A first-ever biography of a Darlington-born teacher and mountaineer who joined George Mallory’s ill-fated Everest expedition in 1924 has been published despite the death of its author before its completion.
Lure of the Mountains: The Life of Bentley Beetham, 1924 Everest Expedition Mountaineer is being launched at a special event in Durham today which will celebrate the end of a journey begun a decade earlier by its late writer Michael Lowes who died suddenly in 2009.
It’s thanks to the determination of his son-in-law, London-based lawyer Rob Walker, who is travelling north for today’s launch, that the book is now out and the end result is a fitting a tribute to both Bentley Beetham and Lowes himself.
Lowes, who lived in County Durham, had been a pupil of Beetham’s at Barnard Castle School where the teacher - a great character - inspired his own love of climbing.
Beetham, also a photographer and ornithologist, would give illustrated talks to his wide-eyed charges on his exploits, including his role in the infamous expedition to the highest mountain in the world where Mallory and Sandy Irvine lost their lives.
Lowes was a member of the school climbing club he’d take to the Lake District and went on to become an expert on Beetham’s life and work as well as a curator for 25 years of an archive of the photographs he took on Everest and other travels, such as in Tibet where he documented a fast-disappearing way of life.
Some of these never-before-seen images are reproduced in Lowes’ book which charts Beetham’s life and adventures and took shape over the many years Lowes dedicated to his subject while also caring for his wife Katherine who was in poor health.
But before he could finish his work, his own health declined unexpectedly. He had prostate cancer but did not know it had spread.
So, Rob - who is married to Lowes’ daughter Anne - made him a promise: “I went to see him and said ‘we will publish this book’. Unfortunately it took longer than expected.”
First they had his effects to sort out as his widow Katherine, to whom the book is dedicated, is now 82 and in a care home.
While the writing of it was complete, and records meticulously organised, Rob had the proof-reading to do and the task of sorting out which photographs were intended for use.
He says: “I knew Michael longer than my own father. We were close and he was a very good father figure.
“He often talked about his book and I got to know what he was trying to do very well.
“Those early days in his study, he had nearly 1,000 glass slides, including from the Mallory-Irvine expedition, which he’d catalogued for many years. It took Michael quite a long time to write the book, about 10 years, and he had to snatch bits of time in order to write it. It was a labour of love.”
Lowes, who became chairman of the Old Barnardians’ Club, inherited Beetham’s unique collection which was discovered when staff at Barnard Castle School were clearing the science department to make way for a new one: “Michael was given these huge wooden boxes with these beautiful glass slides.”
As Rob’s wife Anne explains, it was not initially her father’s intention to write a book but it became a natural next step after cataloguing and researching the slides and piecing together the adventures, including what happened on the 1924 expedition.
And it’s full of the adventures that had first captured the imagination of his young pupils in those dark pre-war days when everyone was eager for some colour and excitement.
Anne herself would hear many tales about her father’s former housemaster, including one of his being in a pothole in the Lakes when a pupil dislodged a rock above him which hit him on the head. Having already warned the boys of such dangers, Beetham pointedly refused to wipe the blood off his face for the rest of the day.
Anne says of the man whose life so fascinated her father: “He was extraordinary. He made a massive impression on my father. You don’t get people like that any more. He was a product of his time and upbringing and an old-fashioned explorer”.
School was a very important part of his life, particularly as the magic Everest held for him started to wane once it was summited by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Questions over whether Mallory did indeed succeed in getting there first remain a mystery and Rob, for one, is happy for it to remain that way.
The fascinating book, which follows Beetham’s life from his childhood in Darlington, through rock climbing in the Lakes to his selection by the Mount Everest Committee to be a member of the 1924 expedition, captures the spirit of the man who – not being one to seek the limelight – seems little known outside the North East. It provides real insight into his character.
Anne is delighted her husband has fulfilled her father’s wish and says he would have been “cock-a-hoop” about today’s launch which will be marked by a little party - “what Michael would have wanted if he’d been alive. He loved parties,” says Rob. Anne adds: “He wasn’t expecting to die when he did and said he had so much he wanted to do. I’m incredibly grateful to my husband for finishing it.”
The book’s foreword is by Graham Ratcliffe, also an ex-pupil of Barnard Castle School, who is chairman of The Bentley Beetham Trust and the first Briton to have reached the summit of Everest from both its north and south sides.
Lure of the Mountains is published by Vertebrate at £12.99 as a limited edition hardback and is available on www.v-publishing.co.uk and Amazon. The family hope it might also be stocked in Durham Cathedral bookshop.
Any profits will go towards maintaining the Bentley Beetham archive which can be viewed at www.bentleybeetham.org