Dougal Haston: From Currie to Everest
Up, always up. Currie lad Dougal Haston went from rambling around the Pentland Hills to being one of the first British climbers to conquer Everest, choosing a route up the South West face that had never been climbed before, and has not been attempted since.
Born in Currie in 1940 Dougal Haston had the urge to climb from a young age, and along with his friends he developed his skills as a boy climbing on the railway embankments and bridges in Currie. Exuberance turned to childhood mischief at times, such as climbing to the top of Currie Kirk and hanging items from the top, including women's underwear.
Haston climbed his first serious rock aged 14 in 1954 – Curved Ridge at Glencoe and 1956, while a pupil at West Calder High School, he joined the Edinburgh J.M.C.S. (Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland). He met Robin C Smith of Colinton, under whose guidance Haston and some close companions climbed Glencoe including a bad-weather ascent of the difficult Revelation route. Haston had a thirst for climbing in poor weather where the challenges and the risks are so much greater. During his four years at Edinburgh University he climbed intensively across Scotland, the Lake District and the Alps, often making winter ascents.
Haston’s exploits away from the climbing routes were as notorious as his feats of mountaineering were legendary. He was renown for drinking, fighting, stealing and risky climbs. On one tragic occasion, he was drunk-driving and ploughed into three young men at Glencoe, seriously injuring two and killing the third. He was charged with a number of offences, convicted and jailed in Barlinnie (Glasgow) for 2 months.
In 1964 Haston moved away from Scotland to make a new home in Leysin, Switzerland. There, his close friend John Harlin ran the International School of Mountaineering, and it was from here that Haston planned and executed his most spectacular expeditions, while working as a mountain guide.
The first of these was a perilous attempt on the Direct route up Eiger, in winter. Together with John Harlin, he lead a team in the glare of international media in 1966, all the more intense due to a team of Germans attempting the same route at the same time. In scenes of high drama John Harlin died on the ascent as a result of a broken rope, while Haston and four of the Germans made the summit, severely frostbitten. This was the first direct ascent of the North Face and is a regarded as a climbing classic, told by Haston in his book Eiger Direct. No wonder Clint Eastwood hired him in 1969 as advisor on the film 'The Eiger Sanction'.
Haston was now a professional mountaineer, and replaced John Harlin as head of the Mountaineering School. His financial model was to conduct the most spectacular climbing events possible to attract media attention, which could be turned into funding for more ascents. In this way Haston continued to lead a life on the edge. In 1970 he scaled the world's most dangerous mountains at Annapurna, Nepal.
Haston's first two attempts on Everest in 1971 and 1972, led by Chris Bonnington, were defeated, both being on the hitherto unconquered Southwest Face, and the latter in the treacherous post-monsoon weather. In 1975 in a successful expedition again led by Chris Bonnington, he reached the summit in the company of Doug Scott, a team member dying on the summit ridge. Haston and Scott had to spend the night following their summit sheltering in a hand-dug snow cave at the South Summit. This route has never been attempted again, and the Southwest Face is recognised as the most difficult.
Haston continued climbing after his Everest victory. Mountains were his domain, until when skiing alone off piste in La Riondaz, Leysin on 17th January 1977, he was killed by an avalanche - strangled by the polka dot scarf he liked to wear. He is commemorated in Currie by a plaque.
First published in Konect in 2011.
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer. With thanks for Professor R. Campbell of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, for providing information on Dougal Haston.