Interview by Melanie Windridge
Colonel Henry Day, past Vice President of the Club and past Chairman of the MEF, discusses his early climbing and the first British ascent of Annapurna fifty years ago.
How did you get into climbing?
It was one particular year at school (I can’t remember which) after we finished our summer exams. We didn’t used to be allowed to go home after the exams, so they dreamt up entertainment for us. By the time the list reached me the only vacancies that were left were on a trip going up in the old school bus to North Wales. And it was a revelation! We stayed at Helyg. That first evening we walked out to Little Tryfan. The masters put top ropes up. We bounded up and down and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The next day we did one of the pinnacle ribs up on Tryfan and I remember jumping across from the top of Adam to the top of Eve. The whole thing was absolutely marvellous!
One thing led to another and onto the Alps. I was hooked! One thing we saw [on an early trip] was the Miroir d’Argentine, and that’s still on my list of routes I have to do. It’s been suggested I do this on the year of my 80th birthday, which is coming up.
Major Gerry Owens (r) and Captain Henry Day back at Base Camp after climbing Annapurna 1, 20th May 1970.
This year is the 50th anniversary of your ascent of Annapurna—the first British ascent (with Gerry Owens and the Army Mountaineering Association) and only the second overall, 20 years after Herzog and Lachenal. Can you tell us a little bit about that climb?
While I was at Sandhurst the Army Mountaineering Association was being, I think, re-founded and the emphasis was very much on getting to the Himalayas.
We went to Tirich Mir in 1969 and made the 4th ascent. Three of us reached the top. It was 7700m or so. Because it was a success the Field Marshal Templar, our President, was delighted. That led to Annapurna.
Annapurna is potentially a very dangerous place. There is the Sickle glacier, cut into by a rock band shaped in a curve of a sickle, with a very obvious huge snowfield above, the right hand half of which came over the lip. Anything that came off there was funnelled down through the handle of the Sickle. There were two ice ribs through that, making three avalanche gullies. We were desperate to stay out of there.
Our intention was to find a completely different route. We decided to go up the left flank and spent ten days on it, climbing sheets of blue ice when it was not snowstorming. One place we had fixed ropes across a gully. Then a great ice block fell on it, breaking the ropes and completely shearing off an ice screw. That takes quite a bit of power.
After that it seemed to be a bit quieter on the main face so we went back towards the French route, but to the right hand side to try to stay out of the three avalanche gullies. It was actually quite difficult climbing but we cracked it, and from there you’re able to enter the bowl of the Sickle, go across it (quickly!) and up the handle of the sickle to get onto the huge snowfield above that leads to the summit.
We were using oxygen just for the last night and day. We had seen what had happened to Herzog. I had written to him about it. The answer I got actually arrived at Base Camp—a typed letter. He congratulated us on climbing Tirich Mir because it’s nearly as high as Annapurna and we did that without oxygen. But he thought we should have it—not necessarily to use it but to have it just in case, for the difficult parts and recovery.
The French had a series of small mishaps. One thing led to another, until they were knackered. They took eight hours to get to the summit. We were in better shape and using oxygen and we did it in three. They were exhausted, they were anoxic, they had not been eating or drinking, they were frostbitten. Herzog lost a glove. We took note. I took 6 pairs of gloves on my summit day—I wasn’t going to let his stumps happen to us!
But we were also lucky (I readily acknowledge). The weather came good at the right time.
Letter from Maurice Herzog to Henry Day, received at Base Camp on Annapurna in 1970.
How did it feel to be part of an historic achievement?
Well, we were very chuffed! You can see from that photograph that was taken two days later at Base Camp. It’s one of my favourite photographs.
Maurice Herzog and Henry Day with the piece of rock from the top of the rock band on Annapurna presented to him at the AC dinner in Dec 1970. Photo by Francoise Call who had arranged the meeting in Chamonix a few months before his death in 2009 aged 93.
Annapurna is renowned for its avalanche risk. Did you have any hairy experiences? And what could you do to mitigate the risk?
To begin with we experienced two or three avalanches but we were far enough away not to be affected. But we were starting to push up to our advanced base when one came down that caught Gerry and Richard around breakfast time, putting their boots on. They gave a pretty graphic description for the Journal. They were shocked, Richard in particular. He got a bit bruised.
Most of us, we just switched off. After that we put the tent in a kind of ice fault, just the top wall of a crevasse. We pushed the tent right up underneath it. I was there later on when a pretty well spent avalanche came over the top, so I had some experience of it. There’s an overpressure—a sort of woomph pushing everything in—and then it passed over and there’s a de-pressurisation—a wooof and the tent goes out again—and all the spindrift came in and lined every inside surface of the tent.
We knew the avalanches were a fact of life. We knew what had happened to the French. And we’d had some big avalanches on Tirich Mir on big open snow slopes at great altitude. We lost one complete camp. I suppose we were playing Russian roulette really. I think we all accepted it as a risk, and we were lucky. So we took the obvious precautions of observing where the avalanches came from and went to. We tried to avoid them.
Her Majesty the Queen at the RGS for Everest 60th anniversary celebration with Henry Day hosting as Chairman of the MEF. Alex Cowan AC in attendance.
When did you become involved with the Alpine Club, and how?
While I was at Sandhurst there was a meet planned with ABMSAC led by Dr AW Barton, a staunch member of the AC. Three of us from Sandhurst went to join the meet. They all stayed in the hotel, and Dr Barton arranged for us to put up our tent in the field next door, which for the Swiss was quite a concession. But we didn’t realise at the time what had been done for us.
I can remember we’d wander up to the huts. We were young and fit and would be nice to the other members as they sat puffing by the side of the track. Then, by arrangement with the guide, we would be our own rope following on behind. We did some modest things to start with, and on rest stops the guide would point routes out to us. So the following day when they all went down to the valley we would stay up the next night. They would leave food in a basket for us at the hut—they were very kind! So we got to do our own mini Alpine trip unguided and got used to making decisions for ourselves.
On one occasion when we got down there was a note in our tent inviting us to join them for dinner that night in the hotel. Of course we’d taken jackets and ties with us. That was the sort of thing you did then and you had to prepare for that.
Once we’d done a couple of these years, Dr Barton put me up for the Alpine Club. In between we had been to the Atlas with skis and done other ski mountaineering trips. There was also a rule that you couldn’t be elected until you were 21 or something. I joined in 1963, when I was 21.
In the past you have been Vice President of the AC and Chairman of the MEF. Were there any highlights?
It was a huge privilege to represent the MEF [at the Everest 60th anniversary celebrations] and to escort the Queen, just by myself, from the front door of the RGS all the way through the long room and down the staircase to the lecture hall.
Do you have any advice for young climbers or skiers just getting into the mountains?
It’s seems difficult now, certainly different. It seems to me that the traditional way in—of going with more experienced people—is almost discouraged. If it’s not certified then there seem to be consequences. You’re not allowed to make mistakes. Or if you do it’s somebody else’s fault. And I find that very disturbing.
I utterly approve of the AC Aspirant Meet and things like the Jonathan Conville Trust. In the course of it, alpine novices can have pointed out routes that they can then do on their own, having seen the conditions, been advised by mentors. Then they can go and have their epics properly mentally equipped!