This article originally appeared on Climbing
There have been countless firsts on Everest, but in the fall of 1986 a softly spoken 50-year-old woman became the first "expedition historian" to visit the world's highest mountain. It was an accolade that Audrey Salkeld, who died on October 11 at the age of 87, acknowledged with tongue firmly in her cheek. "All mountains," she wrote in her Himalayan travelogue People in High Places, "wear their history in their reputation and their routes, so you could say that in a sense every mountaineer is an historian."
This was typically self-effacing but don't be fooled: Audrey Salkeld's contribution to mountaineering history was gargantuan. Her work in the archives of the early Everest expeditions transformed our understanding of that legendary time, particularly the life and death of George Mallory. Everyone now writing about Everest is following in her footsteps, whether they know it or not. As an author, translator, scriptwriter, researcher, and editor she made an often unsung contribution to adventure literature and filmmaking. Yet what really stands out from the deep knowledge she accumulated over the course of her decades-long career was her generosity in sharing it.
Audrey was an unlikely person to have become the world's preeminent expert in Everest history. She was born Audrey West and grew up in southwest London, far from the mountains. Her father was a builder; her mother was a secretary until she gave up work to care for the family. Audrey went to Nonsuch High School for Girls, but the family had insufficient funds for a place at university. Instead she went to secretarial college, learning shorthand and typing. Her introduction to climbing came in the early 1960s at an evening class organized by what was then the Greater London Council.
Her tutor was a member of an informal group called the Tuesday Climbing Club and Audrey agreed to act as their secretary. Soon she was producing a quarterly club newsletter called Arete, which was eventually circulated to some of the most notable climbers in the country with contributions from stars like Don Whillans and Ian Clough. That led to a regular column in Ken Wilson's hugely influential international magazine Mountain. Borrowing an idea from Newsweek, her column was called, simply, "People", and highlighted the human side of climbing, a balance to the magazine's reporting about new routes or breathless accounts of great ascents. It was right up Audrey's street.
In 1971, an incendiary article in Mountain by the Connecticut businessman Tom Holzel reignited the long-dormant debate about whether George Mallory reached the summit of Everest in 1924. Holzel imagined a scenario in which Mallory had left Sandy Irvine to push on alone, an idea that caused real offence among some of Mallory's contemporaries. Audrey had already discovered the dusty Everest archives held by the Royal Geographical Society, 56 boxes of treasure that, through her organizational skill and extraordinary thoroughness, she would come to know better than anyone before or since. So as interest in Mallory grew, she became a central figure in explaining his world.
Mallory biographer Peter Gillman, formerly an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times, first met Audrey in the 1970s, when he was writing about the Mallory and Irvine mystery. "I found her modest and unassuming," he recalls, "also meticulous and authoritative. She had extensive detailed knowledge of matters I asked her about, but was also ready to admit when she did not have an answer. She also had an endearing laugh that reflected the deep pleasure she found in mining her territory. Those opening encounters developed into a strong friendship."
Several qualities stand out from Audrey's passion for mountaineering history. The first was her curiosity; there was simply no limit to her appetite for learning more. The second was her ability for collaboration. She was more than happy to work with others who shared her interests, not least Gillman. Together they worked on a highly praised anthology of Everest writing that was published in 1993. "She was superbly organized, retrieving documents and references with ease," he says. "She knew quirks and hidden corners of the story that enriched our work."
Audrey also worked for the adventure filmmaker Leo Dickinson, ghosting two books for him and writing scripts for Dickinson's 10-part television series Pushing the Limits. They also worked together on the landmark project Eiger Solo that followed Welsh legend Eric Jones up the north face. "She was very astute," Dickinson recalls, "and very knowledgeable. If she didn't know something she'd soon find out. And don't forget, this was before the Internet when research was hard work."
The Eiger project illustrated the value of Audrey's contacts book, which after her years at Mountain was crammed with mountaineering stars. When Dickinson wanted to interview Anderl Heckmair from the 1938 first ascent team, Audrey had his phone number. (She had also taught herself German, translating several books for luminaries like Reinhold Messner and Kurt Diemberger.) She sought out the surviving Everest climbers from the 1920s and 1930s, including Noel Odell, the last man to see Mallory and Irvine alive, and John Noel, the filmmaking impresario of 1924. Charmed by her twinkle, they were happy to oblige when it was Audrey asking for interviews on behalf of Dickinson and others.
This combination of personal warmth and deep knowledge underpinned some truly significant work. Walt Unsworth's magisterial history Everest, first published in 1989, relied substantially on Audrey's work, as Unsworth himself acknowledged. With John Boyle she produced a useful Everest bibliography. With Rosie Smith she edited a highly valued compendium of mountain fiction. And the interest she shared with Tom Holzel for the Mallory mystery led to the 1986 expedition that would search for clues to solve it. A snowy post-monsoon meant little meaningful archaeology was possible, but they coauthored a book on the subject and the expedition led to a friendship and collaboration with the American climber and filmmaker David Breashears.
"She drove me round in her VW Beetle," Breashears says, "being overtaken by everyone and often getting lost on our way to visit these extraordinary men. John Noel gave us his lanternslide presentation. He was in his 90s but could still remember his script. Audrey was a fabulously kind companion and generous with her work. Highly disciplined but unassuming, so she sort of snuck up on you. She was a calming influence at base camp. She didn't have the ego of a lot of climbers; she didn't crave attention."
All through this richly creative period, Audrey was also raising a family with her husband Peter, an architect. Audrey and Peter Salkeld had met in London through the Tuesday Climbing Club. When she heard that Peter had sustained a head injury in a fall from the Welsh mountain Tryfan, Audrey understood how deeply she felt about him. They had three sons, Adam, Ed, and Tom, the latter born after they relocated from London to the seaside town of Clevedon in Somerset. "There was always something exciting going on," Ed remembers. "The house was often full of adventurers from all over the world. She inspired so many, including her grandchildren."
Audrey took a shrewd interest in the disadvantaged. She and Peter organized camping vacations for inner-city kids in the outdoors. Family life could also be an adventure, often with a purpose. When a local river was turned into a culvert, she organized a campaign Audrey dubbed "Froglift!" to rescue fish and amphibians and safely relocate them. She was also a great champion of women climbers, something that prompted misogynistic scorn from some male climbers who felt Audrey somehow hadn't earned the right to offer her opinion. "I've often been in trouble for the way I've reported women's stories," she told me in the early 1990s, shrugging off personal attacks that showed inner steel behind her easygoing manner.
Her collaboration with Breashears continued, with a return to Everest in 1996 for his IMAX film and two ascents of Kilimanjaro when she was already in her early 60s. (Leo Dickinson had already taken her skydiving.) The book she wrote on that mountain, Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa, was highly praised, as was the beautifully illustrated book she wrote with Breashears after the discovery of Mallory's body, The Last Climb. "The tone of that book was set by Audrey's personality," Breashears says.
The way images of Mallory's body were marketed to tabloid newspapers that didn't hesitate to exploit them was an uncomfortable experience for many British mountaineers. It was no surprise to Audrey. A decade before she had written how "whoever dares to tamper with myths is moving in a realm beyond the reach of reason." She discovered that herself with her enquiring biography of Leni Riefenstahl, the controversial German filmmaker of the 1930s who had cut her teeth on the famous Bergfilme of the 1920s. That book won her the Boardman Tasker Award.
Like so many writers and filmmakers starting out who had the good fortune to know her, I found Audrey generous with her time and contacts, a sounding board for new ideas, and a calm and thoughtful friend. Audrey was "irreplaceable and I will miss her greatly," Breashears says. "I feel like I've lost a family member." Ed Salkeld acknowledges that her work on Everest will likely be her lasting contribution. "When she first went to Everest she probably felt she'd made it. That was an important point. But it was the people she met that was the real highlight."
Peter Salkeld died in 2011. Audrey's three sons, Adam, Ed and Tom and six grandchildren survive her.
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