Mountaineer and teacher
Mountaineer and teacher
Born: April 7, 1928; Died: March 10, 2014
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John Baird Tyson, who has died aged 85, was an adventurous and daring mountaineer admired for his exploration and surveying of the dangerous Kanjiroba Himal region of West Nepal in the 1960s. He also had a wide-ranging career in education and was the headmaster of schools in Bhutan and Nepal.
Much of his early climbing experience was gained in Scotland. He was born in Partick in Glasgow (his mother was Scottish) and brought up in London, where his father was a teacher at St Paul's School. The family later moved to Colinton in Edinburgh, by which time Mr Tyson had begun climbing in the Scottish mountains. He was camping on Goat Fell on Arran when the atom bombs were dropped on Japan and so was several days late in hearing that the Second World War was over.
Two years after the war, he was commissioned into the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders but served the majority of his national service on attachment to the Seaforths in Malaya. This was at the start of the Emergency, when the security forces were struggling to understand the tactics of the Communist insurgents but Mr Tyson's platoon proved among the most effective in ambushing guerrillas due in large part due to his map-reading skills and preparation. In 1949 he was awarded the Military Cross, a rare feat for a national service officer.
After demobilisation, he read geography at Magdalen College, Oxford, and in 1952 led the first Oxford University Scientific Expedition to the Himalayas, an ambitious endeavour at the time. The team made first ascents of Gangotri I and Gangotri III, both peaks over 21000ft.
In the spring of 1953, he joined the renowned Scottish mountaineer WH Murray on an exploratory journey to the Api and Nampa region in the north-west of Nepal, an expedition which was reported in The Glasgow Herald (Mr Tyson was the great grandson of a former editor Charles Russell). The region had newly opened its borders to foreigners but the annual monsoon rains broke over the team while they were on the almost uninhabited north side of the Api complex. River gorges promptly became impassable, and the party could only escape by making a dangerous and illegal journey through a corner of Tibet, which had been recently occupied by the Chinese.
Moving into full-time teaching, in 1955 Mr Tyson filled a year's temporary vacancy at Rugby School and then taught at Christ's Hospital in West Sussex between 1956 and 1958. During these years he climbed in the Alps with many leading mountaineers, but his most well-publicised climb was with a comparative novice in 1955 when he teamed with Chris Brasher and Roger Bannister to climb the Finsteraarhorn. Bannister, who was a competent rock-climber but had little snow and ice experience, was newsworthy after his recent four-minute mile success. The local guides, upset at missing out on their usual peak fees, complained to journalists about the "suicidal" recklessness of Brasher and Tyson in leading Bannister up a "killer mountain", resulting in lurid stories in several leading newspapers.
In 1958, Mr Tyson returned to Rugby School where he taught geography for the next 17 years but between 1961 and 1969, he was able to take leave from school to lead lengthy scientific expeditions to map and explore in the Kanjiroba Himal region in west-central Nepal. At that time, these were probably the least-known mountain ranges of Nepal.
His first attempt to locate a route to the slopes, in 1961 from the south, included first ascents of a number of 20,000ft peaks, but the party was eventually unable to locate a viable route onto Kanjiroba.
Returning in the spring of 1964, his second party attacked from the north-west down the Langu Khola, an even more forbidding gorge. One side or other of the gorge usually looked impassable, but, by creating a series of bridges, the team managed to reach the mouth of a side-stream which looked promising. Hacking a route up it, they eventually scaled a 20,000ft peak called Bhulu Lhasa which gave a good vantage point. From there they could see that two knife-edge ridges, overlooking glaciers, made their route to Kanjiroba impassable, but they could also see the headwaters of another Langu tributary which might allow access to the northern and eastern slopes, at a later date.
Mr Tyson's map of the terrain, which was researched on his 1961 expedition up the Jagdula Khola on the south side of the range, and on his 1964 expedition up the Langu River from the north-west side, was first published in the Geographical Journal in 1967.
His 1969 expedition had a more focused goal than its predecessors, and again started by traversing along the bottom of the Langu gorge. This time for bridge-building, Mr Tyson's party used aluminium ladder sections and five bridges brought the party to the mouth of the Ruka Khola.
In due course he and his team were finally able to set foot on Mount Kanjiroba although the North-west ridge was too demanding. A second attempt on the north-east ridge almost led to disaster when an avalanche caught the fringes of the party, pulled the rucksack off Mr Tyson's back. The monsoon, and soft snows, ended their hopes of success on the south-east ridge.
Whilst Mr Tyson himself never did conquer Mount Kanjiroba, other visitors have left no doubt about the scale of his contribution to unravelling the mysteries of these ranges. His achievement is best captured by the words of a telegram he received in 1970. Sent by a Japanese climbing team which had finally reached its summit from the south-west, it simply stated " ... with your permission, we have climbed your mountain ... "
In 1966 Mr Tyson was asked to become the first headmaster of a proposed national school in Kathmandu, Nepal, funded by British aid money. He spent much time over the next three years in locating a site at Budhanilkantha, and in work on the initial plans for building and operating the school, although a series of delays to the project forced him finally to withdraw in 1969. He finally got his chance to work in the Himalayas in the mid-1970s when another national school supported by British aid, this time in Thimphu, Bhutan, offered him a headmastership.
He served as headmaster at Reed's School, Cobham, Surrey between 1978 and 1982, before receiving an unexpected and welcome invitation to return to Budhanilkantha School in Kathmandu. There he spent six years before retiring in 1989. The school was both prestigious and egalitarian, with pupils on scholarship from all 150 districts of Nepal, some of whom lived in villages so remote that on leaving home they had to walk for days merely to get to a road on their way to school.
The King of Nepal took an active interest in the school and Mr Tyson's services were recognised by the award of Prasiddha Prabal Gorkha Dakshin Bahu in 1987 by the Nepalese Government (an unusually high award for a non-national). This was followed by the OBE in 1989 from the British Government.
Mr Tyson continued to travel well in old age, although while in Swaziland, a bite from a spider led to infections which forced the amputation of both legs in 2009. Although he was still a powerful man in his eighties, his efforts to learn to walk with artificial legs ultimately were unsuccessful and so his last years were wheelchair-bound.
Mr Tyson will mostly be remembered for his contributions to exploration in West Nepal, but he was a man of diverse talents. He was a fastidious photographer of mountains and mountain people and served as a council member of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Mount Everest Foundation.
He is survived by his wife Phebe, their three children (Andrew, James and Sarah), his brother Donald, six grand-children, and many other relatives and friends.