Bill Tilman: Leader Of British Everest Expeditions Before WWII

In the world of mountaineering and adventure, there is no shortage of legendary mountaineers and climbers who have given an extraordinary legacy to the mountaineers in the upcoming generation to look up to. Among these many names is a prominent name called Bill Tilman. He was a British Adventurer.

Bill Tilman was an amazing mountaineer and war hero from England. Bill was born on 14 February 1898 in Wallasey, Cheshire. He was the son of a rich sugar merchant John Hinkes Tilmand and his wife Adeline Schwabe. Participating in adventures and challenges was his hobby. He is well renowned for his mountaineering endeavors, explorations, and sailing voyages.

Bill is considered as the greatest explorer and adventurer of the twentieth century produced by many. His determination and his willpower were extraordinary. Growing up in the era of wars and destruction, Bill went through it all. He was a war hero who fought for his country and was the bravest of the brave. His mountaineering expeditions have weaved a path for the upcoming mountaineers.

Reaching high heights and summits is not a piece of cake but the story of Bill Tilman motivates many people to follow their passion and to not let their dreams die. Bill became an avid mountaineer who climbed numerous peaks.

In this article, we will go through the journey of life of Bill Tilman.

Early Life of Bill Tilman

Bill Tilman, Pasang Kikuli, and Charlie Houston in 1936.
Bill Tilman, Pasang Kikuli, and Charlie Houston in 1936.

Born on 14 February 1898 in Wallasey, Bill was the son of a rich sugar merchant John Hinkes Tilman and his wife Adeline Schwabe. Bill studied at Berkhamsted Boys school and was a bright kid since his childhood. Chasing adventures was in his nature.

Bill entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich during the First World War on 28 July 1915. Bill graduated from Woolwich and was later commissioned as a second lieutenant into the Royal Field Artillery of the British Army. The Royal Field Artillery of the British Army provided close artillery support for the infantry. Bill had the physical endurance and skills to prove himself as a great soldier. He fought at the Battle of the Somme which was a war fought by the armies of the British Empire and the French Third Republic against the German Empire. The prestigious Military Cross was awarded to Bill twice for his bravery and service to the country.

Mountaineering came a little late for Bill Tilman. He was in his early 30s and working as a plantation owner in Kenya. He had acquired land which was awarded to him after his active service in the first world war.His climbing career started with his acquaintance with Eric Shipton in Kenya, East Africa. Bill and Eric were both coffee growers in Kenya. They started with their joint traverse of Mount Kenya and ascents of Mount Kilimanjaro. They also ascended the fabled “Mountains of the Moon” Ruwenzori. Bill and Eric formed a very good bond during their journey together. Their partnership is still known as one of the most famed partnerships in mountaineering history. They played a great role in the British expeditions before the second world war.

Bill was bored with his life in Africa, so he decided to leave Africa and sold his farm. He was not excited with merely flying and reaching home so he bought a push bike and rode across the continent to the West Coast where he set on for England.

Mountaineering Career

Mountaineering Career of Bill Tilman
Bill Tilman (second from right) with Oscar Houston, Betsy Cowles and Charles Houston (Photo: Bill Tilman)

Bill was thrilled by mountains and mountaineering. His love for mountaineering grew as he kept on climbing mountains. Tilman’s hard work,dedication and passion was clearly seen in his expeditions. He always gave his hundred percent and never backed down.

Bill Tilman was part of the two Mount Everest expeditions in the 1930s: participating in the 1935 Reconnaissance Expedition, and reaching 27,000 feet without oxygen as the expedition leader in 1938.

With Eric Shipton in 1934, he penetrated the Nanda Devi sanctuary and in 1936 he went on to lead an Anglo-American expedition to Nanda Devi. Bill and Eric were known for pioneering a new lighter style of Himalayan expedition and exploratory trips. With the help of a team including Peter Lloyd and H.Adams Carte, Tilman and Noel Odell succeeded in making the first ascent of the 7,816 metres (25,643 feet) mountain. The summit remained as the highest summit climbed by man until 1950.

Tilman was exceeding his own limits and expanding his range of skills with every climb. He attempted climbing in the remote and unexplored Himalaya, exploring the Southern approaches of Gori Chen, 6,538 metres, before his team succumbed to malaria. He was the first man to attempt climbing in the Assam Himalaya. Bill also attempted Rakaposhi and then paved his way to Kashgar with Eric Shipton in a lightweight attempt on Muztagh Ata, 7,546 metres, which nearly succeeded.

The first man to ascend Paldor, 5,896 metres, was Bill Tilman and he also found the pass named after him beyond Gangchempo. This ascent was during his extensive exploration of the areas of Langtang, Ganesh and Manang in Nepal in 1949. Bill was awarded with the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Medal for his achievements and contributions to the mountaineering community.

Leading the expeditions before the Second World War

Bill Tilman’s Sailing Journey

Bill Tilman led various British expeditions before the second world war. He was a fierce mountaineer who was never scared and fought with bravery. His leading abilities are a case of study for the current generation. Bill and his partner Eric contributed a lot in the expeditions before the second world war. They managed to climb a lot of mountains together.

Tilman was introduced to rock climbing in England and then he ascended Mawenzi and almost ascended Kilimanjaro with Eric. He then ascended Mount Speke, Baker and Stanley in the Ruwenzori Range. He also summited Kilimanjaro all by himself in 1933. By this time he had already developed a sense of knowledge and skills for mountaineering and leadership.

By participating in two expeditions of Mount Everest, he left an incredible mark on the history of Everest. He played a key role in the Reconnaissance Expedition in 1935, but it was in 1938 as the leader of the team, he ascended to a height of 27,000 feet without the aid of oxygen.

The 1938 British Mount Everest Expedition was a low-cost expedition led by Bill Tilman. The group of climbers in this Expedition were not lucky. The harsh weather conditions defeated the attempts to reach the summit. In this Expedition Bill showed remarkable skill as a leader and achieved many feats. The North Col was climbed for the first time from the west and an altitude of 27,200 feet was reached on the North Ridge.

Tilman led the team and forged many plans to tackle obstacles in the difficult conditions. He set an example that a lot can be achieved even in bad times. The weather was not on their side but with Bill’s leadership the team was able to accomplish many new feats. Bill’s leadership is mainly recognized from this expedition. He went on to climb Assam Himalaya and various peaks in Kurdistan. By this time Bill was a sensation in the mountaineering community. He had established himself as a great leader and an enthusiastic climber who loved challenges.

Service in the Second World War

bill tilman Service-in-the-Second-World-War

After providing his service in the First World War, Bill Tilman volunteered for service in the Second World War. He helped to recover the retreat in Flanders before getting to the beaches at Dunkirk during the Battle of France. He then served in North America, Iraq, and Iran before being called for special duty in 1943. Later he fought with Albanian and Italian partisans after being dropped by parachute into Albania behind enemy lines. For his service and bravery, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and was given keys to the city of Belluno which he helped save from occupation and destruction. He served wholeheartedly for his country and put his life on the line many times. He was a well-deserved hero. He was never scared to sacrifice himself for his country and its people. His bravery was unmatched.

Bill Tilman’s Sailing Journey

Leading the expeditions before the Second World War
Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman leaving England for Nanda Devi in 1934 (Photo: Eric Shipton)

After his valiant military service behind enemy lines during the second world war, Bill Tilman found new challenges in the vast expanse of the deep seas. He started his series of adventurous voyages that would take him to some of the most remote and uncharted places of Earth.

He purchased the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter Mischief in 1954 and sailed in deep seas. He voyaged to Arctic and Antarctic waters in search of new mountains to climb and new places to explore. On his last voyage in 1977, in his eightieth year, Bill was invited to ship as crew in En Avant with mountaineers sailing to the South Atlantic to climb Smith Island. The leader of this expedition was Simon Richardson. He and his crew aboard the old, converted steel tug made it successfully and without incident to Rio de Janeiro. After reaching the route to the Falkland Islands, they disappeared without trace. It is assumed that the ship may have foundered at sea, leaving no one on the voyage alive.

Death of Bill Tilman

While he was enthusiastic about his voyage, an unforgettable tragedy struck. It was during the expedition to the South Atlantic, when the whole crew disappeared along with Bill Tilman. After finding no trace of the sailors, they were considered dead.

Bill Tilman died in November 1977. He was never found again after his last voyage.

It was a true shock to the mountaineering community as well as the sailing community. They had lost someone who had been an inspiration for years with his words. Bill was well renowned all over the world for his works and his death sent a saddening wave.

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Legacy of Bill Tilman

Bill Tilman’s legacy in the world of mountaineering, in military and in sailing is written in the history as a justification to his passion and indomitable spirit. He serves as an inspiration to many. He had the mentality of never giving up and fighting for what is yours. He never ever backed down. He fought wars, climbed mountains and sailed across seas, nothing was impossible for him. His determination led him to higher heights in his life. He died doing what he loved.

His legacy is not only bound to his summit attempts and achievements. His approach to living life, mountaineering, and his driving force of commitment, provides a model for aspiring climbers. His story motivates others to go beyond their limits and to accomplish the impossible.

Bill hardly credited his own achievements but was never lacking behind to appreciate others. He was a good leader and a good person. Bill Tilman remains one of the greatest mountaineers of the twentieth century. His service for his country in wars will never be forgotten, his contributions for the mountaineering community will never be forgotten, his voyages will live on to inspire and motivate people. Adventures should be welcomed in life and challenges should be faced, that was Bill’s motto till the very end.


Traveller, Travel Blogger and SEO Expert who combines his love for exploration with his talent for writing and digital marketing.

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