I wanted to do,” Allen later recalled in a rather brilliant interview at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.


Early in his climbing career, Allen had a series of mentors at university. He found further inspirational figures in Scotland (e.g. Con Higgins and Mick Geddes), where he went to live and work in the oil industry. This career took Allen around the world.

First steps in the Himalaya

By the time he fell in with a crowd of climbers who were going to the Greater Ranges, he had served his apprenticeship in the Scottish mountains and European Alps. Allen made the first ascent of Ganesh Himal II (7,043m) via the West Ridge in alpine style in 1984 with Nick Kekus. The climb became a 12-day epic when their food and fuel ran out.

Allen’s big break came when he was invited to tackle the then-unclimbed Northeast Ridge of Everest in 1985 with Mal Duff. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the climb involved a solo bivouac above 8,000m. Here, he first teamed up with Sandy Allan. He and Allan went on to push the limits of alpinism in the Himalaya on numerous occasions.

An early Allen and Allan adventure saw the two Brits put up the Scottish Route on the South Face of Pumori in 1986. More nights out in snow caves ensued on the way to the summit. This was no doubt good practice for the many hard expeditions on the 8,000’ers over the ensuing decades.

Allen (far right) at K2 Base Camp earlier this month. Photo: Jerry Gore

Continually pushing alpinism forward

The legendary Doug Scott became somewhat of a mentor and regular expedition partner. Allen returned with Scott, Sandy Allan, and others to the Northeast Ridge of Everest in 1987, only to be thwarted by high winds and storms. Allen also teamed up with Scott for the 1988 British Expedition to the West Face of Makalu. Here, Allen took a 500m fall after an avalanche and was lucky to escape without serious injury.

Allen also climbed on international teams. In 1991, he joined a group of Russians to climb in the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia. The following year, he teamed up again with the Russians to climb in the remote Fansky Mountains of Tadjikistan. A trusted relationship formed, and he went on to make the first ascent of a new route on the North Face of Dhaulagiri in 1993 with his Russian friends.

Allen on the summit of Nanga Parbat in 2012. He had also climbed the mountain with Sandy Allan in 2009 via the Diamir Face. Photo: Sandy Allan


Amid 40 years of climbing in the Himalaya, and countless cutting-edge ascents, Allen is best remembered for the audacious and world-class first complete ascent of Nanga Parbat’s Mazeno Ridge in 2012 with his old pal Sandy Allan. The successful climb was nearly 20 years in the making, as Allen had tried previously in 1995 with Doug Scott, Voytek Kurtyka, and Sandy Allan.


The Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat

The Mazeno Ridge is the longest arete of any of the 8,000’ers, an estimated 10 to 13km long, extending from the Mazeno Pass at 5,377m to the summit at 8,126m. The eventual cracking of this hulking ridge in 2012 earned Allen and Allan the prestigious Piolet d’Or. The pair’s 18-day epic is now well ingrained in mountaineering lore.

Allen (middle) with the Piolet d’Or. Photo: Lanzeni/Piolets d’Or


On hearing of the passing of his friend, Sandy Allan told Scottish media, “He’s lived many, many lives, and he lived like a tiger rather than like a man.”

Rick Allen (right) and Sandy Allan shortly after having pulled off the climb of a lifetime on Nanga Parbat’s Mazeno Ridge. Photo: Sandy Allan


Recent close call

One such life was already used up on Broad Peak in 2018. Allen hit the headlines worldwide when he was spotted high up on the mountain following a fall when descending after a successful solo summit. He was assumed dead before Bartek Bargiel located Allen by drone above 7,000m. A rescue operation coordinated by Sandy Allan managed to get to Allen just in time.


Allen’s death has hit his long-time climbing partner Sandy Allan hard. “I’m staring into a huge void at the moment, I’m going to miss him a lot,” he said. “As a character, he was totally reliable, he was a really nice fellow, he was very genuine, very caring, he would never let anybody down.”

Around the world, well-known climbers and mountaineering organizations have added their tributes. Many used the word “legend” to describe the late British climber.

Beyond the lists of alpine-style first ascents in the Himalaya, a roll call of the names Allen had climbed with gives a good indication of his standing in climbing circles: Scott, Allan, Kurtyka, Yefimov, and many more. And to still be climbing new routes on the world’s highest mountains at age 66 suggests an enduring love for pushing the envelope. So if you didn’t know of Rick Allen before, it must now be clear that this understated British mountaineer was among the finest Himalayan climbers of his generation. A legend has departed.