Don Whillans

Don Whillans

Don Whillans (18 May 1933 – 4 August 1985) was an English rock climber and mountaineer. Born and raised in a two-up two-down house in Salford, Lancashire, he climbed with both Joe Brown and Chris Bonington on many new routes, and was considered the technical equal of both. He was an apprentice plumber when he first started his climbing career with Joe Brown in 1951. Don met Joe Brown while climbing one day at the Roaches, Staffordshire. When Joe's climbing partner failed to follow Joe up a new route, Don shouted up to ask if he could try—and subsequently led the second pitch of Joe's new route, which became known as Matinee. Don had from an early age walked all around the local Pennine moors; climbing therefore was the next step for an adventurous young boy. From rock climbing he expanded into mountaineering with trips to the Alps. Ascents in the alps included the "Bonatti Pillar" of the Dru and the first ascent along with Chris Bonington, Jan Długosz and Ian Clough of the Central Pillar of Freney. In 1962 with Chris Bonington he made the first ascent of the Central Tower of Paine, Patagonia. With Dougal Haston, he made the first ascent of the south face of Annapurna in Bonington's 1970 expedition.

Whillans was attributed great safety and mountain awareness, as evidenced by the fact that he retreated from the Eiger North Face on several separate occasions owing to bad weather or rockfall. He also had very few climbing accidents although there were several near misses, such as when a fixed rope on the Central Tower of Paine snapped. In this case he managed to put his weight on the holds with split-second timing before calmly retying the rope.

Whillans was well regarded for his capacity to deliver a cracking one-liner off the cuff. One example which perhaps best encapsulates his wry humour concerns him encountering a team of—to his mind—poorly equipped Japanese mountaineers attempting the north face of the Eiger. "You going up?" Whillans asked them. "Yes! Yes!" came the reply. Pause, then Whillans: "You may be going a lot higher than you think." In another story, Whillans was participating in the 1972 European Everest Expedition, attempting to climb Mount Everest's Southwest Face. The expedition had been plagued with several personality conflicts and the withdrawal of many climbers.[1] While in camp, some of the other climbers overheard news that England had lost a soccer game to Germany. "It seems we have beaten you at your national sport", said a German. After a slight pause Whillans replied, "Aye, and we've beaten you at yours...twice."[2] Another notable incident occurred when late one night in an alpine hut two climbers were engaged in a whispered conversation. This was disturbing the sleep of an entire room of slumbering climbers, one of whom was Whillans. Eventually he demanded that they shut up; there was a brief pause before one of the youths aggressively refused to be quiet, remarking into the darkeness "who do you think you are?" The gruff reply of "Whillans" was followed by complete silence. However, Whillans's biographer Jim Perrin suggests many of these stories are myths.

Whillans was well-known for his heavy drinking, which harmed his career after the expedition to Annapurna and may have contributed to his early death from a heart attack. Although he was only 5' 4" tall, he also had a reputation as a mean brawler, with many stories of his prowess circulating including one where he punches a bus conductor from a moving bus. He also designed mountaineering equipment, including the "Whillans Harness", once described as designed to safely transport beer-guts to great height, and the "Whillans-box" expedition tent. He died at the age of fifty-two and was the subject of a biography called The Villain by the author–climber Jim Perrin in 2005.

The British Mountaineering Council maintain a climbing hut near the Roaches in his memory.


  • Jim Perrin (2005), The Villain : the life of Don Whillans, Hutchinson, ISBN 0-09-179438-2.
  • Whillans, Don & Ormerod, Alick (1971), "Don Whillans. Portrait of a mountaineer.", Heinemann, London (ISBN 0-434-86251-7) (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1973).
  • Don Whillans - Myth and Legend (2006) - Film by Leo Dickinson
  • Tom Patey - A Short Walk With Whillans - SMC Journal 1963, and included in 'Mirrors in the Cliffs' ed. Jim Perrin, Diadem 1983


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