Shortly before lockdown, my climbing partner Matthew was halfway up an overhanging 6b at The Castle Climbing Centre in London, with me belaying and offering nothing in the way of helpful advice other than the occasional ‘go-on!’, when I tuned into a conversation between another pair of climbers nearby.
‘Yeah, Tom Patey put up the first ascent so it’s bound to be a great climb – we should plan a trip.’
Patey is my climbing hero and I was aching to ask which route they were talking about but knew I’d better concentrate on the job in hand. And by the time Matthew was done, the pair had moved on.
Tom Patey was an outstanding climber in a generation that includes Chris Bonington, Hamish MacInnes and Joe Brown. He pioneered many of the best adventurous routes in the UK, both in summer and winter climbing – often with minimal gear, and wearing hobnail boots!
At the same time he was also a GP in Ullapool, then a busy fishing port, and an active member of the local Mountain Rescue Team. But climbing was his passion and, though he would tell his wife he was off visiting patients, he spent most weekends on the crags.
Tom Patey was born in 1932 and began climbing as a boy scout. But it was during his time as a medical student at the University of Aberdeen that his talent as an exploratory climber emerged. He led frequent trips to Lochnagar and The Cairngorms, pioneering several classic routes – often to the detriment of his studies.
After graduation he served four years in the Royal Marines rising to the rank of Surgeon Lieutenant at 42 Commando School in Bickleigh, Devon. Here he continued his pioneering work as a climber. But he was no glory-hunter. He seldom recorded his first ascents, preferring to leave the route unblemished, so that others might feel the same buzz of achievement as he’d had. It is a sentiment expressed in one of my favourite quotes from ‘One Man’s Mountains’ – a collection of his writings published posthumously in 1971:
To my mind the magic of a great route does not lie in its technical difficulty or even the excellence of its rock but in something less readily definable—atmosphere.
His generous nature went hand-in-hand with an exuberance for life and a mischievous sense of humour that bubbles through the songs he wrote and performed (with accompanying accordion, whisky and roll-ups) for and about his many friends in the climbing fraternity, after a day on the hill.
He spent the late 1950’s and most of the 60’s escaping his day-to-day life as an Ullapool doctor to explore new routes across The Highlands. He completed an epic first winter traverse of The Cullin Ridge with Hamish MacInnes; climbed Cioch Nose in Applecross with Chris Bonington (described as ‘a glorious Diff’); and pioneered sea stack climbing. Collectively Am Buachaille, The Old Man of Hoy, and The Old Man of Stoer are known as ‘The Tom Patey Three’ in honour of his first ascents of them all.
Tom Patey died, aged 38, on 25th May 1970, abseiling off another stack, The Maiden. It was a tragic but very Patey-esque accident. Notoriously shambolic in his attention to detail and always in a hurry, the sleeve of his fairisle sweater snagged in a swing-gate karabiner he’d been told was faulty. In trying to clear the snag, he bounced his rope out of the clip and fell to his death. He was a huge loss to the climbing community but lives on in the glorious, classic routes he put up in the UK and further afield.
And it was Tom Patey who inspired me, aged 13, to climb. Watching a documentary about Chris Bonington, I became transfixed by footage of ‘The Big Climb’, 1967’s ascent of The Old Man of Hoy. And there was this cheeky wee chappie, cigarette hanging from his lip, climbing effortlessly and clearly having the time of his life with his friends. I looked him up at my local library and borrowed a copy of ‘One Man’s Mountains’.
Through it, like all those who were lucky enough to know and climb with him, I was drawn to this affable, bold, chaotic man and the joy he found climbing with others. It also gave me a wish list of classic climbs that he pioneered that, 36 years later, continue to take me to new heights.
This month it will be 50 years since he died. We can only imagine what else he might have achieved. It makes the lyrics of my favourite song of his even more poignant:
Live it up, fill your cup, drown your sorrow
And sow your wild oats while ye may
For the toothless old tykes of tomorrow
Were the Tigers of Yesterday.