It is with heavy hearts that we inform you that Ian Howell has passed away surrounded by family on November 26, 2018 in Bath, UK at the well-earned age of 82.
Ian pioneered many climbing routes in Kenya, including at Lukenya, Hell’s Gate, and Mt. Kenya. Astonishingly, he single-handedly built the bivouac hut on the summit of Nelion, in the process completing 13 solo ascents of Nelion in a few week period of 1970.
Longtime climbing partner Iain Allan writes: “He was a climbing force, such as we’ve never witnessed here before… I was privileged to share so many of these climbs with him.” Ian’s impact on Kenyan climbing was enormous and will continue to be felt for generations to come.
We are deeply indebted to Ian for his contributions to climbing in the country, and saddened by the loss to his family, his friends, and the MCK Community.
Please feel free to share stories or testimonies about Ian Howell below. We will keep this page on the MCK website.
It was a couple of days ago while sitting in the warm kitchen of my old rock climbing partner, Paul Andersen, having one of our many reflective chats over a brew of tea that he told me of Ian “Pin” Howell’s moving on to mountains previously unexplored. Paul met Pin during his long-ago days in South Africa where he spent as much time as possible climbing, including Mt Kenya’s Nelion. Paul has memories of his own about Pin, so I shan’t presume to intrude upon whatever revelatory tale he might contribute.
For me though, having read through the wide-ranging, wonderful tributes to the dear man from his many friends and the MCK Community, I have noted three things: first, Pin died in Bath, which is where I was born nearly 78 years ago; second, no one seems to have used the nickname that I am using for him, for he was as thin as a pin when I knew him, and that was how he was known in the climbing world of the day; and, third, none of the tributes appear go back as far as the one I am about to add for those patient enough to read it.
However vague initially, my tale about Pin, really begins back in 1960. I had been a member of Sir John Hunt’s British North East Greenland Expedition of that year, and his Second-in-Command was Malcolm Slesser, Scottish Mountaineering Club member and great extreme ice and snow route pioneering strategist. One wet November evening after Greenland, Malcolm and I were sitting in the Royal Geographical Society’s auditorium in London awaiting John Hunt’s first slide lecture on the expedition. Just before the lights were lowered and a hush descended upon the large assembled throng, Malcolm turned to me and said, “What about a trip to the Andes Rob?”
The three month long 1964 Scottish Andean Expedition was as wide-ranging in its scope as it was successful, that is, with the exception of our attempt on the vast East Face of Yerupaja. At 21,780 feet, it is second highest mountain in Peru, and third highest in all Latin America. We got a long way up the hill that year. And enjoying as we had the extremities of its verticality, and the quality of its rock, snow and ice, Malcolm and I vowed to return for a second go. And this is where Pin comes in, for Malcolm had heard of Pin’s already well-established mountaineering prowess and invited him to join us on a second attempt in 1966. Des Hadlum of Rock & Ice Club fame, along with the brilliantly eccentric climber, Mike Kosterlitz, made up our small, well-qualified team.
Within a few days of setting up Base Camp on the same spot as ’64, Malcolm got word his mother had died and so he returned to Scotland, wishing the remaining four of us the best of Celtic luck. And thus it was, after establishing three high, wonderfully airy camps and fixing ropes pretty much all the way, that we came within an ace of getting to the top, only to be turned back by the arrival of a most vicious and entirely unforeseen blizzard that came upon us over the main summit from the west.
The four of us had gathered at two most precarious, near vertical ice stances, one above the other, as the storm struck. Pin and Mike were just above Des and me, and I still recall Pin’s, as always, infectious grin as he peered down through the tearing, sleety snow, held up his ice axe in salute, and shouted “Right ho lads, dunno about you, but I reckon that’s it! We better get the hell out of here, and quickly!” There was no argument and, as it happened, it was a sensible decision. The hurricane-force wind was unrelenting, ensuring the ice blizzard embraced us in its vicious coils, trying to kill us right through the so many endless hours it took to down-climb the entire route in one go.
It was our fixed ropes that ensured our survival, but only by the very barest of margins. Yet, through it all, when Mike and Pin would catch up with Des and me, Pin would give us another grin, as if to say: we’re going to make it lads, no matter what! And we did. It was still snowing when, at long last, we arrived at Base Camp and, finally letting go of our heavy rucksacks, we dived into cozy sleeping bags utterly spent. The cold had been unimaginable. It had been impossible to stop for anything: had we done so, we knew we would die!
The end of the story is that Pin and I kept in touch for some years, he in Africa, me in British Columbia, exchanging often amusing, and sometimes desperate tales of our climbing adventures, which included me being invited to join the New Zealand Alpine Club expedition to Yerupaja in 1968. From the first time I had set eyes on it, I had been bewitched by the idea of doing the traverse all three peaks that comprise the mountain.
This we accomplished in ’68. Dubbed the most daring feat of Andean climbing at the time, it has never been repeated! Pin approved, as did Des and Mike, and, above all, so did my great friend and mountaineering mentor, Malcolm Slesser, who, like Pin, is off in high places with no need for a rope any more. Goodonya Pin! Orrabest, Rob.
Note re following the two photographs below: I took the first image when Pin and I went for a Rest Day’s walk out from Base Camp to get a good look through binoculars at the complicated upper parts of the East Face. We returned with the firm opinion that, despite a bagful difficulties, it could be climbed. In Quechua, the language of the Incas, Yerupaja means “mountain of the long grass”. There was plenty of it, as can be seen.
The second image of Pin I took high on Yerupaja’s East Face, nearing our Camp 3, which was a narrow-ledged rock bivouac, with just enough seating for the four of us; we balanced the stoves on our thighs to cook, with our lower legs hanging over the precipice. As will be seen, the image, complete with Pin’s famous morale-boosting grin, is on the front cover of the November 1966 edition of the London Illustrated News, which cost 2 shillings and six pence. I wrote the article.
15 years only.
Ian is my inspiration for a forthcoming Alpine Club members trip to Mt Kenya in February., along with Andrew Wielochowski, who some of you will know well. Sarah his daughter has asked us to scatter his ashes near to his bivouac hut on Nelion. Near to where his heart is?
Ian has also outlined some new route possibilities for our little team to attempt.
Watch this space....
Much love to Anne and Sarah
My first contact with him was in 1999, after I had submitted an article to the MCKJ about the climbing history of the little-known East Face of Mawenzi. Ian very kindly got in touch with me about it, & then (even more kindly) sent me photocopies of the articles in the EA Standard of July 1968 about his expedition there. He certainly didn't have to go to the trouble of doing all this, but the fact that he did spoke volumes about the sort of person he was.
This expedition was probably one of Ian's more intrepid - & was certainly the one that most caught my imagination ! Its aim was to ascend the terrifying 7 mile long Great Barranco gorge (walls 2000+ ft sheer either side in the middle section, and its base only av 75 ft wide), & then climb the 5000 ft East Face from its head. Well, the expedition (which has never been repeated) was stopped half-way up the gorge by ever taller waterfalls & large pools of near-freezing water, but (more importantly) Ian (as its leader then aged only 32) got all his people in & out of this very dangerous place without mishap.
He & Roger Higgins as a substitute objective then made the first & only ascent of the East Face via the Middle Buttress between the two Barranco gorges. When showing me his slides of this climb in c 2001, Ian wryly mentioned the point where the Buttress narrowed to only 3 ft wide as it joined the East Face, with 3000 ft vertical drops either side !
Although we only actually met twice, he & I used to have regular lengthy phone calls about the EA mountains. He obviously knew Mt Kenya better than anyone alive, & was truly a worthy successor to Arthur Firmin at the very top level of EA climbers. The thing that struck me most, though, was his unfailing modesty, despite his many achievements - a true gentleman. My deepest sympathies to Ann & Sarah.
Years later as a teenager I developed my own passion for climbing and heard stories of Ian's exploits from my father. Together they climbed new routes in Swanage, Pembroke and I think in Snowdonia.
Later I met Ian in Bradford-on-Avon and attended a talk he gave at the Alpine Club in the UK. Like so many others here I was struck by his jolly, unassuming, humble nature, masking an extraordinary array of climbing achievements.
I and my family send our gratitude to Ian for giving us a love of climbing and our sincere condolences to Ann and Sarah.
I first met Ian Howell on Mt Kenya with Iain Allan in 1979, they had just finished a new route. Over the years, Ian and I climbed together in different settings, from Kenya to the USA. Treasured moments, which will remain indelible.
I left Kenya after a couple of great years but we continued to climb together in UK and latterly in the geriatric climbers Valhalla, Spain. On one of these last trips with Pin, he one morning produced from his sac a long-handled shoe horn
to help him into his rockboots. Of course he then proceeded to climb with his usual skill.
Pin, many will miss you. And who now holds your old record for patching a punctured innertube and getting back on the road?
I found him something of a puzzle. Most climbers, after all, look like climbers: muscly and squat, or lithe and agile, or tall and rangy etc. But Ian always had the look of a semi-retired accountant, or an unemployed librarian, with his slight frame usually draped in old sweaters, rumpled trousers, thick glasses and straggly hair. You wouldn't guess the magnificent climber underneath. But I knew the reputation, and like so many others before and since, I was simply grateful for his friendly welcome and ever-ready advice.
And the climbing! I remember on a trip up to the Ndotos, stopping by Ololokwe to have a go at a climb on Cat and Mouse. We aimed for Mouse. From a distance it looks hardly significant, a mere speck alongside the crouching Cat. But close up, it is a 120-ft vertical pinnacle of dreadful loose rock. Ian had told us there was a route he had put up there, with old pegs. Too right they were old; and, even worse, of that variety that look like twisted tent pegs. Ian claimed to have put them in on lead. When I saw them, I thought he must be mad, or lying. The rock was gradually exfoliating, with huge boiler plates ready to come loose. It was terrifying. I was equally scared of falling off myself, or pulling down some giant plate on to the heads of my trusting companions Bill, Jess and Kathleen. There was no natural pro, and I was desperate. Arriving at each peg was a grateful clip and rest. For Ian to have put them in from the ground up, as he claimed, he must have been standing on top of one peg and wielding a drill above his head to put in the next. I thought he must be a fantasist, at best. I still think so! But it is a mark of the man that he put up so many hundreds of wonderful routes that he will not be remembered for this nothing climb on scrappy rock, on Mouse. Except by me.
For me too, he was always the welcoming jinni of the MCK club-house: how appropriate that he lived there, alongside all the gear and the memories, maintaining the building and offering free advice to anyone who needed it. Truly a generous spirit. Much missed.
Ian was so modest about his achievements and always ready to help youngsters and newcomers. Some of his early bush climbs are really under-graded and difficult to repeat as Andrew W and I discovered! Talking about Andrew- he mentioned below our Tsavo expeditions (in the early 1980's ) but diplomatically missed out the one trip where Ian's safety precautions proved justified as I rolled the car just a few miles short of the Tsavo river campsite- we managed to get it going, albeit with smashed windscreen and buckled front pillar and drove into camp to Andrews comment: " You do roll into campsite in style!"
Some other funny stories about Ian- like when he was sitting with a bunch of us around a Lukenya BBQ campfire and after a few Tuskers we saw him keel over head-first into the fire, head-torch and all! We quickly pulled him up- no injuries! And another time he needed to uproot a tree stump from his compound and decided on a short-cut of using an old climbing rope and pulling it with his Subaru- it worked, but also shot out like a missile and dented the back of his car!
There are so many other memories...from MCK committee meetings, to his pyjamas and bedroom slippers during MCK supper nights, to the time we were summoned at very short notice to the State House together with our Patron Ken Matiba to meet the President as part of the Everest Kenya Expedition preparations.
I also recall one Tuesday evening him telling me... do you realise I'm 50 years old next month! OMG!! He used to go to the gym regularly to keep his body in trim and also told me that we must do at least one major expedition every year so that we don't degenerate...
Ian had also perfected the technique of freezing Tusker in bottles, so that we had ice-cold beers during our bush-climbing trips, together with the frozen TV-dinners, to be roasted in the campfires....
Those were the days! Rest in Peace my friend, and heartfelt condolences to Ann, Sarah, and other family members and friends.
Baldip and Arshad.
We went on a number of MCK trips together with Ian and fondly remember his company and the stories of his adventures and still wonder at his amazing achievements in and around Kenya (and further afield to Malawi). We also remember Ian for his contributions to the Tuesday dinner + slide show nights, where he would bring roast veggies and potatoes, without fail. May he rest in peace.
Many years ago, I was lucky enough to find myself on the Normal Route on Nelion with Ian and two other climbers. Not far below the summit, at the point where one bears right to avoid that steep final wall, it began to sleet. The rock grew cold, the fingertips lost feeling and before we could put on outer garments, we were wet and miserable. At the belay, we paused to consult. We were not far from the summit and on top was the shelter Ian himself had built, in his extraordinary feat of climbing altruism. But I trusted Ian's mountain judgement, against which my own experience was insignificant. We could make it to the top, he suggested, but four wet and cold climbers would likely have an uncomfortable night and still have to descend the mountain, stiff and damp, the next morning. If we went down now, on the other hand, we still had enough daylight to get to the bottom of the wall and across to the Top Hut, before it was dark. And so we went down those long abseils and across to Top Hut, changed our clothes, warmed up and ate whatever treats we had brought, of which the main ones emerged from Ian's always well-stocked rucksack.
Whether high on Mt. Kenya or high on some overhanging bolted horror at Frog, Ian was a pleasure to climb with. Safe, modest and engaged, he enjoyed every move he made and made sure that those who climbed with him did too. Friend, mentor, all round mountaineer, gentleman - the world is the poorer for his passing.