Mountaineer and army officer

Born: March 24, 1926.

Died: October 31, 2018.

Lieutenant-colonel Tony Streather, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 92, was one of the greatest Himalayan mountaineers of the “the golden age” – the 1950s.

He was the first man to climb two peaks higher than 25,000 feet – Tirich Mir and Kangchenjunga. He almost became part of the team which was the first to reach the summit of the 29,029-feet Everest, in 1953, but that was not to be.

He was pencilled in as part of Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1953 team before the start of their historic climb. But when he embarrassingly put his crampons on back to front, the British army officer was deemed to lack experience. He was actually a highly-skilled climber but had done most of it in army-issue hobnail boots or local chaplis – goatskin sandals – rather than crampons when he was a British officer in the Northwest frontier of the British Raj.

That same year, 1953, however, he was invited by the American Charles Houston to join an attempt on K2, the world’s second-highest peak at 28,251 feet above sea level and never before successfully climbed. The mission turned into a disaster which Streather was extremely lucky to survive – one of the team died. Their story became a legend among mountaineers.

Streather again almost died in another disastrous Himalayan expedition four years later, in 1957, while attempting the hitherto-unclimbed 24,268-foot Haramosh peak in the Karakoram range of Pakistan. Two of his four-man team perished.

Harold Reginald Antony Streather was born on March 24, 1926, in Golders Green, London, to Reginald Streather, a builder, and his wife Gertrude (Heygate). He attended Radlett Preparatory School in Hertfordshire, and University College School, Hampstead, where he played rugby and became head boy.

In 1945, aged 19, having been called up for National Service and inspired by a lecture by British officers in the Indian Army, he signed up with the Rajputana Rifles in Baluchistan. After the Partition of the British colonial Raj, he was assigned to the Chitral Scouts militia in Pakistan in 1947 where he recalled commanding “1,000 men, 183 horses and 50 camels” and learned to navigate the Hindu Kush mountain passes under threat of ambush.

While there, in 1950, he bumped into a Norwegian mountaineering team who were preparing a first ascent of the 25,289-feet 7,708 Tirich Mir mountain above the town of Chitral. Team leader Arne Naess asked then Captain Streather, who was used to high altitude and spoke fluent Urdu and Pushtu, if he could help them put together a team of porters. “I became known as the Chief Coolie,” he recalled.

Climbing in his army boots, he became part of the first team, and the first Briton, to reach the summit where he planted the Union Jack along with the Norwegian and Pakistani flags. In fact, they were the first men ever to climb more than 25,000 feet.

In 1951, he was one of the last British military officers to leave the North West Frontier. He was transferred to the Gloucester Regiment, known as the Glosters, and served for a time in the Korean War.

It was immediately after being rejected for what would be the historic 1953 Everest expedition that he was asked by the top American mountaineer Charles Houston to join his expedition to climb K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. The plan was to ditch the usual train of porters and supplies and instead climb without oxygen, attached to each other with ropes.

The climb from the Godwin-Austen Glacier was going well until the weather turned and blizzards pinned them down in their tents for six days. One of the team, the American geologist Art Gilkey, became seriously ill and the goal turned from reaching the summit to getting him – on a makeshift stretcher – and the whole team down alive amid the danger of avalanches. Gilkey’s stretcher slipped away and he was lost. His body was found only 40 years later and a memorial plaque has been placed on the spot to be seen by other mountaineers.

Streather recalled years later how he wept when the team were met coming down the mountain by locals coming to help: “A bunch of Muslims praying for seven Christians ... They had come to meet us. They almost knocked us off as they embraced us.”

The 1953 K2 expedition remains a legend among mountaineers, its members honoured for the gallantry of their conduct under extreme conditions. One mountaineer later wrote that “the finest moment in the history of American mountaineering was the Homeric retreat of Dr. Houston’s party of K2 in 1953.” Houston himself summed up the highest ideals of expeditionary culture when he wrote of his K2 comrades: ‘We entered the mountains as strangers, but we left as brothers.’”

Despite the tragedy, Lt-Col Streather returned to the mountains in 1955 on an expedition to Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak at 28,169 feet. He made it to the summit, making him the first man to climb two peaks higher than 25,000ft.

In 1956, Streather married Sue Huggan, a drama teacher, and they went on to have four children. The first, Charlie, had just been born when his dad again got the call of the mountains. In 1957, he led an attempt to be the first to climb the 24,268 Haramosh Peak in Pakistan but again disaster struck. Streather tried to save his comrades but two of them did not make it.

“I thought I was dead and I didn’t know why I was climbing, but I just knew I had to keep moving, for Sue and the baby,” he recalled. “I had this incredible feeling that someone was helping me, pulling me out of a well.” He later told a friend that had he not had a wife and child he would have remained to die with his team members.

For the rest of his life, Lt-Col Streather stayed somewhat closer to sea level. Still with “the Glosters,” he served in Cyprus, Berlin, Malaysia, with the Gurkhas in Hong Kong and Borneo, and in Northern Ireland during the early days of The Troubles. He rose to be Commanding Officer of the Gloucester Regiment.

In retirement, he was a much-loved church warden in the village of Hindon, Wiltshire, where most parishioners had no idea what he had been through in life. He was appointed OBE (Military) in 1976.

His wife Sue predeceased him and he is survived by their three sons and a daughter.