Dougal Haston - From Currie to Everest.

Article in The Konect Directory, Balerno edition, February 2011


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 Dolphin Road, Currie, in 1940 Dougal Haston was very much a local through and through despite the lack of local mountains! He 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  mbankments 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. Along with his life-long friend James ‘Elly’ Moriarty, also of Dolphin Road, Haston was an original member of Currie Youth Club in 1954. It was with his fellow members of Currie Youth Club that Haston climbed his first serious rock aged 14 in 1954 – Curved Ridge at Glencoe, where they ascended one at a time using a hemp rope.

In 1956, while a pupil at West Calder High School, Haston 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. He did this climbing with the Edinburgh-based group of friends, and on leaving University it was with James Moriarty that he set up the Scottish Climbing School in 1963.

Haston’s exploits away from the climbing routes were as notorious as his feats of mountaineering were legendary. He was renowned for drinking, fighting, stealing and risky climbs. On one tragic occasion, he was drunk-driving, lost control of his vehicle 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. Scottish mountains were just not big enough for him! At Leysin his close friend, the American 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 led a team in the  glare of international media in 1966, all the more intense due to an 8-strong 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. The Germans all lost toes, but Haston and Chris Bonnington, thanks to state-of-the-art treatment in London retained theirs. 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 fi lm ‘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 live a life on the edge. In 1970 he scaled the world's most dangerous mountains at Annapurna, Nepal where one of this team died, maintaining the 40% death rate of these peaks. 

 Dougal Haston on the Hillary Step, just below the Everest Summit, 1975  

Haston’s first two attempts on Everest in 1971 and 1972, led by Chris Bonnington, were defeated, both being on the hiterto 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. 

Besides writing an autobiography and Eiger Direct, Haston also wrote a novel published post-humously called Calculated Risk. Eerily, the place Haston died in Leysin is the place from which his hero in the novel escapes. 

Thanks for Professor R. Campbell of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, for providing information on Dougal Haston prepared for the Currie and District Local History Society. The Society meets twice a month with a guest speaker at Gibson Craig Hall. See www.curriehistory.com. 

• There are over 120 visible corpses on Everest, and a total of 216 have lost their lives attempting the summit, mostly in the “death zone” above 8000m. Their bodies have never been recovered as it’s too risky.

• Haston’s 1975 route on the South West Face has never been attempted again. (Other South West routes have been done).

• Everest was first climbed in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay. 

• The first Britons to climb Everest were Dougal Haston and Doug Scott on the 1975 South West Face Expedition.

• There is an average of just 5 “good weather window” days a year to attempt the summit.

• On “summit day”, climbers normally leave the top camp before midnight and climb through the night. If they don’t reach the summit before 2pm, they should turn around or risk being stranded overnight in the “death- zone” above 8000m.

• Most of the people who die do so on the way down. 

 © Lothian Publications Ltd 2014