Harold Raeburn: The Steps of a Giant – A New Biography

February 2024 will see the launch of two books for Scottish Mountaineering Press, one of which will document the untold story of one of the founding father of Scottish Mountaineering, Harold Raeburn. Editor Deziree Wilson tells us more about the man behind the legend and what our new biography reveals.

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‘Physically and mentally hard as nails … certain, unyielding and concise in every movement…’

Sandy (Lord) Mackay, writing of Harold Rabeurn in 1950.

‘… I must confess to a feeling of helplessness for a moment as I stood on my ice axe, driven horizontally into the vertical snow wall, some hundreds of feet of little less than vertical ice-plastered rocks stretching away down into the depths of the mist beneath, while my fingers slid helplessly from the glassy surface of the cornice névé …’

Harold Raeburn on his first winter ascent of Green Gully in 1906.

The founding father of Scottish mountaineering

Commonly acknowledged as the founding father of Scottish mountaineering, Harold Raeburn’s achievements in the Edwardian era were as impressive as those of WH Murray, Robin Smith, Tom Patey, Dougal Haston, Jimmy Marshall or Hamish MacInnes in their respective periods. Indeed, we might think of these great climbers as standing on Raeburn’s shoulders. 

The Victorians were exceptional mountaineers and pretty much invented the sport of climbing mountains. By the end of the 19th century, they had made first ascents of many of the major alpine peaks, and following the opening of the railways, they turned their attention to the Highlands. Without doubt, Edinburgh-born Raeburn was the finest climber of this generation. A wiry man with an athletic build and a forceful climbing style, he honed his craft on the city’s Salisbury Crags and left a legacy of prized lines scattered far and wide across Scotland.

From a modern perspective, the technical standard of the early Scottish mountaineers was breathtaking. Climbing alone, Raeburn made first summer ascents of two of the great structural features on Ben Nevis: Observatory Ridge and Observatory Buttress. He is best known, however, as a winter climber, and he established over two dozen new winter routes across the Highlands, leaving his mark from Ladhar Bheinn in the west to Lochnagar in the east. His ascent of Green Gully in April 1906, cutting steps up near-vertical ice with a single 116cm-long ice axe, was almost certainly the hardest ice climb in the world at the time and wasn’t superseded in difficulty in Scotland for nearly 30 years. Right-Angled Gully (IV,5) on The Cobbler in 1896 and Arrow Chimney (IV,4) on Meall nan Tarmachan in 1898 were just as inspired. These climbs were years ahead of their time and only received their contemporary grades nearly a century later, while Raeburn’s Route (IV,4) on Stob Coire nan Lochan and Crowberry Gully (IV,4) on Buachaille Etive Mòr remain two of the most sought-after lines in Scotland. But perhaps Raeburn’s finest achievement was the first winter ascent of Observatory Ridge in 1920. Unlike Green Gully, which has been tamed by modern equipment and is now graded IV,3, Observatory Ridge (IV,4) retains its reputation as one of the longest and most serious mountaineering routes on Ben Nevis. 

Well into middle age, Raeburn seemed to possess abnormal amounts of energy, making winter ascents of Tower Ridge, North-East Buttress and Crowberry Gully in four days, and cycling from Fort William to Glencoe in between. He was extraordinarily fit and determined, and some exploits displayed superabundant vitality. His ‘complete self-confidence’ also ‘made Raeburn assume or accept the lead’ almost always, though he was a considerate companion in the mountains and especially supportive of emergent women climbers.

Beyond Scotland

Far beyond Scotland, Raeburn’s pioneering efforts in Norway, the Alps, the Caucasus and the Himalaya reveal a master of all forms of mountaineering. He made the first British guideless ascent of the Zmutt Ridge on the Matterhorn, added new routes to the Aiguille d’Argentière and Monte Disgrazia and was the first to traverse the Meije solo. After an attempt on Kangchenjunga, he was appointed Mountaineering Leader on the calamitous 1921 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition. Tragically, the latter was to be his undoing, precipitating a ‘melancholia’ that had perhaps dogged him all his life. Raeburn plunged into a deep depression and died in 1926 in a mental institution in Edinburgh at the age of only 61. 

Yet despite his well-documented achievements, the man himself remains mysterious. He was naturally modest, his diaries are sometimes brief, and he was notoriously poor at recording his climbs. While his Scottish ascents are now well recognised, his overseas contributions are less widely appreciated, and beyond familiarity with many of his eponymous routes, few perhaps appreciate the breadth and scope of Raeburn’s influence. Even the concept of mixed climbing was something that he understood to some extent, since there was no formal distinction between summer and winter climbing in those days. 

The biography

The Steps of a Giant, by author Peter Biggar, is, then, a long overdue biography of a true luminary. As well as being an accomplished exploratory climber himself, Peter is also past editor of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, affording him unique insight into Raeburn’s achievements and enigmatic character. Digging beneath the surface of Raeburn’s modest reserve, Peter also writes with great sensitivity about the 1921 Everest Expedition and its aftermath. Meanwhile, extracts from Raeburn’s own elegant writings and diary accounts from friends and climbing companions, including William Ling, add a distinctly personal flavour to what might otherwise have been dry descriptions of outstanding mountaineering feats. The result is an intriguing portrait of a talented, self-effacing, yet fiercely proud and determined man. 

Pre-order will open in the next couple of weeks and we are launching the book at the Fort William Mountain Festival, where Scottish Mountaineering Press editor Deziree Wilson will welcome Peter in conversation to talk about his experience of researching and writing it, and his own insights into Raeburn’s character.

 


Lead image: Raeburn and party on Aonach Beag, photo by William Clark