Interview by Melanie Windridge

The Silver Hut. Photo: Jim Milledge

90 year old Jim had a fulfilling career as a hospital physician with a special interest in respiratory diseases. Alongside this he pursued a ‘professional hobby’ of high altitude medicine, mainly in the field in the Greater Ranges.

How did you get into climbing?

As a child I was evacuated to North Wales during the war. My parents were in China and I lived with my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousin. It was a wonderful place to grow up – near the seaside and the mountains. I loved both.

At university in my 20s I joined the climbing club. I had a friend with wheels, so we went for weekends. We got into the Climbers’ Club so could stay in the huts.

One day I was up in North Wales with Chris [Briggs, owner of the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel] and the conversation turned to “what are you going to do in the summer holidays?”

I said, I dont know what Im going to do.” I had been hoping to go to Canada but that had fallen through.

Chris replied, “well, there are a lot of odd jobs that need doing around the Pen-y-Gwryd and I could do with a bit more help. If you’d like to come and have three weeks, you can stay here in the bunk house, have all meals and I’ll give you 50 shillings a week pay.” 50 shillings doesnt sound too much now, but a pint of Worthington E (a very good bitter) only cost a shilling. £4 a week was not an unreasonable pay for a working man. So I did that and had a very pleasant time. Hours were strictly 9 to 5. At 5 o’clock I’d jump on a motorbike and would go for solo climbs.

Breakfast, Lahiri and Milledge, 4600m 1964. Photo: Unknown

A key point in your career was being part of the Silver Hut expedition in 1960-61. Can you tell us about it?

Griff Pugh and Ed Hillary had been together again in Antarctica. There it was standard practice to land parties of scientists on the ice one summer, for them to winter-over doing science and then be taken off the following summer. Griff, who was the physiologist on the 1953 Everest expedition, was keen to do a long period at altitude. It was well-known that if you wanted to climb a high peak you had to give yourself time to acclimatise. Griff wanted to know whether if you spent say 9 months acclimatising, rather than just a few days or a week, would you become super-acclimatised and able to climb an 8000m peak without Oxygen with no trouble, rather like the Sherpas? He enthused Ed Hillary with the same idea. So between them they concocted this idea of a Himalayan expedition that would address these issues.

The idea was to go out post-monsoon and do science over the winter. Griff said that to do good science we had to have good living and working conditions. With the timber research outfit near London they designed a prefabricated hut. It all had to be carried out on porters' backs, so no part could weigh more than 30 kg. It had double thickness plywood walls with foam plastic in the middle that provided insulation, and a stove, lab benches for laboratory equipment, and sleeping quarters.  

The hut and all the other usual expedition equipment was going out by sea. My wife, Betty, and I volunteered to go out by sea and take all this stuff with us. We were able to finish one job and then devote nine months to this trip. We had made a contact with the mission hospital in Kathmandu and, like all hospitals in those days, they were desperately short of anaesthetists, so Betty trained in anaesthetics. Betty also acted as our Base Liaison Officer. She would meet people arriving, put them up for a day or two in Kathmandu, get them fixed up and send them up. She sent the mail up to us with mail runners. She was there the whole time I was at the Silver Hut.

The Silver Hut with Ama Dablam in the background. Photo: Jim Milledge.

The Silver Hut is famous in physiology; why was the work so important?

It pushed out the physiology of altitude to a higher level for a longer time. We were able to observe the effect of altitude on human physiology. My particular thing was repeating some work done in Oxford on the way breathing is controlled – by CO2 build-up in the body or the need for Oxygen. Normally at sea level there’s plenty of oxygen so it’s the CO2 that really drives the breathing, whereas at altitude the drive from lack of oxygen causes you to puff and pant. At the Silver Hut I studied the effect of acclimatisation on this feedback mechanism. I was very fortunate because this work had never been done at this altitude, only up to about 14,000 ft and for a fairly limited time. I was able to push it out to 19,000 ft and, with reduced studies, up to ~22,000 ft.

Together we determined whether higher altitude would produce a much greater effect. The answer is no, it doesn’t. It seems that around about 12 to 14,000 ft is the height to which you can acclimatise. The acclimatisation process more or less stops there.

Of course you could climb higher but it gets very difficult and that’s why if you try to climb Everest without oxygen, which has been done, it’s bloody hard!

Jim (left) running an exercise study. Tom Nevison is on the exercise bike. Photo: Unknown.

What have been the highlights of your climbing career?

At the Silver Hut we used to take Sundays off. Behind the Silver Hut, at the top of that glacier, was a col, and to the left of the col there was this peak. One day three of us went to try and climb it. But we were a rope of three and it was slow. The chap who happened to be leading was very cautious and he stopped and pitched each bit of the way, over ground where the other two of us would have moved together. It took far too long and we didnt make it. So a couple of Sundays later I just went up with a Sherpa, Ang Tsering, who was very good. We moved much faster. It was a delightful little peak!

There’s only one really interesting, difficult bit, which was a chimney. I backed up it  and then the rope ran out. So I had to jam myself in and get what protection I could, and bring up Ang Tsering. He climbed past me, disappeared up and stopped. I assumed he belayed. When I got out I found he was on a sloping slab of rock with pebbles on it and he wasnt belayed at all! So I scuttled past him – we were virtually at the top then. I belayed on the summit, brought him up and all was well.

I called the peak Puma Dablam, which means Daughter Dablam, which I thought was quite a nice title. I did ask Sherpas whether they had a name for it, but none could tell me. Later an American made a map of the area and when he asked Sherpas about a name they said “Ombigaichen”. So it’s on the map as Ombigaichen.

Other highlights of my medical and climbing careers have included expeditions to Kongur, Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya, Mt Damavand and Everest.

Members of the Silver Hut team skiing. L–R Jim Milledge, John West, Griff Pugh, Mike Ward, Mike Gill. Photo: Unknown.