Tony Smythe’s gripping biography of his famous father, Frank Smythe, has been nominated for this year’s Boardman Tasker Prize. We caught up with Tony to find out more about the first professional mountaineer - and how he passed a love of the hills on to his son.
Author, Everest obsessive, wildly talented climber and thorn in the side of the establishment, Frank Smythe was one of the all-time mountaineering greats. His life was a constant succession of hair-raising climbs, serious illnesses and explosive bust-ups, so it’s no surprise that Tony Smythe’s biography of his father is a gripping read.
My Father, Frank: Unresting Spirit of Everest is a lively and candid account of a man who helped shaped mountaineering as we know it today. At its core is a gripping revelation: the fact that Frank appears to have spotted Mallory’s body on Everest in 1936, decades before the ‘official’ discovery was made. With the book in contention for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature - due to be announced at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival on 21 November - we asked Tony to open up on Mallory, the commercialisation of Everest, and his own passion for exploring the hills.
How did it feel to be shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize?
What inspired you to write the book?
Since Frank’s death in 1949 it had sometimes been suggested I should take it on, but I’d always rejected the idea. I was too busy, and an honest account of his life would have been very painful for my mother, Kathleen, and for his second wife, Nona. By 1999 both of them had died and around that time Ken Wilson asked me to help with his publishing of an omnibus with six of Frank’s climbing books. Reading these again was a revelation. And with my two brothers happy to cooperate I decided there and then to go for the full life story.
Did you find it challenging to remain impersonal?
This wasn’t a problem because of the time gap. He died when I was 14 and my brothers and I had seen very little of him and formed no real bond. He was a hero for me for a while, but that faded away. When I started writing the book in my seventies it was quite natural to see him as virtually a stranger. The information I gathered about him was like evidence, and I knew I must present facts and mainly let readers form their own opinions about the rights and wrongs of his behaviour.
What was it like to grow up with a mountaineering legend as a father - did his success encourage you to follow in his footsteps?
Frank separated himself from his family when I was four. I was a shy lad in my youth and probably more embarrassed by his absence than proud of his fame. I got started in climbing with a school group in Snowdonia and it was more by chance that the footsteps-following occurred in later years on one or two routes in the Alps.
Do you remember walking or climbing with him as a child? And what are your clearest memories of him?
My brothers and I had just one holiday with him, in Galloway the year before he died. And we had only one walk with him during those three weeks, up a lowly hill called Cairnsmore of Fleet. He wasn’t used to young people and was a bit withdrawn and uneasy – Nona, whom he was married to then, had arranged we should join them. The holiday finished with a disaster when Frank fell off his hired bicycle and broke his ankle. The whole thing was a shambles really, a comic sit-com when I look back on it.
The book reveals that he was possibly the first to see Mallory’s body. Tell us a bit more about what happened there…
In September 1937 Frank sent a lengthy letter from India to Edward Norton, leader of the 1924 Everest expedition, in which Mallory and Irvine were lost. It was his habit to keep copies of letters he sent and I came across this one penciled in the back of his diary. He thanks Norton for saying “nice things” about his recently published book, Camp Six, about Everest, 1933, then talks about the ice axe discovered that year, and how its position must rule out Norton’s idea that it had belonged to Somervell [it was in fact Irvine’s axe]. Frank then cast his bombshell. “Since my search for the two Oxford fellows [the bodies of students FS’s search party found on Mont Blanc in 1934] I feel convinced that it marks the scene of an accident to Mallory and Irvine. There is something else, which I mention with reserve – it’s not to be written about, as the press would make an unpleasant sensation.” He then mentions spotting an object the previous year  with a telescope from the Everest Base camp that he was sure was a body, and did indeed prove, in 1999 to be Mallory’s – it’s position described by Frank being verified by Graham Hoyland, who was involved with the American discovery team.
Some contend that Everest has become something of a tourist’s mountain. As the mountain’s ‘unresting spirit’, how do you think Frank would have viewed this development?
He would, quite simply, have been horrified!
What do you consider to be your father’s biggest achievements?
In the mountains: his first ascent of Mana Peak, in Garhwal, solo during the final thousand feet after Peter Oliver could go no further. In the rest of his life: his writing, which caught the imagination and inspired countless readers.
He’s often described as the first professional mountaineer. Why was he so influential?
He was influential because he instinctively wrote for the ordinary person who knew nothing about mountains, managing also to capture the attention of knowledgeable climbers. He was an immensely successful writer and lecturer.
You’re a talented climber, mountaineer and walker in your own right, not to mention a compleater. How did it feel to accomplish this, and which was your most thrilling Munro day?
Strangely I was a touch sad to summit my last Munro – it meant I would actually have to think what I was going to do next in Scotland! The most memorable day was a group of four in the Fisherfield Forest. I knew it would be a long day and very remote and I turned back early on when it began to rain and blow hard. The same thing happened again next year. And on the third attempt, after completing the four I slipped crossing a burn, bashed my head and spent ages recovering, and then, not wanting to bivouac, powered on adrenaline alone – no time to eat – hell knows how many miles across rugged moorland, reaching my bike and eventually my camper van at the end of the twilight.
You’re currently based in the Lake District. Which local walks are your favourite?
We live in Staveley and I never tire of walking bits of the Kentmere Horseshoe. But the grassy summits immediately above the village are superb for an hour or two, not forgetting Craggy Wood where in ancient times the glacial ice poured down, leaving crags and huge boulders for great trees to grow amongst. For a longer day I love to get dropped off on the Kirkstone Pass and come home over Stony Cove, Ill Bell and the Sallows, especially in winter.
Was your father also a walker? And are there any walks that carry particular memories of him?
Yes, he enjoyed walking amongst his local Surrey and Sussex hills and woods, and perhaps fitted walks in on non-climbing days in whichever mountainous area he was visiting. Sadly, my brothers and I went our own ways with no walks with him to remember other than the one in Scotland.
Will fans of the book be able to catch up with you at the Kendal Mountain Festival prize giving?
Certainly. I’ll be there!
What would it mean to you to win?
Maybe it would help my wife, Sonia to forgive me for shutting myself away so much in recent years!
For further information and the opportunity of a signed copy of My Father, Frank from the author, visit www.franksmythe.co.uk
Buy the book here
Read about the six books on the 2014 Boardman Tasker shortlist